Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Michael Flynn
by Darrell Schweitzer
Michael Flynn's work falls squarely within the category of "hard-SF," which
means he pays attention to the science. Much of his short fiction has,
unsurprisingly, appeared in Analog. His 1986 novella "Eifelheim," about an extra-terrestrial contact in 14th century Germany, was a Hugo finalist, as was the novel
version of the novella's backstory in 2006. In translation, Eifelheim won the Priz
Julie Verlanger (France) and the Seiun Award (Japan). His other work includes the
Firestar series and the Spiral Arm series, as well as the stand-alone novels In the
Country of the Blind and The Wreck of "The River of Stars," and three story
collections. He has been nominated for the Hugo five times, and won the
Prometheus Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. He collaborated with Larry
Niven and Jerry Pournelle on Fallen Angels, which won a Seiun Award. He was
the first author to win the Robert Heinlein Medal, which is a lifetime achievement
award given by the Heinlein Society for encouraging the development of human
SCHWEITZER: Let's start with some basics: Give our readers some idea of who
you are and where you came from?
FLYNN:: My name is Michael Francis Flynn, and I was the oldest of five boys.
The Flynns go back to Loughrea, County Galway and came here in 1867 or
thereabouts. The reasons are unknown, but there had been a failed Fenian uprising
centered around Loughrea and in which some Flynns were apparently involved.
On my mother's side, we go back to the Rhineland of Baden, just west of the Black
Forest, coming to the US after a famine that followed on the 1848 revolution. My
mother would sometimes point out to my father that I was more German than Irish.
Even my grandfather Flynn had a German mother and spoke English with a
German accent, earning him the nickname of "Dutch Flynn." However, my father
always noted that a single Irish bloodline is enough to cancel out any amount of
German. It was all great fun. It meant that I could eat pork chops and sauerkraut,
pepper pot, and schnitz un' knepp and also drink beer on St. Paddy's Day.
SCHWEITZER: Where did you grow up?
FLYNN:: I was born and raised in Easton, Pennsylvania. The parish I belonged to
was a German national parish, and the pastor at the time was a native of
Saarbrueken. At first he did not want to baptize me because I was Flynn, but my
mother threatened to take me home and baptize me herself under the kitchen sink.
She would have done it, too. In the dictionary, under "immovable object" is a
picture of my mother.
We lived a life almost unimaginable today. Practically none of my childhood was
spent in adult-supervised structured activities. I did play in Little League in the
days before it became a surrogate catharsis for frustrated parents. I was third string
right field, which ought to give anyone an idea of my sporting prowess. And I was
in scouting. But otherwise, we were all free-range children and were as like as not
up in the hills roasting wieners over a campfire, or down in a friend's basement
designing a rocket, or down in my own basement conducting chemical or electrical
experiments. My recollection is that the contents of that chemical set would send
Late Moderns into a fit of the vapors. (But my dad in his youth achieved a nice
explosion in his own lab trying to electrolysize water. I never had so single an
There was science fiction, but we'll get to that later.
SCHWEITZER: What did you study in college?
FLYNN:: I started out in German Language but switched to mathematics and
stayed with it. I took a degree in math from LaSalle College in Philadelphia, and
so far they haven't made me give it back. Then I went to Marquette University in
Milwaukee, where I received a master's degree in math. My master's thesis
proved a couple of original theorems in general topology, and that marked the high
point of my math career. After that I augured in and eventually took a job doing
This was in the era known as "the Sixties" (which ran into the 70s) and everything
you've heard about it was true. I was in a march or two, did tutoring in North
Philadelphia, lived in a commune, all the usual stuff. I even played the guitar. Oh,
and I had a paisley shirt and bell-bottom trousers. Peace, man. Some of that is
finding its way into the new novel.
SCHWEITZER: Any interesting "real world" job experiences, or have you
always been a full time writer?
FLYNN:: Does that mean a full-time writer can't have interesting real world
experiences? And why is "real world" in quotey marks? Never mind.
I've worked as a printer's devil (or press helper, as they said) on flatbed Miehle
letterpresses for three summers, and later as a part-time job in graduate school I
was pressman for a small printer. This is now a Lost Art, like chipping flint
arrowheads. Letterpress was eaten by offset, and then offset was eaten by the
desktop computer. No one sets hard type anymore, and so the skill of reading type
faces upside down and backward now counts only as a curiosity. An entire craft,
virtually unchanged since Gutenberg, has gone obsolete.
Otherwise, let's see. I worked in the Frankford Arsenal one summer helping to
build a computer model of a certain component. This meant programming in
FORTRAN, which was accomplished by pressing a reed into a tray of mud. Well,
it was a while ago. I've also been a custodian/gardener, a waiter, and an unarmed
security guard. Whether these are interesting experiences depends on how one
uses them afterward.
