Science Fiction Writers Wear Disguises: A Conversation with Robert Reed
Robert Reed was born at the height of the Eisenhower administration, in Omaha, Nebraska. Growing up a few miles from the Strategic Air Command, he realized early and often that the world balances on a razor. His fiction mirrors that sense of bleak amazement. Hundreds of stories and more than a dozen novels have led to numerous award nominations, and Reed won one Hugo Award, for his novella, “A Billion Eves.”
He lives today in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and daughter, and he has no escape plan in case of nuclear war.
I’ve known him since 2008 and he reports that, since then, his running has gotten a little slower—but happily for me and all the other readers who enjoy his work, his writing pace hasn’t decreased at all. I interviewed him in 2009, and he fictionalized our meeting in his story “Excellence” (Asimov’s, December 2010), in which I became Gilchrist, whom the narrator describes as “shorter than I would have guessed, wearing what looked like a fresh shirt and slacks and a decidedly bland tie.” This time I skipped the formal attire.
In 2013 you published The Greatship, a collection of stories you linked with newly written “bridges,” as you called them. Can you talk a little about these bridges and the process of selecting and ordering these stories?
Bridges, yeah, that was my term. I’ve trademarked that. Anytime anyone uses the term “bridge,” now I get a small royalty.
The first bridges were built for Marrow (2000), and they weren’t intended to serve the function they ended up serving in other works. But basically, for a big book like this, I would try to give some background. And the point of view ended up eventually becoming that of the Great Ship. That wasn’t clear to me in Marrow, but by The Well of Stars (2004) I was definitely doing the voice of the Great Ship. And I felt that when you have all these stories that, frankly, aren’t well linked with one another, it was best to have some overriding principle or presence. I liked the process of writing the bridges a lot. They were fun to write, which is not a bad thing.
As for the ordering of the stories, that right there is an element of guesswork. There is no clear existing chronology for this work. I don’t have some calendar where I keep track of what happens where. We’re talking about over a hundred thousand years of history. I started with “Alone,” which was a novella, because it seemed to be the perfect opening for the broader story. It begins at the beginning, and ends kind of in the middle of what you might see as the history of the Great Ship.
So can we now take the order of the stories in this collection as a rough chronology?
Yes, you can. But don’t bet any great sums of money on it staying the same.
Well, you’ve mentioned that The Greatship will be an evolving project, where new material is added to the old in successive iterations. What made you decide to take this approach rather than, say, putting out additional story collections?
This is digital, so it can be a huge volume. Size is not an issue. And I think if you’re really interested in the subject of the Great Ship, this is a very good way to figure out my head, or as close as you’re going to get. Because I will make decisions that may change things. I could change the order, for example, because I find a better first story. I don’t think I will—but I might. I might also rewrite the bridge material; I don’t know. This is a problem I’ll attack if and when I get there. If you want the new stories, you’ll need to buy the old stories all over again, yes, but that’s why I’m only asking $4.99 for the ebook. I’ve actually been surprised by how many people have bought the physical edition, because I don’t think it looks great, but it’s had some sales, so I’m pleased with that.
Your latest Great Ship work, The Memory of Sky (2014), was a trilogy published all at once. How did that come about?
There’s a long history here. The first novel, Diamond, was written several years ago, after a sort of powwow with a couple of editors that suggested I try a YA approach. So I tried YA, in the sense that I had a young protagonist, and thought the story would be interesting for kids. I kept away from sex, and I kept away from hugely overt violence, but it was still my story, basically a wonderland I built for this boy. It then sat with an editor at Tor, who really liked it, but who unfortunately couldn’t sell it to the bosses that be. I revised it. Then my agent and I ended up negotiating with Amazon. Their contract was peculiar. The legal department at my agent’s house was okay with it, but it was a bizarre contract, in that it didn’t seem to spell out the kinds of things that normally get spelled out in contracts. I was very close to signing it, and was even going to get an advance from them—which I hear is unusual—but then I asked who, hypothetically, was going to be my editor. And they said, “Oh, you want an editor?” At that point I thought, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
Then I got an online nibble—well, more than a nibble—from Prime Books. And they wanted a trilogy, which is what I started to write. At Prime Books I felt free to do what I wanted. My original story, the first novel, was open-ended, and it was a massive advantage now to have time and look again at what I had written. I’m always sober, but I was even more sober, or unsentimental, about what I’d done. Now I was looking for a certain way of telling the story that could be elaborated into other tales further down. I had to put the story in a location that would serve later stories. I had to start thinking about the Great Ship as a place, and defining what it is and what it isn’t. I had to start thinking in timescales that were a bit different from what I had before. Once I figured all that out, I was able to start working on the other books.
