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SunLit Interviews

Two editors probed a paradox: Technology increasingly looks to nature — especially animals — for inspiration

In their collection "Mechanical Animals," co-editors Selena Chambers and Jason Heller bring together writers at the intersection of creatures and technology

Selena Chambers writes fiction and non-fiction from the swampy depths of North Florida. Her most recent work has appeared in such publications as Literary Hub, Luna Luna Magazine, and Beautiful Bizarre. She’s been nominated for several awards including the Hugo and two World Fantasy awards. 

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor (formerly of Clarkesworld Magazine) and has also written about popular culture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork and NPR. He’s the co-editor of the Hex Publishers anthology “Cyber World.” He lives in Denver.

The following is an interview with Selena Chambers and Jason Heller.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

Selena: We love the mechanical animal trope, and wanted to explore it beyond Jules Verne, Steampunk, and the nineteenth century. We live in a biotech age where we are mimicking behaviors and traits of animals, but we aren’t exactly building a 20-foot elephant and going cross-country in it, nor imbuing it with consciousness and asking it how it feels to be pulling a caravan. We are borrowing from nature, but still not interacting with it, and it is that interaction we invited our authors to explore. 

Jason: As Selena said, we’re drawn to and fascinated by the paradox that technology has evolved to the point where it’s looking increasingly at nature—and specifically animals—for inspiration. It’s deliciously counterintuitive, and it raises all kinds of compelling questions regarding the nature, so to speak, of our reality.

Co-editor Selena Chambers.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

Selena: Well, that’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child, isn’t it? I really have a hard time choosing, as every story and essay in this book is so unique and pertinent. Almost every story probes either implicitly or explicitly not only Descartes’ supposition on animal consciousness (he thought animals were nothing better than machines because they lacked consciousness as he understood it), but also how we conscious humans are as susceptible to being used as tools as the mechanical animals themselves. 

Jason: I like to think of this book as a mosaic—rather than a collection of separate stories, they lock together to form a collective vision of biomechanical speculation. Each story sparkles and stands strongly on its own, but they all play a part in the grander picture.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

Jason: Mike Libby’s essay sums up exactly what Selena and I were getting at when we started putting “Mechanical Animals” together. With erudition and depth, he nails the history and context of humanity’s fascination with all things biomechanical.

Selena: Yeah, and it goes beyond the sci-fi trope to highlight humanity’s very real struggle to control and unite with nature through not only scientific means, but artistic and anthropological symbiosis. 

Co-editor Jason Heller.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Selena: Having an excuse to work with my favorite writers and artists, and getting to read their unique spins on this idea.

Jason: Assembling the stories into a whole. I loved the sequence that evolved, the flow from one tale to another.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Selena:  In trying to trace the inspiration for Jules Verne’s steam-powered elephant, the Steam House, I learned that the first functional automata was a water clock shaped like an elephant. Invented by Muslim polymath Al-Jazari around 1206 AD, The Elephant Clock was 22 feet tall, and utilized water tanks, strings, and weights to animate all of its animals—a dragon, snake, phoenix, and human. These figures all represent different countries—the elephant symbolizes India and Africa—and celebrates Al-Jazari’s multicultural time which has been whitewashed ever since.

What project are you working on next?

Selena: I write weird, historical feminist short stories, many of which were most recently collected in my book, “Calls for Submission,” available from Pelekinesis. I can’t say the stories in there feature mechanical animals, but there are several with steampunk automata of varying types and designs.

Jason: Currently I’m working on an urban fantasy novel set in the ’90s punk scene as well as a memoir about being a science-fiction-obsessed kid in the ’80s. I also have a book out right now called “Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded,” which traces the influence of science fiction on the music of the ’70s.

Buy “Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech” at BookBar.
Excerpt from “Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech.”


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