Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (2 of 4) « Reality SkimmingReality Skimming
Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (2 of 4)

Reality Skimming continues 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

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: In your novel, you introduce the military protagonist in a scene where he demonstrates compassion toward a disadvantaged child, but still incurs hostility from the pacifists raising the orphan. Later, he addresses military graduates on the need to think like their alien enemies. Can you discuss his ethics with respect to warfare?

Cai Rui is an intelligence officer, rather than a common soldier. As such, his job is to provide the high command with the information they need to avoid war…or, failing that, to win a war as quickly and painlessly as possible. Unlike the pacifists who confront him in the chapel, Cai Rui cannot afford to be a moral absolutist. He sees his species encircled by alien superpowers, any one of which is easily capable of wiping out the Human race. Humanity has presently achieved a chilly détente and signed an Armistice with three other major powers; no one is shooting at anyone right now. Ideally Cai Rui would like to keep it that way, but he doesn’t believe that being unable to defend yourself is the best way to avoid conflict. Instead, he chooses to have faith in the empire, and to throw himself into his work. He tells himself that if he can provide his Director with timely and pertinent information, it could save the lives of millions or billions of sentients.

His message to the graduating recruits who will be entering the intelligence service is a simple one: “know thy enemy”. What he’s trying to tell them is that empathy is a necessary job skill. If these men and women do not learn to understand their galactic neighbors, war is inevitable. The Human race has already stumbled headlong into conflict in the recent past, armed with deadly technology and equally deadly ignorance. Cai Rui believes that humankind needs better information.

Q: Tell us how your anthropology background helps in your creative work.

My fascination with all things human is central to my life as a whole, including my writing. 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. I’m interested in that liminal zone between Us and Them, and what happens there: war, Creolization, colonization, “going native”, you name it. My most popular story is probably “Monsoon”, which is set in India. My first published story, “Sisterhood of the Skin”, posits the first contact between humankind and a bizarre alien species. Obviously I’ve continued to work extensively with aliens in the Sword of the Stars series as well. When I create an alien species for the Sword universe, I sort through my knowledge of anthropology and pick ethnographic and historical models to work from.

My love of archaeology also inspires a lot of my fiction. “ICHTHYS”, which I published a few years back in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, emerged from my study of the Roman catacombs and the Primitive Church--subjects which have occupied a good many years of thought and research for me. “Imperial Ghosts” is a science fiction story inspired by the Roman art of portrait sculpture, in particular the portraits of the emperor Tiberius. Humans in the Sword universe occasionally speak Latin as well as English and Chinese, and one of the dominant AI characters in the universe is named Cicero.

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

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