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Countdown Interview with Tobias Buckell

By Jason Sanford Aug 15, 2007, 13:53 GMT


Tobias Buckell is a Caribbean-born science fiction writer who has published two novels, Crystal Rain and its sequel, Ragamuffin. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future contest and was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002. His first short story collection, Tides from the New Worlds, will be published in early 2008. For a review of Ragamuffin, go here.

10) For decades, people have warned about the coming death of science fiction, an impending demise which doesn't seem to stop new and exciting science fiction books from continually being published. Why is there this anxiety over the health of a seemingly healthy genre?

TB: I laughingly want to say 'wish fulfillment?' SF/F is the underground literature that is also adopted by pop culture at the same time, like rock or rap. There are gatekeepers who have a lot invested in normative forms of literature, and who don't have the tools or desire to interface with it. By writing off SF/F they don't have to seriously consider a whole genre of reading material, and they also empower themselves as continuing gatekeepers.

There is also the matter of change, because it's not just those outside thecommunity of SF/F that predict its demise. Every few generations society, technology, and the dreams of what we imagine is going to impact us the most are severely shaken. When the literature and that reality are severely disjointed, I think a certain amount of stagnation and floundering happens, and people begin predicting demise. I also think it just comes down to generations of writers running out of steam and new ideas, and the pause between that and the next crop of imagineers rising up.

Many people told me in the late 90s that I was a fool to want to be a novelist (they said it would be a dead form soon), and foolish to write SF in a time where technology was getting harder and harder to grasp. But paper isn't dead yet, and genre is a tool to help us, I think at times, wrap our minds around the change happening around us. The more complex technology is, the more we need the stories and myths that can help us deal with all that.

Right now is just an incredible time to be reading SF/F, I am just blown away by all the new writers and books coming out.

9) Science fiction was long seen as predicting humanity's technological-driven future, a view that may have reached its apex when Robert Heinlein was Walter Cronkite's guest commentator for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Do you believe science fiction still predicts the future, or is its simply a reflection of our dreams for the future?

TB: There is a complex relationship between SF/F that is inspired by and reacts to the future, and by SF/F that inspires the future. A lot of authors invested in the predictive, and a lot of authors invested in a very particular vision of government led, government created space program and future, and part of that was the fault of the public and Apollo itself. Asimov himself noted on a show somewhere that he thought it would take a hundred years or more to achieve what happened in those short couple of decades.

If you think about it, the Apollo program was a gearpunk story. Using mechanical adding machines, slide rules, and switches, we put people on the moon. It was so far ahead of its time it's hard to believe. These guys had people physically moving representations of where the Apollo was on a track in the control room.

So you have these unrealistic expectations the public is feeding, and a literature feeding into that. Everyone invested in the hype, and when the sheer expenditure of money needed to keep going pulled back, we had a bust. I think that old vein of how to interpret SF died a great deal with Challenger, and again with Columbia.

For someone like me, my first experience with the real space program was Challenger. My assumption has always been that getting to space will be long, difficult, and won't thrive until done by private, capitalist space programs.

8) Your novels Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin are notable for featuring Caribbean cultures extrapolated into future times. Any thoughts on why so few science fiction books feature characters who aren't descendants of purely European or United States white-male culture? Is science fiction finally beginning to embrace the true diversity of humanity?

TB: SF is very much a literature rooted and created initially by engineers, and due to the economic and educational advantages throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, the reader base is primarily white-male culture. I think we're starting to see the generations that are coming along after this, and that we're starting to see some change. More notably, with the impact of globalization, I don't think SF will remain the way it has as Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, and some African nations begin playing on the great big technological field. Times will be interesting.

7) A highlight of your writing is the amazing way you capture dialects and patois on the written page. It is incredibly easy for a writer to overdo a dialect so that it becomes a parody of itself, or to underplay the dialect so it is barely noticeable. How do you walk this fine line with your writing?

TB: That was really tough to find just the right way to pull that off. I have a hard time reading dialect with phonetic rendering and apostrophes and whatnot. What I tried to do was leave any standard spelling just as it was, but focus on the extra words and the order and grammar structure. A lot of Caribbean dialect is due to underlying Africanate grammar structures, not 'bad English' as is always intimated (incidentally, Appalachian here in the US where I live now is often referred to as bad English, but a great deal of Appalachian actually is just older forms of English that haven't evolved forward from the days of Shakespeare, including some old words that haven't dropped out of use).

Some people still have a little trouble with it, but most people really got into it and found it enhanced the book for them. Certainly I felt that I wanted to represent what I heard going on around me, much as Mark Twain himself said was the reason he included dialect in his own books. "This is what I hear being spoken," I think he said.

6) You identify yourself as Caribbean, with your father Grenadian and your mother British. You recently discussed on your blog how some people have challenged you "to prove that (you are) actually multi-racial and not just a 'poser' who wanted the 'advantages' of being hip and multi-racial." How do you handle people pushing their racial views and attitudes onto you? Do you see comments like this as an attempt to control who you are and what you are allowed to write?

