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The Final Evolution - Interview with Jeff Somers

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The world is dying. With avatars replacing humans and the birth rate non-existent, the human race is almost extinct.  In the end, it comes down to…. Jeff Somers. 

Actually, you’ll have to read Jeff’s new book, “The Final Evolution” (Orbit, June 2011), to find out if humanity survives this rather ominous challenge.  The fifth installment in his “Avery Cates” series, “The Final Evolution” promises the same clash of prophetic, pragmatic cyber-punk prose (described once as “high tech, low-dream, action-filled noir reminiscent of Blade Runner”) enjoyed by readers in early books such as the wonderfully-titled and critically-praised “The Electric Church.” With interest piqued, I contacted Jeff telepathically (okay, by email) to learn more about his writing and to inquire about the future of science fiction.  Here’s what he transported (or typed) back.

John McCaffrey - Orwell wrote that you can’t assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development.  His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.  Do you think this holds true to your experience as a writer, and how so?

Jeff Somers- As a man frozen perpetually in his adolescence, absolutely. I could probably even pinpoint for you the exact moment when I froze forever into my current psychological, emotional, and political shape, defined by a robust laziness, a sincere love for good liquor, and the firm belief that writing should first and foremost entertain me and then, just slightly less important, entertain others. In other words, a selfish, drunken bastard. Who writes stories. It was probably some time in 1990, but I can’t be sure until we invent some sort of time-machine-cum-surveillance-video contraption.

As I’ve gotten older I have become increasingly aware that my development as a person really did freeze, in some senses, when I was much younger. A love for simplistic power-punk music. A sincere belief that flannel is an acceptable fashion choice. A refusal to watch DVDs coupled with a romantic love for serendipitously finding a beloved old movie on television. A child-like distrust of vegetables or, for that matter, any food that I have not previously consumed and survived. The themes and tropes I explore in my writing haven’t changed so much either. Style and technique has evolved (lord, I hope so) and subject matter has changed—I’m no longer writing high-fantasy Tolkien rip offs like I was when I was ten, and I’m no longer writing novels which are basically lengthy apologies for the Drinking Life like I was in my twenties—but a lot of the nuts and bolts are the same.

Not that this is a bad thing. A lifetime’s pretty short, and I think if we all picked one subject or theme to contemplate and write about, we’d barely scratch the surface of that subject by the time we kicked off.

JM - Orwell also wrote that a motive for most writers is political - to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after.  As a novelist, do you have a pre-conceived focus on how you want to “push the world,” or does the message evolve organically during the writing?

JS - I don’t agree with Orwell on this one, and I distrust political motivations or “message delivery” for writing. Although I imagine that if I attempted to debate Orwell on the point I’d be destroyed in a matter of moments. I lose arguments and debates in bars about things like the Designated Hitter in baseball, usually ending up weeping in the restroom after being humiliated again, shouting out “Occupied!” in a hitching sob as people keep trying to break in.  Where was I? Right: political motivations. First and foremost, I doubt my ability to “push the world.” I can’t even dictate what I’m having for dinner tonight (my wife is like atomic energy in human form), much less alter people’s ideas about the kind of world they want. This sense of my own personal powerlessness has been a cornerstone of my identity and philosophy my entire life. I’m a speck of dust in the universe, and even the most famous and influential people in our short history are relegated to the encyclopedia sooner rather than later. I don’t kid myself. Half the people reading this interview have already dismissed me from their minds and clicked over to Perez Hilton. My goal is to lose the other half before we’re done.

Secondly, messages age badly. I write to entertain: myself first, as stated above, and then, hopefully others. The beauty of fiction in all its forms is that people will read into the work. Your audience does the heavy lifting of planting seeds in your work. The lighter touch you have when writing, the easier it is for people to read all sorts of alarming and amazing things into it. That should be your goal, to provide fertile soil for other people to read all sorts of incredible things into.

JM - What is your writing practice like when you are working on a book?  Is it different than when you are between projects?

