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James Alan Gardner Explains Himself to the World at Large
Here is our complete interview with James Alan Gardner. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 3.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: How did you get started writing?
JAG: I was one of those kids who was always writing something, especially on work terms with UW [when you're in the University of Waterloo's co-op program, you alternate school and work terms -- ed.]. I did my 8 hours a day with IBM, and then went home and wrote because I didn't have enough money to do anything else. So I wrote all through university. The first things that got published were a couple of short stories in MathNews [the newspaper of the Math faculty students at UW -- ed.]. Then I started writing for FASS, a musical comedy show that's put on at the University of Waterloo every year. Basically you show up and if you're a warm body they let you write -- I learned a lot of stuff.
The very first year I was there they did a Star Trek parody. One of the characters -- I don't know who came up with this, I wish I did -- was called the Expendable Crew Member, who they brought on -- it was the same guy every time -- and they killed him in various colourful ways. Whenever one of the major characters was in danger they'd stop, bring in the Expendable Crew Member, and he'd get killed off. That turned into something else later on. So I wrote for FASS, I wrote a number of radio dramas for CKMS, and kept writing various plays and things, but I was also writing stories. Eventually, in 1989, I sent a story to the Writers of the Future contest and was grand prize winner that year. And I've been publishing ever since.
CD: Why do you write, and why do you write science fiction?
JAG: I would write no matter what. I certainly wrote for something like 16 years without making a heck of a lot of money on it -- probably in all that time I made $100 on it. It seems that just about everything comes out either science fiction or fantasy. I just have the sort of brain that turns everything around. I tried to do a few straight mysteries, and they were fun, but I know how a SF story works a lot better than I know how other stories work. I tried to do a straight horror story a while ago because I had an interesting setup for one, but I got halfway through and realized I just didn't have the chemistry with it. I knew all kinds of horrible things that could happen, and I knew how someone could die horribly, and I knew how there could be supernatural things coming in, but it just didn't have the kick for me that would tell me this is the way the story should go, that this is a rewarding story. I could go through all the motions, and I could put in the things I've seen in a lot of other horror stories. I like reading horror, but I didn't really know how to pull it together in a way that would satisfy me. SF and fantasy, I know how they should work, and I know what an ending should look like. There have been a lot of stories I've read -- mystery stories or other genres -- and immediately I think of the SF angle or the fantasy angle whereas someone else did it a different way.
CD: How did you come up with the character of Festina Ramos [the narrator of Expendable]?
JAG: In FASS 1977 we'd done the character Expendable Crew Member. One of the things that I do occasionally in writing when I don't have anything else to do is just sit down and improvise in a tone of voice. One of the things that's important for me is to get the voice of characters right. Both my novels are in first person, and just about every story I've written is in first person. While I don't "hear" characters speaking to me, getting into their voice, figuring out their concerns and what they're obsessed about is where I really find the handle to writing a story. And so one night I was thinking about the Expendable Crew Member, shortly after FASS, and this voice just came out, saying "Oh, you think it's funny, do you? Well here's how life is..." Improvising that took me maybe 3 weeks to do the first 100 pages of Expendable. The whole setup came out -- why anyone would be shafted with this terrible job of getting killed, and things just ran out to about the point where they landed on Melaquin and she'd just passed out. That just flowed automatically almost entirely from improvisation, and with a few polish-ups that's what got into the book. I got them down to Melaquin with absolutely no idea what was down there, just not a clue. Off and on over the next few years I tried some things and it never worked. It was 1994 that I sat down and said, this is silly to have a good story just sitting there doing nothing. So I really banged on it for a while and sorted out everything -- sorted out who dies, because various people who were with her didn't die in various incarnations. Getting that sorted out -- finding out what sort of people she'd meet on Melaquin and what was going on there anyway, what the other explorers had done -- that took me a while but once I sorted that out the rest of the book just kept going.
CD: At the beginning of Commitment Hour you say, "To Linda: Here's another novel you don't have to finish if I get hit by a bus."
