To build the world living inside her latest story for Asimov’s, T.K. Rex devoured books about California’s natural history. This post, featuring photos taken by the author herself, discusses some of what she found and how she incorporated it into her fiction. Read Rex’s “The Roots in the Box and the Roots in the Bones,” available in in our [January/February 2023 issue, on sale now!]
The world of The Roots in the Box and the Roots in the Bones was born on a train. I was fresh out of my first ecology class and looking forward to an environmentally friendly, days-long ride down the Atlantic coast from Baltimore to Florida. I found my assigned seat, at the end of a crowded car, in a corner with no windows.
How . . . why? What? After a year of commuting between Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia I’d ridden so many trains they literally let me board this one for free, and never, once, had I seen a seat with no window. I was about to be trapped in the dark for days, staring at a nondescript wall.
After a few minutes of rising panic, I stood up, grabbed my notebook, and went to the cafe car. I stayed at that table for the rest of the trip. I accumulated a pile of Amtrak coffee cups like a rodent padding my den for the winter. I gazed out the big bright windows at the endless, flat deciduous forest outside, vaguely missed the more dramatic scenery of my western home states, and thought about the unknown future out in front of me.
That first ecology class would probably be my last. I’d gone broke leaving my advertising career for a second degree in earth science. My life felt like that seat with no window: the claustrophobic dead end of a well-intentioned aspiration.
There was a spark of optimism that stuck with me, though. Not even a year’s worth of for-profit undergrad debt could rob me of the real-life stories from that ecology class, of all the activists and scientists who’d worked their butts off over the course of the past century to make sure the climate crisis was wasn’t even worse. Real people had cleaned up the Ohio River after it got so polluted that it caught on fire, limited vehicle emissions so the air in Los Angeles wasn’t giving kids asthma, and fixed the hole in the ozone layer. Real people had accomplished thousands of little, local victories — watersheds protected from agricultural runoff, dams redesigned so salmon could spawn, oysters grown in the Chesapeake to keep the water clear — all those things we never hear about because they’re not disastrous or spectacular enough for cable news. If all of that had already been accomplished, what else was possible?
I imagined a future where everyone lived in beautiful cities, and the land between them was a dense food forest that ended hunger and sequestered carbon all at once. If there weren’t any people out there, it wouldn’t need roads, and if fruits and nuts could be picked from the air by, say, drones, then nothing would need to be planted in rows, and it could be so much denser, more efficient, more sustainable than our current destructive industrial agriculture.
The Wildcraft Drones
As the sycamores succumbed to palms outside the cafe car window, I gave the thing I wrote a title: The Wildcraft Drones. It’s still around, if you go looking for it, but it’s not very good, and more than a little problematic (if you don’t see why yet, no worries, the entire rest of this essay is about that), so I’ll summarize: An unnamed narrator gets the munchies, and summons a single apple from the AI-managed food forest surrounding her city. A small drone delivers it to her, and she takes a bite, all while musing at how much her world has changed, and how only a few select humans are allowed into the food forest for research expeditions. She briefly acknowledges that this new techno-wilderness—which stretches across the entire North American continent—has its detractors. There are people who lament the loss of desert landscapes, for example. Everything is forest now, but she lives in a sparkling utopia and never goes hungry, and the seas have stopped rising, so it was worth the cost.
The Wildcraft Drones didn’t have much of a plot, but it was never meant as more than a vignette to illustrate a concept. I sent it to my mom for her thoughts as an environmentalist. She’s an author in her own right and the “editrix” of Coreopsis: Journal of Myth and Theatre (and, yes, that kind of nerd) (love you, Mom). She had concerns about the steps my world took to get to its utopia, but invited me to submit it to the environment-themed issue of Coreopsis the following year.
It wasn’t exactly Asimov’s, and . . . you know . . . my mom kinda got me in, but hey! My little window to a better world had actually made it off the train, into the wide open internet, for anyone to gaze through. For the first time in my life, I had written science fiction that at least one or two unsolicited strangers had read. Sometimes it can be hard to tell when a story is finished, but, surely, this met all definitions.
Except, of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The techno-wilderness called to me. I wanted to explore it, to be one of those few allowed in for research purposes, to open the window I’d found on the train and stick my head out and breathe the wind. My mom suggested robot steeds, and the minimal footprint of artificial hooves on the soil was all the convincing I needed. I yearned to ride in on the back of one, past flocks of wildcraft drones harvesting apples, or walnuts, or . . . something.
An interlude for bleeding hearts
My grandmother was an herbalist. When I was a kid, we’d spend long summer afternoons wandering dirt logging roads on the Olympic Peninsula, while she pointed out miner’s lettuce, Pacific bleeding hearts, skunk cabbage and salmonberry. She knew the scientific name of every plant we saw, how our pioneer ancestors used it, and how her Quileute and Salish neighbors and extended family had used it for millennia. Some were medicine—her passion—and some were food, which always piqued my interest slightly more.
When Grandma’s landlord gave her an eviction notice so he could sell the land for lumber money, I had just moved back to California, and my mom, her partner and I decided to find her a new home here, closer to us. We had all those good intentions people have when they care about someone who can’t care for themselves quite as well anymore. Grandma saw the logic of it, but she also didn’t have a choice. And when she got to the house we’d found for her in Mendocino County, she missed her friends, who had been helping her much more than we realized, and she missed the landscape she’d been part of for eighty years. She didn’t know the names of the plants here, and no matter how many wheelchair-accessible trails we explored in the redwoods, or books about our native oaks I added to her bookshelf, she was homesick and displaced, and everything that had been keeping her together mentally began to slip, and then slip more . . . and then she was gone.
(I’m finding it hard, for a lot of reasons, to describe the direct connection between my grandmother’s death and the first draft of the novel I started writing later that fall. It sounds a little like her voice, telling me the bright pink flowers at her fingertips are bleeding hearts, Dicentra formosa, and it feels a little like her standing just behind my shoulder, four feet and eleven inches tall, leaning over my laptop, wondering what those cute little wildcraft drones are up to now.)
I cracked my knuckles and saddled up a Google doc. The character I’d live vicariously through should be a Ranger, I thought, one of an elite group trained to patrol the wilderness on low-impact robotic steeds. I named her Macara, and I gave the techno-wilderness a name, too, something that I thought the people in Macara’s world might come up with, a slang term that evolved from “agricultural jungle” to just “grungle.” I liked how “grungle” sounded wild and a little bit derogatory. The Grungle was a place, I figured, that some people were afraid of, even hated, because they could never go there. Just like in cities today, there would be those drawn to the wilderness, and those who recoil from it.
To ground it in our world’s future, I chose the real-life setting I now had the easiest access to, and knew the most about: Northern California. A food forest here would have to be drought and fire friendly, so what if all the plants were native California species? I knew about acorns, huckleberries, miner’s lettuce, nopales . . . what else would future denizens of San Francisco Citystate find in their produce aisle?
I had a lot of reading to do.
Research kinda broke everything
Research for fiction was new to me, and a little intimidating. I hadn’t exactly set out to write hard science fiction, but I wanted this world to be believable. I wanted to do what my grandmother would have done, and introduce people to real plants and their real uses. I wanted the landscapes to be vivid and detailed, the foods appealing.
As I read, I learned that the native species of California could, indeed, provide city-dwelling humans with not just food, but medicine, clothing, building material, ink, paper, decor, felt for yurts to combat homelessness. There could be craft and industrial uses even for the remains of animals washed up on shore. California has thousands of edible native fruits, seeds, berries, corms, herbs, nuts, roots, mushrooms, seaweeds, tree bark, shellfish, leaves. On and on. An AI-manged utility-forest was more intricately possible than I ever imagined.
My research very quickly led me to California’s Indigenous peoples. California has been populated continuously for at least 14,000 years, and there were over 500 distinct groups when the Spanish arrived, living in every single part of the region. They spoke hundreds of languages, as distinct as those from one end of Eurasia to the other.
The story of California’s native foods cannot be separated from the people who have always cultivated them. Growing up in Sonoma County, I’d heard stories of the local Miwok eating acorns, and tending oak trees. The true relationship was much deeper. Nearly every full grown oak tree was tended by many generations of the same family, who considered it a relative. This was common across cultures, in every landscape where oaks grew. (Their reverence for oaks was shared by my own European ancestors—just look up the origins of the words dryad and druid—before colonialism decimated their forests for shipbuilding.)
Native readers will already know all of this, but it was revelatory to me, coming from a hard lean into Western science: fourteen thousand years of trial and error, exploration and ideas, ingenuity and observation—everything that makes good science—gave the Ohlone, Karuk, Tongva, Miwok, Pomo and those 500 other groups of Indigenous Californians an incredibly detailed understanding of the environment. Controlled burns were timed to optimize the productivity of desired species. Meadows were seeded with huge patches of the same flower, to make their seeds easier to harvest in bulk. Hunts and harvests and fires were all planned according to conditional rules determined by cues in the environment. Everyone held knowledge about every species they encountered, in every season. Today, thousands of Indigenous Californians still use and pass on this knowledge as part of their modern, living cultures.
Growing up in Sonoma County, I’d heard stories of the local Miwok eating acorns, and tending oak trees. The true relationship was much deeper.
The easily-accessible literature on the use and edibility of California native plants is based, often second or third hand, entirely on this traditional knowledge. The people I found most active in educating the non-native public on California native foods today included Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino of Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley (highly recommend if you’re in the Bay Area); and Nicholas Hummingbird, the Indigenous educator behind @california_native_plants on Instagram (who gave me feedback on a later draft of the novel).
I made a spreadsheet of edible species that might grow in the Grungle, and it’s 353 rows long and largely limited to the coast redwoods and adjacent biomes where the novel took place. It barely touches the deserts, the Sierras, the chaparral, the prairies, the pine forests — each of which have volumes I’ve only skimmed, each of which have been meticulously tended by the families who’ve been part of them for fourteen thousand years.
This intensive system of care and tending meant the land was so productive before colonization that herds of elk and pronghorn filled the valleys. Flocks of geese darkened the sky. The Russian River would have been so thick with salmon, when it was called Ashokawna, that you could reach into the water and grab one with your eyes closed. (Many of these scenes are lusciously illustrated in Laura Cunningham’s A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, my most-bookmarked source of visual inspiration.)
A hard truth set in for me as I learned the reality of what had been. Real-life California was once an engineered hyper-wilderness that outperformed my imagined, science-fictional Grungle in every way. And it didn’t need artificial intelligence to become that way. All it needed was the people who lived there. The people… who my fictional rewilding would have forced off their land, again.
Crap, I accidentally made a dystopia
I spent several years as a kid in and around the Navajo Nation, where the parents of my Diné classmates still remembered getting hit by their teachers for speaking their own language. Where my dad reported on the continuing public health disaster of the uranium mines that failed utterly to protect Diné miners and communities from radiation. Where the US Government forcibly removed the entire population from the land their food came from and addressed the resulting malnutrition with diabetes-inducing shipments of agricultural leftovers. So, while the native presence in California was much lower-profile than in the Southwest, I assumed our colonial takeover here had a darker history than what I was taught on a 5th grade field trip to Mission Dolores. This was not a surprise.
What I didn’t know about California’s missions, and about missionaries like Junipero Serra, who somehow still has a major street in San Francisco named after him, was the extent of their brutality and sadism. The Europeans considered the people of those 500 distinct cultural groups “wretched humble creatures,” and, while attempting to systematically eradicate their entire way of life, went out of their way to replace the carefully tended native species with the invasive cattle feed that now gives our hills their distinctive golden color every summer (and catches fire every fall).
The families who were pressured or forced from their land often ended up in the missions, where they were forced into labor, underfed, beaten and then executed or tortured for crimes ranging from trying to flee, to asking if their children were alive, to weeping. The descriptions of this treatment recorded by the missionaries themselves and other visiting Europeans—not all of whom were comfortable with the extreme cruelty, to their small credit—are detailed, gruesome, and heart-shattering. I read accounts of torture so horrible I feel uncomfortable sharing them. Read M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, subchapter Atrocities of the Mission System if you need nightmares.
I knew I would find injustices in the history of Native California. I knew that going in. I was still, somehow, shocked to find the literal Spanish Inquisition.
When California joined the United States, many of the families who had survived these atrocities hoped things would improve. Instead, bounties were placed on their lives, cultural burning was outlawed, and thousands of ancient oak trees were destroyed for the explicit purpose of starving their human relatives. The State of California committed genocide in every sense of the word, on purpose, for profit. There is no qualifying or justifying it, and there has been very little acknowledgement of it or public attempt at repair.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t paying a price, though. Extinctions, infestations, soil degradation. The decimation of fisheries. The droughts. The fires. The worsening of floods and landslides due to all of the above. Every time you hear that a degree or two of global warming made some natural disaster worse, there’s probably an entire culture’s worth of best practices for living in that landscape that could have helped or prevented the disaster in the first place, that have been ignored or lost to genocide.
