The Mary Sue Exclusive Interview: Dancing with Eternity‘s John Patrick Lowrie and Ellen McLain Talk Audiobooks, Sexuality, and Living Forever
SPAAACE. I'm in space.
Fans of video games may know the names John Patrick Lowrie and Ellen McLain from popular video games such as Team Fortress 2 and Portal. Ellen is the iconic voice of everyone’s favorite villain, GLaDOS, and John is known best for playing the sniper in TF2. I was given the opportunity to meet both of them at ConnectiCon and discovered that not only had Lowrie published a science fiction novel that looked extremely interesting, but that the husband-wife duo banded together for the audiobook, which was released in June! Being a huge fan of their work in video games, I naturally decided that I needed to give Dancing with Eternity a read/listen.
Here’s what I found: Dancing with Eternity is a fantastic sci-fi novel that covers a ton of different aspects, from religion to sexuality to feminism. Steel and Mo, the two main characters, are part of the crew of the starship Lightdancer. Steel, being the captain, hires Mo to fill the final position on her crew while they travel to several forbidden planets to help fellow passenger Alice. And did I mention almost everyone in the book theoretically lives forever? In this far-flung future, there is a technology called “re-booting” that allows a person to transfer their memories to a new body every 80 to 100 years. The book focuses a lot on how that affected religion, there no longer being a death to look forward to, and ends with a very introspective look at the consequences behind such drastic changes in humanity. After finishing the book, I had a few questions regarding the characters and recording audiobooks.
Liz Suess (TMS): Can you tell us a bit about the difference between recording an audiobook and doing voice acting for a video game?
Ellen McLain (EM): One difference is that it takes many more hours to record. Dancing with Eternity is 16 hours of dynamic story telling, which I estimate took around 40 hours in the studio to record. Usually for a game there might be about 8 hours total for one character. In DWE I voice around 18 characters.
John Patrick Lowrie (JPL): I think the biggest difference is continuity. In computer games you only get a collection of lines. You, as an actor, kind of have to make up the whole world around you. Your director tells you what’s going on, and then it’s up to you to make that believable and real. Reading an audiobook is much more like doing a play: you have the whole story right there in front of you. You’re reading it in order as it unfolds. And with a book like Dancing, the actors are called on to really create some complex, conflicted characters that go through some pretty heavy times. It’s very demanding work.
The other thing is that Ellen and I were in the studio together, so we could really play off of each other, which is always great for actors.
TMS: Dancing had obvious ties to classics like The Odyssey and Moby Dick. Were there other inspirations for the story as well?
JPL: I think you can certainly trace influences of the people I’ve read: Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Pynchon, Arthur C. Clarke, G.B. Shaw, and Samuel R. Delany to name but a few. And certainly most first novels are somewhat autobiographical, and, while I’ve never been on a starship or re-booted, central events in the novel deal with things that happened to me and people I knew, particularly the mother of a child taking the child away from the father even though the father/child relationship is healthy and loving.
And, more lightly, it’s based on a trip I took from Seattle, my home and a liberal bastion of sexual egalitarianism and militant feminism (the planet Circe) to North Carolina, the buckle of the Bible Belt (the planet Eden). It amused me that here we were, Americans, who all watched the same TV shows, ate at the same franchise restaurants, and shopped at the same franchise stores, spoke the same language, had the same cultural history, and we couldn’t talk to each other. The cultural assumptions of people in North Carolina were so alien to us Seattle-ites that true communication on any level higher than “Nice weather, huh?” was impossible. And it struck me that at that very moment the SETI program was trying to communicate with aliens from another star system. This made me laugh.
TMS: The main female character, Steel, makes some questionable decisions throughout the book, and I found myself wondering if I actually liked her as a person. What are your thoughts on her actions and having a main character who might not be the best person?
EM: I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I will only speak generally. Because of Steel’s background and her relationship to other characters in the book, I see her as very driven. She is driven by emotional needs. That condition precludes thinking objectively. I “like” every character that I portray. I need to find the humanity in each one.
TMS: With your background in music, how much of a say did you have in the music and background audio that were selected for the audiobook?
JPL: Fortunately for me, the audiobook was produced by Jim French Productions, who also produce The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a radio series in which I play Sherlock. So they are very familiar with my work, and when I thought of using my two orchestra pieces, “In A Strange Land” and “Conversations With Piltdown Man,” they jumped on it. Lawrence Albert and Jim French are great folks to work with. It was their incredible sound effects library and experience with radio drama that made all the sound effects possible. Larry and I worked very closely to make the final product.
TMS: In regards to the theme of the insignificance of sex in the book, do you think that’s the direction we, as a society, are going even without the ability to live forever? That sex is just going to become another way to have fun and not have any real emotional significance tied to it?
EM: As a child of the 1950s and raised by my mother who was quite Victorian in her thinking, I personally have a difficult time seeing sexual relations devoid of emotional attachment. But use of “the pill” and other forms of contraception had a relaxing effect on sex in the 1960s and beyond. Probably a good thing, but it came with many complications.
JPL: In the book I describe sexuality as becoming (I believe I’m quoting) “just another expression of intimacy, like conversation, or sports, or religion.” All three of those things can be very emotional. I don’t think sex will lose its emotional significance, but it might not be tied to monogamous commitment. The one thing I know about human sexuality is that young people keep reinventing it in their own image, which I find fabulous and creative and wonderful. The younger we are, the more spectacular the whole experience is. The older we are, the more comfortable we become with it. As I was writing the book it occurred to me that I was writing the entire human race as one huge old married couple. “Hey, sweetie, you want to have sex?” Sure, just let me finish this chapter and I’ll be right there.”
