An Interview with Geoffrey A Landis
by Nick Gevers
Geoffrey A. Landis, born in 1955, wears three public hats: as scientist (he is a researcher for NASA), as poet, and as SF writer. His many Hard SF stories are literate, information-rich, full of insights into scientific methodologies and mentalities; they constitute a sustained dramatisation of the opportunities and dilemmas attached to any increments, great or small, to human comprehension of the universe. His short fiction awards include a 1989 Nebula for "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" and a 1992 Hugo for "A Walk in the Sun". His major SF novel, Mars Crossing, was published in 2000; now, in November 2001, Golden Gryphon Press issues his first collection, Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities.
I interviewed Geoffrey Landis by e-mail in October 2001.
NG: You're very evidently a scientist's SF writer, rather like Gregory Benford: direct scientific expertise pervades your stories. What is it like to be a working scientist who also writes SF? Are the roles purely complementary, or is there a contradiction involved?
GAL: I'd say that being a scientist and being a science fiction writer are two facets of one personality. I've never found that there's any contradiction involved in being both. The important part of being a scientist is to have a joy in discovering things, and isn't that also what it is to be a science fiction writer, to be always surprised in discovering something that might be, or perhaps could have been?
NG: As one of its practitioners, how would you define Hard SF? (Joe Haldeman grapples with the problem in his Foreword to Impact Parameter, of course.) What, in practical terms, is the agenda of Hard SF, as you see it?
GAL: Hard science fiction is science fiction that tries to be correct about science, or at least as correct as we can be with what we know. More than that, hard SF is science fiction that's fascinated by science and technology, science fiction in which a scientific fact or speculation is integral to the plot. If you take out the science, the story vanishes.
NG: You're a noted SF poet. How difficult is it to work SF content into poetry? And how consciously poetic are you in your prose writing?
GAL: Actually, I usually write poetry for myself--it's something I do to keep my hand in, when I have something to say and don't have time to write anything longer. I love to play with words, but I'm still rather amazed that my poetry has been picked up and people like it. I do love it when a bit of poetry works its way into my fiction, but I don't think it's something that I can count on--it just happens.
NG: As Impact Parameter makes clear, you've been an SF short story writer of note for some time, a nominee for and winner of major awards; yet your first novel appeared only recently. Do you naturally prefer producing short fiction, or is this mainly through pressure of time?
GAL: I like short fiction--I've read a lot of short stories ever since I was a kid. I think of this as being due to my short attention span--I like that fast pay-off. But, then, I guess that the pressure of time is a factor, too. I always have a dozen projects that I just don't seem to find time for, so the short stories are something I can slip in, fooling myself by saying, well, I can finish that off pretty fast, and then go work on something else.
NG: Who, for you, are the key past and present SF writers? Do you acknowledge any particular influences?
GAL: My influences? Oh, heavens, I'd say everybody, bad and good. The classic writers, of course--Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Isaac Asimov was important to me as an example--he was the existence proof that showed it was possible to be both a scientist and a science fiction writer. Larry Niven, definitely. And then in the late 70s, John Varley came along and showed me that there was still some life in hard science fiction about the solar system. Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, Kurt Vonnegut--when I was in high school, I thought Kurt Vonnegut was awesome. Ursula Le Guin. I could name everybody in SFWA--they all influenced me.
NG: Looking now at the stories in Impact Parameter: several, such as "Ecopoiesis" and "Outsider's Chance", seem quintessentially in the tradition of John W Campbell and Analog (even if the former didn't actually appear there!). A scientific problem of a life-threatening nature is posed, and duly solved through technical ingenuity. Yet is that all there is to your tales of this type?
GAL: Yes, I have to confess it, I love scientific puzzle stories--I should have mentioned Hal Clement back when you were asking about influences. I hope that there's more than just a puzzle to the stories; after all, fiction is characters, not just problems to solve. But I do love it when there's a problem in a story, and it's clever enough that at the end you say, well of course! I should have seen that!
NG: You write with particular effectiveness about heroic endeavour in science labs: the battle for usable results, office politics, fraught relationships between graduate students and their thesis advisors, and so forth. "Elemental" and "Dark Lady" have a highly convincing texture. In writing thus, are you exaggerating at all, or is this literally how the lab culture functions?
