interview with Don Sakers
Conducted by Ernest Lilley
I discovered Don Sakers when a galley of Dance for the Ivory Madonna showed up at SFRevu. Melissa Scott is dead on when she says he's like a left-wing Heinlein, though as Don points out, RAH wasn't necesarily as easy to place on a continuum as folks might think. Though DFTIM has manages to find all the pitfalls futurist writing is heir to, I found a lot to like in it, especially the theme that success starts with taking pride in what you are. Don's interview, and his scattered worlds universe, are full of good ideas, wishful thinking and hope for tomorrow, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. - Ernest Lilley / Editor-SFRevu
SFRevu: When did you first discover SF? Was it love at first bite? What did you read growing up?
Don Sakers: The first Science Fiction book I remember was The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin, which must have been when I was about eight years old. The fact that the spaceship was under an apple tree is symbolic, because I tasted that forbidden fruit, and I was sure stuck.
Growing up, I read the usual boy's action books -- I particularly remember being hooked on Alvin Fernald, Boy Genius -- as well as just about every word Beverly Cleary wrote. I was also just the right age for the second series of Tom Swift books. My parents bought me one a month at the local toy store, and to this day the words "Repelatron Skyway" and "Triphibian Atomicar" give me a little shiver inside. (So was I, and we did a Tom Swift Tribute in the Sept. '97 Issue of SFRevu. - Ern)
I was also an enthusiastic reader of DC comics, and ardently followed Superman and Superboy whenever I could get them. And, of course, around the age of ten I discovered the Legion of Super-Heroes, whose adventures were set in the 30th century -- beginning a love affair that has continued to the present. (obviously he shares a lot with our comic reviewer Daniel Dern as you'll see in his SFRevu Comics Column)
In time, I graduated to Andre Norton, Alan E. Nourse, and Heinlein's juveniles, and thence to grown-up Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and the whole crowd.
SFR: How long have you been doing this? What made you start writing? What was your first published piece, and do you still like it?
Don: I blush to admit that I started writing (Science Fiction, of course) in seventh grade. After a few truly awful "novels" written by hand in copybooks, I actually learned to type and started submitting short stories to professional markets.
I started writing because, in seventh-grade English class, we saw several episodes of a PBS show that profiled authors. The only one I remember was S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders and other teen-angst books. Until then, I had never really had a concrete image to attach to the concept "author." After I saw some authors in action, I knew that I wanted to be one.
My first published piece was "Gamester" in the June 1981 issue of a long-defunct magazine called Questar. I had been submitting short fiction to all the magazines for about a decade, and the editor of Questar (who had soundly rejected everything I'd sent him) actually commissioned the story from me. (It was for one of those clever magazine departments where four writers are given the same word to explore. The word, in this case, was "video.")
I have re-read the story just recently, and while it is a piece of fluff, it is at least a fairly competent piece of fluff, and I am not ashamed of it.
"A Voice in Every Wind" came a few years later, after I had published some other stories and shows a more experienced writer who has polished his craft a bit. It has some really cool aliens, and I'm fairly happy with it.
SFR: On your book jacket you quote Melissa Scott calling you a left wing Heinlein. I thought that was pretty good, what did you think?
Don: When Melissa gave me that quote, I was beside myself with joy. I think it is a bit hyperbolic, but I don't care, she said it and I'm happy to keep using it for the rest of my life.
SFR: What do you think of RAH himself? What do you love and what do you hate?
Don: Hmm. Asking what I think of RAH is sort of like asking what I think of gravity. I don't know that I'm competent to hold an opinion. But I suppose if I have the nerve to put a quote comparing myself to him on my book, I'd better try.
Of course, Melissa's phrase "a left-wing Heinlein" plays upon the common perception of Heinlein as right-wing -- but of course he wasn't, was he? I have read -- and enjoyed --every word that Heinlein wrote, and anyone who tries to pin him down to a particular ideology is soon going to be biting their own tail. I have not agreed with everything that Heinlein or his characters said . . . but I don't think he wanted anyone's slavish agreement, and in many cases he (or his characters) espoused totally inconsistent views.
