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Today, Next Week, And 50 Years Down The Road
Robert Reed
interviewed by Steven Hampton and Tony Lee

Robert Reed sold his first short story in 1986. He was the first grand prizewinner of L. Ron Hubbard's annual Writers of the Future award. Since then, he's developed into a prolific writer of amazingly high quality stories (and a regular contributor to Asimov's SF and The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction), achieving a level of success with short stories to the point where Gardner Dozois, editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction, has remarked that it's now rarely a question of whether or not he includes a Robert Reed story in each collection, because Dozois' annual decision has simply become which one of Reed's recent batch of tales must be included!
Robert Reed
Reed's most recent book is the remarkably imaginative Sister Alice, while his 1991 novel about a mission to visit alternative Earths, Down The Bright Way, has now been published in the UK in paperback for the first time.

Sister Alice was published first in Britain, in May 2003, but is out in the US in October, while the 12-year-old Down The Bright Way has only just appeared in the UK. How did that happen?

Publishing is a peculiar business. Sister Alice was finished just before my daughter was born. She is two years old now. There were a string of delays in the US, due to this and due to that. Meanwhile, my UK publisher was thrilled with how Marrow was doing, and they wanted to keep the product coming. Discussions were held. Decisions were made. This is why Sister Alice came out sooner in Britain, and that's why they also bought one of my old novels. Down The Bright Way seems to mesh nicely with my other big-canvas works.

You are one of several SF authors who started out doing novels set in extrapolated near futures before going on to write epic space adventures in the far future. Do you think this trajectory is due to a necessary building up of confidence with earthbound scenarios before tackling those galactic club themes?

I don't know if that quite describes my personal trajectory. My first novel, The Leeshore, was an epic space adventure, and if I'd ever written a sequel, it would have been even bigger. A few weeks ago, I listed my short stories in two categories: "Near-Future" and "Far-Future." Despite a reputation for the latter, most of my output concerns events of today and next week and 50 years down the road. However, I think that Far-Future tales excite fans and editors, which is why my novels, of late, seem to be concerned with distant realms.

Has science fiction changed much as a genre since you started writing?

I don't have useful opinions about change in the SF field. I'm awfully selective in what I read anymore, which makes me astonishingly ignorant. I do believe, with good reason, that it's a smaller genre than it was 20 years ago - at least when you compare it to fantasy and media tie-in work.

In Sister Alice, magical super-science makes the central characters immortal, but their grand experiments may endanger the galaxy. Was this intended as a reflection on today's nuclear threat?

Probably. Although I can make the argument that my story revolves around the frustrations of a novice gardener. I have perennials and potted annuals, and most important, several fish ponds. I play god with them every day, and I fail some part of my realm every day. Sure, the stakes are smaller than the galaxy. But then again, I don't believe that the nuclear annihilation of one world is going to make the galaxy weep.

Do you think a measured ambivalence towards science is still an essential part of modern SF?

I don't know if ambivalence is the word that I would use. How about incompetence? If I knew enough about the sciences involved, I would never have dreamed up the Great Ship.

In Marrow, there are several immortal characters that have managed to retain their humanity. I enjoyed the book's entirely positive outlook of immortality, particularly as it chimes with the 'Culture' novels by Iain M. Banks. Is this optimistic view of human longevity a topic you feel strongly about? Has immortality acquired an undeserved, generally bad reputation in SF?

I don't believe that FTL is a likely technology, and if it is possible, I doubt if it is at all easy to accomplish - at least for clever apes. As a fledging writer, I decided not to invoke that particular magic. And with a few exceptions, I have kept that promise to myself. However, travelling slowly between the stars needs a rationale and continuity in characters, which are two reasons to embrace immortality. Besides, I believe in that kind of advance. People, or whoever follows us, will possess enormous life spans. Or they will know truths that we don't appreciate yet, and they will kill themselves after their first happy day.

One of the themes in your recent books appears to be that human nature doesn't change much, on either individual or social levels - even after millennia, and the immortal characters in your fiction seem driven by the same basic needs and wants as people today. Is this just a neat literary device (writing about humans instead of trans-humans is more accessible?), or are you saying something deeper?

You know, if I wrote about super-geniuses that lack sex organs and pride and family honour, nobody would care about my work. Including me.

Another recurring theme in your work (from the twins of The Leeshore to the siblings of Sister Alice) is familial relationships, particularly concerning an extended family of siblings. Why are families and friendships more important than politics in your books?

I vote in most elections, and I have opinions about our President. But I can't escape from my family for ten seconds. I don't have half the emotion tied into any political system that I invest in my relationship with dead grandparents.

