Interview: Chris Lawson on “Canterbury Hollow”
- Tell us a bit about the story.
“Canterbury Hollow” gestated for years. I was finally prompted to write it when Gordon van Gelder asked me to contribute a story for the Welcome to the Greenhouse anthology. I was halfway through writing a different story altogether that was causing me no end of frustration, so I ditched it and turned to this story instead. It’s about climate change, right? Gordon liked the story but felt it wasn’t right for the anthology, bought it for F&SF instead, and helped me hammer the abandoned story into shape for the anthology. The life lesson for writers is this: don’t fulfil your brief, miss your deadlines, and you’ll get two sales instead of one. (Coming soon: my self-help guide Success: The Unprofessional Way!)
- What is the genesis of the story – its inspiration, or what prompted you to write it?
The spark of the story came from Proximity Zero by Terry Kepner, recommended on Winchell Chung’s fantastic 3D Starmaps website (http://www.projectrho.com/starmap.html). Kepner’s book is a catalogue of near-Earth stars for role-players who want to design realistic space adventures set in our local universe, but it’s an excellent reference for writers too.
Gamma Leporis is a triple-star system containing one star similar to our sun. Apparently Gamma Leporis has been described as having different colours by different historical observers. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that the observers were not consistent due to the limitations of early telescopes, but it got me thinking of the possibility that the historical reports are accurate and that Gamma Leporis suffers from some kind of instability that we lack the capacity to observe today. From there I wondered what would happen to a society living on a planet that was colonised when the sun was thought to be stable, only to find themselves trapped in a deteriorating environment and with a population far too large to move off-world (to understand how difficult it is to transport large numbers of people across interstellar space, imagine trying to move the entire population of Eurasia to Antarctica using bark canoes…now multiply that difficulty by a billion).
- Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges or difficulties?
Oh yes indeed, lots and lots of problems. From a technical perspective, interstellar travel is so prohibitively difficult that any story about humans on distant worlds is as fantastical as wizards battling dragons, no matter how rigorously the science is applied. Plenty of writers have come up with clever ways around this, but the only semi-plausible explanations involve non- or quasi-human entities like Sean Williams’s engrams or Greg Egan’s computational personalities, or extremely slow journeys lasting tens of thousands of years with concomitant changes in human evolution, as in Gregory Benford’s Galactic Centre novels. But I wanted to write about humans as we are, so I had to pretend the problem didn’t exist. My only defence for this appalling lapse is that almost everyone else does it too. Even Hal Clement and Robert Forward.
The biggest difficulty with the narrative was trying to hit the emotional notes without becoming operatic. Given the nature of the story — two young lovers who know they are about to die try to find fulfilling ends to their lives — I turned it into a mystery of sorts as each tries to find out about the other and why they made the choices that brought them together. Hopefully readers will feel that I succeeded. Either that, or they enjoy opera.
- Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal?
Although I have little in common with the characters in the story, I think the central problem they face is common to everyone. We would all like to have lived a meaningful life, but meaning is a nebulous thing we create ourselves rather than a fundamental property of the universe.
- What kind of research did you have to do for this story?
I do far too much research for my own good. Apart from the astronomy, I read up on particle physics, mining technology, genetics, the sport of rock climbing, historical population collapses, disaster management, and various other subjects. The vast majority of that material never ended up in the story, thank goodness.
- Did you write “Canterbury Hollow” with a specific theme in mind? If so, please elaborate.
Some readers might pick up on the references to Camus, including some rather blatant nods to The Stranger. My working title was “Benign Indifference.” Like Camus, I am fascinated by the human need to find meaning in everything. We are so desperate for meaning that we can find it anywhere, even in tea leaves and entrails and random number generators. Our desperation is so acute that many of us will happily hand over the job of defining our life’s meaning to other people, some of whom are horrifically unsuited to the task. (Jim Jones, anyone?)
- What are you working on now?
I just finished a story for a friend, Russell Farr, who has put together an anthology of Australian vampire stories called Dead Red Heart. Mine is about a non-supernatural vampire detective hunting Aztec traditionalists through the streets of Perth — a nicely insane premise. I am working on about a dozen projects in various states of completion, including a series of stories in the same setting as “Canterbury Hollow” — not the same world, that is, but in the same human diaspora. At my current work rate, they should be finished before the heat death of the universe.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
A big thank you to F&SF. It’s a privilege to have a story offered up to your readers.
* “Canterbury Hollow” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of F&SF.
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