Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 30
Sojourn for Ephah
by Marina Lostetter
by Nathaniel Lee
Write What You Want
by Eric James Stone
Constance's Mask
by Nick T. Chan
The Last God-Killer
by Grá Linnaea & Dave Raines
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Shaken to the Bone
by David Lubar
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Stanley Schmidt
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Dr. Stanley Schmidt has been a professor of physics at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. He began to publish science fiction, in Analog, in 1968. His first novel, The Sins of the Fathers, was serialized there November 1973-January 1974. His other novels include Newton and the Quasi-Apple, Lifeboat Earth, Tweedlioop, and Argonaut. He has been editor of Analog since 1978 and been nominated for the Hugo Award every year since. He has also edited numerous anthologies, most of them derived from Analog. He has recently announced his retirement from Analog and his intention to get back to more writing.

SCHWEITZER: Describe something of your background. Introduce yourself to the readers.

SCHMIDT: These days probably most people think of me as "the editor of Analog," but while I'm uncommonly pleased to be that, I still think of myself as a writer who currently edits, and take any chance to remind people that I'm a writer too, even though they don't see me in that role as often. According to readers' polls (and then-editor Ben Bova), I was one of Analog's most popular contributors during the 1970s, having begun selling stories here while I was in graduate school (and not sure whether I was allowed to be doing it). Since becoming editor, I've still published occasional stories (sometimes here, more often elsewhere), and several books, including five novels, some nonfiction, and a bunch of anthologies. Editing the magazine takes a lot of time and the same kind of energy that I need for fiction writing, so I haven't been very prolific in that department lately. But eventually I hope to get back to doing more of my own writing, conspicuously including fiction. In the meantime, I can't resist mentioning that most of my earlier books are still available, either from the original publishers or as print-on-demand or e-books through FoxAcre Press.

SCHWEITZER: How did you get interested in science fiction, and at what point did you realize this was going to be a major part of your life's work?

SCHMIDT: When I was about nine years old, my father (a third-generation reader of Astounding) commented that while I was reading a wide variety of nonfiction from the bookmobile that came to my rural school once a month, he thought it would be good to have some fiction in the mix, too. "I've tried," I told him. "It's boring."

"Maybe you should try some good science fiction," he said.

"You mean the crazy stuff with the rockets and robots?" I said (having been somewhat brainwashed by the prevalent attitudes of the early fifties, even though he'd taken me to see Destination Moon and I was fascinated by his comment that this was stuff that could really happen).

"It's not all crazy," he said. He handed me three volumes of early Astoundings that his uncle had bound and said, "Read what's at the bookmarks." I did, and two Weinbaums and a Padgett later I was hooked for life.

I didn't try writing SF until the seventh grade, when I had a friend with similar interests and aptitudes and we egged each other on. But I had started writing fiction much earlier, when a wise second-grade teacher encouraged me to write stories instead of wasting time rehashing material I already knew. Those were mostly about things like big-game hunting in Africa (adventure in exotic environments, even if not SF!), and she sometimes sent me to the principal's office to let him read them.

By the ninth grade I had become sufficiently emboldened, and learned enough about the procedures, to start submitting stories, which, not surprisingly, got only printed rejection slips. I kept doing so off and on in the next few years, with the idea that someday I might learn enough and/or get lucky enough to sell one. I knew enough about the realities of trying to make a living as a writer that I never expected to do so, but I did see it as an enjoyable sideline for the indefinite future, and if it happened to generate some income too, that would be a bonus. From junior high on, my career plan was to be a physics professor, teaching and researching for a living, while freelancing as a writer and musician but not trying to rely on either as a primary income source.

And, though I never dreamed that I would actually get the chance to do it, the thought did cross my mind that John W. Campbell's job must be a lot of fun.

SCHWEITZER: Let's talk a little about what you did before becoming editor of Analog.

SCHMIDT: I grew up in southwestern Ohio, with periods in urban, rural, and suburban surroundings, and up to a point pretty much followed the plan I've already sketched. I majored in physics at the University of Cincinnati, got a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve, and got a job (which I liked much better than I expected to) as an assistant professor of physics at Heidelberg College (now Heidelberg University) in Tiffin, Ohio -- while continuing, as planned, to freelance as a writer and musician. I started Heidelberg's first courses in astronomy and science fiction, teaching the latter with methods shamelessly stolen from John Campbell and his successor Ben Bova. That had the side effect that in the process of helping my students learn about SF, I was also teaching myself to be a Campbell-style editor. I enticed Ben out as a guest speaker and to visit my class, and he says that's what made him want me to replace him when he left as editor.

