Life in the Liminal Future: An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Life in the Liminal Future: An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia

We spoke with author Silvia Moreno-Garcia about the future of gig work, immigrating to Mars, and the societal implications of near future technology
Annalise Huynh
Policy Analyst + Designer
December 16, 2019
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The world that Silvia Moreno-Garcia depicts in her novella, Prime Meridian, feels like it could be ours, but is marked by slight differences. Amelia lives in Mexico City, not too far from our present day, or in a slightly altered future. Cryptocurrency is commonly used, VR parlours are popular, and she had hoped to find work in biotech as an urban farmer, but caregiving responsibilities at home forced her to drop out of school and short courses in plant-modification are not enough to help her enter her field. Now she works as a Rent-a Friend, an app-based gig job, and sells her blood to elderly billionaires hoping for a youthful infusion. Woven through the daily drudgery of just managing to make a living, there’s Mars, and the space colony that Amelia is determined to make a new life on, if she could only afford it.

Amelia is trapped in an unforgiving city where her opportunities for work and schooling have dwindled. Her success as a Rent-a-Friend depends on her likeability and appeal, although she often feels too bitter to be likeable and too tired to be appealing. She’s half-heartedly holding on to tired school friendships that are her last vestiges of a professional network. The novella carries a striking reminder that now and in the future, whether on Earth or on Mars, people continue to need the things that help us thrive: a sense of identity and place, human connection and social support, and stories that help us build and expand on our personal narratives.

We spoke to Silvia Moreno-Garcia about the influences that built this Mexico City of the slight future, the barriers that Amelia faces to career success and stability and what she needs to overcome them, and how to write (and create) inclusive futures in which everyone can be an active participant.  

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"I'm often interested in looking at the micro experiences of characters rather than the macro. So rather than looking at a big epic quest, I'm more interested in the little people and their personal experiences...."

Annalise: Part of the premise of this interview series is exploring the idea that science fiction has public value as a tool for imagining future scenarios. What do you think the function of science fiction or speculative literature could be in shifting public policy discourse?

Silvia: I don’t write science fiction or fantasy in order to shift public policy—that’s not my goal or my intent. I’m often interested in looking at the micro experiences of characters rather than the macro. So rather than looking at a big epic quest, I’m more interested in the little people and their personal experiences—that’s the case in most of my science fiction. I’m not attracted to big space operas, robots, or the tech itself, but rather how the tech and society integrate and talk to each other. I got a degree in science and technology studies precisely because I am interested in how social sciences and the hard sciences intersect and I work in the Faculty of Science at a university as a communicator, not a scientist. My interests are focused on how these two worlds interface, which seem in theory to be completely separate, but in practice, since the 1800s, science and society have been knitted together and speak to each other.

Annalise: When we first dive into Prime Meridianwe see a lot of imagery from the 60s and the 70s and then in contrast, what we first learn about Amelia is that she has this dream to go to Mars. Could you give a sense of what the setting looks likeis it a slight future? Is it set slightly before our time and then slightly after?

Silvia: There was an old show—I think it was in the 1980s—called Max Headroom, and they used the phrase 15 or 20 minutes in the future. That’s the kind of science fiction that I like to write; something that feels 15 minutes in the future. Not something that is so far away that we’re talking about hundreds and thousands of years, but very near future and very much what people might call mundane science fiction. Something that is not completely out of the balance of the possible but is rather very plausible. This book takes place 15 minutes in the future, probably just a few years down the road or in a slightly altered present, if we want to go there, but it’s not in a far-flung Star Trek or Star Wars kind of scenario.

Annalise: I found when I was reading, this world felt so familiar in many ways, but then you have, for instance, a woman on the bus asking for money, but in the form cryptocurrency and through phone tapping. And of course you have colonies on Mars. Are there key differences that you can point to that that make this world different from ours?

