2020 Snapshot: DK Mok

DK Mok is a fantasy and science fiction author whose novels include Squid’s Grief, Hunt for Valamon, and The Other Tree. DK has been shortlisted for six Aurealis Awards, three Ditmars and two Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Awards. DK grew up in libraries, immersed in lost cities and fantastic worlds populated by quirky bandits and giant squid. DK lives in Sydney, Australia, and her favourite fossil deposit is the Burgess Shale. Connect on Twitter @dk_mok or find out more at dkmok.com.

  1. Tell us about your recent publications/projects?

My big writing projects have been on the backburner in recent years due to the general business of life, but I always have ideas bubbling away in the background. Since the last Snapshot in 2016, I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in some very cool anthologies. Many of my recent stories have leaned towards the growing genre of solarpunk, exploring issues of sustainability, biodiversity, and climate innovation.

In the past year, I spent a heart-wrenching summer watching helplessly as friends fled their bushfire ravaged neighbourhoods. My own home was flooded in the torrential storms that followed. Still reeling, we staggered into a global pandemic that epidemiologists and ecologists had been warning us about for decades. These increasingly frequent, increasingly intense events brought into sharp relief what kind of a world we might be leaving our kids.

These words of advice from author John Connolly have always resonated with me: write the story that’s calling to you the loudest. And so, here are the stories that have been calling to me.

‘The Wandering Library’ was my first foray into solarpunk, and it’s dedicated to awesome librarians everywhere. This story was published in Ecopunk!, an anthology edited by Liz Grzyb from Ticonderoga Publications, and Cat Sparks, an Australian editor and author whose work includes the acclaimed climate fiction novel Lotus Blue. ‘The Wandering Library’ is set in a future of risen seas and fractured communications, where humans have adapted to a world powered by sun, sea, wind and ingenuity. Travelling librarian Lani Bashir runs a much needed mobile book service, trekking from sprawling red deserts to cities reclaimed by the sea. Accompanied by her faithful alpacamel, Lani brings tales of adventure and wonder to the children of these isolated communities.

I consider librarians, especially teacher librarians, to be among the unsung heroes of our society. Often underpaid and underappreciated, they cultivate our imagination, curiosity, and empathy, often providing resources to those who have the least. They encourage us to explore the vast spectrum of human knowledge and experiences so that we might learn new skills, find comfort, and acquire wisdom. ‘The Wandering Library’ was inspired by heroic, real-life, travelling librarians and their brave reindeer, elephants, and biblioburros. You can find out more about them in Improbable Libraries by Alex Johnson.

I continued my solarpunk journey with ‘The Spider and the Stars’, published in Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers from World Weaver Press, edited by Sarena Ulibarri. This story arose from my fascination with biomimetics – a field of study in which solutions to complex human problems are drawn from structures and designs found in nature. Studying the antimicrobial properties of cicada wings, the passive temperature regulation of termite mounds, or the nimble navigation of dragonflies. This story is also about the importance of the natural world, and the smallest of its creatures, in our ambitions to travel beyond this pale blue dot. But at its heart, it’s a tale of a girl and her stargazing spider. ‘The Spider and the Stars’ has since been translated into Italian for a solarpunk anthology from Future Fiction, edited by Francesco Verso.

I returned to science fiction with my short story ‘Junkyard Kraken’. When I heard that Twelfth Planet Press would be publishing an anthology titled Mother of Invention, edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts, and themed around AI and women scientists, I knew I wanted to be a part of this. Those who follow my work will know that I love a good robot story, almost as much as I love stories about women scientists having fantastic adventures, so this was an irresistible project. The result was ‘Junkyard Kraken,’ a story about a stubborn roboticist, her robot dryad friend, and the mechanical kraken they dream of creating.

I delved back into classic fantasy with my story ‘The Moon Collector’, published in Under the Full Moon’s Light from Owl Hollow Press, edited by Emma Nelson and Hannah Smith. I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts about geological time and the mass extinction we’re currently living through – and not just living through, but fuelling. I found it confronting to realise that most of the animals I’d loved as a child would almost certainly be gone within my lifetime – elephants, penguins, whales, numbats. Heck, numbats. So, I took those threads of guilt and loss and spun them into a bittersweet coming-of-age fable about an outcast warrior who ventures beyond the stars, to the realm of the forgotten gods, to retrieve her world’s stolen moon.