But the most interesting experiences have come in my career as a quality
management consultant. After a decade as a quality technician and quality
engineer I was hired by a well-known consulting firm and went hither and yon to
conduct training courses, work with quality improvement teams, and/or consult on
problems. The core of the work involved statistical analysis, which can be quite
exciting, at least for a certain cast of mind. In the course of this work I have visited
not quite every state of the Union, three Canadian provinces, and portions of
northern Mexico, but also Costa Rica, Panama, South Africa, India, Australia,
England, France, Germany, Austria and Hungary, encountering a wide variety of
people and cultures, as well as of industries from manufactures of various sorts to
services to government and quasi-governmental agencies.
This was not only interesting, but also provided vignettes, details, and characters
that I used in books and stories.
SCHWEITZER: When did you first discover science fiction, and when did you
realize you wanted to write it?
FLYNN:: Science Fiction came to me when I was a child. My father used to tell
bedtime stories to my brother Dennis and me. One was about aliens who came to
Earth "to serve man." It turned out to be a cookbook. Good night, sleep tight.
After as story like that? Good luck. Another I remember turned out to be a Ray
Bradbury story. The Old Man, which my math skills tell me could not have been
that old at the time, had gotten similar bedtime stories in his day, from an uncle
who also illustrated them with cartoons. "Mongo of the Moon" was at least
original. Later we discovered Dad's stash of IF and Galaxy.
So Dennis and I devoured every science fiction book in the local children's library.
My first book was Space Captives of the Golden Men. Lucky Starr, the Heinlein
juveniles, and all the rest soon followed. I even read fantasies, like Mary Poppins.
When we ran out, we went to the librarian and asked if we could check out the
adult books. The librarian selected an adult science fiction book, asked Dennis to
read a passage and then explain it. (Dennis was younger by a year. If he could do
it, it was reasoned, so could I.) He did, of course, and we were given special
privileges. It's a good thing Samuel Delany hadn't written Dhalgren at the time.
So what could be more natural than that Dennis and I would write our own stories
-- in pencil, in spiral notebooks, illustrated by Magic Marker. (The original Magic
Markers, with the aromatic VOCs wafting off of each stroke. It's probably illegal
now.) We did the Grand Tour, with an adventure on each planet, the natures of
which were then quite unclear to us. We recruited two other kids and the four of us
created what is now called a "shared universe." We made a list of stories for a
future history out into the far future and parceled them out for the scrivening. (My
mother saved them, and my youngest brother one day stumbled upon them.) All
this came to the attention of a local news columnist who did an interview with my
brother and me. The space-writing Flynn brothers. I think we were in 8th and 9th
grades or thereabouts.
My one greatest regret is that I will never co-author any stories with Dennis. He
died in high school. For sixteen years, everything we did, we did together.
I collected several form rejection letters while in high school. Then one day, I
received a three-page rejection letter from John C. Campbell Jr. at Analog ripping
my story to shreds. I was devastated. Little did a high school weenie know that a
three-page rejection letter meant "put these shreds back together in a more
interesting way and try me again." So the world was spared for several years.
When I rediscovered that story some years later, I read it and realized that it really
sucked. So I rewrote it, and sent it to Ben Bova. He rejected it with a form letter.
Then some years afterward, when I was married and living in Colorado, I came
across Galileo magazine, which was running a story contest for unpublished
writers. Well, I qualified, right? The stories in the high school literary magazine
didn't count, because I was the editor, too. So I wrote a story called "Slan Libh"
and Charlie Ryan decided he wanted to buy it for the mag. Unfortunately, Galileo
went under shortly after. My brothers, in the kindly, supportive manner of all Irish
brothers, told me the magazine failed because it had bought my story.
Nonetheless, after I had the rights back, I sent it to Stan Schmidt at Analog and . . .
he bought it. Someone actually gave me money for something I had written. Hot
damn. Maybe I could pull it off again. So I pulled out that old story that Campbell
had ripped and Bova had rejected and read it again.
And it still sucked. So I rewrote it again. And this time it worked. Stan bought
"Ashes" for Analog. Somewhere along the way I had learned how to actually
write. Go figure.
SCHWEITZER: So, has your orientation always been toward "hard" (or
scientifically based) science fiction from the start?
