Adam Soto is the web editor of American Short Fiction. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a former Michener-Copernicus Foundation Fellow. He lives with his wife in Austin, TX, where he is a teacher and a musician. His debut novel, This Weightless World, was published by Astra House in November 2021. Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep, his collection of ghost stories, is forthcoming fall 2022.
Abbigail Rosewood: I just finished your book yesterday. It’s one of the most beautiful endings I’ve encountered in a while. It’s a bit of a twist, or at least a surprise⎯masterfully crafted in that sense.
Adam Soto: Thank you, and I’m so happy that the ending caught you by surprise. The book has a lot to do with predictive modeling, as you know, in the algorithmic, AI sense—I’m glad the book itself didn’t fall into a model.
AR: But that wasn’t the only thing I responded to⎯I was overwhelmed by the clarity that I love Earth, our planet, this “pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan said, and also by the regret of our planet’s inevitable demise. You’ve written much of the narrative in a philosophically, sociologically, politically conscious style that requires intellectual engagement from the reader, and yet the ending feels like a deluge of emotions. Was it your intention to keep readers holding their breath? The narrative is extremely tightly wound: without giving too much away, did you always have this ending in mind?
AS: The ending was such a release to write. A way of letting go and also holding everything close. I suppose all endings have to serve these dual functions, in a way. I wrote the book, chronologically, three times, each time with different characters and different plot lines. Each time, I always knew the ending was going to be a departure. In an earlier version, an artist couple are seen etching human history into the wall of a canyon. So, this kind of ending was always inevitable. I’m trying not to give too much away too, but the ending is a gathering place for all the information in the novel, the point at which those characters present in the final scene must analyze and interpret that data, and they do so emotionally, even if a lot of what they’ve been left with is pretty intellectualized or political or philosophical. In many ways, the book’s main characters—Sevi, Eason, and Ramona—aren’t engaging with the world on an emotional level. Their ideas about the world and its woes are based in emotion, but they’re trying to come off as highly rational beings when love, empathy, compassion, and connection are the human race’s most valuable tools. After so much grandstanding and political discourse—a lot of which is informed by competing ideas the characters are reading on the internet—to emotionally process all of this is a tall order. The world and its interests and concerns change so quickly—this is a part of the reason why I set the book in 2012, the recent past, but a time that already feels so quaint and detached from the world we live in today; though 2012 had many problems of its own, many of which have only grown bigger as we near 2022. Making those interests and concerns still matter in the end, to allow these characters to feel seen and heard, was a big goal for the ending. To do that, I had to engage their lives emotionally.
AR: This Weightless World wrestles with many modern dilemmas, one of them being information, which in wealthy countries, is synonymous with the Internet. One character gave it a chilling description:
The internet is not a classroom, it’s not a teacher, it’s not even a book….It’s where all ideas go. And now, it’s where our ideas come from…Also, unless you’re studying to be a history PhD, and you have the research expertise to separate fact from fabrication, working with an enormous set of data that includes every perspective, including defunct perspectives, or dangerously misleading perspectives, isn’t functional⎯it’s downright detrimental.
You are tapping into an anxiety that our ancestors never had to deal with⎯excess of information at our fingertips. With more knowledge comes more responsibility⎯an existential issue that all the characters in the book confront at one point or another. The novel asks very difficult questions: how can we be a good citizen? Is it even possible? As I read, I felt (along with Sevi, one of the major protagonists) a sense of futility and sadness. I wonder how we can treat humanity and the planet righteously without throwing our whole selves into it, devoting our whole life like the character Samson has done.
AS: The weightlessness in the title signifies something different for each of the characters. For Eason, it’s the weightlessness of Bach’s Cello Suites, the cruising of the bow across his cello strings; for Sevi, it’s the untethering from life’s responsibilities; for He Zhen it’s the weightlessness of deep space; and for Ramona, it’s the perceived weightlessness of AI, the ease with which we will navigate the world when we have a proper compass to guide us. But, as Italo Calvino suggests about Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it’s actually the weight that matters. Weight-sharing is the only way to carry all of this. With that in mind, one also has to be suspicious of the kinds of things one is expected to carry: How much more weight could we handle if we weren’t burdened by a capitalist, scarcity-driven mindset? Sure, that’s a little reductive, and fashionable, but it is this hugely heavy foundation that we’ve been hauling around for a while now.
What of life’s story is worth carrying into the future? Obviously, these are more questions, and not answers. Also, they’re still pretty philosophical, when the characters in the book (and readers) are looking for something to do. Weightlessness, in the book, also alludes to empty rhetoric, a label all of the characters love throwing on each other’s statements and purposes. It’s also a mode many of them slip into from time to time. I like your language: throwing our whole selves into it. The image it conjures, for me, is so physical, this act of physical self-sacrifice. Clearly, that’s the way Samson sees it; clearly, this is the way Samson makes Sevi see it too. Obviously, this isn’t functional. This is something I’m fascinated by: in Judaism, the highest commandment is Tzedakah, or charity—though that translation is an incomplete approximation. It’s the highest commandment because it’s done with your whole being—kosher is conducted with your mouth, learning Torah with your mind—but when you give money or possessions, you are offering a portion of your life’s work, a product derived from your whole self. Those who have no money or possessions to offer can still give generously: we also have our empathy, our attention, our presence to afford each other. At first, one makes these offers compulsively, because it’s law; then one continues to give some part of their whole selves because the act is so satisfying. I think everyone would very much like to experience that satisfaction. I think very few of us would be satisfied turning our bodies and lives over to be destroyed.
