series of interviews featuring the contributors of Shine: An
Anthology of Optimistic SF edited by Jetse de Vries.]
Ken Edgett is a geologist whose research has largely focused on the planet Mars. Working at Malin Space Science Systems of San Diego, California, USA, he targeted tens of thousands of images acquired by the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. In 1997-2002, Edgett was a regular on-air contributor of 1-2 minute science education pieces for a children’s television program, Brainstorm, produced by KTVK-TV in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. He is the co-author of a children’s book, Touchdown Mars!, published in 2000, and his first published short fiction was in the 2008 anthology, Return to Luna, from Hadley Rille Books. In addition to writing, Edgett’s present effort includes that of being the Principal Investigator for a camera aboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, launching in 2011.
interview. First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?
I’ve always enjoyed the exploration what is possible (or, at least, conceivable)–possible futures and the consequences “if this goes on” or “if someone came up with this new thing. ” What I really enjoy, though, is to be presented with an amazing image–or imagery–something that grabs me and never lets go. It can be a whole story, and the way that story is presented, like Ray Bradbury’s (F&SF, March 1954) “All Summer in a Day.” Or it can be a single scene, a single “wow!”– like what is seen in the view of Orion’s belt from a planet orbiting Barnard’s Star in Wolf Read’s (Analog, June 1997) “The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring”–I’ve not been able to shake that one from my head, it was so cool. Or it can be just the general “feel” of a piece, like the sense of pastoral calm I get in reading some of Clifford D. Simak’s work or it can be an interesting concept like Caitlín R. Kiernan “Species of One.”
CT: What made you decide to write science fiction?
KE: I don’t really remember–I was 9. And I guess it seemed very natural (to me) at the time. The various things in my childhood that sparked my imagination were once the stuff of science fiction, particularly television coverage of people walking on the moon and the early robotic exploration of the planets.
But I didn’t really write much over the past few decades–I was busy doing other things… But, at some point in the last few years, I realized that I needed to get back to this. I got interested in Mars in part because of the things I wrote–about Joe the Martian–when I was 9. This interest took me down a particular career path that today has me involved with several robotic Mars missions. However, for the sake of my soul, I needed to get back to writing fiction.
CT: How has your work as a geologist influenced your writing?
KE: As a professional scientist, I spend a lot of time writing and explaining ideas and concepts to others. Most of the writing is in research papers and proposals. Page space is usually at a premium and papers and (especially) funding proposals have to be concise. Typically, my writing must paint a picture in the reader’s head that shows them what I am trying to tell them, especially in a proposal. I feel that this kind of writing experience has helped me immensely in writing fiction.
Further, as a geologist, one develops a broad and deep sense of time, the immensity of the universe, and our place in it. One comes to appreciate that change is always taking place and that stars, planets, and living species can come and go in the blink of the universe’s eye. Those influence my perspective on the world and I feel they influence the things I bring forth in my fiction. Of course, I also enjoy inserting a bit of geology in a piece of fiction, where it fits.
CT: What’s the appeal of Mars for you?
KE: It’s a place.
And a neighbor.
And a little more hospitable than our other neighboring worlds.
I didn’t realize this until I was in my 30s and I saw a re-run on television, and it hit me–I think Mars began to fascinate me, as a child, with an episode of the “Flintstones” cartoon. In this one episode, the main characters were transported to the future and then went on a trip to Mars and saw cool creatures and weird landscapes there.
In that cartoon, Mars was a place.
Mars further became a real place to me upon reading Robert Silverberg’s kids’ book, “Lost Race of Mars,” when the children found a kitten in Xanthe. “Xanthe?” I realized then that the places on Mars have names. Exotic-sounding names (especially to a 7- or 8-year-old with no concept of the origin of these names).
And then Viking 1 landed on Mars. And took its first pictures. It was indeed a place, and the pictures were, for me, like looking through a window.
I wanted to open that window, climb out there, and go for a walk.
CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology?