Silvia: The biggest difference is that there is a colony on Mars, but the colony is probably not a super high-tech, Star Trek kind of colony per se. It’s probably a shady place to be living at the point because it’s small settlements. As for other tech on Earth, of course, there are cryptocurrencies being used for daily transactions. At one point Amelia goes to an art exhibit to see a meat artist—somebody that’s shaping artificially-grown meat. There are virtual reality parlours where one of Amelia’s friends is fixing machines. So, there are all of these things that are a little bit ahead of our technology but not so unusual and they’re all grounded in reality. Amelia works as a Rent-a-Friend—which doesn’t sound that crazy when you think about some of the apps that we are selling—and at one point there’s mention of a stalker app that allows you to hire a stalker to stalk somebody. These ideas aren’t out of the realm of the rational and everybody is living in a gig economy with uncertainty. Amelia comes in contact with a bunch of people from the high classes but also from the lower classes. She’s at a party and there are people arguing about synthetic liquors and there’s a guy who’s trying to sell her an owl, an animal trader who’s probably selling illegal animals. All of this kind of stuff is an extrapolation of things that I have seen in Mexico, but it’s not very far flung. If things were slightly different, this could really happen. We could really be hiring ourselves out as friends—look at Airbnb, we’re already hiring out our houses and hiring other services. People use emotional labour where friendships and emotions are now being quantified in a materialistic way. Why couldn’t you sell yourself by the hour as a friend or as an influencer?

"If there are barriers to employment in Canada and in the United States, there are even more barriers to employment in Mexico because hiring practices are different."

Annalise: We see this world through Amelia’s eyes, and she experiences a lot of social stratification. Is this specific to Amelia’s community, within Mexico City, or does it extend to the rest of the world in this alternate timeline? What is making it difficult for Amelia to participate economically in Prime Meridian?

Silvia: Right now, two of every five college or university grads under the age of 30 in Mexico are not employed, or are employed in the gig economy.[1] When I went to Mexico recently, I went to see a friend of mine who is a journalist—we went to journalism school together—and he told me that he hasn’t had a full time job in 10 years. He’s a good, award-winning journalist, and that’s his reality for now. That’s not an uncommon reality. If there are barriers to employment in Canada and in the United States, there are even more barriers to employment in Mexico because hiring practices are different. For example, when you submit your CV, you can be asked about your religion, your marital status, whether or not you have children, and the employer can decide to hire you based on that information. There are job ads which often specify age, such as 30 or younger, and that leaves people out. Universities can be specified. This allows for discrimination against certain universities—specifically, the public universities that are considered to be inferior. The private, more expensive universities are the superior ones and employers prefer to hire people from these places. There’s still a lot of sexism as well, with no recourse. Discrepancies between social classes are a lot more marked, and there’s a lot more poverty, but we also have a lot more riches in certain parts of Mexico City. And that’s the reality of how these two spaces coexist. There’s a tremendous amount of wealth and there’s a tremendous amount of poverty, and a lot of inequality. And nowadays, the middle class that had been growing in Mexico has begun to shrink.

Annalise: Amelia has this journey in which she drops out of school to care for her mother. Is that a reflection of her lack of ability to re-enter the workforce or to re-enter schooling?

Silvia: I think it’s very hard to re-enter the workforce or to re-enter schooling, even in Canada. I have had friends and family who have gone back to school and then can’t get a job. I’m talking about older people, not younger people, but I’m sure the pendulum is going to swing towards young people. It seems easy when people tell you they just started to learn coding, but when you are 40 and going back to school, that is a huge economic commitment. I got a master’s degree because I work for the University of British Columbia as a staff member. So I was able to get a tuition break but I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I was also working at the same time as I was going to school. So when you have somebody that has to dedicate themselves full-time to school, they need to have money for that and it needs to pay off. Sometimes it really doesn’t; there are no guarantees. We talk a lot about schooling and education, and technological forces of the future, STEM, and all of this is focused on young people. While it’s important to properly educate young people who want to go into these fields, we forget about all the older people, or women who had children and stopped working. Reintegration into the workforce is tough for them because there is no easily accessible education or services. And it’s also really very hard to network and get into certain professions. What do you do when you’re a woman my age and you want to go back to work? How do you do afford it? And then how do you get into that field again? So I think Amelia’s case is perhaps an extreme reality relative to what young people face now, because it is easier if you’re in your 20s to re-educate yourself and get back into the workforce. But it is not completely devoid from reality for a lot of people to just give up and dedicate themselves to the gig economy.

Annalise: Expanding on that idea a little bit, you painted a stark picture of the radical gender dynamics in the novella. Specifically, the female characters tend to draw their economic power from men, whether that’s from their husbands, boyfriends, or colleagues. What does that look like for Amelia, and is it likely to change?

