Shifting points of view are often difficult to write, yet you present it in masterful form in “Veil of Ignorance.” What inspired this story?
I first encountered John Rawls’ concept of the Veil of Ignorance in a political theory seminar in college. I thought it would be interesting to explore that idea in science fiction, but I couldn’t think of how to do it. A year or two later I re-read Alfred Bester’s classic story “Fondly Fahrenheit,” which uses a shifting first person viewpoint to explore the confusion of identity that exists between a mentally ill man and his robot servant. It occurred to me that that sort of shifting first person viewpoint could be used with a larger group of characters to explore the Veil of Ignorance. I closely analyzed Bester’s story and tweaked his approach to make it a bit more clear and consistent, which I felt was important to avoid confusion, given that I’d be shifting between five different characters. I wrote the story and had it critiqued that summer at a workshop led by James Gunn at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. At that point the story ended with Brad’s death. Some readers felt that ending was too abrupt, so I came up with the final scene and added it to the story. Half the group said they liked the new ending and half said they preferred the old one, and I was conflicted, but in the end I decided to keep the new ending, because I thought it was pretty clever.
You address the issue of gender roles and expectations with an adroit, subtle touch. How do you approach writing characters that are intrinsically different than you — writing The Other as it were?
My biggest concern with the story was that readers would be confused by the constant viewpoint shifts, so I tried to make the characters all recognizable types, so that readers could get a handle on them as quickly as possible. I was thinking in terms of something like Scooby Doo, where you have the jock, the princess, the nerd, the stoner, etc. Some people in the workshop said my story reminded them of The Breakfast Club, though I’d never seen that movie when I wrote the story. I think there’s a tradeoff to be made here between clarity and characterization, and as a result of my focus on clarity the characters aren’t as individualized as they might have been, but I’m glad it worked for you as well as it did.
The story presents a fairly dark take on relationships and gender roles, and that was influenced by some unpleasant experiences I had in college. So to the extent that it’s effective it’s probably just a result of observing life with some level of empathy. Later on I undertook a conscious project to improve my ability to write female characters, and I set out to read 100 memoirs written by women. I think I made it up to about eighty before I had to set that project aside and move on to other things, but I did find that very helpful. I’d strongly encourage aspiring writers to read memoirs written by all sorts of different people.
Telepathy can be as enlightening as it is invasive. If you could use the drug in the story, with whom would you like to share such a link? Would gender or race make a difference in your selection?
I think in the short term telepathy would destroy any hope of productive human relationships, so I certainly wouldn’t volunteer for it if it involved sharing the thoughts of anyone I knew or wanted to maintain contact with. It might be interesting to share the thoughts of someone I knew I’d never see again. In that case, yes, I think for the sake of curiosity I’d want to share the thoughts of people who were as different from me as possible. One thing I’d be really interested to explore would be sharing the thoughts of people with wildly different beliefs from mine. I’ve never been religious, and I’m constantly trying to understand how intelligent people can believe things that to me seem so obviously imaginary, like miracles, talking to God, immortal souls, etc. Maybe if I could share the thoughts of those people, it would finally make sense to me how they could believe those things.
If some technique is ever developed that does allow people to share their thoughts, I think it would be extraordinarily disruptive, but that if we were to survive that period of transition, it might be better for us in the long term, now that everyone was being totally honest with each other. It would be nice to have politicians and business leaders who we knew were always being forthright, and I strongly suspect that a great deal of interpersonal hostility would melt away without secret fears and shames to drive them. I also strongly suspect that most religions would crumble away if every adherent were simultaneously forced to be completely honest with their fellow believers about all their doubts, but as a lifelong atheist I’m maybe not in the best position to judge that.
Writers often claim there is no perfect murder, just as they claim there are no original story ideas. The best writers make a point of exploring such tropes, often breaking the mold in new and satisfying ways. Are there any themes or tropes you would like to someday explore in your works?
I have two themes that I seem to return to over and over. One is characters with good intentions who somehow find themselves having created a horrible mess and who are now seen as villains or monsters. The other is the idea that reality is not what we perceive it to be, that one day we’ll suddenly find that impossible things are happening to us, because we were ignorant of the bigger picture. Many of my favorite stories deal with that idea of upending reality. (Examples include the Amber series by Roger Zelazny as well as pretty much everything by Philip K. Dick.) I’ve put a fair amount of thought into a sword & sorcery novel called The Sword of Ontology that explores that idea, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing it one of these days.
On Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, avid listeners share in your exploration of geekish interests ranging from genre film reviews to the business end of science fiction mega-dynasties to the realities of climate concerns. How do you feel hosting a podcast with such a wide range of interests has changed your approach to writing?
Unfortunately the main effect that the podcast has had on my writing is to distract me from it. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is largely a one-man show these days, though John Joseph Adams helps out a lot in the guest booking and overall strategic planning departments. But I handle all the really time-consuming stuff — reading the books, researching the guests, drafting the interview questions, doing the audio production, and writing the posts for Wired.com. I generally work on the show from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, which doesn’t leave time for much else, but things have been going so well with the show that I’m loath to lose momentum on it by trying to juggle multiple projects. I like to tell myself that someday, when I do find time to write more fiction, I’ll be able to utilize all the knowledge I’ve gained from researching and interviewing so many different authors, and also that I’ll be able to apply the unbelievable work habits I’ve developed doing the podcast to my writing, and also that the large audience I’ve cultivated doing the podcast will be interested in my writing as well, but who knows if any of those things are true.
But I figure that sooner or later I’ll get to the point where the novelty of having my own talk show will start to wear off, and where the show is established enough that I feel like I can afford to slack off a bit, at which time I can start multi-tasking more and get back to writing fiction. Ideally I’d like the show to be making enough money that I could afford to hire an actual staff to help me with it, but that’s a long way off.
What can readers expect from you in 2015? What new prizes are in store?
Well, the current plan is to produce about fifty new episodes of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy this year, which should keep me pretty busy.
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