Hello! 19 of us in the indie queer SFF world have put our books on sale for 99 cents from now until February 1. Mine’s The Olive Conspiracy. Now I’d like to introduce you to Kaia Sonderby, writer of Failure to Communicate, also part of the sale.
Hello and welcome! Who am I interviewing you about?
My character’s name is Xandri Corelel, she’s autistic and bisexual (both ownvoices). She works as the head of Xeno-liaisons on an independent first contact ship called the Carpathia. (There is technically an arm of the government that covers this work, but the crew is really good at it, so their existence is tolerated.) She came by this job when Chui Shan Fung, Captain of the Carpathia, found her in a gambling den, using a somewhat unique skill to earn money and keep herself surviving.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between her autism and her skills as a diplomat with aliens?
You might already know that one of the primary traits of autism is difficultly in both processing and projecting non-verbal communication–so, body language, tone of voice, facial expression. We don’t do it instinctively like allistics do. Over the years I started to realize that I had been learning to read these things manually, and I thought it could be fun to write a story where an autistic person works as a liaison for non-human sapients because she’s so used to having to pay attention to these things that she was actually better at learning them than humans.
What is your book’s worldbuilding like as far as how neurodivergent people are treated? Or people with disabilities in general?
This is science fiction set around 4,000 years in the future, and Xandri is one of only a very small handful of neurodivergent people to exist. Eugenics programs involving prenatal cellular manipulation had removed neurodivergence and disability in the human species, and such technology already existed amongst a number of species of the Starsystem Alliance even before humans joined. But for a very brief period humans had a fad for “natural” births. Because the manipulation is done on the fertilized zygote, none of these things were erased, so much as turned off.
So a number of the children born during that fad, including Xandri, had things like autism, or bipolar disorder, or were born blind or deaf. This created a panic, and a law was put into place making it illegal for any child of any species within the Alliance to be born without prenatal genetic engineering (or PGE). Just a little bit of technical background to explain why Xandri ends up in the unique position she’s in, rather than it being a popular position that people use autistics in. Because there aren’t many.
What kinds of adventures will she take the audience on if they read your books?
Because of her experiences, Xandri’s developed a strong sense of justice and doesn’t like seeing peoples’ choices and agency removed. Her first adventure with the Carpathia is told in the novella Testing Pandora. Captain Chui recruits her, and her first test is to make contact with a species that becomes know as Psittacans, because of their sort of resemblance to parrots. Part of how Xandri begins making headway with other species is by suggesting some changes to the Starsystems Alliance’s diplomatic strategies, to offer more choices and flexibility to the species they’re courting. It works well, though it’s not well-known that the ideas were hers, because she asked for her name to be kept out of it, as a means of protecting herself (more details will get revealed about that in later books though).
Her second adventure is the one that occurs in Failure to Communicate, which is the one involved in the sale. This book features the Anmerilli who are…a little bit of me poking fun at traditional Star Trek type humans-in-prosthetics alien, and a little bit me making commentary on the issues with the thought of “upright, two-legged, two arms, one head” as the only useful body configuration. They’re a somewhat hostile species, with certain things very much in common with modern day Americans, but the big point is that they’re highly xenophobic, and will only deal with humans, who look relatively like them.
Negotiations had been going notoriously slowly, but then it was discovered that the Anmerilli were making progress on the development of a graser, which would be a weapon powerful enough to completely change the face of war. In order to keep the Anmerilli from possibly allying with the Zechak (who are NOT good guys) with this technology, the effort to bring them into the Starsystems Alliance is stepped up, and Xandri and the Carpathia team are brought in to help. Of course, this freaks Xandri out since, like humans, a lot of Anmerilli body language is relatively subtle. But I don’t want to spoil too much of her adventures there.
What else is going on in her life besides her job?
Xandri, like other autistics, struggles with sensory overload, often prefers the company of animals over others, things like that, but at the same time she longs for company–as we tend to do, in reality. She struggled to reconcile what she’s always been told–that she has no empathy or feelings–with what she feels on a day-to-day basis. She can be a very humorous and silly person, but she’s often afraid to show it, due to abuse from both her parents and her therapists (all of which I make at least some allusion to in what’s already published, so it’s not any kind of spoiler).
She keeps a pair of parrots as companion animals…I really wanted her to have some kind of pet, and I’m kind of obsessed with parrots (but can’t have one, because our apartment is too drafty and the air is terrible) so I have her parrots instead.An African grey called Marbles (as in “have you lost your ___?” ) who is silly, and way too smart for her own good. And a pineapple green-cheeked conure called Cake, who is very sweet and likes to preen Xandri’s hair, but sometimes gets a little nippy. They’re a pretty big part of her life, so the reader will actually see them as much as I can feasibly put them in the books.
Xandri likes Ancient Earth music and dancing and singing with her parrots, as long as no one catches her. She has certain special interests, as is typical among autistics, but her biggest one is starships, and the history thereof. She prefers reading hard copy books, and tends to stop in at her very bookstore chain, Vertebrates, whenever she gets a chance. And she struggles to sort out her emotions with regards to both Diver, the charming, genius R&D guy, and Kiri, the ship’s hacker-cum-fashionista.She has spent time learning to pilot and dreams of owning her own ship some day.
Many of us are writing expressly so that we can see ourselves in SFF. What thought processes went into writing a protagonist who shares your marginalizations?
I wanted to create a character that captured more autistic traits than just the ones I have, in an attempt to make her as relatable to as many of my fellow autistics as possible, so I made sure to listen to others’ experiences and try to apply them to Xandri. For example, she have major executive dysfunction about making sure she eats (whereas in my family we never miss a bite. My mom had both me and my sister without any morning sickness whatsoever).
I’ve spent so much time thinking about this, developing a world where I can tell stories, while also addressing issues such as ableism, and the problems of assimilation, and things like that. So who Xandri is, is very much tied up in the nature of her world.
What can people look forward to from you in the future?
As far as Xandri’s story goes, it’s a pretty long series that will total eight novels and two novellas when it’s finished. In fact, the second book, TONE OF VOICE, will be out somewhere around late February, or early-to-mid March. This is a huge universe I’m creating and there will be a lot of content. Some of this will be in a feature I’m calling Axion’s Field Guide to the Universe, which will be a series of encyclopedia-style entries giving further information on the species, planets, and flora and fauna of Xandri’s universe, and will be a reward for Patreon backers once I get my Patreon up and running.
Another thing I’ve got in the works that will be on Patreon is a series of novellas (the first called Among Tyrants) which is a sort of speculative fantasy world in which human naturalists study dinosaurs. Think something like a mix between Dinotopia and Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent.
Finally, I’m hoping to scrape together some money (as can be seen on my Ko-Fi page https://ko-fi.com/kaiasonderby) to get a good microphone and put together audiobook versions of my work. With everything I’m trying to say about disability in my work, accessibility to very important to me. So my primary reason for wanting to make these into audiobooks if for people who, for whatever reason, find reading a lot of text to be inaccessible to them.