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Interview: Steven Utley on "The 400-Million-Year Itch"

Steven Utley–author of "The 400-Million-Year Itch," which appears in our April 2008 issue–said in an interview that the story is about the quest for happiness. "But, then, all stories are," Utley said. "Specifically, it’s about a character who finds herself wondering how she has come to be in a particular place, surrounded by other characters who claim to know why they’re there. Doesn’t sound much like science fiction, does it?"

The story is one of Utley’s "Silurian Tales," a series of time travel stories in which scientists explore the Silurian era. "Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals have fascinated me ever since childhood," Utley said. "My early ambition was to grow up to become a paleontologist like Roy Chapman Andrews, whose books All About Dinosaurs and All About Strange Beasts of the Past I loved. Probably I became a science-fictioneer just so I could write about prehistoric animals — it’s easier work than actually digging up their fossils."

Many years ago in Austin, Texas, a plesiosaur skeleton turned up in a creek bed bisecting a neighborhood, and the local paleontologists, including Utley’s friend Sally Shelton, descended on the site. "It was a minor media sensation, and to discourage vandals members of the excavation team camped out with lawn chairs and blankets near the site each night," Utley said. "This was during the dead of winter, so one cold-as-hell evening I took Sally and her companion some brandy and sat and talked with them for a while. And as I left to return home to my nice warm bed and nice warm wife, I thought, So this is paleontology — work like a pit pony all day, freeze under a bridge at night!"

Utley wrote the first — and what he thought at the time would be the only — Silurian tale in the early 1990s. "But, for various reasons, as the decade wore on and the century ran out I found myself writing about the Paleozoic again," Utley said. "Among other products of that effort was an inchoate version of ‘Itch.’ I worried at it for years, intermittently, futilely, before Edith Wharton came to my rescue with the models I had been looking for: dinner-party scenes in The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth."

The last time Utley calculated the number of books and magazine articles he’s consulted for the series, it was over a hundred. "Including the Atlas of the Prehistoric World, Wildlife of Gondwana, John G. Maisey’s Discovering Fossil Fishes, works by David Attenborough, John McPhee, books about plate tectonics and oceanography, back numbers of National Geographic," Utley said. "I got off into astronomy and quantum physics, too. Everything became grist for the mill. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy proved useful in writing some of the stories, so, too, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and throughout you’ll catch me paying homage, consciously or otherwise, to all sorts of authors besides Wharton — Jane Austen, Edmond Hamilton, H. P. Lovecraft, Conrad, Borges, Proust. Zane Grey, of all people: his description of a canyon in Riders of the Purple Sage or Heritage of the Desert somehow informs my sense of a Paleozoic landscape. The whole series pays homage to another model, The Martian Chronicles."

Not that he hasn’t gotten out of the house on occasion. "The episode under the bridge in Austin evidently set me to on the way to writing about scientists doing their work," Utley said. "Years later, when I’d already written a clutch of Silurian tales, I went to D.C. to visit Dr. Shelton, who had by that time moved out from under bridges to the Smithsonian. We drove up to Cornell University, where a colleague of hers at the Paleontological Research Institute let us rummage unsupervised through the collections. We were like kids opening Christmas presents. ‘Ooh, come look at these trilobites!’ ‘Wow, graptolites!’ This, too, is paleontology."

Over on our Forum, Utley reported that a collection–or rather two collections–of Silurian Tales are due to be published at some point in the near-future. "The Silurian Tales (of which approximately three dozen have appeared or are soon to appear in various dead-tree-matter and online venues) will be collected in two volumes, tentatively titled The 400-Million-Year Itch and Invisible Kingdoms, under the imprint of UK-based PS Publishing," he said. "PS, of course, issued my Where or When story collection in late 2006 and will release mine ‘n’ Michael Bishop’s Passing for Human anthology later this year."

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