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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Charles E. Gannon
    by Lawrence M. Schoen

Charles (Chuck) Gannon is one of the most erudite authors I know. Each of the first three volumes of his Terran Republic series (book four comes out the first week of February) have brought him a Nebula nomination. On the one hand, he's a distinguished professor of English and a Fulbright scholar, and on the other, his published writing appears to have begun in gaming with the classic Traveller RPG. He's written for television and worked as a feature film "proposal-/script-doctor." He's also co-written (with Steve White) two novels in the Starfire series, and three books with Eric Flint in his massive 1632 series. On his own, in addition to his novels, Chuck has amassed a significant pile of short fiction sales, including stories in anthologies set in other authors' universes such as David Weber's Honorverse, Larry Niven's Man-Kzin Wars, and Jerry Pournelle's War World. Although he has retired from academia to write full time, he is a member of SIGMA, the SF think tank that provides advice to US intelligence and defense agencies.

Schoen: Your fiction career began with writing games, principally for Traveller. How much of the sensibility of game mechanics still influences you as a novelist? What strengths did you bring with you from that experience, and what aspects of it did you have to unlearn because they hinder rather than help writing a book?

Gannon: The strengths I may have picked up from my work in games (or which at least were amplified there) are many of the same that were at a premium during my work in film and television. A short list would be: balancing what audiences want--which isn't always something they themselves articulate clearly or accurately. For instance, audiences want to feel the rush of dramatic anticipation but they also want resolution, and timing the sequence between each such sine wave is crucial.

In a similar vein, audiences crave novelty--but only so long as the delivery of it isn't so unremitting that it becomes a source of disorientation. Practically speaking, that means never repeat or reprise a dramatic arc or event. To put this into gaming terms, if you create too many side quests, or too many mandatory encounters with the same kind of adversary, the narrative starts getting stale--even if each such episode has a different outcome. So when a reader says to themselves, "Well, we've already seen something just like that," you've lost them. Obviously, there are exceptions: Seeing exactly the same scene from multiple perspectives can be a tremendously interesting--and riveting--narrative device.

That said, there's also this truth: Formulae have their limits. There are all sorts of rules and shibboleths we are given as yarn-spinners, and they are often true. But those rules are often brightest and best when we craft exceptions to them. If you always obey the rule, the pattern of recognizable anticipation and resolution slowly but surely loses its power. This is sort of like going to a restaurant every night, without fail, for two months. Probably at about the two or three week mark, you will have had every entree on the menu. You will find yourself beginning to avoid preferred foods just to get away from the same fare that so excited you at the outset.

But breaking the rules is like adding a list of really inventive, even daring, specials on the menu every night--specials which do not repeat. This mixes the best of both worlds: the tried-and-true standards you like and which, after a time, you order once again; and the new and unexpected dishes which the chef will only offer once, so there's the daily potential of novelty and the anticipation. Writing and game designing both make use of this principle.

Schoen: The fourth volume in your ongoing Terran Republic series comes out in February--and I believe Baen has graciously allowed IGMS to show off the first chapter in this issue. Each of the previous volumes has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. Clearly you're doing something right here, and I wonder if you'll speak to the multiple tracks that can be found in these novels. It's almost like each is three books in one. On one level, they're clearly military SF; there are battles, both on the ground and in space. On another level, you're giving the reader classic anthropological SF as you reveal multiple alien societies and do so from not just our POV but theirs as well. And finally, the books are also political thrillers. That can't be accidental, and it can't be easy. Was the goal here just to appeal to multiple audiences with the same work, or do you feel there is a larger gestalt achieved here?

Gannon: While I do prefer to craft a novel in which there's something for everyone, that's not exactly the same thing as appealing to multiple audiences. There are audience segments, for instance, that only want military SF in their reads. Conversely, there are audience segments that will avoid any book that has even a relatively low military SF component. So I'm obviously not going to get either one of those audiences, and while I understand those respective tastes, I'd feel artificially constrained to write for either one of them.

Instead, I often (but not always) site my fiction during periods of conflict simply because that's where characters are often compelled to make choices that sharply highlight what matters most to them, and what they are willing to do or sacrifice to preserve or attain that. As you and your readers know, it's not simply a happy mistake that Shakespeare sets so many of his non-comedies during war-time. From a narrative standpoint, it sets the stakes and costs at their maximum dramatic intensity with great speed. From a personal perspective, it's what I'm most interested exploring: the human heart laid bare in a time and place where the carefully draped veils of conformity and propriety are stripped off by crises that cannot be avoided or socially sanitized.

