Talking with David L. Ulin

Alta’s books editor discusses how science fiction is “responsive,” the influence of music on his writing, and the emerging body of pandemic and quarantine literature.

David L. Ulin says that “science fiction grows out of its moment, and out of the writer’s engaged response to those times.”
David L. Ulin says that “science fiction grows out of its moment, and out of the writer’s engaged response to those times.”

Science fiction ostensibly asks us to look into the future or imagine alternate timelines. And though the speculative story seeks to imagine what could be—for better or worse—it also asks us to examine our nature: our basest, most heroic, or even our most ordinary tendencies. Science-fiction writers use the fantastic and the extreme to raise questions about topics like survival, freedom of expression, and the value of human life. These authors compel readers to embrace both possibility and ambiguity, and the value of confronting uncertainty rather than accepting easy answers.

For Alta’s Summer 2020 edition, Alta’s books editor, David L. Ulin, helped curate a collection of new fiction, essays, and explorations of science fiction from its earliest roots to the present.

Watch Alta Asks Live: David L. Ulin

Alta caught up with Ulin via email to discuss the Science Fiction Issue, the necessity of engaging with the current moment, and what he’s reading now. He’s the author or editor of 10 books, including, most recently, Library of America’s Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s.

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I’m mostly inspired by experience—the experience of walking out in the world and seeing things, as well as that of living in this moment, with its multiple and conflicting challenges and catastrophes. For me, writing is often about wrestling with a problem or a question, and those emerge from the relationship between myself and the moment—the time and place—in which I find myself. At the moment, for instance, I am thinking a lot about what public space will—or should—look like in the post-COVID-19 era, and the various ways that cities might work. That there are no clear answers to these questions is part of their appeal to me, since I am less interested in answers than I am in the process of engaging. Or perhaps it’s that I don’t believe that definitive answers generally exist.

As far as other aesthetic disciplines, I am deeply influenced—as a writer and as a human—by music and think of writing often in terms of rhythm and melody. I think meaning has as much to do with sound as it does with content, and I am always messing around with my work on such terms.

Do you listen to anything as you write? As you read?
I do not. Stone-cold sober, stone-cold silent. Only way to read and write.

Is science fiction more reactive or predictive?
I think the word I’d use is “responsive.” Like all literature and art, science fiction grows out of its moment, and out of the writer’s engaged response to those times. We like to think of it as predictive because it often takes place in the future, but as the musician Joe Strummer once said, “The future is unwritten.” So we are projecting a possible future out of the complexities and turmoils of the present, imagining what might happen out of what we know and think about what has already taken place.

What kind of literature do you think will come out of this moment in history?
Already we are seeing some literature emerge, in the body of pandemic/quarantine essays, diaries, journals, etc. I expect that will continue because writers write out of their moment and use writing to try to make sense of where they are. Certainly that’s been the case with the essays I’ve been writing these past few months: short-ish responses or reactions, attempts to reckon with uncertainty. As far as anything else, it’s too early to say. The most important writing is often the least timely; it doesn’t go bad or spoil just because it needs some time to gestate or find its form. Its relevance resides in its humanity. So I think we need to wait and see what emerges from this moment—and that goes equally for readers and for writers, too.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of short work—stories and essays. It’s been hard to concentrate on a full book. I just read Beth Nguyen’s remarkable essay “Apparent” in the Paris Review and Sarah Shun-Lin Bynum’s fantastic short story “Bedtime Story” in the New Yorker. I’ve also been going back to older books, books I’ve read before and want to revisit, books about characters going through difficult times. I reread Albert Camus’s The Plague at the beginning of lockdown and also William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Recently, I’ve reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, for all the obvious reasons. I keep thinking about these lines from Rankine:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

Give us the elevator pitch for Alta’s Science Fiction Issue.
I’m not really one for elevator pitches, so let’s just say, it’s a fascinating read with some exhilarating new fiction by Jonathan Lethem and Charlie Jane Anders, and deep-dive essays by Annalee Newitz and Steve Erickson, as well as an early gem of a short story by Philip K. Dick.

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Katie M. Flynn for Alta Asks.

Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, by Joan Didion, Library of America, 950 pages, $39.95
Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, by Joan Didion, Library of America, 950 pages, $39.95


  • By Joan Didion, Edited by David L. Ulin
  • Library of America, 980 pages, $39.95

    Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic.
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