SF & Techno-thriller Author Edward M. Lerner Talks With Me!
My Interview with Edward M. Lerner!
I’d like to welcome you, Edward. It is thrilling to have someone with your education and experience in my office to discuss not only literature, but the science behind fiction writing!
Thanks for having me.
- I’m excited to get started, so let’s begin as I always do – by having you describe yourself for us. Who are you? How do you see yourself? A very telling question, indeed!
First and foremost, I’m a techie. Mumbledy mumble years ago, I majored in physics. Toward the end of the program, I got hooked on computer science and switched fields in grad school. From there, it was on to a career in high tech and aerospace, including Bell Labs, Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman. For several years overlapping those day jobs, I wrote science fiction as a hobby.
In time, the hobby became a second career. At this point, I have twenty-two published books: a mix of SF, technothrillers, and popular science. Three more are under contract.
- In my research, I read how your wife encouraged you to begin writing because you found “much to criticize” in your leisure reading. It is interesting that you said that because I’ve heard other writers express something similar. Let’s explore this if we may.
- Obviously, the big question is, what did you find to criticize? Was it content, format, editing, all the above, or something else entirely?
First off, a clarification. She didn’t encourage me as much as challenge me: “So I suppose you can do better.” These many books later, I’m glad I took the dare.
What was I criticizing? Something eminently forgettable—and hence, forgotten. Back then, I doubt my issue would have been with formatting or editing. My guess would be bad science, or illogical plot, or bad science used in service of an illogical plot.
- Why did you think you could do better? What did you feel you could improve upon, and how?
Why? Naïve optimism.
Happily, it turned out I had an aptitude for writing. Like many authors, I learned much of my craft from copious reading. Later on, as my fiction began to sell, I gained the benefit of editorial feedback. I’m particularly appreciative for tricks of the trade learned from Stanley Schmidt, longtime (but now retired) editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
What could I do better? Everything.
There’s always more to learn. That’s among the reasons I strive to make each story and book different in some significant way—scientific underpinnings, perhaps, or writing style, or character voice—from what I’ve written before. Life’s too short to do basically the same type of story each time.
- Has this sentiment influenced your non-fiction works in any way?
I came late to writing nonfiction (first-career, industry-oriented, technical papers aside). Rather than on a dare, my foray into popular-science writing came by invitation of an editor. That would again be Stanley Schmidt, for the fact side of Analog.
When I choose to write popular science, it’s often on a topic I want to learn more about for myself. To describe complex subjects to others, I have to master them for myself. The biggest part of my popular-science writing has involved the science behind SF, including topics like relativity, quantum mechanics, and artificial intelligence. I like to think I’ve done it clearly and entertainingly.
- Has your opinion changed since you’ve immersed yourself in the literary field? Have you met other writers who have changed your views? Why, or why not?
Writing is a solitary activity. An antidote to that isolation is participating in the pro writing community. I’ve long been a member of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. (Yes, the organization’s acronym is missing an F. Long, irrelevant story.) Through SFWA and at literary conventions, I’ve made lots of writer friends and developed a professional—often become social—network.
Has such interaction changed my writing? Perhaps surprisingly, not much. Meeting other authors, I soon learned just how varied writing habits can be. Detailed outline first, or terse notes, or just sit and type and see where that takes you? Polish as you go along or pound out text as fast as you can, with laborious rewrites in your future? They’re all valid techniques—for someone.
- What do you prefer to read as a leisure reader, and why?
About half my reading is in the SF genre. If I didn’t like science fiction enough to read it, I certainly wouldn’t spend my days writing the stuff. Another quarter or so of my reading is science and technology. That’s where I began my career, and such reading is synergistic with my writing. The rest is eclectic: history and historical fiction, spy stories, detective stories—and the occasional misfit title that simply catches my interest.
That said, I find it hard to draw a clear distinction between my leisure and non-leisure reading. Very often, things I begin to read for relaxation end up affecting things I write. What part of that overlap is serendipity and what part a helpful subconscious guiding my leisure-reading selections? Beats me.
- Were there any titles that inspired you or moved you? If so, what were they, and what made them stand out for you?