AR: I’m intrigued by Samson, because as a character, he makes me wonder if the only way to “save” or to do a good thing is at the expense of a private life, any life at all. At times, he makes me angry: angry at the doom he believes humanity is heading toward, his relentless dissatisfaction, and his savior-instinct, which is another mask for arrogance. Samson is the type to shame anyone and everyone for not doing enough, so it is not a surprise that he himself feels deeply ashamed. He’s a powerful character because he connotes the twenty-first century⎯a widespread shame and guilt that many people don’t know what to do with, and in many instances, Samson is right⎯perhaps that’s what is so infuriating about him. Is his position too easy to take, that we are all “letting down humankind”? Is it in its own way a cop-out?
AS: I think it is. His motivations, as you highlight, are dubious. So is his hodge-podge ideology—if every American put their lives on the line for the Syrian resistance, the way Samson says they should, by flying out there, this would look a lot like a foreign invasion, which Samson also says he’s adamantly against. He and Tao, one of his revolutionary counterparts, are so sick of people trying to have it both ways—liberation, but within a robust capitalist system; maintaining the sanctity of the environment, but within an extractive consumer economy—except, he wants a lot of things both ways too, which I think is also a part of the twenty-first century condition. I got really into Keats’s concept of negative capability, and Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s appropriation of the term, while writing the book. These characters have a very binary outlook—you’re either a part of the rebellion or you’re a part of the system: the solution or the problem. Everyone, Ramona especially, is uncomfortable with the unknown. Negative capability asks us to embrace the unknown, to break free from the rebellion-institution dichotomy, where rebellion itself is its own institution—according to Roberto Mangabeira Unger. Samson is ashamed of himself for not perfectly reflecting the values of revolution; Sevi is paralyzed by having to choose between a status quo that does not serve him (and implicates him in its wrongdoings) and a form of rebellion that erodes his entire concept of self; Ramona is trying to revolutionize the status quo with instruments that are only really native to the status quo (money-fueled technology that helps us make more informed choices but does not expand our options). It’s the irreconcilable double-consciousness of modern Liberalism—a consciously awakened state of abundant empathy predicated on historical values ironically but inexorably tied to the material, social, and spiritual exploitation of those for whom liberation is furthest away and whose “sacrifice” is deemed necessary by baked-in notions of supremacy and scarcity. Eason and He Zhen, on the other hand, have been thrown into life’s greatest uncertainties and are trying to direct their own course. The trajectory of the future is going to go unchallenged if we don’t investigate the foundations of our ideas and expectations—an operation, I think, technology could actually be useful for, and an inquiry more and more people are making. It’s unfair to say that people aren’t doing enough, but it’s also foolish to say that we’ve become who we need to be. The world needs visionaries, the world needs a concept of utopia, but it has to also accept the unknown—without using “unknowability” as an excuse for inaction.
AR: Guilt might be a helpful motivator for change, but shame has never worked for anyone. That brings me to Omni, the planet that made contact with Earth. For a while, Omni embodies hope:
Many felt life now possessed the necessary added meaning to be worth living…Republicans visited Democrats on hemp farms in Hawaii and Democrats visited Republicans on beef ranches in Texas to discuss ecological protections…In light of all this, promises were being made…revise capitalism to pull millions out of poverty, all in preparation for the Omnians’ eventual arrival.
Woaaaa! I thought that was such a cool, utopian vision for how we might react to alien contact. Of course, you did not stay there, as hope has the tendency to sour given enough time. Do you have any personal beliefs about aliens? Do you welcome alien contact? Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, thinks “reaching out to aliens is a terrible idea.” He has spoken extensively on the consequences of contact. What do you think of such concerns?
AS: I buy into the inevitability of aliens and AI the same way the book does, which is to say, “Sure, aliens exist, general AI will eventually exist, but if we think either are going to be altruistic, interventional institutions that somehow solve all of our problems or bring us to the next level of social evolution, well…” These powerful external forces, like gods, are useful insomuch as they help us understand ourselves and our relationships to each other, projects of understanding that we’ve been at work at since we showed up on this planet. I’m kind of indifferent towards alien contact. I suppose I’m pretty optimistic in comparison to Kaku (and, certainly, ignorant!), but the circumstances for life on Earth, our living planet, are so incontrovertibly specific, and their intellectual expressions so nuanced, I’m just not sure the word “contact” is even appropriate for the kinds of encounters that may actually await us. Life is rare—maybe not so rare that we are the only living planet in the cosmos—but rare enough that to reach its abundance here on Earth, one would suspect that our presence must be predicated on myriad novel (mostly failed) permutations elsewhere. To follow this same logic, our biochemical “twins” are certainly out there somewhere, but the likelihood of us finding them (or them, us), our near-identical, over something more varied is even rarer still. Without these foundational similarities, how might we recognize one another? We understand trees because we understand lungs, which we understand because we have lungs, because at one point we were just kind of a lung. This isn’t anything new—Stanisław Lem investigated it best. We say stuff like, “Math is not circumstantial,” or at least that math accounts for all circumstances, but certainly there are circumstances for math. Yes, on a long enough timeline, all of the math-bearing planets form a federation and solve each other’s math problems to bring peace and harmony to the universe, but the possibility of finding somebody basically just like us isn’t really what interests me.
