Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Damien Broderick
by Darrell Schweitzer
Damien Broderick was born in Melbourne in 1944. His early novels The
Dreaming Dragons (1980) and The Judas Mandala (1982) established him as one
of the leading talents in Australian science fiction. Some of his other novels
include The Black Grail, Quipu, The White Abacus, Transcension, the diptych
Godplayers and K-Machines, I'm Dying Here and Human's Burden (both with
Rory Barnes), Post Mortal Syndrome (with Barbara Lamar) and Beyond the Doors
of Death (with Robert Silverberg).
He's done two volumes of radio dramas plus one movie script, Restore Point and
Gaia to Galaxy.
His popular science book The Spike (1997) is one of the first works to address the
now very popular subject of the coming technological Singularity. He edited Year
Million, a best-selling study of humanity's far future prospects.
His awards include five Ditmar Awards and four Aurealis Awards. He was a
runner up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and tied for second place
for the Theodore Sturgeon Award.
His critical writings about science fiction and other topics include x, y, z, t:
Dimensions of Science Fiction (2004), Ferocious Minds: Polymathy and the New
Enlightenment (2005) and Unleashing the Strange (2009).
He now lives in San Antonio, Texas.
SCHWEITZER: Tell me something about your background, who you are, where
you grew up.
BRODERICK: If I tell you I was born in late April, what does this convey? The
uncertain warmth of mid-spring? Here in San Antonio, Texas, just 70 years later,
the weather has rather abruptly gone from near freezing nights to sweaty days in
the Fahrenheit 100s. But in Melbourne, Australia, my birthplace, it is the cooling
slope into chilled rainy winter, and the dry blistering heat of Christmas is months
behind. The door into summer opens into its opposite, and winter frolics fill the
middle of the year. So by the customs of the world I now inhabit, with my Texan
wife Barbara, I'm alien as a Martian.
Doubly-alien, though, since I grew up inside futures told and drawn and acted by
Brits and Americans, a smorgasbord, a goulash of flavors that had nothing much
in common with my dull working class Australian suburb, my dismal schools. I
lived for the fantastical comic strip adventures in newspapers and radio serials
(this being years before not only computer immersion but even TV): Mandrake the
Magician, Brick Bradford, radio fare scarcely anyone alive now remembers, but
rich with mile-long starships and travels into past and future. American kids got
that in pulp magazines; Aussies didn't have such access to the universe of dreams
(although, intriguingly, one of those radio serial starships was impelled by
something called the Dream Drive). Those memories later helped fuel radio plays
of my own.
My father was a skilled toolmaker spared from the mayhem of war for "essential
service" by his expertise and his flat feet, my mother a "housewife" (as the term
went then) eventually with six kids in a cramped outer suburban house, having
abandoned her first year of university due to some crisis. They were Catholics and
ardent anti-communists but supporters of a kind of conservative social movement
also skeptical of the virtues of capitalism. As a trade union organizer, my father
spent much of his non-working time saving Australia from the Red menace, with
occasional trips to the races, the football or the cricket with a few pals. So I grew
up mostly in the company of my articulate and circumstance-throttled rather
brilliant mother, and then one squalling brat after another.
Neither parent had much time for reading, but I was allowed to join a somewhat
distant library, and not quite forbidden to buy second-hand books, although there
was a panic in the early 1950s that comic books might give you polio, then still an
appalling threat. As it turned out, I'd already got rheumatic fever at 5, and spent
months in hospital and an aftercare institution, seldom seeing my parents, bored
and terrified: an experience not all that dissimilar to events in the early childhood
of many sf readers and writers. It disrupted my schooling, and I never quite caught
up. By the age of 12, I was regarded as too lazy, undisciplined and perhaps dull to
warrant serious education, so was shunted off for three years to a slum trade
school. I escaped that dreariness by finding a "vocation" to the priesthood (abetted
by a state-implemented day-long IQ+aptitude test where I scored so ridiculously
well that much hand-wringing ensued).
