Interview: Science Fiction Writer Geoffrey A. Landis

From Ohio Writer , May/June 1992

Interviewer: Mary A. Turzillo

MT: What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?

GL: All writing has to entertain, but if I had an ulterior motive, I like fiction that makes you think, so that's what I write.

MT: What do you like to read? Do you read a lot of fiction?

GL: I do read a lot of science fiction short stories, because I'm fond of the short story form. I also wander through the library and pick up things at random: books of fairy tales, Russian novels, historical works, a book on Wall Street in the late 1800's.

MT: And what was that?

GL: The Scarlet Lady of Wall Street , which was about the Pennsylvania Railroad and the financial manipulations of Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

MT: Where do you get your ideas, for example, the idea for "Ripples in the Dirac Sea"?

GL: That story, as most, had several roots. One root was my decision that in a story about time travel, things shouldn't happen in chronological order. Non-linear narrative is appropriate for two reasons. First, how do you tell a time travel story? In what order does it make most sense? The other reason was that this is the way that memory works. When you think about the past, you don't think about events in chronological order, but jumbled, out of order.

A second root was exploring how people get obsessed with certain past events and keep returning to them. In the story, the narrator returns physically to the same event, but in real life, people get obsessed with a past event, and let that control and color the rest of their lives. I was also exploring issues of what you would do if you had perfect freedom, or alternatively, if you had absolutely no power to control the future. Human beings take their power to control the future, even if only in a small way, for granted. What if you had no power at all to control the future?

A third root is that I wanted to write a story with real physics in it. To often in science fiction, writers just make up the physics and it doesn't make sense. Since the 1920's, there have been fascinating, strange developments in quantum mechanics. I wanted to explore these fictionally. Everybody's heard about Schroedinger's cat --

[Note: this is a physics paradox about a cat in a box that has a fifty-fifty chance of being poisoned depending on whether a subatomic particle decays, only the cat isn't' really alive or dead until you open the box. The event is not real until observed.]

GL: Schroedinger's wave equation was by no means the last word in quantum mechanics, which developed in unusual ways form there. I wanted to write a story in which I actually discussed real physics.

MT: Your first story, "Elemental", was a nominee for the Campbell Award for best new writer. What's the genesis of that story?

GL: The real genesis was a bull-session with my mother. We both read science fiction and agreed it would be interesting to write a story. I said, "What if magic were a technology, no mumbo-jumbo and mysticism attached? Suppose magic worked the same way as television. If it doesn't work, it's because there's technologically something wrong." I wrote down my notes and started plotting.

You know, on that story, I knew what I was doing as I wrote; every line had a purpose. My later stories don't always work that way. In a sense, I know less about writing now that when I wrote my first story. Now it's more a blind leap into empty space, sometimes.

MT: You're saying now your work is more improvisational, you're playing it by ear?

GL: It seems so, but it probably isn't. When I write a story now, I know know how it ends; I don't start until I know the characters a bit, and what I'm trying to say. But I don't have the middle outlined. I have faith that things will happen. It's a little frightening thinking, "Gee, I hope that I can make this into a real story instead of a framework with cardboard characters."

MT: A critic cites "Ripples" as post-modernist, alluding to elements your mention, the way consciousness works, the fact that chronological narrative isn't; always most meaningful; in fact there is no such thing as objective chronology. Is there a post-modernist influence on your work?

GL: I think of it as New Wave. In science fiction what you would call post-modernism integrates the literary lesson of the New Wave, where writers played with technique and perception, joined with the traditionally heavily plotted, almost action-adventure stories that grow from a technological or philosophical seed. So in that sense, you can call this story post-modernist. I usually do have philosophical, technical, or scientific ideas that I want to explore, and in "Ripples," I also experimented with non-linear narrative.

MT: Did readers resist that non-linearity?

GL: Among readers, everyone I've talk to said that they liked the story. I had problems finding the right market. It went to ten different publishers, and the editor who finally purchased it had rejected an earlier draft. I sent it back and said, "Well, I've revised; would you like to look at it again?" And he bought it.

MT: The resistance was because of narrative format and philosophy?

GL: Hard to say. The editor, Gardner Dozois, was taking a risk. Because when ever you publish an unusual story, you're hoping readers will like it.

MT: Is much of your fiction experimental, New Wave, or post-modern?

GL: Some of my stories play with stylistic issues you might call New Wave or post-modern. But that isn't usually my main intent. I want to make language, style, and format fit the story. I've experimented some -- second person viewpoint, with an ambiguous ending, for example.

MT: In what story?

GL "Vacuum States," which has what I call an H.G. Wells "the universe or nothing at all" ending, a "lady or the tiger" ending. And this was well received; it's about to be translated into French. I just published another second person story, called "Jamais Vue."

MT: Oh, about a man who tricks himself into forgetting his favorite novel, so he can read it again and again -- very post-modern!

GL: Very metafictional, a story about fiction. In both stories, I used second person to engage the reader by utilizing him directly as a a character. Another device I used one time was writing a story -- "The City of Ultimate Freedom" - without referring to any of the characters by a pronoun, so it was impossible to tell the gender of any of the characters. Unfortunately, a copy editor added a pronoun, just one place halfway through.

MT: (Laughing) Much of your fiction depicts the triumph of human ingenuity and courage over the forces of natural disaster and evil. Is this your natural philosophical bent, or just the way fiction has to be?

