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BEING GARDNER DOZOIS

AN INTERVIEW WITH GARDNER DOZOIS

 

by

MICHAEL SWANWICK

 

 

Produced by Advent:Publishers, a subsidiary of ReAnimus Press

 

Also check out: Sense of Wonder, Short Fiction Reviews by Gardner Dozois (2009-2017)

 

 

 

© 2018 by Michael Swanwick. All rights reserved.

 

http://ReAnimus.com/store?author=michaelswanwick

 

Cover art by Omar Rayyan 

 

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For Susan Casper

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Table of Contents

An Interview With Gardner Dozois

A Bibliography of First Publications

About the Author

 

An Interview With Gardner Dozois

1

It loomed huge and ugly on the intersection of the Street of Fools, the fitful yellow glow that streamed from its crescent windows straining vainly to pierce the moonless gloom of the planet’s long night.”

 

Your first story was “The Empty Man,” which appeared in the September 1966 issue of Fred Pohl’s WORLDS OF IF.

 

Gardner Dozois: God help us all.

 

You wrote that when you were seventeen.

 

Gardner Dozois: More or less. I may even have been a little younger when I actually wrote the story.

 

It came out when you were in the Army?

 

Gardner Dozois: I received notice that it had sold when I was in basic training, in fact. I got to revel in this for about a minute—Wow! I’m a real writer—and then some sergeant was kicking me in the ass and yelling obscenities, so the moment passed quickly. But I did get a couple of minutes to revel in it. The story appeared later that same year, but I was overseas in Germany by the time it actually appeared and I didn’t receive a copy until some months later.

 

It’s obviously a young work—

 

Gardner Dozois: Sucks! is the way we describe it in technical language.

 

But looking over it I was struck by what an elaborate background history you had created—the superman Jhon Charlton teamed with the alien doorkeeper Moros, the enigma of the Cube of Darkness on Milhar II, and so on...

 

Gardner Dozois: Well, this shows you that the sins of your youth always come back to haunt you. All I can say is that you should read some of the stories that didn’t get into print. They’re even worse. To understand this story, if anyone wants to make the effort (and I can’t understand why anyone would bother), you have to realize that at that point of time, WORLDS OF IF magazine under Fred Pohl was running several series of interstellar spy stories of various sorts. There was the Retief series written by Keith Laumer, there was the Gree series that was written by C.C. MacApp. Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry stories. Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series, probably the best series of this kind ever done. Some of Zelazny’s early stuff. Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series also functioned as this sort of thing, to a large extent. I had been impressed by these stories and that’s why I produced this particular story, which is full of interstellar spy hugger-mugger and superpowered mutants and people who overthrow planet wide civilizations singlehandedly, and so on and so forth.

I fairly rapidly outgrew this. It’s probably just as well.

 

Looking at the story I thought it might have been conceived as part of a possible novel, but you say it was part of a series?

 

Gardner Dozois: No, I had not even thought of writing a novel at that point. Once again influenced by the fact that there were these linked series of intergalactic spy stories appearing in WORLDS OF IF magazine, I came up with the idea of writing several linked stories in this shared background. I did in fact write a semi-sequel to this particular story, which fortunately has been lost from human ken. And I wrote, I believe, one other story that shared a vague background with this story, but that also has been lost. Perhaps fortunately, Fred didn’t buy any more of these, or my early career might have looked somewhat different than it ended up looking. I think I was safe, though. I am firmly convinced that the only reason that Fred bought this one in the first place was that he had painted himself into a corner at WORLDS OF IF magazine with his announced policy that he would publish a “first sale” story in every issue of the magazine. That meant that for every issue—and WORLDS OF IF was monthly at that point—he had to come up with a writer who had never sold anyplace before, and that’s hard to do and find good stories every month at the same time. He did remarkably well, considering the constraints on him, but I am convinced that the only reason “The Empty Man” got into print was because there was nothing else that month in the slush pile that was not even worse. Which doesn’t say much for what else was in the slush pile that month.

 

Your original title for this was “Prometheus Revisited.”

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, that’s the original or pretentious version. Fred changed this to “The Empty Man,” and in fact “The Empty Man” is a better title for it than “Prometheus Revisited.”

 

I have to say that for an intergalactic spy story this is very dark. The hero is more a figure of contempt and pity than admiration, so obviously you were trying for something a little deeper even then.

 

Gardner Dozois: I guess this was a reaction to the stuff I was reading in the magazines at the time, the stuff that I was imitating in the first place. Not much of a reaction, perhaps, but even then you can see my tendencies toward bleak pretentiousness stirring and raising their ugly little heads here and there.

This is the first story that I actually sold. It wasn’t the first story I submitted, however. There was a process that went back beyond this sale for a couple of years. I had the usual writer’s background of scribbling stories and incomplete story fragments in notebooks, little spiral notebooks in my case, Dime Store tablet type notebooks. Fortunately, all of this stuff has been lost, or somebody would no doubt dig it out at some point and humiliate me with it. But I went through the usual stages. I can remember writing a vast interplanetary epic in which someone is teleported to Mars in a manner suspiciously similar to that in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series, and has adventures and sword fights for several notebook tablets, until I got tired of writing it. I never did come up with an ending for that.