In a similar vein, but back in the solarpunk genre, I wrote my upcoming short story, ‘The Birdsong Fossil’. This is a story I’ve waited over a decade to write. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of de-extinction technology since my university days, when one of my biology lecturers discussed the possibility of bringing back the species that we’d lost. It seemed a far-fetched, but thrilling, possibility. At the time, I probably had rather fanciful dreams of seeing marsupial megafauna, toddler-sized parrots, and Demon Ducks of Doom storming – or waddling aggressively – across the landscape.

More realistically, many researchers actually hoped to restore species that humans had wiped out fairly recently. Species like the gastric-brooding frog, whose unique ability to incubate its young in its stomach could have led to new treatments for gastric disorders in humans – illnesses for which we currently have no cure. For which we may never have a cure, without this vanished frog.

However, years later, I attended a talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where the panellists discussed the practicality – the ethics – of bringing back species that no longer had a natural habitat, no longer had a community, no longer had a functioning ecosystem in which to thrive. Whose place in the world had been swallowed up by humanity’s ever-growing appetites. They spoke also about the loss of animal ethnology – animal culture – that could not be restored by any amount of DNA wizardry. The regional dialects of whalesong, the arduous migration of elephants, the stories passed on from one magpie generation to the next. An ember formed in my mind, and over the years, that ember became ‘The Birdsong Fossil’.

I’m excited to have this story coming out in Multispecies Cities, an anthology from World Weaver Press, due to be published in either late 2020 or early 2021.

Aside from my short stories, I’ve also been working on some non-writing related creative projects. They’re still in their very early stages, but it’s a wonderful new journey to be on.

  1. What has been the best publishing experience of your career so far?

I don’t think I can single out a particular publishing experience because they’ve each had very different qualities. I really enjoyed self-publishing my cyberpunk novel, Squid’s Grief, because of the level of involvement and creative control I had over every aspect of the process, from writing and editing, to cover design and internal layout, to platforms and promotions. However, I can say that one of the best things about every publishing experience I’ve had is the sense of community that emerges from it. Editors, fellow writers, readers, reviewers, kindred spirits who are passionate about the same ideas or stories that you are. Connections are what turn a word into a story, and an individual into a community.

  1. Which recent Australian/NZ work would you recommend to international fans interested in expanding their Antipodean spec fic knowledge? 

I’m aeons behind on my to-read list, but I like to think that this just means I have hoards of excellent books to look forward to.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina. This is a powerful and profoundly moving story about a girl and her dad, the haunting mystery that entangles them, a journey through grief, and what lies beyond. Deeply poignant, it weaves together moments of warmth and tenderness with heartbreaking suffering and survival. It vividly evokes Australia’s complex landscape – physical, social, and spiritual. Kudos to Australian actor/writer Miranda Tapsell, who does a brilliant job as the audiobook narrator. On a tangent, those wanting to learn more about Tapsell’s own experiences as a Larrakia Tiwi woman can check out her memoir, Top End Girl, which came out earlier this year.

I still adore Shaun Tan and eagerly await everything he creates. I’m currently reading Tales from the Inner City, a gorgeously illustrated collection of stories contemplating humanity’s complex, often exploitative, relationship with the natural world. These stories are poetic and quietly fantastical; the illustrations are captivating and richly immersive. Every time I place down this book, I feel as though I’m surfacing from a strange and soulful dream that lingers long into my waking hours.

Another of Tan’s recent works, Cicada, is a picture book that somehow manages to be intensely adorable and yet, at times, unexpectedly bleak. Sparse and understated, it delivers a valuable message about underappreciation and the importance of knowing your own value.

I also just finished reading Tintinnabula, a picture book written by award-winning author Margo Lanagan and illustrated by award-winning artist Rovina Cai. Dedicated to war children, this lyrical story is a thoughtful allegory about the journey to inner peace and resilience.

It’s not technically spec fic, but I’m going to sneak in The Flying Optometrist, a sweet picture book illustrated by Karen Erasmus and written by one of Australia’s spec fic luminaries, Joanne Anderton. It gets bonus points from me for highlighting the importance of eye-health services in regional Australia. But if you’re looking for spec fic, check out Anderton’s extensive catalogue of short stories.

Just a few of the books that are still on my to-read list include Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Incursion by Mitchell Hogan, Icefall by Stephanie Gunn, the Titan’s Forest series by Thoraiya Dyer, and Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy, which includes a stellar line-up of novellas by Joanne Anderton, Stephanie Gunn, Juliet Marillier, Angela Rega, Cat Sparks, Lucy Sussex and Susan Wardle.

It’s been a hell of a year, and I look forward to seeing what art and stories emerge from these challenging times, and what lessons we take with us into the days to come.

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