There's a whole essay here, probably a whole book. All I can say is, if you think you know exactly where Heinlein stood on any issue, I will be glad to find a passage from his work that will prove you wrong.
I don't think Heinlein was the best writer in Science Fiction. I don't think he was the most imaginative, the most technically skilled, or the most agreeable writer in SF. But I certainly believe that he was, so far, the most important writer in SF.
SFR: Who do you read? Who would you like to see more people know about?
Don: Science fiction/fantasy is a house with many mansions, and I like to visit at least most of them. If I start listing favorite writers I will be here all day. LeGuin and McCaffrey are, perhaps, my current demigods, and in my wildest, most hubristic moments I daydream about being able to write a single paragraph that will measure up to Tiptree's or Octavia Butler's work.
As a general principle, more people should read Hal Clement. Not just SF readers, everyone on the planet. I am bemused that more people haven't noticed Lisa Barnett & Melissa Scott's Point series, which is tremendous.
SFR: How long have you had this desire to dress up in bizarre outfits and masquerade at Worldcons? What are you currently working on?
Don: I have always loved seeing costumes and costumers. When I started going with Thomas Atkinson, who is now my legal-in-Vermont spouse, I became a part of the costuming community. At first, I just wrote good presentations. From there, it was a short step to being an on-stage body. By that time, of course, the infection was well-established and there was no hope.
Right now, I'm basking in the joy of having been part of a Worldcon Best in Show presentation. But we are batting around ideas, and I'm sure it won't be long before we're back on stage . . . .
About Dance for the Ivory Madonna:
SFR: What (in your humble opinion) is Dance for the Ivory Madonna about? Does it take place in a universe you've written other stories for?
Don: Is a book ever about what the author thinks it's about?
Dance for the Ivory Madonna is, of course, about a lot of things: friendship, toleration, a celebration of the creative spirit, a paen to unconventionality. It's about what's wrong with today's world, what's right with today's world, and what hope there is for the future. It's about how our technology affects us, and about the decisions we can make regarding those effects.
And, I guess, a whole bunch of other stuff....
The book actually does take place in the universe of The Leaves of October, "Candelabra and Diamonds," and "A Voice in Every Wind." It's a place I call "The Scattered Worlds Universe," and there are more stories to come.
SFR: Was it fun to write?
Don: Writing this book was,. without a doubt, the most fun I've had.
It was also damned hard work, frustration, and more than a bit of mental anguish. But aren't all truly fun things?
SFR: Who is Speed-of-C publishing (www.scatteredworlds.com) ? Why didn't you sell this to Baen or somebody?
Don: Speed-of-C Productions is a tiny production company run by myself and a few friends. (Yes, Dance for the Ivory Madonna is, for all intents and purposes, self-published.)
Why? There is the short answer, and the long answer. The short answer: Traditional publishing no longer offers what I -- and many other writers -- need.
For the long answer, I must hop up onto my soapbox.
Over the last decade, the traditional publishing industry has undergone a number of major changes. Mergers have reduced the number of SF/fantasy publishing houses to five (ten years ago there were sixteen). Due to increased corporate focus on bottom-line revenues, conventional publishers are unwilling and unable to publish anything except sure-fire bestsellers, cookie-cutter series books, and media tie-ins. Limited shelf space in chain bookstores has led to the decline and elimination of the traditional "backlist" today, if a book does not sell half a million copies in the first month, its fate is sealed and it goes out of print.
Worse, the publisher will then print fewer copies of the author's next book which will, accordingly, sell fewer copies and suddenly the author is in a death-spiral that will shortly end his/her career. The Science Fiction/fantasy field is filled with well-known, respected, multiple-award-winning authors who are caught in this spiral: Samuel R. Delany, Jack Chalker, and Spider Robinson are examples. Lesser-known authors, with only half a dozen or a dozen books published, have found themselves unable to sell any new books to their publishers. Rising stars and old stalwarts alike have gone five years or more since selling their last book.