I wrote another unfinished Dime Store tablet space epic that was strongly influenced by A. Merritt’s THE DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, full of Very Tall People who had swords and lots of Aryan angst; everyone was blond, of course. About the same period, I wrote another fragmentary epic about Earthmen who find out that the Moon is honeycombed with tunnels left over from a former Lunar civilization, and they run into the Moonmen, who have been hiding down there since the Moon ceased to be habitable, and they all have lots of gun battles and sword-fights with each other in the tunnels—mostly because I couldn’t think of anything else that they could do with each other—until I lost interest in the story and gave up on it.

 

Another early masterpiece, which I actually finished, was a long sword & sorcery story featuring a pair of heroes, one big and muscular, the other small and wily, who bore an amazing resemblance, suspiciously enough, to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I planned to write a whole series of stories about these characters, but never did, unfortunately for Fritz Leiber’s lawyers, who probably could have used the work (actually, I think that I was safe enough, since I doubt very much that any magazine would have published them in the first place).

A little later on I filled up notebooks writing Henry Kuttner-like ironic short stories, except with no talent. None of these things ever got to the stage where I submitted them to magazines, and, if I had, they would have come right back, deservedly enough. But in fact, I never even thought about submitting stories at this point. The possibility never crossed my mind.

Somewhere about in the middle of high school, it occurred to me that one could indeed submit stories to science fiction magazines with the hope of actually getting them published. I believe this was suggested to me by the little disclaimer below the masthead in most science fiction magazines, where it says they are not responsible for unsolicited manuscripts. Which, if you think about it, means that they do get unsolicited manuscripts and that it would be possible therefore for you to send them an unsolicited manuscript, and perhaps they would buy it! Before I had made that mental leap, I’m not sure I realized where stories came from, or that it was possible for someone who had not been born to the purple or grown on a writer farm somewhere in New Jersey to actually submit a story for publication. But once I made this mental leap, I then began to actually submit stories to magazines. I submitted three or four stories over the next couple of years until I finally got my first personal response, a request for a rewrite on what would become “The Empty Man.”

At least one of these stories, I believe it’s the first story I ever actually submitted to a magazine, still exists in my papers at Temple University. If anyone is masochistic enough, they can go up there and look at it. It’s about five pages long. A guy wakes up in a coffin, claws his way in panic out of the coffin and out of the grave, then stands dumbly around in the graveyard for a couple of paragraphs until he realizes that he really is dead after all, then he sort of sighs and mumbles “Oh, shit,” and slumps back into the grave. No plot, no ending. As you can see, I was already forging the literary habits of later years. FANTASTIC wisely rejected this beauty. I don’t know the exact date on that, but probably it was sometime around my sophomore year of high school. Which would make it, I guess, about ‘62, somewhere in there at any rate.

A bit later, I did a story for F&SF’s “unicorn and Univac” contest, which was a challenge to new writers to write a story based on a poem by Doris Pitkin Buck about a unicorn meeting a Univac. My entry didn’t win, and is fortunately lost. Greg Benford won that contest, and you can still find his entry in print if you look for it, which goes to show you that winning isn’t everything. Even today, decades later, a yellowing manuscript will occasionally show up in the slush pile that has a unicorn and a Univac in it for no particular reason, and you know it was an entry in that contest.

