|An Interview With|
In 1983 Norstrilia Press published An Unusual Angle, the first novel by a young Perth writer, Greg Egan. The novel made little impact and, despite the publication of a number of stories in Interzone and various Australian anthologies between 1983 and 1989, Egan remained largely unfamiliar to readers. During 1990 a number of increasingly mature and well-written stories began to appear in Interzone and Asimov's, helping to establish Egan's reputation as a writer to watch. Egan's second novel, Quarantine, was published to positive reviews last year and he is currently at work on a third. Eidolon is proud to present the first interview with this important new writer.
Greg; little biographical detail about you is generally available, other than that you were born in Perth in 1961 and worked in the Medical Physics Department of a Perth hospital. What can you tell us about your history, particularly as it influenced your writing?
From the age of about six I'd always imagined that I'd end up working as some kind of professional scientist, and I did do a BSc, majoring in mathematics, at the University of Western Australia. What side-tracked me wasn't writing: it was amateur film-making. I became obsessed with that in my last year of high school. Don't ask me why, but I decided to make a half-hour Super 8 film based on an absurdist play about international diplomacy, "Out of the Flying Pan" by British playwright David Campton. I paid a thousand dollars for the film rights - which I saved up by working on a milk truck for a couple of years. It was an insane waste of money: the film was technically abysmal even for Super 8, and in any case I had no prospect of ever earning a cent from it. I knew all that, but I went ahead and did it anyway.
Then I made an hour-long 16 mm film - from my own screenplay, this time. It was a pretty heavy-handed satire about a referendum being held to decide whether or not the human race should deliberately annihilate itself. The cast consisted of long-suffering friends and family members, and I was the entire crew. We shot it without sound, and post-synched all the dialogue, which was a nightmare for the actors. Anyway, it cost so much that the only way to finish it was to stop studying after the BSc and work full-time, so I did that for a year. Then I used the film to apply to the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney. I lasted about four weeks there before I realised how much I'd hate working in the film industry. I didn't have the commitment to spend ten or twenty years slogging away in the hope of eventually directing feature films. So I quit.
I spent six months unemployed - this was in 1983, at the tail end of the last recession - writing several bad novels, then finally got a job as a computer programmer with a medical research institute attached to a Sydney hospital. I stayed there for four-and-a-half years. All my formal education was in the physical sciences, so I was lucky to get a chance to hang around doctors and biochemists, picking things up by osmosis.
I moved back to Perth at the end of 1987, and since then I've been alternating between stretches of full-time writing, and programming jobs. I've been lucky; the same hospital has employed me twice so far on fixed-term contracts, which suits me perfectly. That way there's no trauma about getting back to writing - no need to abruptly resign from a job which you promised at the interview to do for the next thirty years. The contract runs out, and that's it.
The importance of film in your life is something I imagine few of your readers know about. Does it still interest you? Has your experience with it been an influence on your writing?
Film-making has pretty much vanished from my thoughts; I see no prospect of having the time or money to return to it as a hobby. These days I'd probably get involved in computer animation and video - but if I got hooked on that I wouldn't get any writing done, so I'm deliberately not even tinkering on my Amiga. Film-making is central to An Unsual Angle, and I wrote a story in 1981 called "Tangled Up", about a film-maker lost in an infinite regress of films-within-films. It hasn't been a theme in any of my later work, though.
In Bruce Gillespie's SF Commentary in 1989 you mentioned taking a year off to concentrate on your writing. This was obviously one of the longer "stretches of full-time writing". Does this technique - commitment to your writing to the extent of putting "normal work" aside - actually work? Did anything significant come out of it?
I spent most of 1990 writing Quarantine, the first novel I've really been happy with. So yes, it did work. I'm in awe of anyone who can write novels while holding down a full-time job; I just don't have the stamina. Also, I'm a pretty slow writer, both in terms of pages per hour-at-the-keyboard, and in terms of thinking-time to writing-time ratios. I can only really make progress on a novel once I'm thinking about it very nearly every waking minute.
Who do you consider your literary influences? Reviewers have noted similarities to JG Ballard and Philip K Dick. Are these valid?
I read a lot of science fiction in my very early teens: Dick, Ballard, Delany, Bester, Aldiss, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Ellison, Le Guin. I read all these classics without knowing they were classics, and absorbed them all so thoroughly that a lot of the ideas they dealt with feel more like "general knowledge" to me than something I can trace to a particular source.