This phenomenon, the demise of the midlist, is not unique to SF/fantasy. It cuts across the entire publishing world, fiction and nonfiction alike. Books have become commodities, product standardization has become the rule, and publishers can no longer afford to take chances on anything that doesn't have guaranteed profits.
In this hostile atmosphere, there is little hope for Don Sakers. My agent spent six years trying to interest publishers in any number of projects, and failed in every instance. Last year, he died and other agents I approached offered little encouragement. One way or another, then, the traditional publishing industry was no longer an option for me.
SFR: Listen, I don't want to offend you, but...are you gay, black, and corpulent? Is it none of the my (or the reader's) business? Do you have to be part of a group to write about it? I've gotten a lot of flack for even considering asking, but in DFTIM, the Ivory Madonna herself goes out of her way to say she's F-A-T, and not offended by it.
Don: It would be cowardly to write this book, then refuse to answer the first questions that any astute reader will wonder about. It is the reader's business.
For the record, I am gay, of Caucasian ancestry, and fall into the category of "obese" rather than Ivory-Madonna-range "fat." I do have good friends who are black, as well as others who are fat.
Does one have to be part of a group to write about it? Obviously, I think not. That doesn't mean that I did so cavalierly -- I did a lot of research for the book, both by reading and by talking with (and listening to) people who were part of the groups. (Similarly, before writing the chapter where Helen Norton is pregnant, I asked questions and listened to several of my women friends who have been through pregnancy and childbirth.)
In a deeper sense, daring to write black characters and fat characters (and even straight characters) is a meta-message amplifying one of the messages of the book: that individual people are not defined strictly by whatever groups they belong to. (In fact, the book says that over-identification with one particular group is one of the dangers that we face.) Some of my friends who saw early drafts of the first few chapters were bothered by Jamiar Heavitree: "If he's full-blooded Cherokee, then why does he have a French accent?" Well, because when he was a child, his parents moved to France, that's why.
Groups and subcultures are all very well, but we get into trouble when we confuse a genetic identity (black, Cherokee, etc.) with a cultural or an individual identity.
On the last Census form, and on every other form I've filled out since, in the space for "Race:" I have filled in "Human."
SFR: Which of those groups do you think presents the biggest challenge to "getting ahead" in contemporary society? Changing the status of a group seems like a chicken and egg sort of thing,
Don: I don't know if I want to get into a "comparative oppression" sort of thing. Instead, let me say that anyone who deviates from the "norm" will face serious barriers in trying to get ahead in today's society. If you're non-white, gay, fat, female . . . or if you have any of a whole catalog of behaviors, backgrounds, beliefs, or appearances which are not on the approved list, then you will have trouble getting ahead.
Of course, that doesn't mean you can't or won't get ahead. And things are changing -- slowly, painfully slowly -- but they are changing. In my lifetime, it has become unacceptable in polite society to admit to racial prejudice. When I was in middle school, my mother swore that no decent woman would ever be seen outside the home in pants . . . and by the time I finished college, she wore nothing else but pants. Homosexuality has gone from "the love that dare not speak its name" to "the love that won't shut up" to "the love that goes to Vermont and gets a Civil Union." We human beings do make progress, sometimes.
SFR: How does the Science Fiction community rate in terms of taking in diversity elements?
By and large, it seems to me that most SF fans are fairly comfortable with diversity. Part of this, I feel, comes from the common experience of being thought "weird" by the general populace. (Fans love to perceive themselves as a persecuted minority. Does anyone remember the rallying cry, "Fans are slans"?)
Another reason that fans seem comfortable with diversity stems from the nature of Science Fiction itself. SF is often concerned with "the other" -- the alien being, the time traveler, the citizen of a totally different society. After you've wrapped your mind around the concept of falling in love with a silicon-based insectoid creature whose society is based on ritual cannibalism, a friendly chat with the black lesbian sitting next to you is easy to handle.