GAL: There's always some exaggeration when you write about scientific labwork, I'm afraid. The part you don't write about is how slow things go. You don't get a breakthrough every week, like in the stories; in fact, you're lucky to get one in a lifetime! Most labwork consists of sitting around, waiting for your instrument to collect enough photons to get enough data to analyze. Or trying to track down noise sources in your electronics. Oh, and did I mention false results? Where you see something really interesting in your data, and you come up with a really exciting explanation for it, and then the next day you finally discover that, no, it was just an instrument error? You never see that in science fiction, I'm afraid--nobody seems to make discoveries and then, oops, no, false alarm. And as you get older, I find that there's less even of that, and more of sitting through boring meetings.
NG: A repeated motif of your stories--"A Walk in the Sun", "Across the Darkness", "Approaching Perimelasma", "Into the Blue Abyss"--is the ultimate journey into remote and dangerous spaces, very succinctly narrated. Are you this adventurous personally?
GAL: Yes, for that matter, Mars Crossing is a story about remote and dangerous places. I used to be more adventurous than I am now. As I get older, I get less and less adventurous, I'm afraid. On the other hand, in real life adventure is what happens when you're foolish and unprepared, stuff that happens to people who take foolish risks. To quote Vilhajalmur Stefansson--one of the quotations I used in Mars Crossing--"Having an adventure shows that someone is incompetent, that something has gone wrong." I like deserts, and there's something awe-inspiring to go hiking in some place and look across wind-sculpted rocks, and from horizon to horizon there's no speck of green, but these days I'm just as happy to know that, well, there's my car, a half-hour walk away, and it's got a full tank of gas and a couple of full bottles of water.
NG: "What We Really Do Here at NASA", full of aliens and perpetual-motion machines, is a fascinating revelatory document. Isn't it dangerous spilling the beans in this way?
GAL: No, it's all part of the cover story--Now, if the truth ever gets out, they can say "it's just a science fiction story." That's the same principle as the leaks to The National Enquirer.
NG: Simulation of reality gets two contrasting treatments from you: the cosmic joke string of "Ouroboros", and the deadly serious military manoeuvring of "Rorvik's War", with all its implications for world affairs and personal rights. Where in the spectrum of science fictional opinion on virtual reality would you place yourself?
GAL: I'm fascinated by virtual reality, and the thought that if the world we know is a simulation, we would probably never be able to find out. Real-life virtual reality isn't quite as nice as science fiction VR, though. For one thing, in real-life VR, after about an hour in a virtual simulation, when you take your goggles off and get back into the real world, your legs are wobbly, and you feel like you're going to throw up--that's VR sickness; it's something like sea-sickness. You don't see that mentioned a lot in SF, though.
NG: Although their overt connections are tenuous, three stories in Impact Parameter--"Ecopoiesis", "Into the Blue Abyss", and "Winter's Fire"--seem to be stages in the fictional biography of a fascinatingly characterised future scientist, Dr. Leah Hamakawa...
GAL: Yes, Leah and Tinkerman are a couple of characters that I've written a few stories about. I'm hoping that in a bit, the stories might come together to make a novel.
NG: In your note on "Winter Fire", you disqualify the story as SF on grounds of its bleakness. Yet is SF truly so hostile to pessimism?
GAL: I suppose I should say that "Winter Fire" is a story that got me a letter from a reader, a very angry letter that started out by saying that the story wasn't even science fiction, so that letter was part of what prompted me to say that. I guess I was exaggerating a bit; certainly science fiction can look at both the bright and the dark side of the future. But the story isn't science fiction in this sense: that events similar to it, in Sarajevo and Beirut and Mogadishu, happen today, in the real world we live in.
NG: "Snow" is about genius in neglect and adversity; "Beneath the Stars of Winter" is a larger examination of that plight. In the latter story, how close to historical actuality is your portrait of proscribed scientists in the Stalinist Gulag?
GAL: I have to admit that the descriptions in "Beneath the Stars of Winter" are somewhat picked from all of the worst-case conditions--but only somewhat. And yet, even in the Russian labour camps, under appalling conditions, scientists--and writers--continued to work.
NG: "The Singular Habits of Wasps" is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but a pretty improbable and thus subversive one. Is your attitude towards Holmes one of affectionate contempt?
GAL: I'm horrified to think that "Singular Habits of Wasps" could be thought to be contemptuous of Holmes; I certainly didn't intend that! One of the things that I tried very had to do was to stay true to the characters, yet put them into a science-fictional scenario, without any of the knowledge that we, looking back from a hundred years in the future, would have. I wanted them to be true to their time and character.
NG: What lies next for you? A second novel? New directions in your story writing? Both?
GAL: I've been writing some short stories lately, but I have a few new ideas that I think might work out at novel length. And some other ideas that I'm not sure whether they will work out best as scientific papers, or science fiction stories. We'll see.
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© Nick Gevers 3 November 2001