Are any of your characters based on members of your own family? Which (if any) of your many characters is the most like you?

Yes to the first part. And to the second part: some friends have pointed to similarities between a few characters and me. But that's all that I will say about that.

Arguably, you have only written one book, The Hormone Jungle, which could be described as cyberpunk. Has cyberpunk influenced your work much?

No, not much - I think of Jungle as being more of a near-future crime novel, kind of Elmore Leonard-ish.

Which authors, living or dead, have influenced your writing the most?

In science fiction, I would have to thank, or accuse, Gene Wolfe and James Tiptree, Jr, plus Le Guin and Clarke, and Robert Silverberg, and for his editing of Best Annual short fiction, Terry Carr. Outside SF, I would mention Hemingway and Faulkner, plus Joseph Conrad.

For your first collection, The Dragons Of Springplace, you were able to choose from about 100 published stories. Was it a tough job to select the contents, and was anything important left out? Do you have a particular favourite among your short stories? Have you any news about a British edition of this book?

I didn't choose those stories, as it happens. My editor on that project, Jim Turner, read my entire catalogue and made a list of his top 17. I picked 10 stories, and he added an 11th. Good stories were excluded, but I plan to see them reprinted someday. If pressed to name a favourite story, I would say Waging Good. Not just because I like it, though I do quite a bit, but because it was my story where the work turned out superior to my loftiest goals. And sorry, no, I don't know anything about British publications.

You have produced a few stories in the Amerindian series. What's the appeal of Native American culture to an SF writer?

I can't speak for my colleagues. But I live in a part of the world where the Natives fought the European invaders, achieving a temporary stalemate, and their descendants are still part of this landscape. Also, when I was a boy, my mother worked as a tour guide at a local museum, and part of her duties were explaining the artefacts and culture of these people to school kids. She adored the Plains Indians, and as a consequence, they mean more than a little to me.

Marrow was expanded from a 1997 novella, while Sister Alice started out as the story sequence: Sister Alice, Brother Perfect, Mother Death, Baby's Fire, and Father To The Man (all first published in Asimov's). Considering your prolific output of short fiction and the sometimes-episodic nature of your novels' frequently epic narratives, do you prefer to work out ideas and situations in those smaller parcels, before opening up the story for a book-length version?

I love to work out the kinks of a story on a smaller stage. But I don't expand stories just because they seem to be successful. Marrow, the novella, suffers from being too compressed. And it suffers in other places too. But with a novel, I could fix some of these problems, which was a great draw for me. And I introduced a few new weaknesses, too - but what the hell.

Beneath The Gated Sky is a follow up to Beyond The Veil Of Stars. Was the sequel planned from the start?

No, not at first - but I found myself wondering: What the hell is Porche's story?

Do you prefer to write standalone novels?

I first read The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, as part of a serial in Analog. And by read, I mean that I read a middle story. I came in cold, unsure of the backstory, and the adventure ended in despair, and that remains my favourite experience with the work. For me, that was a standalone story. Of course I prefer my own stories to remain upright and cast shadows. I'd like to think that Gated Sky can be read alone, and enjoyed. And the fact that there is no sequel in the works leaves the despair at the end all the more poignant to me.

Is the book market pushing (gently or forcefully) genre authors into the trilogy or series format whether they like it or not?

The market loves sequels that do well. It adores series. I'm sure that there's an alternate universe or two where I started writing Marrow stories at the beginning of my career, and now I am successful enough to buy a new car every six years, instead of every 13.

Is it true that you're working on a sequel to Marrow?

No, it is not true. The sequel is mostly done, turned in and ready to be attacked by editors and copy mavens.

You have a few short stories published online, and several more available to buy as downloads. Is the e-book market more important to SF than other genres?

I can assume that e-books are as successful for SF as anything else - or more so. But judging by the sales figures that I've seen, the total sales are not all that impressive.

What advice would you give to young or novice science fiction writers?

Please yourself first, and second, and then if you're lucky enough to find an audience, try to keep them pleased, too. But if you can't be happy with what you write, then this business will become a job and a burden, and eventually, your doom.

ROBERT REED'S BOOKS:
The Leeshore (1987), The Hormone Jungle (1988), Black Milk (1989),
Down The Bright Way (1991) - first published in UK 2003, The Remarkables (1992),
Beyond The Veil Of Stars (1994), An Exaltation Of Larks (1995),
Beneath The Gated Sky (1997) - sequel to Beyond The Veil Of Stars,
The Dragons Of Springplace (1999) - author's first short story collection, Marrow (2000),
Sister Alice (2002).

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