“Slow Life” won the Hugo back in 2002. Will you tell us a little about what inspired this story?
My friend Matt Howarth approached me about doing the script for a serial science fiction cartoon for a major online science site, which was looking for innovative material. It sounded interesting, so I started work on a story that could be broken down into single-page stories. The opening sequence of a raindrop falling on Titan and the chemical changes it undergoes would have been a long graphic of the layers of the atmosphere, punctuated with the technical info ending with space-gloved hands catching it in a plastic baggie and then a panel showing Lizzie O’Brien dancing and singing. The trouble was that the site owners wanted to own the series completely, but weren’t willing to pay the kind of money that would justify that. Matt broke his heart trying to argue them around and they wouldn’t budge. By the time we’d given up on the project, though, the story had its hooks in me and I’d fallen in love with the protagonist, so I decided to write it out.
The Hugo is proof, I think, that the website should have treated Matt better.
Why did you choose to set the story on Titan?
I blame Geoffrey Landis. He observed that NASA had spent billions of dollars sending out probes to the planets and moons of the Solar System and then posted all the scientific data, analyses, photos, and films on the web, free for anybody who wanted to use it—and most science fiction writers were ignoring this largesse! Which seemed to me not only a valid criticism, but a great opportunity. One which, incidentally, new writers should take advantage of—there’s nothing that will get you attention like a well-written hard science fiction story.
I liked Titan specifically because there was a lot known about its chemistry and geography, but most people were not familiar with it, so a story set there would feel fresh to them. There was also the possibility—since confirmed—of open bodies of liquid on the surface, which still seems pretty exciting. Finally, there’s speculation that primitive life forms might well be at work in the observed chemical processes there. Put all that together, and Titan is a natural for science fiction.
You’ve written a great deal of both science fiction and fantasy. Do you prefer writing one over the other?
They’re both difficult—which for a writer is the same as fun—in different ways. The kind of science fiction I most enjoy requires a great deal of research, which takes up a lot of time. But fantasy requires constant attention to keep what you’re writing from falling into default modes and becoming too much like every other fantasy on the shelf. Fantasy readers have very specific expectations and you have to be able to subvert those expectations in a way that the readers will find satisfying if you’re going to create something new rather than derivative.
I’ve been happiest those times when I’ve been working on a fantasy story and a science fiction story simultaneously, one dark and the other bright, and could switch from one to the other whenever I got tired of what I was doing.
How did you go about researching and writing hard science into a story such as “Slow Life,” or other stories incorporating technologies that may not exist just yet?
After I decided to write “Slow Life,” I hit the Web and started downloading NASA papers, learning all I could about Titan, its atmosphere, its physical makeup, and so on, until all the information put together told me a story. What I was reading kept emphasizing how cold the surface of Titan is and concluded that as a result of there being so little ambient energy available, any life there would have to be very simple. Or very slow, I thought—and there was the germ of the story.
The human tech in the story came from a lifetime of reading about such things and an awareness that tomorrow’s space technology will have evolved away from today’s. The Mitsubishi robofish already exists. Several people have suggested ballooning as a means of exploring other worlds. My contribution to that was realizing that you wouldn’t need a gondola, just several sturdy D-rings on the vacuum suit.
So my formula is to read, read, read, and think. If that sounds pleasurable to you, then hard SF may be your thing. If not, I’d advise trying something else.
For our readers who might be new to your work, where do you suggest they start?
It depends on what you like. Fantasy? The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, about a girl who’s been stolen by the elves and forced to work in a factory, building dragons. Literary science fiction? Stations of the Tide, which won a Nebula umpety-ump years ago. Hard science fiction? Bones of the Earth, my dinosaur novel. At the time I wrote it, not all that long ago, it was as accurate as was humanly possible. Today, of course, the science has moved on . . .
For short stories, any of my collections. Or keep watching the magazines. Even when I’m working on novels, like this year, and even though they aren’t really profitable, I like to keep my hand in because I deeply love the form.
I’d probably be a lot better known if I’d chosen one type of story and hammered away at it to the exclusion of all others. But it’s never been about my career. It’s been about writing the best story I could at any given time.
What are you working on these days?
Currently, I’m working on two novels. One continues the saga of post-Utopian con men Darger and Surplus not long after their abrupt departure from Moscow at the end of Dancing With Bears. In this book, they set out to conquer China. Literally. With armies and such. The other is the third and last volume in the fantasy sequence that includes The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel. The first book has a protagonist, Jane, who doesn’t belong in her world and has to find a way out of it. In the second, Will is native to Faerie and has to find a place in it. So they’re basically thesis and antithesis. The third book will be the synthesis, the one that makes a new sense out of the other two and answers all the questions the others were silent on. Like the other two, it will be a stand-alone novel, requiring no knowledge of the others for enjoyment.
I’ve also got a series of short stories that begins at Tor.com any day now. They’re what Patrick Nielsen Hayden calls “Ruritanian fantasies,” but with magic and (ultimately) a far more serious edge than you normally get from stories that are primarily intended to be entertaining. I’m genuinely excited about the possibilities in this series.
But then, I’m excited about the possibilities in everything I write.