Two novels in with her Worldbreaker Saga through Angry Robot Books, Kameron Hurley has been on a tear across the blogosphere, getting the word out with a myriad of guest post, interviews, and what-not. Well, this morning she's kind enough to stop by my little ol' blog with some ruminations on our choices in life and our affinity for the "what if." Enjoy!
When the Enemy Wears Your Face: Our Obsession with Doppelgangers
by Kameron Hurley
by Kameron Hurley
As I hurdle toward middle age, I’ve been struck at how much of where we are in our lives is the cumulative effect of both large and seemingly small choices. Who we dated, if and where we went to college, our hobbies, our job decisions, choosing to keep or break up with a friend, sinking our money into a big purchase or saving it for some later date, or continuing to scramble, endlessly, because we never get a break. There is always fate, of course; unexpected events and how we deal with them, whether we are able to marshal on or we fall down. Do we go back home to live with parents in the event of a financial fallout, or share a spare room with a friend, or are we stuck on the street, homeless, casting around for purchase in a world of increasingly fewer choices?
In truth, as I get older I notice more and more doors closing. Certainly, there is always time to reinvent yourself, but it’s true that what you dedicate yourself to doing and learning in your teens and twenties has a big impact on the number of opportunities you have later. Dedicating myself to become an astronaut or a concert pianist at 35 is going to be a far more difficult and nigh on impossible thing to achieve now than it would have been if I decided that at 15.
Our lives are the product of our choices, and the choices of those who came before us, and the choices we make in the face of things done to us. It comes as no surprise, then, that we enjoy playing the game of “what if?” What if I majored in computer engineering instead of history? What if I married the first person I dated? What if I’d run off to Alaska in 1998 with $250 in my pocket and a suitcase instead of in 1999, with student loans and a college admissions letter?
This what if game bleeds over into our tastes in fantasy and science fiction, too. What if there were alternate worlds where we really did make those choices, where the world was just a little bit – or a lot – different? Would our lives be better, or worse? Fiction allows us to explore these ideas in a way that we simply can’t living here on a progressive timeline in just one dimension (poor limited humans). It’s why alternate history novels, as well as those that explore broken timelines and parallel dimensions and time travel, fill the shelves. It’s why all of our favorite science fiction shows have at least one parallel universe episode, usually one where we get to watch our “good” version of a protagonist battle it out with a “bad” version from somewhere else.
The funny thing is, whether in novel or television form, the “good” protagonist always seems to be the one whose point of view we’re seeing the other world from. There seems to be a preference for the “It’s a Wonderful Life” approach to parallel dimensions in our stories. We want to be believe that we are the best version of ourselves out there, that even if some other choice got us something we wanted, that it would have made us evil, or simply miserable. Do we, then, tell these stories hoping to reassure ourselves that we have made the right choices?
In my own work, like what I’m doing with my parallel-universes-colliding epic fantasy The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant, I want more complexity than that. I want worlds where there is no evil version of a beloved character, or even of myself, only different versions. If I had taken any other door in life, chosen any other path, accumulated any other set of choices, I reject the idea that it would be easy to choose the life I had now over the life I could have had. It may have been better. It may have been worse. All I know for certain is that it would have been different. And it’s that difference that interests me, and the difference I want to explore.
I suspect I could probably be friends with most of my doppelgangers, if we didn’t despise each other too much for reminding one another about everything we hate in ourselves. I suspect we’d have a lot to talk about, but none of that would be who got the short end of the stick, or who turned out evil. Life certainly is wonderful, but I don’t believe this is the best possible life, only one possible life. And I’m OK with that.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year's Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.
Loyalties are tested when worlds collide…
Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers. The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy.
Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable –magic. As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.
But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?