My memories are clearer a bit later on; by the time I was about fifteen I was heavily into Kurt Vonnegut and Larry Niven. That might sound like an odd combination, but when Niven and/or Pournelle put that infamous scene with Vonnegut in Hell into Inferno, I just assumed they were sending up their arrogant narrator. For a while my two favourite books were probably Slaughterhouse Five and Protector. Niven really was the cutting edge of hard SF for several years.
I drifted away from SF in my late teens and early twenties. I read a lot of David Ireland, Joseph Heller, Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon. It wasn't until Greg Bear's Blood Music that SF really grabbed me again.
I admire JG Ballard's work enormously, but I don't think it's influenced my writing. He has reality break down in a very distinctive, dream-like way; if it makes sense, it's in terms of an invented dream-logic. Whereas I'm usually trying to tear away the surface of things while remaining as scrupulously rational and scientific as possible, to the point of irritating some people. In Ballard's work, abandoning reason leads to all kinds of strange insights and transformations. It's beautiful, and mesmerising. But I don't believe the world actually works like that.
Philip Dick made the whole nature-of-reality, nature-of-identity, nature-of-humanity sub-genre his own. Anytime anyone else goes near it, Dick's usually been there first; the only modern writer I know of who pre-dates him is Luigi Pirandello, who touched on some similar themes. So it's impossible for me to write about certain ideas without being aware that I'm on "Philip Dick territory"; that's an occupational hazard of writing metaphysical science fiction. I don't apologise for trespassing, though - he was a giant, but I don't think he exhausted the themes, and I doubt that anyone ever will.
We should discuss the philosophical side of your writing a bit later, but first: inspiration. What inspires you to write? We've already covered film - does music, for instance, play a role? Are the influences for particular pieces strong and identifiable and can you recall any specifics?
Most of my "inspiration" is very transparent. "The Cutie" was triggered by reading that childless adults in the US were buying themselves Cabbage Patch dolls - and that one couple had even had an exorcism performed on theirs. I'm still not sure if that was apocryphal or not. "The Moral Virologist" was a fairly direct response to religious fundamentalists blathering on about AIDS being God's instrument; I thought someone should point out that, even on their own terms, this was a blasphemous obscenity. I suppose that story was also guided by the example of "creation science"; believing in doctrine is bad enough, but if you start trying to reason from it, you churn out an ever-growing list of absurdities which you also have to believe. "The Vat" was a cross between When Harry Met Sally and an essay in Nature by Erwin Chargaff, one of the pioneers of molecular biology, in which he warned of the possibility of a "molecular Auschwitz" where human embryos would be made as an industrial commodity, an intermediate step in the manufacture of certain enzymes and hormones.
Music is just as important to me, on a personal level, as literature, but any influence it has on my writing is usually pretty tangential. I did write a story called "Worthless" for In Dreams - a recent anthology on "the culture of the 7-inch single". I'm a big fan of The Smiths, so the first idea that occurred to me when I heard about the anthology was to try to write a kind of SF equivalent of a Smiths song - a story with the same ambivalent attitude to the whole idea of worthlessness, half-embracing it as a positive thing. That was a one-off, though. The only other story where music played a major role was "Beyond the Whistle Test", in which scientists use neural maps to design advertising jingles which you literally can't forget. "Closer" may or may not have been inspired by a line in my favourite Lloyd Cole song ("Four Flights Up" - the line is: "Must you tell me all your secrets when it's hard enough to love you knowing nothing"). The connection only occurred to me after I'd written the story, though.
With the central idea for Quarantine, I'd been aware for about fifteen years that some physicists believed that only conscious observers "collapsed the wave" - that it was a biological or metaphysical property of being human. I was daydreaming about that when it finally occurred to me that taking the idea seriously could lead to some very bizarre conclusions. I spent about a month reading about the quantum measurement problem, catching up with all the competing theories - which had to turn out to be wrong in the novel, so they're barely mentioned. Roger Penrose's quantum gravity theory is so beautiful that it deserves to be right . . . but the idea that the human brain alone might be responsible for the collapse made a much better story.
Before discussing Quarantine - your latest novel - it might be interesting to discuss your first - An Unusual Angle, from 1983 - which you mentioned earlier. What can you tell us about it and how do feel about it ten years on?