But we’re writing about the future here, so…
Remember that big food forest I was writing about, that nobody lived in, managed by robots instead of human beings? It was starting to seem like a much more menacing place than I had intended. And the cities where everyone had moved to make room for rewilding and save the world from global warming? They were probably full of people who’d been forced there. Some like my grandma, who had seen the logic of it and left their homes willingly, though they had no other choice. And some who would have done anything, risked their lives, to stay on their land, and been so depressed by the confines of city they would have done anything to get out.
Maybe the right thing to do was to give up on this world. These were flaws I couldn’t just handwave away. I thought of my mom’s Salish and Quileute cousins and the elders who taught my grandmother about the herbs of the Northwest. I thought of the Zuni and Diné kids I went to school with in New Mexico, and the people I still knew there. I thought of the Native people who would read this and how they would see themselves in this future that was supposed to be persuasively better.
I had been so excited to explore the Grungle, and now I wasn’t sure I could go any farther. The forest was thick with monsters and traps. I should turn back, find another world, write a different story.
And yet. My grandmother’s teachings were in there. My ideas for combating climate change with food forests at scale surely weren’t terrible, and my own personal love of California was written into every description of the landscape. My husband Gary, my alpha reader, was enamored with the characters and the technology, and he cheered me on.
I thought back to worlds built by authors I’ve loved. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed vision from Parable of the Sower had inspired me in ways I didn’t yet know what to do with, and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed was one of my new favorite books. LeGuin once described Anarres as an “ambiguous utopia,” and it felt, reading Shevek’s story, like she was prodding her own anarchist ideals, testing them, trying find out where they broke, and for whom. The result is a world that feels fully realized, with flaws, like any great character, that make it even more compelling, and show us a way forward that feels as possible in its honesty as aspirational in its ideals. That, to me, felt so much more inspiring, interesting and real than the utopia I’d so easily dreamed up in that first vignette on the train.
Ambiguous utopia it is, then
I decided to follow LeGuin’s lead, brave the monsters, and earnestly explore the shadows of the Grungle. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t read it yet, I found ways to give my characters new challenges and rethink the histories and agendas of my fictional institutions. It deepened my worldbuilding, my narrative, my characters and my own thinking. It pushed my research even farther, and exposed me to the Land Back movement, the concept of food sovereignty, and the philosophy of Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose Braiding Sweetgrass changed how I see pretty much everything. It eventually pushed me to write this essay, at the risk of belaboring several points that my fiction still doesn’t actually live up to.
I began to see the world of the Grungle as a not a destination, but a path, from the well-intentioned place I started in to the more honest place my research led me. I wanted to take readers on that path with me. And maybe forward, to new distant destinations I can only tease, in the Grungle stories I’m still working on. Perhaps utopia lies there. More likely, as countless writers before me have learned, it is always, just slightly, farther.
So… what happened to the novel? (Is this an epilogue?)
“The Roots in the Box and the Roots in the Bones” is, by most definitions, a novelette, and one of several short stories in a growing Grungle collection. But it started as the novel that took me on the journey above. I rewrote it three times, changed literally everything about Juniper’s character (shoutout to my friend Robin Lasiloo for gut checks & drone naming), added and removed entire plot lines, described the woods endlessly, “finished” it, queried 35 agents, deleted everything except the fourth act, tried to pass that off as a short story, and finally rewrote my favorite part as the standalone novelette that you can now read in the January/February 2023 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
As I write this, there is one other published story worth reading set in this world, A Holdout in the Northern California Designated Wildcraft Zone. It takes place in the early days of the rewilding process that led to the Grungle, and was a finalist in Grist’s Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest in 2022. The themes are echoed in much of my other writing, most recently The Hall of Being (Luna Station Quarterly, 2022), set in a future that feels right next door to the Grungle. Gentle Dragon Fires (Strange Horizons, 2022), The Beast of the Shadow Gum Trees(New Edge Sword & Sorcery, Issue 0, 2022), and My Favorite Shape of All (Queer Blades, vol. 1, 2021), are all set in a secondary fantasy world inspired by California, where Indigenous, non-native, magical and immortal characters all struggle to avoid our world’s mistakes. My co-creator in that universe is my mom, Lezlie Kinyon, who was the first to champion the Grungle, and the first to call me out on its injustices. And keep a look out for SQUAWKER AND DOLPHIN SWIMMING TOGETHER, upcoming in Reckoning Magazine, for a nearer-future take on the complex relationships between humans, technology, and nature. Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I hope, at least, the train had windows.
T.K. Rex writes science fiction and fantasy in San Francisco on Ohlone Ramaytush land. She grew up in Northern California and Northwest New Mexico, with Wiccan parents of mostly British and Ashkenazi descent. Recently, she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego, and had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, The Molotov Cocktail, and Luna Station Quarterly. You can say hi and keep up with her latest stories on Twitter and Instagram, where she shares photos of San Francisco and retweets dinosaur stuff as @tharkibo.
When should authors keep writing, and when should they stop? Peter Wood discusses his answer along with a handful of examples of where science fiction writers may have gone too far. Check out Wood’s latest story for Asimov’s “The Less Than Divine Invasion” in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]
People used to discuss things. Now, there’s always that guy at lunch or on a long car ride who whips out his phone and answers a question that nobody wants answered and stops the conversation dead in its tracks. Writers shouldn’t make the same mistake.
Fellow Asimov’s alum Jonathan Sherwood and I just finished editing the Odin Chronicles, a collection of thirty related flash stories about the deep space mining colony of Odin III. We realized pretty quickly that the supposedly free-standing stories raised a lot of questions about the colony and its ever-growing cast of characters. We’d give the authors nudges sometimes to answer those questions. But we also came up with a list of questions that we didn’t want the stories to address in too much detail.
Sometimes it is better not to know.
A question might be better off left alone if it can’t be answered. This is true with most time travel stories. You can’t explain away paradoxes. I love the first two seasons of Dark, but the last year of the time travel series explained too much. A Sound of Thunder doesn’t need a sequel where Ray Bradbury breaks down the time travel technology and what exactly happened at the end of the first story.
Then there are questions that just aren’t relevant. We don’t need a backstory
You want an example of what can go wrong if one question too many is answered? I’ll give you three. Alien, The Terminator, and the original Planet of the Apes. Each of those classic movies raised a lot of questions. The studios churned out a series of increasingly mediocre sequels that gave way too many answers. We were better off not knowing how the apes took over Earth. Moviegoers didn’t demand the xenomorph alien’s origin. We sure didn’t need to have the entire terminator timeline explained to us including why the terminator spoke with an Austrian accent.
Did you leave the theater desperately yearning to know who created the aliens or how the terminator got its accent? Me neither.
The thing is that there are no good answers to the questions those initial movies raised. There is no logical way the apes took over, for example. When sequels tried to explain things, we’re left with nonsense like a space virus that killed all the cats and dogs and morons who replaced the extinct household pets with orangutans and chimps and time traveling apes who taught their ancestors to speak in less than a generation and—God, my brain hurts. Why couldn’t they have just left us with the wondrous shock of seeing the Statue of Liberty on the beach?
We all know why those questions had to be answered. Money. That’s why every Star Wars movie keeps going back to the well over and over and over and answering questions that nobody had. Did it really add to the story to know that Anakin created C3P0 and R2D2 or that a trade dispute started the Emperor’s rise to power? You’re better off skipping the first three movies.
David Gerrold’s time travel masterpiece, The Man Who Folded Himself, raises a lot of questions and answers damned few of them. And that’s okay. The book is more than a WTF time travel tale. It’s also an in-depth examination of self. The time traveler learns who he is in ways that I will not even attempt to summarize. Do yourself a favor. Read this book.
Good fiction is about how characters cope with a situation more than explaining every nuance of whatever world the characters find themselves in. The Man Who Folded Himself is more about how the time traveler reacts to finding a time machine than about how the time machine works or who built it.
Good fiction is about how characters cope with a situation more than explaining every nuance of whatever world the characters find themselves in.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a primer for how to build a theocracy. It concerns how people like Offred survive when they find themselves trapped in Margaret Atwood’s nightmare. Atwood keeps the historical details vague and it works. If we know too much of how the religious zealots took over, the message is diluted, because we can reassure ourselves that the scenario just isn’t possible. That would be like expecting George Orwell to detail exactly how the totalitarian regime rose to power in 1984 so we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, because it’s only a story. Orwell doesn’t fall into that trap. He keeps the historical background nebulous.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that an author should be completely unaccountable. The premise has to be somewhat plausible at least within the parameters of world building.
Compare the ending of the 1968 Planet of the Apes with Tim Burton’s remake. The original takes place far enough in the future that when the credits roll the wheels can start spinning and we can speculate about what might have happened. It’s a mike drop moment and it should have been left alone. Then the sequels inserted dates for everything. Knowing we started using apes as pets in 1980 and those apes took over in 1991 does not enhance one’s viewing of the first movie.
In Tim Burton’s remake the stranded Earth astronaut escapes back to Earth. Burton in a watered-down moment that rips off the original has the astronaut find Lincoln has been replaced in the Lincoln Memorial by a statue of the disgraced ape general. Except, that the ape had been, um, disgraced, and the apes lived in an agrarian society without any sort of technology. And a million other problems. It made no sense that that particular ape somehow managed to build a space fleet and conquer Earth in his lifetime. None whatsoever.
Yes, some questions should be answered. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the greatest murder mystery of all time precisely because Christie explains in a very satisfying and plausible-enough way Who Done it.
But sometimes fiction isn’t about getting all the answers. My novella, the Less than Divine Invasion, leaves some questions unanswered, but I think the story and the reader would be worse off if I tried to explain everything. I didn’t want my story to end up like the gangly overstuffed Looking Backwards where Edward Bellamy has to explain absolute everything in a never-ending conversation that is like a fever dream of My Dinner With Andre.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan works, because Nicholas Meyer and Jack Sowards lifted a great villain from the tv show and wrote a new story. They did not concoct a Khan origin story and ultimately didn’t answer a single question raised by Space Seed, the episode that introduced Khan. Would a studio have the guts to write a new story today? Based on Prometheus and Solo and Terminator Salvation, I have my doubts.
Pete Wood is an attorney who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his very patient wife. In his latest story for Asimov’s, he revisits his old stomping grounds, the barbecue-loving and hamburger-loving town of Kinston, North Carolina, last seen in “Never the Twain Shall Meet” (May/June 2019). Pete and fellow Asimov’s author Jonathan Sherwood recently edited The Odin Chronicles, a collection of thirty related short stories about the distant mining planet of Odin III, for Rampant Loon Press. More information about the book is at http://www.theodinchronicles.com. The author tells us, “Kinston is a great place to live, but it’s not as ordinary as you might think. If you look closely, you may discover that something unusual is going on.”
Learn about the history of Seattle’s Duwamish river, which helped inspire Genevieve Williams’ latest story for Asimov’s, “Woman of the River.” Read it in our January/February issue, on sale now!
Four years ago at a bardic contest, my friend Jim wrote a poem about the river. What river? Any river, and all rivers, though references to a heron on the shore and the life cycle of salmon situate the poem in the Pacific Northwest where we both live. “A river is a verb,” the poem concludes, with certain implications for life, the flow of time, and grammar.
For me, the river of Jim’s poem was the Duwamish, which takes its name from the people who historically—and also today—live within its watershed, and from whose chief at the time of white settlement the city of Seattle takes its name. The river used to wind back and forth across the wide valley between West Seattle, where I live, and Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Colonization, industrialization, and World War II turned it into a straight and narrow waterway, while two of its three tributaries disappeared; one redirected, the other vanished due to the creation of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, halfway across town. Despite all this, it’s still an active salmon run.
When I moved to West Seattle in the late nineties, I knew none of this. Like many newcomers, I didn’t even know that Seattle had a river; despite which, without the river, Seattle as we know it would not exist. The first I knew of the river and its history came in the form of a mailed bulletin from the Environmental Protection Agency, alerting area residents that two proposals had been advanced to clean up industrial pollution. This included PCBs released into the soil and water during Boeing’s wartime manufacturing for World War II. The river, in a city that prides itself on its environmentalism, is one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the United States. As portals into Seattle history go, it’s a rather ignominious one.
“Map of Seattle showing the former course of the Duwamish River, 1908. Source: US Geological Survey.”
