Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Stephen Baxter

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Stephen Baxter to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Gossamer.”

Stephen BaxterWhere did you draw inspiration for this story?

I was working in the general background of my Xeelee Sequence future history. In this particular era the solar system is being opened up with wormhole technology—a kind of railway age, so every world is a new frontier. But for this story I was particularly inspired by two separate ideas. It’s an old technique of mine to develop ideas by bashing together two separate notions to see what comes out of the product. Here it was the space-warp idea of the Alcubierre drive, which was then a very new bit of science, and a particular aspect of Pluto…

I found it interesting that Lvov thinks of Pluto as hardly deserving of the status of “planet.” More than ten years after you published this story, Pluto lost its official planetary status (although has since been deigned a “minor planet,” and “dwarf planet.”) Why did you choose to set the story here?

It was one particular feature that snagged my attention: That Pluto and its moon Charon are the only bodies in the solar system where both primary world and satellite keep the same faces pointing to each other. One day this will be true of Earth and moon also. So it’s a very static system, and you could imagine building Jacob’s-ladder bridges between the two worlds—or wrap them up in spiderweb, as in here. And where you have spiderweb you must have spiders and some ecology behind them! It was a very visual inspiration initially however, the cobwebbed worlds.

Your Manifold Trilogy novels deal with the Fermi paradox—the contradiction between the likely possibility of extraterrestrial life and the lack of evidence supporting that possibility—which seems to play into this story, too. Is this a theme you consciously return to in your writing, or does it unfold on its own accord?

I’m now consciously returning to it, and have in fact done some formal academic papers on Fermi and related subjected for conferences on SETI, the search for aliens. I think when I wrote “Gossamer” I was working all this out in my own head; the Xeelee solar system is full of life and mind but you don’t see it until you get there—which I suspect may well be true.

You have degrees in both math and engineering, but the heart of this story focuses on biology, and the new species Lvov discovers. How much do you think your education affects your science fiction? Did you end up needing to do any research regarding the biology of the flakes, or was it knowledge you’d gleaned along the way?

I was drawn into math and engineering through SF in the first place, to tell you the truth. I studied relativity and quantum mechanics and such, and was involved in some big engineering projects, so that is all experience I can draw on: This is how things work, and how they get built. I’ve no background in biology, for instance, but I know how to research, I guess—how to frame questions and answer them. I would say a science background is no prerequisite for writing great hard SF—Greg Bear being a key example, for instance. You need an open mind and an ability to ask good questions, rather than to know the answers straight off!

Much of your writing is on a grand, cosmic scale, tackling a larger panoramic view of science and the universe, often including the fate of a species (human or otherwise).  This story is no exception. What draws you to this type of storytelling, rather than more intimate scenarios?

The big scale is what drew me into SF in the first place, from Wells to Stapledon and Clarke, and then writers like Bear, Benford… Exploring our cosmic context is a major purpose of SF, I’d say. But in fiction you do need to find an intimate human story to tell! I think that works in this case, you have the straightforward jeopardy story with big issues in the background.

What are you working on now?

A big alternate-history saga called “Northland”—book one’s called Stone Spring—about a different way our western culture could have unraveled since prehistoric times. I’ve always been drawn to alternate history, another kind of exploration of the possible, and it’s a lot of fun!

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.