FLYNN:: I would say more or less. Both "Slan Libh" and "Ashes" were time
travel stories, and how hard is that? The next two involved 14th century Rhineland
and an alternate world, respectively. I think there were space ships in the fifth one,
which was a parody Western set out near Uranus. I did enjoy the stories in Galaxy
as well as Analog; and even the fantasies that Avram Davidson and others were
writing in F&SF. I have sometimes said that what I write is really more like "high
viscosity" science fiction. I did do some envelope-back calculations for the
Firestar series and for The Wreck of "The River of Stars" but they were mainly to
set the boundaries of what was plausible.
SCHWEITZER: Presumably you were reading Analog for some while before you
sold there. Would you say that your idea of what science fiction is comes largely
from that magazine and the ghost of John W. Campbell?
FLYNN:: I first encountered Analog at a newsstand inside the Northampton
National Bank at 4th and Northampton Streets in Easton while I was waiting to
change buses on my way home from high school. What caught my eye was the
8.5 x 11 format. It was January 1964, which is why I was waiting inside the bank
building rather than out at the bus stop. I picked it up off the newsstand for a
couple of months, then got a subscription, which I've kept ever since.
My idea of science fiction was likely formed in the 1950s, by Heinlein, Asimov,
Clarke, Norton, de Camp, Leinster, van Vogt, Anderson, and others. Heck, I read
Witch World when it was still science fiction. I haunted the paperback racks at
Straup's Drug Store, where I bought just about every SF book that appeared. The
Ace Doubles were a great favorite. Bulmer, Brackett, Chandler, even the early
Samuel R. Delany: The Jewels of Aptor, The Fall of the Towers. Then there were
the annual Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction from Judith Merrill, the Groff
Conklin anthologies, and so on.
Campbell was a big part of the mix, but not likely the biggest part -- except
insofar as many of the authors I read had been influenced by him, one way or
SCHWEITZER: Were you reading SF in the 1960s? What did you make of the
New Wave wars?
FLYNN:: There was a war? Who knew? At the time, I was a reader, not a fan; so
I was not hip to the jive. I read and enjoyed stories like "Day Million," "Repent
Harlequin ...," "Riders of the Purple Wage," "The Last Hurrah of the Golden
Horde," et al., which I suppose were considered New Wave. I've never been too
clear on what the Wave was supposed to consist of. I was outside the bubble, so to
speak, and never even heard about it until after it was over. It does strike me that
nothing has a shorter shelf-life than things that are relentlessly up-to-date, once the
date has passed.
SCHWEITZER: Did you find that, say, the Dangerous Visions books had any
impact on your ideas about what science fiction could be? I am guessing you
probably did not read New Worlds.
I read Dangerous Visions and did not understand what was so dangerous about
them. But then, when someone told me that my novel Firestar was "old
fashioned," I didn't understand what was the problem with that, either. What does
diversity mean if it doesn't mean all sorts of diverse stories and story-telling?
SCHWEITZER: As for more recent movements and such, what did you make of
the cyberpunks? Did you feel any affinity with that?
FLYNN:: I have to admit that cyberpunk, to the extent that it actually described a
coherent thing, did not turn me on. I came more and more to believe that it was not
a possible future. However, George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, which I
think was ur-cyberpunk, was a thoroughly good and serious work. So I still go by
particular books, not by "movements."
SCHWEITZER: And then there's the question of where the future went. Many
commentators (notably Judith Berman) have suggested that science fiction is
turning away from the future, or that it is dealing with yesterday's tomorrow, in
that the typical SF vision of the future stands on Campbellian SF, the Foundation
series, maybe even the Lensman series, and other rather aged constructions. Any
thoughts on this? Do you think that SF is eventually going to have to jettison a lot
of its traditional baggage to remain relevant to younger readers?
FLYNN:: I'm going to suggest that it doesn't matter, since the younger readers
have never read any of that stuff. I once gave a horror story of mine ("Dragons" in
Weird Tales) to the then-secretary in the office where I worked. A reviewer had
said that it used Standard Ending Number Such-and-such, ho-hum. When she
came to the end, the secretary screamed. Out loud. Right there. I was flattered.
You see, she had never read that sort of story before and it blind-sided her
completely. So old-fashioned tropes can seem new to the virgin reader. But then,
the experienced reader likes to see something new and different, too.
I would be happy if younger readers existed, as opposed to younger gamers and
younger watchers. Logos has been fighting a losing battle with Icon - words vs.
pictures - for some time now. Visual media are now more important than print
media. And the medium really is, to some extent, the message. There are things
you can do in print that you cannot do in visuals. (And vice versa, of course.)
Images and poses matter more than plots or scientific plausibility; excitement and
immediacy matter more than textual depth, or the wordplay that New Wave was
supposedly known for. There has been an ongoing loss of attention span in large
segments of the population, and reading requires quiet reflection, not a controller
and quick reflexes. In other words, the competition is not between today's Future
and yesterday's Future. Both are allies in competition with the everlovin' Now.