JAG: Linda is my wife. In addition to Expendable and Commitment Hour I've got maybe 5 or 6 other really good book ideas that are maybe 100 pages in -- a promising voice, a promising start, and I didn't know where to take it from there. Linda is always afraid that she's going to have to take these and finish the story. Especially when they're 100 pages where I don't know what's happening next. She's read just about everything I've written that's got to any reasonable stage. When I'm beginning to feel happy about something and I've got maybe 50 or 60 pages I put it in front of her to see what she thinks, and that's often really useful. She gives me feedback all the way through, as I'm writing. I used to be part of a writing group that gave me feedback too.
CD: Are there particular writers you consider major influences on your writing?
JAG: John Collier -- who practically nobody has heard of these days -- was a British writer who wrote in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. A lot of the early Twilight Zone things were based on John Collier's stories because they were kind of charming, kind of quirky, had some nice twists to them -- were very funny, many of them. And I picked up -- because I liked the cover -- a book of John Collier's stories when I was 12 and read them and reread them. I think that a lot of what he does is similar -- whimsical science fictiony or fantasy type things. The other person is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I read a lot of his stuff in my "formative years." Someone recently said that Expendable sounded a lot like Vonnegut and when I think about it, there's a lot of Vonnegut in there. Those are the ones who had probably an influence on me. I've read tonnes of people, and when I think of the people I like to read these days Collier and Vonnegut don't show up there, but they're the people I was reading at the time that I was learning how to write.
CD: What authors do you read these days?
JAG: I read everything by Connie Willis -- I love her stuff. I like humour in stories, and I'm a sucker for any sort of funny SF or fantasy so I read all of Pratchett. Gene Wolfe is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Frequently he goes over my head -- I think he goes over everybody's head -- but that's fine.
CD: Have you seen any good movies lately?
JAG: I wish I had. The past year or so in movies has been pretty skimpy. There have been the big special effects romps, which are OK, but they're just special effects. With something like Lost World, the only suspense is which side of the screen the dinosaurs are going to jump out from -- and it's fun. I'll probably go to Godzilla and some of the other things that are coming out, but there's nothing that really excites me. Maybe The Avengers. You hope they do it right -- there are so many ways it could be absolutely awful. You always hear rumours that someone's making Forever War, and various Heinlein properties have been optioned. Mike Resnick talked to me 2 years ago and was sure that Santiago was going to be in production "any month now." You always hope they're going to do something good. But 5 asteroid movies in the past year?
CD: Would you like to have a movie made of one of your books?
JAG: You always think about that. I am definitely in favour of having the money from a movie made of one of my books. You wonder what they would do to it. Hemingway used to say the only way to deal with Hollywood is to stand at the California border and let them throw the money at you in buckets but never actually go into the state. Of course, it would be a wonderful thrill. People have been telling me Festina's got to be played by Jeri Ryan or Salma Hayek or Peta Wilson. Why not? But I don't know how they'd do it. I'd hate to write the script.
CD: What are your impressions of the recent Nebula Awards?
JAG: It was a fun weekend. It had its ups and downs, like I lost ["Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream" was nominated for best novelette -- ed.]. You get to hang out with a lot of people you've only known from their writing. There are a number of presentations throughout the day. Geoff Landis, who worked on the Mars Pathfinder mission, gave us a lot of information about that -- showed us some slides, explained the experiment he had on the rover, and talked about some of the upcoming missions. There was a guy with a presentation on how to make practical moonbases. There's also Santa Fe -- it was a fun place to go. And to meet the editors and to smile nicely at them. It's just a good time to make contacts and see people you'd only written to by email. I think WorldCon is probably more interesting overall -- it's longer, there's more happening. You get to talk to fans and be on panels and there's a larger set of things that are happening. The same story's nominated for the Hugos, which is another reason why I'll be at WorldCon.
CD: What do you think of the process of choosing the awards, and publishers using them for marketing?
JAG: For the Nebula, anyone in Science Fiction Writers of America can nominate anything and nominate as many things as they want, and to get on the preliminary ballot you just need 10 nominations. To some extent, that means that the preliminary ballot is basically the set of people who have 10 friends. So while there are a lot of things that are on there, and have enthusiastic recommendations, a number of them are just people who have 10 friends. But for the final Nebula ballot they only take 5 or 6 things from the preliminary ballot, so it's actually quite a meaningful honour. When a publisher puts "Nebula-nominated author" on a book, it means that they got on the final ballot for something. It may have been something 20 years ago -- this may be the first publishable thing they've written in 20 years -- but it does mean that once they wrote something really good.