Some years later I came across a map of Seattle from 1908 in the collection of the library where I work. That further fed my curiosity about the Duwamish River and its history; the obviously artificial, hard-angled channel on Google Maps was here represented by broad, curving meanders that shaped the settlements around them, rather than vice versa. Mid-pandemic, B.J. Cummings, a founder of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition to which I had by then devoted quite a few volunteer hours—mostly removing blackberries and ivy, and planting trees in the forest upslope from the river—published the book The River That Made Seattle. Reading it filled in the gaps between the two images for me. The book details not only what has happened to the Duwamish River since the Collins and Denny Parties arrived in 1851, but the ongoing community-led efforts to guide the river toward a healthier future.
Disconnection looms large in the last 150 years-plus of the Duwamish River’s history—disconnection from its environment, from its surrounding communities, even from parts of itself. When I began developing an idea for a story set on the river, I was reminded of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” a longtime staple of American high school English classes. What I’d always liked about that story—what, for me, edged it just slightly into the speculative realm—was the passage of time within it, such that the healthy and robust Neddy Merrill sets out on a midsummer afternoon, only to arrive at home on an autumn night as an old man, despite only having perceived a few short hours as having passed. Not that Cheever intended the reader to conclude that literal time travel has taken place; there’s a lot more going on in “The Swimmer,” and if you haven’t read it, I’ll leave you to discover those layers and complexities for yourself.
But the other thing that particularly strikes me about “The Swimmer,” supporting its theme of disconnection, is the suggestion that a real river once flowed through what is now Neddy’s suburban neighborhood. Much as Longfellow Creek, a stream in West Seattle that feeds the Duwamish River, runs underneath streets, housing developments, and a shopping center for one third of its length, and enters the river via a drainage pipe. (Despite this, salmon began returning to the creek as soon as barriers and pollution were removed—a hopeful sign for a species widely threatened by both.) In “The Swimmer,” the river has fragmented into dozens of swimming pools, each isolated from one another. Instead, the closest thing that Neddy encounters to an actual river is a multi-lane roadway speeding with traffic, which he struggles to cross with as much difficulty as one might swim the Mississippi. Neddy’s too well off to live in the kind of housing development given a milquetoast name for the landscape it replaced, but the implication is there.
The Duwamish River has likewise been disconnected—but the disconnection is not complete, and is to some degree repairable. Not by returning it to how it was almost two hundred years ago—or at least, that wasn’t the story I chose to tell. Even now, the river is a multi-modal place, from shoreline parks to salmon fishing to recreational boating to commercial shipping traffic. The Duwamish Longhouse overlooks the one stretch of the river left mostly unaltered by decades of industrial transformation; the area is now a wildlife refuge. The river’s future envisioned in my story is drawn from futures envisioned for it today by the communities who live and work along it, though the reality will in all likelihood look somewhat different. Restoration in this context is not about winding back time to a pre-colonial past, but about what reciprocity for an extractive way of life that currently fails to account for its own externalities might look like.
“Woman of the River” is a story that, like “The Swimmer”, moves forward in time, compassing multiple generations in a single journey—much as the life cycle of the salmon does. The life cycle of the salmon is at the heart of my friend’s poem, and an indicator of the health of the ecosystem in which they and we reside. Late in “Woman of the River” there’s a moment where one of the characters, riding downstream in her family’s boat, could reach out and touch one of the salmon, there are so many of them. Whatever the Duwamish River’s future looks like, I hope that’s part of it.
Genevieve Williams’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, and other publications. She lives in Seattle, above the Duwamish River that is central to her third short story for Asimov’s. Genevieve’s Twitter handle is twitfics, and she can be found on Instagram at datamuse.
When Ramsey Shehadeh combined a fascination with digital surveillance, robots, and the wild west inside his “fickle engine of creativity,” he ended up writing his latest story for Asimov’s, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” which appears in in our [January/February issue, on sale now!] In this interview, Ramsey discusses his writing process and literary influences, among many other fascinating topics.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece? Ramsey Shehadeh: “Cigarettes and Coffee”is set in a near-future America that’s rapidly becoming a digital surveillance state. The government has commandeered the surveillance infrastructure built by early 21st century tech oligarchs, and is using it to watch over everything, all at once, all the time. But their influence hasn’t quite reached the small West Texas town of Amos—in part because Amos is a mostly-forgotten backwater, in part because of the quiet efforts of two people: Jake, the town’s sheriff, and Belinda, a gas station convenience store clerk who belongs to an underground hacker movement bent on undermining the state’s surveillance efforts. As the story begins, Amos’ comfortable anonymity is beginning to fray. The Department of Observation has sent agents to town, and they’ve brought a new, unpleasantly life-like synthetic with them. It’s there to replace the town’s aging police robot, and to keep closer tabs on the sheriff’s activities. He and Belinda will need to do something about that.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly? RS: I don’t think there was any particular spark, but the shape of the story came from my worries about the country’s burgeoning surveillance infrastructure. I wondered what things would look like if current trends continue apace for a couple of decades: What form would 1984 take in the United States? The United States isn’t Orwell’s Oceania: It’s still mostly empty, its population concentrated on the coasts and in major cities. Huge swathes of the country are sparsely populated, and generally forgotten or ignored. A small town like Amos would be as much of an afterthought in the future as it is now. I imagine the people who live were already disposed to distrust the government, even before it began to slide into surveillance totalitarianism. What would this version of the future look like in Amos?
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations? RS: I’ve been inspired by so many writers. Here are a few of them:
William Faulkner: In 11th grade, my English teacher, Mrs Pendleton, assigned us The Sound and the Fury, and I’m still grateful for it. I vividly remember the discomfort of the first few pages of the Benjy section of that novel: a first-person narrative told from the point of a view of an intellectually disabled man who doesn’t understand the passage of time, or the relationship between cause and effect. It was strange, confusing, difficult, and exciting. Early on I tried to mimic Faulkner in my own writing, which was a fruitless and slightly embarrassing disaster. But I think the spirit of that first encounter with his work is still with me, flaring to life when I least expect it, showing me what’s possible in prose.
Jeff VanderMeer: I met Jeff VanderMeer at Clarion East, in 2007, where he and his wife Ann VanderMeer taught for a week. Jeff and Ann need no introduction: They’re both luminaries of the speculative fiction scene, and just wonderful people. I think that was one of the most important weeks in my career as writer: Jeff opened my mind to the power of the written word. I hadn’t felt so excited about the craft since my first encounter with Faulkner. When I got home I picked up Jeff’s first Ambergris book—City of Saints and Madmen—and was blown away all over again. I’d never read anything like it. It was my first (but far from my last) encounter with Jeff’s ability to astonish, challenge and entertain all at once. I always say Jeff’s the writer I want to be when I grow up. I’m well on the other side of growing up, but he’s still the light I set my course by.
Cory Doctorow: Cory Doctorow was another one of my teachers at Clarion. I was very excited to meet him: I’d just finished his collection of short stories, Overclocked, and loved it. Every story in that collection pairs an enviable grasp of storytelling with incisive commentary on the dangers of the current technological revolution. His fiction, in general, is a masterclass in how to both advocate and tell a good yarn. You don’t have to be didactic to be convincing, and Cory showed me how. He’s a great teacher, too.
Kazuo Ishiguro: Whenever people ask me to recommend books, I always start with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s emotionally devastating, yes, but so exquisitely beautiful that the sadness feels worth it. The same applies to much of his work, I think. In simple unassuming language, he guides us through the world’s cruelties to a kind of essential human goodness that perseveres, despite everything. I don’t know if I’ve learned anything about craft from him—what he does feels like a magic trick, and I don’t have the first idea of how he pulls it off—but it’s good to know what’s possible in the hands of a genius.
I’m not sure why I return to robots so much, but I think it’s mostly because they’re cool.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why? RS: Some of my most reliable obsessions are: the creeping advent of the surveillance state, robots, and westerns. I don’t explicitly court these themes when I sit down to write, but if I’m not careful they often just happen to the stories. In the case of “Cigarettes and Coffee,” they all happened at once. I’m not sure why I return to robots so much, but I think it’s mostly because they’re cool. Also they’re great stand-ins for lots of uniquely modern themes: the power and peril of technology, what AI says about our understanding of cognition, the question of what it means to be a person. But mostly they’re just cool. As for westerns: Although I didn’t grow up in the United States, I got most of my cultural markers from here. The image of the rugged, individualistic, self-sufficient cowboy must have really seeped into my bones. As I was writing this story, I slowly discovered something delightful: The real cowboy isn’t the laconic Sheriff Jake; it’s Belinda.
AE: What is your process? RS: I don’t have much of a process: it’s more of a practice, and even calling it that probably gives it more credit than it deserves. It boils down to two things:
1: Try to show up and write more days than I don’t. The best stuff arrives unexpectedly, not as bolts of inspiration, but as slow insights that grow out of the work in ways I can’t predict and generally don’t expect. It’s basically a long process of focused waiting.
2: Try to be alert to the things my subconscious is saying to me. I’m very bad at this, even though I know most of the good stuff happens down in the subterranean layers of my brain. I don’t have direct access to any of it, so—again—I just have to wait. I’ve thought a lot about the fickle engine of creativity in my subconscious. I picture it as a closed door, with a mail slot and no handle. Every day I try to slip new material through the slot—interesting conversations I’ve had, scraps of prose from good books, images from good movies. I get no feedback at all; there’s no sign anyone’s on the other side. Except, sometimes, when I’m writing, the door opens a crack and something flies out. This is easy to miss: it happens so quickly and quietly that, if I’m not paying attention, I might not even notice. And by the time I do, the door’s already closed. I look at the thing that came out from the other side. It’s usually inscrutable, presented without explanation or context. Maybe it’s an image of a cat looking out the window at an approaching storm; or a scrap of dialog between two crumbling statues; or a glimpse of a woman gently lifting a dead raccoon off the road and putting it in a box. The trick is recognizing the thing for what it really is: a gift from the secret generative force living in my mind. A key that unlocks a story it wants to give me. I’ll need to work for it, though. So I pick the thing up, put it on my desk, look at it for a while, and go back to writing. That’s not a process at all! you might say. That’s just superstition. And you’d be right! There’s a reason writers evoke muses, routines, practices: We don’t really know where any of this stuff comes from. Maybe there’s a god putting ideas in our heads. Maybe they’re messages from our Buddhist non-self, speaking to our illusory self in the only way it can. Maybe they’re just sporadic electrochemical interactions in unexplored regions of our brain. It doesn’t really matter. All I know is that there’s something behind that door giving me stories. If I believe in that utterly and without evidence, and build an infrastructure around it, and feed it faithfully, and work hard in its shadow—if I do all that, sometimes I manage to write a good story. You might say: That just sounds like goat sacrifices to pagan gods. You’d be right about that too.
AE: What inspired you to start writing? RS: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I don’t really know why. I think my first character was a one-eyed Martian called Müeller from Mars. He had a trusty sidekick called Bananahead from Venus, whose head was a banana. They went on adventures together, hopping from planet to planet. So my first stories were science fictions stories: I was instinctively drawn to the fantastical. Maybe all kids are? I don’t know. But it stuck with me, for whatever reason. I do know why I kept writing, though: my dad. He was a journalist, and an amazing writer, and my first reader. I remember handing him drafts of stories and sitting impatiently on the couch while he read, waiting for him to pass judgement. I still cherish a thing he said to me once, after he finished one of them: There’s something about your stories that makes you want to keep reading. I still go back to that when I’m losing confidence, and tell myself the same thing I probably told myself back then: Dad thought I could do this, so I can.
AE:If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why? RS: Most of the scifi I read is dystopic — either fully catastrophic end-of-the-world dystopia (The Road) or straight-line extrapolation-from-present-circumstances techno-corporate dystopia (Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Murderbot Diaries). As much as I enjoy that stuff, I wouldn’t want to live in any of it. So I’d have to go with Star Trek. I’m very attracted to its ethos. In the Star Trek universe, technology has made us better people. I wouldn’t want to be on the Enterprise’s crew—too dangerous!—but I’d love to live on Star Trek’s Earth, a post-scarcity society where everyone’s needs are satisfied, and hunger and privation and war are distant memories. All achieved and maintained without the aid of “market forces”, or the devil’s bargain we’ve made with capitalism. From where I’m standing this all seems vanishingly unlikely—but so do most things about our world, in retrospect.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers? RS: Just a couple of thoughts:
Don’t wait for inspiration, don’t try to summon it. Inspiration rewards toil. Sit down and write as often as you can. It’ll arrive when you least expect it.
Feed the mysterious engine of your creativity as much as possible: with books, movies, conversations, ideas, adventures. Anything and everything you can.
