Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Sean Williams

“The Missing Metatarsals” was first published in Cosmos (2012). Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired this story?

One of the things I love most about science fiction is its fascination with language. I’m sure I’m not the only writer inspired by a dodgy neologism or pun. The original title of this story was “Steganosaurus,” a word that barely appears in the final draft of the story, but that was really where it all started. The idea of hiding a dinosaur inside a human by means of a matter transmitter seemed both absurd and too wonderful to ignore—offering another echo of The Fly, if nothing else. I decided to explore the idea by means of a detective story rather than a horror story for several reasons: one, because that seemed both to fit the idea and to offer a means of unpacking the larger story in a surprising way; two, because I’ve never written one of those in the short form before, and I do like a challenge (see below); and three, the notion of a recurring duo investigating crimes involving matter transmitters was very appealing. Peacekeepers Forest and Sargent operate in a very long tradition, but I hope they’ll feel as fresh and new to the readers as they do to me.

This is the latest in the series of your d-mat stories. What draws you back to this world and these characters?

Speaking of long traditions . . . I’ve been fascinated by matter transmitters since I was a child, more than a century after the first one appeared in print. It’s a fascination that just won’t let go. Maybe it’s because of the tyranny of distance Australians have endured throughout our history; maybe it’s because the idea is cool, and only gets cooler the more you pick at it. I don’t know, but my first attempt to write a “serious” short story revolved around the trope, and so does my next science fiction novel, Twinmaker, the first in a series exploring the effects of this technology on a near-future world.

You might think that we’ve done everything there is to be done with matter transmitters in one hundred and thirty-odd years. George Langelaan had his human/insect hybrid, Larry Niven had his “flash crowds,” and James Patrick Kelly reminded us of the moral consequences of the technology (there’s another link to dinosaurs). Less famously, but no less interestingly, John Brunner, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas M. Disch, Clifford Simak, Robert Silverberg, and many others all had a crack at it. What scraps could possibly be left around this well-picked platter? Plenty, I say. The superficial use of the trope on television as a means of getting people from A to B has left us with the impression that the trope itself is superficial, but the truth is that, in a world that has an operating matter transmitter, everything changes. Our relationships with space and time, our sense of self and identity, our societies, our humanity—all comes under examination when the trope is used well. I’m trying to remind people of this, through my fiction and also through the research I’m conducting as part of my PhD.

I have come to think of myself rather grandiosely as a bit of a champion for this overlooked trope. It’s not just about the trope, though. It’s about science fiction neglecting an idea that is gaining real currency in physics today. Look up “teleportation” on Google and you overwhelmingly find links to real science, real experiments, real people striving to make this technology work. Science fiction has a duty to the future to prepare the way—as well as to readers to tell interesting stories, of course!

You write in a variety of genres, from science fiction to fantasy to media novels, as well as in a variety of styles and forms, from short stories to middle grade and young adult novels. What are some of the challenges and pleasures to changing styles and forms?

The challenge and the pleasure are inextricably linked. I’m easily bored, so I’m always looking for the next thing to play with. It doesn’t have to be something completely new; I quite like bouncing back and forth between familiar series, familiar styles. It’s the difference between finding a groove and getting stuck in a rut. But there’s a fine line between productive experimentation and over-commitment, and that’s something I do have to deal with periodically. At the moment I’m working solo on one series, and collaboratively on three different series, one graphic novel, one picture book, one film adaptation, and one TV series. It keeps life . . . interesting.

You’ve written several successful novels with co-authors (Shane Dix and Garth Nix). How does this process usually work for you?

It used to be that, after writing a detailed outline in close collaboration with Garth or Shane, I would write a first draft solo in one big rush, then hand that draft over for them to make into something readable. These days, thanks in part to RSI, I’ve learned to be a bit more flexible. I’ve relinquished the first-drafting role on a couple of projects, and found that to be both stimulating and challenging. In general, I love the energy different people bring to projects. I love the surprises that come when you relinquish control. People often ask me about what happens when conflict occurs over some detail or other, but that rarely happens. There’s disagreement, but there’s never conflict. I choose my collaborators carefully, and they do the same with me. It’s like a business partnership or a marriage. If you don’t go into these things with your eyes open, then of course you’ll have trouble, but I hope I’m not that naïve.

How did you get involved with writing media novels, like The Force Unleashed and The Old Republic in the Star Wars universe? What are the challenges you’ve encountered when writing for an established franchise as opposed to your original work?

Tie-in work is at heart no different to other forms of collaboration. You’re playing with other people’s ideas, and you have to do so respectfully and productively. You have to accept the limitations, while at the same time giving something of yourself. Having grown up enjoying tie-in novels by writers like Terrance Dicks and Alan Dean Foster alongside those authors we would usually name as the greats (see my earlier list), this was work I actively sought out, and still do, when I can. It’s part of my creative practice. Some of my proudest creative achievements are listed on Wookieepedia rather than Wikipedia.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this piece? What’s next for you?

Next up is the latest installment in the middle grade fantasy series Garth and I have been working on. Troubletwisters: The Mystery comes out from Scholastic US (and other publishers around the world) in May. Twinmaker will be released by HarperCollins in November. Various editions of Twinmaker will feature bonus material and stories expanding the world even further. Forest and Sargent will appear in the sequel.

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeilKevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.