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Interview: Claudio Chillemi and Paul Di Filippo on “The Via Panisperna Boys in “Operation Harmony”"

- Tell us a bit about “The Via Panisperna Boys in “Operation Harmony”.”

CLAUDIO: The Panisperna Boys were a group of brilliant physicists who lived in Rome, in the Via Panisperna. A sort of The Big Bang Theory TV show but in other times. Among these scientists were Enrico Fermi and his student Ettore Majorana. Fermi considered Majorana a genius. He said many times that Hector (Ettore) had taught him many things, and the student had surpassed the master. At some point in his life, Majorana disappears into thin air, while traveling on a ship that takes him from Palermo to Naples (Majorana taught at the University of Naples). His disappearance has been the subject of much speculation. The story told by me and Paul Di Filippo is a uchronia, which tries to give an answer to this mysterious disappearance. The tone of the story is deliberately brilliant, sometimes playful. The same title OPERATION HARMONY, want to give this indication. A sort of soft SF, more than hard SF, which, however, has moments of deep reflection on the role of science in times of war and the role of science in general in the relations between nations and peoples .

PAUL: I had previously done a very small piece on Majorana as a humor column in F&SF without plumbing his depths, so he was always in the background of my thinking as an enticing figure about whom I could write more. The notion of transplanting a group of Italian geniuses to the soil of the USA and subjecting them to a bit of culture shock was also appealing. Fish out of water tropes and all that. And then of course there is the matter of WWII, perhaps the most potent and much-used subject of all uchronias. All of us yearn to magically shorten that horrible conflict somehow in hindsight (except for those of us writers who yearn to lengthen or worsen it for storytelling power!). And so Claudio and I posited a life-saving invention with, admittedly, certain side-effects.

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

CLAUDIO: Ettore Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily. I was born in Catania. The Majorana family has a great importance in my city, where there is a building named Majorana and streets named after the Majoranas. When Paul came to Catania and we became friends, we realized that we could work together because there was a great feeling between us. Thus, the Majorana Mystery on the one hand, his friendship with Paul from the other side, the story was born. Paul had already written something on Majorana. I had lived thirty years of my life close to the descendants of Majorana. A real game of coincidences. Maybe Paul was right when he told me “we are brothers separated at birth!”

PAUL: I love collaborating, and have done so with such figures as Don Webb, Marc Laidlaw, Michael Bishop, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. But of course two writers working together have to be simpatico. And when Claudio and I met we hit it off right away, a true bond. You should see us at the dinner table together, and then you would have no doubts about our common heritage and appetites! Also, Claudio was to be my first collaborator whose native language was something other than English, and I anticipated learning some neat idioms and perspectives inherent in the Italian language from him.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

CLAUDIO: As I said, I have lived 30 years of my life next to the descendants of Majorana. I have read and studied many books during my tenure at the university (I have a degree in Italian Literature and Modern History). Of all the books, the most important is Leonardo Sciascia: The Majorana Case. So I did some research on the scientific part of the story. Although the scientific plausibility was not the first concern in writing the story, since it was founded almost like a fairy tale full of symbolism. Then, I wanted to include in the story some “Italian things.” Quotes of Italian poets and writers. Typical landscapes of Sicily, such as Mount Etna and the Mediterranean Sea. And Arancini, the typical Sicilian fast food.

PAUL: My trip to mainland Italy and to Sicily in 2012 brought home the tangible vitality of the landscapes and allowed me to share Claudio’s vision and verbal depictions. It put me in the spirit. I relied heavily on his superior knowledge of Majorana and his milieu, just boning up from internet sources for the bare outlines of history. That’s a good thing about collaborating: you can rely on the superior knowledge of your partner for some things, and vice versa. I added details of the alternate technology, especially weird music, and also some of the historical twists in the course of the war.

- What are you working on now?

CLAUDIO: I’m working on several projects. First on my third SF novel, which will be released in Italy later this year. I am translating into English all of my short stories. I’m writing some stories for a number of anthologies of SF for school use. I direct a prozine dedicated to science fiction and called Foundation SF Magazine. And finally, I’m working on the Italian version of the story Via Panisperna Boys, along with the editorial staff of the publishing house Elara which publishes the Italian edition of F&SF.

PAUL: I just finished a story for Ian Whates’s anthology on the Fermi Paradox. My piece is titled “The Trail of Creation, the Trial of the Creator.” Now I’m heavily into review mode. Just did a piece on the debut novel Shovel Ready, and next get to enjoy Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel Slayground. I have a novel titled Up Around the Bend which needs to be resumed after a hiatus. In short, always more projects than time and stamina!

-Anything else you’d like to add?

CLAUDIO: I could add 1000 other things. The thrill and the honor of working with Paul Di Filippo. The honor of being one of the only Italians to have been published by your prestigious magazine. The cultural enrichment that I have had in working in English. But, also, I have talked about Majorana, telling of my land, Sicily, so full of mystery and magic. All things that are priceless.

PAUL: Let me just say that without the heroic and creative work by Gordon van Gelder, none of this would have been possible. In maintaining the almost-seventy-year-old tradition of one of the field’s cornerstone publications, and even extending its reach to such places as Italy, he has provided a welcoming home for writers of every type, and created so much pleasure for hundreds of thousands of lucky readers, as well as extending the artistry of the fantastical genre. Long may he reign!

The Via Panisperna Boys in “Operation Harmony” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2014 issue of F&SF.

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