Find a writing group. Writing’s a lonely business, and hard to talk about with people who don’t do it themselves. A writing group is a community.
Treat dictates about technique with caution. You need to find your own way into your story. Other writers’ methods can be interesting, and maybe even inspirational, but there’s no recipe for any of this.
Gravitate instead toward advice about the practice of making art. Two of my favorites are Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott, and The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing? RS: I write software for a living. I’ve tried for a long time to find some common thread between coding and writing, but really they couldn’t be more different: programming is goal-driven, follows a rigorous and necessarily inflexible set of rules, and has a defined end state. Want to know if you’re finished with a piece of code? It’s relatively easy. Does it compile? Does it match the specs? Do all your unit tests pass? Not so with prose. There are no real answers, just an endless series of guesses, conclusions reached without evidence, plot devices and stylistic effects and structural decisions calculated to nudge a human brain that isn’t yours in more or less the direction you intend. It’s all so tragically squishy. If we wrote software they way we write stories the world would be chaos. It would probably also be a lot more fun.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .) RS: My website is https://doodleplex.com/ I’m on Twitter at @epidapheles.
Ramsey Shehadeh splits his time between writing stories and writing software. His fiction has appeared in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, SteampunkReloaded, and WastelandsII.
Michèle Laframboise is a bilingual French-Canadian author who has appeared in our magazine with a number of “chocolate-hard” stories over the last two years. Here she discusses her relationship with our magazine, the value of a good rejection letter, and the perils of the publishing industry. Read her latest story for Asimov’s, “I’ll Be Moon for Christmas,” in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]
Asimov’sEditor: How did the title of this piece come to you? Michèle Laframboise: “I’ll Be Moon for Christmas” is my 4th chocolate-hard science fiction story to be launched in Asimov’s. And, yes, the title and theme had been inspired by this unforgettable tune.
AE: How did this story germinate? ML: The story took form only gradually, like the slow accretion of small, haphazard asteroids into a planet. The first tiny speck of story-dust was a room, set on the tidally-locked Moon, with artificial musicians playing a tune. And there was one listener. My characters often take time to congeal into a solid, compelling people. Here, someone was listening to the orchestra, and reminiscing of her grand mother playing the brass trumpet . . . And at this moment, the accretion process accelerated, the story took flight with the alternate POV of the two main characters. The vents that separated them could very well occur in our own lifetimes, so depending are we to electronic and magnetic technologies whose cores seem more and more vulnerable.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? ML: The editor I had submitted the story first rejected it, but suggested that it would be a better fit with Asimov’s. So I did follow her advice. We often underestimate the service that a good rejection letter can do for us. Sometimes, all it takes to raise readability is a little tuck here, a nip there. In my case, paragraphs are like bricks that, for the sake of information flow, must be moved and disposed in an inviting way for the reader. I often say that I am at the service of the story, but also, the story must touch the reader. Good editors, who are also knowledgeable readers, can detect the subtle places where the narrative goes wrong, off-rails. One told me, for a story, “your story problem should be made visible on page 2.”
AE: How do you deal with writer’s block? ML: I don’t experience writer’s block, rather the opposite, so many ideas clamoring to be heard! It’s not a lack of ideas, it’s a lack of will that undoes me. And, the worst, is that I am a nitpicker: All my hard-SF, concrete-solid plots seem, to my eye, papery fragile. I am always building a house of cards . . .
Sometimes, when my mind does not want to go writing, I feel this hunger for books. And not only new books, but, old, dear books whose characters and worlds have stayed with me for years. These last weeks, I read a lot and, even, re-read books, like Sheri Tepper’s, Guy Gavriel Kay . . . I have this need to plunge in a good, secure story, to find back the sentiment, the feeling of wonder multiplied by the protective cocoon of the story. I do have my reader quirks, and when I find a story teller that hits all my delight buttons, with a worlds that I will want to re-live in, I return for another visit. At the same time, re-reading older books makes me feel guilty towards my fellow writer friends, because their books are still on my reading pile… Oh, the anguish!
AE: What inspired you to start writing? ML: Well, I had renounced writing for lack of models in SF, so I turned my energies to making comics. One day, one comic had so many elements and details that I was dispirited and decided, hey, it would be easier to write the thing instead of drawing every detail (with the perspective)! Spoiler alert: it was not more easy! The writing itself took years, with many friends and family looking over my shoulder, tons of criticism, rewriting . . . everything that you should not do, I did as a budding writer. But this novel, once published (in French) liberated the way for all the others that followed, and they took less time.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on? ML: After Mistress of the Winds, my recent graphic novel at Echofictions, I am currently translating some of my YA novels into English and writing a new space-opera. I am also producing new short-stories illustrating new problems, with, hopefully, a solution in the working! Surprisingly, I am working on another indie-published graphic novel, non-SF, about the joys of the signing table. Many writers and readers will relate to the following illustration: my glorious career so far. May more than luck be with you!
(PIC: the author at her table) I still draw comics while writing my next SF novels. My creative mind is that jumpy.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true? ML: N.K. Jemisin in Emergency Skin! The very rich abandon the planet and the rest of the world gets better, because the people get together to apply solutions. Of course, my own futures filled with shared prosperity and sustainable technologies, like an ecological space-lift in my Gardeners Universe, would be fun to live with.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask? Why do you self-publish? ML: Many of my novels and graphic novels are orphans, because the publishing houses have crumbled behind me like those rope bridges in adventure movies . . . I had to run fast! A number of my award-winning or nominated short-stories are now stuck between the yellowing pages of old (and proud) magazines. So I created my own house just to make those stories available for the amateurs, which makes me a hybrid writer. Being a Canadian and bilingual, I translated stories so both English- and French-speaking fans can enjoy them. Echofictions also publishes my backlist of short-stories and novels no longer in print. It is also putting out chapter books in small print runs, an operation that would ruin a traditional publishing house. There is a “Guardian of the threshold” in the traditional publishing system, but the end readers of indie books are the ultimate guardians. They, in all their diversity, know what they want, and what book will comfort, uplift or challenge them.
(PIC: Author running from a rope bridge)
AE: How can readers follow you and your writing? ML: I’m not that hard to find: Author website: Michele-laframboise.com Indie House: Echofictions.com Blog: Sundayartist.wordpress.com Twitter: Savantefolle Facebook: LaframboiseSF Instagram: michelesff
James Maxey discusses family book collections, the true “currentness” of current events, and his upcoming book on cryptozoology. Read his latest short story for Asimov’s, “Lonely Hill,” in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]
Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly? James Maxey: This was a slow build of a central theme bubbling up in my awareness. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and a lot of the rural and remote spaces I love are being nibbled away by suburbia. Forests and fields give way to housing developments, and creeks and beaver ponds give way to ditches and retention ponds. This has been going on since long before I was born, of course, but I think there’s a perspective that comes to you after the age of 50, where you’ve personally witnessed the loss of so much open space. I recall visiting rural Orange County twenty years ago when it was still mostly dairy farms and being stunned at how clear the sky was at night, just completely full of stars. Now, I can stand in the same spot and all there is at night is a dull haze and a half dozen stars trying their best to break through. So it’s not just rural lands you lose with all the development. You lose quiet, starry nights as well.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story? JM: Buck’s cousin Johnny with his stacks of moldy paperback books is drawn directly from my grandfather, Sidney Maxey. He was an avid reader and there were stacks of books and magazines in every corner of his house. He had bookshelves on his porch with hundreds of paperbacks and all of them were ruined by exposure to dust and humidity. I’d dig through these and find old science fiction novels. My own library these days is more curated and cared for, but I have an upper shelf where I stack old, yellow, beaten up paperbacks as a reminder of my literary heritage.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? JM: I sell my books at events like comicons and Ren Festivals. I’ve got two short story collections, There is No Wheel and The Jagged Gate. After my dragon books, they tend to be my best-selling titles at events despite selling almost nothing online. When I’m pitching these collections, I’ll mention magazines where the stories were previously published. The only magazine that ever triggers a light in people’s eyes is Asimov’s. The 25 books on the table with my name on them don’t always convince shoppers that I’m a legit author, but when I name-drop Asimov’s they assume I’m the real deal.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing? JM: I’m not convinced there are any current events. I run a book club at my local library called First Monday Classics. We focus on older books, things that people keep reading a century or more after they first appeared. Again and again, you’ll discover characters talking about “current” events from 1850 or 1790 that could easily be cut and pasted into today’s newspapers or twitter feeds. Last month we tackled Anna Karenina and there’s a conversation between two of the characters about their privilege, and how it possibly distorts their worldview. When I look at today’s news, I see contemporary society churning through the same basic moral debates people were engaged in when Cervantes was writing Don Quixote in 1605. Or, hell, you can go back to Ecclesiastes 2500 years ago for the basic reality about “current” events—“There is nothing new under the sun.”
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why? JM: Some days I’m aware that we’re nothing but temporary blips of delusional, self-aware matter that swiftly vanish with no impact at all on the greater cosmos. Other days, I wake up knowing I’m made of stardust and lightning. I possess boundless potential to create things that will endure after I’m gone. Most of my work deals with characters trying to cobble together a workable life between these two extremes.
If you can daydream and type, people will give you money for it. It’s a pretty good grift!
AE: What is your process? JM: My process is mostly sitting around in my pajamas thinking I should get some work done and not getting any work done. This goes on day after day, month after month, with my guilt and sense of failure increasing by the hour. Then, one day, I find myself holding a finished manuscript for a novel. I’ll read through it and think it’s pretty good, even though I have no firm memory of how, exactly, I wrote it. It’s vaguely possible that I have helpful typing elves living in my office. I should leave out some cookies.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on? JM: I’ve got a non-fiction book on cryptids that should be out next year, and I’m plunging into the third book of my current dragon trilogy, Dragonsgate: Angels, with a goal of having it out next year as well. (Dragonsgateis dragons versus dinosaurs versus robots versus cosmic gods in a battle across parallel earths. It’s the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written, and that’s saying something.)
In addition to my own writing, my wife and I are editing a series of science fiction and fantasy short stories for middle-grade readers. This summer we released Beware the Bugs! and Rockets & Robots. I’m currently putting the final touches on our next anthology, Paradoxical Pets. Not all pets are cute and cuddly, a dinosaur could be your buddy!
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true? JM: As my sixtieth birthday gets closer, I’m starting to wonder when those anti-aging pills are going to show up.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers? JM: I’ve actually written a whole book on this! But, the main takeaway is not to get intimidated by what you’re doing. Yes, there are a lot of skills to be mastered in creating prose that people will actually enjoy and the business side of writing is an arcane mess. Set aside all those frustrations and focus on the core reality. If you can daydream and type, people will give you money for it. It’s a pretty good grift!
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? JM: On Facebook, I occasionally post news on my fan page, Dragonsgate. I’m also on Twitter, both as me and as Word Balloon Books, the imprint that’s publishing the kid’s anthologies. Finally, I have a newsletter that goes out three or four times a year.
Unsuited for decent work, James ekes out a living typing his demented daydreams about dragons, superheroes, and monkeys. He’s published over twenty novels, including the Bitterwood Saga, Dragon Apocalypse, and the new Dragonsgate trilogy, plus superhero novels like Nobody Gets the Girl and Big Ape. His short fiction is available in two collections, There Is No Wheel and The Jagged Gate.
Rich Larson talks about his inspirations for his newest story, the impact of current events on the writing process, and more. You can find his newest story, “The Rise of Alpha Gal” in our [September/October issue, on sale now!]
Asimov Editor: What is the story behind this piece? Rich Larson: I read an article a few years back about the very real allergy-inducing Alpha Gal carbohydrate, noticed that it sounds like a superhero / supervillain, and wrote a story to make sure other people noticed too.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story? RL: This story was originally from Nea’s POV, and the ending was even more bitter. I think beta readers dinged it for lack of agency and likeability, but honestly, in real life, a lot of the time you show up to a place and a thing happens and you get no say in it. I relate to that.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? RL:Asimov’s has terrific taste and is unafraid to publish potentially thorny stories. Depending on which character readers side with, people could (mis)interpret this one as antivax. Me, I think Heli is right: personal liberties and bodily autonomy sometimes need to be sacrificed for the greater good. If I were to contract this theoretical viral allergy and never be able to eat meat again, I would be annoyed, but I would also understand. Of course, I come at this from a position of privilege.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing? RL: I think current events impact everyone’s writing, whether they are conscious of it or not. This story was written pre-COVID, but it takes on a new dimension now that there’s a worldwide pandemic.
Asimov’s has terrific taste and is unafraid to publish potentially thorny stories. Depending on which character readers side with, people could (mis)interpret this one as antivax.