Two years immersed in a near-rural monastery made a man of me -- and finding
the sf fan John Baxter in the same small town (his name and address were in a
letter to the imported British magazine New Worlds), and borrowing his stash of
imported sf paperbacks, matured my imagination in the sf worlds and tropes I'd
become devoted to via the derivative stuff available to me from ages 10 or 12
through 15 (the equivalent, for the 1950s, of Star Trek and Star Wars and all the
other simplified worlds of mass consumption). But even that is too schematic: in
the late 1950s, I'd already managed to borrow mind-blowing novels and story
collections by Alfred Bester, James Blish, Leigh Brackett, John Brunner, Arthur
Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt . . . most of the usual
But by then I'd also started writing in the same ecosphere of the imagination.
What else could a bright kid do?
SCHWEITZER: Did you always think you would be a science fiction writer?
What got you started?
BRODERICK: When I was a kid with most of my head inside spaceships and
time machines, I doubt that I ever thought about what I'd be doing in that
wondrous future -- maybe because I knew it was too remote to be plausible for
me. I knew I didn't want to be on a process line in a factory, or a drone in the
public service, or a school teacher. Eventually I had to sign up, though, to train as
a teacher. That was the only way to pay for my degree in English and Philosophy
and History. I quickly lost patience with that prospect, and wangled my way out of
the contract that would have forced me to teach for several years.
That left me penniless, so I did the usual stints in holidays, sold coffee in a campus
nook, coedited the Monash university student paper Lot's Wife (which I'd named)
for a pittance, and found I could dash off short sf stories for local men's magazines
earning enough to scrape by. It was easy, I'd read so much by then that I could do
it on my ear. I also tried some stories with a bit more ambition, and sold my first
long piece to John Carnell when I was 19. I'd mailed it to him as editor of New
Worlds but he'd just been replaced by Moorcock, so he bought my novella as the
closing item in his original anthology New Writings in SF 1. It was as clumsy as
you'd expect, but did prove to me that I could get published by a professional sf
editor. My first short story collection came out when I was 21.
And then I stopped, more or less. For about a decade. Weird.
That's not entirely true. I kept selling stories and articles to Aussie magazines (and
eventually took over editing one of them, for a few months). Some university
friends started a pop music weekly and I joined in for a while. I tried to sell a
somewhat New Wavy novel, The Judas Mandala. Fred Pohl wrote that he'd buy it,
since he'd had success with other difficult books like Delany's Dhalgren and
Russ's The Female Man, then followed that with a note rescinding the offer.
What the hell. I cobbled together a few early stories into a complicated "time
opera" I titled The Gestalt Machine, built on the kitchen sink principle. It went to
David Hartwell at Pocket Books (in 1970 for Signet, he'd published my limping
first novel under the odious title Sorcerer's World) and it became The Dreaming
Dragons. Imagine my surprise when David Pringle included it in his list of the 100
best sf novels in English, and it was runner-up for the Campbell Memorial award.
Thus, the start of the 1980s. I travelled briefly to the US, stayed in New York with
editor John Douglas and his wife Ginger Buchanan rewriting Mandala for
Hartwell, and it was published in 1982 just as the Pocket Books imprint
Timescape sank like a deflated Zeppelin.
What am I leaving out? Oh, scads of living, moving from Melbourne to Sydney
and back, girlfriends and broken hearts, years researching parapsychology (hey,
thanks, John W. Campbell, Jr.!), a belated PhD in the semiotics of science and
literature (then turning the dissertation into three quite different academic books).
So it goes. I kept writing, and editing, and the books piled up, so that now I'm
edging into about my 60th book publication. I've had stories in Year's Best
volumes, and won a number of Australian sf awards. But somehow I have an
unsettling sense that almost nobody has heard of me, or read my stuff. It's eerie.
Maybe it's because I'm as alien as a Martian.
SCHWEITZER: It sounds like you must have felt a bit like a Martian in
BRODERICK: An outsider, certainly, in Camus's sense. I was a skinny,
asthmatic kid before albuterol inhalers were invented, so I violated the social rules
by playing no team sports and declining to march in the cadet corps. Being a
bookworm didn't win many friends, either. Many years later, with effective
medications available, I started running and weight-lifting, and put on muscles in
places they'd never been before; but I remained a fairly introverted INTJ nerd,
immersed in my imagination and the brilliant, endless cosmos of the sciences. Part
of that is temperament -- I'm attracted to solitude, and since the arrival of the
interwebs a lot of my communication with other humans has been electronic.
