Some Thoughts with ... Ada Hoffman

25 Jan 2023

The Author/s

Ada Hoffman

Ada Hoffman

Ada Hoffmann is the author of the space opera novel THE OUTSIDE, as well as dozens of speculative short stories and poems. They are an autistic self-advocate, an adjunct professor of computer science, a former semi-professional soprano, tabletop gaming enthusiast, and LARPer. They live in eastern Ontario.

The Interview

Welcome to a post on my favourite section of the web. Today we are interviewing Ada Hoffman, author of The Outside trilogy, whose last book The Infinite has been recently published.

Let's dive in!

1.- When did you start writing?
I've been writing little stories ever since I was five and discovered the word processor at school. But I started writing for publication in 2008, when I was midway through my undergraduate degree in computer science. I remember being on summer vacation with my family and taking a hard look at some things I'd written or myself, just for fun - and thinking, "I need to keep doing this as ambitiously as I can. It is not optional. It is how I'll survive."

2.- With The Outside trilogy finished, which book would you say was the most difficult to write and why?
I think that probably book two, The Fallen, was the hardest. It's a truism in publishing that second books are hard. I had a plan, but it was the first time I'd ever written a book to a contract. A lot of time had passed since I had written The Outside, and a lot of things in my life and in my brain were radically different. It took a lot of adjustments before I got back into the series' groove.

3.- The Outside trilogy features an autistic main character. How would you describe the process of creating Yasira Shien?
Yasira was one of the hardest characters to get right. I started The Outside with a very clear idea of who the main villain characters were, but it was hard to craft a hero who could fit with them. My first try was a guy named Usi Anif who didn't resemble Yasira at all - he was middle-aged and had a polyamorous family with two partners and two adorable daughters that he wanted to get back home to. He was a very sweet person, but he failed miserably at being a protagonist because it was just impossible to motivate him. He really didn't want to do anything except go home.
Yasira was my second attempt. She was younger, hungrier, and had more numerous and immediate reasons to care about the mission she got swept up into. Still, it took a while for her to come together. I resisted making her autistic at first because I worried it would be problematic. A lot of bad things happen to Yasira and she turns out to have a close connection with some big cosmic horrors. Was I going to accidentally imply that autism is linked with horrors beyond human imagining?
But the more of the book I wrote, the more I realized I was writing Yasira in ways that came out of my own experience - especially the way she responds to overwhelming cosmic horror experiences. Deep down, I was secretly writing about autistic overload. And I decided that it doesn't really make sense to do this while denying that the character is autistic. It made more sense to name Yasira's experiences what they were, so that their further implications - like what kind of accommodations she gets at work, and how her culture views neurodiversity - could be more easily explored.
It still felt for a long time that there was something missing from Yasira. Some beta readers loved her, but she felt flat to others in a way that I couldn't figure out how to fix. The eventual solution came from a very insightful beta reader, Noe Bartmess, who said: "Yasira feels flat because she's not just autistic, she's depressed." A flattened affect and sense that there's something missing is a very common symptom of depression! So at that point, I could either remove the depression or flesh it out more, to give more of a sense of what it meant and why it was there. I opted for the latter. This deepened the character a lot and also made her feel even more personal to me than before.

4.- Following the former question, do you think there’s enough representation of this kind of characters in literature? If not, why?
"Enough" is tricky to define. For over a decade I've been writing reviews of books with autistic characters on my Autistic Book Party blog. In the past ten years we've had an explosion, not necessarily of autistic authors - because I think quite a lot of authors were already neurodivergent in some way and just didn't know or didn't want it to be public - but there's been an explosion of new authors who are willing to talk about it, to write these kinds of characters, and to actively market them to neurodivergent readers. There's so much that I now have trouble keeping track of it all.
At the same time, we still see disparities in how these kinds of books are picked up, promoted, and sold. The vast majority of what's on my list of autistic books is self-published or published with a small press, or a midsized independent press if the author is successful and lucky. The number of openly autistic authors I know of who've published adult SFF novels with a Big 5 publisher is a number I can count on one hand, and it's only last year that one of those books (Essa Hansen's "Azura Ghost") finally had an autistic main character.
So, are there a lot of great autistic stories out there being told, right now, this very minute? Absolutely! Are they being given the attention they deserve? No, and that's what we still need to work on.