AE: What is your process? RL: I sit down at my typewriter and bleed. No, just kidding. I sit down at my netbook and bleed.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on? RL: Now that Ymir is out, I’m trying to finish all the stories / novelettes / novellas that have spent the past few years on the backburner. I’m also doing some videogame-adjacent work-for-hire stuff. If I talk too much about it, an NDA ninja will jump out from behind a bush and slit my throat.
AE: What are you reading right now? RL: Two poetry anthologies, one showcasing new British poets, the other nominees for the 2020 Montreal Poetry Prize. I also tried The Exegesis of Philip K Dick but only made it a quarter of the way through.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?| RL: I sure miss being an up-and-coming writer. Savor each accomplishment; there are diminishing dopamine returns.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing? RL: None. I went straight from working at a liquor store and studying Romance Languages to writing full time. Now I am thirty and the only thing I know how to do is make shit up, so if readers ever get tired of me I’m done for.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? RL: I’m most thorough with my monthly Patreon updates (patreon.com/richlarson), but I also occasionally link stuff via Facebook (facebook.com/richwlarson) or Instagram (@richlarsonwrites).
Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czech Republic, and currently writes from Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the novels Ymir and Annex, as well as the collection Tomorrow Factory. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen languages, including Polish, Italian, Romanian, and Japanese, and his translated collection La Fabrique des lendemains won the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire. His short story “Ice” was adapted into an Emmy-winning episode of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Find free reads and support his work at https://www.patreon.com/richlarson.
Alastair Reynolds goes into his inspirations, his long history with writing, and advice for new authors. Read his newest story, “Things to do in Deimos When You’re Dead” in our [September/October issue, on sale now!]
Asimov Editor: How did this story germinate? Alastair Reynolds: I talk a little about the title and the inspiration below, but the process of putting it all together was quite slow (as it usually is for me) and was as much about striking a mood as coming up with characters and a plot. I’m a big fan of surrealist art so in the landscapes of this story I was trying to evoke the empty, melancholic city-scapes of de Chirico, with their eerie statues and long, creeping shadows. I took the name of the spaceship in my first novel from a de Chirico painting, so it’s a lifelong influence! There’s a bit of Titian in there as well.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone? AR: It’s very much a standalone. I’m at the point now where I’m not so keen to be revisiting larger universes, at least for a while.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you? AR: This is also the genesis of the story. I’m a fan of the late American rock musician Warren Zevon, and I always liked his “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.” There’s a film of the same name that I haven’t seen, also inspired by the song. I swapped Deimos for Denver and off we went! Except that’s not quite true as I had the title and a few fragments of story for about five or six years before the thing cohered into a finished piece. I thoroughly recommend checking out Zevon, by the way. A lot of people will know “Werewolves of London” but that’s only the tip of an enormous number of great songs. He was a terrific loss to music, at such a young age.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? AR: Way back when, Gardner Dozois took a story of mine for Asimov’s. It was a huge breakthrough to me and it also happened around the time Gardner bought another of my pieces to be reprinted in his Year’s Best series. He was the first American figure to show any interest in my work so it felt like a big validation. I sold a couple more stories to him in reasonably quick succession, so I had a run of appearances in the magazine around the millennium and then I just didn’t send anything else in. I always meant to, but time slipped away and then suddenly it was two decades! Holy cow. This story wasn’t written for a commission, so when I finished it, it felt like the right time to try and sell another piece to Asimov’s—under Sheila’s excellent tenure this time, of course. And I’m really delighted to have broken that twenty year drought!
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations? AR: Music and art are the primary influences. I’m known for having a background in space science so people understandably tend to assume that the science comes first, but it’s not really the case. I get stimulated by a mood or set of images, and then I start feeling my way into a story which spirals out from that starting point. I’ll see a character in a predicament and want to know who she is and how she came to be there. The science and worldbuilding, such as they are, get salted into the process as I go along. It’s all very organic and intuitive. To feed this, I need to keep exposing myself to new influences, so I’m a voracious consumer of music and visual imagery across nearly all genres. Without bigging myself up, I also suspect that I have a somewhat over-developed visual imagination. I can see stuff in my mind’s eye as clearly as a CGI render, right down to highlights and reflections, and often all I’m doing as a writer is translating these image-rushes into prose.
I can see stuff in my mind’s eye as clearly as a CGI render, right down to highlights and reflections, and often all I’m doing as a writer is translating these image-rushes into prose.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block? AR: I don’t know whether it’s real or not, but I do know that there are times when it becomes very difficult to progress with a piece of work. I deal with that in two ways: first by reassuring myself that it’s an inevitable part of the process, and no cause for alarm, and then just grinding down through the gears until I’m just barely moving forward, but at least making some imperceptible progress. The second thing I do (that was the first!) is to have more than one project on the go. If I’m really honestly stuck with something, then I switch over. I’d rather be writing then not writing, basically. If that fails as well, then go to the cinema and let your mind freewheel for a couple of hours. It’s surprising how often exposing yourself to a different narrative form can unblock things.
AE: How did you break into writing? AR: I’d always been a compulsive writer, right from when I could hold a pen. I wrote two novels in my teens, as well as a bunch of linked stories. Around the time when I was sixteen, I started making cautious investigations into getting published, and that’s when I realised that there was this standard pathway into SF, by which you sell stories to magazines and then eventually graduate to novels. I couldn’t get hold of the American magazines, but within a year or two I became aware of a British one, Interzone. I started sending them stuff as I moved from school to university, all written on a manual typewriter. After three or four years they took a piece of mine and gradually doors began to open. Life throws lucky chances at you. Because we were both working at the university at the time, I ended up getting to know Paul McAuley, who aside from being a more-established writer, helped me get an editor to look at my first “grown-up” novel. Of course you have to put in the hard graft so that you’re ready to jump on these opportunities when they arrive.
AE: What inspired you to start writing? AR: That’s an easy one. My dad took me to the cinema to see a double-bill of James Bond films: From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. I was bored by the first one (even though it’s actually a really good Bond in retrospect) but my tiny little mind was completely blown away by Goldfinger, with the car, the gadgets, the laser! The next day at school I started drawing and writing a Bond-inspired story, leaning heavily on Goldfinger, and I never really stopped. If anyone needs a script for the next Bond, I’ve got some time in my calendar.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on? AR: Machine Vendetta, a new novel in my Prefect Dreyfus series, which is itself a sub-series in the Revelation Space universe. This is the last one for a while, though, as I’d like to concentrate on entirely new standalone SF works for the next few years. There’s a novella, “I, Clavius”, on the back-burner, about a sentient moonbase, but that’s a way off being finished.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why? The Known Space universe of Larry Niven, around the time of the Beowulf Schaeffer stories. It seems like a pretty fun, groovy, day-glo sort of place! I’d have my own ship with a General Products Number One hull, a hyperdrive and some cool friends to come along on an adventure to the fringes of Known Space.
AE: What are you reading right now? AR: I’ve just finished the autobiography of Dave Grohl, the drummer from Nirvana and the front-man of the Foo Fighters. I’ve always enjoyed reading about drummers and this is a really good read. Now I need to pick up a David Baldacci thriller I’m part-way through. I haven’t read any science fiction for a few months but I’m feeling the itch again so it won’t be long.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers? AR: Finish stuff. This is really good, basic advice but it’s surprising how powerful it is. You can always improve a lame story, but you can’t improve something that isn’t complete. I liken a first draft to throwing a line across a ravine. It’s too flimsy to carry a load, but now you’ve got that line across, you can use it to drag a heavier rope, and so on, until you’ve got a bridge.
Alastair Reynolds was born in Wales in 1966. He started publishing SF in 1990 while working in space science, and has now written around twenty novels and many short stories. His most recent novel is Eversion (Gollancz UK and Orbit USA). After living and working in the Netherlands for nearly two decades, he and his wife now live back in Wales, surrounded by birds and bats. Alastair is a keen runner and owns way too many guitars.
My father’s parents came from Iceland. Since the population of Iceland is not great, and the West Icelanders in Canada and the U.S. are not numerous, this was pretty exotic back when I was a kid. Of course, I was interested in the country. In addition, my father spent World War 2 in Iceland, working for the U.S. government, and told stories about the experience. (The U.S. had a huge wartime base in Iceland and recruited everyone they could find who spoke Icelandic. My father had grown up speaking it.) I read books about the country as a kid and took Medieval Icelandic in grad school, since they didn’t offer modern Icelandic. The language is conservative, so the two versions are not that different, except for vocabulary. Modern life in Iceland has required a lot of new words. At some point, I began to write stories drawing from the medieval Icelandic sagas, which are famous, and Icelandic folklore, which is less well known. Five of these stories have been collected into a book titled Hidden Folk, which can be found on Amazon or from the publisher, Many Worlds Press. I have written an additional four stories, not yet collected. “Grandmother Troll” is one.
I should be clear about two things. I am not an expert on Iceland, though I’ve read a lot over years and been to Iceland twice. I am sure Icelanders can catch me out in a lot of errors. Also, the Iceland I write about is my version of the country and culture. For example, I don’t like Icelandic elves. They are described as like human Icelanders, but richer and handsomer and in better health. Most Icelanders for most of their history were miserable peasants, living in sod huts, subject to poverty, sickness, bad weather and volcanic eruptions. Elves were like the few rich Icelanders, or like the Danish merchants and officials who exploited and/or ignored the people of their colony. (Iceland was a colony, first of Norway and then of Denmark, from the 13th century. It did not become completely free until after WWII.)
I like Icelandic trolls. In Icelandic folklore they are a mixed lot, usually hostile, but sometimes friendly. I see them as the island’s rock come alive: strong folk, but not especially fortunate, peasants barely getting by, hiding from humans in the highlands. There are two kinds of trolls: those who can go out in sunlight and those who will be turned to stone if sunlight touches them. I usually write about the latter, probably due to the influence of Tolkien and The Hobbit. Even the ones who can come out in sunlight are not often seen.
There two stories about trolls I like. These are real stories out of Icelandic folklore. One is about Bishop Gudmund the Good Arason, who used to wander around Iceland with a troop of beggars. If he stopped at a prosperous farmer’s farm he would be welcomed, since he was a bishop; and the farmer would have to feed his troop of beggars.
I guess you could say my story is about history and how we relate to the past, and about respecting the land, and taking good care of our animals, especially our sheep.
Anyway, all kinds of bad things were happening around the island of Drangey in Skagafjord, and Gudmund was asked to bless the island. The island’s cliffs were sheer. The only way he could bless them was to be lowered on a rope. Gudmund worked his way around the island, getting lowered at each new section. Finally, he was almost done. He was about to bless the last bit of cliff when a huge, gray hand came out of the stone and grabbed his rope. A deep voice said, “Even the wicked need a place to live, Gudmund.”
This struck the bishop as reasonable, and he did not bless the last bit of cliff. The hand released his rope, and he was pulled up.
The Icelanders know what part of Drangey was not blessed. The first time I was in Iceland, I spent a couple of hours on an Icelandic fishing boat off Drangey. I remember the sheer cliffs and the seals in the water and the boat’s captain telling us that this section of cliff was still unlucky. Bad things still happened there.
So that is one story. The other I got out of a book on trolls. Some fishermen were fishing at night and getting loud. One of their party said, “Be quiet. You’ll disturb the trolls.”
A night or two later, that man was asleep. He dreamed that a troll came to him and thanked him for his consideration. “In return, I’ll tell you when and where to fish so you always have a good catch.”
The troll kept his word. After that, the two of them would go out fishing together on moonlit nights. If the troll was along, the man’s catch was always good.
My trolls are usually helpful, rather than wicked. But there is no question that trolls can be dangerous, just as Iceland can be. Icelandic Search and Rescue is always rescuing idiot tourists who get their cars stuck in glacial rivers or who get lost in the highlands. Pay attention to the weather when you are there. Follow instructions from the natives about where to go and what to do. Do not walk on the lava near an ongoing volcanic eruption. The crust may look black and solid, but the lava may be still red and molten underneath.
What else can I say about my story? The man who Grandmother Troll gives shelter to in the highlands is Grettir the Strong, the hero of the Grettis saga, an amazing character. He meets his end on the island of Drangey in an epic last stand against his enemies.
I have made the farmer in my story a descendant of the great saga hero Egil Skallagrimsson. Egil’s grandfather Kveldulf did in fact send his spirit out as a wolf in the evening. Egil’s father Skallagrim was a smith, which is a somewhat magical line of work, and Egil himself was a viking, a poet and sometimes a magician. He laid a really impressive curse on the land spirits of Norway, so they could not rest until they had driven Norway’s king Eirik the Bloody Axe out of the country. Eirik ended in York in England. Unfortunately, Egil was on a ship that broke up on the coast near there. So Egil ended in the court of his worst enemy and had to buy his way out with a praise poem named “The Head Random,” which is the first example of a Norse poem using rhyme.
