Legendary science fiction author Tom Purdom sat down with our editor for a discussion about his earliest memories of reading and the inspiration for his new story “Long-Term Emergencies,”featured [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]
Asimov’s Editor: How did this story come to be?
TP: I started with the idea that we need more stories about people who build windmills and fewer stories about people who fight giants. I ended up with a story about somebody who defends windmills but the original notion survived in the dialogue between Mukeree and Havardi near the beginning of the story.
I’d still like to write a few stories about people who build windmills. Science fiction has produced some good examples but it’s hard. Our civilization advances, to a huge extent, through the labors of engineers and technicians but they don’t get a lot of coverage in our hero tales. It’s easier to write stories about daredevil dragon slayers.
AE: Do you relate to any of the characters in this story?
TP: Mukeree and her husband. There’s a natural tendency to think people will get bored with marriages when lifespans stretch to centuries. I’ve written stories that assume long-lived people will change spouses every few decades. Many will. But I can visualize marriages that last for centuries. My wife and I were married for forty-six years. Bonds develop as you share experiences. The ties become firmer and more complicated.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
TP: Reading. The first time I read a novel, I was seven. The book was Felix Salten’s Bambi, and it was a magical experience. There I was, in a forest, listening to the animals talk. Naturally I went looking for more.
I didn’t know you could skip prefaces so I soon discovered all this marvelous stuff was produced by writers. Then, when I had been reading for awhile, I read something I’d written at a family gathering and my favorite aunt said “You should be a writer.” What could be more wonderful? You wrote things and people, all over the world, read them and had the kind of experiences I had when I read my favorite books and stories.
AE: What kind of fiction did you read as a child?
TP: I started off with Bambi and I continued reading talking animal books and books about animals—books like Albert Payson Terhune’s collie stories and Ernest Thompson Seton’s fictionalized biography of a typical American wolf. I added historical fiction as I approached my teens. I read Dumas and Rafael Sabatini along with the historical novelists who wrote the best sellers of the ’40s and ’50s—Thomas Costain, Frank Yerby, Samuel Shellabarger.
I mentioned talking animal books when I was on a panel with Gardner Dozois and he noted that most science fiction readers read talking animal books when they were young. He felt there was a natural connection between aliens and talking animals. He asked the audience if they’d read talking animal books and most of them raised their hands.
You can say something similar about historical fiction. A science fiction story is a story set in an imaginary future. A historical is a story set in a real past, as imagined by the writer. We even use the term “Future History” when we describe certain kinds of science fiction backgrounds.
Shakespeare contributed another stream to my childhood reading. When I was ten, I read some excerpts from Shakespeare in a children’s encyclopedia and I loved the feel of the language. The paperback rack at a local drugstore contained a thick red Pocket Book, Five Great Tragedies of Shakespeare. I bought it for twenty-five cents and read Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. Over the next few years I read most of the tragedies and comedies. That may have been one reason I drifted into reading historicals.
Nowadays, a lot of Young Adult fiction deals with realities like divorce, abusive parents, and contemporary social issues. I don’t have any quarrel with that but I disagree with people who argue young people need that kind of fiction because it gives them stories they can relate to. I didn’t have any trouble relating to Dr. Dolittle. Or D’Artagnan. Or Freddy the Pig. Or Romeo Montague.
AE: What are you trying to do when you write a story?
TP: Primarily, I’m trying to create a story that will give readers the kind of experience I have when I read a story that really affects me.
I have two working definitions that summarize the vision that guides me when I’m writing science fiction. One is that a science fiction story is a story about people coping with some development that could take place in the future. The dramatic situation at the heart of the story—the conflict or problem—is created by the future development.
My other working definition is a quote from Frederick Pohl. When he was editing the Galaxy magazines many decades ago, he said he was looking for stories about “interesting people doing interesting things in an interesting future.”
I’m also fond of an exchange between E.M. Forster and a literary theorist. The theorist opined that “The whole intricate question of technique in the novel comes down to point of view.” Forster, who was a working novelist, and one of the best, replied that “The whole intricate question of technique in the novel comes down to the writer’s ability to bounce the reader into believing what he says, and keep him bounced.”
In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the old man, Santiago, thinks about the fish he’s struggling with. It’s a good fish, he thinks. “It will feed many people and bring a good price on the market.” To me, that’s a great way to think about all the arts, if you’re trying to be a practitioner. You feed a few people. You make a little money.
I started with the idea that we need more stories about people who build windmills and fewer stories about people who fight giants.
AE: Does science fiction have any social value?
TP: It fills two important social functions, in my opinion, and they are both natural byproducts of the drive to create strong, interesting stories.
I started reading science fiction in 1950 and I’ve now lived through seventy-one years of the future that followed that momentous development in my literary life. I can tell you, with some authority, that science fiction is a good psychological preparation for the changes you will encounter over the course of your life. Science fiction writers don’t predict the future but their creations foreshadow many of the changes you will live through and give you a deep rooted understanding that the world is going to change. Science fiction is a vaccine that creates mental antibodies against future shock.
Science fiction can protect you from a common human weakness—the need to attach yourself to some cause so you can feel your life is meaningful. Over the last few centuries, the physical sciences have given us an awesome picture of an immense universe with a history that covers billions of years and probably stretches billions of years into the future. Science fiction transforms that vision into a saga. You don’t have to fall in behind a Great Leader or join the crowd marching in a Great Cause. You’re already participating in a magnificent epic—the story of the human species. You can contribute to that story just by going about your daily life, just by pursuing your own ambitions and desires. Many people feel the cosmic background reduces us. For me, it has the opposite effect.
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, available on the website, contains ten chapters and 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.