TB: I'm really proud of my bizarre and mixed heritage; however, I look white to Americans. As a result, it becomes a battle to explain to them that while I do have the advantage of white privilege and the ability to pass, I consider myself something more complex and chose to remind people that I'm multi-racial. It upsets some people, both liberal and conservative, who want their world divvied up nicely into simple lines. They want to say that person is a minority and therefore X (and that X can be a lot of different things). It also bugs some people because they don't understand why I wouldn't want to be white, they think its a judgment of them, and others are confused because they feel I get a white-guilt get out of jail free card. Others are spooked by the idea that I'm sort of a wolf in sheep's clothing, the other that looks like the fellow member. In the US, some minorities also don't like
my identifying that way because they feel I don't really know what it's like to be a minority, and that I cheapen their struggles. As in many of these cases, these reactions are all about those people's issues, not mine! I don't have any fixes, but attempts to control what I write, and how I identify, are things that I have so far been able to follow my heart on.

5) Your website features a ton of fascinating stuff, including the first third of Ragamuffin and your highly successful blog. How integral has your online presence been to your success as a writer? Was there any hesitation from your publisher at having such a large portion of your novel online?

The website also has the first whole 1/3 of my first novel, Crystal Rain, as well. My presence online has been completely integral to my success. It was through the blog that people began following my career as a short story writer and nominated me for the Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer back in 2002, and that got my agent to hunt me down in a hallway at a conference and ask me if I had a novel in me. I did, and here I am two novels later.

About 1,000 people a day swing through the website and check up on me because I keep a daily blog, and they follow what I'm up to via that. A lot of them who like my books handsell them to friends as a result of having this connection, and I get to know a lot of my readers. It's rare that I travel to an event where someone doesn't show up who reads my blog. I have friends all around the world that I haven't met yet, it's really cool.

My publisher, Tor, was very cool about letting me post the first 1/3 of the novel for free. I guess the lawyers were a bit hesitant when I first broached the idea, as they pointed out that my contract said something like 'a chapter,' but my editor, Paul Stevens, and Tor's owner, Tom Dougherty, thought it was a good idea and gave me the go ahead.

My thought is that if you don't like the novel or know if its worth buying 1/3 of the way through you probably weren't going to either buy or like it. It's a good amount to post as a sample.

4) Ragamuffin features the return of my favorite character, Pepper, the suave dreadlocked overcoating-wearing killer with extremely questionable morals. Why do you think readers respond so well to characters like this? After all, I'd never actually want to spend time with someone like Pepper, but I love reading about him.

I always felt that your typical action hero is always a questionably moral person. They'll drive cars dangerously through traffic, shoot, and in general put people's lives at risk all throughout the process of revenge (or saving the world, in which case it becomes the ends justify the means). I think Pepper is just a lot more straightforward in his personal realization that his persona is questionable. He has a mission, and anything that gets in his way will get hurt.

And on the flip side, we live in a world where our forebrain regulates those lizard-brain impulses: that guy cut me off, I want to hurt him! On average we steam and fume, then get on with our lives, and that means that our lives are relatively safe and devoid of mayhem on a day to day basis. Someone like Pepper doesn't follow those rules, he's the sort of guy who'd ram someone for cutting him off, I think.

3) Will your next novel continue the story arch from Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin?

In a manner of speaking, yes. I want to show the history of the worlds I created in those two books continue on, and Pepper will be back because he's good at causing trouble, but there will be no other repeat characters from those first two books until some later books.

2) When people meet novelists, their favorite comment seems to be "I have a great idea for a story." Putting aside the irritable fact that too many people believe coming up with a good idea is the hardest part of novel writing, how do you respond to stuff like this?

I have this great idea for a building, too, but apparently it takes years of training to become an architect!

I read somewhere it takes 10,000 practice hours over a lifetime to master something. I think it was a study of musicians. Having an idea is important, but I've found in life that it is the execution of the idea that's the tricky part. Whether it's an invention, a music riff, or a novel, it's doing it that counts. It takes me about a year to write a novel, and involves me missing favorite TV shows, not going out with friends, and committing to getting it written. It's hard work, and that's where most people with 'great ideas' tend to fade away. And lastly, not to be cocky about it, but ideas are
the easy part. I keep a notebook, I get 5-10 great ideas a day, most of them seem great in that little flash of inspiration, but later on, only a small single digit percentage survive getting moved onto my computer as a possible project (short story, article, novel, what have you).

1) What science fiction novels and authors have had the most influence on your writing? Are there any science fiction novels you've come back to later in life to find that your view of the book has totally changed?

I'm an obsessive and fast reader, in high school almost a book a day. There are favorite authors, but it's the field as a whole I just get a huge kick out. If you were to hold a gun to my head, I guess I would come down and say Arthur C. Clarke, Vernor Vinge, and Bruce Sterling were my favorites to read in high school. What impact they had on my writing, I'm never sure how to answer that question because I've never really wanted to emulate any particular author but strike out and do my own kind of thing. However, I will say that when a reviewer compared me to Alastair Reynolds, C.J. Cherryh, and Dan Simmons, I was pretty pleased. I do see myself as trying to give the storytelling, sheer rambunctiousness and sense of wonder that are imminent in old science fiction novels I read as a kid, but with a toolbox of writing skills that are thoroughly modern.



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