For the benefit of those readers who have no idea what the book is about - most of them, I hope - An Unusual Angle is a kind of eccentric teenage loner story with surreal elements. The narrator literally has a movie camera inside his skull. I wrote it when I was sixteen, although I revised it slightly just before it was published, six years later.
It was very big-hearted of Norstrilia Press to publish it, but it didn't do them, or me, much good. They blew their money. I laboured under the mistaken impression that I could now write publishable fiction; it took me a while to realise that that simply wasn't true. Quarantine is the eighth novel I've written, and the first publishable one. That An Unusual Angle was published at all was really just a glitch.
You say Quarantine is your eighth novel. A letter we've just received refers to The Flight Of Sirius as a novel forthcoming in 1985. What happened to it?
Norstrilia Press were going to publish it, then changed their minds because it turned out that they wouldn't get Literature Board funding for it - it was hard SF, unlike An Unusual Angle, so they couldn't pass it off as literature. I was very disappointed at the time, but I'm glad, now, that it turned out that way. It was a very badly written novel, and the central idea - using the gravitational attraction of collapsed objects to let spacecraft accelerate at thousands of gees without squashing the passengers - had already been used by Charles Sheffield, as I later discovered.
As your first novel from a major publisher, Quarantine is obviously an important milestone in your career. What can you tell us about how you wrote it? Did it develop out of your short work?
Quarantine took me about twelve months to write, starting early in 1990. I had a few breaks to write short stories, but other than that it pretty much monopolised my life until it was finished. It's not an expansion of a shorter work, although I did borrow ideas from some of my stories: the "priming" drugs used by cops in "The Caress" to prepare themselves for duty have been replaced by neural modifications which do the same thing - and the neural modifications themselves are used in much the same fashion as the neural implants of "Axiomatic" and "Fidelity". There are echoes of "The Infinite Assassin", but that story wasn't the seed for Quarantine; I actually wrote it half-way through writing the novel, so the influence was the other way round.
Is Quarantine part of any self-consistent "universe" where you intend to set more stories? Do you see the development of such common settings as useful (given the commonality of "The Extra", "Closer", "Learning to Be Me" et cetera)?
I'm not attracted to common settings at all. The last thing I want to do is create a future history and tie my hands by having to conform to it. All that the three stories you mention really have in common are some items of technology.
Obviously there's a lot of work involved in writing a novel. You say you spent a month on the quantum measurement problem in Quarantine. How much research do you usually do for your fiction, be it short or novel-length?
That varies enormously. Near-future biotechnology stories usually mean the most work for me, because they have to make a reasonable amount of sense in terms of current knowledge and current technology. Whereas with something like "Reification Highway", full of speculative metaphysics and set thousand of years in the future, there's not much point comparing anything in the story to present-day scientific orthodoxy.
In any case, I usually spend much longer just thinking things through than I spend on actual library research. I don't mean plotting the story, which is yet another stage; I mean trying to map out all the implications of the central idea. In Quarantine there's not a great deal that a physicist would call quantum mechanics; most of the book comes from taking a single premise about the measurement problem, and then exploring what it would mean if the results could manifest themselves on the level of everyday life.
A number of critics - amongst them Adelaide academic Michael Tolley in Eidolon - have complained about the sections of Quarantine where you explain quantum mechanical principles et cetera, claiming these passages disrupt the flow of the novel. Are the criticisms valid and do you think you could have done it any other way?
I think the only changes I could have made would have been a matter of fine-tuning, rather than a completely different approach. I wanted the middle of the novel to be a time when the narrator had a chance to learn about the physics and metaphysics of his situation - and to think through some of the consequences - before things became too frantic for deliberations like that to be at all plausible. I can see why some reviewers would have preferred less theoretical discussion - but I wanted the events that followed to make sense to readers ranging from people who'd never even heard of Schrödinger's Cat, through to people who were familiar with all the latest debates about quantum metaphysics. If I'd cut out too much explanatory material, some people might have been left floundering.
I do wish I could have handled that section more smoothly - Michael Tolley rightly pointed out that some of the dialogue is pretty clumsy - but I still think that the basic structure was the right choice.
Do you consider yourself primarily a novelist or a short story writer? Which length do you prefer and which do you feel you're more successful with?
