First of all, you are a multiple Nebula nominated author, you worked with other authors, you are a game designer, a professor of English Literature, a recipient of five Fulbright fellowships and Travel Grants, you worked with Discovery Channel, NPR, NASA, DARPA, NATO…. Do you sleep?
Not as much as I would like. Seriously.
Your Caine Riordan series has been nominated for Nebula award 4 times (Fire with Fire in 2014, Trial by Fire in 2015, Raising Caine in 2016, and now Marque of Caine in 2020. Do you expect a win this year? What makes this series so popular among other writers?
I never expect a win. Hell, I barely hope for a win. This year, my attitude boils down to, “not likely, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility.” My general attitude about awards is that the real honor lies not in having one’s book declared the year’s “best,” but merely being nominated. That may sound like the self-consolation of someone who expects to lose, but it’s really not the case. This is my feeling about the “best” in any creative,” whether book, film, tv, poetry, theater, non-fiction. Simple reason: when you think about it, the term “best” is pretty nebulous (no pun intended).
I mean, you have anywhere from half dozen to a dozen different works that have gotten through some nomination process. One of those is “best?” Yeah, one of them will be the winner, but it’s a dubious (if easy) equivalence to make the jump from believing that number of votes is directly and absolutely reflective of highest merit. Put into very different terms (and I am not a sports devotee), think back on all of the teams that have gone into a championship as a major underdog — their wins/losses/stats are far inferior to those of their opponent. But still they win the title, maybe with a hail-Mary pass or some other unforeseen, even ironic, turn of events late in the game. Yes, they won — but were they the “best team?” That day, maybe. And that’s another part of my deeper attitude toward “best.”
Let’s put it back into the frame of reference for creative work. Think of all the books and films and paintings that have changed you, your outlook, your own creative endeavors. Were all (or any) of them award winners? If your answer is “no”, then there is not perfect correspondence between these means of value/assessment, which indicates how invariably subjective it is for any work to be acclaimed as the year’s “best”. That term puts a subtly objective gloss on what is inherently a highly subjective term.
I actually find it interesting that, very often, the most powerful/enduring works are not the hottest contemporary contenders. That is because, in part, works that either consciously or unconsciously address issues and aesthetics of the moment are kind of like a time capsule. They are highly representative of their moment, but once that moment is past, will they continue to have the same power and weight of meaning? They might, but to my mind, that’s a pretty rare phenomenon.
And by the way, if by some miracle-of-the-ages I do win the Nebula (or any other award), my opinion on these matters will not change. See, for me, even the notion of “finalists” is a woefully imperfect gauge. I know dozens of novels in recent years that deserved a nod for nomination, but never got the buzz and therefore, never got enough looks. I will cite one simply because I was so surprised that it was totally bypassed: Tom Doyle’s 2014 Book, American Craftsmen. They craft and layers in that dark Columbiad was at least worthy of a nomination, in my opinion. But nope: crickets in a summer field. So the take away is this: awards of all kinds, and at every stage, have (at best) an inconstant relationship to quality or merit. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t important; it is simply a frank assessment of their intrinsic limitations.
Now, as to why other authors like my work, I doubt there’s a catch-all answer—and in terms of the Nebula, I wouldn’t know it: voting is anonymous. I can say this: I doubt it’s a single basis of appeal. Look at some of the folks who’ve volunteered cover copy for the Caine Riordan series. The only thing they have in common is that they are hard sf writers. And a lot of them are known for using that subgenre as a vehicle for their new and inventive re-askings of the enduring questions of our existence: the long-arc impacts and nature of evolution, change, identity, and the limits of knowing—particularly when it comes to cosmology and ontology.
How did you come up with the premise of the Caine Riordan series? Is Caine based on you a bit or is he more of a James Bond/Jack Ryan type? Any casting preferences?
Um … none of the above? I mean there are ways in which you can find some commonalities between the narratives you’ve invoked and the evolving nature of Caine Riordan’s character and actions. Certainly Jack Ryan more than Bond. But the character is more influenced by people I have known who have done the things he is called upon to do—and who have done them far better.