Hugo is a lot wider crap shoot, because it's nominated by the people who were at last year's WorldCon and the people who are signed up for this year's WorldCon. It's mostly fans, rather than the writers themselves, although a lot of writers do nominate too. Some years there are a lot of nominations and to get on is a real challenge. Some years, for whatever reason, there aren't a lot of people who are registered. Next year the WorldCon's going to be in Australia, and so there won't be nearly as many North Americans going there as those who are signed up for Baltimore. So there are probably going to be fewer nominations next year than this year. This year there were probably quite a few, and to get on means that you caught the attention of a lot of people. The story that is on the Hugo ballot was pretty high up in the Asimov's reading poll too, so obviously it got a lot of attention from the actual readers.
CD: You've also won an Aurora award. How does that award work?
JAG: Basically any Canadian can nominate. If you wanted to get 50 of your friends together and all send in a nomination that's perfectly legal and you could get on the ballot. On the other hand, I don't know that that's happened much. When I look at the ballots of the Aurora they're all respectable things. Because there are fewer things written by Canadians, something's eligible for 2 years rather than 1 year. The year that William Gibson comes out with a new novel, everybody else is likely to get clobbered. That's not always true -- there have been people who have beaten Gibson -- but Gibson is such a high profile person and he writes such great stuff that it's almost a gimme. Gibson and Guy Kay are very strong contenders, and every year that they've got a book out they're going to be on the nomination. But then again, how many Canadian SF or fantasy novelists are there -- Gibson, Guy Kay, Dave Duncan, Rob Sawyer, Charles de Lint, and then you're getting into authors that people haven't heard of as much. It's not that they're not doing good books. Candas Jane Dorsey last year wrote Black Wine which got great reviews, and it won a number of awards in the States. But she's someone that not many people have heard of.
CD: In addition to your fiction, you do some technical writing. So what do you do when you're not writing?
JAG: These days I do a lot of kung fu. I have my green sash. You start off as a novice without a sash, in our school, then red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black. So I'm about halfway through in terms of belts, and probably half way through in terms of time spent in getting that old black sash. And I help teach kids kung fu. Apart from that, I do some gaming -- role playing. I also play piano and write songs, but don't do that in public much any more. I am somewhat proud to say I wrote the "official" Wizardry 7 FAQ, so whenever you want hints on Wizardry 7 what you're seeing is the stuff I wrote -- all those web sites out there. On the computer I mostly play role playing games. I don't have great reflexes for things like Doom, and don't have the patience for strategy games.
CD: What are you working on now?
JAG: My next novel is called Vigilant, it will come out in January, and I just finished the revisions last week. It's another one taking place in the same universe, and Festina Ramos shows up about page 150 or so, and then is around for most of the rest of the book. The essence of it is: it takes place on a planet in the technocracy where there is a group called the Vigil who are watchdogs on the government. Basically they have police powers over the government as an ombudsman-watchdog-scrutineer to search out corruption, but also just to say "yeah, that budget adds up." The hero has just joined the Vigil, when suddenly someone starts killing Vigil members for some reason.
CD: Are there any philosophical themes that you'd like to explore in your work?
JAG: The one after Vigilant, which I'm just writing now, what I've been thinking in the back of my head is: the man who finds out he was wrong. Like someone who supported Hitler in the early days, and supported him sincerely, is a good guy -- but he was dead wrong. And how do you live with yourself, what do you do when you have a real conscience and you find out the people you trusted, the people you supported, the people you helped get into power were completely corrupt. So that's what I'm working on now -- that novel's called Hunted, and Festina will show up in there, probably around page 150 too.