 

~~~

 

2

Robinson had been driving for nearly two days, across Pennsylvania, up through the sooty barrens of New Jersey, pushing both the car and himself with desperation. Exhaustion had stopped him once in a small, rotting coast town, filled with disintegrating clapboard buildings and frightened pale faces peering from behind tight-closed shutters.”

 

So you sold your first story, the Army got you, and four years later broke into print again. Your second published story was “Where No Sun Shines,” which appeared in Damon Knight’s ORBIT 6 in 1970.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, although it was not the second story that I actually wrote after that. The chronology is somewhat complicated in here, between the actual dates of composition and the dates of publication. While I was in the Army I produced several stories, some of which would eventually get into print, and most of which would not. Most of them are lost. I produced a couple of semi-sequels, as I said, to “The Empty Man.” I produced another early comic thriller called “Point of Law,” which still exists in rough draft at Temple University, God help us all. I produced a few other stories, and two short novels, one of which, called NO PLACE ON EARTH, is lost. The other one was called DANEGELD in the original, and, several years later, ended up being expanded by George Alec Effinger and myself into a determinedly mediocre novel called NIGHTMARE BLUE. Which actually did get published. I might have been tempted to do the same thing with the other short novel, which was no worse, but fortunately, it was lost in transit back to the States. However, I did write “Where No Sun Shines” toward the end of my army career. I had written a story called “A Dream at Noonday” beforehand, but it was published subsequently. At some time in here, during my army years, I produced a number of stories that did eventually get into print, but not until years later, like “Wires,” “Conditioned Reflex,” “In a Crooked Year.” Just after my army days, while I was still living in Europe, about the same time I was writing “Horse of Air,” I produced a story called “A Traveler in an Antique Land,” which wasn’t published until about twenty years later. Probably with a good deal of justification. But yes, “Where No Sun Shines” was my first sale after “The Empty Man.” A long dry spell—well, not dry spell, since I was producing, but a long discouraging period later, where I had made my first sale and then everything I wrote later, when I could snatch time to write in the Army, was being rejected. This went on for years. So it was with a certain sense of relief that I did sell “Where No Sun Shines,” because I was beginning to wonder if the first had been a fluke or a flash in the pan.

 

Where No Sun Shines” is a dark story, both literally and figuratively, set mostly at night. I note one scene where Robinson is stopped at a police roadblock. There’s a series of long paragraphs describing what Robinson is seeing and feeling and thinking, then abruptly there’s a one-sentence paragraph: “He suddenly snapped the visa closed.” You said you were trying for a cinematic effect there?

 

Gardner Dozois: Yeah, well, that’s one of a number of effects I tried for. Probably with indifferent success. To reproduce a cinematic technique. You can do that with film quite easily, but it’s much harder to do that on the printed page. I was trying to lull the reader and then startle him with a sudden movement. Make him jump when he gets to that line. How successfully this came off, I don’t know, but that was the intent, to make the reader jerk, to give him a start.

 

The difficulties the country is going through are pretty much unspecified. There’s a suggestion it’s a black revolution, because at one point when the soldier sees a black man hiding, he immediately shoots him. Was this what you intended?

 

Gardner Dozois: Well, you have to understand that in the context of the times. The country had just gone through a number of major race riots—the Detroit riot, the Watts riot—and this story was a perhaps not particularly daring attempt to suggest that if things continued along these lines, we might actually end up in a full-scale race war, where black would be pitted against white. And, obviously, the whites are winning. The intention of the story is to show some white people functioning as an underground railroad to smuggle black people who would otherwise be exterminated to some sort of unspecified place where they would be safe, a place of freedom. And, of course, these people are intercepted and—these are the people in the van, not the narrator, who is just an observer—they’re all killed.

I did at one point have notes, which still exist, in fact, for a novel in which the United States has been plunged into this sort of social situation, and there is a racial war going on. But I never did actually write that, I think because I realized that a good deal of it would have had to be written from the black perspective, and I didn’t really trust my ability to convincingly write from the experience of a black ghetto dweller. So I gave up on that plan somewhere along the line.

 

In the opening sections of the story, the reader doesn’t really know what’s going on. Robinson, the narrator, is traveling by car and sleeping in gas stations with a tire iron in his hand. It’s not until very near the end that you reveal there’s a perfectly innocent reason for this. He’s simply been stranded away from home when the airlines closed.

 

Gardner Dozois: Just someone who’s been caught in the mechanism of social chaos. Which, at the time I was writing this story, seemed like a very real thing that could happen to you. Few people remember how close to the brink of total social chaos the United States seemed to be at that time. At least to my eyes, and I don’t think I was alone in this perception, it didn’t seem you would have to heighten this much more before systems began to fall apart completely and brutal repressions and reactions began to occur. And I think we did skirt fairly close to that, in fact. I find it interesting that this story is now becoming topical again. If the story didn’t already exist, I could probably write it and sell it again now, and people would take it as a warning for the years ahead. There was a time in the seventies when this story began to look dated and no longer applicable to current social happenings, but I’m afraid that it’s beginning to look more and more topical again as the years go by.

 

~~~

 

3

I remember the sky, and the sun burning in the sky like a golden penny flicked into a deep blue pool, and the scuttling white clouds that changed into magic ships and whales and turreted castles as they drifted up across that bottomless ocean and swam the equally bottomless sea of my mind’s eye. I remember the winds that skimmed the clouds, smoothing and rippling them into serene grandeur or boiling them into froth. I remember the same wind dipping low to caress the grass, making it sway and tremble, or whipping through the branches of the trees and making them sing with a wild, keening organ note. I remember the silence that was like a bronzen shout echoing among the hills.”

 

Your next story was “A Dream at Noonday,” in ORBIT 7 in 1970, which you said was written just before “Where No Sun Shines.”

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, several months before, I think. It was the first story that I was actually pleased with. Everything else I’d done to that point, I had serious misgivings about, even the published story. But “A Dream at Noonday” was the first story I wrote that I was ever pleased with, really, that I felt really functioned on a somewhat higher level than the stories I’d been turning out previously. So for me it represented a quantum jump in sophistication above what I had been turning out before. Making it at least the second quantum jump that I had gone through in my evolution up to this point, because at some point I stopped writing the interstellar spy stories and started writing more consciously arty anti-war type stories, several of which later got printed. But this was a quantum jump in sophistication above them.

Unusually for me—since I don’t usually work this way—I wrote “A Dream at Noonday” all in one session of about two hours, in a sort of white heat. I sat down after work, in fact, in the newspaper office where I worked in the Army, and after everyone else went off, I just sat there at my typewriter and ripped this story off. It just came rushing out, with hardly any pre-planning at all. That’s not the way I usually write. It’s only happened a few times that I’ve produced a story that way, all in one sitting, as fast as I could type. So obviously there was something boiling just under the surface in subconscious there, and the pressure reached a certain pitch and the story just forced its way out.

 

In this story, you alternate two lines, the “I remember” line, in past tense and the “It is raining” line in present tense. The memory passages are very rich and evocative where the present time with the protagonist lying in the mud in the rain dying, is very closely described and detached and cold.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, well, the idea in the other passages was to give a very cinematic effect, where everything was described in a very dispassionate, objective, cold way, as if you were seeing it through the eye of a camera. He doesn’t feel anything about what he is seeing there. The emotion is all in the memory passages, the reminiscences. And perhaps to a certain extent that’s because the narrator is, after all, dead.

