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interviewed by Alasdair Stuart
With the Near Space books and now the Coyote trilogy you've gained a reputation for coherent, large-scale world building. Is this an organic process or do you sit down and plan the world before writing about it?
My first step is to research and develop the environment in which I plan to set the
stories, whether it be a space station or a planet. That's perhaps the most time-consuming
part, other than the actual writing itself; the Coyote series was nearly ten
years in the making before I put the first words to paper. But once I have a good sense
of place, whether it be a space station or a planet, I also have a good idea of what
sort of people are going to be living there and what sort of challenges they'll face.
So the world-building process feeds the stories themselves.
Your early novels in particular deal with ideas that are perhaps two steps away from the current state of manned space travel. Do you ever find this restrictive or is it a help to have a body of scientific theory to draw from?
I like having to deal with the restrictions that reality imposes. For one thing, it helps generate story ideas, as well as plot developments within those stories, so that I'm not just relying upon a grab-bag of super-science toys and exotica. It also lends a certain sense of verisimilitude. I want the reader to be drawn into the world I've created, and having the story as firmly grounded in established scientific fact or theory as possible goes a long way to achieving this effect.
Which of your early novels are you happiest with?
My first novel, Orbital Decay, remains my favourite early work. Some of the space technology I described in that novel is already on the verge of becoming obsolete - if we ever build solar power satellites, for instance, it probably won't be the way I described in the novel - but I like the characters a lot, and the theme of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations seems to be something that I keep returning to.
Coyote marks a real change in tone, evoking a western feel as much as science fiction. How deliberate was this and what opportunities did it afford you?
When I first began work on the novel, I thought it was going to be fairly clear-cut: the story of the first starship from Earth and the first interstellar colony, undertaken in a fairly realistic fashion. By the latter, I intended to have my colonists be largely untrained individuals and, instead of putting a lot of technology at their disposal, have them live off the land as well as they could. To further add to their difficulties, I decided to make them political outcasts... that way, they couldn't return to Earth even if they wanted to. In other words, I wanted to make this as non-space opera-like as I could: no Starfleet Academy graduates, no warp-drive spacecraft, no magic nanotech machines, and so forth.
Well, as often happens when I'm writing a book, it wasn't until I was about halfway through Coyote when it dawned on me that what I was doing was sort of a shadow-text for the history of America. It wasn't the opening of the American west that inspired me so much as it was the establishment of the original colonies and the exploration of the south. I was born and raised in Tennessee - in fact, one of my ancestors was among the settlers who founded Nashville, my hometown, in 1780, and my great-grandfather was a Confederate Army officer during the Civil War - and I've lived most of my adult life in New England. In fact, there are homes in my neighbourhood that predate the Revolutionary War, and when I go for hikes up on the mountain where I live; I often find the remains of old farms and farmhouses.
So I drew upon all that - stories handed down by family, visits to places near where I now live that were once pioneer settlements, studying such crafts as cabin building and canoe-making - to put together a narrative that would have a certain sense of a frontier being explored. And what happened is that I found myself writing a novel that was as much about America as it was about a distant world.
Coyote was born from a series of short stories. How easy was it to revise them into an overall narrative?
I wrote Coyote as a series of stories because it was a solution to a problem. Twice during that ten-year period in which I was developing the book, I attempted to write it as a normal, solid-state narrative... Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and so forth... but couldn't make it work, mainly because it took place over such a long period of time and had so many different characters. And I've always had trouble writing long novels. Really, I've never been one for producing phone book-sized epics.
So I took inspiration from Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy and decided to write it instead as a series of linked stories... indeed, I trying to trick myself into writing a long novel. Part Five, The Boid Hunt, was actually the first one written, and I did that for an anthology, sort of as a trial balloon, to see if I could make things work. That was the part of the novel that I probably revised the most, since I ended up changing the narrative from first-person to third-person. But once I had the general framework in mind, the whole thing was relatively easy to write. One story just led to the next.
Did any of the revisions surprise you?
The revisions didn't surprise me, no. What did surprise me was that by the time I came close to the end of the novel, I realised that I had more that I wanted to write... that, although, I'd finished the novel, I hadn't finished the story. So I set things up so that I could follow Coyote with a second book � and when the same thing happened again with Coyote Rising, I decided to bite the bullet and write Coyote Frontier, hence turning it into a trilogy. Which was certainly not what I intended to do when I began!
Will the two sequels follow a similar format?