KE: I was intrigued by the premise of writing a very near-future story in which the characters try to do something to make the world a better place. This seemed really challenging to me–the problems are so big, and it is so difficult for me, all by myself, to imagine how to fix any of the really big things. So I wanted to give this a shot. In some ways, it was an exploration of my own mind–what do I think can change the world? I think the answer is that big changes start with small things—or sometimes, perhaps, big things–but, really, it’s about individuals or teams with a vision, an ability to articulate that vision, and an opportunity to act on it.
As I wrote “Paul Kishosha’s Children,” and submitted it, though, I still didn’t think I’d written what Jetse de Vries was looking for, but I liked what I’d written and I had a great time doing the research and putting the story together. The process of considering the kind of fiction that de Vries wants to see really changed how I think about the kind of science fiction I’ll write in the future. Further, I knew that if nothing else came of this story, I’d been personally changed by the process and by what I Iearned–especially about the story’s setting in Tanzania–along the way.
CT: What was the most difficult aspect in writing the story?
KE: I was visiting friends in Vancouver, B. C., Canada, one day in 1990. I remember at one point driving into a neighborhood of Indian immigrants. My windows were rolled down. Coming in through those windows was the most wonderful smell, like curry powder. It was a magical moment. It is not something I would have imagined I’d find in Vancouver, it was only something I could know by going there.
The most difficult thing about writing “Paul Kishosha’s Children” is that I’ve never been to the story’s setting in Mwanza, Tanzania. It’s risky to write about a place on Earth where you have never been. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What do you see as you wander the streets and meet the people that live there? How do they greet each other? Do they greet each other?
A major help in answering these questions came from reading blogs written by tourists, students, aid workers, and missionaries from Europe and North America that have spent time (and a few that still are) in Mwanza. I also read local news, meteorological records, and looked at a lot of pictures and maps. But none of these could really tell me much about what I’d hear or smell if i were there, nor some of the subtle aspects of cultural interaction in that setting. Having thought so much about Mwanza–not just while writing the story, but ever since then, as well–I’ve found that I will eventually have to go there. My imagination has been captivated.
CT: What I enjoyed about your particular story is how a small thing–a cartoon–rippled into something larger. How did you come up with this idea?
KE: The story is about something I’d like to really see happen. And I think it can be done.
Forty-one years ago, U.S. public television began airing an educational children’s television program, “Sesame Street.” Through a very entertaining format, young kids learn their alphabet, basic words, math, and various cultural lessons. This program is still running and the model has been applied in television programs in many other countries and regions around the world to educate children while at the same time entertaining them. The model is wonderful. And many of the characters originally developed through this program are widely recognized, such as Kermit the Frog.
At the same time, children then and now seem–to me, at least–to get a flawed message about science and scientists through the same medium, television. Cartoons and films will have “mad scientists” or the “lone scientist who invents a contraption in his basement or garage or laboratory in a spooky castle”. The scientists are usually white, male, and “geeky” or strange. In the 1990s, Saturday morning television in the U.S. had a couple of shows designed to help improve science education of children–but these, too, featured white males who acted strangely and–I feel–reinforced stereotypes about “what is a scientist?” U.S. television shows for adults, as well, have far too often portrayed scientists in stereotypical ways.
So, I’ve had this idea for some years to take the Joe the Martian and Beauty the Leopard characters the reader will meet in “Paul Kishosha’s Children” and apply them to doing something like “Sesame Street,” but for science education and for an audience of a wider range in ages than the “Sesame Street” audience. Doing that is a lot more challenging than writing about it, so I decided (for now) to write about it.
CT: How much of this was autobiographical?
KE: None of it, really. Except for the genesis of “Joe the Martian” in spelling homework assignments. Various aspects of the story, of course, are drawn from people I have known and situations I have been in, but much of it comes from the research I did while preparing to write the story.
CT: How much has changed from your original stories of Joe the Martian in 1975?