 

I was about to ask you about that. All through the story, from the very beginning, he’s dead throughout?

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, he’s dead from the very start of the story. From before the start of the story. “Marley was dead, to begin with.”

 

And he doesn’t know it yet.

 

Gardner Dozois: Well, whether he knows it or not is a question that I don’t really get into. I did picture him as being dead from before the start of the story, however. The genesis of the story was a remark that I heard that in combat they break the dog tags in half when they can’t immediately recover the body, and they jam the half of the dog tag between the teeth of the corpse so they can identify the body later when they have a chance to pick it up. When I heard that I had a very vivid sensory flash of having this dog tag jammed between my teeth, I could taste the cold metal and feel it wedging my teeth apart, and that led me into viewing what the whole experience would be like from the viewpoint of someone who was dead but still perceiving what was happening to him. That was at least one of the seeds of the story.

The memories just evolved as I wrote it. He had to have something he was thinking about while he was dead, after all, and I figured he would be picturing his past life. Dwelling on his past rather than on the moment itself, which was just being observed from his viewpoint in a very dispassionate way. As though the dead can only really live in their memories.

 

The first set of memories had a terrific description of trains, the boy thinking they run about hunting and mating in the night. Other images come in strongly of magic caves, of people snickering at him, and of sex, and then in the last memory before he enters the Army, in the train station, you pulled all of these into one image when he’s staring down the tunnel with the train approaching and thinks that it looks like a magic cave. I thought that was very crafty of you.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yeah, well, actually most of these images are from my life, in somewhat modified form on occasion, but basically from my own childhood. The images of the trains outside the windows were things I can remember thinking as a child. We lived near a freight yard when I was a young child and you could hear the freight trains slamming and booming most of the night. So that stuff was there. There’s a bit of romanticizing in the middle, in that I did not have a girl I was interested in in school who went out with some other guy, and I saw them in a car, and so forth. I just sort of made that up. Nevertheless the basic emotions, the basic images are from my own life. Including the moment in the train station, which is a very odd moment I’ve subsequently seen portrayed elsewhere, in a movie or two. When you leave home to go away into the Army, not knowing if you’re going to come back or not, there’s a odd poignancy to that, and that’s what I was working with in that particular scene. And I had gone through that scene myself too, because of course by the time I wrote the story, I’d been in the Army for several years. So that’s from the life as well.

One genesis of a minor point, one I always enjoyed, is that when he leaves on the train going to the army, he sees his old house, and he pictures himself looking out the window at himself going by on the train, that younger self not knowing that his older self is on the train. And indeed when I got on the train and left to go down to Boston to enter the Army, I did go by my old house and I did look out at it and have the same thought. Gave me the same kind of flash I later got from looking at Escher prints. So this material was all there to be used.

I think this is the first story where I actually tapped into personal material, rather than writing about intergalactic spies and people staggering around after the last battle on earth and things that I didn’t really experience myself. I broke through into some personal material that had some significance for me, and was able to reshape it in a fictional context so that perhaps it had some impact for other people as well. So it was an important story for me.

It also expresses fairly well a sense I’ve always had of the interconnectedness of things. I’ve always had an intuition that if you could see the hidden and secret relationships of things, you’d find out that everything was connected to everything else. That’s why all the symbols here reoccur and mix in complex cycles. It’s as if here, for once, you can see the hidden connectors. Or maybe it’s that he’s seeing those connectors for the first time, with the special clear vision of the dead. I think I get that feeling across here as well as I’ve ever done it anywhere.

 

In the background of the memory line is a character named Denny, who grows up along with him and is loathsome, who wants to kill gooks like his old man, and parallels the protagonist. Then at the very end he dies too. It hasn’t done him any good being loathsome.

 

Gardner Dozois: Denny was based on a real kid, or, rather, he’s a combination of several different kids I knew when I was in school. I did indeed hear a kid boasting in school that his father had killed a lot of gooks in the Korean War and that he hoped the Vietnam War lasted long enough so that he could get into it and kill him some gooks too. Most of those people did end up going into the Army. Several of the kids from my school went into the Army at about the same time as I did and were briefly in basic training with me. I lost track of most of them, so I have no way of knowing whether the more warlike and gung-ho of them did wind up getting killed, but it’s certainly not an unlikely scenario. Yeah, the irony was intended, the parallels were intended. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re gung-ho or reluctant. You’re fed into the meat-grinder and you end up as sausage one way or the other. Regardless of what your intentions are.

As an aside, this was one of the earliest SF stories, in American SF, anyway, to deal with the thematic experience of the Vietnam War, especially from an anti-war slant. And it was written a couple of years before it was published, too, so I’m fairly proud of that.

