Out of Trauma

Martha Wells in conversation with Kelly Jennings

a portrait of Martha Wells
Portrait by Lisa Blaschke

Martha Wells has been an science fiction and fantasy writer since her first fantasy novel was published in 1993, and her work includes The Books of the Raksura series, the Ile-Rien series, The Murderbot Diaries series, and other fantasy novels, most recently Witch King (Tordotcom, 2023). She has also written media tie-in fiction for Star WarsStargate: Atlantis, and Magic: the Gathering, as well as short fiction, YA novels, and non-fiction. She has won Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, and a Dragon Award, and her work has appeared on the Philip K. Dick Award ballot, the BSFA Award ballot, the USA Today Bestseller List, the Sunday Times Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. She is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and her books have been published in twenty-five languages.

Author and reviewer Kelly Jennings spoke to Martha Wells about creating Murderbot, engendering empathy, and the after-effects of trauma.

Kelly Jennings: I saw that you were made a member of the Texas Hall of Literary Fame in 2022. That’s pretty cool! You’ve won a bunch of other awards, too – which one means the most to you, and why?

Martha Wells: All the awards have been special to a different degree. The Texas Literary Hall of Fame was a special one for me because it was the first time some of my family members saw me receive an award and speak at an event. All the other awards I’ve gotten have been somewhere out of state or out of the country, so while my husband and my friends have been able to go with me to see the events, it wasn’t something my family could do.

I think for the most meaningful one, it’s a toss-up between the first Nebula Award and the first Hugo Award in 2018 (both for Best Novella for All Systems Red). Before Murderbot, I had given up on getting any award recognition besides the few nominations I had gotten early in my career. So getting nominated, not to mention winning, was huge for me. It was something that I had never expected to happen. And so many friends from Texas fandom were involved in the Hugo Awards ceremony that year, and the award itself was designed and created by Sara Felix and Vincent Villafranca, whose work I really admired.

Kelly Jennings: I also saw somewhere that you used to work as a programmer – is that right? Can you talk about how that’s helped you create the bots in your books, including Murderbot?

Martha Wells: Yes, in the late 80s and 90s I was a COBOL programmer and also built and worked with SQL databases and early CGI programs for web sites. I also did a lot of user support and wrote instructions and documentation, and worked with several different systems. I’ve had people assume I’m an expert on artificial intelligence, which I absolutely am not. What really informed Murderbot’s experience was creating a database according to what the users said they needed, and then finding that what they actually needed it to do was something else, and instead of asking for it to be adjusted they cram extra information into the fields and are then surprised when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to anymore. And being yelled at by people who don’t know how to turn their workstation on. I have lots of stories about this kind of thing.

I think the novella where this is most obvious is Fugitive Telemetry, where rather than questioning suspects, Murderbot’s natural inclination is to solve the murder by assembling a giant database.

Kelly Jennings: Murderbot is without gender or sexuality, and it also seems (at least to me!) to be autism-coded. I know the lack of gender/sexuality was on purpose – was its autistic nature deliberate as well?

Martha Wells: That was not actually deliberate, it’s just how my own brain works. I’ve always had problems with anxiety and depression, too, and that shows up in a lot of the characters I write in different ways. And I felt it was right for Murderbot, who was navigating a world that it had limited experience with under not ideal circumstances.

Kelly Jennings: I’ve been struck, especially in the new novel, System Collapse, by how Murderbot is shaped by the traumatic event/s in its past, and how it reacts to that trauma. In Witch King, Kai also is shaped by past trauma, and reacts out of that trauma. Do you have a special interest in trauma, or is this just thematic happenstance?

Martha Wells: My father was a World War II veteran who was in a Nazi prison camp and was wounded in a way that affected him for years afterward. So basically I grew up observing PTSD and the after-effects of trauma, and how it affects other people in the individual’s life, how it changes over time. I’ve also dealt with things of my own that have made me think a lot about emotional trauma and all the repercussions of it. It affects everything I write. I also do a lot of research on it, listening to people talk about their own experiences.

Kelly Jennings: Somewhere I read – it may have been on your Reddit AMA? – that by deliberately making a universe in which constructs like Murderbot can be classed as ‘not people’, you want your readers to think about how our cultures, in the actual world, do that as well – classify various groups as ‘not people’. Can you talk about that a little?

Martha Wells: I think it’s one of the most important uses of fiction, to try to engender empathy and understanding for people in situations that are not things the reader has ever encountered. To understand the power dynamics the reader might be part of, and how these dynamics affect other people who don’t have the same advantages, or who might be trapped in systems they can’t escape. I don’t know how much it helps, but creating a little bit of understanding and context through fiction is better than none.

Obviously it also helps to see people like yourself in fiction, or to use it to process trauma, or contextualise terrible events, etc.

Kelly Jennings: Finally, what question do you wish I had asked you, and what’s its answer?

Martha Wells: This is unexpectedly hard! I guess the question is, why did you return to fantasy with Witch King?

Witch King is my pandemic book. I had writer’s block for the first six months of the pandemic and usually the only answer for that is to write something completely different from what I had been doing. I love creating secondary worlds, there’s a lot of freedom of creativity in that. And I was reading a lot of fantasy, and watching Chinese fantasy dramas on TV, and it made me want to write fantasy again. The opening scene was actually something I had been playing with for years, probably since the early 2000s, but I had never made it work before. I gave it another try and a story came out of it this time. It was a huge relief, after not being able to write for half the year, and it gave me a place to hide from my pandemic stress. It also gave me a place to put some of my anger. The Murderbot series are also angry books, in a lot of ways, and I think Witch King has that in common with them. ∎

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings now lives in the Boston Mountains, where she writes, teaches about, and reviews science fiction. Her short story ‘History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs’ appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 35th Annual Collection. Her most recent novel In the Deep, was published by Candlemark & Gleam in 2021. Follow her blog at delagar.blogspot.com

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