JS - There’s no difference; I’m always working on several projects at once and just jump from one to another. I write short stories constantly—at least one a month—more as a writing exercise than anything else. Which produces, let me tell you, some really terrible short stories. But it also captures ideas and techniques that flit into my TV-ruined mind like fireflies and which would otherwise escape into another writer’s mind. And, hey, sometimes a good story actually emerges.

I also tend to move from novel project to novel project. I like to always be working on a novel because of my paralyzing fear of death. I just imagine I’ll be sitting somewhere and think, damn, that’s a great idea for a novel I should start writing that after lunch and then a meteorite falls on me and that’s that, it never gets written.

I have this freedom because I don’t pre-plan much. Sometimes I sketch out a general outline, but more often I take a concept, or an opening scene, and just start hacking away at it. Some tens of thousands of words later, it’s a novel! That’s good. But it’s probably not a good novel. That’s bad. But here’s another idea for a novel! That’s good. And so on.

Right now, in addition to the monthly short story, I’m working on two novels simultaneously, which is fun. One’s a dark urban modern-day fantasy, the other’s a more mainstream thriller-type story. I’m also always working on issues of my zine, The Inner Swine (www.innerswine.com) which I’ve been putting out since 1995 and is heading towards its 60th issue. The zine is about 80,000-100,000 words a year on top of everything else.

JM - What is more difficult in creating imagined worlds usually associated with science fiction writing - the minute details of daily life, or the larger philosophies of a fantastical society?

JS - The details, definitely. The big-picture stuff is usually that eureka moment when you have the idea, the high-concept pitch in your head. What if there was a nuclear war and in the shattered aftermath Circus Clowns came to be regarded as the Universal Culture? That sort of thing. Except much, much better, of course. That part’s easy, sometimes—you just take the world as it is, edit it a bit, and try to follow the threads.  The details on the other hand, are maddening. You can eat your own tail and get lost in there, because any little change to the universe and you’ve got endless, unpredictable ripples in the way people do things. And every ripple causes other ripples, endlessly.

The consideration becomes, at what point does imagining the repercussions of a shift in society stop serving the story? I think in speculative fiction you have to keep some familiar ties to the real, current world in order for a reader to buy in. There has to be recognizable parts of the world there for readers to hang their hat on. If you re-imagine every single detail, not only are you sitting at your desk for a decade just re-imagining before you ever put pen to paper, but the number of people who can follow you down that rabbit hole shrinks to a handful. You have to balance your re-imagined society with telling a compelling story.

One thing I try to keep utmost in mind when writing spec fiction is that human nature does not change easily or quickly. No matter what kind of technological climate your characters exist in, or how much time separates them from your own existence, people are people and their reactions should be recognizable to anyone in the same way the motivations and reactions of the characters in The Canterbury Tales are recognizable to people today.

JM - Where do you see the genre of science fiction moving in the years ahead?

JS - I think it’s going to be increasingly less about technology and more about physiology—body horror, body augmentation, The Singularity and such. We’ve hit a point now where just about anything you can imagine has either already been invented and put into production, or is at the very least not inconceivable. I think you’re seeing more Time Travel stories in the short term because it’s one of the last amazing things that still seems impossible. But I think it’s going to contract and become more personal.

I also think it’s going to become more grim and alarmist, because technological advances always loom with the possibility of oppression. As much as we love our gadgets or the ways technology gives us more free time and less labor, we’re all also constantly aware of how it can be used against us. EZ Pass allows us to escape the slow crawl of the tollbooth, but also tells the government where we go, and when we went there. A cashless society is a great convenience, but again, we’re losing the anonymity of cash. The future has always caused people anxiety, and the faster it arrives the more anxious we get. Right now the future is coming at us like a freight train.

The final aspect of SF I see coming is its normalization. Even now you can see how SF is bleeding into the mainstream. It’s not a ghetto for geeks any more; it’s becoming just another tool for pop culture to use. Television has already embraced SF, and if it’s on prime-time television, it ain’t exotic any more, bubba.

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About the Author
Jeff Somers was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. After graduating college he wandered aimlessly for a while, but the peculiar siren call of New Jersey brought him back to his homeland. In 1995 Jeff began publishing his own magazine, The Inner Swine (www.innerswine.com). Find out more about the author at www.jeffreysomers.com.