 

~~~

 

4

Sometimes when the weather is good I sit and look out over the city, fingers hooked through the mesh.”

 

In ORBIT 8, still in 1970, you had “Horse of Air.” You did something very strange here, where you wrote it in three different voices alternating. Why did you do that?

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, well, I was sort of flexing my literary muscles at this point. This was written after “Where No Sun Shines,” which is a fairly straightforward narrative, and as most young artists are, I was very pretentious in those days. I wanted to show that I could pull off complex effects. I was also still suffering from an intense infatuation with Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe, who had had a big effect on me while I was in the army. I was very hipped on complex structure and complex and difficult effects. I drew a complicated chart to keep what’s happening in these three time segments straight, which I may still have up in Temple.

I haven’t looked at the story for years so I’m a little shaky on this, but I think that what I wanted was that one voice always tells the objective truth, and the second voice fantasizes an exaggerated situation, and the third voice is capable of interpretation either way. I believe that is the way I set it up, although I’d have to look at the story again to be sure.

So it was a complex playing with point of view, basically.

 

Your unnamed narrator has no personal past, no personal memories, only memories of his class—we needed this, we did that. It’s an extremely impersonalized voice, it seems.

 

Gardner Dozois: Well, that’s probably because he was not so much a real character as a trope or a stylized voice. I was playing with an insight that the narrative voice of the character could lie, could say things that were not true. I was trying to show counterpoint to this by showing that an entirely different interpretation was possible to what the narrator was saying. Now my own opinion is that it’s pretty clear from the text that this guy’s just an old, broke pensioner sitting in a slum apartment and fantasizing grandiosely that he used to be rich and powerful but that they came and sealed him in and took all his money away from him. Perhaps because I was not looking at him as a sympathetic character, but more as a set of attitudes or postures, his actual individual past doesn’t come into it. But I try to show this shift from one perspective—one way of looking at things—to the other throughout the story. Where he’ll say one thing about the way things are, and then he’ll be contradicted by the other voice. You can interpret it the other way around if you wish, that it’s the voice of the plutocrat that’s telling the truth and it’s the other voice that is lying, I suppose it would work out just as well that way, but I think it’s more likely that it’s really the other way around.

At any rate, for its time it’s a highly experimental story, for American SF, anyway, and I don’t know where it would’ve gotten into print if Damon Knight had not bought it for ORBIT. It probably wouldn’t have gotten into print. And even for today it’s somewhat weirder than is the norm for most short stories. Probably wouldn’t sell in today’s market, either. Mostly it was just me flexing my literary muscles and being as pretentious as possible. Although I did spend a lot of time carefully working out that this would all work out. So I wasn’t just being pretentious. I was being pretentious but putting some work into it too.

 

~~~

 

5

March 3

Started our shift underground today. Goodbye to the world again for a while I guess.”

 

One more story came out in 1970, “The Sound of Muzak,” which appeared in QUARK 1, edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, “The Sound of Muzak” is second or third draft, drastically reshaped, of a story that I started in the Army. I had written an early draft of this which was only a few pages long, and then later I revised it and lengthened it. And then later still, when I was out of the Army but still living in Europe, I revised and lengthened it yet again, and it was this version I finally ended up selling to QUARK. In its basic couple-of-pages format it was shamelessly and almost totally stolen from a story called “Game” by Donald Barthelme which I had found in a Judy Merrill anthology, which was about two men in a missile bunker whose job it was to shoot off the ICBMs, and they go slowly insane. I pretty much just stole this and rewrote it in the original version of the story. I later got somewhat embarrassed and added a good deal more stuff to make it different from the Barthelme story. In the third draft I included an entire new counterpoint plotline and—naturally—made the structure much more complex.

 

You have a terrifically scary line in here early on, “Furniture is more important than people.” I was wondering if you had any comment on that since it seems to fit thematically into a lot of your work.

 

Gardner Dozois: I had been hired by the United Furniture Dealers of America to put this bit of propaganda into the story. Furniture sales all over America soared shortly after the story’s release.

Well, yeah, that is a motif that has cropped up in my fiction from time to time. The people who are alienated and affectless enough are more comfortable with things than dealing with other people. In fact much of my writing, particularly my early writing, can be seen as a series of stories about failed attempts at communication in one form or another, probably culminating in my novel STRANGERS, where the entire plot revolves around the inability to communicate fundamental information about the nature of reality to each other.

 

You alternate between diary entries and present time, which is an effect you also used in “A Dream at Noonday,” past and present alternating. Is there any particular significance to the diary’s dates, March third through April sixteenth?

 

Gardner Dozois: Yeah, there was, although it’s so rococo that I now realize that it’s unfair to expect any reader to actually grasp this. But, as I say, I was more pretentious in those days. I believe the intention was that the dates go from the beginning of Lent to Easter, of course the implication being that at Easter the rock will be rolled away and they rise from the dead, except that they don’t. So that was the rococo and arcane symbolism of the dates. In fact, I did actually sit down and carefully work them out at one point—although whether I did it correctly or not is anybody’s guess, since math has never been my strong suit—but that was what I intended for the dates, at any rate.

Once again here, we have a story where my major concern was playing with the reliability of events or different perceptions of reality. Many of the people and the physical surroundings described in the story are people and surroundings that I had known in the Army. The basic thrust of the story is that they think that they have a choice, but it turns out that they never did have a choice to begin with. It’s even bleaker than some of my other stories from the time, because they fight and argue about whether they should open the door and go back up to the surface without orders to do so, and even kill each other over it, and then it turns out at the end that they couldn’t have opened the door in the first place. This has never been an option for them. The non-diary time line takes place after they have discovered this. They know now that there are no choices for them, and it’s driven them all mad to one degree or another. Again, a very pretentious story, obviously by a young writer.