Pick specific titles? Gosh, that’s hard. Especially given how eclectic I consider my reading to be.
Still, there’s one certain inspiration: Ringworld, by SF Grandmaster Larry Niven. For people unfamiliar with that multi-award-winning SF novel, it takes place mostly on an artifact once built by an advanced alien species. The physical Ringworld is a gigantic ribbon (roughly 600 million miles long and a million miles wide) looped around a star. That all but inconceivably vast area is populated by literally trillions—who have fallen into savagery. But before Larry’s characters reach the Ringworld—upon which, of course, epic adventures ensue—they briefly visit something almost as incredible: five worlds without a star, also heavily populated, hurtling in formation through space. Together, these are the Fleet of Worlds.
Larry and I were on a panel together at the 2004 Worldcon (the annual worldwide science-fiction convention) with the topic “my favorite planet.” Panelists were asked what world, real or imaginary, we would most like to visit. My answer was: “The Fleet of Worlds. Larry, you need to write more about it.” He said, “I don’t have a plot for that.” Weeks later, I reached out to him and said, “Well, I do.”
This led to Fleet of Worlds, our first collaboration, and a prequel to Ringworld. Needless to say (but try and stop me), therein epic adventures ensue. Eventually, Larry and I had a five-novel series.
- Which authors do you feel “get it right,” and why? What are they doing that makes the difference for you?
I won’t attempt to gauge literary right from wrong. I only know what works for me—which often varies from book to book. Some authors excel at plot, others with imaginative scenarios or settings, yet others offer unforgettable characters. Any of those, and more, can make a book work.
- What do you feel is the most important element when you’re writing science fiction – believability, accuracy, details?
Believability—however it’s achieved. Believability can come from sticking with what’s familiar to the reader, but it doesn’t have to. To expand the mind—and isn’t that why most of us enjoy SF?—we often want to go beyond the familiar.
When fiction involves an extrapolation from, or conscious exception to, how the world is thought to work, the reader must be convinced to accept that premise for the duration. Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it best, though I doubt he had science fiction in mind. He said the writer’s task is to bring about “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Often, that’s the purpose of the details you mention, even (or especially) made-up details.
- Do you think there should be a work cited or reference page included in sci-fi work where topics related to quantifiable science is related, the way you would with academic works? I’ve seen this done with historical fiction – do you think this is necessary? Why, or why not?
Required? I’ll say not. But such an addendum is fine if the author is so inclined. I’ve included such things on occasion, IIRC only after the novel has ended, generally to explain why a suspension of disbelief was actually unnecessary.
- I have loved NASA my whole life. I’ve been both terrified and fascinated by space, aliens, and the unknown. Of course, I was not designed for talents such as yours – physics and computer science – no matter how much they intrigue me. Still, as your writing has so much of this woven into it, I’d like to discuss this.
I switched majors after completing a Bachelor’s in Physics, so there hadn’t yet been a ton of specialization. To the degree there was, I’d say it was quantum mechanics and particle physics. Given how often QM has come up in my writing, that background was surely an influence.
- I assume computer science and your experience with NASA processes as well as the shuttle enabled you a deeper understanding of the technology needed to create a realistic picture of advanced civilizations. What do you feel was most beneficial for you, and why?
I think the most influential was wide-ranging interaction with a range of NASA employees and other NASA contractors, across several NASA centers. But perhaps the most fun was flying the space-shuttle training simulator at Johnson Space Center. This was a strictly off-the-books, after-hours activity, an opportunity that came my way because my employer at the time built and maintained the simulator.
By way of full disclosure, a more accurate statement would be that I crashed the shuttle simulator. The late, lamented shuttle had the aerodynamic properties of a brick. I salute anyone who could truly fly it.
Seven years supporting NASA sure comes in handy for writing SF.
- What, in your experiences, has been the most truthful depiction of scientific methods, discoveries, and technology (as we believe we known them to be)?