I hope I'm in transition from being a short story writer to being a novelist as well, but with so few published novels I'm not really qualified to call myself a novelist yet. What I like most about short stories is that it's possible to keep everything important about them in your head at the same time; human working memory - or mine, at least - just can't do that with a novel.
I've been writing about seven or eight short stories a year for the past few years, and I'm not going to be able to keep that up as well as writing novels, but I've probably reached the stage where'd I'd be at a loss for that many suitable ideas anyway.
Do you see yourself as a "professional" writer? Do you live exclusively from your writing?
I'm writing full-time at present, and it's been eighteen months since I last did programming work. It's too early to say I've quit my day job forever though; I'm just taking it as it comes. I'm hoping to stretch the money out for at least another year: long enough to write another novel after Permutation City, which is the book I'm working on at present.
Although you're primarily a writer of fiction, are you interested in other ways of expressing your ideas and opinions? If film-making is dead, does critical writing hold any attraction? What about essays or popular science writing?
Fanzine movie reviews are about my limit as far as "critical work" goes. As for popular science, these days you really need to be on the cutting edge of research - in person - to compete. Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking. I'm just not in the running.
Your fiction style has been called "ideas-based" and even "plot-bound", concentrating more on the story than on the characters or setting. Is this a deliberate choice? Is this the kind of fiction you personally prefer to read? Is it even fair comment?
"Ideas-based" is a fair comment, and I certainly try to choose ideas that are strong enough to be worth writing a story around. I don't deliberately neglect the characters, though, so if they're badly drawn that's a failure, not a choice. Settings I often do deliberately neglect, at least in short stories; if the setting is a near-contemporary western city, it usually makes no difference where it is, unless there's some vital plot point hanging on the geography. I'd rather have the reader imagine his or her home town. I only go into settings in detail if they're exotic, like the city in "Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies".
I think my stories work best when there's a powerful reason for the idea to be important to the central character. Most of my characters are a bit obsessive, and a bit fucked-up - but I'd rather that than have them scrupulously bland and ordinary for the sake of it. In "Axiomatic" the whole notion of the physical basis of morality is crucial to the narrator's problem. And in "The Safe-Deposit Box" and "The Infinite Assassin" the central idea of the story has completely shaped the central character's life. You could hardly consider the character in "The Safe-Deposit Box" in isolation from the idea that he wakes up every morning in a different body.
A complicating factor is that a lot of my work is aimed at undermining orthodox ideas about personal identity, so it's hardly the place you'd expect to find the usual nineteenth-century literary conventions about characterisation being honoured. Emma Bovary couldn't pop out and buy the neural implant from "Fidelity".
None of that's meant to be an excuse for poor writing - and I know I have a long way to go in a lot of areas. I'm sure I've had stories published which have been successful because the ideas were strong enough for readers to forgive a degree of clumsiness in the style and the characterisation. Obviously, I'd rather have everything work together. I want to improve on those fronts - without sacrificing the ideas.
As for my own preferences, I'd rather read Lucius Shepard than a typical Analog story, any day. But it doesn't have to be a stark choice like that; there are writers like Greg Bear, Michael Swanwick, Bruce Sterling, and others, who give you the best of both worlds.
Are you interested in writing in areas other than "Hard SF"?
I've had three horror stories published ["Mind Vampires", "Scatter My Ashes" and "Neighbourhood Watch"], and I wrote a vampire novel called The Effects Of Feeding back in 1988, which wasn't good enough to be published. I had a lot of trouble suspending disbelief for the duration of that novel; the horror ended up rationalised, although not in the Stableford or Simmons mould. I might write short horror again, if I get a strong enough idea.
David Hartwell of The New York Review of Science Fiction wrote an editorial recently in which he laments the shift in the genre towards fantasy, horror and "mainstream influenced" writing and away from "hard SF". He even speculates that "Science Fiction could end this decade." Science itself could be seen to be becoming "softer", particularly with regards fundamental physics and the ethical dilemmas of advancing biotechnology. Has this influenced your work, and do you see a shift in the work of others?
Science fiction isn't going to end this decade. Hundreds of people, at the very least, will keep on writing relatively hard SF, although I have no idea what will happen to its marketability.
