|A Man in Shorts|
An Interview with Stephen Baxter
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
With an imagination the size of a small planet, science fiction author Stephen Baxter has already taken us on some
awesome journeys through time and space. His Manifold series was a fascinating look at the question of Life
in the Universe and now he is set to expand our intellectual horizons once more with his new collection
of short stories called Phase Space.
As with many science fiction writers, Baxter's career began with short stories."If you're aspiring to write," he remembers, "a short story of twenty pages is a lot easier to visualise than a novel of five hundred pages, and a lot easier to study. But paradoxically it's just as hard in a different way. For me, it was a relatively low cost way in, and a way to learn the basics of fiction writing. In those first few years I tried out different ideas and story-telling modes, just experimenting -- a short story is a comparatively small investment in something that might or might not work. My alternate-Victorian books like The Time Ships and space fiction books like Voyage grew out of such experiments -- as well as the Xeelee series of novels and stories, which came from my first published story." From such seedling beginnings grew a bigger career. "After a few years, I felt ready to try a novel, and thanks to the short fiction, my name was known to the publishers. My first novel Raft was a kind of expansion of a short story. After the short was published, the idea stuck with me and I kept coming back to new angles and ways to develop it, and having done the short story, I felt confident I could write in that particular universe.
"Now, after more than ten years of publishing novels, I suppose I'm more established in my themes and subject matter. The short fiction often comes as sidebar ideas, either directly related to the longer works or not. But I still use short fiction to work my way into a new universe: that happened with Manifold, which became three novels plus the Phase Space collection, and I'm now working through a new series of Xeelee stories in the same way."
So is writing a short story the same as writing a novel? Baxter thinks not. "The short stuff requires quite different skills," he explains. "The one hundred metres race is a whole different discipline from the marathon, and is not easier because it's shorter. You have to sketch whole landscapes in a few words, characters in a few lines of dialogue. I'd recommend the early Niven as a model of how to do it. It's a different art form, and the most essential technique is to revise, polish, revise, polish, over and over, until every word is the right word."
And there are no hard and fast rules to differentiate between an idea that will make a good short, and an idea that will make a good novel. "A short story may be about a single incident in a character's life -- single, but important, a turning point for his/her development -- whereas a novel may be about a series of incidents and growth for the characters. In my case, I'm also trying to dramatise some scientific notion, and if I have a scenario that achieves that economically, it's surely right for a short story. In Phase Space, 'The Twelfth Album' is an example of a single-incident story -- the discovery of a 'lost' Beatles album, a fairly small incident, opens a doorway to an alternate world. On the other hand, an SF short story can sometimes overwhelm you with big ideas, and the mixture of scale and compression is exhilarating. 'Spindrift' covers billions of years, and 'The Gravity Mine' trillions upon trillions, all in a few pages. There's no other medium which can deliver tales with such a rush, which is why SF is to be cherished. But it all just depends on the idea -- art not science!"
Baxter has experience in all the fiction formats -- short story, novella, or novel -- but does he have a favourite? "I think I'm a natural novelist; most of my ideas come in big. As a reader I enjoy the short forms just as much as novels, but in a different way. In a novel you are immersed in another universe. With a good short story you are blown away by a fresh idea in a few pages. I'm proud to have won prizes for my short fiction, including a few Hugo nominations but I can't say which is my favourite format. There's room for them all!"
(This interview first appeared on Sci Fi Channel Europe.)
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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