My Favorite Bit: Ruthanna Emrys talks about DEEP ROOTS
Ruthanna Emrys is joining us today to talk about her novel Deep Roots. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy, which began with Winter Tide and continues with Deep Roots, confronts H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos head-on, boldly upturning his fear of the unknown with a heart-warming story of found family, acceptance, and perseverance in the face of human cruelty and the cosmic apathy of the universe. Emrys brings together a family of outsiders, bridging the gaps between the many people marginalized by the homogenizing pressure of 1940s America.
Aphra Marsh, descendant of the People of the Water, has survived Deep One internment camps and made a grudging peace with the government that destroyed her home and exterminated her people on land. Deep Rootscontinues Aphra’s journey to rebuild her life and family on land, as she tracks down long-lost relatives. She must repopulate Innsmouth or risk seeing it torn down by greedy developers, but as she searches she discovers that people have been going missing. She will have to unravel the mystery, or risk seeing her way of life slip away.
What is Ruthanna’s favorite bit?
The source material for the Innsmouth Legacy series—H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction—straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. Lovecraft tried hard to base his gods, ghouls, and lost continents on the very latest scientific findings. In the 1930s. As someone with voracious reading habits but no particular scientific training.
Writing now in the early 21st century, my take on Lovecraft’s Mythos includes open magic and the supernatural. But I still hew close to modern scientific understanding, particularly in my own field of psychology and its cousin neuroscience. This is particularly fun when playing with Lovecraft’s own ideas about the mind. Nowadays, he probably would have been fascinated by the idea of uploading personalities into computers (and all the terrible, world-breaking things that could go wrong amid the circuits). Instead, he came up with the Mi-Go.
The Mi-Go are aliens, possibly fungous, from space that is Not Like the Space We Know. Their favorite pastime is brain surgery. The kind that involves removing your brain entirely and putting you in a canister where you can see, hear, and talk—and travel the universe, learning Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know and being part of a never-ending awesome conversation with all the other brain canisters. I couldn’t resist.
I’ve talked elsewhere about how Lovecraft’s calls the Mi-Go “cosmopolitan,” about his xenophobic idea that multicultural society just naturally deprives people of the strength and agency of their own bodies, and about how this made the Mi-Go a perfect fit for a story about finding identity in diversity… but my favorite bit was figuring out how to make brain thieves fit into a book informed by modern psychology.
I already set up one psychological gimme in Winter Tide: minds are different from brains, and can be separated from them with the right magic. They’re also closely tied to brains, and can’t survive long on their own. Winter Tide featured aliens skilled at the advanced magical art of switching minds between bodies. So the Mi-Go must be doing something similar—not removing actual brains (and more impressively, putting them back), but removing minds and sticking them in artificial “host bodies.” Lovecraft’s classic brain canisters.
Research on embodied cognition suggests that we’d probably adapt to this sort of thing pretty quickly. The real human mind is shaped by a constant influx of sensory input, and by our ability to touch and shape the world. Change that input, and the possibilities for output, and you change the mind at the center. This happens in the real world all the time—we come with different subsets of senses and gain or lose them over the course of a lifetime, work with levels of bodily control ranging from Olympic athletes to Steven Hawking and Jean-Dominique Bauby. It’s a little different, though, when someone can move you between states at will, and has absolute control over where you go and who you meet. And the Mi-Go are very good at psychology…
Some people choose willingly to trade physical autonomy for good company and fantastic journeys. Maybe many people—when I asked my Twitter followers where they’d go, I got a ton of enthusiasm for disembodied tours of the Virgo Supercluster and Marianas Trench, and about three people willing to fight to the death to avoid those tours. Aphra Marsh, my main character, falls firmly in the latter camp. She’s struggled long and hard to live comfortably in her body, has no intention of giving it up, and sees very clearly the cost of doing so.
The other side of the argument is ably represented by Shelean, one of my favorite characters/thought experiments. (She’d be delighted to hear herself described as a thought experiment, which tells you something about her.) Shelean’s body and brain have been twisted by the most dangerous of magical studies—but disembodied she can escape the effects, and think and perceive clearly (mostly). She still talks like someone who grew up in a society of mad scientists/sorcerers, though. Nature versus nurture, another fascinating psychological research question. For both Aphra and Shelean, as well as their compatriots, the Mi-Go force them to think about who they are, and how much that identity depends on the shapes their minds wear.
Teasing apart brains and minds—something we can’t actually do without magic—let me play around with fun scientific ideas, and as a bonus gave me a brand new way to explore my characters.
Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. She is the author of The Litany of Earth. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog.