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Interview: Dale Bailey on “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride”

- Tell us a bit about “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride.”

Lightning Jack is a story I’ve been wrestling with for a long, long time—I wouldn’t want to say how many years.  The problem was that I had the title, but nothing else to work with.  And when I did get started my drafts always went off the rails.  The consequence of this is that I also have half a novella—a totally different story—that grew from the same title.  I plan to finish it, but I guess I’ll have to come up with something else to call it.


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

I finally broke through and managed to hook a story to the title when I got interested in the gangsters of the 1930s—Babyface Nelson and John Dillinger and people of that ilk.  I got interested in the question of how they inspired such loyalty from their gangs, and more than that, the way they came to seize the public eye.  These were very bad men, yet they came to be viewed as folk heroes by some.  I was trying to explore that question.


- Was “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Only in the sense that all my stories are personal—that I get caught up in writing them, the characters, the language, especially the language.  I have no personal history with gangsters or NASCAR!


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

Well, I’m not very good at research, really.  I tend to make it all up.  I did do some research on NASCAR, mainly by asking some questions of a friend that’s a big fan.  And a lot of the language that Gus uses is more or less authentic.  But I’m sure I got a lot of it wrong.


- What are you working on now?

I have a collection of stories—The End of the End of Everything—coming out in April.  Most of my time lately has been devoted to a novel, The Subterranean Season, which should be out this fall.  I also have another novel in process, and a variety of short stories in various stages of incompletion.  There’s always a bunch of those.

“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Eric Schwitzgebel on “Out of the Jar”

- Tell us a bit about “Out of the Jar.”

A philosophy professor discovers that he is an AI in a simulated environment run by a sadistic teenager who insists on being called “God.”

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

I’m interested in skeptical epistemology (for example, how confident can we be that we aren’t in a sim right now?), in theories of consciousness (are there conditions under which sim characters could actually have conscious experience?), and in the extent to which we have moral obligations to any conscious AIs we might create in the future.

- How does your experience as a philosophy professor inform your fiction writing?

Contemporary academic philosophers don’t write much fiction, but many of the greatest philosophers in history have worked partly in the medium of fiction: Plato, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, for example.  Detailed examples and vivid thought experiments have always played a central role in philosophical thinking, even among more typically expository philosophers.  Fiction and thought experiment, by engaging the imagination and the emotions, add richness and specificity to philosophical thinking.  The human mind is much better suited to thinking about examples than about abstract formulae.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Out of the Jar?”

This is my first full-length published story, so for me, the research was all on the fiction-writing side – trying to get a feel for the SF genre, especially trying to get a better understanding of how the writers develop plot and character.  I read tons of SF stories in “Best of” anthologies, Asimov’s, F&SF, Clarkesworld, etc.

- What might you want a reader to take away from “Out of the Jar?”

I want the reader to think about the moral relationship between the gods who create worlds and the sims (or other types of beings) that they create.  Literally, I think, you can call the creator of conscious sims a “god” from the point of view of the sim (see my blog post “Our possible imminent divinity[PGS1] .”  What obligations would you as a god have to your sims?  Also, I’d love it if the reader thought a bit about her attitude toward the repetitive blissful harp-playing of “Heaven 1c”, though I don’t explore that issue much in the story.

- What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story that pits the value of eternal looping joy against the value of a normal human life.  I’m working on a couple of stories that explore the bizarre philosophical implications of an infinite cosmology in which there are infinitely many duplicates of you living out every possibility.  I’m working on a story that considers the Singularity from the perspective of someone with doubts about whether consciousness can really be instantiated rather than merely mimicked in computers.  I’m working on a story featuring a group mind composed of a billion individual humans.  Et cetera!  Maybe not all of these will work out, but I’m having fun.

In expository philosophy, I’m working on the issues of group consciousness[PGS2], radical skepticism[PGS3] (including dream skepticism, sims, and Boltzmann brains), robot/AI rights[PGS4], the moral behavior of ethics professors[PGS5], a theory of jerks and sweethearts[PGS6], and a position I call “crazyism[PGS7] ,” which is the idea that something that seems crazy must be true, but we have no way of settling which among the crazy alternatives is actually correct.  In this connection, I want to explore crazy-seeming ideas like that we might all be parts of God’s mind or that we are AIs for which space is just a feature of our programming environment rather than a fundamental feature of things in themselves (“Kant meets cyberpunk[PGS8] ”)

- Anything else you’d like to add?

The part in the story about demons being allergic to almonds – I made that up.  Please don’t rely on it as part of your summoning technique.