Egil was a real person and a real poet. We have three of his long poems preserved in the Egils saga, including “The Head Ransom.” His family has descendants alive today. I may or may not be one.
Both Egil and Grettir are awful, violent men and also kind of likeable. Their sagas are my favorite sagas. This does not mean I approve of their behavior.
The sheep getting caught in a blizzard in my story is based on an actual blizzard that hit northern Iceland a number of years ago. It was in the fall, before the sheep had been gathered in for the winter, and the sheep were still out in the fields, trapped under a huge snowfall. Iceland Search and Rescue had to go out on snowmobiles, find sheep and dig them out and bring them to safety. It was an epic effort, which was made more difficult by some tourists who got themselves in trouble, so Iceland S&R had to leave the work of saving sheep and go to rescue tourists. Tourists are important, of course. But sheep are also important, and the sheep had not done anything silly.
I guess you could say my story is about history and how we relate to the past, and about respecting the land, and taking good care of our animals, especially our sheep.
Eleanor Arnason sold her first story in 1973. Since then, she has published six novels and fifty works of shorter fiction. Her novel A Woman of the Iron People won the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Society Awards. Her novel Ring of Swords won a Minnesota Book Award. Her story “Dapple” (Asimov’s, September 1999) won the Spectrum Award, and other stories have been finalists for the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Sidewise Awards. Eleanor’s most recent story in Asimov’s was “Tunnels” a Lydia Duluth adventure, in the May/June 2020 issue. Hidden Folk, a collection of short stories based on Icelandic folklore, came out in 2014.
Along with several thousand others, I am David Gerrold’s Facebook friend. He’s remarkably approachable and has responded to the half dozen messages I have sent him over the years. In January 2021, I messaged him and asked if he had any comments about “Man Out of Time,” my favorite episode of the Logan’s Run 1977 television series. I was writing a review of his episode for Stupefying Stories. He suggested we talk on the phone. On January 30, 2021, I found myself chatting for over an hour with the writer of “The Trouble With Tribbles” and the story editor for Land of the Lost. He was very gracious when the Zoom link didn’t work and even more gracious when he realized that I, unlike every other interviewer, had not taped the interview. Lucky for me, he had. Anyhow, enough about me: sit back and enjoy a science fiction master recounting the glory days of sixties and seventies science fiction. —Peter Wood
Peter Wood: So, you said you have a story for me (about “Man Out of Time,” the episode you wrote for the 1977 television serial Logan’s Run)? David Gerrold: It’s a couple stories. The producer on the show was Len Katzman, and the executive producers, who I never met, were Goff and Roberts. Now, I enjoyed working with Len Katzman. He later went on to do Dallas, and he was a very, very nice man, and a very good producer. And what I suggested was not just a time travel story but that we actually find sanctuary, and that this would give the show the opportunity to—once we had found that sanctuary was not real—stop searching for sanctuary and start being about rebuilding the connection between all the human settlements all over.
PW: Right. DG: And it was a pretty good intention. So we came up with this time travel story that played a trick I’ve done a couple times—the time traveler is not from the future. He’s from the past. I did that in Land of the Lost as well. But, I have this weird sense of humor, but also a sense that science must be logical and believable. So the first thing the time traveler does is he sends a rabbit forward to see if it survives. And so they find the rabbit. Now, Jessica and Logan and Rem have never seen a rabbit before. They’ve lived in this bubble. Okay, so they find the rabbit in the cage, and Rem is searching his memory, and I had stumbled across a weird fact that the rabbit is genetically or evolutionarily similar to an elephant. Apparently they have the same root, and so Rem says, “This is an elephant.” And Logan says, “I thought they were larger,” And the joke was that they would carry the rabbit around with them for the entire rest of the episode. And there was a lot of funny stuff that got written. I think I went through four drafts, and each time the notes would come back not from Len Katzman, but from Goff and Roberts, and they ended up taking out all of the jokes, all of the humor, all of what I had learned on Star Trek, and again on Land of the Lost, was that the jokes made your characters likable, so much that you wanted to spend more time with them. And we particularly saw this with “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but we saw it in all of the episodes of Star Trek where Spock and McCoy would take large bites out of each other. And it seemed to me that there were a lot of comedic possibilities in Rem and the others. And it wasn’t a bad show, and the people there were good. I have nothing against anybody there, but Goff and Roberts kept taking the jokes out. Now, my first-draft scripts were long because it’s easier to cut than it is to pad, and so I cut, and I cut, and I cut, and a lot of fun stuff got cut, maybe properly so. It might’ve been too talky for television. I’m certainly not going to say I was —I’m not going to do like some angry writers do and say, “I was right and they were wrong all along,” and then you see their original script and you can see, yeah, they had some brilliant stuff in it, but it wasn’t filmable, right? I’m not naming any names.
PW: Right. I think I know who you’re talking about. DG: Yeah. No, I’ll be candid. Harlan [Ellison]’s script was brilliant, but it wasn’t Star Trek, and it had to be rewritten to fit into Star Trek—and a lot of the dialogue he wrote was simply not the characters, and I learned how to write Star Trek dialogue by reading, I would guess, 25 Star Trek scripts, and watching every single episode I could, more than once, and then watching the actors work. So I wrote for their speech patterns, and Harlan, who had—it was the last script of the first season—he’d had plenty of time to hang out on the set and read other scripts and get a sense of who the characters were, but a lot of the dialogue he wrote, as brilliant as it is, wasn’t the Star Trek characters very much. And then you do find these little flashes, these little moments, “I fought at Verdun.” “Oh, a man who fought at Verdun. We have to do something for him,” even though Kirk and Spock didn’t understand, but they knew it was important. So there’s these little flashes of brilliance, and yet— Harlan’s draft of the script, as much as I love it, and it really is a brilliant script, would’ve made a great movie, but it needed to be fixed for Star Trek, and Dorothy Fontana did most of that. Harlan blamed Gene Roddenberry but it was really Dorothy. She admitted it to Harlan many years later when we all believed that some of his anger had ebbed. Anyway, Goff and Roberts were editing my script down, or wanted my script cut down, and they made extensive notes, and I finally reached a point where I felt that they had leached a lot of the fun out of the story, so I put another name on it, Noah Ward. The funny thing is that it turned out to be a very good episode anyway, one of the better episodes of the series, and they sent me a kind of snarky note when they saw the reviews. They said, “Well, I guess we know what we’re doing, huh?” But look, they did know what they were doing. They were good producers, but doing science fiction, especially back then, there weren’t a lot of people who understood how to do science fiction, and they had never done science fiction before, and science fiction requires a skill that very few really good writers had at the time. Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, and Norman Spinrad, and—oh God, a whole bunch of people who understood. Gene L. Coon for sure. Dorothy Fontana. You need to know how to do science in a way that it’s believable, even if you’re making crap up, and then you also need to make your characters likable so the audience cares about them. And then you have to have a story, a drama where something is at stake, and you look at—I’ll give you an example. One of the great episodes of Trek was “The Doomsday Machine.” I mean it’s one of the best things Norman Spinrad ever wrote because you really care about William Windham’s character. He’s lost his ship and he wants revenge. It’s Moby Dick in space, and you realize Kirk’s challenge is, he doesn’t want to lose the Enterprise, and yet he asks, “How are we going to destroy this planet-destroying doomsday machine?” And as a character story, it is one of the best stories Star Trek ever told.
PW: It’s my favorite episode. DG: Understandably, yes. “The Trouble with Tribbles,” even though we see it as a comedy, if you stripped out all the jokes, because there were never that many jokes in the first draft, it’s just, “Oh, it would be funny if we did this. It would be funny if we did that.” But if you strip out all the jokes, you have a strong character story of Kirk versus Barris versus Klingons.
PW: Yep. DG: And it’s my belief that any great comedy has to have a great story underneath the jokes; that if you strip out the jokes, you still have a great story. The jokes are the way you dramatize the story. You could tell Some Like It Hot, which is one of the funniest movies ever made, you could tell that straight, without any jokes, and it would still work. It’d be a little hard to believe.
PW: Some Like It Hot is horrifying. They’re almost killed. DG: There’s a lot at stake in that story. There has to be something at stake.
PW: Yeah. DG: And a lot of science fiction by people who don’t understand science fiction, who have not grown up in it, is, “Let’s do a monster”, and the guy who did the third season of Land of the Lost—now, when I did the first season, it was—Spencer Milligan as Marshall says, “This is the land of the lost. There has to be a reason for everything.” You get to the third season, in the third season the story editor is saying, “Crap, have the characters saying, ‘This is the Land of the Lost. Anything can happen,'” which is not true.
PW: Right. DG: That’s not the Land of the Lost that I made up. Anyway, but you see what I’m saying is, you have to have a level of logical consistency, even in fantasy, and you have to have characters you can care about, and you have to have something at stake, and then you have to have those moments that bring the character to life, whether they are funny or tragic or whatever. And in episodic television it’s easier to go for the comedic response. That joke makes your characters likable, and it’s actually a physical thing. Let me give it to you this way. If I tell a joke, you laugh and you get endorphins. You get an actual physical sense of pleasure, even if it’s a small one. Now, the more that I give you that physical sense of pleasure, the more you’re going to bond; the more you’re going to feel affectionate; the more you’re going to like being around me. So this applies to television. The more that a character makes you laugh, the more you like being around him.
PW: Right. DG: And you can even do that with Klingons because the Klingons, as originally conceived, as nasty as they were, you got a feeling of—you got a little adrenaline rush off the Klingons. That was exciting. Yeah, tell me more about the Klingons. So I wanted to bring the characters to life, and if you look at the entire 13-14 episodes that were completed and released on the DVD, or the Blu-ray, I forget, what you see is, it’s a very dry, dull show that’s trying very, very hard to be serious. And while that might be fine in a murder mystery, or a detective show, or any kind of the crime shows, it doesn’t work for science fiction. Science fiction needs a light edge. And you look at films like Forbidden Planet. There are jokes in Forbidden Planet. You look at The Day the Earth Stood Still. There’s a couple of very high-level moments that are actually amusing. You look at—even the 1953 War of the Worlds. There are a couple moments that, while they’re not laugh-out-loud jokes, they’re smiles, and you end up—those characters become vivid because of the likability. And I always felt that, as good as all of the actors were; Paul Shenar and Greg Harrison and all of them, as good as they all were, I think they were defeated by scripts that didn’t give them any fun to have. I’ll give you another story which you may have already heard, but we were shooting over at MGM, which is just one of the great old studios, and MGM had a tradition with Technicolor going all the way back to Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz. They would pump up the light so that the colors would be saturated on the film. Now, we get to 1970-whatever and they’re still pumping up the light but we’re using a new film stock, 5437, which is a very fast film, and doesn’t need to be pumped up with light. Well, they’re pumping up the light like they’re shooting Wizard of Oz because it’s some of the same people who worked on Wizard of Oz? Wizard of Oz was 1939. This was only 40 years later. Some of the same people were still working there; good guys but they were still working as if they were, the film stock was 50 ASA And we’re using film stock that was 400 ASA, right? Which is great. I mean, you look at those episodes and they are saturated with color, but the problem was they were burning out the eyes of the actors, and Harrison and the others finally complained that those bright lights were not just physically painful, but at the end of the day they couldn’t see because they were so dazzled by the lights. So they had to redo the lighting, and later episodes you can see the lighting shift a little bit. So I did not note there the director of photography. You go back to Star Trek. Jerry Finnerman understood the film stock he was lighting for. He also understood that all the sets were gray, so that’s why he used the colored—what do they call them? I’m blanking out on the word, but the colored sheets in front of the light, so you’ve got a purple wash here, and a green wash there, and an orange wash. So he made the sets look different, even though they were all just painted the same color gray. And then he’d also put up this latticework so you’d get these textured shadows in the background. In terms of making the most out of a limited budget, the man was a genius. He made the show look good, and this was the early days of color television. People were tuning in to Star Trek just because of the bright colors. You’ve got a color TV, you wanted to watch something in color. There was Star Trek.
PW: True. DG: But by the time we got to Logan’s Run, everything was in color. All the networks had gone full color, and the sets were better. The sets had evolved in just ten years, and you can start to think in terms of subtleties of color. You didn’t have to have everything primary colors. And Logan’s Run looked good. It did look good.
PW: It did. I agree. DG: I think that’s all I remember from the show. That should give you something to work with.