 

The mad Major in the middle of the story tells a little fable, where he says “Listen, let me tell you about security.” He tells a wonderfully pointless story about being on guard with a loaded pistol when a civilian tries to inspect the plane.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, indeed, this story was told to me almost verbatim by somebody who was trying to explain security to us at some point during my army career. Many of my stories, this one in particular, perhaps, were reactions to my being completely sick of the Army and the Army mentality. I wrote a number of them, and then realized that I would eventually have to get into some material other than just being displeased with the army mentality, so eventually I did move on. But this reaction did sort of dominate my early work.

I think there are some good parts to this story. It probably is not really successful overall.

 

Earlier you said your complaint was against the aesthetic of the military.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, this story’s mostly understandable as my reaction against the aesthetic of the military, and as a long criticism of military mentality. The patriotic posters that I describe him looking at are real patriotic posters that I had to stare at at one time or another in my army career. I was being sort of indignant about this.

It’s a pretty hopeless story. I mean, many of my stories I can think up a rationalization why they’re actually upbeat after all, but it’s hard to think of such a rationalization for this story. Not only is it completely hopeless but it was hopeless before the action of the story actually begins. Everything has been worked out. All the drama takes place in the diary sections which have already happened. In the real-time of the story, everything is hopeless and the situation has already worked itself down to a bloody status quo from which they can go no further except by dying. So, a pretty bleak story on the whole.

