Unexpected Questions with Lettie Prell

Lettie Prell’s science fiction stories often explore people merging with their technology, touching on topics of transhumanism and artificial intelligence. She has also explored justice-related themes, which stem from her long-standing career as a researcher in that field. Her work has appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Tordotcom, Wired, and elsewhere. Various works have been reprinted in anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, “best of” publications curated by Neil Clarke and Rich Horton, and The New Voices of Science Fiction (Tachyon). Several of her stories have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and other languages. She is a lifelong Midwesterner and currently lives in Des Moines.


Define “Science Fiction” as Damon Knight did (“What we’re pointing to when we say ‘Science Fiction'”), but without using your finger.

Wait. What? Do you mean like, I know science fiction when I smell it?


Thank you. If you had to choose between fighting 100 duck-sized robots or one robot-sized duck, which would you pick and why?

We’re actually doing this? All right. Bring on the big duck. Give me one target to focus on, and I’ll take it down. Next question.


If you had to choose between being a mermaid or a dragon, which would you pick and why?

Definitely a dragon. I’d make a horrible mermaid, for one. I don’t know how to swim. I grew up in the landlocked Midwest of northern Illinois, and my town didn’t have a public pool. Also, dragons are very cool. When I was a young writer, I wrote a science fiction fantasy called Dragon Ring. It was published in small press in 2008 and has been out of print for some time. It featured Mayan symbols and an sf-nal idea based on electrical engineering. Anyway, its female protagonist appeared to be gradually turning into a dragon as the novel progressed. I wrote that book because none of the fantasy books I’d read that featured dragons were dragon-y enough for me. Actually turning into a dragon? Yes, please.

Since then, I’ve set fantasy aside to focus on science fiction, thanks to a conversation I had with Ben Bova at MiniCon in Minneapolis. He convinced me to write one or the other, and not mix them up in the same piece. I told him I’d rather write science fiction. Now, I’m not telling you this because I want every young writer to choose one or the other, or that there can never be mash-ups. For me at that time, though, it was helpful advice, like having just one big robot duck to focus on. I learned a lot about science fiction as a result, and I developed my own approach to it. In short, I matured as a writer, and I eventually began to sell stories to very good places, and more recently a couple of novellas.


If you could travel to any alternate universe where a different version of yourself exists, what do you think your other self would be like?

First, I find it hard to buy the concept of a multiverse that splits at every single choice. I mean, if I decide to eat an English muffin for breakfast, it’s kind of ridiculous to think another version of me is having yogurt. Yet there’s something compelling about roads not taken. I switched majors in college, but if I hadn’t, I would’ve been a certified public accountant instead of a criminal justice researcher. So yes, in that alternate universe, I’m a CPA. Yet just like in my present life, doing all that left-brain stuff for a living would’ve eventually driven me into a creative crisis, as it did with doing statistics all day. I just need something for my right brain to do. When I was young, it was music. I played piano and clarinet. Then I got into photography, complete with my own darkroom. But also, always, I was writing. So my alternate CPA self is writing as well, and hey, maybe they’re turning out fantasy.


If you were transported into one of your books as a character, what kind of character would you be and what kind of adventures would you have?

Given what I usually write about, I’d be living inside a computer in a virtual world. And no, not like The Matrix; I wouldn’t have a body in the real world. Ever since reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines years ago, I’ve been both disturbed and fascinated by the ramifications of uploaded (I prefer the term instantiated) minds. First and foremost, would it really be me, meaning my point of consciousness as I experience it now? Or a copy of me? Can I trust the people running the system? That’s a big one. And would I really continue to simulate being a human forever? Or are there other possibilities for growth and experience once we free ourselves from our biological forms? I think the latter is more likely. The world of my novellas, Uploading Angela (Analog) and Live Update (Clarkesworld) best reflects an upside, or at least a sense of hope, for the possibilities here.


What off-beat location would you like to see host a convention, and why?

FermiLab, that place near Chicago with the particle accelerator. Yes, I know the clearances would present a logistical nightmare, but hear me out. I actually visited FermiLab years ago with a group of science fiction writers, including Connie Willis. And at one point, a couple of the physicists cornered a bunch of us writers and told us this bizarre finding of theirs. Imagine if you have a truck and stuff it full of chocolate ice cream, which represents a certain subatomic particle, and then send it on a road trip across a few states, and when it arrives at its destination and you open up the back of the truck? It contains strawberry ice cream, or rather, a completely different subatomic particle. How can this be? They can’t explain it. These physicists were kind of begging us to speculate with them. At FermiCon, we’d have an entire panel devoted to the Ice Cream Truck Paradox. It would be an absolute blast.


What’s next for you?

Funny you mentioned conventions. I’m going to be author guest of honor at DemiCon in Des Moines, in May 2024. Also, while stories are my main love, I’ve been working on longer things, including a novel. We’ll see what the future holds.

Lettie Prell’s website is https://lettieprell.com/.

Find her on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/lettie.prell, and on Bluesky @lettie-prell.bksy.social.

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