A boy born in the oppressive hold of a spaceship wins a rare scholarship in Samatar’s The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain (Tordotcom, Apr.).

What inspired this story?

A ship—in the book it’s a spaceship, with a lower section called “the hold” where you have a group of people who are referred to as “the chained”—is a really powerful image in a U.S. context. It’s going to evoke the transatlantic slave trade. So that history was certainly an important part of what went into the book. And along with the historical, there’s a very contemporary inspiration: the book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stephano Harney, which is about the university. It was really the combination of those ideas and those images—of large spaces with lots of people in them, the organization of space, the organization of people, and parallels that repeat across time—that’s what generated the story.

The historical parallels are fascinating.

The relationship between this story and history is like the relationship between Star Wars and the Vietnam War. There are references and you can catch them, but it’s also a space romp. And that was very deliberate on my part, because it’s dealing with something very, very heavy, which is the persistence of harmful structures through time, despite all of people’s efforts to overturn those structures. I really wanted to write a little book that somebody could carry in their backpack at university, and they’re a tired professor, or a worn-out grad student, or somebody who’s in a precarious work position—a contingent faculty, adjunct professor, all of those people who are struggling in that space—who could just whip this out of their backpack and see wild things happening, unexpectedly, impossibly, out of this difficult situation.

The main characters—the boy, the woman, and the prophet—all go unnamed. What inspired this choice?

There’s a naming pattern in the world of the ship. It’s very hierarchical: there’s a group that has an iron chain, there’s a group that has an electronic anklet, and at the top, there are people who don’t have any kind of anklet or chain. And only that top group is named. The middle and lower groups don’t have names—and that’s pretty much all the main characters.

How did your experience as a university professor influence your portrayal of academia?

Anybody who has done any kind of diversity work in higher education—DEI, DEJA, it has all different kinds of names—but people who have been in this work will recognize a lot of things in this book, and hopefully get a kick out of it. It’s kind of an ironic take on it, but it’s also real: it does express some of the constraints and contradictions of doing this kind of work—but, you know, in outer space.

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