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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.

Interview: Kat Howard on “A User’s Guide to Increments of Time”

- Tell us a bit about “A User’s Guide to Increments of Time.”

It’s the story of two chronomancers, time wizards, who fall in love, and then have a very bad breakup.


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

The prompt came when I was looking for a recording of a specific piece of classical music. Which exact piece and why I was looking currently escapes me, but in the course of my search, I came across a playlist of music where each song had 60 beats per minute. One of those songs was the piece mentioned in the opening of the story – Bach’s “Air On the G String.” Listening to it, I had an image of a woman, swaying in time with the music, her hands moving in the air, but not like she was conducting, like she was doing magic. And so I wrote the story that went with her.


- Was “A User’s Guide to Increments of Time” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I don’t like to say that anything I write isn’t personal, because to me that implies that I don’t care about the story. But in terms of, was there some specific motivation drawn from life, or some specific detail that I stole from myself and gave to one of the characters in it, no.


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

I would hope they find some pleasure in the reading experience, but there’s no moral behind it. Except maybe don’t piss off a wizard.


- What are you working on now?

I am extremely superstitious about talking about things while I am writing on them, so I will be as unhelpful as possible, and say only that I am actively working on a novella and a novel right now.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

If you’re looking for more short fiction from me, I have a story that will be out in the April issue of Lightspeed, called “The Universe, Sung in Stars.” It’s about tiny, wearable pocket universes, among other things.

And my debut novel, Roses and Rot, which is about many things like art and sacrifice and sisters and magic, but has no tiny, wearable pocket universes in, will be out from Saga Press in early 2016.

“A User’s Guide to Increments of Time” appears in the March/April 2015 issue.

Interview: C.C. Finlay on his ascension to the Editorship of F&SF

- How does it feel to be the new Editor of F&SF?

I’ve never been skydiving but I suspect that jumping out of a plane for the first time feels a lot like this. Right now everything is rushing past and it’s a little bit scary and a whole lot exhilarating. I’m trying to enjoy it and at the same time I’m trying to remember to do everything I’m supposed to do so there’s no awful crash.


- Give us the story of how you got the job.

Gordon Van Gelder (F&SF’s publisher and previous editor) may be the best person to tell that story. He was the first editor to buy my fiction and he’s published more stories by me than anyone else. Over the years we’ve talked a lot about the magazine and its history and direction. When he asked me if I had ever thought about being an editor, I said “Yes,” and when he gave me the chance to guest edit an issue last year (July/August 2014), I jumped on the opportunity. That issue worked out, so he gave me the chance to guest edit again and then that turned into the job.


- What is your editorial vision for the magazine going forward?

It seems to me that over 65 years and through 8 previous editors, F&SF has had an amazingly consistent vision. First, F&SF publishes a wider range of genre fiction than anyone else. Fantasy and science fiction are both right there in the title, but from the very beginning F&SF has also published horror, weird fiction, alternate history, and anything else that falls under the rubric of “speculative fiction.”  Second, the magazine looks for a very high quality of writing. F&SF has always been the magazine where you might end up reading literary writers like Kurt Vonnegutt or Joyce Carol Oates alongside core genre writers like Ray Bradbury or Ursula K. Le Guin, and it all fits together. Third, the magazine’s editors have always looked for new voices: F&SF was one of the first magazines in the 1950s to really welcome women writers into the genre, and it was one of the first genre magazines to publish a lot of translated fiction, and it’s continued that tradition in other ways ever since. Finally, F&SF has always been entertaining. It’s always had stories that were fun to read as well as thought-provoking.

My vision to carry on that tradition. My tastes are different than Gordon’s, and I’ll publish some different stories and writers than he did. I’ve also introduced some new tools — like electronic submissions — that will make it possible to find a wider range of stories and writers. But I think the ultimate vision for the magazine will be the same, even if, over time, the issues will feel different and reflect my taste in stories.


- More specifically, what kinds of stories are you looking for?

I love stories that surprise me in some way with their ideas, their characters, their plots, their language. I love stories that do more than one thing well — beautiful language and a compelling idea; fast-paced adventure and a complex, interesting theme; diverse, complicated characters and cool science, or any other combination. I love stories that take some kind of risk and make it work. I love the stories I didn’t know I needed until I read them.


- How do you think your tenure as editor will compare/contrast to past F&SF editors?

I used a skydiving metaphor earlier, and I think it applies here too. I won’t really know until I eventually touch ground. In the meantime, I’ve been completing my collection of F&SF issues back to 1949. I’ll be reading them when I have time and trying to learn everything I can from the editors who’ve come before me.


- What challenges and opportunities do you think F&SF faces in competition with the other print magazines and the online markets?

“Competition” feels like the wrong word to me. I don’t feel like the data shows that readers choose one magazine and read no others. The more good markets there are, the better it is for writers and readers. The circulation of the print magazines has been increasing in recent years. I think that in part that’s because the success of online markets has created more readers and developed more interest in finding good stories. In addition, the rise of ebooks and electronic editions has made it possible to reach more readers in the formats they prefer.

F&SF occupies a special position in the field — because of its history, because of its diversity of stories. Because of the quality of the physical object, for people who still want the experience of holding or collecting a paper magazine. The challenge F&SF faces is finding ways to make new readers aware of the magazine. The opportunity is that I think there are a lot of potential new readers.


- What administrative changes are coming to the magazine now that you’re taking over the Editor position?

The biggest change is the switch to electronic submissions. This breaks down barriers and makes it possible for lots of writers to submit, no matter where they are in the world or whether they can afford postage for their MSs. We’ve already bought stories from writers in China, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the long term, I think it will greatly add to the diversity of voices in the magazine. That will be good for writers and readers, and it’s something I’m very excited about.


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.









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