Fiction doesn’t do justice to true science, tech development, and discoveries—not because it couldn’t, but because verisimilitude would bog down any story or video. These things take time: staring at evidence (which, in the real world tends to be clouded with outlying data points, instrument noise, and other anomalies), pondering all the possible interpretations, brainstorming with colleagues, designing experiments, implementation, seeking independent confirmation of results …. To keep readers and viewers engaged, such things must be glossed over. In real life, the eureka moments only come—if one is lucky—after much hard work.
- Which authors do you feel had the best foresight in this area? For me, Isaac Asimov immediately comes to mind.
It may be the bias of my training, but I’d lean toward SF authors who were or are practicing physicists (Asimov was a biochemist). For some of the better views (but still fictionalized!) of real science, I’d suggest Gregory Benford or John G. Cramer.
- Conversely, who do you feel had the least understanding, missing the mark by the largest margin?
I’ll pass on taking potshots at anyone—which isn’t to say egregious errors don’t happen in fiction. To include (I presume) the eminently forgettable book that invited my long-ago carping, and so, my wife’s dare.
- Have you ever written about a quantifiable science only to have the topic discussed be proven incorrect or invalid? If so, what was it, and how did you deal with it?
It happens to everyone. The example that springs to mind was a novelette wherein I misrepresented carbon dating. Plot-wise, this was a minor error, but a faux pas nonetheless. An alert reader sent a letter to the magazine’s editor, who passed it along. That letter and my acknowledgment of the error ran in a later issue. I thanked the reader and told him (and the rest of the magazine’s circulation) that if this story were ever to be republished, I’d fix the problem. And so, I did, when the opportunity arose.
- Should it matter if a supposed theorem is later proven to be incorrect? I mean, we are speaking about science FICTION after all. How important is the accuracy of science when it comes to writing fiction?
For me, it depends. If the science has to do with something that’s well established (say, that two objects of differing mass fall to Earth at the same rate), it ought not be contradicted without a plausible explanation (say, that the story takes place elsewhere in the multiverse, where the laws of physics differ from ours).
Now, on to a gray area. Lots of SF speculates: what if something we think we know turns out to be wrong—or, at least, to have loopholes. Einstein notwithstanding, what if it were possible to exceed the speed of light? What if, eons of experience with cause and effect notwithstanding, travel to the past were possible? When treated in a logical and consistent way, most people (and I’m one) consider stories with such premises to be proper SF.
But science contradicted without explanation or consistency? It may allow for a good story, but it’d be fantasy, not (to my taste) science fiction.
Last thought on the topic: Some inconsistency with the latest science becomes inevitable. I wish I could remember the source, but I once heard an author proclaim that every story, sooner or later, becomes an alternate history.
- Now that you’re a full-time writer, what do you do to stay current on scientific progress?
Mainly, read. A lot. Check and recheck what I think I know. Run things past experts in whatever field. Not every specialist to whom I reach out with questions cares to indulge a novelist’s twisted mind—but a surprising fraction do.
- What resources do you suggest to other writers to ensure accuracy and plausibility?
The relevant materials vary so much from topic to topic that the answer must be general. Wikipedia can be a great place to start, but as anyone can edit that, it ought not to be the end. Prof. Google always has things to say, but again, confirmation is advisable. For a topic bearing on a significant part of a story or project, find a recent book(s) by an expert on the subject. And don’t be shy about reaching out to people you know with specialized knowledge, and even to academic experts you don’t know. Many of them will be delighted to help.
- Do you find this to be a good source of inspiration for your stories? Why, or why not?
Inspiration comes in many forms. I’m going to quote myself from the intro to Muses & Musings: A Science Fiction Collection:
I have, as it turns out, countless muses. Things I’ve read, both fiction and non. Things in the zeitgeist, digital and otherwise. Things people say, without intending to influence, much less to initiate, future story scribbling. Catchy turns of phrase that, sometimes, with years-long persistence, haunt me before finding release in some story. Vacation stops. Family history. In short, being receptive to the myriad myriads of stimuli all around.
Yet more briefly: no writer is ever entirely off-duty.
- What makes you decide to use a concept in your writing – is it the plausibility, your interest level in the material, or the potential of the science itself?
