- What was the inspiration for “Success”, or what prompted you to write it?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in the field of genetics. The real exciting work these days is happening on three main fronts: genetic engineering, which has been the subject of countless pieces of fiction (including my own); nanobiotechnology, which is just getting rolling but promises to have a huge impact on our lives; and epigenetics, a field that is crucial to understanding how we interact with our environment and evolve. For nearly 200 hundred years the idea that there could be such a thing as epigenetics was derided and scorned. Now, every day we get a new study showing the importance of our environment, not only in how our own genes are expressed, but in how our offspring’s genes – and their offspring’s genes – can be affected. Obviously, this has profound implications for our future, and I wanted to talk about that.
I also wanted to extend what we know about genetics and epigenetics into the future and what we don’t yet know. What might come to pass. What could. This, of course, is the prime directive of science fiction. My speculation about “perigenetics”, a word I coin to describe the ultimate unifying principle of Life on Earth, is my attempt to do this.
It’s a real attempt, but it’s also somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It flows from the character (and comes from the very mouth) of the story’s male protagonist, Dr. Jim, a highly original, if eccentric, thinker of exceptional intelligence. He’s a brilliant scientist, but his brilliance is matched by a tendency to float above reality, rather than be grounded in it.
His soul-mate and wife Carol is the opposite, which makes the two of them a perfect complementary pair. I wanted to write about this, too: what’s the recipe for a successful relationship? Why do people fall in love, and how do they stay in love? How can love continue to thrive through the ups and downs we all experience?
One of the ways I believe this happens is when we’re honest with ourselves, when we don’t shy away from who we are. And who we are is a composite: what we think of as ourself is, in fact, many selves. We have public selves and private selves, selves we present to the world and selves we present to our loved ones, which may differ. We also contain selves we’re less comfortable with, selves we may be embarrassed by, selves we may prefer to hide.
Some of these selves are quite primitive, so keeping them buried is understandable. But under certain circumstances they can rear their heads. Stress can trigger their appearance. Hunger can do it. Competitiveness. Passion. Heightened desire of any kind.
This is interesting to me, and it, too, is part of the story.
Not all of the triggers for these hidden selves to emerge are internal. Many come from outside. Other people, for example, have a profound effect on us. So does the food we eat and the air we breathe. Basically any situation we find ourselves in alters us. Broadly speaking, these situations fall into the category of external forces and pressures. In a word, our environment.
This brings us back to epigenetics, which is the system that governs how we interface and interact with our environment. It functions on a sub-cellular level, but in a metaphorical sense it functions on all levels. Emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively, spiritually, we’re in constant flux and constant communication with friends, acquaintances, loved ones, strangers, animals, minerals, plants, molecules, particles of air, and who knows what else. It’s a big world, and each of us is at the center of it. Simultaneously, we’re orbiting everything else. This, I’d say, is the guiding principle and rule number one from the as-yet-to-be-written Perigenetics Handbook.
“Success” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of F&SF.
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.
- What was the inspiration for “myPhone20,” or what prompted you to write it?
Well, first the disclaimer: Whenever writers or other creators are asked this sort of origin question about a subconscious process, I suspect that some kind of plausible narrative is constructed that likely has little to do with the actual genesis. Having said that …
I’d been having crabby discussions with friends for several years about how smartphones, social networks, search engines, etcetera were leading to a sort of collective consciousness — hardly an original observation. Then one day, I went into an Apple store in Orlando, and asked a sales person when the iPhone6 would be out and what features it would have. (I did it just to be annoying, I didn’t really care one whit.) I didn’t hear his answer, but when I left the store, the thought suddenly popped into my mind: I wonder what the iPhone15 would be like. Well, the only really advanced feature I could come up with, something not just an incremental improvement over what we have now, was a direct neural connection. And as I pondered the mechanics of that and the possibilities for things to go wrong, I realized, because of the concretization, I had a story, not just a conversation topic.
- What kind of research did you do for “myPhone20?”
Just the mundane things one does to explain, enrich, and check various story points, e.g., looking up highway numbers, exits, and distances, finding out how the brain’s lymphatic system works to rid it of wastes, checking first-day sales numbers of today’s smartphones – very minor stuff. It also helped that I’d just read “How to Create a Mind,” by Ray Kurzweil, a wonderful book that points out how the brain’s wiring is much less random than we’d imagined and that made the idea of group electrotelepathy seem not quite so remote.
- Was this story personal for you in any way?
Well, as an engineer I’m not intimidated by smartphone technology, but as someone with a quasi-hermit-like personality, I prefer to communicate with the outside world when I choose to, not when it does. I also happen to be a grandpa with children and grandchildren who do use smartphones quite frequently. So in those elements, the story was personal.
- “myPhone20″: light-hearted bit of fun, or prophecy of doom?
I suppose it’s somewhere in between, or maybe both at once. Of course, I did have some fun with people theaking instead of talking, and the various new apps: myHealth, myDivorce, thporn, thorgasms, etc. But I think the real issue might not be technological or biological, but societal – the facilitation and reinforcement of the “herd instinct” or “group-think” and instantaneous fads, including scientific ones. I happen to believe that most of civilization’s advances have been made by independent thinkers, people outside the mainstream consensus, malcontents, people who deliberately imposed that isolation on themselves as a means of separation from the outside cacophony of agreement. It’s these people whom I think might have an even harder time of it as technology enables ever-growing, ever more intimate, ever more personal social and professional networks.