The original publishing plan was to have each book come out every six months or so. But Barnes & Noble was concerned that doing it that way they’d get good sales on the first, but that then things would taper. So they asked us, “Could you do it all as one volume?” Now there was an upper size limit, and a tighter deadline for the third book. This is an example of a situation where a writer has to juggle several balls at once. I had created requirements in my story, like all the characters being together in one place in one day during the final book. But I had to compress the material, still keeping to that. It turned out that the size limitation was an enormous blessing. I wrote it fairly quickly, with a pretty clear picture of where I was going. Occasionally things happened that I didn’t expect, and I really enjoyed that. The second book is the longest of the three. The tone also changes from the first book to the second one; things get darker. My wife noticed that when she read the trilogy.
I like writing because it’s like super-reading. I’ve said that before, and I’ll always say it. When I’m involved in my writing, it makes reading seem like a pretty prosaic walk in the park. This was intense for me. I had a general sense of what I wanted to happen, but no outline. I bounced some characters off each other. I didn’t know one character would be suicidal until I started writing the third book. But there she is. That was one of the bigger surprises. You start looking at your people, and you see the world through their eyes. I try to understand their point of view. A long time ago my agent said that with her clients, she could tell from their stories what some of their opinions were. But with me she can’t.
Will there be more Great Ship novels/trilogies? Any involving the character of Diamond?
Yes. Since The Memory of Sky came out I’ve been working hard in my head. I don’t do outlines but in this case I wrote some stuff down—there’s now an actual file! But it’s just a general sense of things, of what I want this world to be like. I’m not pretending to say, “This happens in that chapter.” During all these months of work I’ve learned a lot more about the Great Ship, and ways of presenting things. The reader won’t know what’s happening right away, and I will push that as far as I can. I have a new trilogy in mind. The working title is The Dragons of Marrow. There are nine dragons, and they aren’t what you think they are. I came up with this scheme—when I figured it out—it was like, “Man!”
You continue to be a prolific short story writer. Several of your recent stories revolve around the Fermi paradox. One of them, “Aether,” is in the anthology Paradox, edited by Ian Whates. What are some of the others, and what inspired you to write them?
At WorldCon I was on a panel about colonizing other worlds. There were three world scenarios we were supposed to talk about: Mars or a Mars-like world, a living world without any sentient life, and a living world with low-technology sentient life. What should we do if we came across these worlds? I pointed out that we’ve been living in a solar system where for four-point-five billion years, each of these scenarios has been true at some point. Mars has been open territory for anyone to come and make it into a habitable place. From what we can see, no one has. Earth has been habitable to some sort of life—if not always human—for several billion years. And in the last few hundred years, we’ve made a lot of noise and have built industrial products that are noticeable at a distance. All of those things have happened, but no one is here, no one is renovating. Which makes me wonder: where are they?
It’s not just me. A lot of very serious people are wondering. But I’m not sure that in science fiction we care that much. It’s the game: we need to tell stories. But the reality is that going from star to star is extremely hard work, and life may not be the answer, etc. etc. There’s many options. “wHole” is a recent story that examines some of these issues. The best way I can describe the story, is that apparently I do a lot of drugs. “What I Intend,” currently under submission, is another. And right now I’m working on another, called “Empty.” This is the fourth scenario I’ve come up with for the Fermi paradox. I try to imagine novel answers. It’s a fascinating question, because the universe should be full of life, kicking us around, passing through us, whatever. And it isn’t.