 

~~~

 

6

Did y’ever hear the one about the old man and the sea? Half a minute, lordling; stop and listen. It’s a fine story, full of balance and point and social pith; short and direct. It’s not mine. Mine are long and rambling and parenthetical and they corrode the moral fiber right out of a man. Come to think, I won’t tell you that one after all. A man of my age has a right to prefer his own material, and let the critics be damned. I’ve a prejudice now for webs of my own weaving.”

 

A Special Kind of Morning” appeared in 1971 in Robert Silverberg’s NEW DIMENSIONS I. I hope you’re not offended, but I think it was another quantum jump ahead.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, I do think it was, in fact, another quantum jump ahead for me. This was an attempt to get into different sorts of material. I had published a number of stories by that point, three or four stories, I forget how many, and somebody said of me that I was the new anti-war poet of my generation or something. I became alarmed at being type-cast after only three or four stories as an anti-war writer, so I figured I had better write some different sorts of material.

 

I think the most notable thing about this story is the incredible elaboration of prose. It starts out with a snapper opening—“Have you ever heard the one about the old man and the sea?”—and it’s very jazzy and playful. Why did you decide to do this kind of story?

 

Gardner Dozois: This is me flexing my literary muscles in a somewhat different way. Most of my career, in fact, can be seen as an attempt to bring under control and make useful a tendency toward very purple prose. I’ve fought all through my career to find a reasonable balance between purpleness and starking things out to the point where you can’t get the sort of atmospheric effects that you can occasionally manage to pull off with purple prose. Ideally, what I’ve been shooting for, with indifferent success, is a prose which combines the best features of both, which is stark and simple and yet flexible enough to enable you to pull off somberly evocative and grandiloquent effects when they’re called for in the text. Many of my stories are experiments with trying to work out this sort of hybrid.

I wrote the opening part in an elaborate pseudo-Shakespearian language which fit the mood of the opening framework, but which I found didn’t really work in the narrative body of the story, so I pretty much dropped it there, or at least toned it down quite a bit, and ended up with something that was more like early period Zelazny or Delany than Shakespeare.

But why did I do it? I don’t know. I was young, I was pretentious, I was an ambitious young writer, and it seemed neat. I suspect that most things in the literary world are done for these reasons, in spite of the elaborate rationales that writers and critics come up with for them after the fact.

 

There is a very high neatness quotient to this story. In particular, the technology of the war you set up, where on the one hand the Combine has biodeths and tacnukes and scatterfields and phasewalls and tanglefields and pyschophysicists, and on the other side the Quaestors have bicycles and grunts walking up to heavily fortified installations with knives because none of the defenders know how to react to personalized death.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, I had a lot of fun playing with those things. I had been bitten by a book which nobody else at that particular point in science fiction seemed to be doing much with. That was THE BIOLOGICAL TIME BOMB, a non-fiction book which had all sorts of interesting things in it about the coming biological technology that would transform our lives, much the same way that nanotechnology is being talked about right at this moment in the field. So I worked in clones and people with no digestive tracts whose nourishment was beamed to them by broadcast matter, and various other things like that. Just to get a sense of far-future alienness, of how different these people were from us.

At one time I intended to use all this material in a novel. But it never did all come together and so “A Special Kind of Morning” is its only remaining artifact.

I think what I was doing here, and in a couple of subsequent stories that never got completed, was that I was groping towards a sort of proto-cyberpunk aesthetic. And I think that in this story I took it as far as I personally was able to, given my inputs and my capabilities and my personality. There are a couple of unfinished stories where I tried to take it further and grope my way into something like NEUROMANCER, but I didn’t have the stuff to do this, and in fact was unable to complete those stories. It took Bill Gibson coming along sometime later and a few other people to take this to where I could dimly see it ought to be taken. I didn’t have the legs to do it myself.

I do think that this story can be considered as a dim progenitor of cyberpunk or as a distant ancestral figure. And in fact a couple of cyberpunk writers have mentioned that they did in fact read this story early on and were impressed by it. I’m certainly not trying to say that all of cyberpunk sprang from this story like Athena from the brow of Zeus, but I think it was an early indication that people were beginning to bend their thoughts towards the creation of a different aesthetic way of looking at the future. Eventually somebody better qualified than I to do so did break into that territory. But I think that this story was at least a signpost pointing in the proper direction.

 

You did something really amazing here, which is that you wrote the entire story backward. You begin with the climax of the war, then you go a step back to how they’d been fighting the war, then you go back to show you what kind of society they were opposing, and then finally you tell who the people in the story are and where they came from. And at that point the story is almost over.

 

Gardner Dozois: I’ve always liked to play with complicated structures. In fact, one of the big differences between my later work and my earlier work is that in my later work I’m less interested in playing with complicated structures and more interested in “a plain tale plainly told,” to use a beloved critical term. But in my early stories, yes, there’s no doubt that the more complicated I could make the structure, the more interesting I found the story. Sometimes I made the structure so complicated that the story is practically incomprehensible! In this particular instance, I think I managed to balance it out with an interesting enough objective story that the reader is propelled from one end of the story to the other. At least I hope that the reader is.

One of the big things I was trying to get across in this story was a perception that people in the future would be radically different from us. From our current perspective, this does not seem like a wildly innovative thing to have come up with, nor was I the only person or even the first person to have come up with it. But if you read the science fiction of the time, it was a perception that was often lacking: that the people of the future would be really different from us, more alien from us than most science fiction writers’ aliens are. So I enjoyed playing with that.

Some of my innovations here are so wildly unlikely that I don’t think I’ve even seen them stolen anywhere else. Like the broadcast matter replacing the need for a digestive system. Or the entire army that packs down into a little cube that you throw into the back of a truck somewhere. But I had a lot of fun playing with that sort of thing. This is in a way the apotheosis of the interstellar spy stories that I had been writing in an earlier incarnation. If, at the time I was writing them, I had had any real talent or knowledge of the world or ability, they might have come out something like this. It is, perhaps significantly, the last interstellar story I wrote, with the exception of my novel STRANGERS. I believe all the rest of my stories have been set in Earthly milieus. So perhaps I did as much as I thought could be done with the material—at least, what I thought I could do with the material, always a different thing.

I at one time contracted to write a novel version of this story, and found, when I sat down to do it, that I couldn’t, because I had already said everything I wanted to say with this material in the compass of this novella, and I couldn’t see any way to expand it into a novel that didn’t involve outright padding of the most shameless variety. And while I wouldn’t necessarily be averse to doing this shameless padding for the money, it’s more a matter of I couldn’t do it, because I’ve never been able to make myself write anything at any length that I wasn’t interested in. So it’s not so much a matter of virtue that I didn’t pad it out into a novel, as it was that I was unable to work up enough enthusiasm to be able to pad it out.

 

There’s a lot of tricky stuff in here. For example the climax of the human story is when the narrator goes to kill the null and finds he cannot, for he accepts the null as human. At which point the war is basically over for him. As a result of this moment of kindness, he survives, but the narrator then immediately mocks the idea that there’s any significance to this.

 

Gardner Dozois: One of the philosophical linchpins of the story is the idea which the narrator expresses somewhere in here. Ah, here it is. “The universe doesn’t care one way or the other; only people do. The universe doesn’t give a damn. It isn’t out to get you, and it isn’t going to help you either. You’re on your own. We make our own heavens and hells and can’t pass the buck.” Rather a simple philosophical statement, but one that was important to me at the time.

 

Your main character finds it liberating. He’s able to look back after all these years, dying in the gutter after a life filled with a great deal of pain, the war not the least of it, and he finds it cheers him up immensely.

 

Gardner Dozois: I found it bleakly liberating myself. I remember once when I was living in an apartment with some other expatriates in Germany, I went to visit England for a couple of weeks. On my way back to the apartment from England, I was working over in my mind what probably had happened in my absence. You must realize that I knew these people and their interrelationships extremely well. I spent the entire trolley ride to the house working out in my mind every possible scenario of their interrelationships that could have occurred in my absence. And when I got back to the apartment, I found they were all down with the measles! Which possibility had not even occurred to me to factor into my calculations.

This actually came as a great relief to me, because I realized then that whoever was running the universe, it wasn’t me, that the universe was much smarter than I was. I could never outguess it. It could always take me by surprise. So therefore I wasn’t God, I wasn’t in charge, whoever was, if anyone was, and I did find this a liberating thought. You can never outguess the universe. It always has a surprise in store for you. It’s almost pointless to try.

 

For all that this is a lot of fun—you could make a great war game out of this if you wished—this is still in disguise yet another anti-war story. In spite of the fact the protagonists are facing a nearly unqualified evil, the war is so awful they come close to simply giving up.

 

Gardner Dozois: My feelings toward the whole thing didn’t change. They just became a little more subtly expressed. The problem with writing an anti-war story, as somebody points out somewhere, is that you might as well write an anti-glacier story. The sad thing is that I think there probably will continue to be war in the future, as long as the human species survives. Of course, it’s problematical how long that’s going to be.

Unlike Jerry Pournelle and the rest of the boys, I don’t take comfort in the idea that there’s always going to be war. I’ve always thought that the tone of the title of those anthologies was: THERE WILL BE WAR, THANK GOD—WHAT A RELIEF, WE WERE WORRIED THERE FOR A MINUTE! But with all the best will in the world I think there will always be war, or deadly conflict of some kind, as long as human beings manage to survive, and manage to remain human. I must admit that I find very few of the pacifist utopian scenarios at all convincing. I know human beings better than that. We’re a pretty vicious lot when you come right down to it.

 

In the frame the old storyteller is talking to the young lordling who’s just gotten laid for the first time and is feeling pretty good. Is this just me, or is there an implication here that this is probably the old guy’s last morning alive?

 

Gardner Dozois: You could certainly read it like that. I think that would be a valid interpretation. On the other hand, I’m not sure I actually had that in mind when I was writing the story. I think I saw him as continuing, where he would go on like this morning after morning. Where for the young person to whom he’s telling this story, it’s a significant one-time encounter, for him it’s probably quite different.

This is probably the story that did the most to establish my early reputation. And I knew at the time that I should write a lot more stories like this, but somehow I could never bring myself to get interested enough in anything else of this sort to actually produce it and finish it. If I had been able to turn out a lot more stories—and, in particular, novels—of this sort, I have no doubt that my subsequent career would have looked very different. I would probably have ended up making a lot more money than I’m making today, because there’s clearly a niche here that’s waiting for someone to fill it, and even was waiting for someone to fill it in 1971. It’s sort of one step beyond early Delany. Delany himself did not go on to take this step, going on to write more opaque fictions instead. You had to wait until about ‘77, when Varley appeared, for someone to take another step in that direction, and then of course Bruce Sterling and Bill Gibson and the cyberpunks later on took it even further. But that line was waiting to be exploited by somebody. I had positioned myself early to exploit it, but through a failure of nerve or imagination or creative energy or whatever, did not actually manage to go on to exploit that niche. So, of course, some other little animals crawled out of the underbrush and radiated out ecologically to fill the niche later on. So I missed my chance there.

 