TMS: There’s a significance tied to the word “mother” in the book—why only mother? Why not “sister,” too? Or “father”? Is there any connection with the feminists being the ones to get rid of the word?
JPL: Dancing with Eternity is extrapolative fiction–it plays around with the idea of what the world might be like if things keep going as they are, or as they seem to be to the author. I was born in 1952, more than a decade before the availability of safe, cheap, effective and convenient contraception. I witnessed the profound effect it had on the shape of society and the nature of sexuality and reproduction. When what is now called Second-Wave Feminism really got going in the late sixties I was very interested in the forces that led to World War I and World War II. This led me to read fairly widely on Communism, particularly Leninist and Stalinist Communism. Leninist Communism owed more to Puritanism than social Darwinism (and if I put any more ‘isms’ in this paragraph I’m going to shoot myself). It was structured as an elite cadre that ensured the masses behaved as they were supposed to behave, as decided by the elite. Where the Puritans based their model of correct behavior on Biblical morality, the Leninists based theirs on Marx’s historical optimism, but the effect was the same: the people with direct access to “the Truth” made sure everybody else toed the line. The communists made liberal use of the manipulation of language to achieve this end, leading George Orwell to satirize them in his novel 1984 with phrases like War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery.
It’s no secret that Second-Wave Feminism owed a lot of their tactics and revolutionary model to Leninism. For example, Lenin coined the phrase “Consciousness-raising” and invented “consciousness-raising groups,” which were widely employed by feminists in the late sixties through the eighties. The manipulation of language was also central to feminist revolutionary strategy. They spent lots of time and energy deciding how things should or shouldn’t be said, and then shamed and ostracized anyone who didn’t say things the way feminists thought they should.
The irony of this affected me profoundly. Here were two groups of people, communists and feminists, whose sole stated aim was equality: economic equality on the part of communists, gender equality on the part of feminists. Both groups were trying to achieve a full realization of the ideas put forth in 18th century Humanism: that each individual person matters and should be treated well by their fellow people. And yet both groups created hierarchical, dictatorial structures and practices to coerce people to do things the way they thought they should be done. This, like my trip to North Carolina, made me laugh, but it was a sadder laugh.
Then throw into the mix my extrapolation on our medical capabilities: that if things keep going the way they are, we will eventually be able to manufacture immortality. How would that affect things? One of the most important ramifications, in my mind, was reproduction. Would we still want to reproduce? Would we be able to afford it? And since the physical burden of reproduction falls intrinsically unfairly on women, how would everyone respond? Motherhood, the act of giving birth, would become central to political evolution. I just don’t see how it couldn’t. And if political tactics repeat, and they seem to, would some people decide that the word ‘mother’ should be abolished? If it’s okay to force people to stop saying ‘mailman,’ is it okay to force them to stop saying ‘mother’?
Political drama exists because, while all people change all the time, no one changes at exactly the same rate or in exactly the same direction. Some people want to move faster, others like things the way they are, others don’t mind moving but don’t want to move as fast. So we get wars. And movements. And Rush Limbaugh. (Rush is a conservative demagogue over here in the States, if you Brits are blessed by ignorance of him).
TMS: Memories seem vital to the way a person is shaped. By erasing your memories, you essentially get rid of who you are. Was Steel wiping her memory really the best decision? And was that a hard decision for you to make as the writer?
JPL: Once again, the erasing of memory was autobiographical. It is something I see people doing, sometimes individually, sometimes in groups. It’s never healthy, yet people keep doing it. My ex-wife tried to erase me from her memory, and her daughter’s. I was her daughter’s step-father, but I was the only daddy she had ever known. I had raised her from the time I met her when she was eleven months old til the time her mother moved away when she was six and decided she didn’t want me to see or speak to her anymore. I found my step-daughter again a few years ago and we have been putting her life back together ever since. The erasing of memory was devastating to her, but useful to her mother.
Autocratic regimes often used the erasing of cultural memory in the twentieth century to control populations. Once again, hideously unhealthy, but seemingly useful to some people in accomplishing what they seem to want to do.
In the novel, the idea that first occurred to me was that if we lived forever our cerebral RAM and ROM would eventually fill up and we’d have to cull it just to have capacity to keep functioning on a daily basis. This got me thinking of how our memories actually work. Could we figure out a way to thin out our memories and still keep them intact? Then, much later in the novel, it occurred to me that this technique could be abused to get rid of uncomfortable or inconvenient memories. Are there memories in each of us that we would rather live without? I think the answer is yes. Would we be healthier if we could actually get rid of them? Erase them completely? I’ll leave it to the reader to ponder that.
TMS: If you could end up living the way your fictional humanity does, rebooting every 80-100 years, would you?
JPL: I would need to live a very long time to be able to kneel in the dirt of a planet orbiting another star and breathe in the scent of a flower bred to flourish only in the light of that particular star. Longer still if I wanted to visit every habitable planet in the galaxy. Even longer if I wanted to visit even our closest galactic neighbor. Even longer than that if I wanted to truly, profoundly and completely understand how Ellen thinks and feels.
How long would I need to live even if all I wanted to do was simply spend enough time living in every city, town and village on Earth to understand the local culture?
And I want to do all of those things.