Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: John Varley

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author John Varley to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Just Another Perfect Day.”

“Just Another Perfect Day” was originally published in 1989. What inspired you to write the story?

I was reading a book by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. It was about the odd and horrible things that can happen to people with brain damage. One man, for instance, was convinced that his leg didn’t belong to him. He kept trying to throw it out of the hospital bed, and of course he would go with it. Other people no longer recognized their family members. They look like Mom and Dad, but they are imposters. Another was about anterograde amnesia, where someone can no longer form new memories. This idea was later explored in the movies Memento and Fifty First Dates.

You studied physics in college. Did your studies influence the science behind this story?

Well, I studied physics for about one semester, and realized it was too hard for me. But there’s no physics that I can see in this story. And I didn’t want to do any medical research, either, in case my idea of losing all your memories when you went to sleep turned out not to be possible. Turns out it is possible, which is a relief.

In your opinion, why do the Martians love the narrator so much? Is it because of his perception of time? Or is it a different reason that isn’t stated?

That’s the mystery. When you posit an alien that is beyond human understanding because it lives in an extra dimension from what we can sense, you can’t really know, can you?

Why have the Martians come to earth? Are they, as the narrator suggests, trying to teach humans something?

As I said, I don’t know. You just have to make up your own explanation, or be happy with no answer, like I am. It’s like an Arthur C. Clarke story (I hope), in that something wonderful is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?

In keeping with the nature of the narrator’s life, the language here is very repetitive. The author of the letter keeps telling the reader “Don’t Worry,” and to breathe deeply while counting to one hundred. From a stylistic point of view, why did you choose to do this?

It seems pretty clear that a man waking up in these circumstances, learning that he’s lost years, and seeing the Mother Ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind hovering over the city … well, wouldn’t you need some reassurance? And remember, he is the one who has honed this message over the years, like the man in Memento tattooing critical information on his body. He knows what works best, because he’s lived it.

Reading this, one can see the echoes of other classic sci-fi stories. What authors and writings would you say most influence your work?

Clarke, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Niven … Sheckley, Kuttner, Simak … all the Golden Age writers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, whom I grew up reading.

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Stacey Friedberg

Stacey Friedberg

Stacey Friedberg is an editorial assistant at Penguin Books for Young Readers. She enjoys reading, writing, and cooking. You can follow her (very infrequent) tweets via @stacabird.