Marvelous guest author Malon Edwards joined us last week to talk about his worldbuilding, and we had a great discussion! When I advertised the hangout, I told everyone that he works in a steampunk alternate history universe, but that is only partially true - the universe is actually even cooler than that. Malon gave us some insights into that universe and how he came to be writing in it.
Malon explained how he discovered his inspiration after moving to Canada. He'd been writing science fiction but really wanted to write something about himself and his culture. Then he discovered Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, which was the first time he'd ever read science fiction or fantasy set in a major city. He also mentioned taking inspiration from Octavia Butler's Parable series. He decided he wanted to write something set in Chicago and steeped in black culture.
He began by researching the history of Chicago, and learning about Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Hatian man known as the "Founder of Chicago." Malon said he felt a connection with him because of some French Caribbean background. He also has some background in Mississippi and New Orleans, including Louisiana Creole speakers. This his vision was to create a Chicago steeped in Louisiana Creole... but the language has died out and is very hard to research. Therefore, he moved instead toward Haitian Creole, which he was able to research in part through an excellent website called Sweet Coconuts.
In the alternate timeline he has designed, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable stayed in Chicago and became the mayor. The first story he wrote in the timeline was deliberately steampunk, because he wrote it for the SteamFunk anthology. That story is called Mudholes and Mississippi Mules. However, he designed it as part of a much longer timeline, spanning more than a century. It progresses from steampunk at the start of the timeline, through dieselpunk and up to cyberpunk.
Some fascinating aspects of the steampunk end of the timeline include devastating bombs that have been dropped over America, and polio running rampant. Young victims of polio get treated by "steampunk surgeons" who replace their failing organs with clockwork parts. The character known as Petal McQueen has a steam clock heart in her glass chest, and a boiler that runs on coal dust, which produces healthy dirt (as opposed to the dirt ruined by the bombings). Her dirt fuels the rebuilding of Chicago. In later portions of the timeline, Petal gets mythologized as an Earth Mother figure, Bel Flè. She can also create resources like gold, steel, coal, etc.
Chicago then becomes a city-state, and in the dieselpunk story "Into the Breach," there is a war between Chicago and the state of Illinois, which he says is a metaphor for some of the current situation. Chicago is a David to the Goliath of Illinois, and with the city reduced to nothing it must be rebuilt by hard work.
At the cyberpunk end of the timeline, the rich are able to raise their dead children from the grave by uploading them into androids, but they must then "re-up" the child once a year to keep them alive. It's a nightmarish scenario in which corporations use parents' grief to extort money from them.
Malon describes cyberpunk as his love, and mentioned loving Neuromancer by William Gibson. Tying these different subgenres together on a unified timeline allowed him to fit his existing steampunk story with his love of cyberpunk.
Family and family relationships play an important role in his work. He told us a bit about his family history, and how he's often lived in places away from his family. He lived in Japan for 3 years, and Montana for 2. He's accustomed to that distance, but misses his family and honors them in his work. He said his sister got him into writing.
I asked him if he speaks Haitian Creole at this point, and he said no (though reading his stories, you can't tell!). He took four years of French. He described worrying about reading his Shimmer story The Half-dark Promise at Ad Astra in Toronto, but said in the end it went well. He relies on intense research for his use of the language, and has worked in concert with the website owner. He says, "I stay away from Google Translate" unless he needs just a basic gist of what is going on. He highly recommends the Sweet Coconuts site for their audio resources and their lessons.
One of the discussants asked whether he was ever tempted to do Voodoopunk, but he said no. He feels it's important to be really comfortable in the language and culture required, and doesn't feel he knows enough Louisiana Creole. Also, his family takes voodoo/vodon very seriously, and he didn't want to wreck that. He has mentioned some African deities before, such as Mami Wata, but emphasizes, "I have to be really comfortable." That also means not culturally appropriating, which can be really difficult at times. He says he has to "write around what I don't know and make it believable and not make it ridiculous." Code-switching is a real challenge, so he keeps the sentences simple so that people who don't know the language have the best chance of understanding. He mentioned role models Junot Diaz and Daniel Jose Older who he says handle code-switching really well.
So far, Malon has written only short stories, in part because he edits as he writes and really wants it to sound right.
Malon, thank you for joining us! We loved learning about your vision.
Here's the video: