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Interview: Geoff Ryman on “This Constant Narrowing”

Tell us a bit about “This Constant Narrowing.”

It’s a sick sick story for a sick, sick age.  At its best it’s kind of a nightmare suspense story, with a lot of violence and a man in ‘the woman in peril’ role. It also glances at how extraordinary pornography is in the age of the internet as a social barometer, and the mystery of how hatred, self-hatred, and sexual violence keeps adapting to new forms, new rhetorics.

At its worst it’s an old man’s unease with how in the end identity politics requires time, intelligence, constant work, policing by weary volunteers—a worry that we are retreating into smaller and smaller packets of power.  I miss a grand unifying theory.  I miss a vision of the greater good for all, that ‘I have a dream stuff’.  Right now a lot of people quite rightly don’t trust those easy messages of unity or Rainbow Nation.

 

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

Disgust.

Also way back when there was a writer called Philip Wylie.  He was everywhere—you could buy him in drugstore circular racks right next to James Bond.

Drugstore circular racks were my education.  I was stuck out in the sticks—Meadowvale, Ontario and then Los Angeles, and Los Angeles for all its huge population is as far from civilization as Algonquin Park. Only it’s a decision, not down to distance.

Anyway.  In those racks, I found Tolkien, ER Eddison, THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION, TOTEMPOLE (a great novel about being gay at a time when it took true courage to even buy it in public) and James Baldwin my favourite writer growing up—all of them in drugstores, as if this was popular stuff.  Maybe publishers in those days just didn’t know what they were doing. Or maybe people had more time for extended printed narrative.

Philip Wylie co-wrote WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, a HUGE popular SF novel, as big as Neil Gaiman is now—a not-inconsiderable movie was made out of it.  He wrote GENERATION OF VIPERS a socio-political diatribe that I read in one gulp at twelve, introducing me to the heady delights of political rage.

And he wrote a forgotten novel called THE DISAPPEARANCE, in which women disappear from men’s world and vice versa. This was when we thought there were maybe 100 gay people in the USA and they all deserved jail sentences or possibly some kind of injection. Wylie’s drugstore novel was about the first time I read about transvestite men having sex with men, or nice married ladies exploring their lesbian side. Unbelievably exciting.

For me the fate of THE DISAPPEARANCE, or so many monumental books or features from my childhood, is a constant reminder of the maw of history, how it swallows all.

I was aware of THE DISAPPEARNCE when I wrote this.  I think this story came first.  But then I advised myself during the writing, acknowledge this, Geoff—this is an update of THE DISAPPEARANCE.

THE DISAPPEARANCE is about relationship between genders from a world which assumed the universality of gender.  This is a bit more about how it feels like we are all be separated, cut up into smaller and smaller groups.

 

Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Have I been shot, no.  Have I been sexually abused?  In a complicated fashion yes.  In 2016 to 2017 for about a year I was in a physically abusive relationship. The worst of it is that I have pretty much internalized it and now feel I kind of made it happen. Which is pretty diagnostic in itself but it’s also true that I have to own what happened.

The character of Tyrone is pretty much someone I knew in the USA with some aspects re-worked to give him more courage and nobility. In reality, life in the USA was wrecking him.  He got out of Oceanside and seems to be in Colorado now.  Here’s hoping.

 

Was there any aspect of “This Constant Narrowing” that you found difficult to write?

Oh no, it was a delight, a bit like writing say, Paddington or Winnie the Pooh. Otherwise, I would say that Harry Potter is an obvious inspiration. J

 

Why do you write?

A desire for fame and fortune.  Really.

I come from a distant planet in which more writers could make something like a living in the middle list.  I’m an arrogant writer, and it simply didn’t get how much readers deserve to have fun. I was not clearheaded enough to see that heady praise from the small world of 80s fandom would not translate into sales or social impact.

 

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

A cheap thrill. Something that screens in their heads a bit like a black-and-white film noir.  I only wish Ida Lupino could play Gregorio.