Never had kids -- although since my marriage 12 years ago I do have a charming
stepdaughter who lives, however, in the wilds of Nevada with her geologist
husband -- so I missed the whole PTA/sporting team parent/church sociality
aspect of being an adult. Well, actively avoided being a father rather than "Oops
-- I forgot to have kids!" My father and I had a deeply distrustful and antagonistic
relationship, so I didn't want to risk replicating that into another generation.
Curiously, quite a few of the Aussie sf fans I've known for years also chose to be
childless. And being a sometimes impatient and scathing atheist can give one a
rather Martian cast in a world of largely inherited belief and "sacred wisdom"
handed down from the Stone Age . . .
SCHWEITZER: Isn't this alienation the fate of any writer, anywhere? And
obscurity. Unless you're George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, or Stephen King,
chances are nobody has heard of you, except a small circle of cognoscenti. I point
out that in the US we have a population of -- what is it? -- 350 million or so, and
a science fiction novel that sells 5000 copies in hardcover is pretty average. That
suggests a reading public the size of that of Lichtenstein.
BRODERICK: Dismal, isn't it? Then reflect that Australia has a population only
one fourteenth that of the US. That's why most of my professional sf compatriots
wrote for US or British markets, which imposed an extra layer of distance, since
our voices and vernacular tend to be skewed into a parody of American accents, as
is the case with most of our Hollywood-imported actors: Nicole Kidman, Cate
Blanchett, Naomi Watts, Hugh Jackman, Mel Gibson, Eric Bana, Simon Baker,
many more. I'd rather not be a fake New Yorker or Californian -- or even Texan.
So the options narrow, even on Mars; you're inevitably a stranger in a strange
land. The upside is a dangerous shift in the angle of vision, the tang of the strange,
the curious lure of exogamy (as critic John Clute might put it) . . .
SCHWEITZER: So, do you think moving to the US has made you more visible
as a writer, or less?
BRODERICK: I doubt anything has changed. In Melbourne (and Adelaide, and
Sydney, and Perth) I was part of a community of writers and fan readers, but the
country is as huge as the US and the sf audience vastly dispersed around the edges
of a continent-sized desert. Coming to Texas mostly meant it was much cheaper to
mail submissions to the magazines that wouldn't accept emailed fiction (Asimov's,
in particular, a decade ago), but even that has changed now. We're all in touch
wherever we are, all the time if we wish. The single aspect of the tyranny of
distance removed by living here is the ease of getting to conventions and
schmoozing with other writers and editors by flying halfway across the country
rather than halfway around the world. But I rarely do that anyway. Much more fun
to swap gossip and limericks on email lists like Fictionmags, where you and I and
a hundred or so others hang out most days.
SCHWEITZER: No sense of Big Frog in Small Pond vs. Ordinary Sized Frog in
Large Pond when you moved to America?
BRODERICK: Maybe, but the ponds have merged. Sean Williams wrote, among
more ambitious work, Star Wars novels that went to No. 1 on the NYT bestseller
list. Sean McMullen is a solid favorite among Analog habitués and others. Garth
Nix is a fantasy by-word. Greg Egan, at the extravagant end of the scale, is one of
the most important sf innovators in the world. Aussie women writers such as the
late Sara Douglass, Trudi Canavan, Kim Wilkins, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Kate
Forsyth, are known across the globe, mostly working within fantasy tropes.
Granted, I moan that I feel invisible, and by comparison with the fantasy
megasellers I am -- but I've also received the Distinguished Scholarship Award of
the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, been runner up several
times in major US sf jury awards (Campbell Memorial, Sturgeon), collaborated on
a novel (Beyond the Doors of Death) with Grand Master Robert Silverberg. I
doubt that I'll ever be in the running for a Hugo, which these days seems to track
social media visibility and bloc votes for popular series, but there are plenty of
astonishingly good USians and especially Brits in the same boat.
SCHWEITZER: You are accredited with discovering the Singularity before
almost anyone. So, if the future is to be so transformed that it is incomprehensible
by today's standards, how do you write about it?