Can you talk a little about your video-game related writing for the game Destiny? Your website mentions a forthcoming story related to the game, called “What Remains.”
This has been a very different experience for me, because it’s not my universe, and because I have people who are very interested in what I write every step of the way, virtually. “What Remains” is something I wrote for them a couple of years ago, but has since been retooled a few times, once by me, and once by them, split up and used for various things in game. Or said differently, inside the game there will be some of my words. I wrote it in the second person, and they let me keep it that way, which was nice.
Bungie, the makers of Destiny, gave me certain guiding points, and a certain terminology that might be very valuable for me to know. I was able to watch some of the video sequences and make notes, though my notes are always largely incomprehensible. I also asked them what I thought were basic story questions, and sometimes the answer would be, “We haven’t figured that out yet,” or “We don’t have bandwidth for that.” They have a history for the game worlds, but they also have gaps. Last time I was in Seattle, I tried to play the game. I’m bad with games. Basically they had to make me invincible so I could march my way through the game’s beautiful landscape to achieve the ending. So I got to see how things should be.
Can you talk a little about your decision to self-publish short stories on your blog Reshaping Light?
There are four out so far, “Carnage,” “Far-farfetched,” “Khan,” and “One City.” Reshaping Light is a blog I started up so I could bitch about movies, go into what I don’t like about them. I think modern movies are extremely pretty to watch but are oftentimes just dumb stories, truly stupid stories, imbecilic stories—am I making my point clear here? Just basic crap that doesn’t make sense at all. Characters that are arbitrary and pulled out of stock, and so on. Many of these movies are simple, ugly things that are brought up into the digital light of day for a while and then fade. There’s a lot of explosions. Young men and their dates will watch them.
So what I wanted to do was find stories that were reasonably interesting, or that at least I would find interesting, based on movies I watched. Iron Man 3 had this one story arc I didn’t care for, and a true villain that wasn’t compelling at all. I remember thinking that they should have started with that final fight sequence. I liked the part where his girlfriend became a superhero—but how would that affect their relationship? Ultimately I wasn’t thrilled with my own way of handling things either, but I wanted to at least attempt a storyline instead of just bitching about it.
Basically each of these stories rewrites a movie, but I don’t tell you which movie it is. You can figure it out if you’ve seen the source material.
There’s more to come in this project. I really enjoyed Margin Call—a wonderful movie. It’s about the financial collapse. But I think if you could rewrite it, it would be the perfect way to talk about the singularity. A bunch of nerds sitting around, and instead of thinking, “Hmm, these numbers don’t make sense,” they realize, “We have something here. Something’s happening.” Approach it with the same tone, with good-looking actors, and it would be wonderful! This one isn’t so much a bitch session, but the thought that this movie would be a great vehicle for other things.
Any other projects not related to the Great Ship, commissioned stories for anthologies, Bungie, or rewriting movies?
I would like to talk about a book I’ve been working on for years in various forms. It’s a mammoth book. The book is about three hundred and seventy thousand words of daily life in a deeply alternate world. But it focuses mostly on what you eat, where you go to work, and sex.
So you’ve invented a new genre—not the alternate novella, but the alternate novela, as in telenovela.
Yes, that’s my invention! As mentioned, this a big project. My agent’s looking for a home for it. A piece of it was published as “The Principles” in Asimov’s, though to a kind of lukewarm response. I have a second story I’ve also pulled from the book, which now doesn’t end in the same way as it does in the novel, and I’d like to sell that too. Ideally I’d like to sell the whole book. I enjoyed writing it, enjoyed rewriting it, and will probably enjoy rewriting it again before it’s published. But at some point, even if I have to do it myself, it will be published.
It’s had a number of titles, like The World of My Brother, and Pussyworld; it depends on my mood. I remember once Garrison Keillor talking about a writer’s life, back when he was doing the poem of the day bit on PBS, which we get in Lincoln. He was talking about Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. The manuscript for that novel was being rejected. Apparently it was offending people. There were two directions Palahniuk thought he should go: he could dilute it down, or make it worse, push the material harder. He went the latter way. That made me think, “How would I do that with this story?” And that’s where I am today.