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We Love It When Presidents Enjoy Science Fiction

In November, WIRED published a special issue guest-edited by President Obama. The magazine’s features editor Maria Streshinsky says that working with the president was an exciting opportunity for everyone at WIRED, especially editor in chief Scott Dadich.

“He could really recognize a lot of the language that the president would use as far as what the future could hold, and that it’s well within our grasp to have an optimistic future,” Streshinsky says in Episode 236 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Those are the ideas that the president was very interested in, and that just sit squarely in what Scott believes and what WIRED tries to focus on.”

WIRED associate editor Jason Kehe, a big science fiction fan, was particularly excited to learn more about the president’s taste in science fiction. Obama is a longtime Star Trek fan, and the issue features a list of his favorite science fiction movies and TV shows.

“It’s so funny to me that his favorite movie of the year was The Martian,” Kehe says. “He said that multiple times. That was the main takeaway from several meetings, that Obama freaking loves The Martian.”

It says a lot about the growing respectability of science fiction that a sitting president would proudly trumpet his love of the genre. WIRED recently decided to celebrate that cultural shift by publishing the magazine’s first science fiction issue. The stories were contributed by authors such as N.K. Jemisin, James S. A. Corey, and Charles Yu, and deal with subjects such as clones, space explorers, and mind-reading machines.

“We wanted these stories to be just a notch into the future,” Kehe says. “To take something familiar to our world and our readers and spin it forward just a bit, and imagine a scenario where various communities are dealing with a tech innovation that would fundamentally change their lives.”

Many stories in the issue are dystopian, which Streshinsky attributes partly to the recent election, when many Americans seemed to lose faith in the sort of forward-thinking optimism embodied by President Obama. She thinks that science fiction, with its ability to challenge and inspire, is more important now than ever.

“I felt really happy that we had this on hand to give to our readers,” she says. “It felt right, in a very tough news year—no matter what side of the fence you stand on.”

Listen to our complete interview with Maria Streshinsky and Jason Kehe in Episode 236 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Jason Kehe on “The L7 Gene” by Jeanne Thornton:

“I edited that and was a really big champion for that piece. The premise alone I think was enough to sell it, at least to me. Essentially the main character, Sam, arrives home for Thanksgiving. She’s trans, and she realizes that her mother has cloned her, but removed the gene in the clone that makes you trans. So she now has a brother who’s teenage—and she I suppose is in her twenties—and just how do you deal with the fact that mom has cloned you but made you the version of yourself that you don’t feel that you are? So Jeanne’s premise was so smart, and the story proceeds from there.”

David Barr Kirtley on Etgar Keret:

“He wrote this story, and printed it out, and he’s like, ‘I think this is pretty good. I want to show this story to somebody. But who’s around at 6 am that I can show my story to?’ So he called up his brother, and his brother says, ‘Well, I’m about to take my dog out for a walk, so come over and I’ll read the story while I walk my dog.’ And Etgar’s like, ‘All right.’ So he goes over and gives the story to his brother, and they go and walk the dog. And his brother read the story, and he says, ‘Could you print out another copy of this?’ And Etgar’s really happy, he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course I could.’ And the brother says, ‘Great,’ and he uses the story to pick up the dog poop. And that’s how he got started as a writer.”

Maria Streshinsky on “First” by John Rogers:

“So [WIRED deputy editor] Adam Rogers, years ago, when his son was about five, he told his son that we had left the Curiosity rover behind on Mars. … And his son was so upset, because he was just at that age where he could understand enough, but not understand that that didn’t mean we’d left a human being behind. It just hit him at a moment where it tugged at his heart somehow, and his son was just distraught. So Adam took to Twitter and asked people, with a distraught son, what do I do? What do I tell him? And Adam has a lot of writer friends and fiction writer friends, and John Rogers just said, ‘Wait, hang on a second. I’ll get back to you.’ And within—I don’t know how much time, but it really wasn’t that much time—he wrote him this piece.”

Jason Kehe on self-publishing:

“There was this Tumblr called ‘Kindle Cover Disasters‘ from a couple of years ago, where the Tumblr was just these covers that people probably designed on Microsoft Paint or Photoshop or something—really atrocious covers but kind of amazing at the same time—for their self-published genre fiction. And it was sort of poking fun at these writers, but I thought maybe we should dignify this. Let’s not just make fun of these books, let’s read the books that Kindle Cover Disasters is spotlighting. So I started reading some of these completely self-published stories, and tried to review them in a way that wasn’t exactly making fun of self-published writers but sort of celebrating the art form, which is very much an art form. So I had a series for a little while, but it was not sustainable, because I couldn’t read one of these stories every month. It’s not great for the health.”

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