“Out of the Jar” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of F&SF.









Interview: Michael Libling on “Hollywood North”

- Tell us a bit about “Hollywood North.”

I’d like to say the story is about Hollywood, but there’s only one other person I know who sees it this way. Rather than fight it, I’ll say that “Hollywood North” is about two boys, one who finds things, another who wants things, and how their lives play out against the backdrop of Trenton, Ontario, an actual small town with a compelling and inexplicably secret history.


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

There was never a single moment of inspiration. Certain parts of the story had been with me for years. I’ve got notes that go back to the early 1980s. Despite growing up in Trenton, it was only years after I moved away that I began to find out about the history of the place. For starters, the town had suffered more than its fair share of disasters. An ammunition plant explosion. A mid-air plane collision. Train wrecks. Huge fires. And then came the bit that intrigued me most: Trenton had been a center for the Canadian silent film industry from 1917 to 1934. Oddly, while growing up in the town, neither I nor my two older sisters had ever heard a word about any of it. Not from our teachers. Not from our parents. Not from anyone. Why would these facts have been kept secret?

Another element was added in 2010 when Trenton made national news with a serial killer.

I knew I was onto something, but I still wasn’t sure what. It was while working on another story in 2013 that these questions came into my head: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to another person? Is it relatively minor, an anecdote you might eventually share with someone close to you? Or is it something so terrible your only option is to keep it inside of you forever?

I knew immediately how and where the questions applied, and “Hollywood North” flew from there.


- Was “Hollywood North” personal to you in any way, and if so, how?

Every story is personal. But the fact I grew up in Hollywood North definitely ups the ante. Many of my stories are set in small towns and Trenton tends to factor in to some extent, though this is the first time I’ve used the actual setting and history. Like Jack’s parents, my mother and father ran a small restaurant. Similar to the Marquee in the story, the Theatre Bar was a popular hangout for locals. As a kid, I spent hours in the place, with regulars bending my ear, telling me stories about this or that. Also, like Jack, after I moved away, I returned in my teens for a summer job at the marina. One day, Rod Serling showed up on his boat. I sold him a block of ice and told him how I wanted to be a writer. He tipped me generously.


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

The research was ongoing over many years and in a variety of forms. My own memories, of course, if you can call that research. Conversations with my sisters. Newspaper archives. A couple of books about Trenton, most notably Peggy Dymond Leavey’s “The Movie Years”, a history of the town’s film industry. The book came out in 1989 and now seems to be a collector’s item. I also made several visits to Trenton, exploring my old haunts, as well as the sites and landmarks that turn up in the story. It’s always a weird feeling going back there. My nostalgia inevitably leads to a knot in the gut.


- What might you want someone to take away from “Hollywood North?”

The reader is free to take away whatever she or he may like. While I have an ultimate message in mind, I’m not going to tell the reader how to feel or think after finishing it. My priority is to tell a good story that entertains and, if I’m lucky, moves the reader in some way. Remember, as I said at the outset, I’m one of two people who think I’ve written a story about Hollywood, so I’m hardly the best person, author or not, to consult here.


- What are you working on now?

I never talk to anyone about anything I’m working on for fear of boring myself to death before I get down to the actual writing. In general terms, I completed a novel not long ago and have more short stories in various states of completion than ever before. I hope you’ll get the chance to see some of it in print, preferably sooner than later.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

Speaking of boring, I rarely get the chance to blather endlessly about my fiction to anyone. I thank F&SF for giving me this forum.

“Hollywood North” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Paul Di Filippo on “I’ll Follow the Sun”

- Tell us a bit about “I’ll Follow the Sun.”

Out of all the sub-genres of SF, time-travel is one mode I’ve hardly touched, despite having written over 200 stories.  So I thought I might try my hand at this theme, to push myself into new territory.  As it is, I ended up hardly scratching the surface of time travel’s complexities, so it leaves me lots of room for return engagement.  I also wanted to treat time travel as a psychical matter, along the lines of Jack Finney’s famous TIME AND AGAIN.  No machinery to complicate matters.


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

Editor Gordon was a big impetus, kindly soliciting me to provide an entry for the special taboo-breaking issue.  You can’t turn down a challenge like that!  But I also for some time had been wanting to examine how our culture has changed over the span of my sixty years of living.  As an SF writer, I remain committed to the future, and to deeply grokking current trends and phenomena.  But as a “civilian,” I also have to evaluate the culture in terms of its pleasantness for my personal tastes and attitudes, and also try to gauge it on some kind of objective level regarding improvements, deteriorations, etc.  By contrasting the worlds of 1964 and 2014, I had the perfect narrative laboratory for showing just where our civilization seemed to have done right and gone wrong.  I think my story barely scratched the surface, and I’d like to do a whole novel on these lines.  But it would be an alternate history rather than pure time travel.  The “jonbar point” of change would be the year 1910.  Of course, the research involved would be tremendous, to do it right, since I would basically be recasting the entire 20th century and beyond.