Ben was an important influence in other ways, too. He encouraged me to write my first novel, The Sins of the Fathers, and I had what may have been the first-ever sabbatical for the purpose of writing an SF novel: Lifeboat Earth, a sequel to Sins, much of which appeared as a series of novellas in Analog before it all came out as a book.

One of the requirements for being granted a sabbatical was an agreement to stay with the college for at least three years afterward. Ben left Analog just one year later, so while I really wanted his job, I feared I would have trouble getting out of my faculty contract at Heidelberg. It was a gratifying and humbling surprise to have fans who happened to be lawyers coming up to me at a convention that summer and offering their services gratis if I needed help. As it turned out, I didn't: fortunately (for me, if not for anyone else) the college (like many) was having financial problems then, and I think they were glad to get rid of anybody they could without a lawsuit.

SCHWEITZER: How much do you think you were influenced, as a writer, by John Campbell before you came to have his job?

SCHMIDT: Immensely. I had always enjoyed reading stories from many sources, but Astounding/Analog was the one for which I felt a special affinity. In reading its stories (and John's editorials) I was constantly trying to understand how the pieces I especially liked achieved what they did, with an eye toward learning to do something comparable of my own. When I finally caught John's eye enough that he started giving me personal feedback, I learned more about storytelling from his first half dozen rejection letters and a few long conversations than from all the classes and books I'd seen before. And not just writing: the way he worked with me as a writer was the main model for the way I now work with other writers (though there are some significant differences between his style and mine).

SCHWEITZER: Well, technically what you got was Ben Bova's job, but you must have felt the ghost of John Campbell at your shoulder when you became editor. Was it like that? Were readers expecting you to be John Campbell? I know Ben has told some funny stories about how some of them refused to believe Campbell was dead, and Analog would get letters along the lines of, "Hey John, this Bova character seems to be intercepting your mail."

SCHMIDT: There were times when I would have liked nothing better than to have John's ghost at my shoulder; I would have liked to ask his advice. But I'm reasonably sure it would have been, "You're on your own, kid."

Lloyd Biggle once told me somebody asked him, "But can Schmidt fill Campbell's shoes?" I liked Lloyd's answer: "He doesn't need to. He has his own shoes."

But of course there were some funny incidents involving readers not understanding or accepting a changing of the guard. I got occasional letters addressed to John for at least the first ten years. And I immediately started getting letters lambasting me for ruining the magazine, even though for the first few issues I was running almost entirely on inventory I inherited from Ben. It was at least five months before readers saw an issue that was actually "all mine."

SCHWEITZER: Since Analog, more than any other extant science fiction magazine, has an enormous weight of tradition behind it, how did you balance that tradition with a need to keep up with the SF field and the times? The wrong editor could either change the magazine so much he alienated the core readership, or allow it to turn into a fossil. Obviously you have done neither.

SCHMIDT: I've never felt particularly respectful of, or bound by, either tradition or a need to "keep up with the times" (in this or any other field). But I do view the magazine as having a core personality that maintains a certain continuity even as it evolves with passing time -- just as any human being does. The reason it works, I think, is that I'm as close as you can find to a "typical Analog reader" (not that there really is any such thing). My basic philosophy has been to try to make the magazine the one that I would like to read if I had to buy my own subscriptions and could only afford one. I would not stay long with a magazine that either kept doing the same thing over and over, or kept haring off in all directions just for the sake of novelty or because somebody else was doing it.

SCHWEITZER: How did you also manage to keep up the Analog tradition of unorthodox science without slipping down the slippery slope that leads to Dianetics, the Dean Drive, and the Hieronymus Machine?

SCHMIDT: I share John's interest in giving exposure to unpopular or "non- establishment" ideas that look as if they might have some merit, but I'm less inclined to getting all enthusiastic about things that haven't really made a very strong case for themselves -- perhaps at least partly because I spent more time than he did actually working as a physicist. I recognize that scientists can get so locked into a generally accepted way of thinking that they need to be shaken up by being exposed to something else from time to time.

Of course, there simply isn't time to pay much attention to every offbeat idea that comes along, and most of them really aren't worth it. So you have to be a bit selective about both the ones you pay attention to and the ones you choose not to. In doing that, if you only pick things that eventually turn out to be winners, you're probably being too conservative. If you pick only things that are soon forgotten, you're probably too gullible -- or too much of a contrarian for contrarianism's sake.

I've given some space to "cold fusion," mainly by way of commenting on the clumsy way the initial announcement was handled and the stubbornly defensive response of many establishment scientists, who systematically refused to even look at anything that might be evidence. I'd say the jury's still out on that one; it looks as if there may be something there, but nobody is quite sure what.