Silvia: This book came out a couple of years ago when there had been a lot of big public manifestations of women in Mexico City going out into the streets and talking very loudly about the need for safety, especially against violence. But they have also been talking about other things such as sexism in the workplace, and issues related to Me Too. Seeing hundreds of women going out into the streets and marching together and saying “we’ve had enough” is a recent phenomena. I think young people are more willing to express what they’re thinking and feeling. But it is still a sexist society and that’s not to say that there is no sexism in other societies. Many of the complaints that young women are bringing to the forefront are complaints that you can find in the United States and Canada, but things are just emphasized a little bit more. Some things that are no longer considered okay in the United States and Canada are still acceptable in Mexico and there’s still a huge economic discrepancy between men and women and what they earn. I think there are certainly women who are much more vocal and angry but it’s also such a difficult thing to modify these kinds of structures.

"When your basic needs aren’t met and you don’t have a social net, you’re limited in a lot of ways."

Annalise: I interpreted that Amelia framed Mars as an escape that would allow her to leave all of these different barriers and limiting parts of her life behind. What did you imagine life on Mars would look like for her?

Silvia: Well, I like the idea of stories and media, and how they are very important to people in my stories and seem to guide their life. Here, it’s these old-fashioned science-fiction depictions of outer space. These fantasy visions are really important for us: just having this imaginary space to dream when you don’t have a window, when you don’t have a space to dream. My great grandmother was illiterate, and she was a maid. She loved to tell me stories, but also we would watch movies together. Sometimes she wouldn’t understand the plot of the movies because they were in English and she couldn’t read the subtitles. If you don’t really know what the plot is, you can watch something like Star Wars and it can be anything you like. I think about all the chances that were denied to her or that she didn’t have. She always thought that she had no choice, that she was basically born to be poor, born to be a maid. She thought all that she could ever do with her life was clean to the point where when she was sick, she would cry because she couldn’t clean. You wouldn’t think that somebody would be weeping because they can’t clean a toilet bowl, but that was the only thing she could do in her life, that was the only skill she had, the only thing that gave her value. That was terrible. Here was somebody who had so many great qualities, a great imagination, and so much strength because she lived through a revolution and she had a child out of wedlock, reduced to cleaning toilets.

Annalise: Thinking about these stories and the opportunities people need to thrive, when you imagine Amelia’s new life on Mars, what do you think are the things that she would need to be able to build a satisfying life for herself?

Silvia: She needs a social net, which she doesn’t have right now. A sense of community. There’s a lot of isolation in the book and I think there’s a lot of isolation in real life. I live in a co-op in Vancouver and that’s how I’m able to afford to live there. I often think about the people who don’t have my living situation and how they’re coping. The only reason why I’m able to be a writer is because I have stable housing in a very expensive city. And I’ve also been able to keep a stable job and access healthcare. It’s really terrible when you have people asking if you can buy insulin and put it in your luggage the next time to go to the US so that someone doesn’t die. When your basic needs aren’t met and you don’t have a social net, you’re limited in a lot of ways. So if things work out for Amelia, maybe she gets lucky and she gets to live in a co-op like mine.

"...when you're planning any kind of space, and it's going to be used by a multitude of people, you need to ask: who are these people, what do they need and what do they want?"

Annalise: What are the ways in which we could change the living situation for people like Amelia? What questions do you think policymakers should be asking?

Silvia: I think the question is more, are they even asking questions? I live in Vancouver and, as I say, it’s a very expensive city. What happens every few months is a new development is announced and approved by the City Council and they post the rents of what is affordable according to this new building. They said $4,000 a month for a three-bedroom apartment is considered affordable. I don’t care how they did the math, or how they came up with this, but that is not affordable. It often feels like policymakers and councillors and city planners are not talking to people on the ground, they’re not making an effort to have a discussion with people, and they’re not seeing the reality of how people live. I can’t afford $4,000 a month in rent and I work for a university. I also have a child who’s on the autism spectrum and no one is talking to us and asking about what we need. So I don’t think it’s a specific question, it’s the fact that a lot of times policymakers don’t seem very interested in going and seeing what the reality is for most people out there. We feel disenfranchised, and we feel that nobody is listening, and it’s because nobody is listening. I wish policymakers would get out of their offices and see what’s happening in the world and ask people.