About which: I rarely respond to to what I see in reviews, but for those that suggest that Caine is either some homage to Heinlein’s “capable man (sic)” or is fueled by Marty Stu-ism, I’ve gotta say “nope.” I have had the privilege of knowing people whose accomplishments and capabilities make Caine Riordan look like a piker and a wannabe. If you keep an eye on his actual “craft” abilities, they are mediocre at best and increase (to the extent they do) through a lot of hard and costly “learning on the job.” His real skill is more akin to the kind of characters/minds you will encounter in the works of John Le Carre; they are diplomatic/defense/ real politik versions of Sherlock Holmes.
Where Caine’s character presents a somewhat unique twist on that is in his problem solving abilities, the footprint of which is a little wider. He’s more like the mind you find in a think tank that integrates a knowledge of science and an approach to understanding exosapients that leverages heuristic approaches to what some cognitive scientists have labeled a “paradigmatic” approach to knowledge. That is, a person who does not confine observations and hypotheses (and those rare things we call “facts”) to socially defined silos of expertise or specialization. His approach is that all investigation fuels and informs all other forms of investigation, because many fields are influenced and constrained by similar ur-paradigms (such as: the principle of homeostasis is essential to any dynamic equilibrium, whether in physics, biology, sociology).
As far as the series itself, I can’t say I patterned it after anything in particular. In fact, since I was twelve I started thinking about what I read in terms of what it *hadn’t* done with science fiction. One of the things I wanted to move away from was the tendency to lean toward space opera if there was any kind of action component. Although I probably have almost zero in common with her, I’ll channel The Incredibles character Edna Mode to summarize my attitude: “No capes!” Both literally and figuratively. For me, hard sf isn’t just about scientific rigor; it is about positing and depicting a universe as pitiless as our own, where nobody has an aura of “protagonist protection” around them. In that regard, look to authors as diverse as Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Pynchon for that inspiration.
Every one of your Caine Riordan novels deals with contacting aliens, usually in the form of a deep dive into how very different they are from humans. Why?
Actually, this a large part of what drew me to hard sf was that the feeling that explorations of aliens were rarely (if ever) conducted with a “dispassionate technothriller” perspective. The space opera side of that spectrum leans more toward “humans in rubber suits,” whereas the belles lettres attempts often gravitate toward a presupposition that alien intelligence would be fundamentally unknowable and impossible to communicate with. My interest is upon the middle case: aliens that were enough like us that we shared certain evolutionary imperatives: survival, reproduction, basic number theory (you can’t really think if you can’t do binary; true/false). I also chose (for most species) a less inevitable property: the development of codified values to establish some kind of communal order. But beyond that, the cultural differences deriving from evolutionary roots could—and I believe would likely—be vast. And that’s what comes into play in every book in the series, and why Caine is given the responsibilities he has: because his kind of heuristic/paradigmatic cognitive posture is optimal for understanding that which will only resemble us to a certain degree … and many of those similarities may be instances where a form is familiar, but the underlying causes are profoundly different.
A later inspirational corollary was one I observed in real life and which found its way into the series: that there is a high probability that a highly effective liaison (think “deep contact”) to another culture/species will be moderately or significantly ostracised in their own. That’s a quick soundbite tip of a huge conceptual iceberg, but there is a core observation that works as a summary. Specifically, that one’s status in a community is to a large degree determined by willingness (or instinct) to accept and adhere to a lot of that society’s “received values” as if they are inviolable truths. So, logically, if you don’t see your originating society as somehow inevitable (or intrinsically “right”), it’s easier to see another culture in its own terms. However, it makes your fit (and therefore, loyalty/preference) for your origin-group less certain in the minds of those who draw a hard equivalence between accepting group conventions and reliable group loyalty.
You have collaborated with other writers many times, Eric Flint (1632 series), David Weber (Honorverse series), Larry Niven (Man-Kzin Wars series) and others… How does that work? Do you directly cooperate with the writers? Exchange notes?
It varies, but in my case, I’ve been given extremely wide latitude by the collaborators in whose universe I’m working. And I am paying that forward wherever possible in my increasing work as the senior/IP-owning collaborator in my own universes.