Science itself is becoming more relevant to almost every field of human activity. Developments like chaos theory and complexity theory make whole new classes of problems amenable to scientific treatment. Results in fundamental physics, like the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen correlation, make questions previously thought of as untestable and purely metaphysical accessible to experiments. Quantum cosmology impinges on supposedly religious issues - but that makes those issues scientific issues; it doesn't transform the science into mysticism. Neurobiology is reaching the point where the neural systems responsible for all kinds of highly specific mental activities are being identified and understood.
So I see science as becoming broader, not "softer" - and this broadening certainly influences my work, and the work of plenty of other writers. It's now possible to write, with a fair degree of scientific rigour, about anything from the technology of rewiring your personal morality, to the possibility of manufacturing new universes. Hard SF doesn't mean ignoring the human consequences, or the ethics, of any of these things - it just means not ignoring the facts.
In his Eidolon review of Quarantine, Michael Tolley notes the apparent similarity between the philosophically mechanistic views of your central protagonist Nick Stavrianos and your own. Certainly work like "The Vat" might predispose one to think he's on the right track. Ethics, morality and philosophy in general seem such an important part of your writing; do you hold any particularly strong personal views or convictions in that regard? If so, how have you come to them? Are there any grand themes you'd like to explore?
"The Vat" was sledge-hammer irony, but I've had no feedback at all from readers, so I don't know how people took it. I nearly had someone working in the loading bay where they packed the foetal by-products singing "Dehumanise yourself! Dehumanise yourself!" . . . having misheard the words of the old Police song. Maybe I should have kept that in. But the point of the story was that it's going to take a considerable effort to reconcile the insights of some areas of science with certain values we may want to preserve, and certain illusions we hold dear. I don't believe six-day-old foetuses are sentient - but it would still be deeply corrupting to treat them like so much chemical feedstock.
So - I don't know if this counts as a "grand theme" or not, but one thing I'm trying to do is explore clashes like that, between facts and values - without taking the easy way out and pretending that the facts can be ignored. I don't want to write motherhood statements - feel-good stories that cave in at the end and do nothing but confirm everything you ever wanted to believe; I've done that in the past, and it's insidious. Stories like that should be burned. If I'm certain of anything, it's that understanding how the real world works - how human brains actually function, how morality and emotions and decisions actually arise - is essential to any kind of ethical stance which will make sense in the long term. If that gets me branded "mechanistic", so be it.
I was raised as a Christian, and I still retain a lot of the values of Christianity. The trouble with basing values on religions, though, is that the premises of most of them are pure wishful thinking; you either have to refuse to scrutinise those premises - take them on faith, declare that they "transcend logic" - or reject them. As Paul Davies has said, most Christian theologians have retreated from all the things that their religion supposedly asserts; they take a much more "modern" view than the average believer. But by the time you've "modernised" something like Christianity - starting off with "Genesis was all just poetry" and ending up with "Well, of course there's no such thing as a personal God" - there's not much point pretending that there's anything religious left. You might as well come clean and admit that you're an atheist with certain values, which are historical, cultural, biological, and personal in origin, and have nothing to do with anything called God.
I think the social conscience of the future lies with organisations of people who can agree on some basic values, getting together for a specific purpose - Amnesty International, for example - rather than groups with elaborate doctrines which attempt to embrace the whole of creation. I'm deeply suspicious of the trend towards "ethics centres" full of "professional ethicists"; most of these people are escaped clergymen and/or academic philosophers.
What is your most successful work - not in terms of financial reward, but from a "personal satisfaction" angle? Why?
"Learning to Be Me". It was a very simple story, but I think it did exactly what I'd intended it to do.
Obviously you're not alone in that opinion, given the reception the story has received (positive critical comment, Recommended Reading listings, reprintings et cetera). In fact, by any standards, you've been very successful generally over the past few years. How did you go about establishing yourself as a writer both here and internationally? For instance, did your success in the UK help penetration into the US? What barriers to publication did you encounter? Has being Australian helped or hindered your career thus far?
How did I go about establishing myself? I never had any elaborate strategies or plans. I wrote a large amount of crap, and my writing improved, very slowly. Everything else has been a matter of luck.
In terms of the particular history of when things started going right for me, I suppose there were three turning points. The first was selling "Mind Vampires" to Interzone in 1986. It was Bruce Gillespie who suggested that I send stories to Interzone, so I have him to thank for that. Horror turned out to be a detour, but Interzone turned out to be crucial. I sent them more horror, and they rejected most of it, but they gave me some feedback and encouragement. The second turning point was "Learning to Be Me", which, as you've said, was well-received, and helped me raise my expectations of the standard I should be aiming for. The third big break was Quarantine. Both Peter Robinson, the agent who sold it for me, and Deborah Beale, who bought it for Legend and edited it, approached me initially because of stories I'd had published in Interzone.