On the other hand, we also did some of the first (and, according to K. Eric Drexler, some of the best) popular coverage of nanotechnology, which has already established itself as one of the most important and promising fields of scientific and technological research. We haven't yet seen the most spectacular forms suggested by early speculations about it, but it's still young and my personal hunch is that it will eventually do things that are hard for even the leading current researchers to envision. After all, how credible would Charles Babbage have found the computer on which I'm writing this, or the internet through which I'm sending it to you?

SCHWEITZER: Nevertheless, even the most open-minded scientist or editor needs a working crap detector. The history of our field is littered with real embarrassments, like the Shaver Mystery. (A series of stories published by Ray Palmer's Amazing Stories in the '40s, which purported to be "true," all about sinister underground beings called "deros" which manipulate our minds, etc.) But I note that John Campbell, credulous though he seemed at times, never fell for flying saucers, for instance. So are there some things which are just too obviously silly to pursue? I don't see articles in Analog about the Bermuda Triangle or Ancient Astronauts, and I am glad for it.

SCHMIDT: You don't see those articles because nobody has ever offered me one containing evidence or arguments strong enough to take seriously. And while I've published one or two fact articles about how what we think of as the universe could be an artifact within a larger one, I've never felt the slightest temptation to treat "creation science" (or its dressier version, "intelligent design") as if it were actually science. It just isn't, and the arguments people have occasionally used to try to convince me otherwise were so slipshod you couldn't even refute them logically -- there was no logic in them to latch onto.

SCHWEITZER: What do you think about the "educational" aspect of science fiction? Can it really popularize new ideas and influence the world around us in a positive way, or is this merely the "Gernsback Delusion"? At the last Nebula Weekend I heard astronaut Mike Fincke say, "We went into space because science fiction writers told us to." So, do you as a science fiction editor (and writer) have any sense of didactic mission?

SCHMIDT: I don't think of it as a "didactic mission," but I certainly do think that science fiction can and does inspire readers, especially young ones, to "make it so." I know it can happen because it happened to me: I became a physicist largely as a result of reading science fiction, especially in Astounding/Analog. It also happened to many other scientists and engineers I've known. Many of them have gotten so involved in their own research careers that they no longer have much time to read SF, but the interest is still there. A few years ago I was invited to give a colloquium on "Science and Science Fiction" in the physics department of a major university, and the professor who organized it told me later it drew the largest audience of any colloquium that year.

I am a little concerned that we may not be doing that job as effectively as we used to, because it's most likely to have long-range effects on young readers. We're not getting as many of those as we used to, or as many as we'd like, in part because their attentions are being siphoned off in so many glitzier directions. And it's harder to evoke a sense of wonder in generations who have become jaded, almost overnight, about realities that were pure SF when we were growing up.

SCHWEITZER: Related to that, I've noted a very disturbing trend, which maybe I exaggerate, though some (Gregory Benford for instance) would probably say I do not. The whole culture, even science fiction writers, seems to be turning away from the future. There is less interest in space travel. I hear agents tell me they can't sell science fiction anymore, except military SF series. (Shawna McCarthy said so in one of these interviews a couple issues back.) We see steampunk and alternate history, all about alternate pasts and things that didn't and couldn't happen. Do you have any sense that the speculative impulse itself is flagging? Has Vernor Vinge's Singularity scared everybody off? If so, what is to be done about it?

SCHMIDT: I think this is a very real concern, and one of the reasons SF writers and publishers need to find new ways to stimulate positive thought about the future. The Singularity may or may not be a major factor in the widespread attitude shift. A bigger one may simply be that everyone is constantly barraged with propaganda about how terrible the problems we now face are, and too many have knuckled under and pretty much given up on trying to build a great future and resigned themselves to just playing with all the neat toys we have now while they can. Some science fiction, I'm sorry to say, contributes to this defeatist attitude by vividly portraying ugly, depressing futures without offering constructive ways we might prevent or fix them. That's the easy way out, and something we don't do much of in Analog. It's painfully easy to imagine ugly, depressing futures; it's harder, but much more rewarding, to imagine plausible alternatives and ways to get to them. That's what we try to do, and I hope it will inspire at least a few young readers to make them happen.

SCHWEITZER: Is it possible that science fiction is a victim of its own success? People take the idea of, say, other planets so much for granted now that the discovery of hundreds of real exoplanets doesn't seem to be generating much excitement. Folks have been seeing that on Star Trek for decades.

SCHMIDT: Certainly it's harder to evoke a sense of wonder than it used to be, given that so much of our everyday world is full of things that we now take for granted but would have been strictly the stuff of science fiction -- or, in some cases, not even imagined by science fiction -- just a few years ago.

The problem really has at least two aspects. First, to a casual observer, the difference in content between SF and reality just doesn't look as big as it used to. Second, and to me more disturbing, is that so many people aren't grasping the distinction between having read or heard about something in speculative fiction and seeing it in the news. They should be getting excited about exoplanets because they're now, for the first time ever, known to be real, whereas Star Trek was just entertainment. I don't understand how so many people can fail to grasp the enormity of that distinction, but somehow they manage.