And perhaps a thought that it might be a good idea to really connect with someone.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I wish I believed in goodness.  No scratch that.  I do believe in goodness and try to be good.  So the truth might be formulated as being closer to, ‘I  wish I didn’t believe in goodness.’  Then I could just sit back and watch the show or be a hard headed politico.

The trigger warnings were added by me not by F&SF and are sincerely meant to warn.  It’s not a good story for someone who has been stalked or abused.

 

“This Constant Narrowing” appears in the November/December 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1811.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

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Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Sean McMullen on “Extreme”

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

After watching a series of documentaries about genetics and human behaviour, I applied some criteria for psychopathy to various people that I knew, or knew of. Several of those in management and business tested positive for psychopathic behaviour, which the documentaries had predicted. None of those in medicine, engineering or the sciences tested positive, but about a third showed up with marginal Aspergers – and not so marginal, in a couple of cases.

This got me wondering if various psychoses might be valuable or confer advantages in some environments. Perhaps most high achievers have what may be termed psychological ‘disorders’ or ‘syndromes’. The central character in my very first professional story, The Pharoah’s Airship, would be diagnosed with Aspergers, yet this gave him the intense focus and lateral ideas that enabled him to build a workable spacecraft in his mother’s garage.

I now started thinking about uses for psychopaths, apart from jobs in sales, management and politics. In spite of what Hollywood might suggest, very few of them turn out to be serial killers. The sort of upbringing they get seems to determine whether or not violent psychopathy manifests. Mostly they turn out to be overwhelmingly self-confident and great manipulators, but physically harmless.

Thus I made George Kensington, the narrator in Extreme, a sales professional. This gave him a good income to fund his extremes. However, I wanted to make him a pretty spectacular character as well, so I also gave him the risk-taker gene. The resulting person is not the sort that I would want dating my daughter, but he might be useful when tests involving suicidally dangerous acts of bravery are being conducted.

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “Extreme?”

I started with some very conventional research, following up the material I had seen on the television documentaries in books, journals and the internet. My professional background is in the hard sciences, so I had to consult with people who have studied psychology to make sure that I was not making any catastrophic blunders.

I also had a very careful look at myself to check whether multiple conditions can produce interesting abilities. I am pretty driven, and am highly organised. That might mean I am mildly OCD. I like things to be neat and orderly when I am being creative, and I no sooner finish one story than I feel desperate to start another. I also have a lurid imagination, which people find unusual in a highly organised person, but it keeps me supplied with some very cool ideas.

For example, I was once studying in the British Library and I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was dressed a bit strangely. I developed a fantasy about him being a serial killer from the Regency period who was using a time machine to research the future suitors of the lady he loved. He would then go back to the Regency period and murder them. I made some notes, but all the while I continued doing the research for my PhD. I can run being organised and being creative in parallel. My story The Constant Past came out of that.

Now let’s pretend that genetic editing had been around when I was conceived. Would my father, a pragmatic and sensible Scottish engineer who probably never had a weird thought in his life, have persuaded my mother to have OCD and the weirdo imagination removed from my DNA? If he had, I could never have written The Constant Past. Strange syndromes can have their uses, quad erat demonstrandum.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

The really difficult bit was leaving things out. There were hordes of really strange and confronting extremes that George Kensington might have attempted, and I had to keep reminding myself that balance is as important as content in a story. Thus most of my ideas for extremes just had to go, but dumping them still hurt. I did experiment with several different approaches to the plot, but overall it was not particularly hard to write. All that was needed were a few spectacular extremes for Kensington to try, and some task to make him very valuable. Finding the best possible use for him was also hard, again because of too many ideas. He might be great for defusing IEDs, testing military prosthetic weapons, researching the limits of human endurance to produce genetically optimised soldiers, and so on. I like to think that I got this choice right.