AR: In many ways, making contact with aliens seems as inevitable as Herodotus, an invented artificial intelligence in your novel that could have saved humanity, but using such a function would interfere with free will. Ah! What brilliant and heart-breaking questions you have posed here. Ramona is my favorite character in the book because she’s brilliant, and in many ways cares more about humanity than the protestors do, and her biggest flaw, perhaps also humanity’s biggest flaw, is her lack of humility, her ego. Like Samson, like many guilt-ridden citizens, she is also trying to help in the way she knows how. If we can’t do what we know how to do, then what can we really do?
AS: I’m glad you bring up ego, and this concept of humanity’s collective ego, this anthropocentric worldview. Egos would not be these things to admonish—nor something so frail we’d secretly do anything to maintain them, most often privately—if they were more entwined with others and other things. Any concept of self that does not include this entanglement, this oneness, is shallow. No matter how ambitious a person or a project is, shallowness begets shallowness, and this is the real flaw of Ramona’s artificial intelligence design, an AI that is going to figure out what’s best for humankind by, basically, solving human nature. Ramona only knows how to be secretive, isolated, and removed; therefore, Herodotus, her AI, is secretive, isolated, and removed. Ramona’s knowledge of how to be in the world is connected to her self-knowledge—her quest for self-knowledge is wrapped up in her AI too; she tells Sevi that Herodotus exists to show us our “blind spots.” What Ramona fails to see in herself is the presence of others. Nina Lutz, a computer scientist/designer, said, “A lot of computer scientists want computers to think like people. I want to use computers to make you think about other people.” I’m optimistic enough to think Lutz’s vision is inevitable: the AI is going to teach us that others matter. The question is whether or not we will be enlightened enough to care. Because, right now, it sometimes feels like the goal is to get people to think like computers: Don’t care more, care smarter. Hence, weightlessness.
AR: What I love about This Weightless World is how uncompromisingly complex all the characters are. I feel for them all because I believe they are all essentially good, and yet deeply flawed. The one with the least amount of faults or the most innocence is Eason, an aspiring cellist student. His story line is more straightforward and conventional craft-wise compared to the others. It is also more consciously emotional. What was your process of writing and thinking about this character? What do you hope for his story to accomplish in this labyrinth of tech, politics, conspiracy theory, police brutality, etc? By the end, I felt as though I could hear the music from his cello.
AS: Eason deals the most directly with the unknown, even more so than He Zhen, who has an ironic sense of humor and oft-fatalistic outlook. Eason, with his supportive father, musical talents, and dependable moral compass, comes face to face with death and destruction in a way that no other character does, largely due to circumstances that are entirely arbitrary in the grand scheme of the universe, i.e., race and socioeconomic status—though, of course, institutional racism is anything but arbitrary on Earth, in the US, in Chicago, where Eason lives. The emotional enormity of his adolescent life is a labyrinth in itself, though, one that is still buried in the immediacy of youth. Articulating that experience, I counted on a more conventional narrative style, a more feasible dramatic irony than, say, narratives on the future of tech or the environment, because everyone but Eason knows that he is both a product of and bigger than his circumstances. Some might see the inclusion of Eason’s storyline as a form of ironic juxtaposition, a way of ridiculing the outsized value we place on speculative narratives like the future of tech or the existence of aliens or armchair revolutionary politics while stories like Eason’s go ignored. Some may see Eason as a symbol for what is good and pure in this world. Others may speculate that the book is a proper data set. As a human being reaching young adulthood, Eason is trying to comprehend the meaning of his decisions and abilities; he has faith in agency and autonomy, where the other characters are too jaded to exercise that same faith in themselves.
AR: I think you’ve achieved something rare with This Weightless World. It’s a layered book that gives us a lot to think about. Would it be too diminutive or essentialist to also think about the novel as a protest? Or perhaps a symphony? An imagined eulogy for our planet if things don’t change?
AS: I think these are three rather appropriate ways of thinking about this book. The novel isn’t exactly shapely, and it hints at something much larger than what’s already present, which isn’t slight, so, I think a number of subtitles—a protest, a symphony, a eulogy—can come to mind and offer the book some helpful direction. We’re already in mourning. As is often the case, our mourning has already given way to protest. I think we’re already familiar with the symphony commemorating this mournful protest.