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Interview: Tim Sullivan on “Through Mud One Picks A Way”

Q: Please tell us a bit about “Through Mud One Picks a Way.”

A: It’s the second story set in the same future. The first was “The Nambu Egg,” published in F&SF a couple of issues earlier than “Through Mud One Picks a Way.” In both stories a planet has been found with a breathable nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere and gravity that can be tolerated by humans, but just barely. Only hardy specimens can survive for long on the slightly heavier-than-Earth gravity. A woman returns after sixteen years on the colony world. The means of travel is complex. The body is disassembled, information shot from one world to the other on tachyon jets, and reassembled with slight improvements when it arrives at its destination. Uxanna is back after sixteen years have passed subjectively, but four generations have gone by on Earth. She knows no one, is unfamiliar with the massive changes in the culture and rapid advances in technology, and is forced to do work for a man of questionable character to survive. Cobb, her employer, surprises her one day by revealing three Cetians in a muddy pit in the basement of the ramshackle building that he operates from. Uxanna’s job on Cet Four involved communicating with these creatures, so she gets down in the mud with them and does her best to see what’s on their minds.

Q: What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

A: “The Nambu Egg” was a science fiction mystery, and it involved a mathematical construct posed by the Cetians to provide the solution. I felt that there was a lot more to be worked out in this particular universe, and one way to explicate it was through a character who had lived on both worlds in two different eras. Uxanna is not glamorous. She’s a big, powerful woman (necessary for survival on the colony world) who abandoned her own child and fled our planet. “Lighting out for the territory,” as Mark Twain put it. The story explores my ambivalence about politics, economics, and the uses of science, not to mention the entanglement of these disciplines.

Q: What kind of research did you do for “Through Mud One Picks a Way?”

A: I read books by Sean Carroll and Brian Greene in an attempt to keep up with physics, and seized on the recent discovery of planets orbiting Tau Ceti, a much closer star than we’d seen with planets before. Even so, I tried to maintain a sense of alienation, due to the vast distances in space and time involved even to the nearer solar systems, but my research among our own species was probably most important. I’m sort of an eccentric character collector. I get a kick out of meeting people who are out of the mainstream, and may even be difficult or cranky. Uxanna and Cobb are both eccentric characters, and would be in any time period, I suspect.

Q: Was this story personal to you in any way, and if so how?

A: That’s a tough question. All stories are personal to the people who write them, but in this particular case I think it’s my concern for where we are going as a society, both in the West and globally, and where the cascading revelations of science are taking us. There was a time when one could keep up with the new discoveries, more or less, but now they’re coming so fast and furious that most people don’t even bother to try. What will this mean for ordinary people, especially for those who are on the margins of society? I’m not interested in superheroes or masters of martial arts, but in people who might actually exist a few generations from now. They’ll make mistakes, fall on their faces, be confused by developments beyond their comprehension, but most of them will keep going regardless of setbacks. To my way of thinking, they’re the true heroes of our beleaguered species.

Q: Neat title. How did you come up with it?

A: It’s a line from a long narrative poem, “Red Cotton Night-Cap Country or Turf and Towers,” by Robert Browning. Gordon first saw the novelette under the title “Uxanna’s Friends,” but I didn’t care much for that and cast about until I found the Browning quote. It fits the action and flavor of the story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got several in the works, including a sequel to “Through Mud One Picks a Way,” and a story about a mysterious crossword puzzle. I’ve been thinking about selecting stories for a collection, if I can find a publisher!

Q: Anything else to add?

A: Just that seeing my stories in F&SF is always a pleasure. I’ve been reading the magazine since I was a kid, and we’re almost the same age. I won’t tell you which one of us is a year older.

“Through Mud One Picks A Way” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of F&SF.

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