In fact, I suspect that younger readers would have more trouble with New Wave
stories than Campbellians did. There is nothing so dated as a tomorrow that was
But I have had some odd complaints. "Too many characters. My head hurts." Or
"You spend too much time on character development. I just want content." Are
these canaries in the coal mine?
SCHWEITZER: What happens if I say "Singularity" in your presence?
FLYNN:: New religions are always amusing. See my story "Places Where the
Roads Don't Go" in the recent collection Captive Dreams.
I have sometimes contended that we already went through the Singularity: it lasted
from 1870 to 1920. During that time the daily lives of people in the cities of the
Western World changed more than they ever had before and (to a large extent)
since. To my grandfather, born in 1900, automobiles, telephones, telegraph were
an old hat. There is more of a qualitative difference between not having a car and
having a car than there is between having a Hummer or Prius and having a Model
T. There is a bigger gap between having a telephone and not having a telephone
than there is between having a cell phone and a land line. What happened after
1920? Basically, 1920 became faster, bigger, cheaper, more plentiful. Planes got
faster and lost their propellers. Radios got pictures. Hollerith punch card
tabulators became automated digital computers. The first successful jet airplane
take-off was in 1910. (Unfortunately, the first successful jet landing came much
later.) Holograms were described scientifically, also in 1910. Goddard flew the
first liquid propellant rockets.
Now, I won't defend the conceit indefinitely, because quantity can be a quality all
its own, and it matters that things get faster, cheaper, and so on. You can do things
with an internet that the old internet of telegraph operators and (later) ham radio
people could not do; and more people can do it. (Ham radios were expensive.)
But I do love to turn things backward and upside down. The first time I had lunch
with Stan Schmidt, he asked me if I was working on a new story and I turned my
mind blank and blurted out "psychohistory was invented a hundred years ago." I
don't know where that came from, but I know where it went to: In the Country of
the Blind. I guess, what it means is that to someone from 1920, 1970 would have
been Gosh-Wow but not utterly shocking. But to someone from 1870, 1920 would
have blown him away. When my grandfather was a kid, the Wrights flew at Kitty
Hawk; before he died he watched a man walk on the Moon - on TV, in his living
room. One summer he took care of horses at the rental stable. The next summer,
there was a rental car, too. The summer after that, there were no horses. We now
think rapid change is the norm. We expect it; and to some extent we envision it.
Hmm. Might be that the major tropes of SF were set by what went down in those
seminal 50 years.
But I understand the religious impulses that underlie a lot of the
transhumanist/singularity foo-foo. Rapture for Nerds, and all that. Nietzsche's
search for the Superman continues.
SCHWEITZER: I am reminded of a certain magazine editor, whom I shall not
name, who, when asked why there were no spaceships and planetary scenes on his
covers, remarked, "That would make people think the magazine was devoted to
nostalgia." I think the perception that Firestar is "old-fashioned" is similar to this.
That is, the positive, Campbellian vision of a bunch of can-do guys in spacesuits
conquering, first, the Solar System, then the Galaxy, seems to be based on the SF
of the 40s and 50s, exactly what you and I read when we were growing up. This
gets back to the question of "What happened to 'the future'?" Is this consensus
future something we still believe in?
FLYNN:: It goes back deeper than Campbell. It was the core of the Scientific
Revolution, articulated by Descartes and Francis Bacon and the rest, that science
would henceforth be dedicated to expanding Man's "mastery of the universe."
Look at Boyle's list of the great problems facing science (one is tempted to write
Science™). It reads like a summary of Golden Age SF. In effect, this was the
basic idea of Science that defined the Modern Ages. It was quite different in intent
from medieval science.
I think there has been a genuine turning away from the future in Late Modern
culture. Science is being perceived more and more as a burden on the planet. For
example, in 1989 the American Chemical Society commissioned an exhibit at the
Smithsonian Museum of American History to be called "Science in American
Life." The result was "an exhibition that presented American science as a series of
moral debacles and environmental catastrophes: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Silent
Spring, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the explosion of the space shuttle."
We are now more likely to anticipate what can go wrong than to anticipate what
benefits might accrue from new science and technology. There have been serious
proposals for a board to screen proposed scientific advances before they are
allowed, lest they lead to whatever it is that people fear they may lead to. The
fading of the "can-do guys in spacesuits" is not due to a lack of spacesuits.
