October 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Interview: Chris Moriarty
with Ernest Lilley

Feature Review: Spin State
Sample Chapter: Spinstate Ch 1
Author Website: www.well.com/user/moriarty

SFRevu: Congratulations on a terrific first novel. How has Spin State been received?

Chris Moriarty: So far the reception's been great. I wrote Spin State assuming it would never even get published, so from my perspective it's all upside. The most fun part has been having writers I've admired since long before I started writing - people like David Brin and Nicola Griffith and Stephen Baxter and L. E. Modesitt, Jr. - get excited about the book. That's the kind of thing I think every aspiring writer dreams of.

I wanted to take my favorite aspects of hard SF and cyberpunk and roll them into a high action, high body count story with an AltCult slant.

It's also been interesting to see how readers (including critics) relate to Spin State. One of the things that's struck me so far is that most people don't seem to know which subset of SF to assign Spin State to. For some it's cyberpunk. For others it's hard SF. For others it's feminist SF or queer SF or military SF. To me the whole point of Spin State is that it's all those things. I wanted to take my favorite aspects of hard SF and cyberpunk and roll them into a high action, high body count story with an AltCult slant. Which is why I sometimes jokingly call the genre I write in "Chickpunk" ... But then not every reader has to see the same things in a book that the writer sees. Writers have no business telling readers how to read their books. Once a book's out in the world, it belongs to anyone who's willing to walk into a bookstore and pony up their five bucks ... or twelve bucks in this case! And anyone who starts at the beginning and keeps turning the pages until the end has as good an idea of what the Spin State's about as I do.

SFR: How did this all come about?

Chris: Funny you should ask. I actually just finished writing an essay about that very question for Random House's e-newsletter. In fact, Spin State is a tiny piece of a much larger series that currently exists only as a really big (and increasingly moldy) pile of paper in my basement. I broke off a little piece of the larger story and wrote it as a stand-alone novel when it began to dawn on me that most publishers weren't much interested in several thousand page hard SF trilogies from authors they'd never heard of. Of course, during the writing process Catherine Li's story got bigger and more characters arrived - most notably Hyacinthe Cohen. But the original seed of the book is already there in the older manuscript.

SFR: What's your relationship with the science in Spin State? I mean, where did you get those great ideas? The jacket lists and eclectic array of talents, but quantum physicist didn't seem to be on the list.

Chris: Some SF writers are scientists, and some just like to talk to scientists. I fall into the latter category. I was at Princeton during the late '80s when it was one of the hot schools for physics, mathematics and electrical engineering, and I spent a lot of time sitting around over beers talking to friends about their research. I was never tempted to leave the liberal arts and go over to the Dark Side, but I always liked knowing what they were working on.
 

Some SF writers are scientists, and some just like to talk to scientists. I fall into the latter category.

That said, the person who got me interested in quantum physics was my uncle. Charles H. Bennett ... the same Charles Bennet who developed the thought experiment that resulted in the first succesSFul quantum teleportation. He used to take me and my brother to work with him when we were kids and let us test drive the computer games his colleagues were just starting to design back then, and we would also sneak over to his house to watch Star Trek, of which our parents heartily disapproved. So actually he was the person who introduced me to both science and science fiction.

Charlie played a big role in Spin State. When I was writing and revising the book I kicked several drafts back and forth to him and other members of IBM's Quantum Information Research Team, including Jon Smolin and Mavis Donkor. I'd shoot off an excerpt from the latest draft to them and say: "Can I do this?" Or "What would happen if...?" Or "Are you going to freak on me if I go with the Many-Worlds Interpretation?" One of the more memorable moments in the writing of Spin State came when, somewhere around the middle of the fifth or sixth draft, I realized that I wanted to go with Hugh Everett's Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I hadn't talked to any of the guys at IBM about this, and I fully expected to have them laugh me out of town.

Despite my trepidation, I wrote up a new draft taking a modified Many-Worlds approach based on David Deutsch's work and sent it off ... only to get an e-mail back from Charlie saying that he was really excited to see I agreed with him about Many-Worlds and he was going to tell his old teacher, David Deutsch, that they had a new convert! Sometimes science really is stranger than science fiction.

SFR: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?

I don't know many people who would put BOTH The Left-Hand of Darkness and Starship Troopers on their shortlist of all-time-favorites. But I would.

Chris: The first SF I remember reading was Stephen King's The Long Walk, which was one of the books he published under the name Richard Bachman. I had no idea it was science fiction, but I loved it. So I immediately started hunting through the school library for anything that had a sort of similar-looking cover. That led me to LeGuin's The Left-Hand of Darkness, and to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, among other things. In fact, I think my eclecticism as an SF writer can probably be traced to those two writers. I don't know many people who would put BOTH The Left-Hand of Darkness and Starship Troopers on their shortlist of all-time-favorites. But I would. And part of what keeps bringing me back to SF is that it's a genre big enough to accommodate both those books.

SFR: Who do you count as your major influences?

