Conflict can be found at the heart of every great story, and “Beneath the Silent Stars” has many of them: facing Mariposa X; Jean-Paul’s internal doubts and conflicting emotions; Parveen’s role in the mission; the truth behind Unattributed Source’s loyalties; the nature of the mission itself. As a writer, what does it take to make a really good conflict, something that lingers in memory instead of dying on the page?
The process that works best for me is to think of an interesting character and start the story when they are in trouble. Then give them a difficult decision to make. Readers have such different reactions, but for most people, characters are the key to a story. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, it’s that much harder to interest them in the conflict. It helps to make the story more memorable if a reader can identify with the choices the character faces. This is a large part of the appeal of zombie apocalypses (how would I survive?). I don’t remember the characters that well from some of my favorite stories—for example Greg Egan’s “Reasons to be Cheerful” and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”—but I do remember the choices they had to make.
Spider Robinson says “Librarians are the secret masters of the world. They control information. Don’t ever piss one off.” Here you have the Bibliotheque Galactique, an organization that began as a library and became so much more. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
I had been thinking about the idea that there’s now so much information available that value is moving away from producing information towards being able to search, verify and summarize. People like curated lists. If I give you a list of the eighty-six best books I’ve ever read, the information content is higher than a list of the ten best books, but most people are going to be more interested in the second list. Google and Wikipedia serve as the most important library for many people and I read Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, which looks at how Google in particular filters and constructs personalized search results. What happens when we incorporate more technology into our bodies and our physical experiences start getting filtered? I do a lot of traveling, and one of my personal bugbears is when people talk about wanting to see the “real” destination. I overheard a tourist saying she took a photo of a beggar in front of the Taj Mahal and to her that was the real India. As though the rest of India was fake. Even Disneyland is part of the real United States.
The story itself came from liking the idea of a summarizer and verifier working together. I wanted to write a spaceship story, so I gave them a spaceship to investigate.
The story explores the nature of contrasts: the need for connection and the fear of exposure; the nature of trust and the hurtful truth; a child’s needs and a parent’s desires. What is it about the nature of speculative fiction that allows readers to explore such concepts that we may well encounter every day?
There’s a passage from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed which I think sums it up best. “If you can see a thing whole—it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.” Speculative fiction gives us a vantage point to look at reality.
Who does Aidan Doyle turn to when he wants to get his science fiction on?
Iain M. Banks is one of my favorite writers and Unattributed Source is an echo of the naming style of spaceships in his Culture novels. I also love the spaceships in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and the complexity of the aliens in Vernor Vinge’s novels. One of my favorite recent SF reads was Andy Weir’s The Martian. In terms of short stories, I am in awe of the genius of Greg Egan and Ted Chiang.
Are there any upcoming projects or stories eager readers can look forward to in the coming months?
I’ve finished a middle grade novel set in a world built on the ruins of a giant book and am in the process of looking for a publisher.
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