SCHWEITZER: Your suggestion that the younger readers aren't going to know
any of the older stuff suggests a profound change in the way science fiction is
published and read. Stop and think about the first SF you read as a kid. Probably
some early Heinlein, some Bradbury, Adventures in Time and Space. Had any of it
been published in your lifetime? But today, it may well be, SF is a blank to most
new readers, who may have grown up with Star Wars and Star Trek, but have no
awareness of the older literature. Doesn't this make the writer's job harder? Either
you have to reinvent everything, or else you have to just go with the Star
Wars/Star Trek vision, which may not be very interesting.
FLYNN:: When I was growing up, we depended on libraries for our reading.
Hence, our reading included older books as well as contemporary. Perhaps that
resulted in a greater sense of continuity with the past. For whatever reason, there is
now more of a focus on the immediate. Gotta keep your eyes on the screen and get
ready to jump or shoot. Many young people cannot watch black-and-white movies,
for example. I don't mean they don't, I mean they seem unable to process black-and-white imagery - all that shadow/focus/angle of shot stuff doesn't register on
their perceptions. You have to learn to see an image, and they never learned to see
In one sense, the writer's job is harder. We are writing in a visual age, not a verbal
age. We are writing science fiction in an age when science is being viewed with
growing suspicion. But in another sense, it may be easier. We can revisit older
themes with a new perspective.
Longer term, I'm more hopeful. There have always been renaissances, when the
values of the past have been resurrected.
SCHWEITZER: Do you think younger readers are still reading SF? What sense
do you get from fanmail or whatever who your readers are?
FLYNN:: I don't think they are, at least if attendance at SF cons is any sort of
indicator. The younger crowd, when they read, seems more attuned to fantasy and
horror. If they read SF, it is more attuned to Late Modern Hollywood sensibilities
- and special effects work better in a visual medium than in a written one. But this
is simply an unexamined impression, not something I've given a lot of study to.
Just what I see at cons and the like, and that may not be -- probably is not --
typical even of SF readers. In any case, I don't write for younger readers myself in
the sense of targeting that audience, although it may be that there are teenagers
who do read my stuff.
Fan mail is a thing of the past. I used to get some in the early days -- in the 80s
and 90s, but receive very little now. No one writes letters. It's all tweeting and
such. Since I had a full-time job until the past couple years, I never had time for
that. I have a blog now, and get some reactions via the comm box. But most of
those I do hear from tend not to be young readers. I recently received a fan-comment from a reader of On the Razor's Edge from a user whose on-line picture
looks to be in his 30s. He describes himself as "a Catholic anarcho-capitalist
software-engineering business-owner" who enjoys "blacksmithing, guitar playing,
wood turning, gourmet cooking, throwing ceramic pots, and a few other things."
Whatever else he might be, a kid he is not. At a recent reading/book signing there
was a young woman in attendance, but she was there because her parents were
SCHWEITZER: Do we have the historical perspective to say we are "Late
Modern"? Did the people of the 4th century know "We're living in the Late Roman
Empire"? That seems to imply that you know some big change is coming, which
will sweep the current state of affairs away. Could this be the Singularity creeping
up on us again?
FLYNN:: No, but the people of the 5th may have had an inkling. Augustine
certainly knew, and didn't really need the Vandals at the gates of Carthage to tell
him. One can identify certain "twilight" attitudes among the writers of Late
Antiquity. The turn-around in the 10th century may have crept in on stealthy cats'-feet, but there was also an awareness of an awakening spreading across
Carolinigian Europe. Likewise, the 15th century, the "autumn of the Middle Ages,"
when they quite self-consciously called themselves the Renaissance. Starting in
the 19th century, there was a rising historical consciousness due to the development
of history from a branch of literature (and propaganda) into a profession. Starting
in the 1950s, certain thinkers began to notice signs of a Zeitgeist shift, if I may call
it that. Barzun, in The House of Intellect, Lukacs in The Passing of the Modern
Age, Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead, and so on. It is much easier to recognize the
change because we are on the far side of it now. I don't want to make too stark a
thing of it -- there is always more evolution than revolution, especially on the
time-scale of a single lifetime -- but the flip between 1870 to 1970 was certainly a
sea change in the West. Sometimes it is only looking back that one realizes how
different things have become. (Think of Augustine's comment that while at one
time no one would be caught dead wearing anything but a toga, in his day the well-dressed man would wear nothing else but a dalmatic.) It was only by the late 19th
century that the terms artist and scientist appeared in common use, and artist and
artisan parted company and took distinct meanings. (This is why DaVinci was
neither an artist nor a scientist in the Late Modern sense.) During the Modern
Ages, progress changed from forward spatial motion to mean improvement over
time, but it is now often used ironically or with scare quotes.
