Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Author Spotlight: James Stoddard

The idea that all of our history can be erased is terrifying. With current advancement on the edge of full reliance on electronic recording and the threat of magnetic shift, how much research did you do into the science behind the story? How did potentiality of the event affect the plot, characters, and your interpretation of the world?

I considered throwing in something about Quantum Storms or some such, but I’m a lousy liar and your readership is intelligent enough to see right through any nonsense. This story had two inspirations. The first was a short story called “Letter from a Higher Critic” written by Stewart Robb, that I found in an old Analog 6 anthology. Set in the far future, it is written as a textural interpretation that “proves” that much of American History never happened—World War II and Abraham Lincoln being the main “myths” debunked. I was also reading The Poems of Ossian about that time. Apparently, it is still up for debate whether Ossian is authentic, or merely a clever invention penned by James MacPherson, but I was struck by the idea of a wandering poet compiling various folk-tales and working them into a narrative, as Homer supposedly did with The Iliad.

So the idea came first, and the science was only secondary. The truth is, apart from the hard SF writers, much of what we call science fiction is fantasy. As far as we know, Faster Than Light travel is impossible, hyperspace is pure speculation, and traveling through a black hole will only get you squashed. (This holds with my current theory that physicists are fiction writers with calculators.) So the “magnetic field disaster” of my story is a device used to give credibility to a fancy. As far as I know—though I’m going to have to research this a bit for the book I’m currently working on—a magnetic pulse powerful enough to destroy all the digital information on the Earth would possibly also disrupt the electrical functions of the human brain, ending most of the life on the planet. I enjoy reading about science, especially scientific speculations, and like to think I have a scientific outlook, but a lot of SF writers use “fuzzy” science for the sake of stories. (I do have an ansible in my basement, however; and no, you can’t come over and see it. I use it to talk to Ender.)

Why did you choose the characters you did? What was the inspiration behind such historical adjustments as making Washington have a battle-axe named Valleyforge?

Washington was an obvious choice. It is an historic fact that many of the American people wanted to make him King after the Revolutionary War. When he turned it down, King George of England called him “the greatest man in the world.” If even half of what has been written about Washington is true, George was right.

My story assumes that all of American history has been condensed in time so that Washington, Custer, and Eisenhower all lived at the same time. In such a case, Washington would undoubtedly be the central figure—I conceived of him as being the leader of a group consisting of generals and other past presidents—an Arthurian figure surrounded by his Knights and Representatives of the Pentagonal Table—except ruling (paradoxically) in a democracy.

I think I picked the vainglorious General Custer as a counterpoint to Washington’s virtue. Plus I got to call him Armstrong Custard—given a few hundred years, such a name transformation could indeed happen, especially to a people lacking an oral tradition. As my family will tell you, groaning as they say it, I love puns and odd combinations, so I couldn’t resist that one.

As for Eisenhower, I had to use Ike. Arguably one of the greatest generals of all time, he always displayed a surprising humility for such a prominent person, the result of a boyhood spent in Abilene, Kansas. How many former generals, upon leaving the office of President, would give a speech warning the people against the dangers of the military-industrial complex?

The eagles, E. Perilous Union and Apollo Leven were added at the suggestion of editor Gordon Van Gelder, as was the mention of Washington’s wooden teeth. Re-reading the story today, I wonder how I could have written an American myth without including the American eagle. Kudos to Gordon for that one.

Naming Washington’s battle-axe Valleyforge, and having him ride the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, was not only great fun, it helped give the story verisimilitude by demonstrating how the American tales had changed through being retold. It also fits in with the legendary weapons and steeds of other mythic heroes.

What are you the most proud of with the completion of this story?

Apart from the sheer joy of writing it, my goal was to present the American heroes in a mythic context. From the reader responses I’ve received, I think I was at least somewhat successful. One person told me, with a hint of perplexity in his tone: “the story was humorous, but it was kind of serious, too.” Which is exactly what I was shooting for. I worked a long time on the final paragraph. I don’t know if it does anything for anybody else, but I still get a chill when I read the last sentence.

If history teaches us a lesson, then what lesson would you like to convey with this history propelled into the future?

The news tells us nightly that our politicians are crooked, our businessmen, rapacious, our scientists, unscrupulous. We have become a nation of cynics. But we are the descendants of a great people. Despite their flaws, the Founding Fathers, and many of those who came after, were incredible individuals, truly passionate about their beliefs. It’s hard to read even a Wikipedia article about Thomas Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt or Thomas Edison, or any of our other heroes, without becoming inspired.

When it was first published, one online commentator saw my whole story as a brilliant satire lampooning American patriotism. I’m flattered that he thinks I’m that smart, but actually, I’m a very patriotic person, in what I hope is in the best sense of the word. My father served in the Normandy Invasion, wading onto the beach the day after D-Day (29th Infantry Division). Six of my uncles were in the military in WWII, and all came back alive, including one who survived the Bataan Death March and a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

I guess the main thing I wanted to get across in this little story is that the United States is more than a country; it’s an ideal. And as Americans, we need to be worthy of that ideal. But I didn’t set out with that in mind when I wrote it. Writers don’t always know what they’re trying to say until after they’ve written.

What can your fans expect from you in the near future?

Coincidentally, I’m working on a book tentatively titled The Last American, set a thousand years after all the world’s literature was lost in the worldwide magnetic field disaster. America is slowing rebuilding. Liberty Bell, the idealistic heroine, has grown up believing every word written in The Americana. With an unlikely Secret Service agent, she is thrust into a quest that will take her through the heart of the Old Forest, Yoosemitee, to find the gold of Fort Knocks. Along the way, they encounter various historic American figures, and Liberty’s belief in the tales of The Americana is sorely tested.

I started this novel about a year and a half ago, when I was getting ready to plot an entirely different book. The idea literally struck me while I was driving to have lunch with a friend. I’m currently working on the second draft.

My agent is currently shopping my third book in the Evenmere series. Hopefully, a publisher will pick it up.

I’m also finishing editing the audio book for my modern retelling of William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. (I am, by profession, an audio engineer.) The book, entitled The Night Land, A Story Retold, came out a couple years ago, and I’m really excited about the audio version. The book is read by a brilliant reader from England named Jason Mills. It’s my goal to have the final edits done by Christmas.

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Patrick J Stephens

Patrick J Stephens recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh and, after spending the entire year writing speculative fiction, came back with a Master’s in Social Science. His first collection (Aurichrome and Other Stories) can be found on Kindle and Nook.