Chris: Bruce Sterling, first and foremost. To me he's the Master, and Schismatrix is the book by which all other SF is measured. After that it gets hard, because there are so many great writers whose work has influenced me. But the big ones are: Ursula LeGuin, who more than any other writer formed my idea of what serious speculative fiction can and should be; Greg Bear and David Brin, who taught me how to write science-oriented hard SF without sacrificing style, characters, and storytelling; C. J. Cherryh, whose Merchanter-Union books are some of my favorite SF of all time; and William Gibson, who gave the world Molly.

SFR: So, jumping forward to now, who's important to you in the field?
 

...if I had to lay bets on what current trends in SF will define the next ten years, I'd put my money on Chickpunk.
Chris: I see a lot of exciting stuff coming out now. There's a great crop of young cyberpunk- or steampunk-influenced writers. Ken McCleod, Sean Russell, China Mieville, Charlie Stross and Jim Van Pelt all come to mind. Also Richard Paul Russo, whose book Ship of Fools won the Philip K. Dick award last year and whose Carlucci novels are some of the most beautifully written SF I've ever read. Several of these writers interest me partly because they're after the same thing I'm after: creating a new fusion of cyberpunk with classic hard SF. I think that fusion is going to be the thing that makes cyberpunk more than just a blip on the radar screen.

And then there's that Chickpunk thing I mentioned before. It includes writers as different as Nicola Griffith, Catherine Asaro, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Laura J. Mixon, Louise Marley, Linda Nagata, Maureen F. McHugh, Susan R. Matthews, Elizabeth Moon, Kelly Eskridge, Liz Williams, Kristine Smith, and Anne Harris. Some of them are card-carrying feminists and/or card-carrying cyberpunks. Others would shoot you for even thinking about pinning either label on them. But they're all working that intersection of traditional feminist SF with hard SF, cyberpunk, or military SF. And they're writing some mindblowing stuff.

I think we're gearing up for the next major wave of feminist (post-feminist?) SF, and if I had to lay bets on what current trends in SF will define the next ten years, I'd put my money on Chickpunk.

SFR: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

Chris: No. I never even imagined being a writer until I was in my mid-twenties. To this day I'm not even sure what changed. Which is why I always urge people who don't think they can write to give it a shot and see what happens ...

...if what they believe in isn't what I believe in, then so much the better. Good books tell people TO think, not WHAT to think.

SFR: Do you have an idea of what your ideal reader is like?

Chris: I actually have a very precise idea of my ideal reader. A bright kid, maybe fourteen or fifteen. Old enough to read adult literature but still young enough to have some wiggle room in his or her worldview. I want that reader to have fun with my books and feel like the stories are exciting and approachable, but I also want to instill the same dangerous idea writers like George Orwell and Ursula K. LeGuin planted in my mind when I was that age: the idea that they need to think for themselves and fight for what they believe in. And if what they believe in isn't what I believe in, then so much the better. Good books tell people TO think, not WHAT to think.

SFR: What is Science Fiction's role, now that we live in the future?

Chris: There's a great line in one of Tolstoy's novels where he says that it's silly to talk about "Our Times" or "Modern People" because human nature never changes. I think Tolstoy got that right, and I try to write from the assumption that the real problems are caused not by new ideas or technology but by the basic stuff of human nature. The characters in my books may be clones or sentient computer programs, but for the most part they're fighting the same battles - against greed, tyranny, prejudice and so on - that we've always had to fight. Which is another way of saying that the real job of science fiction has never been to predict the future, but to show readers the present and let them decide for themselves whether it's headed in the right direction. In this sense, the most surprising thing about putting Spin State out in the world has been hearing readers use words like "dark" or "grim" or "dystopic" about it.
 

...the real job of science fiction has never been to predict the future, but to show readers the present and let them decide for themselves whether it's headed in the right direction

One review that really floored me described the economic system in Spin State's 25th century UN as being "like the Victorian British Empire." The same day I read that review a friend forwarded me a newspaper article about villagers in the Congo being kidnapped to mine an ore-rich mud that's a key component of cell phone batteries. Here were these villagers, with life expectancies of something like thirty years, digging with picks and shovels at gunpoint for the stuff that makes our Motorolas work ... yet this reviewer had to resurrect Queen Victoria in order to explain the interstellar economy I posited in Spin State. I felt like e-mailing him that article and asking, "So what newspaper have YOU been reading?" In fact, the future world of Spin State is a close extrapolation of today's global economy, and I think a pretty balanced one. My perspective is certainly shaped by the fact that I've spent a lot of time in the third world, where the underbelly of the global economy is a little more immediately visible. But if you're looking for where the ideas in Spin State come from, you don't have to go much further than the front page of the New York Times. This is your world, folks. I'm just using science fiction to show it to you from a different angle. And if you don't like what you see, go do something about it!

SFR: What's next?

Chris: I just mailed off a contemporary fantasy that may or may not be marketed as SF and may or may not appear under my name. Now that that's done I'm working full time on a loose sequel to Spin State. It's called Spin Control, and it's set in Israel ... a place much on people's minds these days. As other writers have observed before me, it's a bit nerve-wracking to write with one eye on the evening news. But fun too, of course.

2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe