|Inför utgivningen av Mind over Ship, fortsättningen på utmärkta Counting Heads, ställde Johan Frick några frågor till David Marusek.|
What is your background and how did it help making you an SF writer?
I think the biggest influence on my choice of genre was my father, who was an electrical
engineer and who had a handful of patents in his name. In fact, engineering seems to run
in my family, as I have brothers, nephews, and nieces with careers in engineering of one
sort or another. Engineers seem to experience a particular joy in making things work,
especially after taking them apart. I share that temperament and perhaps should have
pursued a career in some branch of engineering or science. Probably in all my other
timelines, I’m designing batteries for hybrid cars or tweaking potatoes to grow vaccines
or doing something cool like that. In this timeline, however, I’m an SF writer, though
that’s pretty cool too.
As a typical writer, I have bounced around the job market and have done stints in:
construction, logging, commercial fishing, fish processing, marine salvage, camp cook,
nurse’s aid, psychiatric nurse’s aid, newspaper display ad salesman, remote site caretaker,
marketing consultant, and river guide, to name a few. These endeavors were usually
short-lived, and for most of my adult life my meal ticket has been in graphic design.
Back in 1986, I was the second person in Fairbanks, Alaska, to discover desktop
publishing. The first person was a woman I had worked with at the newspaper. She
taught me PageMaker software, bequeathed me her job as graphic designer at a
neighborhood copy shop, and left town. That left me pretty much ahead of a big curve in
this small town, an advantage I used to run my own free-lance graphics business for
about 18 years, and to leverage myself an adjunct faculty position at the University of
Alaska Fairbanks, where I taught graphic design for 13 years.
Since childhood I’ve known I wanted to be an artist and writer. Until now, the artist has
been the breadwinner. But that has changed; two years ago I quit my graphics business
and all graphics teaching. I was simply burnt out. My visual imagination needed a break.
It’s been two years now, during which I’ve been concentrating only on writing, and I’m
finding myself becoming interested in comics, especially graphic novels. So maybe these
are stirrings of a refreshed visual imagination.
You made yourself a name in the SF field writing short stories, one of which - "We
Were Out of Our Heads With Joy" - was expanded into your first novel, Counting
Heads. What was it in that story that made you realize that there was a novel there, and
what was the process of turning it into a novel like?
For years after “WWOOOMWJ” was published, Gardner Dozois, the editor of Asimov’s
magazine who had purchased the story, kept suggesting that I should expand it into a
novel. Some of my fans did too. But at the time I had no inkling of where the story might
go. It was a big blank to me, but I didn’t worry about it and kept writing new stories in
the same world. Then late in 1998, I realized that I may not know what happened to
Samson Harger next in the story, but I did know how his life ended forty years later, and
that’s where I opened the novel and started writing. It was only years later when I had a
first-reader draft that Charles Brown of Locus suggested I tack the original “WWOOOMWJ” story on to it as Part 1. I took his suggestion. This was my first novel,
and I learned a lot writing it, but it took me over six years to finish. (Mind Over Ship, by
contrast, took three. I need to get it down to a novel in 18 months.)
Your novels are set in a world where nanotechnology has transformed society entirely.
Much SF dealing with nanotech assumes either that it will lead to a utopian "postscarcity"
society, or that it will run amuck and try to kill everyone. You seem to be taking
a more realistic view, where the technology is sometimes used unwisely and where its
benefits are very unevenly spread. What made you take this view, and how do you think it
relates to earlier SF exploring similar themes?
I guess I’m an optimist in that I believe that humans will not destroy themselves with
their technology. Somehow we will be able to muddle through. I believe that the prospect
of an imminent “post-scarcity” society would be so destabilizing that society or
circumstances would create a state of artificial scarcity to offset it. I believe that costs and
benefits are never doled out evenly in a population, and neither are the positive and
negative effects of a new technology. In the end I guess I’m just imposing my own
worldview on the world of my creation.
Come to think of it, the whole world you've created seems rather more realistic than SF
worlds in general. Although there has been enormous technological progress, this is not
a shiny future; it's messy, smelly, chaotic. What's your take on worldbuilding and realism
I read too many SF books about future worlds that differ from our own in only one or two
aspects. Otherwise they have the same sort of economics, faiths, politics, prejudices and
so forth that we have now. In my own lifetime I have seen our world transform radically
in many, if not all, aspects of life. I wondered if I could do a more realistic
society than the norm, and I set out to push our world a few decades into the future in my
imagination. This is a hard job because everything affects everything else, and I had to do
a lot of rewriting.
The short stories I wrote in the same world helped. Altogether, I have toiled almost
continuously in this Counting Heads world since 1994. So if it feels lived in, maybe
Counting Heads was sometimes criticized for ending too abruptly. To me it read like
the first part of a series, although it was published as a single novel. You must have
written it with at least one sequel in mind, and now I understand that there will be more.
Do you have any idea how many books set in this future there will be? Any plans for
You are correct, sequels were always intended. I had an overall story arc, for which
Counting Heads would be the first book. A very sketchy story arc, at least--I never
managed to successfully outline a book-by-book synopsis. I hope to take my cast of
characters (or their descendents or assignees) on the full thousand-year voyage of colonization, from the struggle to depart from the solar system, through a millennium of
shipboard perils, to the arrival on a new home planet and efforts to settle it. How many
books that would take? Just getting off Earth took two books. So, dozens probably.
But I was not offered a multi-book contract; the publishing business is murder these days,
and I guess Counting Heads was too iffy a business proposition coming from a first-time
novelist. Thus, there was nothing in the book or on the cover to signal a sequel except, as
you point out, the abrupt ending. Only after it was published to a warm reception (a fullpage
review in the New York Times Book Review) was I offered a contract for the
second book, Mind Over Ship. I have regretted the confusion this has created among my
readers, but I don’t think I could have signed a multi-book contract in any case. If the
first book took me six years to write, I reasoned, a three-book contract could tie me up for
Yes, I am hard at work on my third novel. This one is not set in the Counting Heads
world. I guess I need a break. Also, ideas for new short stories seem to be dropping on
my head, and I’ll be taking a little break from novel-writing to draft them out.
vid pennan: Johan Frick