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Interview: Daniel Marcus on “Bright Moment”

- Tell us a bit about the story.
Arun is a scientist working on project to terraform a Jovian moon in a distant solar system.  While on R and R, surfing the moon’s ammonia ocean, he catches a brief glimpse of a large, squid-like life form. After he determines that the ocean-dwellers are sentient, he must choose between continuing the terraforming project, which will wipe them out, or tying to stop it. 
 
- What was the inspiration for “Bright Moment,” or what prompted you to write it?
I had an image of someone surfing kilometer-high waves on the ammonia ocean of a Jovian moon, the giant ringed primary filling half the sky.  That’s all I had — this very striking visual.  So I wrote the scene and started asking questions.  Who is this guy?  What is he doing there?  What happens next? Once I started pulling on the terraforming and first contact threads, the rest of the story pretty much wrote itself.  
 
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Not much.  I validated my recollection that some Jovian moons are believed to have subsurface ammonia oceans; putting them on the surface didn’t seem too much of a stretch.  The terraforming scheme seems viable, requiring only a few centuries of advancement in plasma physics and nanotechnology!
 
- Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal?
I worked for many years as an applied mathematician at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, designing algorithms for very large scale scientific computing applications.  Some of this work was ethically challenging and I have since been very interested in the interplay between the practice of science and the moral compass of its practitioners. How does one reconcile work that is supported and sanctioned at a societal level with one’s own beliefs when these do not align?  I’m not interested in preaching a particular position, but in exploring the spiritual condition of individuals at such crossroads and how they bend under duress.
 
- What are you working on now?
My second novel, a contemporary fantasy called “A Crack in Everything,” was just released and I am working on promotional stuff in support of the launch.  I am nearly finished with a horror-sf mashup called “Eater,” about an entity so old it spans Big Bang iterations stumbling on  Earth and finding it delicious.  It takes place in a small town in Northern California and shamelessly riffs on elements from Finney’s “The Body Snatchers,” King’s “Salem’s Lot,” and a variety of other sources that a lifetime of genre consumption has burned into my DNA.  When “Eater” is finished, I will begin work on a far future space opera that has been accumulating notes and fragments for awhile.  I am also continuing to work on my short fiction. 
 
- Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work.  I hope your readers like “Bright Moment” and I encourage them to check out the other great stories in this issue. 

www.cherrylogroad.com  - Daniel’s blog.

“Bright Moment” appears in the September/October 2011 issue.

Interview: Chris DeVito on “Anise”

Tell us a bit about the story.

If I had to categorize “Anise,” I’d label it “inner-space opera” — the internal blood and thunder of the mind (with some thud and blunder for comic relief). But the story could also, in a certain conceptual sense, be considered a zombie story. Or at another extreme, it’s basically a mainstream story set in the future. From another angle it’s a kind of domestic cyberpunk. Basically, though, it’s primarily about the final dissolution of a marriage.

The story’s history has some intrinsic interest of its own. I wrote “Anise” almost 20 years ago, around 1992. No one would touch it. It got rejected all over the place until Scott Edelman bought it for Science Fiction Age, but then his publisher refused to print it (see Scott’s blog for an account of this at http://www.scottedelman.com/2011/09/16/read-the-story-that-almost-made-me-quit-science-fiction-age/). The manuscript, along with my other unpublished fiction, eventually went into a box for 15 years or so while I moved on to other things. Earlier this year — for reasons I still don’t fully understand — I excavated the story, dusted it off, and sent it to Gordon Van Gelder. To my absolute, disbelieving astonishment, he accepted “Anise” for F&SF. Life is sometimes strange beyond telling.

What was the inspiration for “Anise,” or what prompted you to write it?

To be honest, I don’t remember — it was a long time ago! But I’ll say this, F&SF has some perceptive readers. On the F&SF forum, Miles McNerney recently pointed out that “Anise” is a kind of reworking of Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead,” originally published in F&SF (April 1974). That made me go “Huh — I’d forgotten that!” I went into the basement and dug out the issue — which I had bought, at age 13, back when it was published, and still own after all these years — and reread “Born with the Dead.” McNerney was right; I even took my main character’s name (and the story’s title) from a description of one of the characters in “Born with the Dead.” But I’ll add that there’s also a few notes of Cordwainer Smith in there (as you might guess from the opening quote); and maybe even, I’d like to flatter myself, a smidgen of Roger Zelazny (specifically, “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai”). I don’t mean to drop names in an attempt to puff up my stature — I know that my writing doesn’t approach what those writers have created — but these three writers are among my primary inspirations, and those three stories specifically influenced “Anise.”

In the end, though, I’d like to think that “Anise” is unique and stands on its own.

What kind of research did you do for this story?

None, best as I can recall, which is very unusual for me — I’m a research junky. This is one of the few stories I’ve written without so much as a single trip to the library.

Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was “Anise” personal?

Writing an account of the end of a relationship is too personal on too many levels to know where to begin, especially as a man who struggled to tell the story from the woman’s viewpoint. I do recall that a lot of the details in “Anise” were things that I either observed or were told to me by women I knew.

Over the last two decades, though, “Anise” has become something else, as well, something intensely personal to me; it was, I felt, the best thing I’d ever written, and it was pretty much dismissed as unpublishable. You can imagine how that might weigh on a writer’s mind. I’m grateful that Gordon Van Gelder didn’t agree with that assessment.