But I do feel that any book benefits from action, a mystery, and a journey into the unknown (that which is alien or uncanny, which of course becomes a mystery unto itself).

However, all that said, there is most definitely a larger gestalt I am trying to generate in each work and, more powerfully, across the entire series. And perhaps the best way to approach this rather expansive topic is to pick out a significant, and rather different, narrative/genre choice I made in order to achieve that overarching gestalt of peril, wonder, and revelation.

Most far-ranging SF or SF-fantasy ultimately depends upon what I call the Utopist's Dodge: that the universe depicted is separated from us by a significant gap in time and historical linkages. It is A Very Different Place that only faintly points back to its origins in this, our contemporary moment. So, somehow, humanity crossed from the humble banks of our every-day river of reality to that far shore of a wondrously different world. I think this is fine, and I like a whole lot of this literature. I write some of it myself, but it is not, in my opinion, a distinctive project. Lots of people do it. In the Tales of the Terran Republic, I chose to do something very different.

I site my series neither on the banks of contemporary experience, nor on the far shore. Rather, I start the story squarely upon the bridge of change, the bridge that we must ever build as we move toward the far shore of the future. And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope readers will, in retrospect, not only reflect upon how far we have come and how fast, but also, how in getting there, the characters did not experience the journey as an endless rollercoaster of dislocating jolts. Rather, the progress into that vastly changed future seemed deceptively, almost insidiously, gradual, more marked by it seeming normative rather than stupendous.

Each story functions as a stand-alone narrative tile in my intended mosaic, imparting a complete tale and image of its own. But it is also one part of a much greater whole that is simultaneously a journey forward into and exploration of the challenges that lie before our species. The specifics depicted--the warfare, the exosapients, the technologies, the political evolutions, the events--are certainly important in and of themselves, but as a reader goes deeper into the series, I hope the greater narrative goal becomes evident (if it wasn't from the start). Because underlying all the various action in all the various novels, these questions are being probed in ever-greater depth: What does it mean to be human? What diversity of intelligence might there be in the universe, and what does it signify--not only to us, but to the unfolding of the universe's far future? How and where are the points of commonality which make interspeciate communication possible--and where are the unbridgeable crevasses? Is love universal? Hope? Faith? Compassion? Fellowship? Individual consciousness?

Schoen: I confess, my own bias is more toward the anthropological/psychological/cultural aspects of your fiction. Your experiences as a Fulbright Scholar led you to the Czech Republic, Scotland, The Netherlands, Slovakia, England, and Italy. Are the origins of the different world views of the Arat Kur, the Hkh'Rkh, the Slaas, the Dornani, etc. to be found in observations you made in cafés and marketplaces and faculty dining halls?

Gannon: Absolutely. One of SF's conceptual shibboleths is that it is a mirror held up to human experience, and that the exemplars of this process are its representations of alien species. The corollary to this axiom is that it is inevitable and, prevalently, subconscious: that even if we try to imagine the truly alien, we are nonetheless restricted in our forms of imagination and depiction by the palette of our own, inescapably human experience (an assertion which I acknowledge as a limited and provisional truth).

In the case of the exosapients (all four races) which populate my Terran Republic series, their role as reflections of certain human traits and properties is not a matter of chance, but bloody-minded intention. If one zooms back and looks at each, one might begin to discern that there is an embedded observation (and at rare moments, commentary) upon their characteristics as a kind of concentrated and extremified example of social and political traits that are present in familiar terrestrial groups. The only difference is that with the exosapients, I have the freedom of presenting those extremes as a group norm, and thereby, of considering the consequences of what might occur if that particular cognate of beliefs and tenets became predominant in a human culture.

This does not mean that the exosapients are simply ideational cyphers for human aspects. I designed them to be as believable and consistent with their biological and environmental imperatives as possible. However, there is no reason that any element of a narrative should not do double duty: no reason that it may not have an abstract, allegorical valence at the same time. So while there is no direct correspondence between, say, the cultural encounters and surprises I have had in Sao Paolo, Prague, Sczeczin, Dundee, London, or Rome, those moments do inform my depiction of two disparate beings--one human, one not--attempting (or refusing) to negotiate the uncertain meeting-ground between them.