The basic approach has been that I pitch an idea and they say, “run with it.” And I do. The closest I came to a more “integrative” or “co-writing” approach was for my last two novels with Steve White. There, because of scheduling and other constraints, we broke the story into a set of different PoV characters and then divided the story-telling tasks along those lines. As we went forward, we checked in on whose chapter or sets of chapters was next, and at the denouement, we wrote several chapters which were rapid changes of PoV between those different characters. But that’s not my norm; I find it both more productive and time efficient to tackle the first draft of a manuscript independently.
You are a game designer, do you just write stories, backgrounds and “flavor” or do you work on the game mechanics as well?
Oh, no: I developed a lot of game mechanics along the way. I mostly worked on Traveller, the legacy tabletop SF RPG, back when it was the flagship role-playing game for Game Designer’s Workshop. In that product environment, when you are designing a supplement, part of the player appeal is not just expansions of the narrative components of the universe, but the new things that they (or a referee) can inject into it as activities/tasks/skills/tools. Such as: new character classes, new equipment, new vehicle design sequences, new task and/or combat rules, new equipment, novel worlds/environments. I did all of that for most of the games on which I worked. It’s not only fun, but it obliquely rehearses what I’m doing with my hard SF focus as an author: creating immersivity by making the universe rigorously consistent to its own established limits. Rules design is simply (!!??) the exercise of quantifying those limits and their applications in a given setting.
You have a PhD in literature, how do you feel Science Fiction and Fantasy are seen in academic circles? Is it just “pulpy fun”, or are some authors and works really worthy of professional literary critique, and even being added as required reading in schools? What separates Faulkner, Steinbeck, Nabokov, from the likes of Asimov, Bradbury or Zelazny?
That’s a very broad and multi-faceted question. Some scattershot answers that I hope become a useful mosaic of my reactions.
SF is seen differently by almost every academic I’ve encountered, regardless of their particular circle (or “domain of discourse” to use Foucault’s taxonomy). A lot of academics remain pretty dismissive of it (and of most mainstream literature, too, I might add). A lot embrace it pretty broadly. However, most have a measured response (which I relate to). In short, they will consider each work on its own merits, and decide whether it’s “pulpy fun” or “worthy of professional literary critique.”
I should add here that with the advent of the investigations that all fit under the enormous canopy of the (comparatively) new, spreading tree we call “cultural studies,” not all of the serious critique is literary. A lot of examination is performed through the different critical/analytica lenses that exist within that broad grouping of academic concerns: communications, race and identity studies, social analysis, media analysis, social psychology, gender /queer studies, and more. And these investigations have, in turn, increasingly tinctured and shaped literary studies over the past few decades. So there’s a fair amount of cross-pollenization at work where the object under study is SF and fantasy.
SF/F’s literary merits are as much a topic of debate as ever, with this one proviso: I no longer run into many folks with “Professor” in front of their names who a priori and invariably aver that speculative fiction cannot also be great literature. The numbers and kinds of work that many feel satisfy their criteria as “great” literature or art — well, there’s that old proverb about passing through the eye of the needle, and they are often just such stringent gate-keepers. But ultimately, that veers into the almost trackless (well, at least non-definitive) wilds of the age old question about what actually constitutes art … and we won’t be getting to the bottom of that maelstrom of debate anytime soon.
Who are your favorite fiction writers? Books? Movies? Other media?
I think a list *without* explanation is what is needed here—for sake of my time, your usability, and your readers’ patience/TL;DR threshold. And my response had another criterion baked in: “most influential.” Lastly, with one or two exceptions, I am only going to include folks who are not working anymore. Otherwise a) I will run out of space regarding current creatives whose work I really, really love, and b) will aggravate anyone I forget (because there ARE that many)
- Flannery O’Connor
- Thomas Pynchon
- William Faulkner
- HG Wells
- CJ Cherryh* (because her SF is as pitiless and precise as were Flannery O’Connor’s short stories)
- Robert Heinlein
- Gordon R Dickson (for concept)
- Poul Anderson (for craft and beauty)
- Octavia Butler
Films and series:
- Breaker Morant
- A Man for All Seasons
- 84 Charlie MoPic
- A Clockwork Orange
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Avengers: Endgame
- A Band of Brothers
- From the Earth to the Moon
- Person of Interest
- The Expanse
- Bridge Over the River Kwai
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
Marc Miller* (because he put hard SF rpg’s on the map … and he still is!)