Fandom shouldn't pat itself on the back too much, however. I still see a dearth of black and Latino faces at conventions, for example.
SFR: Periodically, I run into a black SF fan at a con and hear them lament that there isn't more work from "people of color". I get their meaning, though the last time it happened, a fairly packed room full of lightly colored people spent half an hour pointing out that they had color too, and as diverse an ancestry as you could want. Some could even point to slavery in their past...though not at any civilizations currently in business. (this would be a good time for you to ask if there was a question in here...) So, is there a shortage of Black SF? Who's worth reading?
Don: There may be something of a chicken and the egg situation here, too. In current black American culture, reading SF is not considered cool. And there are plenty of black so-called "leaders" who are telling young black kids that they are traitors if they show too much interest in anything considered "white" (in which category SF falls). On the other hand, SF will continue to be considered "white" until there's more SF that features black characters and addresses black concerns.
However, the black SF writers who are working in the field, are doing stunning work. Chip Delany and Octavia Butler are among the best the field has to offer. Steven Barnes does good work.
SFR: Why haven't I ever heard anyone complain that there isn't enough Gay-SF, or SF of corpulence, though that's certainly a population that we as SF Fans know something about. Why do you suppose not?
Don: As far as gay SF goes, you haven't been listening to the right people. At just about every gay-themed panel at any con, the first question from the audience is sure to be "Why isn't there more gay SF?" (Incidentally, wavelengthsonline.com does an excellent job of tracking SF/fantasy with gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender content.)
For both -- gay SF and "SF of corpulence" (by the way, I love that term) -- part of the answer has to do with the big publishers. There is a belief, slowly fading, that including gay characters and themes in SF will cost sales, while the extra sales presumably picked up from the gay community will not be enough to offset the losses. And there's an even stronger belief, showing no signs of fading, that readers will find corpulent characters repulsive . . . especially corpulent female characters.
When a business is focused on the sure-thing bottom-line, as is publishing today, that business becomes very reluctant to take risks, real or imagined.
SFR: Do you think that "shunning" a country, which is largely what a Nexus blockade is, would work from a practical perspective? Wouldn't the rulers of these courtiers decide that they'd rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven? Sounds like you'd create a fractionalized world...as long as the UN/Nexus survived to enforce it.
Don: I am not convinced that something like the Nexus interdict would work in today's world. I did cheat a little by assuming a world economy based much more on electronic commerce -- so that a blockade of electronic communication would mean economic ruin. Although to be fair, it is explicitly stated that refugees are allowed to leave the interdicted country; and I would guess that the Nexus would make exit routes easily available.
On the other hand, in today's world we've seen nothing like a totally-enforced economic blockade. The closest we've come to such a thing is South Africa in the 80s . . . and no one can say that didn't have the intended effect.
I think the real key would be to cut off weapons and ammunition shipments (many of them coming from the United States, but don't get me started on that). Even the harshest, most tyrannical regime needs guns, tanks, bullets, and shells.
About the Future and Other Stuff:
SFR: In DFTIM you deal with AIs a fair amount, but they don't seem to have a lot of interest in mortal men. Will we experience Vinge's singularity? Will it hurt? When will it happen?
Don: I am dubious about Vinge's singularity. The notion is that technological and social change will take place at ever-increasing speed, until finally no society can exist in the face of such rapid change. In theory, the argument is airtight and logical. However, I think two big terms are missing in the equation: the term that represents social inertia, and the term that represents economic costs.
I once heard a Science Fiction writer ridicule a book (one by a much better writer) with the following argument: "Even though they have high-speed trains running through evacuated tunnels at four thousand miles an hour, in chapter two the heroes get into a car and take five hours to drive from Boston to New York. That's ridiculous; in any society with reliable high-speed transportation, you would not have people driving cars any long distances."