BRODERICK: In the mid-1980s I picked up on Vernor Vinge's insight into
accelerating technological change as an inevitable tsunami that would alter
everything, and wrote the first popular science treatment of the idea (The Spike) in
1996; it came out in Australia in 1997, with an updated edition in New York in
2001. But like quite a few other skiffy types, I'd been clued into it much earlier,
reading Heinlein's account of the soaring curve of change published in Galaxy
magazine way back in 1952, and other pundits making similar claims in the 1960s.
Look, for anyone over 50, I'd guess the present is already incomprehensible, at
least in patches that are opening out under our feet into chasms. You can deal with
it as Australia's Greg Egan, does: flinging the reader into richly dense thought
experiments probing the nature of consciousness under ruthless attack. Or with the
brio of Britain's Charlie Stross in his marvelous Singularity fix-up novel
Accelerando, with its multiplexing leaps into endless complexity and fun. Or, of
course, with work-arounds like Vinge's own singularity fiction: stranding
recognizable people in the aftermath of an Omega Point, or rejigging the galaxy
into Zones with different laws. I did versions of the Omega solution in
Transcension and (with my frequent co-author Rory Barnes) The Hunger of Time.
But yes, it is a daunting narrative cliff hanging upward into the dazzling, eye-watering sky behind your word processor.
SCHWEITZER: I notice that a lot of contemporary SF does indeed seem to shy
away from actually writing about the future, ducking into alternate history or
Steampunk instead. Threat or menace? Do you think readers are still actually
interested in speculating about the future, or are they growing increasingly afraid
BRODERICK: I'm torn, Darrell. A wise old owl (my friend and sometime
collaborator John Boston) tells us: "It's the penalty of success. Once, we thought
that it was unjust that we were a ridiculed minority, and everybody should read SF.
Then they did, and look what happened." Not that they read science fiction: they
watched the stories from the 1930s and 1940s recycled in 45 minute simplified
serialized segments on TV, and then in expensive movie screen special effects,
and then in spectacular high kinetic shooters and other computer games. Pretty
much every sophisticated narrative and challenging invention of the mode of sf
was ignored, too difficult to convey in those dazzling adrenergic modes of
storytelling. And even as everyone kept saying (apologetically, these days, rather
than jeeringly), "Sorry, I don't read sci-fi myself," half or more of the most
fabulously successful and expensive movies viewed by billions were exactly that
-- "sci-fi" or fantasy, gaudy adventures, most of them, or Phil Dick's resonant,
hilarious paranoid visions vulgarized into car chases and explosions.
And somehow out of these seething cauldrons came . . . the revival of epic fantasy
in 12-part trilogies, immensely immersive entertainments, some of them as rich in
world-building as anything sf had ever created. Mostly I can live without them,
but I see the attraction for the many, many readers whose favorites now fill up the
library shelves inaccurately marked as SCI-FI.
Is this turn a denial of change, a refusal to face a possible singularity future a
century away, or much sooner? Maybe. But hey, fantastika has always been a
broad church. John W. Campbell, genre-changing editor of Astounding a.k.a.
Analog, was also the creator of Unknown, the delicious 1940s venue for fantasy
that followed laws of magic as ruthless as the cold equations of his sf, often
written by the same people. Campbell famously (and, to many readers, deplorably)
also championed science fiction centered on psi powers and their quandaries --
telepathy, precognition, other wild talents. He argued, of course, that these topics
were not fantastical. If anything, classic sf tropes such as time travel, hyperspace
star voyages, superintelligence were far more fanciful. At any rate, psychic
abilities persist these days as a staple of fantasy, so it might be asserted that the
pleasures of Golden Age fantastika have been reborn in a form better adapted to a
time of increasingly insecure and alarming (if exhilarating) technological change.
I should add that one of the two big projects I've just finished is a co-edited
original anthology of essays on mind uploading and machine intelligence by
leading AI theorists and ethicists (Intelligence Unbound, with Russell Blackford).
The other is a comprehensive introduction to the strongest empirical findings in
parapsychology (Evidence for Psi, with Ben Goertzel). Meanwhile, my two latest
fiction sales are fantasies: "-- And Your Little Dog, Too," co-written with Rory
Barnes, in which twin brothers alternate between human and doggy form, and
that's before things get weird, and "The Unheimlich Maneuver," where young
Sigmund Freud in a Tesla-powered alternative history suffers the horror of E.T.A.
Hoffmann's classic tale, "The Sandman." Strange real science on the cutting edge
meets strange unreal fantasy inside my head, and then inside the reader's . . . Bon
SCHWEITZER: Did you pick up your interest in psi from John W. Campbell?
BRODERICK: Campbell deliberately adopted the role of sf gadfly, darting about,
stinging readers out of their mid-century complacency with brilliant and shocking
insights as well as quite stupid and sometimes offensive propositions. Reading his
editorials in Astounding was a hazardous tonic. Inevitably, his contrarian strategy
seized upon claims that ESP had been demonstrated at a Duke University lab by
Dr. J.B. Rhine and his colleagues. Here was a notion that fed straight into the nerd
wishes of his audience, captured in the slogan "Fans are Slans," taking A.E. van
Vogt's 1940s telepathic superman story as a consoling and energizing parable of
the spurned secret geniuses who read Astounding during their lunch breaks. Many
of his stable of competent writers were happy to recycle this obsession into fiction,
and that was fun, but I never took it literally, any more than I expected to grow
slannish tendrils or become part of a galactic conspiracy of psychohistorians. The
tragic side of Campbell's crankery was his endorsement of L. Ron Hubbard's
Dianetics, a bogus pseudo-engineering approach to what's now called "personal
growth," that grew into a toxic scam. Other nutty ideas promoted by Campbell
were the Dean Drive, an asymmetrical rotating gadget that allegedly lifted itself
against gravity, and the Hieronymus Machine, which functioned with just a wiring
diagram instead of electronic parts, proving that the world worked by Will and
Idea, or something.
Was I seduced by this barrage of entertaining lunacy into believing in psi powers?
No, but it might have fertilized the soil (so to speak). What actually happened was
rather the reverse. Sick at home one time when I was 13 or 14, I was galvanized to
read a book my mother brought home for me from the local library: Rhine's The
Reach of the Mind, about lab studies of psychokinesis ("mind over matter") and
other purported psi abilities. What? These phenomena, which I'd always assumed
were about as plausible as genies offering three wishes or trees sprouting money
instead of leaves, were real? Tested and confirmed in laboratories? I had to know
more. I quickly learned that the anomalous effects were mostly tiny, and skittish. If
there were any reliably psychic supermen, they hadn't made it to Dr. Rhine's
office. After a few months playing with cards, and one truly startling result, I
packed the whole thing away as a folly. It wasn't until I became friendly with a
psychologist who'd done some research into psi that I got intrigued again -- and
spent most of the 1970s trying to use signal detection theory to optimize this
small, fleeting effect. My approach was impelled by a serious article on the topic
in . . . Analog, November 1969. So really I can blame Campbell after all.
SCHWEITZER: I note you have written serious science books about psi.
BRODERICK: I have published two books on the topic (and co-edited a third).
The Lotto Effect investigated whether there's any evidence for precognition in
lottery results (where you might expect it to blaze up like a searchlight; it doesn't,
bad luck). Outside the Gates of Science is a pop but accurate report on major
research efforts by scientists, with special emphasis on the 20 year US government
Star Gate psi program, long classified. I had the good fortune to become friends
with the scientific director of Star Gate, Dr. Edwin May, and other experts such as
Stephan Schwartz (who established that psi could mediate a message from a
submarine, and helped develop rigorous remote viewing protocols), Dr. Dean
Radin (who pioneered work in "presentiment," physiological forerunner responses
detectable in advance of a random stimulus), Dr. Julia Mossbridge (whose work
on presentiment is proving further evidence for this baffling phenomenon), and
Joe McMoneagle (an impressively accurate remote viewer from the military
operational program). The new anthology, Evidence for Psi, is intended as the first
volume of The Science of Psi, with The Physics of Psi to follow.
SCHWEITZER: David Pringle in his Science Fiction: The Hundred Best Novels,
1949-1984 (as you mentioned) said of The Dreaming Dragons, "This is the best
Australian science fiction novel I know." If we take that sentence apart carefully,
we wonder if the qualifier "Australian" makes part of a much smaller subset, or is
he defining it in terms of novels which address specifically Australian content?
This gets back to the big pond/little pond idea again. What do you think is virtue
and use of national identity in a science fiction novel? The book is, after all, about
something larger than nations.
BRODERICK: Luckily for my self-esteem, David Pringle cited that comment in
his Foreword to Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010, by Paul Di
Filippo and me, and added: "that sounds belittling in retrospect -- the book was
much more than that." Phew.
Actually, I think David did refer to the restricted context of the quite small number
of sf novels available from Aussies until about 30 years ago. On the other hand,
the book (which I've renamed The Dreaming in recent editions, to remove any
misunderstanding that it's about, you know, dragons) was published in the US as
well as Australia, right there in the big pond. What's more, I was thunderstruck a
few years later when Harry Harrison told me I'd have won the Campbell Memorial
award except that one of the judges delayed getting his votes in. But it's probably
just as well; winning would've made me very uncomfortable, not to mention
attracting derision, had I beaten Greg Benford's remarkable and ambitious
Of course not much of The Dreaming is markedly Australian. Yes, two of the main
characters are Aussies, one of them autistic, one a deracinated "stolen generation"
Aborigine, and some of the events happen at a UN research station exploring an
ancient alien site sacred to the indigenous people. But other major characters are
British, American and Russian, and an entire major thread follows intelligent
feathered dinosaurs in a generation time machine moving backward into our own
prehistory. I don't think it would have been drastically more cosmopolitan had it
been written instead by Phil Farmer or John Brunner or A.E. van Vogt or Bob
SCHWEITZER: Relating to this, do you think you could eventually write a
Texan science fiction novel?
BRODERICK: Well, my return to short fiction in 2008 started with a Texan
zombie story, the title story in my collection Uncle Bones. It's embedded in the
parts of San Antonio I know. Let me tell you about my reaction to moving here.
It's a curious town, this city of the Alamo: richly Spanish-Mexican, crowded with
cutting-edge medical centers (the cliché "cutting-edge" has its appropriateness!)
that bring pilgrims from the whole planet for radical new treatments, amid
smashed sidewalks or none at all (so it's hard for the ardent walker to get in a
daily stint of exercise without turning an ankle or being run over), zones of
expensive and beautiful big old houses swiftly blurring, with Phil Dick queasiness,
into neighborhoods when no house stands quite vertical, where flaking paint
blows away in the hot breezes and chained dogs bark while kids run around
happily and you have to drive quite fast along freeways for half an hour to buy the
milk and (awful) bread and meat and veggies I used to find seven minutes' stroll
away in Melbourne.
Nobody really applauds this way of doing things, I suspect, but nobody can do
anything about it, not any more. The Mall future is here: collapsing houses linked
by concrete freeway pylons, chain stores and gasoline. But that is too grim a view.
The sagging houses are being done up, some of them, and maybe I'm just being
provincial. After all, I hardly hear the hooting any more.
Let me tell you about the brain-jarring hooting of San Antonio.
It's not the siren call of the future, America as Science Fiction. Or is it? It's
America as the Past with the future plumped down willy-nilly on top of it, or
grown around it like mold. The hooting is the sound of the lonesome Texan
railroad lonesome no more; embedded, rather, in the very heart and gristle of the
city like some dream of the late 19th century revived into a nightly nightmare
suburban blaring that can smash your sleep, and your reason, until your brain
gives up the fight and pretends it isn't happening.
You might think the locals would have developed a tolerance for the noise, and
it's true that they have, in large measure. (But the city council of nearby New
Braunfels just established a "quiet zone" to silence the horns at night.) An
ordinance requires trains to sound a warning at every street crossing, so one gets
the impression that the engineer leans on the hooter from one end of town to the
other. For some reason, many people drive themselves straight under the wheels of
an on-coming train if they're not deterred by an awful racket. Yet it would cost
$50,000 per crossing to put in gates, and who's going to pay for that? Or for repair
of the sidewalks, or of the many streets that are flooded every time it rains? Get
real, this is the future, no big deal. It's not as though it's a catastrophe.