Do you feel that in this age of electronic media, streaming and internet, people, especially younger generations read less? What can be done to get more of them ‘hooked’ on reading?
You’ll have to bring me back to answer JUST this question if you really want my take. Short version: they may read less, but they certainly read differently. And there are a lot of socially significant factors to that. Which in turn impact and even shape both the mechanisms and aims of getting them “hooked” on reading.
What is your opinion of the fandom? Do you attend conventions? Any upcoming con appearances or book signings?
Well, I did not grow up in fandom, and I have no impulse to cosplay, follow trends, read everything that comes out (who can?), filk, or even get authors’ autographs. Not sure why; just doesn’t float my boat.
BUT, I cannot begin to say how much I enjoy being with and meeting SF/F fans. Note: I did not say my fans—that’s a whole other level of delight. I just think that SF/F fandom (and its far broader readership) is my extended family, because one of the rarest (to this day) traits in human beings is a full-blown embrace of alterity, of the different. [It’s] pretty understandable, when you think about human evolutionary success, which usually depends upon observing what has worked and enshrining it as a thing to be emulated. If something boosted our survival over the past few million years, it was deemed a Very Good Thing by our forebears.
We’re way beyond that survival dynamic now; one thoughtful perusal of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pretty much points to that. But I believe if there is a selection factor (nature/nurture/both) for “social compliance” and the necessary levels of conformity, that phenomenon is and will continue to be heavily reinforced.
But what about that 2% of the time when the “accepted answer” is not going to help? What happens when we have to color outside the lines, knock over the icons, and slay the shibboleths — not with violence, but with new ideas? (All of which society often reacts to more harshly than actual violence; Thomas Kuhn’s observations are pretty pertinent, here.)
The answer: it relies upon folks who are not so wedded to those accepted answers to be desperately needed change agents. Because so very often, those new ideas are originated/celebrated/nurtured/preserved/taught by folks who are more wedded to the possibilities implicit in change than they are to the safety of conformity/compliance. And we are the genre which not only does that, but revels in it. Those folks — whether fans, colleagues, professionals in other domains — are my kin at a deep, fundamental level. And although our tendency not to color within the lines (unless we feel like it) may upset a lot of folks a lot of the time, we’d probably still be wishing we knew how to make fire if it wasn’t for that bunch of us who keeps wondering, ‘hey, couldn’t things be different?’ — and then playing a role in lighting that flame of boundless possibilities.
What are you currently working on? Are there any new releases scheduled for this year?
So, releases this year:
- Six novellas set in the Caine Riordan universe (the series which has a book up for a Nebula), each of which I develop with a different author, edit for continuity/canon/brand, and will then combine into a braided novel with expansions – all part of a careful plan that’s actually working out, if you can believe it. The series is called Murphy’s Lawless. Half of it is out now, and it’s being published under its own imprint, Beyond Terra, a part of Chris Kennedy Publications.
- At the End of the World, a solo novel in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising universe
- 1637: No Peace Beyond the Line, a Ring of Fire novel with Eric Flint.
- I’m also (finally!) starting work on an epic fantasy trilogy that has more than a little slipstream in it: The Vortex of Worlds. My plan is to write books one and two back to back.
- If I’m really efficient and lucky, I’ll get to start the sixth Caine Riordan book in the new “Species” arc. Title: Endangered Species.
I’ll also be revising the second Black Tide Rising novel, At the End of the Journey , and doing any revisions that the publisher asks for in the Ring of Fire novel, Calabar’s War. That one is with Robert Waters…which is kind of a misnomer. I was largely in the Eric role on that one, which means that Robert did almost all the writing and I came in to nod benignly and approvingly.
Any final thoughts?
You’ve *gotta* be kidding?