Yes. Like the first novel, Coyote Rising is told in mosaic form, with some characters in foreground in one story and fading to the background in the next, so that you have a variety of different viewpoints. The second book was also originally serialised in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, and two of the stories - Part Three, The Garcia Narrows Bridge, and Part Seven, Liberation Day, recently won the magazine's annual Readers Awards for Best Novelette and Best Novella respectively. Coyote Frontier isn't being serialised in Asimov's - there wasn't enough time for the whole series to run before book publication in the US - but I've still written it the same way, simply because the overall story arch lends itself to this form.
How different was the process from how you normally work?
I'd previously expanded novellas into full-blown novels - Red Planet Blues becoming Labyrinth Of Night, and ...Where Angels Fear To Tread becoming Chronospace - but this was quite different from what's often called a 'fix-up' novel. Instead, this was a mosaic approach: different stories, each complete in itself, yet linking together to form a larger narrative, with all three books comprising what eventually became a very large story. I'd never done anything like this before, but I'm very pleased with the way that it worked out.
Coyote is arguably your bleakest novel since Labyrinth Of Night, with the colonists facing some horrifying conditions. Will this tone continue across the two sequels?
Coyote Rising is the darkest of the three books, which it would necessarily be, considering that it tells the story of a war. Things aren't quite so dark in Coyote Frontier, although some people may disagree once they see what happens to some of my characters once they return to Earth. I'm revealing too much, though, so I'll quit while I'm ahead.
Do you have any plans to return to this world once the trilogy is finished?
I'll certainly write more stories set on Coyote - in fact, I'm working on an independent novella now, for an anthology - and eventually these stories may comprise yet another mosaic. But I have no plans to write another novel. Or at least not yet...
Which character do you identify most with?
I think Carlos Montero is the person who is closest to being my alter-ego. However, it's not an accident that I chose the ship's captain, Robert E. Lee, to be a descent of his historical namesake. I share a birthday with General Lee, and like most Southerners I hold him in reverence.
What plans do you have once the Coyote series is finished?
Right now, I'm working on short fiction, and doing research and development for my next novel. But I'd rather not discuss the latter just now.
There's an increasing trend towards working in television for many novelists. Would you be interested in working in that field?
If it came my way, I'd love to write for television, particularly for an intelligent SF series such as the new version of BattleStar Galactica. But so much of that depends on moving to Hollywood, and since I'm reluctant to leave New England, I don't think that'll happen any time soon.
In an ideal world, which of your novels would you most like to see made into a film?
I'd like to see the Coyote novels made into TV miniseries, or perhaps even a complete series. I don't think any of the books could be easily compressed into a two-hour feature film.
Similarly, who would you like to see direct and star in it?
An ensemble cast of largely unknown actors, with someone like J. Michael Straczynski, Ron Moore, or Joss Whedon in charge.
You've worked extensively in both novels and short fiction. Do you have a favourite and if so which?
When I'm writing short fiction, I often find myself swearing that I'll never write a novel again. But when I get a story that's too long for short-form, then I become a novelist again, and proclaim that I'm done with short stories forever. I like doing both... just never at the same time. Except when I do.
You've been a passionate advocate of space exploration throughout your career. With the space shuttle about to return to flight, where do you see the US manned programme going in the future?
Hopefully, further than Earth orbit, which is where we've been stuck for the last 25 years. The International Space Station, unfortunately, has turned out to be a white elephant. I think that, if humankind is going to become a spacefaring civilisation during the 21st century, we're going to have to return to the Moon, and then set our sights for Mars. I don't know if NASA is still up for that task, though. I think human exploration of space may well fall to private industry, with companies in America, Europe, and Asia alternately cooperating and competing to make this possible.
With the Hubble Space Telescope recently celebrating it's 15th year in orbit, where do you stand on its future? Should it be de-orbited or repaired?
By all means, it should be upgraded and kept in orbit for as long as possible. There have already been two repair missions to Hubble, so there's no real reason why there shouldn't be a third. It's been too valuable a tool to simply be discarded, and the fact that it's even being considered is just another demonstration of how myopic my country's leadership has become.
Given unlimited resources and manpower, where would you take manned spaceflight and why?
Considering that energy shortage and global climate change are going to be two of the largest problems of the coming century, I'd think the development of space resources is crucial to the survival of humankind. The construction of solar power satellites could go far to supplying us with electrical power once we run out of fossil fuels, and there's strong potential for lunar helium-3 to be used as a fuel source for fusion reactors, if and when they're developed. That's why I advocate a return to the Moon as a priority over sending an expedition to Mars. Mars is a worthwhile long-term objective, but it isn't going anywhere... and we need to develop near-Earth resources first.
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COYOTE FRONTIER -
6 December 2005
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