Issue 041 Author Interview: Lydia Pauly and “Radio, Out by Pluto”

It’s time for another Issue 041 author interview—this week, meet Lydia Pauly and learn about her story “Radio, Out by Pluto.”

LSQ: The concept of the passage of time features heavily throughout your story. How does the passage of decades impact the Processor?
Lydia: With this story, I wanted to talk about alienation. I wanted to describe how I felt: a woman who is being involuntarily removed from the world around her, but is choosing to struggle against it and find her way back. However, I think that a lot of how I feel and what I experience can’t be expressed in English, or in any language. In other words, lots of what I want to say doesn’t feel right when I speak about it directly. That’s not me trying to be pretentious; I don’t think that I experience anything particularly unique. But that experience doesn’t translate well into language, and it stops us being able to talk about it. Part of being a writer is understanding these limitations of language, and figuring out how to use it to express these slippery ideas. In the same way that an artist might find that the only tool they have is a black ballpoint pen, and they have to work out how to use it to depict a scene full of color and movement.
The passage of time in this story is one of the ways I’m trying to describe alienation indirectly. Twenty Earth years pass and it’s of no consequence whatsoever to the Processor. It could have been ten, or even fifty. Does the amount of time really matter? Time no longer affects her the same as it did when she was human. She was human once, and remembers what it was like to age and see the Earth’s seasons. However, she’s removed from that now; it no longer applies to reality. Her internal experience is removed from her external experience.
It’s sad. She feels that there was once a time when she understood the world around her. Somehow, that’s been lost.
The other side of this is that I think I write a lot about characters in a period of death. When time no longer has consequence to you, you’re in a period of stasis, which is all death is. Twenty Earth years go by, quietly. Nothing happens. Once the story starts moving, and she’s trying to reach out, the amount of time that passes shrinks. The years start punctuating the story. It takes on meaning again. We start moving from death back into life again.
LSQ: Do you know the backstory of the Processor? What made you choose her eyes as the only human part left?
Lydia: The only backstory I have for the Processor is that I wanted to write about someone who’s been almost completely objectified for work. Their body has been taken from them and replaced with someone else’s creation, not designed to keep them alive but to keep them working as long as possible. There are a few hints throughout the story of how disconnected the Processor feels from her own body, and little attempts she makes to reclaim it. To use a cliché, she’s a ghost in a machine, experiencing a different sense of time and body from the reality of the story.
I feel like our eyes are the most personal parts of us, which is why I wanted her to keep them. If you died in a horrible accident and the only thing left were your hands or your feet, no one would look at that and recognize who they belonged to. However, if they had your eyes, they might. I feel like we assign a lot about our eyes to our personality.
I don’t like writing about characters who are in complete despair, either. I didn’t want to write about the Processor as someone who’s been completely taken over and remodeled. I think there’s a little part of me that’s still desperately trying to find its way back to reality, despite feeling so far from Earth, and I like to reflect that in my characters. Think of a tiny flame in a middle of an otherwise black-out night. Those are the kind of people I like to write about. Which is why I wanted her to keep her eyes.
LSQ: The feeling of isolation and the need to communicate is pervasive here, even with a main character who is now mostly artificial. Can you speak to this? Is this the last remnant of the Processor’s humanity? 
Lydia: The feeling of isolation is just coming from talking about alienation. Alienation is the extreme version of isolation. You can be isolated, but still in touch with who you are and feel that the body and personality that exists in you is actually you. Alienation is when you stop feeling that your body is your own, or that your personality is your own. Alienation is realizing that you feel like the simulacra from Lem’s Solaris.
I’m not sure that I would assign the still-living need to communicate as the last remnants of the Processor’s humanity either. I think it’s more just wanting to talk about how a person would survive such isolation and alienation. I don’t just want to talk about someone who feels that they have no connection to their body or their reality. I want to talk about someone who suffers through that, but still desperately reaches out, despite that. I like to write about characters who are able to be the kind of person that I need to be.
LSQ: Where did the idea for this story come from? What was the most challenging part about writing it and why?
Lydia: I read a lot. But really, that only helps at the end, once I’ve done all my thinking and working out what I want to say. Before then, I consume a lot of visual and audio material: films and music, particularly. I take all of this non-language material and throw it into my subconscious. Something in there will resonate, and I can feel something grab onto it. Once it does, I do nothing else but obsess over it. I just have to watch it, read it, or listen to it over and over and over. In the case of Radio, Out By Pluto, it was the album Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, and James McAlister with Bryce Dessner (which I still listen obsessively to now). There’s just something about that particular music, with some of those particular lyrics that I really respond to. It’s a two-way relationship, too. I feed my subconscious all this outside material, and then it gives me images back: tiny satellites orbiting around Pluto, androids with human eyes, far-away aliens that can’t communicate in a common language. My job as the conscious part of my body is just to pay attention, figure out why my subconscious wants to talk about this, and translate it into something that people can read. In this case, it was talking about alienation.
The most challenging part of this is the same, as with any story: making sure it still feels genuine by the end. Part of that is just always testing your material with your subconscious. Does it still resonate in the same way that it did with that first material it latched onto? And is it still saying something that readers can understand? Are you being a solid bridge between the two?
The other side of this is that there’s a lot of pressure in science fiction to assign yourself to a particular sub-genre: literary, soft/hard, realism, etc. You can feel guilty, especially when you start publishing work, because you’re now contributing to a collective genre voice. You feel a duty to start lending your voice to a faction that you agree with. However, as discussed, I struggle to feel connected to anything. I feel like I am entirely separate from everything around me, and I want my work to be the same. That way, it stays true to whatever is trying to communicate.