As for "penetrating" the US . . . selling to Interzone definitely made me feel more confident about submitting to Asimov's, but I don't believe it was a factor in the sale itself. I think Asimov's just accepted the first good story I sent them.
The only "barrier to publication" was my own bad writing. It's true that a lot of my very early work didn't fit comfortably into any genre - but the reason most of it remains unpublished is that it was poorly written. Being Australian has never made a difference, either way.
It may seem provincial or parochial, but this country seems obsessed with its own national consciousness just at the moment. Do you feel that there is anything uniquely Australian about your writing, and is that important to you?
No. I mean, everyone's affected by the particular mix of cultures, and the particular geography, of the place they were raised in, and live in, so of course I'd be a different person if I'd been born elsewhere. But a hundred other factors come first. I certainly don't believe in such a thing as a "national identity"; the phrase is an oxymoron. Like most countries, Australia possesses thousands of subcultures, quite apart from any question of ethnicity. One of those subcultures consists of people who consider their nationality a vital part of their self-image; that's their right, but they should stop deluding themselves that everyone else thinks the same way. Nothing's more ridiculous than talking about the "unique Australian character" - unless it's talking about the "mystical qualities of the Australian landscape".
What are your feelings on being published locally? Is it a useful testing ground, or a waste of time?
In theory, I try to sell every story to Interzone or Asimov's first, and if it's rejected I try the small-press magazines, Eidolon and Aurealis included. In practice, I sent "The Extra" to Eidolon first because it happened to be available when the magazine started up and was calling for submissions. And I sent "The Moat" straight to Aurealis because I knew there'd be people reading Aurealis who never read the overseas magazines. "The Moat", by the way, I don't see as "uniquely Australian" - xenophobia is universal - but having set it in Australia, I thought I might as well try to get it read in Australia.
Would a move Overseas help your career? Would you do it if necessary?
I don't see any need to be physically closer to my publishers. I have a terrific agent in London; the whole point of agents is not having to be there yourself. If I was going to move to another country for the sake of my writing - in the hope of jolting my imagination - it wouldn't be the UK or the US; both are far too familiar. At present, though, my prospects of having the time or money to travel anywhere, even for a couple of weeks, are nil.
In your short-fiction career you've been published almost exclusively by David Pringle of Interzone and Gardner Dozois of Asimov's (and The Year's Best SF). How much have these editors shaped your writing? How important is the relationship between the writer and the editor? Is your lack of appearance in the other major venues your choice?
David Pringle did help steer me away from horror; when he bought "The Cutie" - my first SF story for Interzone - he made it clear that he thought I was heading in the right direction. These days, though, most of the feedback I get from him, and from Gardner Dozois, is about the quality of the stories. I think they're both more interested in making sure that things are well-written than in influencing people's choice of themes.
I used to submit diligently to all the major magazines, but Interzone and Asimov's kept accepting things, and everyone else kept turning them down, so it seemed like a waste of postage to keep it up. I could eat for a year on a sale to Omni, though, so I still try them now and then. And Ellen Datlow writes the nicest rejections in the business.
Do you feel part of any concerted "movement" in the genre? You've been linked with Ian MacLeod by one commentator; is that a valid comparison? Do you feel an affinity with any current writers?
I don't think you could find two writers more different than Ian MacLeod and myself; all we have in common is that we've both been successful at about the same time, in the same magazines. I do feel a certain sense of generational solidarity with the other Interzone writers who've appeared in recent years. But I only know these people through their work, and their work certainly isn't similar enough to constitute a "movement".
Do you correspond with other writers about the genre? Do you read the periodicals? Which ones in particular?
I don't really "correspond" with any writers; I've exchanged brief letters with some people on specific matters. I read Locus, SF Chronicle, Australian Science Fiction Writers' News, Thyme, and the SFWA's Bulletin and Forum. There's valuable stuff buried in all of them.
What is your opinion of awards? How important are Readers' Polls, do you think? Do they advance an author's career significantly? Do you care more about popular or critical acclaim?