- What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novelette about two entrepreneurs, one of them not from this planet. It combines my two lifelong occupational endeavors (neither so accomplished it can be called a “career”) – engineering and science fiction.
“myPhone20″ appears in the Sept./Oct. 2013 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “The Shore at the Edge of the World.”
I had been thinking rather idly of what the edge of the world would look like if our world were as flat as it appears to us earthlings. The image that came to mind wasn’t of a sea falling over the edge of the world like a gigantic Niagara Falls; on the contrary, it was of a sea growing more and more shallow until your keel crunches into the sandy bottom – a calm and flat sea on a flat world, a tranquil sunset world. Later, when I began to write the story about the gods giving us love instead of immortality – in other words, giving us death as well as love – I chose the setting that looked most appropriate to me, the shore at the edge of the world. About a year earlier I had written a story also about love and loss, “This Hologram World,” and it had been rather monochromatic and emotionally numb, for I composed it to match the feelings of the central figure. So I decided to make this one more engaging for the reader, rather comical in spirit, though tragic enough in its resolution.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
One of my friends had a close relative who was dying and in sympathizing with her I said that the gods had given us love instead of immortality. Later I learned that she had thought I was quoting an old Latin or Greek text, and had tried to look it up. Of course, she found nothing. So I set to work and wrote this story on that line.
- Was “The Shore at the Edge of the World” personal to you in any way? If so, how?
I’m in my eighties, and for anyone my age the abstractions of love, death, immortality or nothingness become concrete and visceral. Anyone past childhood knows that we and everyone we love will die. If we think about it, we know that love ends in loss. Now, I hope such thoughts are not on the mind of any couple falling in love and getting married. But that tragic aspect of life does inevitably and repeatedly impose itself later in the passage of any long-lasting happy marriage. Somebody will die first, somebody will be left in grief.
- Near the end of the story, one of your main characters declines a goddess’s offer of immortality for herself because she would lose the ability to love: the goddess tells her that love and mortality are inextricable from one another. Could you comment on that idea as well as the choice that she makes?
Life is unimaginably cruel. Human love is the only thing that stands between us and absolute chaos. We’re the only creatures conscious of the world and the universe in which we float. We’re the only creatures who know what death is, and knowing what we know, we crave immortality. But immortality without love would be endless life without purpose or meaning.
- What are you working on now?
I’m working on another novel. Presumably, a short novel, or novella. I guess it’s prudent for an octogenarian to plan something short if finishing is important. On the other hand, now that you’ve got me thinking about it, maybe it’s better to plan something along the lines of War and Peace. I mean, the only way you can really be sure you’ll not leave any loose ends is to never start anything. And that would be the same as never having lived. So maybe starting to write a great big book isn’t imprudent. Maybe in your eighties you should do what you damn well want to do.
“The Shore at the Edge of the World” appears in the Sept./Oct. 2013 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a little about “Un Opera Nello Spazio.”
It’s a literal space opera, with song titles provided in both Italian and English. If you haven’t read it yet, then drop everything you’re doing and read it right now. It’s the most gripping tale of the eternal struggle between orangutans and armadillos that you’ll read this year.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I’ve always loved actual space opera. Two of my favorite novelists are Lois McMasters Bujold and the late Iain Banks. But writing actual space opera is much too difficult, so I wrote a parody instead.
This particular story started when the Nebula-nominated writer Vylar Kaftan challenged me to write a story containing the words “orangutan,” “sweater,” and “angelic.” While the last two words didn’t survive into the published version, the orangutan remains. I’m grateful to her and to the many others who’ve helped me improve the story.
I thought my story was an original idea, but sadly I was mistaken. F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder alerted me to the fact that in 1997, Michael Kandel published “Space Opera,” a story which is also a literal space opera.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Despite its short length, the story required quite a lot of research. I know very little about opera and I don’t speak Italian. I stole most of the song titles directly from various Mozart operas. I also got help from some native Italians, including both my Italian niece and Armando Corridore, the editor of the Italian edition of F&SF.
- With “Un Opera Nello Spazio” and your F&SF debut in last month’s issue, “Half a Conversation, Overheard While Inside an Enormous Sentient Slug,” you’ve written two short, funny, offbeat stories. Is this the norm or the exception for your work?
So far, it’s the norm, although I’m just starting out as a writer (my first publication was in 2012). For example, I have another very short humor piece, “Presidential Cryptotrivia,” forthcoming in F&SF. One exception to this pattern is “The Museum of Error” which is also forthcoming in F&SF. It’s funny and offbeat, but it’s a novelet so it’s not short. Another exception is “The Black Waters of Lethe,” an entirely humorless short story coming out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
- What are you working on now?
Why should I be working on anything now? What exactly are you implying? Don’t I deserve a break? All I do is slave all day writing stories for you people, and then you have the gall to waltz in here with your fancy questions and I’m sick of it, I tell you. I’ve had enough. Next question, please.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
I believe aliens walk among us. Obviously, they’d initially infiltrate the U.S. Postal Service to obtain a stranglehold on our communications. Therefore, closely scrutinize your mail carrier. Is he/she behaving suspiciously? Are you aware the USPS is scheming to halt Saturday delivery? Tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!
“Un Opera nello Spazio” appears in the Sept./Oct. 2013 issue of F&SF.