In the late sixties, when science fiction matured, the brash British editor Mike
Moorcock asked, on the cover of New Worlds: "What is the Nature of the
Catastrophe?" Moorcock figured entropy was to blame. Running down, burning
out, giving up. Perhaps it was a premonition of the dreadful Thatcher years, when
Britain did just that. But Moorcock himself didn't give up, certainly not. When
New Worlds and its surrealist community of New Wavers gave up the ghost,
finally, after heroic battles with marginality, weariness and public indifference,
that archetypal Londoner got off his ass and moved to . . . well, to Texas, of
course. A little town called Bastrop, an hour and a half up the freeway from where
I'm sitting just now. His wife and mine met years ago after starting a women's
shelters in central Texas, trying to deal with victims of the catastrophe. Small
world. Fantasy as America.
SCHWEITZER: So, tell me about some of your critical work. What impact does
it have on you to be both a theorist and practitioner at the same time?
BRODERICK: All writers are both at the same time, and so too, in a slightly
different way, are all readers. But not everyone brings that theorizing to
awareness. In fact, most of our theorizing is necessarily unconscious, and some of
it seems to be models of the world and other people we inherit in our genome. As
infants we learn to crawl and totter and walk by imitating others, prompted by
urgings within our muscles and brains that really do amount to theories about how
this world of buzzing, blooming confusion operates. And as cog-psy shows, we
social critters function via a shared "theory of mind," an implicit and almost
invisible model of other people's reactions and surmised motives that are in part
projections of our own, as well as rules and explanations we learn from parents,
other adults, other kids.
All of this is a vast tangled network of theories within which we "read" the "text"
of the world and ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves, and those we read, are
therefore theorized at the root, just as our first understanding of physics is
embedded in the way we walk, pick things up, throw them, judge distances by
what we see and hear, the heat of the stove, the vulnerability of the flesh. Science
happens when we start to investigate those unarticulated or unchallenged folk
theories, replacing them with more coherent and powerful models. You could say
that science rewrites the world as it reads the regularities all about us.
I woke up to this kind of perspective about half my life ago, not at first by
studying Barthes or Derrida or Foucault or Jameson but woven inside the sf of
Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, and other bright, embattled
practitioners. Chip Delany in particular brought much of this to the surface of his
novels, as well as in numerous essays and interviews. He embodied his critical
thinking in the very structure of his characters and their worlds. But of course once
you see that, you notice that every writer does the same thing, although often
without being sharply aware of it. You start to unpick the surfaces and see how the
toy universe and its toy inhabitants work. And that feeds back into your own
creative process. Not as a dull set of ideological instructions and prohibitions, but
as a lively and, yes, proto-scientific exploration of the fictional and semiotic
spaces and forces moving your sf characters and their fantastical worlds, so unlike
ours in some ways, so utterly like ours in most of the dimensions we don't even
see because they and we are wrapped up and enfolded around each other. And just
as scientists hope to advance their understanding of reality with the most stringent
models they can think up after looking as closely as possible at the evidence, we
writers do the same -- if we're doing anything more elaborate and artistic than
tossing burgers into the buns for undemanding consumers of McSci-fi.
I've written a fair bit about all this in books such as Reading by Starlight, The
Architecture of Babel, Theory and Its Discontents, Transrealist Fiction (which
looks at sf through the lens of Rudy Rucker's approach, transrealism: writing
about immediate perception in a fantastic way, and writing about the fantastic, the
invented, the inverted, the dementedly shocking, via well-known literary
techniques developed to capture and notate the world of immediate perception),
Unleashing the Strange, and so on. I really should leave it to others to tell me
whether my own fiction has taken some of its shape and coloration from this
explicit theorizing . . .
SCHWEITZER: Can too much theorizing give a kind of "centipede's paradox"
paralysis to the storytelling? Is it possible to become overly preoccupied with the
operational details and forget about why people want to read our books in the first
place? So what do we mean by "a story" anyway?
BRODERICK: A story is a machine for leading you astray, using words that
trigger dreams while you are awake. Is a writer who's aware of the nature of her or
his theories worse than one who ignores what's going on within the shaping of the
dream, its seductions, its invitations, its rote or compelling manipulations? I'm
pretty sure Heinlein and Ayn Rand had a strong sense of their own theoretical base
as they wrote tales of individualist virtue, honor, creativity, audacity. Certainly
Kim Stanley Robinson and Chip Delany know very well how their theories of the
political and sexual unconscious and hegemonic power drive their stories and
build the worlds that unmask these forces -- by acting them out, enthrallingly,
without preaching. Well, without only preaching.