SCHWEITZER: Or is the problem perhaps the reverse? People realize the exoplanets may be there, but we aren't going to be visiting them any time soon. So they give up.

SCHMIDT: There may well be some of that, too -- but then, how many people ever really cared about visiting them? The SF community -- by which I mean people interested in seriously speculative, science-based fiction and in making its promises real -- has always been a small part of the general population. That's still true, even though we see SF bestselling books and "SF" movies that make a lot of money oftener than we used to.

Or, to look at it another way, maybe the problem began with the end of the Apollo program. Back then, a lot of the general public was interested in space, but I think only a few of them were interested in it for the right reasons. Most weren't looking toward a major outward expansion, but only toward the much more trivial goal of winning a race with the Soviets. Once that had been done, they saw it as an end rather than the beginning it should have been, and started looking for other fads to follow.

SCHWEITZER: I don't imagine you, as editor of Analog, just passively sitting back and waiting for the field to develop. John Campbell certainly did not. But given that nobody will ever be in the kind of monopoly position he was in back in the mid-'40s, when he edited what was the adult science fiction magazine, which had no serious competition. So how does an editor lead these days? Do you have editorial lunches with writers and pitch ideas to them?

SCHMIDT: I certainly do, though the meaning of "editorial lunch" has shifted over the years. Writers no longer live in New York, or even visit it, as often as they used to, so I don't have as many working lunches there. But I still have lots of productive lunches and dinners at conventions, and much of the same kind of dialog conducted in black-and-white at high speed despite great distances by e-mail. Like Campbell, I sometimes throw out ideas that I think a particular writer would enjoy exploring and do a good job. And sometimes I get a story that I think has a lot of potential but also has problems, so I tell the author what bothers me about it and challenge him or her to come up with a way to fix it that we both like better. Discovering and developing new writers is the single most rewarding part of this job, and I've developed a knack for recognizing potential even before I've seen a story. Occasionally I've sprung for an editorial lunch with somebody who hadn't yet sold me a single word, because I knew they would, and this was a way to accelerate the process. And no two writers are alike. That's one reason I like to meet them face-to-face as soon as possible, because the better I know their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, the better I know what kinds of things they'll be interested in and do well.

SCHWEITZER: What do you think are some of the most fruitful areas for speculation just now, i.e. cutting edge science that can be turned into good stories?

SCHMIDT: A lot of the best possibilities are in the related areas of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cognitive science. I've heard some people say that nanotechnology has been played out and it's time to move on to other things, but this seems to me like telling a hypothetical SF writer in 1900 that electricity has been played out and it's time to move on to other things. All the signs are that this is going to be a big part of our future, and if you choose to assume it isn't, you'll need to justify that. Cognitive science is an area where we've barely scratched the surface. One of the biggest benefits I got from writing my nonfiction book The Coming Convergence (shameless plug!) was a greatly increased awareness of just how differently nervous systems work from most of the things we call computers. And, as the title of that book suggests, many of the most fruitful possibilities for SF writers to explore come not from simple extrapolation of any one science, but from the convergence and interaction of two or more -- like the three I've already mentioned.

And let's not forget that one of the oldest fields is just full of new possibilities just waiting to be explored. All those recently discovered extrasolar planets, for instance: every one of them is a whole new world, as big and complicated and diverse as the one we live on. From this distance we know just enough about them to know that many of them are quite different from any we've read about before. I'd love to see writers take us in for close-up looks at some of them, so we can see what they might really be like, and what might happen to people trying to explore or develop them.

SCHWEITZER: So, now that you are leaving Analog after 34 years, what do you feel you have accomplished?

SCHMIDT: The thing about which I'm happiest is that I've managed -- with a lot of help from some very talented staff, the publishers who've provided a home for it, and above all the writers, artists and readers -- to keep the magazine alive, growing, and still the kind of magazine I think it should be. I've often said that my overriding editorial philosophy was to try to make Analog the magazine I would subscribe to if I had to buy my own subscriptions and could only afford one. I think I've done that.

SCHWEITZER: And, presumably this will give you more time for writing. Do you have any particular projects planned?

SCHMIDT: Quite a few, actually, beginning with a novel that I've been trying to

finish for a couple of years but haven't had time to build and sustain the momentum it needs. Now, I hope, I can. And I'd like to do more short fiction, without waiting for an editor to call me up and invite me to do something for a themed anthology. In particular, in the ten years before I became editor, I was one of Analog's more frequent contributors, and the readers often seemed to like what I was doing. I'd like to try to do that again -- if I can get past this new editor!

SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Stanley Schmidt.

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