Schoen: These novels are set in the next century. Humanity has gone into space, colonized other worlds, and met representatives of alien societies. And yet, you've gone out of your way to rein in your science, and done so in such a way that it becomes a critical factor in the balance of power. There's some serious hard SF here--as would be expected of an Analog author. Which begs the question: for you, which comes first, the science or the story?

Gannon: Before either "science" or "story" comes the resolve to never respond to forced choices! Seriously, the two evolve in context with each other. From my first conceptualization of the Terran Republic series, I knew the basic story I wanted to tell. I knew that it was going to be a series. I knew the time frame and technological moment in which I wished to set it. I knew that adherence and accountability to basic scientific rectitude was not only essential to the realistic tone of the stories but also to the achievement of verisimilitude. That last may need a bit of explaining, in the course of which, I can illustrate how science and story go hand in hand from narrative concept to realization.

So let's say I did put artificial gravity in space ships (I won't, but just go with me, here). Nifty: now I can make cool, sleek looking ships and not have to deal with the troublesome scenes where people are floating around or being pushed backwards by thrust (well, that's inertial compensation, but it's a kissing cousin to artificial gravity). Except: How the hell is that working? Answer: I can't tell you, so, in typical space opera style, I don't tell you. But if I pop my hard SF hat back on again for just a moment, I can tell you this: Creating those phenomena are way beyond both our theory and engineering.

To be clear, I am not talking magnetic boots or rotational habitats here (those provide some equivalents to gravity, but don't change physics to do so). I am talking about some mysterious floor plates that manage to project a perfect one-G attractive force starting at the surface of the deck, which then continues without alteration until it touches the overhead. Or maybe there's a layer of plates on the bottom of the ship generating that attractive force, which continues unaltered right through to the ceiling of the top deck.

At which point . . . what? The attractive force stops like light hitting a steel barrier? And how do you keep it unidirectionally polarized, anyhow? And how do you keep it from attracting things from beyond the hull? And just how much energy is this consuming? And therefore, just how are you generating all that power? Which, in a space opera, is usually enough to travel at faster-than-light speeds (another thing which I technically and importantly don't do: no object ever moves at a velocity greater than C), while also powering those artificial gravity plates? And what does all that say about this society's mastery of one of the great physical mysteries in the universe, and their ability to control it? What other devices would they surely have? What does that mean about the relationship between energy production, mobility, scarcity, large-scale engineering, etc.? In short, that one little gimme--artificial gravity--carries a tsunami of baggage (i.e.; unintended consequences) if the world you are unfolding and depicting is meant to be answerable to the basic physics (not technological accomplishments, but physics) of our universe.

Space Opera (per se) has a lot of license in this regard. I've written it and it's a perfectly fine sandbox. It is not, however, my playspace of choice because I not only have to look the other way when such conundra arise, but the characters are doing so as well--or are oblivious. There are basic strategic, technological, and economic questions that they are not asking and answering--and for me, that requires a far greater suspension of disbelief than the inexplicable engineering feats. Humans habitually explore the ramifications of discoveries, of technologies, in a search for new advantages, for exploitable features. In this kind of "science-lite" universe, a consistent, coherent, believable approach to that ubiquitous human trait is miraculously absent except at those moments when the equivalent of the mad or visionary scientist needs to pull a rabbit (or black swan) out of her hat to facilitate a plot reversal. Which, to my mind, is worse than if she hadn't: It calls attention to the implausibility of a human society which is not examining new technologies with the intent of squeezing every last opportunity out of them.

Schoen: You're currently four books in, and it seems you're only getting started. What's your master plan for this series? How far would you like to see it go, and what kind of commitments do you have at this point from your publisher?

Gannon: The master plan of the Terran Republic series follows a path set by a mainline dramatic arc. Various sub-arcs spin off from that skein, although most ultimately return to it.

The main line is (obviously) comprised of the Caine Riordan books, which is now halfway through the second arc. The first arc, which I label the "encounter arc," was comprised of the first two books. They recount humanity's contact with exosapients and the immediate (martial) sequelae to that contact. The second arc (novels 3-5) is the "envoy arc," in which, for reasons that are partly planned and partly fate, Caine comes into closer, defining contact with a number of the exosapient species. The Slaasriithi were in the spotlight in the third novel, Raising Caine, and now the Hkh'Rkh are center-stage for the forthcoming fourth book, Caine's Mutiny. The fifth novel--Marque of Caine--sees Caine journeying into the strange domain of the Dornaani: the oldest, most enigmatic, and in surprising ways, the most dangerous of the species he has encountered so far. Think The Decameron meets The Odyssey, with a few dollops of The Satyricon, all blended together in the crucible of an urgent interstellar quest. The arc that follows from (and is caused by) that outcome of Book Five is titled the "Species" arc, but, if I were to say more about it . . . well, to quote a favorite television show of mine, "that would be telling."