5.- This trilogy also features AIs ascending to godhood. Nowadays, AIs have become a trending topic. What do you think about AIs and art?
I actually studied AI art in graduate school - although the academic side of this topic is very different from what you see from the large companies and startups that are putting out these products that are trending now.
First of all, I need to emphasize that the AI we have today is not sentient, and is not even close to being sentient, let alone achieving godhood or any other version of the Singularity. There are a lot of basic processes required for sentience that we still don't even know how to begin to model on a computer.
As for art, a lot of my graduate work went into comparing then-current models of AI creativity with what we know about human creativity. There are a lot of things humans do when they're being creative - I'm talking basic things, like being able to identify a goal, plan, consider feedback, and revise their work - that the vast majority of AI art models aren't even interested in trying to do. The conceptual models of creativity that go into these things are either profoundly conceptually impoverished or are based on handwaving: "okay, it's a neural network with a lot of layers, let's plug a bajillion tons of training data into it and hope for the best."
But what we're seeing now, of course, is that AI doesn't have to be sentient in order to be powerful enough to cause problems. And in retrospect I wish I and others had spent less time in our studies talking about these cognitive-science concerns about "real creativity," and more time focusing on the potential social and economic ramifications of having an AI that can create mostly-passable writing and art on demand, as well as the ethics of how we train such AI and on what kind of data.

6.- What part of all the lore you created for The Outside would you say it’s the most interesting for you?
It's hard to choose just one thing, but I'm always fascinated by the Vaurians - a race of genetically engineered post-humans who can shapeshift thanks to nanotechnology in their cells. The Gods made the Vaurians in order to produce angelic secret agents who could blend into any surroundings, but not all Vaurians choose to work for the Gods. One of the major villains in the Outside series is a Vaurian, and I've explored a little about the Vaurian's origins (through the eyes of a decidedly non-villainous Vaurian) in the short story "Minor Heresies." There's probably a lot more to say about who the Vaurians really are, but mostly I just love shapeshifting!

7.- When originally did the idea for this trilogy appear in your head?
Some of the characters actually predate the trilogy. Akavi, Dr. Talirr, and a couple of other side characters were originally from a D&D game. I loved the characters so much that I wanted to keep writing about them, but I didn't want to write a D&D setting with the serial numbers filed off - I wanted to do something really different. So I decided to put them in space. I started sketching out a space opera setting that had enough room for mysticism and religion so that the D&D characters, with some minor alterations, would still make sense. I initially planned to write short stories in that setting before gearing up for a novel, but it turned out that The Outside - a book-length story where Akavi and Dr. Talirr are directly pitted against each other, and havoc ensues - was the story I always most wanted to tell. The initial outline for The Outside, with Usi Anif, was completely different from what ended up being Yasira's version; but once I had an outline for Yasira's version, the other two books followed logically.

8.- How did you find the process of mixing cosmic horror and science-fiction?
I loved it. I grew up on series like Star Wars which mix futuristic technology with magic and mysticism, so I've never believed in a hard distinction between the two genres; I truly don't think that "real" science fiction needs to be purely materialist. A big part of the conflict of the Outside trilogy is about pitting a religion that functions according to predictable, mechanical rules of right and wrong, reward and punishment, against the kind of ecstatic mysticism where it's all wild and unknowable (and may break your mind if you look at it too long). It's fun to follow characters who are accustomed to the former and who abruptly encounter the latter, and who have to decide what they'll do about that.

9.- What can we expect from Ada Hoffmann in the future?
I've got a short story collection, Resurrections, coming out from Apex Books (with an audio version from Recorded Books) in late 2023. You can expect to hear more about that soon. After that, I have some works in progress that I'm excited to share with you when they're ready - but at the moment, I am not at liberty to say. :)