I’m still not sure exactly how I got back in the game. After abandoning fiction I spent nearly a decade on an extremely difficult writing project, The John Coltrane Reference, which involved thousands of hours of research. A follow-up book, Coltrane on Coltrane, took another year or so and was published in 2010. After that I sort of felt an itch. I began reading fiction again — I’d read virtually no fiction of any kind for more than a decade — and at some point, for reasons I don’t recall, dug out my old collection of Roger Zelazny books. Around the same time I discovered a comprehensive Zelazny blog (http://where-there-had-been-darkness.blogspot.com/p/joshs-roger-zelazny-commentaries.html) and the beautiful and essential six-volume Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. After a few months of Zelazny immersion I descended into the basement and dug out my old manuscripts. “Anise” was still there, and still, I felt, sufficient.

What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Intense emotion (preferably positive!).

What are you working on now?

A few things that might or might not go anywhere. I’m still working on Metal Machine Music, my attempt at the great American anti-novel — or, as I like to call it, an avant-garde pornographic pulp-gumshoe space-opera/time-travel sf-comedy anti-novel. (I think I’ll be lucky if I only have to wait another 20 years to get that one published.) A slightly less fractured novel called Strategies Against Frank Coffer’s Often Promulgated Wine Coolers & Fish Tins Inc. Plus a variety of shorter pieces, if they come off.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Kate Wilhelm taught me how to write. They say you can’t teach someone how to write, but I know that’s bull because Kate Wilhelm taught me how to write. I went to Clarion a million years ago and mostly it was what you’d expect, except for this one afternoon when Kate Wilhelm took one of my stories — and it was a dreadful story, complete drivel, something she shouldn’t have wasted a second of her life on — she took that pathetic story and went through it line by line, word by word, and showed me every writing sin I’d committed, every wasted word and silly image, all the clunky and meandering and meaningless detours around what I’d wanted to say, every wrong word and cringe-worthy pretension and embarrassing amateurish offense to the language. It was like a vast array of bright lights being switched on in my mind, one after another; it was dazzling. Kate Wilhelm taught me how to write.

 “Anise” appears in the September/October 2011 issue.

Interview: Karl Bunker on “Overtaken”

- Tell us a bit about the story.
A “sleeper ship” carrying a human crew in suspended animation on a centuries-long journey between stars, is overtaken by a much faster and newer ship from Earth. The newer ship’s occupant is a post-human — a non-biological intelligence descended from human beings. The “old school” artificial intelligence that controls the sleeper ship and the post-human intelligence on the newer ship proceed to have a little discussion, with interesting consequences.

 - What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The basic idea for this story came to me years ago, and I don’t remember the circumstances under which that original germ popped into my head. I know I made a note of it in my “ideas notebook” (actually a notepad app on my phone) that read something like “A post-human NAFAL ship overtakes a sleeper ship carrying old-style humans, and communicates with the sleeper ship’s AI. A lot has changed on Earth since the sleeper ship left…” I carried that note around with me for a long time; it was when I had the idea of the old AI telling a story about a heroic act by one of its human crew that the piece finally came together in my mind. But the hook of the story for me was the idea of these two not-quite-human entities discussing the nature of humanity.
Usually I find writing a story a slow and painful process, with me “giving up” on an idea or putting it on a back burner several times over before I finally drag it kicking and screaming out of my printer. This story was remarkably easy; a few days of writing and some minimal revision and it was done.

 -  Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was “Overtaken” personal?
I suppose the question of what it means to be human is a recurring theme with me. Of course, depending on how you use your terms, most serious fiction can be said to be about “what it means to be human.” But SF writers have the good fortune to be able to approach that question from some unique angles. The theme of the singularity — a coming time when advances in technology will give us the option to fundamentally change what human beings are — is one such angle.

 -  What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
It’s not a science-heavy story, so not much research was required for any specifics. More generally, like any SF writer working today, I had to be familiar with current speculations about what sorts of changes the singularity might bring about. The singularity is the ten-ton elephant in the living room of current science fiction. If you’re writing a story that takes place more than a few decades in the future, you have to address the singularity in one way or another; if you don’t, you may as well have your starship captain writing his log entries on a manual typewriter. But at the same time, it’s wickedly difficult to write a post-singularity story; it’s inherent to the definition of the term that the post-singularity world will be different in ways we may not even be able to imagine.

 -  The introduction to “Overtaken” states that this story and “Bodyguard,” also published in F&SF, are written in the literary tradition of the Golden Age of SF.  What is it about that era that inspires you to write in a similar fashion?
Some old science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s were among the first “grown up” reading material I was exposed to as a kid; I pretty much went from Dr. Seuss to Clifford Simak. Ever since then, that sub-genre of SF has resonated with me. I read a lot of contemporary SF and a lot of contemporary non-SF, but when I really want reading to relax with, I still go back to SF of the 50s and 40s. So I suppose it’s inevitable that some of that style would rub off on me.
It’s interesting to note that a couple of years ago a story of mine won the Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Story Contest, “for stories reflecting the spirit, ideas, and philosophies of Robert Heinlein.” So taken with Gordon’s F&SF introduction, there seems to be a consensus that my writing harkens back to that old stuff.

 -  What would you want a reader to take away from this story?
Ideally of course, I’d like readers to come away from the piece with a few questions, rather than a feeling that everything is settled and pat. The Aotea (the old ship) was making a point about human nature with the story it told; exactly what was that point, and how valid is it?  What reaction was the Aotea looking for from the post-human? Was the Aotea correct and justified in the judgment it made or the action it took?

 -  What are you working on now?
More short stories. I haven’t written any novels or even started any, and I’m not sure when or if I will. For the time being at least, my writing mind seems to be fixed on the short story form.

“Overtaken” appears in the September/October 2011 issue.

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