One example: while art and literature in the Middle Ages was marked by allegory -
by the 15th century it was "All Allegory, All the Time" - the Modern Ages were
marked by realism. Art tried to depict things as they really were, not in a
photographic sense, of course, but artists from the Renaissance to the Victorians
tried to portray things realistically. There are some stunning ceiling frescoes at
Melk Abbey or the Doge's Palace that, from a certain point in the room, are three-freaking-dimensional. Once the "Perspective Revolution" had achieved its
perfection, artists could only do it again and again. By Victorian times they were
still imitating Renaissance tropes. Eventually, this repetition becomes fatuous, and
you just gotta try something different. So, surrealism, the Armory Show,
impressionism, and (inaptly-named) "Modern" Art.
Literature ran the same way. The success of natural science at depicting the natural
world, led authors as well as artists to try to do the same. Thus the appeal to all
five senses, the lush descriptions, details of clothing and meals, the omniscient
narrator, and so on. Prior to the movies and TVs, authors had to describe things in
detail because their readers had not likely seen them. But this sort of thing is
harder to pull off with words than with images. Renaissance literature is well-nigh
unreadable today. Quick, name three immortal Renaissance authors. As the visual
media began to flourish, we discovered "show, don't tell," "describe the thumb
well enough that the reader thinks he has seen the entire hand," and other retreats
from a warts-and-all Total Realism. Science Fiction itself represents part of the
retreat. It portrays worlds that are patently unreal. Classic SF art and writing
remains realist, perhaps to compensate for surrealistic content. But writers have
begun to experiment with non-linear styles, minimalism, and other such things.
Perhaps the New Wave can also be imagined as a reactionary experiment. But
recall that even in the sciences, most experiments are failures.
We don't know what might come out the other end of the sausage machine: but
someone sometime soon will create the Don Quixote of interactive fiction, a new
kind of narrative art. Readers will become Users, and participants in the fiction.
Setting will become more important that Plot or Character.
The end of an age is not a good thing. Neither is it a bad thing. It is only a thing.
SCHWEITZER: If we, Americans, have lost the can-do attitude and have become
a service culture, does that mean the Moon and Mars will be colonized by the
Chinese or the Indians? I do notice that their cultures are considerably older than
FLYNN:: Good question. The Spiral Arm series implicitly supposes that
interstellar culture was dominated first by the Chinese, then by Indians. The lingua
franca of the Commonwealth was for many centuries Tamil and people often have
names like Krishna Murphy and Teodorq sunna Nagarajan. The old cultures that
stifled China and India and prevented the rise of modern science there may yet
reassert themselves and quash the future; but it may also be that they have been
sufficiently Westernized -- which is to say "modernized" -- that there is no going
back. A fire may die out in one locale but spring up in another. Both civilizations
have begun making their marks in science. And they may see the future in the
same way Western kids once did in the 30s and 50s. They are still "Gosh-Wow,"
and not yet "Whatever."
SCHWEITZER: Would a renaissance of science fiction involve resurrecting the
values of past science fiction, or creating new values which actually address the
present culture and what we see coming?
FLYNN:: Renaissances always involve resurrections. But just as there was science
in the medieval period and will be in the after-modern period (whatever they will
called it), it will not be Modern Science. That is, it will not be done in the same
old Baconian-Cartesian way. Medieval science emphasized final causes and an
understanding of how everything in the world worked together. Modern science
emphasized efficient causes and a knowledge of how to build useful products and
dominate the universe. Hence, medieval scientists were art critics and modern
scientists were crypto-engineers. In the next age, they may well be PR flacks, in
which Science (New Style) carries water for its Funding Source. Who knows?
The same goes for science fiction. If people see science as putting on a white lab
coat to push a social-political agenda, it may not capture their imaginations quite so
thoroughly as going to the moon. Horace once asked what use are empty laws
without traditions to animate them? The same applies to literature. Resurrecting
past values is empty unless those values still have appeal. (And that applies
equally well to rebellion and reaction against those values. Chesterton once
challenged his readers to think blasphemous thoughts of Thor.) A civilization
perishes with the type of person who brought it forth.
SCHWEITZER: In light of this, what do you make of Steampunk? That seems to
address the past, but not in a realistic way.
FLYNN:: Yes, it is part of the retreat from realism. It goes along with the
tendency in the movies where people can outrun explosions simply because it is
visually exciting. Several other SF writers and I had an unnerving experience
advising on a TV documentary that wanted to do an alien invasion "as it might
really happen." But in each and every case they opted for an incorrect or absurd
choice that had more visual punch.