Again, it’s no one thing. I’ve started more than one story or novel as a way to learn more about a subject that intrigued me. I’ve also had that cause-and-effect reversed. The developing logic of a story will sometimes make me stop to study a thing that has suddenly come to seem useful, or even necessary, to complete the plot.
- How do you quantify the merit of an unproven theory?
For purposes of writing science fiction, I feel it’s sufficient that a theory be considered respectable.
As an example, consider parallel universes. No evidence even hints at the existence of more than one universe—but some intriguing math does. Other universes could settle unresolved issues in quantum foundations, string theory, and cosmology. Till multiverse theory is disproven, I’m fine with SF based on a presumption of other universes.
- How do you decide to take creative liberties to expand a scientific theory into your own concept, and when you do, has it ever led to a breakthrough with research?
Sure, I’ve exercised artistic license from time to time. I suspect most authors have. If that’s inspired anyone to prove me right—never mind how cool that would be—I’m not aware of it.
- I am curious how you went from reader to writer to published author.
- What made you decide to publish – was that always the goal?
We already talked a little about my transition from reader to writer. As for the leap to being published, well, isn’t the point of storytelling to tell someone the stories?
- Are you self-pubbed, with a small press, or traditional? What made you decide to go this route?
I’ve never self-published. Though self-publishing works for some people, the process requires way more non-writing effort than interests me. My books have been a mix, some from traditional publishers, others from small presses.
- With the saturation level of the sci-fi genre, how do you stand out?
Every author wants to stand out. By definition, few of us can. It’s why people like me appreciate the visibility offered us by venues like this. All the while hoping one of our books will go viral ….
- What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of this industry, and how do you deal with it?
Publishing is increasingly concentrated in a few mega-corporations. Where once many editors knew, nurtured, and promoted their authors—editor and writer as partners, together for the long haul—corporate publishers favor the safe bet: movie and television tie-ins, never-ending series, bestseller copycats (more dystopic YA, anyone?), and the like.
Hard SF isn’t in the currently preferred mega-corporate mix. Small SF press does operate on the old model, which is why many hard SF authors (me among them) are placing more and more of our recent work at small presses.
- What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the literary community?
That authors are unapproachable. Most writers enjoy meeting and hearing from readers. I know I do.
- Do you have any advice for a novice writer?
Rejection is part of the business. Hardly anyone sells their first, or second, work, much less does so the first, or second, time they submit it to a market. Even a track record of literary sales is no guarantee one’s next book or story will be snapped up.
- Is there anything you wish you knew before you published, and if you did know, would it have changed your decisions about things in any way?
I wish I’d known that personal rejection—even harsh—is a good thing. Editors are very busy people. When one takes the time to craft a personalized rejection, rather than paste a form email (or simply not respond), it means the editor sees potential. If he or she goes further and offers submission-specific comments, it means—unless they specifically say otherwise—that if you revise per those suggestions and resubmit, you have a good shot at acceptance.
Would learning that lesson earlier have changed anything for me? It sure would have alleviated some newbie stress, and probably found some stories a home earlier.
- What can we expect to see from you over the coming year?
I delivered two book manuscripts in late 2021. Neither has yet been scheduled, but there’s a good shot one or both will make it out the door in summer or fall 2022.
On the Shoals of Space-Time is an unusual (I like to believe) first-contact novel. The interstellar equivalent of a cruise liner suffers a near-catastrophic accident, and the few alien survivors limp to the fringes of a nearby solar system. Their only hope lies with the primitive natives—if they can somehow reach the humans, or the humans reach them.
The second book tackles what are probably every author’s least favorite questions. “What’s your favorite book? If I want to try one of your books, which should it be?” This is like asking a parent, “Who’s your favorite child?” I’ll finally have an answer once The Best of Edward M. Lerner, a career-spanning collection of my most acclaimed short fiction, is released.
- What is your current WIP?
A novel on the near-future exploration and colonization of Mars. (The title is likewise a work in progress, beyond that the word Mars will appear in it.) Best guess, this book will come out in late 2023.
- What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and your books?
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. It has been very enlightening, and I am sure my readers are thrilled to have learned more about you. I appreciate you and wish you all the success in the world!
Thanks for inviting me. It was fun chatting.