KE: You’ve done your homework! I did indeed write “Joe the Martian” stories as a 9-year-old in 1975. I wrote 5 of them and they took place in various settings throughout the Solar System. The full text of one of those stories is captured in “Paul Kishosha’s Children” but I changed a few minor things to fit the Tanzanian setting. Essentially, “Paul Kishosha’s Children” is a collaboration between me and my 9-year-old self.
CT: You’ve co-written a children’s book before, Touchdown Mars! How different or similar is writing for children compared to writing for adults?
KE: “Touchdown Mars!” is a picture book. There are only a few sentences on each page, and the artwork is a key to carrying the story forward–although, in this case, the artwork was done after the text was written, and the text does not actually say anything about what the artwork shows (for example, the artwork includes a cat, but the text says nothing about a cat). The children’s book is therefore very multidimensional—the text tells a story and the pictures tell a story, and these can be taken together or separately. A child who cannot yet read can still make sense of the book–and enjoy it–from the illustrations alone.
When writing the children’s book, my coauthor, Peggy Wethered, and I were not envisioning anything quite like the amazing scenes that the artist, Michael Chesworth, created for the book.
When writing for adults, though, I am seeing each scene in my head as if I am watching a movie: What do I need to write that will run this movie in the reader’s head? What details do I need to share, and which details can be left to the imagination?
CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world? How?
KE: I don’t really know. It can certainly be a means by which ideas are communicated to people who might go on to change the world by acting on those ideas.
As noted earlier, I tend to think that world-changing comes from individuals or teams with a certain vision and an ability to articulate and act on that vision. It may be something small that grows into something big, or it may be something big from the outset. It may be big but no one really realizes how big until the implications are realized many years later.
I suppose it is possible, and perhaps has already happened, that a vision that led to some key change was sparked by an idea in a piece of science fiction–a story, a novel, a comic, a television show, a film. Certainly, SF has been out ahead of some of the key changes that actually have taken place in the world, and authors have explored (and are still exploring), sometimes decades before the change became reality, what might be impact of that change.
CT: In your opinion, why is it important to retain one’s sense of optimism?
KE: The universe is a big place. Yet we only know of 1 place where life exists. Most of the universe is quite hostile to life. Even our own planet is hostile–people and other animals and plants die in earthquakes, floods, and so forth all the time. Many species have come and gone from this Earth and, as far as I know, all individual living things on our planet eventually die.
In a universe like that–hostile to life and everybody dies–what is there to be optimistic about? What hope can we possibly have?
The hostile universe is not devoid of life. Earth is teeming with life. No matter how hard things have gotten on Earth–and there have been times like at the end of the Permian when it got pretty bleak–life hangs on. And after nearly 4.5 billion years, a story-telling species–capable of contemplating the hostile universe from which it sprang–comes along.
I think the fact that our minds exist at all in this universe is a very hopeful, optimistic thing. It should amaze all of us that we even exist. Yet, we die. Frankly, that troubles me… all those lifetimes of experience and knowledge and wisdom that have come before us that are now, basically, gone. But some of that information survives. We pass on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. They teach their children and grandchildren how to do things. They have even write some of it down and that information might last for centuries or millennia. The very acts of giving birth to new generations and sharing what you and others know with those later generations… those things are the very embodiment of optimism.
CT: Anything else you want to plug?
KE: Usually I think an author would answer this question by talking about an upcoming publication. Ok, I’ll plug SHINE.
Go out and buy SHINE and give it a read.
But then I’m going to tell you about something “Shiney” happening in Tanzania, the country of “Paul Kishosha.” Jetse de Vries accepted “Paul Kishosha’s Children” for SHINE in August 2009. In January 2010, I found a new blog that first appeared online in December 2009–that is, after I’d written my story and after it was accepted for SHINE.
What I found is that there is a group of Tanzanian scientists and educators that are doing something very exciting and not all that far removed from the essence of what Paul Kishosha does in the story. This group, UNAWE-Tanzania/Kids Sky Exploration Project (http://unawetanzania.wordpress.com/), is using astronomy as a hook for science education in a country where this type of approach has apparently been missing for years. I am very excited by what these folks are doing, and you can tell from their blog that so are they.