~~~

 

7

I find that death is not like they said it would be in the manual. The sun was too bright and too hot and when it rained it was real rain that soaked your clothes and skin and made you shiver in spastic paroxysms. And it was real blood that mixed with the rain and with your bitter sweat and flowed down into your eye-sockets, blurring your vision so that you pawed frantically at your eyes with your good hand, trying to bring the fading grey world back into focus.”

 

In December of 1971, there was a small story called “Wires,” which appeared in a special Guilford issue of Ted White’s FANTASTIC.

 

Gardner Dozois: Yes, Guilford was a science fiction workshop that was run in Jay Haldeman’s house—Jack C. Haldeman—in the Guilford section of Baltimore. It was the first unofficial science fiction workshop that I was involved in. I had been at a Milford workshop before Guilford started, and, in fact, Guilford sort of evolved out of the Milford, in that there were a bunch of us young-Turk writers who all knew each other, and a couple of us had been to a Milford, and we decided to have a Milford-type workshop of our own. So for a few years in the early 70s, we would all meet at Jay Haldeman’s house every few months and have a workshop. Charter members included Joe Haldeman, Jay Haldeman, myself, George Alec Effinger, Jack Dann, Ted White. On various occasions other writers like Bob Thurston and Tom Moneteleone attended.

One weekend Ted announced at the end of the workshop that he was going to buy several stories that had been in the workshop for the special Guilford issue of AMAZING or FANTASTIC. And he did so. And bought a lot of mostly mediocre stories that had been in the workshop, and ran this special Guilford issue. I was in there, Jay was in there, George Alec Effinger was in there, I think maybe Thurston—I’d have to go back and find an issue and look.

“Wires” was a story I’d written much earlier, I believe just after I’d written “In a Crooked Year” and “Conditioned Reflex.” It’s clearly thematically pretty much the same as those stories in its concerns. I think it was a little more sophisticatedly executed than either of those, but it’s still fundamentally conveying the same message, and belongs to roughly the same period in my career. Of course it was a trunk story for many years and finally found its way into print via the Guilford issue of that magazine.

 

It begins, “I find that death is not like they said it would be in the manual.” In many ways it reads like an earlier draft of “A Dream at Noonday.”

 

Gardner Dozois: Similar in tone in some ways I think to “The Sound of Muzak,” although perhaps a little jazzier. I haven’t reread the story in years so it’s a little difficult to bring to mind. I believe however that it was actually written after “A Dream at Noonday.” I think “A Dream at Noonday” is the superior story, so if it is another take of “A Dream at Noonday,” then I did it right the first time and shouldn’t have bothered going on to try a variant of it again.

 

It has an odd tense change here.

 

Gardner Dozois: If you went back to 1969 and tracked down the boy that I was and asked him why there was a tense change there, I’m sure he would have a perfectly good explanation for it. However over the intervening years I’ve forgotten what it is.

I haven’t actually looked at this for years. Let me see that.

I think the reason for the tense change is that the opening five or six pages is him philosophizing about his death after the fact, and then when the tense change and the space break comes, from then on that’s him describing his actual death as it’s occurring. That’s only a guess though.

 

~~~


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