Q&A with Tom Purdom

Tom Purdom returns to our pages and to a favored locale—an asteroid city—with his action-packed “We All Lose if They Take Mizuba” [on sale now]. Read on for his criticism of ray guns, thoughts on personality modification, and explanation of the powerful quotations employed in this new story.

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

TP: My last two stories in Asimov’s had been relatively low-key affairs dealing with subjects like marriage and job problems. I decided it was time I wrote an action story.

AE: How did this story come to be?

TP: I started with the general idea it would be an action story, and gradually developed ideas. Mostly I wanted to avoid off-the-shelf science fiction elements.

Ray guns are a good example of the kind of thing I tried to avoid. They’ve been a standard element in science fiction since the first SF magazines appeared on the stands. The advent of the laser in the 1960s gave the idea a new lease on life. But I’ve never been convinced they’re an inevitable successor to projectile weapons. What’s their energy source? How do you store the energy?

A gun is actually a very efficient way to transmit energy across a distance. A small amount of explosive propels a bullet that smacks its target with most of the energy it possessed when it left the muzzle. The energy source is compact and you can store it for long periods.

I decided to use lasers but they don’t burn their way through armor. They transmit information in the form of disruptive programs. They’re followed by very small missiles that carry programs that are even more destructive.

I don’t know if anything like that will ever be developed. But it sounds plausible. And it’s more interesting, to me, than one more story in which people kill each other with magic rays.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

TP: I’ve written several stories set in asteroid cities, so I guess my asteroid stories fit into a common future. Years ago I might have set this story on the Moon. Today I tend to favor the asteroids.

My interplanetary stories assume robots, computers, and bioengineering will continue to advance. A group of twenty or thirty people, equipped with the machines and engineered life forms of the future, could turn an asteroid into a habitat, and profit from the real estate they’ve created. Will that ever happen? I think it’s a possible, completely believable future. Freeman Dyson visualized people living on comets and he was a certified world-class astrophysicist.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

TP: I used a standard trick. I looked for a phrase in the story that might make a title.

I usually pick short titles like Legacies and Bank Run. This is the second time I’ve opted for a long title. They seem to be mildly fashionable these days. In this case, I felt it summed up one of the poignant aspects of the situation.

“To me, that’s an example of one of the great truths about literature. Writers can never know what their words will mean to the people who read them.”


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

This story revolves around two themes that run through a lot of my stories—personality modification and immortality. In the early 1960s, in my first decade as a selling writer, I decided the big advances of the future would be developments in psychology and medicine. Immortality and personality modification are interesting subjects because they would create profound transformations in humans and their societies.

Our personalities are heavily influenced by internal factors like our physiology and external factors like childhood experiences. As our knowledge of the process develops, we should increase our ability to modify it. I can’t predict that will happen, but it’s a great subject for fiction because it raises interesting possibilities. Well-drawn characters have believable motivations. But what if you could choose your motivations. What would you want to want?

Immortality is actually a logical impossibility. You won’t know you’ve lived forever until you’ve lived forever. I use the term loosely. My characters live in a world in which no one has to die. Many science fiction stories assume one-off treatments like an immortality pill. My stories assume the life span has been extended into an indefinite future because of the general advance of medicine. Anything that can happen to you can be cured or repaired, with the possible exception of extensive brain damage.

This means I’m writing about people who know they’re probably going to be alive a thousand years from now. But they’re also intensely aware they’re dependent on an advanced medical system and the civilization that supports it.

AE: How did you break into writing?

TP: I did it the old-fashioned way. I wrote lots of stories, collected lots of rejection slips, and eventually made my first sale. You could still do it that way in the 1950s because there were a lot of magazines that published science fiction and other kinds of fiction.

On my website, you’ll find ten chapters of a literary memoir called When I Was Writing. The first chapter contains a more detailed description of this process.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

TP: My first novel, a 1964 Ace Double called I Want the Stars, is being reprinted by Journey Press, the publishing arm of the Galactic Journey website. Galactic Journey reviews the magazines and books of fifty-five years ago, advancing through time year by year. Last year they got to 1964. The editor liked my book and decided to reprint it. Neither of us think it’s the greatest SF novel ever written, but it combines an action-adventure plot with an upbeat, highly personal view of the future.

I don’t know if that constitutes a project since I didn’t have to do much work. But I have consulted with the editor on matters like the cover art, and I will probably do some video appearances.

On my website, the seventh chapter of my literary memoir tells how I wrote and sold I Want the Stars.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be?

For universes by other people, I would choose Ian Bank’s Culture series. But my first choice would be the future that underlies most of my stories. It’s a future in which every human being is far better off than they would be today, in the same way most of us are better off than the people who lived three hundred years ago. It’s not a Utopia. It has problems and conflicts. But it’s better.

I realize there are challenges. Global warming is the most obvious. But I’ve lived through the Second World War, the decades of the nuclear standoff, and massive disruptions in our economic life. I’ve also seen smallpox eradicated and polio defeated in much of the world. The story of the last three hundred years looks like a chart of the S&P 500. Up and down. Sometimes way down. But the long-term trend is up.

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

TP: “Where did you get the quotes in this story?”

I’ve been memorizing poetry since I was a teenager. I’ve taken it for granted all these years and never thought to mention it.

I memorized Patrick Henry’s entire speech when I was in the eighth grade and delivered it to my class. I can still recite the last few sentences. I came across the Frederick Douglass quote more recently and ended up reading a collection of his work that included the complete text of his first autobiography, selections from the second and third, and a good selection from his shorter pieces. It was a real treat. He’s one of the great figures in American history, American literature, and American journalism.

The Macaulay quote comes from his poem celebrating Horatius, the “captain of the gate,” who held a bridge across the Tiber in the days of the Roman Republic.

I encountered the last four lines in a magazine article when I was fifteen. The roll and thunder of it had so much force, for me, that I think it stuck in my head without any attempt to memorize it. Decades later, when I read William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, I discovered it was Churchill’s favorite bit of poetry.

In 2011 I had a colon tumor removed. The operation went well. My primary care physician, Dr. Robert Rudenstein, spotted a symptom and prescribed a colonoscopy that caught the tumor early. The prep and waiting time for the operation went smoothly, but there was one moment when I found myself slipping emotionally. I was sitting in the little curtained off section where you take off your clothes and put on the hospital gown. I was left waiting, for some reason, for about half an hour. I was all alone. All the other curtained off sections were empty.

Then the Macaulay came into my head. I wasn’t facing fearful odds, and I wasn’t defending anything. But that touch of the old warrior spirit did the job. The moment of panic faded.

To me, that’s an example of one of the great truths about literature. Writers can never know what their words will mean to the people who read them. Macaulay couldn’t have known, when he wrote those lines in the middle of the nineteenth century, that a hundred and sixty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a seventy-five year old American would receive a helpful bracing. Buck up, lad, says Captain Horatius. But he says it with style.

If you enter the Macaulay on Google, you’ll find some great videos that quote it, featuring stalwarts like Churchill and Dr. Who.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

TP: I’m not on Facebook, but I have a website I keep up to date: www.philart.net/tompurdom. My literary memoir contains ten chapters 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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