I don't want to do a Festina series because a novel, I think, should be about the most important thing in someone's life or a real turning point. So if it's always about Festina it's: oh she goes through this big crisis, oh but a year later she goes through another big crisis, oh but a year later she goes through another big crisis and turns around all the time. It's like these TV shows where the detective or something falls in love with a new woman each episode. People like Festina -- including my editor at Avon -- but my idea for both Vigilant and Haunted is to take someone who's going through a crisis, and for one reason or another Festina shows up and participates in that. But it's really about the primary character who is going through this life-changing thing, and when the life-changing thing is finished then their story is over. I think it's an interesting way to keep a series character without going through the flavour-of-the-month thing, with poor Festina falling in love with someone every book or something like that. It's OK if someone falls in love with Festina every book, but whether she reciprocates or not is another thing.
There's stuff to explore in that universe. People seem to be interested in it -- and I' m interested in it. One of the interesting things about the universe is that there is no possibility of interstellar war -- that any sort of conflict is on a polite level, or it's restricted to a planet. Now in Haunted there is a planet that's going through civil war, but that's never going to spread anywhere. There's never going to be anyone wandering through the galaxy trying to conquer your planet. There are different sets of problems -- there are still tonnes of complications -- but being conquered by alien invaders is not one. It's just plain unbelievable most of the time. When I think of the broad range of technologies there have to be, any civilization that's even 100 years ahead of us or 100 years behind us is so utterly different technologically -- if 1998 people invaded any culture before 1900 they'd clean up. And presumably if 2098 people invaded 1998 there wouldn't be a challenge. So I just cannot see any sort of alien invasion scenario which isn't completely one-sided. Well, there have been a couple. There's a cute little short story where there are two ways that science could go, and if science goes down the branch that gets you interstellar travel and FTL you'd never think of other things -- it's just your headspace of science is completely different. So it's interstellar invaders, but when they actually land on Earth 1990-something, they've got crossbows.
CD: What's your target audience?
JAG: I don't think of that a great deal. I try to make it as accessible as possible, but I know that it's going to be a SF reader-type audience. I have a lot of friends who "don't read SF but like your books" which is always good, but you've got to be careful about going too wild with technology. There are some things that assume a really high knowledge of science literacy in the readers. I try not to do something too outrageous. I've got FTL things, and I've got this weird sperm tail drive I play around with a lot -- and is back with a vengeance in Vigilant -- but apart from those technologies I try to make things understandable. In my stuff I use a lot of nanotech, but I wave my hands and always am very careful to say "little microscopic robots" someplace really close to the beginning to explain for people who don't know. And to try to keep the possibilities of nanotech reasonably not-wild. I have a friend, John McMullen, who does some really cool stuff with nanotech. He's got some cool ideas of telepathy, for example: nanotech seeps in through your ears and suddenly radio broadcasts back and forth between my brain and yours so I can read your mind.
CD: What do you think of hard SF in general?
JAG: I like hard SF until it gets up to technoporn. When it breaks into a technoporn passage, it just takes me completely out of the story. You know that they're putting it in to please some segment of the readership, and it's just obvious. Some people do it really well and sneak in the ideas without having these huge sections of exposition or "let's sit around and wait for someone to explain this rocket drive" or whatever, so when people do it well that's good. Another thing that bothers me is some types of hard SF where they want to make sure you know all the research they did, so they're quoting all the research papers, and again that takes you right out of the story. Not to mention that all these research papers stop at 1998, and so something that takes place in 2050 is always quoting papers up to 1998 or before but never anything after it.
CD: You wouldn't be quoting people from the 20th century in the 24th century.
JAG: Exactly, unless something drastic happens. In Commitment Hour, basically everybody left early in the 21st century, and so what they're left with 400 years later is all these books from the 20th century. They're back to pioneer days, so the 20th century is always with them. But if culture has progressed, what are people going to remember from the 20th century really? Probably a few things, a few writers, but very little else. As much as we remember from Elizabethan England.
Maybe they'll remember the year 2000 bug if it's a huge mess -- that might make enough of an impact. They will probably remember there was this weird thing called a cold war for a while, but they won't remember much about that. We all know that so much of SF that was written during the cold war is quaint now, and it's less than 10 years since the Berlin Wall came down. On the other hand, it's quite possible that Russia will rise up -- people are writing Russia off. "Now that it's capitalist, under capitalism they'll never do anything. As communists they were really tough, but as capitalists -- we can ignore them." Yeah right. They're going through a tough transition, but they're still the biggest darn country in the world. They've got resources, they've got scientific infrastructure -- maybe they will be an important influence in the future. Who knows? Or maybe China, because it's got all the people.