The fun bit was taking the PoV of the character, because I am not a risk taker. I admit that I ride a motorbike and teach karate, but in general I have to force myself to do anything risky. A lot of my day career was spent developing disaster contingency measures for very large computer systems linked to emergency services. This was my dream job because I hate risk, and lives depended on keeping the systems stable. As a result, looking at risks through Kensington’s eyes was really compelling for me in the same way that watching The Science of Stupid on television is compelling. I would never do that sort of high risk stuff myself, but I like being an innocent bystander – and I do have first aid training.

Why do you write?

I can’t help it. I have a head full of stories, ideas and characters all desperate to get out. Aside from that, I genuinely like telling stories. Story telling even spilled over into my scientific and technical work, because I would write reports and papers about quite complex subjects in an entertaining way, so that people could read without then getting a headache and actually understand what I was saying.

Put another way, going to dinner with, say, Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, was like stepping into their stories. They were very engaging people and natural born entertainers who even told great stories over sushi and miso soup. I still feel vaguely annoyed that Terry and Harry are dead, I really miss them – and I hope Neil is looking after himself. Do I measure up to them as a story teller? That is the sort of question that keeps me awake at night, and drives me to write more stories.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I should start with Anon. When I was an undergraduate I did a lot of singing in the Melbourne folk music clubs, and I was hugely inspired by people like Peter Parkhill and Lenore Somerset singing old ballads of magic, love, betrayal, heroism and monsters (human and otherwise). During the 1970s and 80s I also read a vast amount of science fiction and fantasy, and I noticed that while Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison wrote very short but high-impact stories, George R. R. Martin’s early stories were also compelling reading, because even though they were quite a lot longer and slower paced, they had engaging plots and characters.

The better films of 70s and 80s also taught me about packing a lot into a small space: Blade Runner, Alien, The Terminator, Star Wars and Dragonslayer crammed loads of empathy, pathos, action and ideas into just a couple of hours. I also realised that it was vital to get readers caring about the characters as well as telling them about really cool concepts. Sprague de Camp, Terry Pratchett, William Gibson and even Douglas Adams were great at doing this at novel length, and I often re-read their work to study how they did it..

That’s only a representative sample of influences rather than a comprehensive list, and I could mention dozens more examples. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz got me interested in historical and retro SF long before it was called steampunk, and laid the foundations for my novel Souls in the Great Machine. When I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1986 I thought “This future is brilliant, and it’s only about five years away”. I was only a year out, the World Wide Web went live in 1990. Neuromancer was paced like The Terminator, and I loved the way it maintained that pace for over three hundred pages.

What are you working on now?

I have just completed a novel called Generation Nemesis, in which everyone born before the year 2000 gets put on trial for climate crimes – and most are executed. It grew out of my 2010 story in Fantasy and Science Fiction called The Precedent. I have also adapted it into a movie script, and various producers are checking it out right now.

The story that I am working on at the moment is actually a spinoff of Extreme, and is called Elysians. It is set in the future that follows Extreme, and examines a world where everyone is genetically predisposed to be psychopathic manipulators. I am only 3000 words into it, so this may not be a good time to talk about details in case I change my mind about the plot.

“Extreme” appears in the November/December 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1811.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Y. M. Pang on “The Lady of Butterflies”

Y. M. PangTell us a bit about “The Lady of Butterflies.”

It’s a story about Rikara, the First Sword of Keja, who encounters a mysterious foreign woman in the palace gardens. It’s about that woman, Morieth, and her fragmented memories.

 

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

Three things came together for this story. First, I had an image of a woman transforming into butterflies. Another person rushed toward her, wanting to save her–as silly as that notion was.

A few days later, I watched a video about how caterpillars became butterflies. It’s truly incredible: the caterpillar becomes soup inside the chrysalis, and completely reforms itself as a butterfly.

As the story solidified, I realized it fit quite well with a pre-existing world I had built: The Empire of Keja, home of a powerful warrior class called the Swordbearers.

 

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “The Lady of Butterflies?”

Research mostly consisted of confirming (and figuring out how to describe) the caterpillar’s transformation. Though I must say, C.C. Finlay did a much better job of tackling it scientifically in his story introduction than I could!

