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Interview: Robert Grossbach on “myPhone20″

- 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.

Interview: Eugene Mirabelli on “The Shore at the Edge of the World”

- 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.

Interview: Oliver Buckram on “Un Opera nello Spazio (A Space Opera)”

- 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.

 

Interview: Harry Campion on “The Heartsmith’s Daughters”

- Tell us a bit about “The Heartsmith’s Daughters.”

It’s a fantasy with the style and cadence of a fairy-tale. A story of family and the magic that sustains a family against the mundane, lower-case evil (as opposed to Evil) that threatens to destroy it every day. A great smith—no, no, a Great Smith, realizing his time is at an end, uses all his skill to create three children to “carry on his work” in all aspects of life. When tragedy eventually comes to them, his daughters must rise to face this challenge. They do so with wit, strength, courage, and of course, heart.

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

This one was magical in its own right; a Christmas gift from the Muse, if you will. We have a family tradition that we get up, open presents among our immediate household, ‘play in the boxes’ a bit, then drive across town to my mom’s place for Christmas-with-Cousins. We were just over the river and into the woods, my kids remarkably squabble-free, carols on the car radio, early-winter sunshine filling the car, when I got the gift. I was just humming along one minute, not really thinking about anything and WHAM: there was the whole story, just there in my head. I begged my wife to take down some notes for me while I drove. I bullet-pointed the whole story to her, start to finish in about five minutes of our trip.

There were revisions of course—a rather important one prompted by my writing-partner Margaret—but remarkably little changed in the way of that first blast. I wish like hell that such things happened to me all the time, but I can’t claim that. This one was special.

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

As a father, I am forever at war within myself, wanting to protect my children—insulate them from harm, and wanting them to deal with the challenges of the world with the tools my wife and I have imparted to them. I guess you could say my ‘research’ was the archetypal wish-fulfillment of a father wanting to provide for his family; knowing that they must ultimately do it themselves.

- Most authors say their stories are personal; if that’s true for you, then in what way is “The Heartsmith’s Daughters” personal to you?

I know I was just talking about my children, but I guess you could say that, in some ways the story is a love letter to my sisters. I am the oldest of four and the eldest and only boy. My sisters are all incredibly powerful women, all strong in their individualism and extremely various in those strengths.

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

I have fears that someone might read the story and see the smith usurping the power of ‘childbirth’ from women—please note that despite his great skill, he must include his wife in his endeavor. As far as takeaway goes, if anyone can read this story and not see that women are far more powerful than our society acknowledges, then I have really screwed it up.

- What are you working on now?

Margaret and I are finishing up a novella we’ve been batting around this summer and we’re into second-stage plotting of our fourth novel together. Both projects are part of our ongoing Detroit Next series. Stop by yangandcampion.comif you get a chance, or ‘like’ our shared pseudonym M.H. Mead on Facebook.

“The Heartsmith’s Daughters” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Rus Wornom on “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire”

- Tell us a bit about “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire.”

Know, o Prince, that in the dimly-remembered days of the mid-1990s, I determined to finally read the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that I had not read before–everything after Book 10. Some of these were–to be honest–not ERB’s best works (one was very heavily rewritten by a pulp editor back in the day), and I began to think about writing an homage/parody of Tarzan–not a George of the Jungle-klutz type, but more of a Leslie Nielsen in “Police Squad”/Naked Gun type. I started making notes for an origin trilogy about Ka-Gor, my Tarzan pastiche (who would later become Scrotar, Lord of the Savage Jungle), and the bulk of the action would take place on a forgotten island in the middle of nowhere–my version of Kong’s Skull Island.

Very soon, my story got hijacked by the concept of the island itself, and I realized that this was an island, in the present day, where the heroes, villains and locales from the Pulp Era still existed. They had a home on the east coast of Cayo Arcana, where explorers, heroes and characters from the Golden Age of Adventure could meet: The Enigma Club, a classic English gentlemen’s club founded by a core group of twelve members who, in my mind, represented many of the archetypes of classic pulp fiction: the starlet, the spy, the rogue, the adventuress, the scientist (perhaps mad), the explorer-for-hire.

That trilogy, which I had planned as an origin story about the Club, somehow became shanghaied by a present-day story of how the Club, forgotten (actually, hidden) since the end of the Pulp Era in 1953, is rediscovered and introduced to a world that desperately needs extraordinary tales of extraordinary people. The novels changed focus because I changed my focus: I realized I wanted to bring back the original pulps for generations that knew nothing about them.

I can certainly argue that the pulps are still with us today. They’ve merely evolved. Weird Tales has become “Buffy” and “Supernatural.” The Shadow became the Batman, who has become “Arrow.” G-8 became James Bond, who became Dirk Pitt. John Carter became Flash Gordon and evolved into Riddick. Planet Stories became Forbidden Planet, then evolved into “Star Trek.”

But I wanted this generation to be reintroduced to the original type of pulp tales, and I considered that perhaps playing-it-straight pulp stories wouldn’t do the trick . . . but if I added some humor to the mix, ala “Monty Python,” “SNL” and National Lampoon, it would work like Mary Poppins once sang: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

So I wrote The Enigma Club, the contemporary story of a man who finds an old issue of a forgotten pulp in his father’s boot camp duffel bag. It’s a copy of The Enigma Club All-Adventure Magazine from 1934. My protagonist had grown up with comics and hero pulps, but this title he had never heard of, and his father had never mentioned it. So he determines to find out the link between this Club and his father. The novel is the story of his quest–how he rediscovers Cayo Arcana and does battle with a nefarious pulp-type villain, Wang Fat Fang, over the fate of the island and the Club, which the protagonist now considers his home. (By the way, Scrotar is still a part of The Enigma Club. He deeded them the island after they saved his life in their first adventure as a team.)