CD: You have a lot of humour in your books. Do you have someone that you test out the jokes on?
JAG: My wife. Usually, she likes most of the jokes. The ones that she hated you never see.
CD: What kind of responses have you gotten to the gender speculation in Commitment Hour?
JAG: Reasonably interesting. I spoke about Commitment Hour at a panel at WorldCon last year, and everybody in the audience seemed really interested by the idea of alternating sexes until you become an adult and then choosing. For some reason, that sparked a really responsive chord in the people who were there. They all wanted to talk about it, and they wanted to think about what they'd do and how they would react.
It's interesting that Avon, my publisher, has just started a new SF imprint called Eos and three of the first books they brought out all have gender speculations. There's mine which has male, female, and pure hermaphrodite. There's one called Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman, which has a third sex that is completely neuter. And all the males and females around this third sex are constantly projecting sexual images upon this person -- usually treating the person as female but sometimes thinking of it as male. And it's an interesting thing there about someone who has no sexual feelings at all but looks like a very attractive woman, but maybe a very attractive man -- but definitely not a very attractive it because I'm attracted to it so it's got to be whatever sex I like. The third one is by Stephen Leigh, Dark Water's Embrace, which also has a third gender in it, and I probably shouldn't give any bit away about that because the nature of the third gender is an important part.
But it's interesting that people are talking about genders, and about alternate genders. We had a discussion about this in a chat room as part of Eos' grand opening. There was a chat about various things, and there was a chat on gender by the three of us writers plus another writer, Severna Park. My thought on the whole thing is that women these days find it useful to use a third gender that in some ways highlights and exaggerates the condition of women today. And I think that men, on the other hand, when they treat a third gender, they treat it as "suppose it were possible not to be male." They're thinking of alternatives to being male, whereas the women are using it to highlight true aspects of being female. That's kind of a glib summary, because a writer does all kinds of things, but I think that's sort of the slant that I'm getting. A lot of people are doing that -- a lot of women want to address the female condition in some place that isn't just another woman, and I think men are breaking the grounds of their own male tunnel vision and are thinking about alternative ways of being.
CD: Do you think that physical books are going to disappear?
JAG: Sooner or later someone's going to come up with a nice reading format. I know that Sony trademarked the name Read-Man or Book-Man ages ago, but I don't know that anybody's come up with a really useful machine that would be as convenient to read as a book. In some ways, it would be really handy for something that kept your bookmark there, but so far the technology isn't there. If someone really puts an effort into it, it should be relatively easy to do. Well, I shouldn't say relatively easy -- it's probably complicated as heck, otherwise someone would have done it by now. A book is a good, simple, cheap thing that everybody's familiar with. And people will pay $8 for a book -- they might not pay $30 for a hardcover. Will they pay $100 for something that will be able to read books? It's inevitable that something like that will show up. But whether it actually catches on, I don't know.
CD: Where would you like to see the SF field go?
JAG: I'd like to see them write all kinds of cool books that I could read. I'm a judge this year for the Philip K. Dick awards, which go to original SF paperbacks as opposed to things that are published in hardcover. The idea is that hardcovers naturally get more attention, and frankly there's the idea that once you're an established author then you'll be published in hardcover first. But this award is for paperbacks, which means that I'm reading a lot of paperbacks this year, and Sturgeon's Law applies [90% of everything is garbage -- ed.]. I've read some good ones, but there's an awful lot of junk out there, and I just wish that SF produced more stuff that I want to read and that I enjoy reading.
CD: What's your opinion on UFOs?
JAG: I saw something that might be a UFO. It was a cool looking thing -- many years ago -- and whether it was a UFO or not doesn't particularly matter. I think that most of the UFO sightings are almost certainly nuts. I'm on the side of statistics which say that there have to be other life forms out there somewhere, and I would sure be happy if there were aliens out there we could meet someday -- and someday in my lifetime if they're nice. There's a whole lot of UFO crap out there, and while it's fun to watch The X-Files the massive paranoia is, well, massive paranoia. If I were an alien being I would think of cleverer things to do than do anal probes on humans. Although, alien cultures -- it might be a compliment. I think the UFO phenomenon says a lot more about human beings and human cultures than it does about what we might expect from aliens.
