Q&A with Tom Purdom

After decades of prolific storytelling, Tom Purdom thought he had run out of ideas. So he decided to confront SFnal themes he had previously avoided, and inspiration returned. The result, among other stories, was “January March” in our current issue [on sale now].


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

TP: A few years ago I discovered I didn’t have any ideas for new stories. All my life, it seems to me, I’ve known what my next fiction project would be while I was working on the current one. I could have assumed I was just getting old, my idea generator had conked out, and I should stop writing science fiction. That didn’t seem like an attractive option. Instead, I looked around for a type of SF story I hadn’t written and decided I could start by experimenting with faster-than-light interstellar travel. I’ve avoided FTL in every interstellar story I’ve written except my first Ace Double (I Want the Stars, 1964). I’ve limited my stories to stuff that lies squarely within the realm of the possible, like long-term ships that depend on developments like hibernation and long lifespan.

I’ve now written three FTL stories, the latest being “Parallel Military Cultural Evolution in a Non-human Society” in the November/December 2018 issue. For my latest story, I turned to another tactic. I started thinking about various present-day realities and how they might develop in the future. At some point, I started thinking about the annual Philadelphia Mummers Day parade—an odd event that is one of Philadelphia’s unique institutions.

When I start exploring ideas I don’t just sit around trying to think. I sit at the computer and make notes. That way I can make sure I don’t just stare into space and daydream. I wrote down thoughts about different aspects of the mummers, and the idea took fire when I realized I could link the mummers to a subject that lies behind most of my stories, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned.

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of economic growth since I encountered it when I was twenty. For the last 250 years (roughly) the standard of living in the Western countries has been doubling every 50 years (roughly). This has happened because of huge increases in output per labor hour. Every half century (roughly) we double the goods and services produced per worker. This process has spread around the world and countries like South Korea and China have managed to achieve doubling rates of 7-10 years, applying the technologies developed by the countries that got a head start.

Most of my stories assume this process will continue into the future. It may not, of course. We may stumble into a trap like global warming. But there are factors that could work in our favor. Birth rates drop drastically as living standards rise. Economies switch from manufacturing to services as they mature and that means they produce outputs that demand less energy and smaller amounts of materials. Seventy-five percent of the American labor force currently work at service jobs and they aren’t all flipping hamburgers. China is currently beginning the shift to services, according to some economists.

To me, this is a subject that raises interesting challenges for the science fiction writer. We can all imagine that developments like artificial intelligence will eliminate millions of jobs. You’re tackling a much harder assignment when you try to imagine the jobs that will replace the work that has become technologically obsolete.

We’ve been destroying jobs and creating new kinds of work for most of the last three hundred years. Could Jules Verne have imagined cable TV technicians and a society so rich that middle class people will pay for hip replacements for their cats? Pet care is one of the booming sectors in our economy. The cable guy has a job because most Americans spend more money on entertainment than they spend on food—and obesity is a national problem.

“January March” assumes global economic development will continue and people will spend more of their incomes on leisure time activities. That doesn’t have to happen but it’s one of the possibilities and it may be the most probable. In the United States we’ve had 11 recessions since World War II, with two really big downturns, and the overall trend is still upward. Stories that assume it will continue are just as realistic as stories that assume we’re heading toward inevitable disaster—and they confront questions I find interesting.


AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

TP: I generally try to avoid topical subjects and subjects that are currently popular. I think science fiction writers should try to create interesting possible futures without worrying about current preoccupations. The present will obviously influence our ideas about the future. That’s unavoidable. But I feel science fiction writers should write about the possibilities most people aren’t thinking about. When I first started reading science fiction in the 1950s, science fiction writers were writing about overpopulation at a time when most educated Americans didn’t know the issue existed. I even read stories in which women filled roles they didn’t normally fill in 1950s America. There weren’t many. But they were there. And I remembered them. Most people weren’t thinking about that possibility, but a few science fiction writers included it in their stories anyway.

In addition to its literary values, science fiction has an important social function. It can’t predict the future but it can prepare you psychologically for all the decades of change you’re going to live through. It can’t do that if its writers become transfixed with current issues and current intellectual fads.


AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

TP: I’ve already mentioned the economic issue. I think there are three others. I touched on all of them, oddly, in my three FTL stories.

My first FTL story, “Fatherbond,” turned into a story about parenting. For my second, “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars,” I combined an idea about interstellar travel with another subject that interests me—the future of the relationship between the sexes. When I started hunting for a subject for a third, I decided I might as well continue the sequence.

I’ve devoted a big part of my intellectual life to the study of violence and its role in human affairs. That includes military history and military sociology, but it also includes crime, criminology, and subjects like the arrangements societies develop to regulate violence. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of that but it’s crept into a lot of my science fiction. So I decided I would write a story about a scholar who studies organized violence in an alien society.

I think I’m interested in parenting and male-female relations because of personal childhood experiences. As for violence—I’m an American male who was born in the first half of the 20th Century. I’ve never been to war but I’ve been surrounded by war ever since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor when I was five. I knew I was subject to the draft from the time I was a teenager, and I eventually spent two years in the army and four years in the standby reserve. My father did 25 years in the navy, so I spent the first 18 years of my life as a military brat. It would be kind of odd if I wasn’t interested in warfare and violence.


