[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of Shine: An
Anthology of Optimistic SF edited by Jetse de Vries.]
Eric Gregory’s stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Black Static, Sybil’s Garage, and more. He has also written non-fiction for Fantasy Magazine and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him online at ericmg.com.
interview. First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?
I love the flexibility of SF. It lends itself both to big, serious questions and wild imagination. You see genre writers take a particular sort of glee in invention, the sort of glee that’s infectious. And it’s precisely that creative flexibility that makes the genre such a strong platform for questioning why things (systems of governance, energy policies, war machines) work the way they do, and how they might–for better or worse–work differently.
CT: What made you decide to write
EG: I never really sat down and said,
I’m going to write SF now.” But in an indirect sort of way, I
guess it was my grandfather’s fault. When I was eight or nine, he gave
me an anthology of Hugo and Nebula winners from Asimov’s; I
remember Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain” and Terry Bisson’s “Bears
Discover Fire” blowing my mind one right after the other. I jumped
from Asimov’s to the novel version of Beggars in Spain
and from there to Starship Troopers and Rendezvous with Rama,
not always understanding what I read but loving it all the more for
that. SF was such a foundational part of my first serious reading
that its values and protocols are etched pretty deep into my sense of
what a story should do. Even when I sit down and tell myself that I’m
going to write a piece of stern, grounded realism, I usually find a
way to make it strange.
CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology? Did you find
the criteria of near-future optimistic SF difficult?
EG: When I heard what Jetse was trying
to do with Shine, I thought, “Oh, cool. I’d like to
read more fiction like that.” And the desire to read fed the desire
to write. I didn’t find the optimism or near-futurism particularly
but once I got into it, I definitely felt myself stretching some
muscles. I hadn’t realized how many (spoiler alert) dreary or
ambivalent endings I’d written until I wrote a really happy one.
CT: What’s the appeal of optimistic science fiction for you?
EG: When you write a piece of optimistic
SF, you’re necessarily making an argument about what constitutes
positive development, and that allows for a very cool sort of
about progress. If some Richard Branson-ite zillionaire starts carrying
wealthy space-tourists to the rings of Saturn, is that really
a good thing? Why? For whom? If we develop cleaner nuclear tech, who
will it benefit? What happens to the people sitting on high
of thorium or whatever?
I’m not particularly interested in
stories that read like policy proposals, but when a future is framed
as “optimistic” or “better” or even just “feasible,”
I think it really challenges the reader to interrogate the story, to
riff and talk back and toss up alternatives. And I like that dynamic.
CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world?
EG: Yup. It’s already changed the
world–inspiring NASA engineers, programmers, etc, etc–so I guess
the question is really whether it’ll continue to inspire. And I think
so. Writers like Paolo Bacigalupi are edging into the pop-cultural
talking about energy and agriculture and journalism as SFnal subjects,
sparking serious (and often just-plain-cool) discussions within the
context of SF. We’re not living in the future of starships and moon
colonies, but we are living in the future. A messy, dizzyingly
complicated, unevenly distributed future. It’s only natural that the
stories we tell about ourselves turn more science fictional. And those
stories have power.
CT: What made you decide to set “The Earth of Yunhe” in a Chinese
EG: The first story I started for Shine
actually took place pretty close to my home, in the Blue Ridge
Mountains of southwest Virginia. In that story, a man named Xiaohao
searched for a way to reclaim environments flooded by coal waste (as,
in the real world, one Tennessee town was flooded in December 2008).
That story grew–and continues to grow–way, way beyond the sort of
wordcount Jetse was looking for, so I started looking for another idea
for Shine. Even as I puzzled over different concepts, different
characters, I kept returning to Xiaohao. I wondered what motivated him,
what would happen once he found his answers. “The Earth of Yunhe”
grew out of those questions, and I ended up following my character home.
CT: What research did you have to do
for the story?
EG: First (and probably most invisibly),
I researched recent coal waste disasters. Silas House and Jason Howard’s
Something Rising has a lot of powerful firsthand accounts of small
communities’ struggles with coal crises, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Once I realized where my story was going, I started reading Chinese
fiction, travel books, online news from both within and without. With
a complex of cultures as broad, rich, and ancient as China, reading
could only carry me so far, but I tried to learn enough to write the
CT: Moving on to your writing in general, what were the challenges you had
to overcome before getting published?
EG: I wrote short stories for a few years
before realizing that publishing was even an option–my friends and
I workshopped with no real goal apart from entertaining one another.
Once I found the nerve, once I started submitting, I sold my first story
pretty quickly. The biggest challenge came after: working out what I’d
done right, and then trying to replicate it.
CT: What is it about the short story
format that appeals to you?
EG: As a reader, I love the leanness
of a good short story or novella–so many novels just don’t need 300
pages to do their business, and end up diluting themselves with bloat.
(Far as I’m concerned, Gemma Files and Stephen Barringer’s “each thing
i show you is a piece of my death” is what House of Leaves
wants to be when it grows up.) The best short stories stick in my head
the way a song does–the tight focus, the sheer concentration of ideas,
makes them hard to forget.
As a writer, I like that I can
complete and sell a short story within the same geologic age. I like
that I can take a few days (or, um, longer) to explore a world on a
whim. You can experiment with genres and structures and loopy premises,
and if it doesn’t work out, hey. No big loss. It’s nice to be able to
sit back and say, “Okay, it’s just a story.”
CT: Anything else you want to plug?
EG: I’ve got a story forthcoming in
Futurismic that takes place on the other side of the same world
as “The Earth of Yunhe.” That should be up in a couple of months.
A few fantasy and horror stories are set to come out later in the year.
I’ve been kind of lax lately, but I blog about SF, books, music, and
whatever else comes to mind at http://ericmg.com.