Any sign that there are people who like something I've written is welcome, whether it's a good rating in a poll, or a good review. I try not to over-analyse anything encouraging, though; I just take it as good news and leave it at that. The whole practice of ranking works of fiction as if they were one-dimensional objects is pernicious, but it's not going to go away, so there's not much point getting worked up about it.
The critical comment you've received, while principally positive - and occasionally effusive - has been mixed. Do you pay attention? Do you read it at all?
I read all the reviews I'm aware of. There may be people iron-willed enough to pick up a magazine and flip right past a review of their own work, but I'm certainly not one of them.
Do I pay attention to criticism? Yes, if it rings true. I've had cases where the reviewer has understood exactly what I was trying to do, and pointed out where I've failed in a way that made perfect sense to me. When that happens, it's priceless. And short of that, almost any honest, considered opinion is useful to some extent.
The worst kind of review is where the reviewer loathes the work, but then bends over backwards trying to sound "fair" and "balanced" - when the honest thing would have been to write a dismissive one-liner and to leave it at that. Dorothy Parker's review of one of the Winnie the Pooh books was: "Constant weedah thwew up!" The New Yorker's review of Dances With Wolves was: "They should have called him Plays With Camera." In science fiction, if someone hates what you've done, you get twelve paragraphs of constipated invective, peppered with occasional compliments dredged up to make it clear how "balanced" the review is.
Mystery writer, Sue Grafton has said that she spends nine months writing a novel, two months promoting it and one month off. Could you see yourself working like that? How do you feel about the role of the writer as an entertainer, both in print and in person?
If I can make a living as a writer in the long term, that will be nice, but I'm not going to slit my wrists in despair if I have to do other things to pay the bills. I'm not going to climb onto the book-a-year treadmill for the sake of financial security.
"Entertainment" is very much a matter of taste. I was bored witless by ninety-five per cent of Total Recall, because the producers stuffed it full of car chases and disembowelments in the hope of keeping the audience "entertained". The parts I found most enjoyable - the Philip Dick ontological riffs - were few and far between. So I certainly try to be entertaining in print, but I don't feel obliged to do car chases.
As for being entertaining in person, I'm not a public speaker. That's not my role, and it's not something I'd do well in any case. I had a job interview once where I said so little that the man who was conducting the interview - a very pompous professor of immunology - told me I was illiterate. (What he meant was inarticulate, of course, but it didn't seem wise to point that out to him.) So the day it becomes obligatory for writers to go out and cultivate fandom, like politicians on the hustings, they'd better put it in the publishing contracts so I can refuse to sign them.
That's an understandable reaction; a piece of writing must surely succeed or fail on its own merits, regardless of the salesmanship of its author. But isn't it in the best interests of the author to try to promote the work to the public, through interviews, signings, even appearances?
Not to mention life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Madonna. I don't know. Like I've said, I'd do it badly, and I also think the value of it is overrated. I've bought books by my own favourite authors for years without knowing the first thing about them, other than what they've written. It's all down to reviews, past works, and word of mouth. I believe there's a large component of the SF readership who don't even know - let alone care - about all the bullshit that goes on. Of the people I know who read science fiction, the majority have no connection whatsoever to fandom, and they're quite oblivious to whether or not Writer X has had his photo in Locus every month, and juggled armadillos while filk-singing at the latest Worldcon.
Finally, what's coming in the future from Greg Egan? Your Century/Legend deal included a collection and two novels, the first being Quarantine. How are the others coming?
My next book is likely to be the third novel, Permutation City. I'm still working on it; the deadline is looming. It's an expansion of a novelette called "Dust", published in Asimov's last year, which took the possibility of conscious software for granted, and ended up concluding that the ordering of events in space and time is purely in the eye of the beholder. A simulation of a person in a virtual reality could be chopped up into a million pieces and run backwards on a million different computers scattered all over the planet - and the simulated person wouldn't know the difference. Permutation City assumes that this is equally true for everyone, and pushes the idea to its logical conclusion.
The short story collection will come after that, probably in 1994. The working title of the collection is Unstable Orbits.
Well Greg, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed; I'm sure our readers will appreciate this glimpse of the man behind the name. We wish you the very best with your writing.
Originally appeared pp. 18-30, Eidolon 11, January 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Jeremy G Byrne and Jonathan Strahan.
Reprinted by kind permission of the authors.