PW: So I’m guessing you got involved because of Dorothy Fontana? DG: Yes. Yeah, Dorothy was being hired as a story editor everywhere. Dorothy and I were great friends. She was one of my best friends in the world, but she knew that I was fast, I was dependable, and that they wouldn’t have to do a lot of rewriting. I would turn in a shootable script, and they might have to tweak a line here and there, but she knew she could depend on me and vice versa. When I was doing Land of the Lost, Dorothy Fontana wrote the best script for Land of the Lost. There’s absolutely—I mean, I had some good writers. I had Ben Bova. I had Norman Spinrad. I had a few others. Just great people. I had some of the best writers I could find, but Dorothy’s script was, she had done this script, “Yesteryear,” for the animated Star Trek. When I brought her along for Land of the Lost, I said, “Let’s do ‘Yesteryear’ but we’ll turn it around. This time, instead of meeting young Spock, we’ll meet Holly as an adult.” And she made it work beautifully. I mean, very limited, but they shot the episode in two or three days—all of our episodes were shot fast. So there wasn’t a lot of time for a lot of nuance. On Land of the Lost we did not have a director who was good at nuance, but he could get the shots in the can, and the actors managed to make it work. It’s hard work being an actor. Most people think, “Oh, you learn your lines and you get to be glamorous.” No. If you look at what the average actor goes through in just a one-hour episode, they have to learn their lines, there’s 60 pages of script. If you’re the star of the show, you have to learn 10 pages of script every night, which I think explains William Shatner’s delivery. He’s trying to remember his lines all the time.
PW: Right. DG: But anyway, Logan’s Run should have been a better show. I mean, it wasn’t a bad show, but it wasn’t a show that was destined to last long because the network didn’t give it a chance to gel. That was part of the problem. But the other thing is that I don’t think Goff and Roberts understood the magic of what that show could’ve been. With Star Trek we were visiting a different culture every week, more or less. And Logan’s Run could have done that. They could have been doing this exploration. You could’ve taken the time to say, “Okay, where are they on the map, and where are they going? Okay, so they’re in a desert. Next they’re in the uplands, then the foothills. Next they’re in the mountain range,” and each time they could be visiting a community that has a different way of surviving because of the geology of where they are, or the geography of where they are, and you could’ve done a fascinating exploration of a devastated future and how the people are starting to come back together. And that would’ve been a very hopeful optimistic show, but the context that they ended up with was, Logan and Jessica and Rem are kind of lost and wandering from place to place without any clue of what they’re really looking for. And wherever they’re going, they’re not finding any more information about where to look next. And so it became, your context in a series is something that—I had this conversation with Harve Bennett when he was doing Matthew Star—Star Boy — and I said to him—I turned in a couple of really good ideas, and he loved them. He said that we can do these second season. And I said, “If you don’t do shows like this now, you’re not going to have a second season.”
PW: Right. DG: Well, the poor kid who was the star of the show was injured in an accident, burned by some fireworks, and the show got canceled, so they never did get a second season. But what I have always said is, “Tell me what we’re going to be doing for the fourth episode of the third season, and then I’ll know if the show’s going to survive,” because it’s—if you’re doing Perry Mason, the producer will say, “We’re going to be doing a murder mystery,” and you say, “Oh, right, of course.” But if you’re doing a science fiction show like Battlestar Galactica, which is “run away from the Cylons,” three seasons in, we’re still running away from the Cylons. It’s, um, that’s not a grabber. But you say with Star Trek, “We’re going to be doing third season—we’re going to be exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going—”
PW: Right. DG: So, oh, great? I know what we’re going to be doing third season. And that’s a question you want to ask: do we know where we’re going? What’s the punchline of this series? A show like Lost started out real strong and introduced even some interesting mysteries, but nobody knew what the punchline was, and after a while it became obvious they were making it up as they were going. They didn’t know where they were going.
PW: Yeah. DG: So, the couple of times I have written a bible for a series—and I’ve pitched two or three now, and we’ve gotten great reactions but nobody opened their checkboo—I could always say, “Here’s the finale. Here’s where we’re building to. You tell us this is our final season. Here’s how it’s going to resolve.” If it’s a war story, here’s who wins the war. If it’s a this, here’s how this— And I think that, especially now when we’re doing series that you get ten episodes a year, there should be a story arc for each episode but also a payoff at the end of the story arc. Doctor Who is the exception, because you just regenerate the doctor and reinvent the whole series, which has happened, if you follow, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whitaker. Each time they not only reinvent the doctor. They reinvent the context of the series because the doctor has a different challenge each time. And with this latest thing, the timeless child, the doctor is a whole different person. So it’s “Oh, this is going to be interesting. Are we going to play it out? What are we going to discover about where the timeless child came from?” I mean, the whole series has been ripped wide open. So, that’s the exception to the rule. But if you’re doing a thing —Hawaii 5-0 is a really good example. They went what, 7-8 seasons, and finally McGarrett ages out and gets the girl, finally, in the last episode? But they were building to it. That whole last season was setting up McGarrett—I mean McGarrett had already lost a kidney, and a this, and a that, and the other, so—I mean they were building up to McGarrett’s retirement for a while. They knew where they were going and they paid off all the plot lines that they’d been playing with for seven years. And that’s how you do a series. So we came away from watching Hawaii 5-0 feeling complete; that we had not been left with—let me say it this way, we’d been given closure. We had not been left hanging. And I think that’s what makes good television, is that you do get that sense of completeness. The Sopranos is one that has a sense of closure, a sense of completeness, because if you think about it, Tony Soprano gets killed in that last shot. That’s the only real explanation, and the producers of the series kind of hinted that was what they intended.
PW: Yeah. DG: So that’s really—you have all of this—these problems with doing television, and there are a lot of people in the industry who are only thinking in terms of this episode, and the next episode, and the one after, and they’re not thinking, “What are we going to be doing next season? How are we going to pay this off?” And I think you need an overriding story arc to make any series work.
PW: Like Babylon 5. DG: Babylon 5, yeah. Babylon 5, once Joe started writing all those scripts himself, he knew exactly where he was going, and Joe’s a good writer and a good producer, and I can only say wonderful things about him. He’s really an admirable man. He knew where he was going and he built toward it, then the network says, “We’re going to stop after four seasons,” so he had to rush the fourth season to get to closure, and then they said, “No, we’ve decided we want a fifth season,” so he had to do a fifth season after he’d already done everything he intended to do. It was very frustrating for him, but he made it work better than most producers would have.
PW: Not bad. I always felt like Logan’s Run would’ve been better if they had done more with Francis or less with Francis, but having it be every week, he’s on their tail and can’t quite seem to catch them, or he captures them and somehow he loses them. That seemed to happen a lot. That got kind of repetitive. It was like an old movie serial or something. DG: Well, it was like Les Miserables, and he was supposed to be Inspector Javert chasing Jean Valjean. Well, that’s fine, but—and they did that as a TV series called The Fugitive, where Richard Kimball was being pursued every week, but the real interest in The Fugitive was not that Richard Kimball might get caught this week, because you knew he wasn’t going to get caught. The real story was the people’s lives that Richard Kimball got involved with in The Fugitive. And so, if you kept Inspector Javert in the background as a threat, that might get close. And when he does get close, it’s time for Kimball to move on. The Fugitive was a great TV series because it was not—he wasn’t always running, but with Logan’s Run, because the story was about the chase—of Francis chasing Logan, they were trapped into, “We have to have Francis every week.” Well, I think it would’ve worked better if Francis didn’t show up quite so often. “I think we’ve lost Francis.” “Oh, he’ll track us. We’ve got to keep moving.” “Okay.” So you could have an episode or two where Francis is not there, but the threat is implied. You could bring that series back, but you’d have to really rework it hard. My problem with the entire Logan’s Run context is, they come from a place where, as soon as you turn 30 you get killed. Well, people don’t mature. People don’t even get interesting until they hit their 30s. The male brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 23 or so, and you don’t start really getting a sense of how life works until you’re 25-26-27, and by the time you’re 33 that’s when you start to become—that’s when you are who you are, and that’s when you’re really interesting. You have some control over what you’re doing, especially if you’re a writer. You finally moved into your craft. Whatever else you are working at, you’ve had your 10,000 hours. You’ve had your million words. You’ve got your muscle memory in place. And that’s really about the age where mastery starts to kick in. So killing people before they even have a chance to develop real maturity struck me as being wrong. Now, if I were redoing Logan’s Run today, I would have Logan discover that the real masters of the city are the people who didn’t get killed but go into hiding, and that there is a secret counsel of older people who didn’t get killed but who went into hiding. You either got killed in Carousel, or if you had proved yourself worthy, you got elevated to be one of the secret masters who were living underneath the city, and making sure everything works. See, at least that way you would have a believable environment. Why do we have all these kids running around upstairs? Because that’s where we let them learn how to be human beings, whether or not they are worthy of going on. But we don’t tell them that because that would just traumatize them, so we just let them have fun, play, learn, and see which ones are worth saving. See, that would be an interesting story.
PW: That would be. I kind of got the feeling that the original book was almost like a satire because I think there’s this youth revolution in the 21st century and they kill all the old people, so like Wild in the Streets (the 1968 movie), right? DG: Yeah, which was a dreadful movie, too.
PW: Yeah. DG: I’ll tell you, George Clayton Johnson and I were good friends. I loved George. He was smart. He could get work when nobody else could. I never understood that because he never came across as being the sharp industry professional, but if you needed a script, you’d call George and he would turn something out. He and William F. Nolan decided they were going to make a million dollars, and they were going to write a book that would be turned into a movie, and they would make their money from the movie sale and the success of the movie. That was their goal with Logan’s Run. So they analyzed what you need. It had to be an action picture, and it had to appeal to the young audience, and it had to have this and that and the other, so it’s really a construct. It was a deliberate construct to play off all the tropes they knew would sell. And I don’t fault them for it. I actually admire that they solved that challenge. It’s the same challenge I did with “The Trouble with Tribbles”: what do you need to sell a script to Star Trek? Well, you have to be better than all of the other writers who are selling scripts Star Trek, so you have to find a story that nobody else is doing. And with Logan’s Run they came up with something that a studio would look at and say, “We could make some money with this.” I’m not faulting them for that approach, and I also think there are a lot of really fun elements in Logan’s Run. I mean, I didn’t like the movie very much. I didn’t like the book very much because of the idea that you were killing people at age 30. If they had just not used that as the motivation for the run, they would have had 1984. How does Winston Smith escape Big Brother? Well, you don’t escape Big Brother. But this was a different time. This was a Brave New World kind of tyranny. How do you escape Brave New World? That would’ve been a hell of a story. So that’s my writer disagreement with them; but on the other hand, every writer gets to create their own story, so they created their story and I had a good time with it to the extent that I could put my disbelief aside. I would’ve done it differently, but I respect that they solved the problem their way.
PW: Well, the book is a quick read. I’ll say that. It comes at you a mile a minute, And then it just, bam, ends. DG: Yeah, and Nolan, God bless him, he’s been around forever, and the Horror Writer’s Association made him a Grand Master. Good for them. He earned it. He’s a terrific guy, and he’s written a lot of stuff I really do like, so he does understand the horror genre very nicely. But science fiction has evolved. It used to be back in the ’30s and ’40s it was about, “How do we predict how we’re going to use the new sciences that we’re inventing?” And into the ’50s, and ’60s, and ’70s, “Oh look, here’s how we’re going to get to the moon and Mars, and here’s some of the problems we’re going to deal with in space.” And then along about—after Lord of the Rings became a big hit, and fantasy kicked in, there was another phenomenon. All of the sudden, we have all these great science magazines; Scientific American, Science, Nature, Discover, and all of these—you couldn’t keep up with the science anymore. There was too much science being developed, so it was easier for the writers to go into fantasy, and fantasy was now a very marketable, very profitable genre to go into. So a lot of writers were going into fantasy. Poul Anderson and Heinlein, the guys who actually did their science, Gordy Dickson, Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Arthur C. Clarke, and Allen Steele—became the hardcore nuts-and-bolts science fiction. Then there were writers like Jack Vance who’s writing more fantasy than science fiction. You get in a spaceship, you go to another planet, and here’s the culture. But it was always a pretty much Earth-like planet, right?
