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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.

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