My original intent was to include a story about each founding member of the Club; a representative tale of that particular type of pulp tale. My only complaint about the lovely novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, was that Michael Chabon did not include in the novel a comic book story of their hero, and I determined I would do otherwise. I waited until after I had finished the novel to write the extra stories, and by the time I had finished three and begun two others, I realized the book was getting too long. So I left one story in, “Sky-Gods of Ixtamal,” as a representative pulp tale of a lost civilization, daring pilots, a reluctant adventurer, and Burroughs-esque danger and heroics. I decided to try and place the other two complete stories with magazines at a later date.

The Enigma Club is being agented by Andrew Zack, and since he’s sending it out to editors now, I hoped that publication of a related story would help his efforts. So I thank Gordon for buying “Mountains,” and I hope/pray/get down on my knees and beg like a dog focused on a cookie in his hand that he’ll publish “Hot Time at Bad Penny’s” in the near future.

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

My stories are frequently results of my mind triangulating. In this case, for inclusion in the novel, I had already written a list of twelve pulp-like titles and associated them with my twelve charter Club members. I picked one at random: “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire.” The image that had been in my head since I came up with the title was that of a mountain range in the Arctic that burned with something secret deep inside the ice. I knew that the story would be an early twentieth-century spy tale, since the character was Commander Denis Winslow Mallard–Ducky to his friends at the Club–and Mallard was the secret agent known as M4, the Mongoose.

Something in my mind clicked when I added 1. Flares in the ice and 2. Spies with 3. Frazetta. Frank Frazetta’s influence on today’s storytellers, not to mention artists, cannot be understated. Frazetta was the supreme artist for Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in the 1970s.

“The Frost Giants” was the final piece that built the story in my mind, and the writing suddenly became very Howardesque. A dose of Frazetta’s evocative imagery and a taste of Burroughs’ or Howard’s prose can combine into a powerful potion of storytelling; and when those things came together for me, I knew the story I was going to tell: spies on missions in the frozen wastes, who discover something supernatural and dangerous. The Enigma Club is my homage to Burroughs, and this story is my homage to Howard and Frazetta. I suspect I owe them all a debt I will never finish repaying.

Finally, I had to change the character’s name. I never watched the show regularly, but by accident I flipped onto an episode of “NCIS” and discovered that the character played by David McCallum was also named Ducky Mallard. Crap. I had recently tried to buy a copy of the “autobiography” of John Steed, of the magnificent British show, “The Avengers,” and had learned that the character’s full name was John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed. I figured the Commander should have no less an impressive name, and M4 became Denis Winslow Mallard Codswallop Bourginon Cushing–Codswallop as a dollop of self-deprecating humor, and Bourginon because my wife and I adore hearty red wines. He got his surname from Peter Cushing (also, coincidentally, an “Avengers” alumnus.)

-What kind of research, if any, did you do for “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire?”

I wanted the most dangerous of the villainous triad at the opening to have an exotic and strange blade, something memorable. I found the falcata by searching online, and determined from photos that this was the exact type of blade my evildoer would use. In another article, the writer mentioned that the hilt of the falcata was often customized to fit the hand of its owner, and I filed that away for possible use, as well.

I also did some research into the names of historical incidents, crimes and disasters that I could use as referents that would tie into the past deeds of my villains. Then I made up a bunch that were similar, yet silly.

For this story, however, the real research was from a lifetime of living in the grip of popular culture. M4, to me, was a cross between Steed, Bond and Artemus Gordon. His train was inspired by the train seen in every episode of “The Wild Wild West.” The tavern locales of Ghutranh were merely darker, smokier versions of the inns seen in Hammer’s Dracula films, and the snow-covered vistas were from Lost Horizon and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas–and in unforgettable black and white.

-Was the conception and writing of this story personal for you in any way?

Every story is personal, in one way or another–at least, they better be. I’ve had the opportunity to write three novels that were works for hire, based on properties that I hardly cared about. But I took the jobs, and I was forced to find ways to make the stories and characters important to me. Seriously: If a story doesn’t work for the writer, how could anyone expect it to work for a reader? Why write a story that means nothing to you?

All the stories I will eventually write about the Enigma Club’s founding members will embody the archetypes of the pulps and the speculative-adventure stories that thrilled me while I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, including the next generation of comics, tv shows and movies that have touched me along the way. It’s a debt I owe, and I want to pay it back by helping to bring back the great pulp tales of yesteryear and expose them to a new audience hungry for tales that are amazing, fantastic, astounding, weird and uncanny.

-What are you working on now?

My wife gave me an idea a few years ago while I was shaving, getting ready to go to work at a great metropolitan newspaper. (Insert snark here.) She thought it was a bad idea . . . but one that might sell. By the time I wiped the shaving cream off my face, I knew the main characters’ names, the basic storyline, and that it would be a story about love and loss. It was most definitely an awful idea. And I loved it.

As soon as I sent the final manuscript for The Enigma Club to my agent, I began writing Ghostflowers. It’s a novel of the supernatural set in the South of 1971 against a classic rock background. It’s Love Story, as told by Hammer.

It was a bad idea. But it’s not, any more. I made it personal.

-Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to thank F&SF for the opportunity to say hi directly to your readers. I don’t go to a lot of cons and rarely get the chance to meet F&SF fans, so having a chance like this to communicate is wonderful!

Please feel free to send me questions or comments at theenigmaclub@gmail.com. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn, and you can read my infrequent posts on my blog at http://takeanotherroadtoanothertime.blogspot.com/.

By the way: “Hi, everybody!”

“In the Mountains of Frozen Fire” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.

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