John Stith Rendezvous2006-10-03
"Science lives on a round Earth. 'Because I said so,' lives on a flat one."
HSF: How did you become interested in science?
JES: Probably the biggest early influence was that my father was an electrical engineer. He would talk about the coming events in electronics, and he worked at White Sands Missile Range on projects like the Rocket Sled and what I heard sparked my interest.
HSF: What inspired you to write hard science fiction?
JES: Several factors I suppose. I had at least enough surface knowledge of science to be put off when a writer casually violated what we know about science for no good purpose. I enjoyed some examples of SF that incorporated science well and also told a story I found interesting. NEEDLE by Clement was one example.
HSF: Which writers, books, or scientists have influenced you the most, and in what capacity?
JES: When it comes to individuals, I've been most specifically influenced by writers. Early on, it was a mix of the standard greats and a few others. Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark, plus Biggle, Nourse, Sheckley for his humor, Simak Many of the Winston series for kids. In more recent years, Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME and several works by Rob Sawyer renewed my faith that people could do SF that respected the way the world works and tell great stories at the same time.
HSF: Which is more important in hard sf, the science or the story?
JES: Generally to me the story is the most important aspect of fiction, and the science comes in second. Some SF I've read has it
the other way around, to the extent that the writer might as well have just written a non-fiction piece. REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS was I suppose my exception, in that I was having so much fun playing with relativity that I wanted to expose the reader also. Some might argue it's not hard SF, because I did break some rules, but at the same time I was careful to try to separate fiction from the basis in science.
HSF: Did you set out to make the science in Redshift Rendezvous more "reader-friendly"?
JES: Right, I did set out to make it "reader-friendly." That was the primary reason for putting most of the supporting material into an appendix. The interested reader could read the appendix. The reader wanting only in the story could stop at the end of the novel.
HSF: How much weight do you put on scientific accuracy in your stories?
JES: I'm willing to take liberties for the sake of the story--we'd have a lot more generation ship stories and fewer tales of distant planets if many people didn't take some common liberties such as rapid interstellar transit by various means.
HSF: What types of research do you do to gain scientific accuracy in your stories? Do you generally write what you know about, or do you intentionally write in unknown territory?
JES: I always seem to pick topics I don't know enough about, requiring a fair amount of research. The most intensive effort was the relativity research for REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS. (In the book, aboard a starship that moves through hyperspace, the speed of light is ten meters per second, so relativistic tricks abound. Flip a light switch and see the room slowly fill with light. Run, and you blue-shift the path ahead and create sonic booms.)
In general I've used books and magazines as my primary research. In one departure, for REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, I showed an early version to Courtney Willis (he's Connie Willis's husband and a respected science teacher). From clues in the text about what happens on various levels of the spherical starship, Courtney was able to work backwards and determined the dimensions of the ship to an accuracy of about ten percent. I've also workshopped portions of novels in a group that included Wil McCarthy.
HSF: Does the general public's lack of hard scientific concepts affect you as a writer?
JES: It does seem that the audience for hard SF is shrinking, although it still exists. I think those writers who can take a hard-to-understand aspect of science and popularize it can reach an audience that's broader than the audience who's specifically interested in the topic. But the stronger the science concentration, it does seem the narrower the audience in today's market.
HSF: How might one make hard science fiction more appealing to the general public?
JES: It would be cool if we once again had a government that understood and valued science and the scientific method, as we've mostly had in the past. Resisting those who want the public school system to teach under the guise of science principles that are not held by the scientific community. Science lives on a round Earth. "Because I said so," lives on a flat one.
HSF: What scientific category or topic are you most excited about writing?
JES: I'm actually not sure at the moment. Often one issue or another gets me worked up and interested in a project. Currently, maybe as I grow older and think a bit more about the legacy we're handing over to the following generations, I get more worked up about the idea that our current anti-science administration backs torture, warrantless wiretaps, and secret prisons. This is truly a science-fictional development in that it happened so suddenly and seems to be meeting so little criticism. It's an old lesson that people are easily manipulated by fear, but it's still a shock to see it here in the USA.
HSF: What do you think will be the hot scientific topic(s) in the coming decades?
JES: Some of the old standbys in SF are coming to the fore now. Cloning is likely going to be a steady part of the news for decades to come, Medical research in general, from bionics to transplants to gene therapy. Wil McCarthy's HACKING MATTER is an exciting glimpse into the near future of programmable materials. Taking a flat surface in your home and alternately having it act as a wall, a window, a mirror, or a heater, will make the home of tomorrow a pretty different place.
HSF: So, what does the near future hold for Mankind?
JES: As someone who looks to the future, I feel less optimistic than when I was a kid. My fear is that we've so long ignored the simple math that describes population growth and we keep postponing an Apollo program for energy sources, so the coming generations could be paying dearly for our shortsightedness. I wish we could get an independent colony established somewhere out there to increase the chance of humanity surviving the threats of plague, nuclear exchanges, biological warfare, and the other challenges ahead. Humans can be greedy, self-centered, homicidal, and tasteless, but humans can also be generous, curious, industrious, and creative. I think humanity has on the large scale the same problem that we have on the small scale--we mature physically before we mature emotionally and intellectually. All in all, I really think we deserve to survive to see what we can be when we grow up.
HSF: Are you working on anything right now?
JES: No. (Long story.) I do expect to get back to it in the coming year.