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Interview: Brian Dolton on “This is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang”

– Tell us a bit about “This is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang.”

It’s one of those stories that does exactly what it says. The universe is winding down to a conclusion, and the story is about one of that universe’s few remaining inhabitants. And the universe does, indeed, end. With a bang. T S Eliot was wrong…


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

I wrote this story a couple of years ago when I was a member of the Codex writing group. There’s an annual “Codexian Idol” story writing competition, a kind of knockout contest. Everyone writes the first 500 words of their story, and then everyone votes on which they want to see continued. A couple more rounds ends up with a few complete-story survivors. Mine was winning until the very last vote came in.

I’m not sure what really prompted the story. I grew up reading a lot of SF, but most of what I’ve published has been fantasy. In the F&SF forum a mention was made of James Blish’s “Cities in Flight” as a possible influence. I certainly read those as a teenager, but I think I drew on a very broad range of ideas, with perhaps some of Stephen Baxter’s work the strongest single influence. I really should have dropped some quagma in there somewhere.


– What kind of research did you do for “This is the Way the World Ends…”

I’m the kind of guy who tries to read books like Roger Penrose’s “The Road to Reality” or David Deautsch’s “The Fabric of Reality.” Sadly, I can’t frame the math, so I’m not very good at modern theoretical physics, but it’s fun to play conceptually with some of the more abstruse ideas of what the Universe is actually made of. I think I only coined one word/concept for the story – “computino”, the idea of a kind of fundamental particle of computing power. Everything else is a mish-mash of existing theories and concepts, but their willful misinterpretation in the service of entertainment is all my own work.


– Did you find it difficult creating and occupying the headspace of creatures so far removed from humanity, or even sentience as we would recognize it?

The simple answer is “yes.” Trying to write a story that would work from a human perspective, but involves beings that are so far post-human as to be all but incomprehensible, is rather presumptive. I tried to put the protagonist into situations that would be familiar concepts to a reader (if not to the protagonist) and thus lead the protagonist into thinking along lines that would make sense, even while surrounded by other beings and concepts that are utterly alien or totally far-fetched. It was a difficult cast to handle, so I kept the major players to as few as possible. I don’t think I could make the story work as an entire novel.


– What other influences made their way into this story?

There are a lot of sneaky little references, most of them to anything but hard or far-future SF. The title is an Eliot lift, of course – probably the most quoted English writer after Shakespeare, though of course he was lifting and referencing tons of stuff himself. There are also nods in there to Mervyn Peake, Michael Marshall Smith, and even A. A. Milne, who wrote the Pooh books.


– What are you working on now?

International payroll implementations for various clients. It pays the bills, but at the moment it’s leaving little time for writing. I have far too many part-completed novels, none of which may ever see the light of day. I do have another SF story about to see the light of day at Abyss and Apex, though – “Space Dad!”


– Anything else you’d like to add, about this story or anything else?

I’d just like to thank all the talented writers at Codex whose encouragement led to this story’s completion, as well as C.C. Finlay for purchasing the story. I submitted it for his first guest editor stint and received a (very nice) rejection as the story didn’t fit with the issue he was building, but when he came back for a second bite of the cherry he asked me whether the story was still available. It was, and I’m very happy to be published in a magazine that first printed stories by many of the authors I idolized when I was growing up. I don’t feel worthy, but I feel very grateful.

“This is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.


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