 

Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Perhaps a little, regarding the theme of being displaced from your homeland to a foreign country. Even then I hesitate to say it’s personal to me, since I’ve been in Canada from a very young age. But it’s something I’ve observed from my parents, and from friends who immigrated at a few years older than me.

 

The world of “The Lady of Butterflies” feels richly developed, especially for a novelet.  Can you tell us anything about your process for building the background and setting of this story, or what inspirations you drew for this world?

I’ve been developing the world for quite a while. It originated as the backdrop of a complicated fight-for-your-chance-second-chance-at-life story that I’m nowhere near completing. When I started planning “The Lady of Butterflies,” I realized it slotted quite well into the Empire of Keja, and I didn’t need to build another fantasy world from scratch for it.

 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel set in the same world as “The Lady of Butterflies,” one generation later. (This is not the fight-for-your-chance-second-chance-at-life story mentioned above, but a separate story. The world has really expanded). It features a protagonist with time travel abilities… of a sort.

I also have the usual slew of short stories in various stages of writing, editing, and submission. My most recent publication is “The Palace of the Silver Dragon” in Strange Horizons.

 

“The Lady of Butterflies” appears in the November/December 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1811.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Clicking on Y. M. Pang’s photo will take you to her website: http://www.ympang.com/

Interview: Jeffrey Ford on “Thanksgiving”

Tell us a bit about “Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving” is a story about this couple that has had Thanksgiving dinner at their house for a bunch of people going back more than 15 years. In recent years they’ve given up on the huge dinners, feeding 40 people, and cut back just to themselves, another couple who are their closest friends, the woman host’s mother, and Uncle Jake. A few years after they quit the big dinners, on Thanksgiving, after the meal, and after Uncle Jake heads off into the night, sitting around drinking coffee, the hosts and remaining guests realize that no one actually knows whose uncle Uncle Jake is.

 

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

My brother and sister-in-law had a party every year for St. Patrick’s Day on top of a mountain in Arizona. They fed half the town. I think the party lasted 25 years. I met a lot of people there. I met the woman who was the voice for Sally in the Peanuts cartoons. I met painters and writers and plumbers. Recently my in-laws decided to bag it. Who can blame them. That was part of what got me started, I’d just returned to Ohio from the last of those giant parties.

And… I went to the wedding for the kid across the road recently. He mowed our lawn for years. Many acres and he always did a great job. He got married and my wife and I were invited. We drove way out into the farmland to this big Indian lodge like pavilion where they held the wedding. The place was packed with people. There were hundreds. I saw the groom’s dad go by in the crowd. I’ve known him for a while. I said to him, “Ya got a lot of people here. Are a lot from your work at the firehouse (he’s a fireman)?” He smiled and shook his head. He said, “I don’t know who any of these people are. I might know thirty people here he said. Then the crowd drew him on and he was soon out of sight.

Those two incidents came together.

 

Why do you write?

Having an art to practice and ponder for an entire life is one of the luckiest things. I do love it.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

This question is too vast to answer efficiently, so I’ll tell you one thing I’ve started doing lately. I get up very early in the morning, and I turn on all the lights in the kitchen, and even though the weather is cold, I open the sliding door and just use the screen. I put on a sweatshirt and get a big mug of coffee. Then I sit down at the kitchen counter and read for an hour in Book 1 of The Story of the Stone. The first book I read in this manner was Orlando Furioso book 1. While I read, I can hear the wind blowing dead leaves across the yard and the distant dinging of the jeweled wren wind chime in the pear tree at the front of the house. I’ve decided to dedicate this time to big slow old books. Next up, is the first book of the 3-book set of The Arabian Nights, Penguin edition. Somewhere along the line, I’ll get back to books 2 and 3 of the Arabian Nights, books 2 thru 6 of Story of the Stone, etc. No rush. I’m going to take my time and let it all slowly blend into one big story I can’t remember the beginning or end of.

 

“Thanksgiving” appears in the November/December 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1811.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

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