What I can tell you is this: the stakes keep getting higher and the challenges laid before humanity--ethical and social, as much as physical--keep getting more difficult.

Schoen: I'm fascinated by how authors got started, not necessarily in terms of when they sold their first fiction, but rather the moment in their own minds when they knew that creating worlds was what they were going to do, perhaps even needed to do. Can you pinpoint that spot in your own timeline? Is it clearly defined, or just something that emerged gradually?

Gannon: The occurrence was gradual, but in hindsight, had a sort of ineluctable quality to it. I was three when I discovered dinosaurs, learned how to pronounce the word "paleontologist," and decided that I wanted to be one and write about it.

At age six, zoology became my new object of fascination. So I wanted to become a zoologist and write about it.

By age eight (one year before the first lunar landing), space was my new passion. So I wanted to become an astronomer and write about it. Two years later, I had a brief dalliance with the notion of becoming an astronaut, but two things dissuaded me: yeah, it was dangerous, but it also required a lot of repetitious work. Indeed, I came to the gravelling realization that, in every one of my chosen fields, I would have to master subjects that I found pretty dull and acquire technical competencies that, while interesting, weren't exactly exciting. It became obvious that the reality of exploration had a lot more to do with the tiresome labors of preparation than it did with the sudden heady rush of discovery. But I still wanted to write about it.

So, at twelve years of age, sitting uncertainly amidst all these cast-off aspirations that involved a great deal of solitary and repetitive work, I realized that there were two constants: that I wanted to press the envelope-edges of human knowledge, and I wanted to write about it. And it turns out there is a name for that profession: It is called, "science fiction writer."

Schoen: In addition to more novels, you have plans to open your universe and invite other authors to come and play in Caine Riordan's sandbox for a proposed anthology. What's the thinking behind this? Do you just want to share the fun with some friends, fill in some of the interstitial spaces in the Terran Republic, or keep your fans happy between novels? Or all or none of the above?

Gannon: All of the above: emphatically so. We certainly live in a time where a novel a year falls far beneath what fans want, and now, thanks to electronic self-publishing, can often expect. The difficulty is that, in the realm of traditional (i.e., dead tree) publishing, the speed of production just can't keep up with the appetite for the next installment. In the old days (i.e., only 12-13 years ago), publishers, authors, and readers just had to live with that reality because there was no alternative. Now there are alternatives--a whole internet's-worth of alternatives. So putting together a Terran Republic anthology that will be distributed (mostly electronically) by Eric Flint's Ring of Fire Press seemed like one way to cut the waiting time down from a year to six months between each successive Terran Republic offering.

That said, what excites me the most about the anthology project is the crew of wonderful folks who have stepped up to mine the many as-yet-untapped narrative veins in the universe: motherlodes of possibility and excitement that I just don't have the time to work at myself. And whereas some series authors/proprietors view such collaboration askance, fearful of the universe losing the feel of a uni-sourced meisterwerk, I am of the opposite frame of mind. And once again, that judgment derives from my insistence upon narrative verisimilitude and the immersion that it enables.

Schoen: You've crossed over into that authorial promised land, having quit your day job in academia and successfully supporting your lifestyle through your writing. Has this always been the goal? And for that matter, is there some pivotal point in your past where you knew this was what you wanted to do? If so, when? And once you had that realization, how did you begin pursuing it?

Gannon: Yes. When I was twelve and realized that my desire to explore and unfold the ideational terrain at the forefront of our understanding of the universe, I realized that there was only one way to do that: to be a science fiction writer (although I also happily penned ghastly Tolkienesque imitations/homages that were part of my early teen years writing apprenticeship). Even before, I'd been creating imaginary worlds--and being a teen on the very threshold of the RPG phenomenon, that impulse was given timely access to a vast, outrushing horizon of infinite possibilities.