- Was “I’ll Follow the Sun” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I tried in the story to convey some of my personal and private dismay toward the more glaring crudities and barbarities rampant today.  In many ways–and I really think this perception does not derive solely from my own growing fossilization, which strikes all humans as we age and which I daily strive to conquer–the world of 2014 is a much more savage, rude, and less gracious place than the world of 1964.  I can only hope the world of 2064 is not even worse!


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

Just boning up a bit on some convincing mathematical/physic terminology to cloak the time travel concept with.  Other than that, having lived through 1964 personally, I only had to confirm a few historical markers.  Oh, yes, I also had to nail down a few facts concerning the actual life of the great Chan Davis, whose fictional avatar we were kindly permitted to employ!


- What might you want someone to take away from reading “I’ll Follow the Sun?”

Fortune favors the brave.  Be compassionate.


- What are you working on now?

A story for the tribute volume dedicated to Samuel Delany.  My piece is called “Devils at Play.”


- Anything else you’d like to add?

If you put an issue of F&SF from 1964 next to one from 2014, I think you’d have to say the old girl has aged pretty darn well,   staying rather youthful in fact, and showing all signs of lasting till 2064!

“I’ll Follow the Sun” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Scott Baker on “Feral Frolics”

- Tell us a bit about “Feral Frolics.”

“Feral Frolics” is about a serial cat killer and his justly-deserved fate, told from the cat-killer’s point of view.


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

The overall inspiration for the story is the horror I feel about the way people hate, torture, and abuse cats. There is a long history of cat torture and massacres (see the Great Cat Massacre, France, 1730), and specifically the slaughter of black cats, which were supposedly agents of the devil (see Pope Gregory IX). There is a tradition of drowning excess kittens by tying them in sacks and throwing them in rivers and the like. A few years ago there was a video on the net of some woman who grabbed a cat she saw of the street and stuffed it in a garbage can, clamped the lid on and left it to die–though luckily it was rescued. Recently, there has been a lot of furor over the dangers of both cat-spread toxoplasmosis and cats essentially eating too many birds. In 2013, in fact, Gareth Morgan, a New Zealand philanthropist and economist, called for the eradication of all cats in New Zealand.


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

There is a strong personal element in the horror I feel about the way cats are mistreated.  When I was in graduate school I had a black rescue cat whom I named Radiator for the warmth she gave off. When I dropped out of graduate school, I didn’t know where I was going to end up and lived in my van for a while. Since I didn’t think I could take care of Radiator under those conditions, I left her with my then-girlfriend, a Ph.D. student in psycho-biology who I thought liked her. I was later told that after I was gone she had had Radiator vivisected. This still horrifies me, and whenever I think about it I am overcome with fury, revulsion and grief at what she did to Radiator and guilt for having given her to her.


- What are your feelings on cats?

I love cats, as is probably obvious by now, and currently get most of my day-to-day human contact from Onyx, a beautiful long-haired black rescue cat. My two previous cats were also black rescue cats (Black cats are the least-often adopted–which means that the most-often euthanized–rescue cats.) The most interesting cat I ever had was Turner, a Serval (African wildcat) cub, who was given to me and my ex-wife by a random stranger we ran into on the street. His owner told us Turner was a domestic/Serval hybrid, but we found out some months later he was actually a pure-bred Serval. This made him illegal in California and if he’d been discovered, he almost certainly would have been destroyed. We were lucky enough to find a good home for him at Wild Things, in Salinas. Turner liked almost all people, which is very rare for an adult Serval, and his keeper would take him to schools to give students a chance to learn about wild animals.


- What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a voodoo demiurge roadhouse story that is somewhat difficult to describe. I’m having a lot of fun writing it.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, the only thing I can think of to add is to get on my soap box and encourage donations to animal rescue organizations, especially the ones that keep older, injured and un-adoptable animals instead of euthanizing them. When I lived in Paris, every year people would abandon pets when they left for summer vacation. Here in the states people are often forced to give up their pets when they move somewhere that doesn’t allow pets. These animals are our responsibility. They didn’t ask to be born, and they deserve to be cared for.

“Feral Frolics” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of F&SF.

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