SciFiPulse was recently fortunate enough to catch up with R. B. Lemberg. They are a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Lemburg has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford and other awards. Additionally, their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among other venues. During this interview, Lemburg discusses The Birdverse and systems of government in real life as well as fantasy.
SFP: Where did the idea for the Birdverse come from?
R. B. Lemberg: I’m often asked this question, but there is no clear answer. I’ve had this world for a long time. It evolved around a character, the linguist Ulín, who is not in any published work but who is in both of my older completed but not published novels. Ulín travels all around Birdverse to study languages that are of little interest to her university superiors. She lost her deepnames (magic) in a tragic semi-accident, and magic is not something she cares about, at least not in the beginning of her arc. When I finally started writing, the world emerged, and I ended publishing stories about other people.
SFP: You mention on your website that you view governments as necessary but problematic. With that in mind, what would an ideal system of government look like to you?
R. B. Lemberg: There is no ideal system of government. All systems of government are problematic and/or become more problematic over time. Self-government in small communities with low scarcity, a strong mutual help ethic, and a strong anti-greed ethic is the closest I can come to imagining a perfect government. But all this comes apart when you have conflict with larger entities, or your community expands, or even within your semi-perfect society for people who do not fit for one reason or
SFP: Following on from that question, how does this stance inform the worldbuilding of the Birdverse?
R. B. Lemberg: See, that’s where it gets interesting. Birdverse has many different systems of government, which all work imperfectly. Much of the storytelling I do in Birdverse happens on the margins and in border-crossing situations – where people from different cultures and communities travel, migrate, or form relationships – helping to illuminate societies, including government systems. There are monarchies, an oligarchy, a sort-of-communist country, and many smaller self-governed communities. Things also shift historically. All this variety is much more interesting to me as a storyteller than imagining a perfect government.
In The Four Profound Weaves, I imagined three different societies – one is a tyrannical monarchy that views itself as enlightened (it is not), the other is a minority ethnic/religious community surviving in a ghetto within that monarchy, which is rigidly segregated by gender, and yet is very communal and tightly knit; and the third is the nomadic culture of the Surun’, who live in many different encampments, with each encampment very loosely governed by wise people in councils. All of the three systems are not perfect.
The tyrannical monarchy is terrible for our protagonists and most people they encounter, but it’s advantageous for the cisgender, heterosexual men with magical ability. The system they have has
endured for over a thousand years. It might not last forever. The self-governed nomadic encampment of the Surun’ is perhaps the most open and welcoming of them all, but it’s tiny, and things would get complicated very fast if the community were bigger.
In my forthcoming novel, The Unbalancing, I described my nearly perfect system of government – a government by queer people for queer people. This society, too, is small – the people live on a remote archipelago – and due to their magical situation, they are prosperous. The book is about these people dealing with a major environmental catastrophe. Without spoilering too much, I can say that this story leads, eventually, to the formation of my favorite culture in Birdverse – but because of what these people went through, they now need to contend with new realities of hostile, imperialist outsiders, and their
self-governance is by necessity reorganized. No government is unproblematic, but some systems are worse than others, and some systems are better for some people, or groups of people.
SFP: What are you working on at the moment?
R. B. Lemberg: I am revising The Unbalancing, and hope to be done with it by March. It is coming from Tachyon in 2022! I am also still reworking Ulín’s novel – it’s called Bridgers, and it’s about revolution and
linguistics. There are other projects in the pipeline – for more info, I hope you follow me on social media, especially Twitter, and keep an eye on my website.
SFP: How would you convince a right-leaning individual that marginalised people are not attempting to “take away their freedom” without them feeling attacked or accusing you of being a “liberal elite”?
R. B. Lemberg: This is not a good use of my time. I said this before – my mission is to unbreak the reader, and most of my readers are othered in some way. My works are queer, nonbinary, and/or trans-centric; my works are full of neurodiverse and/or disabled people and migrants; my worlds are deeply rooted in my Jewishness and they are also ethnically, racially and religiously diverse. My imagined worlds reflect my life, and what I find important. For me, the best way to resist othering is to compassionately illuminate the complexities of humanity. If readers of all political persuasions and backgrounds come with an open heart to my work, they might or might not be changed and/or supported in their humanity. That’s all I can hope for.
SFP: How do you feel that the storytelling traditions of Ukraine, Russia and Israel have shaped you as a writer?
R. B. Lemberg: I’m skipping this question – it’s huge, so maybe some other time.
SFP: What is the best piece of advice you have received relating to accepting one’s own identity?
R. B. Lemberg: Advice has not been as helpful to me as togetherness. The biggest gift I received on this path is the gift of friendship and community. With one of my closest friends, Shweta Narayan, we talked each other through coming out and considering our identities in all their complexity; and we are still not done. With my now-spouse Bogi, we talked to each other not just through gender/sexuality stuff, but how that relates to our Jewishness and our observances (both of us were in much more Orthodox environments back in the day). With another of my closest friends, Corey, we talked each other through what it means to be autistic in a world hostile to neurodiverse people who are also trauma survivors. Corey is gone now, but these conversations continue with other people. Community is powerful.
SFP: And finally, if you could say one thing to your younger self what would it be and why?
R. B. Lemberg: I think I needed to walk my roads without any annoying, hopeful, or prescriptive voices from the future. I believe that the future is not fixed, and what I’m living now is just one possible future. If I could teleport to 2005, I could for example yell at myself “DO NOT GO BACK” (but then I would be a very, very different person now, and perhaps not a writer, so I don’t know if, given that opportunity, I’d have yelled at myself at all). If I could go back to early 2013, I would definitely yell at myself “GET A LAWYER.” But generally, I need to walk my own roads at my own pace. Often it is a very slow and circuitous pace indeed, and that’s what it is and what makes me me.
SciFiPulse would like to offer our most heartfelt thanks and best wishes to R. B. Lemburg for so graciously taking the time to answer our questions.
R. B. Lemberg’s website is: R.B. Lemberg (roselemberg.net)
Their Twitter handle is: @RB_Lemberg