SCHWEITZER: Tell me something about your most recent work. You've
mentioned doing some short fiction lately. What are you working on now?
BRODERICK: Aside from the science-based anthologies I mentioned, I've been
editing gatherings of interesting essays from two Aussie literary sf fanzines,
Australian SF Review and Science Fiction, hoping to bring this cornucopia (in
Chained to the Alien, Warriors of the Tao, Xeno Fiction, the naughtily titled Skiffy
and Mimesis, others yet to be published) to American readers who care to think
about their sf as well as wolfing it down.
I wrote an sf thriller with my wife, Barbara Lamar, Post Mortal Syndrome, which
appeared first as an online serial that got more than 100,000 hits, later as a trade
paperback from Borgo/Wildside, who have released a lot of my recent work. I've
done collaborations with my pal Rory Barnes, most recently The Hunger of Time
and the Sheckleyan Human's Burden, with another forthcoming. I curated John
Boston's funny and insightful and not at all academic three volume study of the
John Carnell magazines: Strange Highways (on Science Fantasy, my favorite
magazine when I was still at school), and two volumes (Building New Worlds, and
New Worlds: Before the New Wave) on Carnell's major landmark magazine, plus
his more entry-level Science Fiction Adventures.
Short fiction? Yes indeed. I started with short pieces at 17 or 18, and have never
really stopped writing them, although infrequently. Lately I've been bringing those
stories and novellas together in collections that mix the best of my early work with
recent fiction, books such as Uncle Bones, The Qualia Engine, and Adrift in the
Noösphere. What got me back into the short(ish) form was the temptation to
inhabit the voices of great sf writers, as a tribute, of course, but also as a terrific
game. One of these stories, "Under the Moons of Venus," appeared in five Year's
Best gatherings. It plays off some of the obsessions of J.G. Ballard; also the
Abyss. It's not a slavish pastiche, nor are the others, but it is one way of working
out my indebtedness to the sf megatext, that vast encyclopedia and lexicon that
lets us tell new stories which resonate with all the others we know and love (or
One of the imaginary worlds I loved as a kid is probably already unknown to most
younger readers, although it seems to have been the basis for X-Men: Wilmar
Shiras's "In Hiding," "Opening Doors," and the rest. These dealt in the late 1940s
with a future then 30 years hence, with a few superintelligent children tracked
down and brought together. They are mutants, we're told, their parents irradiated
to a swift death in a nuclear accident but not before conceiving these Children of
the Atom. We now know that you can't get the same advantageous mutation in
several children by smashing the gonads of their parents with random radioactive
sleet. So when I wondered what the children of those superkids would be like, late
teenagers in the 21st century, I had to work out a complex backstory that explained
why the "atomic accident" cover-up had been circulated to hide early genomic
experiments. That story's "The Qualia Engine," and I'm not sure if anyone
remarked the connection to Shiras's tales.
Cordwainer Smith, that marvelous dreamer of future Lords and Ladies of the
Instrumentality and their persecuted Underpeople, was a major figure when I was
in my late teens, and after. So I wrote "The Ruined Queen of Harvest World" as a
hommage to his work without in any deep sense trying to copy his inimitable
stylistics. "Flowers of Asphodel" was my Zelazny techno-mythic story, "Dead
Air" my attempt at a cruelly funny Phil Dick yarn, and another well-received
piece, "This Wind Blowing, and This Tide," was inspired by a Rudyard Kipling
poem. "The Unheimlich Maneuver," mentioned above, puts Freud into the middle
of a horror classic from the 19th century.
The most ambitious of these impersonations is "Quicken," a 30,000 word
continuation of Bob Silverberg's major 1974 novella "Born with the Dead." It
appears together with its progenitor, with Silverberg's blessing, as a novel under
both our names: Beyond the Doors of Death. Like "The Qualia Engine," it's an
attempt to fill out the sketchy background of a masterwork, and carry its logic
forward in surprising ways. It still astonishes me to be able to write those words:
here I am, this aged kid from the boonies, self-taught as a writer (as most of us are,
except all those dozens of Aussies who are now doing PhDs in Creative Writing),
collaborating with one of the Grand Masters I read with relish when I was 15. That
can make your head swim. It goes well beyond those theories you distrust, Darrell,
and into epiphany.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Damien.