Even when modern fantasy evokes pseudo-Medieval patterns, it does so from a
Modern perspective. You can no longer write a story set in the past, for example,
in which women are not kick-ass "can-do" women who are their own person. The
Late Modern reader simply can't process it, no matter how historically correct it
might be. Unless it is set intentionally in contrast to Late Modern ideas. We've
already seen Umberto Eco subvert the Modern detective novel with The Name of
the Rose, in which all the sleuth's deductions are logical and achieve a correct
result, but all the intermediate reasoning is utterly wrong. Similarly, science
fiction in the future will view science without the admittedly rather rose-colored
glasses of the Modern Ages.
SCHWEITZER: If we no longer have young readers, is this necessarily a bad
thing as long as people turn to reading science fiction in middle age? Years ago I
saw the results of a reader survey for the Davis magazines, Asimov's Analog,
Ellery Queen's, and Alfred Hitchcock's. The average readers of the SF magazines
were in their 30s. The average readers of the mystery magazines were in their 50s.
Well there is no shortage of people turning 30, or 50, every day. The million dollar
question is whether today's 20-year-olds who read manga and play videogames
will turn to reading texts (maybe as e-books) when they get older.
FLYNN:: There may be something to that. But was the average SF reader in his
30s during the 1930s? Or is it still largely the same cohorts that have always read
SF aging in place. Of course, there are always new readers coming along, which is
why the SF readership doesn't age at the rate of one year/year. But I recollect an
explanation of why the "older generation" votes in higher percentages than the
younger ones: and that was that that generation always voted in higher proportion,
even when they were younger, and have simply continued to do so, whichever age
bracket they occupied.
Now to some extent I suppose I'm being deliberately contrarian. It goes with the
Flynnish nature for us to take a different point of view. I am told that my great-grandfather's hobby was getting into arguments in bars, and it didn't matter to him
which side he took. I don't know how apocryphal that was, but there is always
something about consensus that makes me want to look at a thing from a different
point of view. When all the bobble heads start bobbing the same way, it's time for
SCHWEITZER: I think what we've seen in SF over the past 40-some years is the
Baby Boomer demographic moving through the market. When the Baby Boomers
were kids, they bought paperbacks. Heinlein or Asimov books were not bestsellers,
but they sold solidly in paperback, year in and year out. By the 1980s, this
readership was in its thirties, and able to buy a new hardcover when it came out. I
think what we've seen in SF over the past 40-some years is the Baby Boomer
demographic moving through the market. When the Baby Boomers were kids, they
bought paperbacks. Heinlein or Asimov books were not bestsellers, but they sold
solidly in paperback, year in and year out. By the 1980s, this readership was in its
thirties, and able to buy a new hardcover when it came out. So when Foundation's
Edge came out in 1982 it was a bona fide bestseller. Books by Herbert, Heinlein,
McCaffrey, etc., did the same. Suddenly science fiction books were not a generic
product in which anything with a science fiction cover sold about as well as
anything else with a science fiction cover, but actual bestsellers became possible.
This changed the field forever. I think the question is what will happen when that
Baby Boomer demographic is gone. What do you think? At the very least it seems
Ender's Game and its sequels is being read by a younger-than-Baby-Boomer
FLYNN:: I think that may be what my rambling was getting toward. Like I said, it
was mostly off the top of my head, and science fiction will likely survive the end
of the Modern world. It's just that it might not be the same sort of science fiction,
since future generations will not likely share the same bold, futuristic outlook.
However, there will always be some percentage who do and in a large enough
population, there may be enough to sustain the genre.
SCHWEITZER: Let's talk about your latest work. (Product placement time here.)
Tell us something about your new novel On the Razor's Edge. It is the conclusion
of a trilogy, so also say something about the other two.
FLYNN:: Actually, it's the fourth book in the Spiral Arm series, but the first book,
The January Dancer, can be considered more of a prelude. The main body of that
story concerns the efforts of a variety of players who obtain or seek to obtain
possession of a valuable prehuman artifact, the eponymous Dancer. Some don't
know what they have; others know exactly what they are trying to get their hands
on -- including several characters who re-appear in the later books. The
hunt/chase extends all across the United League of the Periphery and attracts the
attention of agents of the rival Confederation of Central Worlds.
The other three books are more directly connected and take place twenty years and
more after the events of the Dancer.
In Up Jim River, Bridget ban has gone missing. She is a Hound, an agent of the
ULP, and had gone out on a quest without telling the Kennel where she was going
-- she didn't know exactly, herself -- and so the Kennel has no idea where to look
and have given up. Her daughter, Mearana, thinks she may have a clue and enlists
the aid of the scarred man to help track her down. The scarred man, a Terran, was
once an agent of the CCW, but his mind has been divvied up into multiple
personalities that don't always get along with one another. Their search takes them
to the rowdy planets of La Frontera, where they pick up further clues, and
eventually into the Wild, planets beyond the ULP that have retrogressed into
barbarian states. The problem is not whether the scarred man can work and play
well with others, but whether he can work and play well with himself.