Well. Our society has reliable high-speed transportation, and yet last month I spent nine hours driving from Baltimore to Boston, and another nine hours driving back. Why? Because it was cheaper than flying, because I wanted to stop a few places along the way, because I wanted to have the car while I was in Boston, and because nowadays it wouldn't have been much quicker to fly anyway. And there were lots of other people on the highways.
I think that these two factors (social inertia and economic cost) create an upper limit for the speed at which a society will tolerate technological change. And I think that the recent economic slowdown is an excellent example. Companies that make and sell personal computers saw their sales plummet, because this time around the cycle, lots of people did not rush out to buy the newest, fastest pcs. What they had was good enough for another year or so.
So no, I don't think we're going to fall into the bottomless pit of Vinge's singularity.
SFR: What's the most and least hopeful thing you've seen in the last year? Where do you think the race (human) is going to actually wind up?
Don: The most hopeful thing I've seen, I think, lies in response to the 9/11 attack. There was the predictable wave of anger and assault against Muslim-Americans . . . but at the same time (and this is the hopeful part), there was a counter-wave of clear-headed disapproval. In the space of a week, the country took a deep breath and collectively said, "No, this is not the American way. This is not how we choose to behave, and we will not tolerate it." In similar circumstances in the 1940s, we threw people into concentration camps. Maybe we're growing up.
The least hopeful thing I've seen? Bush's unilateral, jingoistic foreign policy. I see the United States acting like a loose cannon, totally disregarding any international law or custom that doesn't suit us, and it scares me.
SFR: You've said we're in a Post-Christian culture. Ok, and then what?
Don: Our calendar, which starts counting years with the purported birth of Christ, is so misleading. We think that the 2000 years (give or take a few) in which Christianity has existed are the entirety of time.
I'm a fan of the Holocene calendar, which starts counting from the end of the last Ice Age. By that calendar, we are in the year 12,002 -- and for five-sixths of that period, Christianity did not exist. People got along quite nicely with a succession of other, non-Christian religious frameworks. (In sober fact, much of the world does the same even today.)
Looking around the world today -- from the woman in Texas who drowned her five kids so they could go to heaven, to the fundamentalists who claim that God wants fags dead, to the True Believers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to the whole Israel/Palestinians problem, to religious violence in India -- I would think that perhaps it's high time for human beings to take a sabbatical from religion entirely. But I'm afraid I don't see that happening any time soon. (Don, you missed the Catholic Church's press release that their insurance doesn't cover pedophilia. - Ern)
So I guess the best I can hope for is that we settle with some nice, quiet, inclusive faith like the Quakers or Wiccans.
SFR: Are reason and religion mutually exclusive? Where will ethos come from in the future?
Don: I know many profoundly religious people who are also very rational, so I know the two can coexist. I think the key comes from the assumption that religious belief is a very personal thing, different for each person, and not to be imposed upon others.
Ethos can stem from philosophy as much as from theology. In fact, some of the beliefs that inform our society today are not religious in origin. Freedom (or at least tolerance) for other religious views is not a notion that originated from any particular religion. The whole concept of multiculturalism, of encouraging diversity, stems from philosophy more than religion. Historically, few religions spoke out against the institution of slavery, until secular humanism declared slavery immoral.
SFR: What's your next writing project?
Currently I'm working on a follow-up book to Dance for the Ivory Madonna. It is not a sequel -- it is set some twenty years further into the future, and involves few of the same characters.
Don Sakers Bibliography: (Current as of March 2002)
Novels: SF: Dance for the Ivory Madonna, Don Sakers, 2002,
Other: Act Well Your Part, Don Sakers, 1986, Alyson (gay young-adult
Anthologies: Carmen Miranda's Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, Don Sakers, 1990
Buying Time" (short story) -- Lower Than The Angels (Lite Circle Books,
"Stone Walls" -- Revelations (Alyson Publications, 1988)