CD: Have you noticed a difference between Canadian and American SF writing?
JAG: I haven't had much experience in that range. One of the interesting things I think of: Rob Sawyer, Toronto writer, talks about his book Fossil Hunter. Basically these are intelligent Tyrannosaurs -- about the size of us -- and they're very territorial. They're born in clutches of 8 eggs, and in this particular society, the emperor is one of 8 siblings, and the other siblings are made dukes of various parts of the land. And the dukes are pushing the limits -- probably stirring up some sort of civil war. Throughout the whole book, the emperor tries to make peace. And Rob says that he's had an awful lot of American readers say, "Why doesn't he just kill them all? Why did he let them live to begin with? Why doesn't he just march there and whup their asses?" And no Canadian has ever said that, because it's a very Canadian thing: Look, we can work this out. In fact, in the book the emperor never tries to whup their asses. He comes up with some other scheme to keep peace. That's a difference. Whether it's a difference in writers or not, it's a difference in the readership. There are different expectations -- at least in the people that Rob talked to. And I think that's interesting.
I have heard from a lot of readers who don't believe in my League of Peoples, that if there's someone on top who can rule, then they would. They'd be imposing their will on everyone else. I've tried to make it clear that to the very high-ups we're like bacteria -- and nobody sets up a government over bacteria. They just keep an eye on them, and if the bacteria look dangerous they kill them and if they don't look dangerous: "do whatever you want." But I have had some comments from people saying, "Well, that would never happen. They'd go in there, they'd conquer everybody, they'd tell them what to do." But I don't know that that breaks down on Canadian-American lines.
John Clute [author of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia -- ed.] says that one reading of American literature is the idea of belatedness. That there was something really good once, but we got here too late for it. If only we'd lived at the time of the good wars, or if only we'd lived when family values were respected, or if only we'd lived back when there was a chance to change the government -- when it wasn't run by corrupt influences or something like that. There was something that we had a right to have, but we missed out on. And I can certainly see that as a strong influence on all American writing, not just SF. There was something that we just missed out on, that was good once but it's gone, or it's broken. Maybe we can get back to it, or maybe we'll never get back to it. That's what's missing in our lives. There's not the same feeling in Canadian writing. There's a little bit of spillover, but Canadians don't have the idea as much that there was a golden age that we missed out on.
The American old west was fun and gunslingers, and men were men and women were women. The Canadian old west was Louis Riel, where some people who we actually think were the good guys now rebelled and they got killed and that's the way of it. So Canadians have a different feel of history and a different feel for the way culture went than Americans. The other thing that Canadians have -- that they haven't done much with -- is knowing the colonial mentality in a different way than the Americans. For the Americans a colony is always oppressed and needs to get free, or stand on its own -- or else it's a brave venture by frontiersmen. Canadians understand the feeling of a colony as subordinate to something else. In my Tesseracts6 story, which I wish were more successful, "All Good Things Come From Away," there's that feeling that we're the colonials and someone else is running us and there's someone else that we should be like. Even though we don't want to be like them, they're kind of more valid than us. For a long time in Canadian history it was the British who were more valid, and now of course it's the Americans who are more valid. There's the old cliché that no one is respected in Canada until they've made it in the States. That sort of colonial mentality is something that I've never seen in American writing, because their whole experience of being a colony was different. I've tried once or twice to do space colonies that do have that mindset -- and I'll try it again sometime.
CD: Where is Tober Cove [where the events of Commitment Hour take place]?
JAG: It's Tobermory, of course. Well, it's not quite Tobermory. The Bruce peninsula is on the east edge of Lake Huron -- between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, and up at the end there's a town called Tobermory. In fact, I shifted Tober Cove somewhat down from Tobermory, saying there'll be some global warming and the water level will be higher. So I shifted it down about 10 miles, close to what is now Cypress Lake Provincial Park.
CD: And if they made a movie, they should film it there?
Last modified: May 27, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Alan Gardner