In the Lion's Mouth concerns the vanishing of Donovan buigh. Ravn Olafsdottr, a
Confederal Shadow -- the counterpart of the Hounds from the other side of the
Rift -- enters the stronghold of a Hound who has been directing a search for
Donovan and recounts how she kidnapped Donovan and took him across the Rift
to assist in a civil war among the Shadows. (The Lion's Mouth is the name of the
Kennel's counterpart. It's the academy and directorate for the Shadows.) The
Shadow War is a clandestine one, and is waged "in the shadows" so neither the
ruling Names nor the military "boots" are aware of it. Shadows don't like anyone
getting in their business, even their own nominal bosses. Donovan supposedly
knows some key information that will assist one of the sides. Unfortunately, he
does not know that he knows it, and various Shadows attempt -- or threaten -- to
stimulate his memory while the other side would be more than happy to assassinate
him if they learn he is back in the CCW.
The new book, On the Razor's Edge, picks up where Lion's Mouth leaves off. In
fact, it was originally the second half of that novel. But thematically and
narratively it marked a distinct break from the first half, so we decided to make it a
separate book. In it, a pack of Hounds is dispatched into the CCW to rescue
Mearana, the daughter of Bridget ban (and Donovan en passant) as well as to study
certain artifacts which have come to their attention. The CCW's directorate for
suppression of technology has custody of certain innovations that have been
permitted only to the Names and selected Shadows, and the Kennel would very
much like to know what's up. Ravn has taken Mearana to Terra, where Donovan is
being held and all of them -- rebel and loyal Shadows, Donovan buigh, Mearana,
the pack of Hounds, and the Names themselves -- are heading for a collision with
their own histories. And everything you thought you knew is wrong.
SCHWEITZER: And what are you working on now?
FLYNN:: The trilogy of Up Jim River, In the Lion's Mouth, and On the Razor's
Edge complete a character arc for Bridget ban, Donovan buigh, and Mearana. But
there is still room for other stories in the Spiral Arm. I have some notes for a story
titled "The Seven Widows"and I've been writing novelettes concerning Teodorq
sunna Nagarajan, a wildman from Up Jim River who was hired as a bodyguard by
Donovan and Mearana. The first story, "The Journeyman: On the Shortgrass
Prairie" appeared in Analog, and two others are in the can or nearly so: "The
Journeyman: In the Stone House" and "The Journeyman: Against the Green."
There are several other stories planned in the cycle.
There was also recently a collection Captive Dreams, which included three old
stories and three new stories written especially for the collection. The conceit is
that each story involves a different resident in the same neighborhood in a
suburban New Jersey township. The roads form a ring around a woodland and
their house lots encircle it. Characters from one story may show up tangentially in
another; but each story is completely independent of the others. The new stories
are entitled "Hopeful Monsters," "Buried Hopes," and "Places Where the Roads
Don't Go." The latter involves a mathematician, a philosopher, and a computer
scientist in the quest for transhumanism.
As to current projects, in addition to the Journeyman stories, I have been writing a
stand-alone novel, The Shipwrecks of Time. It concerns tantalizing hints found in
Old Books, Old Film, and Old Bones, in a story that runs from a scholar in 14th
century Freiburg-im-Breisgau to historical researchers in 1960s Milwaukee, a
documentary film maker in 1980s Denver, and a police detective in contemporary
small town Pennsylvania. I am nearly finished with the section Old Books. The
far future of the Spiral Arm, I can make up. But 1965-67 in Milwaukee was a real
milieu, and I have to be careful of what movies were out, what music was popular,
and what was or was not possible. No hand calculators or DNA testing, no
Miranda warning, Selectric typewriters were new, and the Xerox photocopier was
just coming on the market. There was in 1965 no term "male chauvinist," and
every summer the ghettos burned. Finding the historical truth amidst centuries-old
documents and books is not easy, even if you think you know what you're looking
for. The artifacts of the past that have survived are the flotsam and jetsam of the
shipwrecks of time. The historian has only a collection of dots, and it is up to him
to connect them.
Another possible project is -- wait for it -- a medieval fantasy, The Chieftain. It is
set in 1224 in Connaught, the westernmost kingdom of Ireland, when two sets of
O'Conner cousins fought for the white wand. The Annals say that among those
who remained loyal to Hugh mac Cathal O'Conner were "Cormac McDermot,
David O'Flynn, and the rest of his officers." It was David O'Flynn who caught my
attention and he is the chieftain of the title. Many of the characters and events are
attested in the Annals -- and even some of the fantastic elements. It was Ireland,
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Michael.