Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (1 of 4)

Reality Skimming is pleased to host Arinn Dembo for the opening salvo of our new feature, "Ethics in SF". Here's the pitch that landed Arinn on this page, included because it is as interesting as her interivew itself, and as an example of how to tell me about why you need to help us in this exploration of Ethics in SF. E-mail pitches to [email protected] to feature in future articles. Ethics matter. SF explores. Be part of the dialogue.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q: Tell us about your work, your writing and what motivates you creatively.

I’ve been a writer all of my life. Words are a comfortable medium for me, and since my early 20’s writing has also been my most marketable job skill. Even at the most conservative estimate, I’ve written millions of words in the past two decades. At the end of the day, it’s fair to say that I wrote most of those words for survival. But no matter how rigid the guidelines have been, I’ve always tried to bring something personal to my writing.

One of my greatest sources of inspiration is a simple question: “What if--?” A lot of my work is speculative. “What if” has been an important question since my early childhood. When I went into anthropology, I was not surprised to find that the ability to ask and answer hypothetical questions is one of the things that distinguishes Human communication from that of other living things. My fascination with all things human is another creative spark. Anthropology is a paradoxical science—it identifies the universal by celebrating millions of unique cases. My immersion in science has made me see that even my very early work was often about culture contact, the primal encounter with the Other.

Q: How do you, personally, decide whether something is right or wrong? How do characters in your fiction decide matters of right and wrong?

My ethical system is pretty simple. There are three parts that come together, and the first is just plain old culture and nurture. My parents and my society taught me values that I will always find it very difficult to set aside. I was brought up to believe that all human beings are equal, and entitled to equal rights both politically and socially. In 41 years I have never had reason to change my mind on that score. Beyond that core training, my personal ethics compel me to look for both the harm in what I do, and the good that is within my power. In some religious faiths they call this quality “mindfulness”, and it’s a fairly common ethical precept even among non-denominational groups which focus on a cause like environmentalism or animal rights. In general I try to keep my eyes open and recognize when I am part of a problem, rather than part of a solution. And when I see a chance to act positively in the world, whether I have to act alone or simply throw my weight behind someone else’s project, I do it.

Mateo Lan'Kona screenshot - Arinn Dembo
Screenshot of character Mateo Lan'Kona by Arinn Dembo

The third component is a healthy smidge of good old fashioned cynicism. There is no one whose viewpoint I am not willing to question seriously, including my own. I use a self-checking mechanism when dealing with issues that I find difficult to sort out, especially if the subject is very emotional. Basically, I take a long hard look at the people who seem to agree with my stance and see if they are the sort of people that I want to be. If I find myself in a crowd of people whose views on other topics are completely indefensible and wrong, it’s a pretty strong hint to me that I am probably not seeing the real implications of my stance on this issue. This technique has helped me fight past my emotional reaction to violent crime and achieve my current position on the death penalty, for example. I realized that the sort of people who supported the death penalty were not the sort of person I wanted to be “hanging around with”, ethically speaking. There had to be something I wasn’t seeing in my pro-death position, and I knew I had to keep looking until I found the error of my thinking. When I’m writing a character who is essentially a good person, I try to apply this same basic structure to that person’s outlook. The fun part is that your characters can come from a completely different context than the author does: different gender, different nationality or ethnicity, even an entirely different species with a whole different set of evolutionary drives underlying their standard upbringing. Being a good alien can pose different challenges than being a good human being.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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