AE: What is your process?

TP: I look for a dramatic situation—some problem people may have in the future. Sometimes the dramatic situation floats into my head right at the start. Sometimes I have to hunt for it. Either way, I generally proceed mostly by asking questions and probing for the most interesting answers. Who is this scholar who’s studying organized violence in an alien culture? How do the aliens differ from humans? How does the scholar get his funding? What kind of a society does he come from?


AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

TP: In “January March” I have a soft spot for Captain Chandara. I probably wouldn’t want to work with her, but I smile whenever I think about her. In my last FTL story, Ulman the scholar shares a few traits with his author. I think there’s a fundamental difference between people who live a life of action and people who are basically scholars and creators. The action people try to change the world. The scholars just want to understand it. The creators just want to make things. Scholars and creators constitute a minority in most societies, but our world would be a very different place if they didn’t exist.


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

TP: I once read an article by a children’s writer who described herself as the klutz who didn’t know how to write the next chapter. I’m the klutz who doesn’t know how to write the next 200 words. I spend a lot of time wondering what I’m going to do next.

There are a lot of things you can do when you’re stuck. Type random ideas as they come to you. Rewrite what you’ve already written. Look for aspects of your character and setting you may have overlooked. Do something else and hope an idea will float into your head. Play solitaire. Leo Tolstoy played solitaire and he wrote War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and a bunch of other stuff.

I once noted that prolific writers often say they work on several projects at once. When they get stuck on one, they work on another. That’s good for your morale and an idea about Story A may come to you while you’re working on Story C. Of course, if you get stuck on all your projects at the same time. . . .


AE: What are you reading right now?

TP: I read pretty widely, like most science fiction writers. Nowadays I mostly pick books because I think they’ll hold my interest. I use my age as an excuse and read for pleasure, like I did when I was a kid.

In the last few weeks I’ve read a wonderful book on beavers and the blessings they bestow on the environment, Eager by Ben Goldfarb. In science fiction, I’ve read Lock In by John Scalzi and Semiosis by Sue Burke. I’ve also read two of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch detective books; an appealing contemporary literary novel, The Blessings by Elisa Juske; a novel about SF TV fans, The Speed of Clouds by Miriam Seidel; and three books on WWII naval history by a historian named Craig L. Symonds.


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

TP: Learn how to save and invest. A writing career is an insecure, unpredictable enterprise. Try to create an income stream that will give you a little security. If you have a day job, invest most of what you earn from writing. Build up a war chest for the day you go full time, if that ever comes. You may not believe it, but the financial markets work well for small-time investors with modest ambitions. But you have to know what you’re doing. Apply the writerly skills you use when you research a topic for a story. Read a shelf of books. Talk to any experts who are willing to talk to you. Learn how to avoid the common mistakes. You may even get some ideas you can use in your fiction. Economics is a fascinating subject.


AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

TP: I like Bruce Boston’s formulation. I’ve done a number of things, but I’ve only had one career.

I’ve done a fair amount of writing outside the science fiction genre, even though I consider science fiction my primary career. I’ve written nonfiction for magazines and newspapers. There was a time when I did a lot of “business writing”—stuff like brochures and reports for institutions and businesses. My closest approach to a bestseller was a frame-by-frame script for a comic book on shop safety that the Air Force distributed to millions of vocational arts students, as a recruiting publication.

For the last thirty years, I’ve pursued an enjoyable sideline as a music critic and arts journalist, mostly reviewing Philadelphia’s busy classical music concert scene. For the last ten years, I’ve been writing for an online publication called Broad Street Review. I’ve covered the whole classical music spectrum, but my primary interests these days are early music (the catchall term for Renaissance and Baroque music), chamber music, and new music. I go to about 70 concerts a year, and I’ve had years in which I went to 120 during the regular season, and a few more during the summer. For me, music is a glowing alternate universe.

Journalism is a good sideline for fiction writers. You meet people and see things you wouldn’t normally encounter. My music writing has given me a long look at the society that’s grown up around another art. Composers and science fiction writers have a lot in common. There are even aspects of the early music scene that remind me of science fiction fandom.


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)

TP: I’m not on Facebook but I have a website I keep up to date: www.philart.net/tompurdom. It includes ten installments of a literary memoir that tells how I wrote some of my stories and novels. James W. Harris has posted a multi-part series he calls The Tom Purdom Project (!). You can also look me up on Broad Street Review. Enter terms like science fiction, Ray Bradbury, and economic growth in the BSR Search box and you’ll find some essays on science fiction and related matters.


Tom Purdom started reading science fiction in 1950, when the science fiction genre was just emerging from its pulp magazine period. His first published story appeared in the August 1957 issue of a magazine called Fantastic Universe. His stories have appeared in all the leading science fiction magazines and various anthologies. In the last thirty years, he’s written a string of short stories and novelettes that have mostly appeared in Asimov’s. Ian Strock’s Fantastic Books has published two collections of his Asimov’s stories, Lovers and Fighters, Starships and Dragons and Romance on Four Worlds, A Casanova Quartet.


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