GL: It's certainly not the way fiction has to be. It's the type of story I like to tell. Often my stories have no villains, or villains off stage. I show people coping with bad situations. Often science fiction is about people solving problems with nothing but their wits. This theme,. a strong thread in science fiction, is one of the good things about it. In the best SF, heroes don't conquer by drawing their guns faster or slugging the villain and knocking him out. Instead, they're ordinary people who survive by thinking, by being more intelligent than the universe. And that's a good lesson.

MT: Science fiction writers and "literary fiction" writers sometimes engage in mutual name-calling. Literary fiction is called muddy or obscure; SF is called melodramatic. Where do you stand? Do you respect literary fiction?

GL: The best science fiction is literary. The problem with science fiction is that it needs all the virtues of literary fiction, but also, to be good science fiction, it has to explore an idea, a new environment, a scientific theory, or technological innovation. So it must have everything that any other fiction has, and more. As a result, science fiction is harder to write than any other type of fiction. since it's harder to write, there are more failures. Much science fiction, for example, focuses only on a technical problem or scientific theory. The writers become so enraptured with the theory that they forget characterization and style. Indeed, some readers read SF only for the ideas, the science and technology, and for these readers, if the plot is boring cliche, the same old action-adventure, they don't care, because for them plot is only a device to explore the consequences of a new scientific theory or the environment of an alien world. But in the very best science fiction, a small part but the most important park, literary merit and bold extrapolation work together.

MT: Do you see stylistic differences between literary and science fiction?

GL: Can I tell the difference between John Steinbeck and Bruce Sterling? Probably, but you have to compare ten thousand literary writers with a thousand literary writers. And I don't know if I can answer that question.

MT: You recent work leans away from exploring implications of science and technology and more toward fantasy and philosophical twists. In ten years, will you still be writing hard science fiction?

GL: I'm not sure I agree. I write both types, stories with a hard scientific or technological center, and stories that you might call fantasy, centered around abstract ideas. I do like hard science fiction, fiction strongly based in science and technology, but fiction that, in C.P. Snow's classification, bridges the two cultures, scientific and humanistic. I find hard science fiction fascinating, and I'll continuing to write it. But that's not all I write. There are a lot of things in the universe -- and I want to write about them all.

MT: Are you thinking of writing a novel?

GL: Not at the moment. A novel is a long term commitment. To write a novel, I would need characters that really have something to say and a story worth exploring at length. Should some characters come to me and say, "We desperately need our story told and it will take 50,000 words to tell it," then I'd think about it. There are always more stories to write than I have time to write.

MT: Where is science fiction going? What will be its place in 2092?

GL: In a hundred years, if science fiction still exists, it'll be very different, because the world will be very different. Science fiction writers are glib at making predictions. But a real prediction of what life will be like in a hundred years would be as hard as somebody in 1892 trying to predict 1992 -- automobiles, airplanes, electric power across the country, radio, television. Probably some people alive now will be there to see it. They will be as much amazed by the progress in the upcoming century as the people who were alive in 1892 were by things they saw in our century.

MT: What advice would give a beginning science fiction writer?

GL: First, don't write science fiction unless you really love it, because it's a really hard genre. You're competing against people who really are in love with SF. Before you can write science fiction you have to read a lot of it, to learn what's been done and the techniques of filling in the background, a strange and alien background. You don't want to reinvent these techniques. If you haven't read a lot of SF you're at a tremendous disadvantage.

Next, if you want to write science fiction you have to be interested in everything. Like all fiction writers, you have to be interested in characters, in people. But you also have to be fascinated with technology and science. You have to know something about history, because history is the story of new technologies, changing civilization, from the introduction of iron weapons, through the invention of the printing press and of democracy. Over and over again we can see history as the impact of technology on culture. History, anthropology -- it's hard to say what isn't important. I read of potential impact, advances that we are only beginning to understand the consequences of. All these are fertile ground for fiction. The heart of science fiction is how the world changes.

MT: Does your writing career ever conflict with your career as a scientist?

GL: People at NASA who know that I write science fiction think it's great. They all respect it. I do worry about one thing: people may look at some of my papers and ask themselves "Is this one science or science fiction?" I'm afraid they won't be able to tell.

MT: You edited a hefty volume of papers on the possibilities of space travel in the next millennium, right?

GL: Yes, Vision 21, a conference proceedings: speculations , but not fiction. As to my two roles, so far, there's no conflict. Being a scientist helps my writing. They say "Write what you know," and what I know is scientists, graduate students, and research projects , topics which are well received by science fiction readers.

However, a scientist soon discovers that reality doesn't work the way science fiction pictures it. Even I have been guilty of writing stories where a lone inventor, in his basement, with scraps of baling wire and a few transistors, invents wonderful gadgets, but that's not the real world. In the real world there's a dividing line between experimentalist and theorist, unlike in fiction where somebody comes up with a neat idea, then goes into the lab and builds a prototype gadget. In science, years can elapse between the theorist getting an idea and the experimentalist figuring out how to test it. The other difference is that in real life theorists are often wrong and experiments don't work the first time. But that doesn't play well in fiction. You don't want a long story about a theoretical idea that was wrong in the first place, and the experiments failed.

MT: What about cats? What part do cats play in a writer's life?

GL: Well, I have my cats type my stories. This is convenient because
-- no, really, a lot of writers have cats. I don't know why. Possibly because cats are independent little creates and writers respect independence.

GL: Could you explain your cats' names, Quark and Lepton?

GL: Well, quarks and leptons are subatomic particles -- tiny bits of energy. You have to remember they were named as kittens.

  • Back to Landis home page.

    First appeared in Ohio Writer, May/June 1992
    Copyright 1992 by Mary A. Turzillo.