Annalise: And as someone who grew up reading so many Eurocentric and white North American stories, I thought you raised really interesting questions around whose futures we are talking about in science fiction. In this conversation, I started with a lot of questions around how technology makes this future different, and you brought it back to the idea that it is not necessarily about technology, it is about place. So when we’re imagining the future, should we be asking whose future are we building for and what is it that we will need? And what do you see as necessary to build inclusive futures that include perspectives from everyone?

SilviaBeginning by thinking that there are a multitude of perspectives, and we often don’t get all of them or we forget about some of them, because naturally, we’re just thinking about ourselves. For example, for me, I can’t tell you what the future will be like for somebody with physical disability, but it’s probably something that you might want to ask. I’ve seen recent designs of really beautiful libraries that would not work at all for a person with a disability or where the floors were glass, which is great if people are wearing trousers and not skirts or dresses. And so that’s why, when you’re planning any kind of space, and it’s going to be used by a multitude of people, you need to ask: who are these people, what do they need and what do they want? And then come to some kind of agreement on what we’re going  to build together that will fulfill most of our needs. Another kind of weird example is from the World Fantasy Convention. This year it took place in Los Angeles and I remember looking at the list of the guests of honor and everybody was white, and there wasn’t a single Latino included, and this was Los Angeles. On the convention website they list diversity among the reasons why you should come to the city for this convention. And I’m thinking: so they mean the food is good. I wrote to them and asked why there weren’t any people of color or Latino speakers and I mentioned several people that live in the area and who could be brought in. The organizers said they needed to have 20 – 30 years of experience in the field, even though they had a lot of white guests of honour with less experience in previous years. So even if this was true, it’s a bad rule and a bad metric.

This is not unusual for science fiction and fantasy conventions. Right here in Vancouver, we have a highly diverse population, but when I walk into a local convention, none of those people are in here. You gotta ask yourself when you see these weird situations, is there something wrong with what we’re doing? And yet it keeps happening over and over again in different kinds of institutions. So it’s about asking for multiple point of views, but it’s also about analyzing yourself and trying to see how we’re doing. Is there an anomaly here? Is there something going on? And how can it can it be corrected? These are things that nobody really wants to ask because a lot of work is involved.

As an editor, I have increased the diversity of contributors at The Dark, the magazine where I am the co-editor, to 65 or 70 percent people of colour this past year. We grew it up, little by little, but the first thing we had to do was recognize that we had an imbalance and a problem, and that we were not reaching a certain audience of writers that we wanted to reach. So it was a fixable problem, but first we have to look around and acknowledge that something really odd happened demographically with our submissions, and then ask: what are we going to do about it?

"I think that living on the border, being a child on the border, taught me to question borders in a way and it's something that I'm still doing constantly with my work."

AnnaliseThe last question I wanted to ask is, what are what are some of the “what if” questions that you are asking in your work now?

Silvia: I ask a bunch of “what if” questions but one is, what if we just look at people at the micro level rather than at the macro? What if we look at the interactions between science and society beyond just the technology itself? And also, what does it mean in general to be Mexican or to be Latin American and to be part or not part of that cannon? As somebody who emigrated, I’m not the same as somebody who is still living in Mexico or somebody who is a second generation child. These differences are real, and so I am asking questions about what it is to be me and to create books that exist in this kind of liminal space of Latin-American-Mexican while also being Canadian. So those are more personal questions, but sometimes they drift obviously into the writing. Who am I and what place in the world do I occupy? I like liminal spaces; I was born in a border zone, and I have always been interested in things that mix, rather than things that are very clearly divided. I think that living on the border, being a child on the border, taught me to question borders in a way and it’s something that I’m still doing constantly with my work.

This interview has been edited and shortened for publication.

Through the Policymaker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Brookfield Institute’s team interviews leading science fiction authors, both Canadian, and international. Join us as we examine the future of work and the economy, on Earth and in space!


[1] According to the OECD’s 2019 Employment Outlook, the number of young people with and without tertiary education who are under-employed, non-employed, or receiving low pay have increased. Over the past decade, the probability of being out of work for Mexican youth aged 20-30 who have some level of education have increased from 35 percent to 38 percent. Source: https://www.oecd.org/mexico/Employment-Outlook-Mexico-EN.pdf

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.