Gravity Box and Other Spaces will be in bookstores this summer. Click here to order your copy in advance!
Walrus: It’s pretty exciting to have another book coming out. What can you tell us about Gravity Box? What’s in it? What makes it special?
Mark: When I began to select stories for this collection, I went through my work looking for a common theme that would tie everything together. I wasn’t sure what I’d find and was a bit surprised when it turned out to be about families. You don’t see a lot of work in speculative fiction directly focused on this subject, even though they’re everywhere within the web of stories common to the genre. Pleasantly surprised, I hasten to add, because it gave all these stories an extra layer of depth.
So we have science fiction, fantasy, a bit of slipstream, a ghost story, all dealing with the inner workings of families. Families in the making as well as families already extant. They range over the entire spectrum of what I love about speculative fiction.
Walrus: There are eleven wonderful short stories in this collection. Which one do you like the best? Why?
Mark: Make me pick favorites among my children! Grr! Okay, I’d have to say “The Playground Door” is close to the top of my list. Everything came together in that story dramatically. One of the things that has always interested me, both as a functioning human being and as a writer, is how we underestimate what kids understand and how what they understand motivates them. This story has three generations of misunderstanding, leading to…well, what happens. (I don’t want to give anything away.) It’s also a good example of what science fiction can do—show the impact of technological changes on our emotional lives.
Walrus: You’ve always written science-fiction/fantasy. What draws you to this genre? What makes it so special?
Mark: Originally, I was drawn to all the cool stuff. I mean, as a child, who doesn’t think spaceships and robots are cool? As I grew up, though, I realized that what appealed to me consistently was SF’s ability to ask basic questions about why we do things. Really basic, as in pointing out that we are capable of profound change, both personally and materially, and yet we so often continue to live as if we had no power or ability to do exactly that. But along with that challenge—and it is a challenge, it’s the challenge that all knowledge confronts us with—comes the cautionary aspect, the quite literal dramatization of what might happen if we do change this or that. Or if such change is thrust upon us, how then do we live with that?
By the time I graduated high school I was thoroughly addicted to the philosophical aspects of science fiction. If I may indulge a bit of the academic for a moment, science fiction is what I think of as epistemological fiction. It deals very directly with knowing and what that means and how we know and what we then do with it. Now, certainly this isn’t the sole preserve of speculative fiction, but in almost every other genre this manifests internally. In science fiction especially, it manifests as landscape. The world is different and we are different in response.
You can get that in historical fiction, but I think it’s intellectual impact can be ignored because mentally we relegate history to The Past, meaning it won’t happen like that again. Science fiction puts it right in our face that, no, it will happen and it won’t be as neatly packaged as what we know of things which have already happened. In other words, to confront the world of, say, Henry VIII, we don’t have to contemplate changing ourselves in response. But when confronting the world of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, part of us has to acknowledge that just maybe we might have to live in that world. It makes for a unique kind of thrill.
Fantasy intrigues me in a different way. It deals with changed landscape differently. In some ways it offers a similar thrill—for instance, the past didn’t have to transpire as it did, things might have worked out differently—but in fantasy there are different concerns, more mythic, more in tune to what Joseph Campbell would call a Hero’s Journey.
Walrus: What can you do with science-fiction/fantasy that you can’t do in other genres?
Mark: Live in a completely different world. Time travel. Live longer. What you can do in science fiction, as I said above, is live the change externally.
Walrus: You have written over ten novels several of which are derivative works from Isaac Asimov such as Aurora and Mirage and Chimera. Is Asimov your favorite sci-fi/fantasy writer? Was it his writing that got you interested in writing sci-fi fantasy?
Mark: I will always have a soft spot for Isaac Asimov. He was, in fact, the writer whose work made me want to do this. I’d been reading SF for some time before I stumbled on his Foundation series, which, at age 13, just blew me away. It possessed a certain gravitas I hadn’t encountered till then and it just took hold.
He was my favorite writer for years. But not any longer. He’s still one of my favorites and when I got the chance to play in his sandbox, as it were, it turned out to be so much fun. I’m not sure I could write in any other author’s milieu like that, but this was going back to a treasured time in my life and in some ways “maturing” what I found then in a new piece of work. I enjoyed it immensely and I’m still very proud of those books.
I still recommend Asimov, especially to people who are just coming to SF. Some of his work has dated rather badly, but the core stories, the Foundation novels and I, Robot still hold up well, and he was such a clear writer. It’s a shame so much of his nonfiction is out of print, because he was a terrific explainer. He wrote essays and books about almost everything. I have among other things on my shelf two of his general guides to science, his guide to the Bible, his guide to Shakespeare, and his three-volume text on physics.
Walrus: What is your next project?
Mark: I’m working on a novel about immortality and also an alternate history about Napoleon. Stayed tuned.