From that point, I've never looked back. And that's not just because I take such joy in the journey. It is also a serious choice. As Charles Kettering said near the midpoint of the 20th century, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there." And I will take that one further rhetorical step: because the future is where my children and grandchildren--and yours--are going to spend their lives. That fact determines the moral concerns that suffuse so much of my work. As Buckminster Fuller wrote while living in the shadow of a newly-arisen conceptual mushroom cloud: "If humanity does not opt for integrity we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference."

And so we could. And so, questions and crises of hope, and its handservant, integrity, feature prominently in so much of my fiction.

Schoen: Last question. In the introduction, I mentioned you're involved with SIGMA, providing SF perspective and advice to the US Government. And in other interviews, you've (perhaps grudgingly) acknowledged that it's fair to call you a "futurist;" it's clear you've taken great pains to map out the flow of change coming between now and the projected future of the Terran Republic. Closer to home, at a time when people of all political persuasions are in an uproar and polarization appears to have reached a new high, what are you willing to go on record as seeing coming? And what role should SF play in it?

Gannon: I will reply to this in reverse.

We can propose and impose all manner of interesting shapes and ideas upon the future. Many are desiderata; many are dystopian warnings. All serve a purpose: to give form and substance to visions of futures we would wish to inhabit and those we would wish to avoid.

However, projection is an uncertain business, and any future-view which is too dependent upon any particular achievement or device or discovery may be invalidated if that concrete development remains unrealized. Consequently, I believe that SF may and should make the same tangible gift to the future that all worthwhile literature does: to outline and illuminate that which is fine and worthy in the human spirit.

I cannot speak for others, but I can share some of the demands I place upon my fiction to optimize whatever chance I have of contributing to this objective. I strive to maintain an honest voice (which is at least marginally more achievable than the chimerical and often subjective quality of 'truth') while underscoring the enduring (arguably, intensifying) essentiality of compassion, hope, and personal integrity. For me, that means writing narratives that eschew simplistic conflicts, facile and ingenuous solutions, and improbably tidy outcomes. Maybe in some unforeseeably far future, our species will achieve all those things--but if so, then that species will be fundamentally unrecognizable to us as we are now.

And so what do I see coming in a more tangible sense?

The trend toward global blocs--political cognates such as the EU, NATO, The Five Eyes--will increase in prevalence and dominance. The reason will largely be economic. Unfettered globalization will be hard hit by the first and inevitable worldwide downturn. Blocs will serve as increasingly formalized and integrated means of maintaining larger markets while also distributing development and production costs for the big-ticket items that loom in our future. Whether they are devices built to counteract climate change, wage wars, leap into space, or drill down into the subatomic foundations of our universe, they are going to be fabulously expensive and better funded by a consortium than a single nation.

We will become a space faring culture or we are doomed to extinction. If you do not see the inevitability of the statement, or the evidence for it, go outside on a bright night and look up at the moon. That cratered, pitted surface foretells a future that we may be able to avert, or flee, if our presence in space is not only constant, but truly community-based. When we live there, we will also rapidly develop the capabilities for detection and interception of threatening objects that would presently ravage our biosphere with so little warning that we would be almost powerless to avert that outcome.

Within 100 years, with the highpoint of the first biological genetic revolution behind us, we shall begin making the breakthroughs that will reveal the linkages between relativity and quantum physics. That unified field theory will engender a renaissance not merely in the understanding of the high energy physics that propels the universe along its perplexing paths, but will initialize a wave of engineering achievements that shall provide us with new tangible benefits arising from that understanding. What we consider to be the current limits of energy density will seem quaint to persons in that time.

What will remain further beyond our understanding, and therefore, will take longer to realize, will be an adequate understanding of the delicate weave of life that is this (or any) biosphere. I do not mean this in the sense of "what are all the functions involved in the modulation of cells?" and "how do we age?" Those are short term, largely mechanistic questions: they are finite strings of cause-effect dominos that we will chart. Rather, I am referring to the concept of biofeedback on the global scale; how all the planetary dynamics of Earth, including those remerging from biota, work together to effect homeostatic self-regulation.

Finally, our sciences will, for all their advances, remain the epochal prisoners of their contemporary toolset--particularly of sensors. What one cannot measure in finite and discrete shape, one cannot address. And yet, what if the scope shown by the sensor does not compass the way that phenomenon actually works? More specifically, what if our cherished model of separating phenomena for observation in isolation is (as I strongly suspect) an inherently Procrustean tool that is unwittingly severing connections that are both maddeningly subtle and powerful. If so, we will still be left pondering how to build a model to adequately represent nature's totality and mechanisms to examine the same.

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