Sci-Fi Writer Matt Kressel Talks About the Singularity, Data Privacy, and Short Stories

Tuesday, 21 February 2017 - 4:20PM
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 - 4:20PM
Sci-Fi Writer Matt Kressel Talks About the Singularity, Data Privacy, and Short Stories
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Despite a writing career spanning horror, fantasy, and science fiction (not to mention a slew of awards, nominations, and 'Best of' listings), Matt Kressel notes that his stories often revolve around similar themes: shattered worlds and people who have lost everything. "The characters I write are often alone...they don't have a support network," he reflects. Many of his stories deal with the end of the world, or the end of humanity altogether. At the same time, his work reflects a dizzying imagination and a thoughtfulness that makes his fiction, especially his sci-fi, profoundly illuminating, rather than bleak. Outer Places sat down with Matt to delve into his world and his fiction.

Wake Up Call: How Matt Kressel Became a Sci-Fi Writer

Kressel grew up reading a lot of the classic sci-fi authors: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur. C. Clarke, and H.P. Lovecraft, whose story "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" held particular fascination for him. Kressel admits that his urge to write speculative fiction came from being a lifelong daydreamer, but it took a memento mori to help turn his dreams into a career: "I was in the street when the towers fell," he recalls, referring to the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks, Kressel thought about his own death and his writing career and asked "Why am I waiting?" 

He credits a 2002 writing class with Alice Turner at The New School as the impetus for taking his writing career to the next level. After finishing the class, he was recommended by Turner to join the writing group Altered Fluid in 2003, which now includes authors like N.K. Jemisin, Sam J Miller, and Richard Bowes.

From the Singularity to Post-Earth: The Fiction of Matt Kressel

One of Kressel's most popular stories is "The Sounds of Old Earth," published in the 2013 issue of Lightspeed Magazine and nominated for a Nebula Award the same year. The story deals with the last days of the planet Earth, which is scheduled to be destroyed by its former residents, who have settled in space colonies and need their old planet's raw materials to fabricate their idyllic new worlds, all designed to fit human needs.

Kressel says the inspiration for the story came from watching people's reactions to the destruction of Yankee Stadium—many New Yorkers welcomed having a brand-new stadium built, despite the tremendous amount of history that would be destroyed in the process of tearing down the old one. Another inspiration came from Kressel's concern with environmentalism and the indifference he encountered when talking about the future of Earth in an era defined by environmental disasters and climate change.

Another of Kressel's popular works is "The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye", which was a 2014 Nebula Award Nominee. The story deals with a universe-spanning artificial intelligence who has consumed all life in the universe and is now trawling the dying galaxy to harvest stars, accompanied by its companion, The Meeker. Kressel says the original idea for the story (which came to him just before falling asleep) was to have two alien garbage truck drivers looping around the galaxy, collecting the remnants of the stars. Instead, the story grew into a narrative about "a giant machine mind with insatiable curiosity" and "what happens when there's nothing left to be discovered," as well as how an individual can confront the Singularity.

In addition to his short stories, Matt Kressel is the author of the Worldmender Trilogy, whose second novel, Queen of Static, is set to be released later in the year. The series delves into Jewish mythology, Qabbalah, the many-worlds hypothesis, and portal fantasy, where a person is taken out of everyday life and thrown into another world. In the case of the Worldmender Trilogy, the person thrown into another world is one of the Lamed Vav, the 36 righteous people whose existence protects the rest of humanity. The series evokes Kressel's perennial themes of shattered worlds and solitary main characters, and received ecstatic praise from NPR, Publishers Weekly, and others.

Where Science Meets Science Fiction: Data and Technology

Kressel's work often draws on topical issues, especially the role of technology in daily life. In "Love Engine Optimization," Kressel examines how the world of biometric data might turn seduction and predatory dating into a subtle game of data collection and privacy violations. The story was inspired in part by blogger Hugh Howey's posts on capitalism and the necessary end of privacy, but Kressel notes that department stores have already begun using cell phone tracking in mannequins to collect data about how customers behave in their stores. This kind of ambient data collection, Kressel says, could end up encroaching on privacy—something we see taken to an extreme in the upcoming movie adaptation of David Eggers' The Circle.

Another issue that came up in conversation was tech evangelist Nick Landry's comments about the Microsoft HoloLens at a recent panel devoted to augmented reality: when asked by an audience member whether Microsoft was taking steps to ensure that the technology (and user data) wouldn't be used in unethical ways, Landry's response was that Microsoft created platforms—they did not decide how the platforms were used by companies or individuals. Kressel took issue with the comment, saying that creating new technology does not relieve the creators from responsibility for how it's used. Taking a step further, Kressel said that it might be a good idea to have engineers and aspiring techies take ethics courses during their college education so they can consider the implications of their creations.

Upcoming Work

All things considered, Matt Kressel is undoubtably a sci-fi writer's sci-fi writer—his fiction is both intensely imaginative and consciously rooted in the issues of modern life, allowing readers to peer through a window into worlds that are at once alien and strangely familiar. It's a rare author that can pull that off, and an even rarer one that can do it again and again.

Look for Matt's upcoming stories, "The Last Novelist," coming out on on March 15th, "Love Engine Optimization," coming out in Lightspeed Magazine in May, and "In Memory of a Summer's Day" in Mad Hatters and March Hares, a creepy Alice in Wonderland anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, coming out later this year. You can also keep up to date with Matt on his Facebook, Twitter, and website
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