PW: Right. DG: And there are no Earth-like planets. There’s just lazy writers, like, “I just want to tell a story that takes place in this culture,” so all right. And that’s what a lot of science fiction became. It became a foundation for telling stories that were metaphors for—and this is the Star Trek effect as well. Star Trek, we would arrive at a planet and they would have a weird culture and we’d fix it for them. Or we’d get caught up in it and escape from them. Whatever. And a lot of science fiction became that kind of fantasy. There was a lot of science fiction after Star Trek and Star Wars became imitation Star Trek and Star Wars. It was either battles in space or find some unique culture. And then there were a couple other things that happened in science fiction, too, and these are good things because they expanded science fiction. You got a lot of women suddenly coming into science fiction from Star Trek, and writing science fiction. So now we have, I think, a majority of science fiction writers are women, and they’re writing—I don’t want to call it feminist fiction because it’s not, but they’re writing about sex roles, and gender roles, and they’re writing a whole different context of science fiction, which some people have objected very strongly to, but those objections are wrong because science fiction has always been about expanding the boundaries. And what the women writers have brought—like Annie McCaffrey, for instance, and Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr., and so on—and Connie Willis—what they have done is expand what the genre can contain. More recently, in the last 10-20 years, we’re getting a lot more minority writers—Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, Chip Delaney, N.K. Jemisin, and Asian writers are showing up very strong recently, too, so we’re getting a lot of really great writers pushing the boundaries far beyond anything we could imagine in the ’60s and ’70s, and this is healthy. It’s just—we just shouldn’t be calling it science fiction anymore. We should be calling it what Harlan said was speculative fiction, because a lot of what is being published doesn’t have that scientific foundation that was demanded by John W. Campbell and H.L. Gold and Fred Pohl. Now we’re far more into what kind of realm can we imagine, and what would happen in it? And you look at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in any issue—which is a great magazine— you can see the realm—how far-reaching science fiction has become. We just can’t call it science fiction anymore because it has become mainstream literature. And if you look at the bestseller list, what’s considered mainstream, a majority of those books on the bestseller list are science fiction books. They’re just not called science fiction. The Time Travelers Wife, for instance. You look at all of the books that are showing up on the bestseller list and they are taking science fiction tropes and turning them into mainstream stories. So what has happened is an explosion of the genre, so far and so wide, that has been very healthy for storytelling.
PW: I agree. DG: There is also a lot of sloppiness. There’s also a lot of bad writing. It’s Sturgeon’s Law. Ninety-five percent of everything is crap.
PW: Right. DG: Gerrold’s Corollary is, that doesn’t mean the other five percent isn’t also crap.
PW: Right. DG: But we saw this in the history of television with all of the attempts to do science fiction way back when. Ninety-five percent of them were crap, but the standouts are Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Star Trek, and Firefly, and maybe a couple others. Oh, the original Space Patrol, and you can look back at those shows and see that they were trying very hard to kick out the boundaries of the imagination. But then there were shows that were so sloppy and so—just dull. Almost all of the Irwin Allen shows. Lost In Space, which, not to fault the people who worked their butts off on the show, but really, ultimately it became Doctor Smith and Will Robinson and the robot, and all chances of actually doing —when you get to the large talking carrot, played by Stanley Adams, it’s like after a while, this isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s just a children’s show. There were other well-intentioned efforts. I mean, most recently, there was a show I really liked, called Terra Nova, where the people are setting up a colony a hundred million years ago, or whatever—back when there were dinosaurs, and you go, “Oh, that’s interesting. They can flash back in time to—” and they built a whole little settlement, and every so often you see dinosaurs, or they have a dinosaur story, and I thought, “This is an interesting concept. You could have a lot of fun with this.” And they got some of their science right. There was more oxygen in the atmosphere. But they didn’t spend enough time on the world building, which was the real interest of that show, is how do you build a world when you’re surrounded by dinosaurs? How do you plant crops when you have different kinds of ecology working with different insects and different things living in the soil and different little rodent things? I wanted to see more of that world building, and instead they got bogged down in the politics of the situation, which was the least interesting part of the show, but at least I give them credit for a great concept that they were—there was room to grow. So—science fiction is the hardest genre of all to do well because, in addition to all of the other things you have to do to write a good story, you have to create a new environment, a new world, move into it, and figure out how it works, and make it function, put all the pieces together. So that was my complaint about Logan’s Run. I didn’t think it was a stable environment. But if you look at Star Trek we’re going out and exploring the galaxy. That’s a stable, believable context for a series. So Land of the Lost, the challenge with Land of the Lost was to create a context. “All right, everything that gets lost falls through a time hole, and is here.” So we’ve got dinosaurs. We’ve got aliens. We’ve got Sleestaks. We’ve got this. We’ve got that. And I could justify it by having it—this is like a wrinkle in time where things get trapped and can’t get out. And I had a very strict set of boundaries for that land of the lost. So—which is why I believe the show has become this cult classic after almost 50 years now, and people are still watching those old episodes. They look quaint, but they have their own appeal.
PW: If you compare it to what was on Saturday morning at the time, if you compare it with the Krofft Supershow, and Bigfoot and Wild Boy, there’s no question. Land Of The Lost dealt with sci-fi staples. It had pretty adult characters. It had Enik. DG: Yeah, that was Walter Koenig’s. What I said to all of the writers early on, I said, “I want you to pretend this is a primetime series, and write like it’s a primetime series. Kids are going to be watching it but I want adults to be able to watch it, too.” So we wrote adult-level stories that kids could watch, which is the secret of any great kids’ show. Rocky and Bullwinkle. As an adult you can watch that show and laugh your ass off. There’s jokes in there the kids won’t get. The kids will have fun with the stories, but the adults will have fun on a whole other level. The same thing with the Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes. Adults can watch them because they get the jokes on a whole other level. And the kids’ shows that are written specifically for kids are unwatchable for adults, and they are really just unwatchable. I mean some of the great ones: you look at The Real Ghostbusters, the animated series. You look at Scooby Doo. Those shows adults can watch? They’re intended for kids, but they’re written for adults. It’s a unique kind of writing. The minute you think, “Oh, this is a kids’ show, and we have to dumb it down and only do stories that kids can understand,” you’re losing half your audience. What I realized with Land of the Lost is the minute we’re putting dinosaurs in, we’re going to catch the adults. So I have to write an adult-level show.
PW: Well, if you dumb down shows, it’s also an insult to the kids. When I was a kid, I watched adult shows all the time. There wasn’t a lot of stuff for kids on TV in the ’70s except for Saturday mornings and maybe in the afternoon, so I would watch adult shows with my parents. And it was fine. I got them. DG: Yeah, and then when you grow up you get them again in a different level. You look at the classic Disney animated features, the ones Walt did, and you see —these, as an adult, you can watch them and admire the beauty of the film, and at the same time the stories have a simplicity to them, but the characters are presented with a very adult level of understanding. You look at Cinderella, and that’s adult-level storytelling. The mice are there for the kids. The cat, Lucifer, is the threat, but the stepmother and the stepsisters, as caricatures as they are, they’re very understandable on an adult level. It’s only when Disney had—the studio had a low period when they get to Lady and the Tramp, and at the end Trusty survives. That was a last-minute decision that, “Oh, you’ve got to have Trusty survive.” Well, the story works a lot better if Trusty dies saving Tramp, but that was when Disney Studios said, “Oh, nobody dies anymore. We can’t do Bambi’s mother anymore because the kids will pee in the theater seats. The theater owners hated Bambi because the five-year-olds would wet their pants and the seats, literally. But Disney would have the false death. Trusty survives. Baloo survives in The Jungle Book. And after that, they would kill a character and then conveniently bring him back to life. You get to Star Wars and Obi-Wan comes back with a blue glow around him, and so one of the things you get is, death isn’t permanent anymore. And I think we even got it with Star Trek. Spock dies because Leonard wanted out of the series, and then decided he wanted back in, so they had to bring Spock back. The whole thing with entertainment is, it’s a chance to live another life and get greater awareness, and gain an enhanced sense of empathy from all the different lives you’ve lived in movies and books, and if you’re not getting the chance to experience the loss of a loved character; if you’re not getting a chance to experience death, you’re going to be overwhelmed when it happens when a parent throws an embolism. And so, I think one of the great values of fiction is that it not only teaches us about love. It also has to teach us about loss and redemption.
PW: Absolutely. DG: And that’s when you look at your great TV shows, the great episode of Star Trek is “City On The Edge Of Forever,” because even after it was rewritten, it’s still about love, loss, and redemption. And that’s why it’s a brilliant episode. It’s not just about going back in time and saving the future. It is really about— he finally meets a woman he truly falls in love with because, even though it’s the past, she understands the future that’s coming.
PW: Right. DG: And he falls for her, and it’s a true love story, as opposed to all the other episodes later on where he got laid. This was a true love story, and he has to lose her. And the last line of the episode is a killer line. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” And he’s bitter, and he’s angry, but at the same time you realize he has accepted that this is the way it has to be.
PW: Yeah, that episode is a real kick in the teeth. The resolution is kind of happy, but not exactly. DG: Yeah, no, he saved the Enterprise, and from that point on, that Kirk is married to the Enterprise. And all of the other affairs he has have no dramatic value. After that it’s, “Yeah, he can get laid, but he’s already had his one great love.” Some people are lucky. They have two great loves in their life, but my own sense of it is that, if you get one great love in your life, you’re lucky.
PW: So I’ve got one quick question for you. “A Day in Beaumont” (from the 1980s reboot of the Twilight Zone). Did you have a part in the casting in that show? Because there’s so many nods to 1950s SF, and the writing and the casting— DG: Well, it was always intended to be a pastiche of 1950s clichés. There were a couple in-jokes that got discarded along the way. One of my favorites was going to be a couple of the signs on the wall of the diner that changed. Early on it would say “plate of shrimp,” and then at the end it would say “plate of worms,” but that didn’t happen. But the entire script was written as a pastiche of all of the great ’50s tropes, and they didn’t change much when they shot it. Phil De Guerre directed it, and for the longest time everybody thought it was, well, just a throwaway episode; even Harlan didn’t think much of it, and then the night it aired, he calls me and says, “David, this was a better script. This turned out a lot better than I expected it to.” So yeah, because Phil De Guerre understood what we were doing, and played it straight, which is exactly what it needed. I had no voice in the casting, though.
PW: The casting was wonderful because there’s a scene in the diner with Jeff Morrow’s sitting there, and John Agar is nearby, and he makes a sarcastic comment about a tarantula as large as a house, and it’s a reference to the 1955 film Tarantula that starred John Agar. DG: Yeah, obviously, and that, I think, was Phil De Guerre and Harlan saying, “Well, let’s fill this with as many of the actors from the ’50s as we can get,” but I didn’t have a voice in the casting. The big joke about casting is— Dorothy Fontana and I were friends with Steven Macht, who’s just a marvelous, marvelous character actor, and we were at the Cirque du Soleil one time and she mentioned Steven Macht. I said, “Yeah, he’s a great actor,” and I look behind me and there’s a Steven Macht and his family sitting behind us as I turn around, so we had a great time chatting with Steven again. And I had always wanted to write a script for Steven Macht. When I was doing Sliders, they said, “Are there any actors you want to suggest?” And I said, “No, I can’t think of anyone.” And so they cast a Steven Macht, and I said, “Ah, I’m glad you did because I’ve always wanted—,” so when I actually ran into him on the set, I said, “I’ve always wanted to write a script for you. I finally got a chance.” I don’t think I told him that it was accidental, but yeah, with a good actor, you really start thinking, “I’d love to—I can imagine this actor playing this part,” and it makes it a little easier to write the part. For instance, one thing I was writing, I imagined Majel Barrett playing the part. We never sold it, though, but I always imagined that character as Majel Barrett, because Majel had an incredible presence. She had incredible elegance, and I don’t think anyone ever gave her all the opportunities she needed to really shine. I mean, Star Trek was fine, but I really think she needed to be in some big pictures.
PW: She was an amazing actress. Nurse Chapel was not the most well defined character after a great introduction. DG: Yeah, and Lwaxana Troi was Eve Arden. I was like, okay, great. Thanks very much.
PW: Yeah, she was a bit over-the-top, although she was really good in that episode. DG: She was good, yeah.
PW: I loved her in the episode with David Ogden Stiers where a planet’s people had to kill themselves at age 60. she fell in love with him. DG: Look, you hand Majel a script and she is going to give you a great performance, no matter what is in the script. She is going to give you her best. And she had a lot of fun playing Lwaxana Troi.
PW: I could tell, yeah. DG: But I always felt that she was capable of much better than the scripts gave her, but she always had that presence on screen as Nurse Chapel or whatever. She always had screen presence. So you can’t fault her. Like Cloris Leachman, who could have been a great dramatic actress, but got the comedy parts instead. She would go over the top if necessary. Frau Blucher. But she was in one of the last seasons of Hawaii 5-0 as a demented old lady, and the interesting thing about that is she made it work. It’s like, “Oh my God, that’s Cloris Leachman.” And she made it. It was a small part, but that thing we say, there are no small parts, only small actors. She made her scenes work. You ended up with enormous empathy for this dear little old lady.