Daryl Gregory: We’re having this conversation by email, but I’m going to pretend we’re sitting in a bar. Even though we live in the same town, and not even a very big one — that’s State College, Pennsylvania, for you readers — I think we see each other more often in other cities, at cons. Is that sad, or just typically science fictional?
James Morrow: I think it’s both sad and science fictional. Writers live in their heads, don’t they?
D: My head has terrible table service. We did finally get together at our local brewpub a couple months ago to talk about free will and consciousness. That was a lot of fun, and was exactly the kind of conversation I used to imagine that science fiction writers had all the time, before I met some and realized we mostly talk about agents and publishers.
So when Alvaro said he’d give us space to talk on the Roundtable, I first thought that we could continue that conversation. But then I finished your new stand-alone novella, The Madonna and the Starship, that’s out now from Tachyon. My own novella, We Are All Completely Fine, is coming out in August. They’re really different books, but I thought we could talk about how both of them use pop culture as a main ingredient.
J: Good idea. But maybe we can sneak in some stuff about free will and its alleged sovereignty.
D: Oh, if only we had free will, then we could talk about whatever we want. But I guess we’re stuck with this topic for now. We’ve both based stories on pop culture—you most recently in your novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima—but I wanted to ask about Madonna first. What possessed you to write a philosophical comedy set in the early days of live TV and sci-fi serials?
J: My wife Kathy had been working on a piece of scholarly journalism about the origins of American science fiction. While we walked the dogs together, she would share with me her musings on Hugo Gernsback and the other founders of the American pulp tradition. Meanwhile, beyond the insular bounds of State College, the war of the worldviews raged on: the axiomatic materialism of experimental science versus insistently supernatural interpretations of reality.
One day I got the idea for a quasi-dystopian novella in which these incompatible philosophies have transmogrified into armed camps. Two warring armies are on the march, laying waste to much of planet Earth. But then some time-traveling genre writers arrive from the golden age of Amazing, Astounding, and Galaxy, and it quickly develops that the fundamentally romantic nature of American SF is sufficient to broker a truce between scientism and supernaturalism.
There were lots of things I didn’t like about that idea—for my money, scientism is essentially a nonexistent threat, whereas the menace of theocracy is all around us—but it was the germ of Madonna. Eventually I decided that the main bearer of the pulp ethos should be the head writer of an early-fifties Captain Video-like serial. And instead of traveling into the future, this writer, Kurt Jastrow, would be visited by alien hyper-rationalists, a couple of “logical positivists from outer space” who happen to resemble large blue bipedal lobsters.
D: Which leads to some of the daffiest dialogue you’ve ever written. The two giant lobsters—the Qualimosans—are a cheerfully sociopathic Laurel and Hardy with a simple plan.
J: I figured that, instead of putting a literal war on stage, it would be more suspenseful if my hyper-rationalists threatened to exterminate the audience of a live Christian broadcast. I liked the ambiguity of that: James Morrow, a hyper-rationalist himself, going to bat for two million Catholics and Protestants.
D: It’s a necessary move, I think. You have Kurt’s writing colleague, Connie Osborne, one of your strongest, smartest characters, argue for faith. She’s the one who says, “Even a child can burn a straw man.” I tried to do something similar in Afterparty, my last novel, which is about the neurological basis of religion. I’m definitely in the corner of the materialists, but I gave the defense of faith to the smartest, most likeable character.
Wow, and that fast we’re off to neurology. That free will discussion is right around the corner…
J: But first tell me what gave you the idea for We Are All Completely Fine.
D: Well, I was walking the dog with my wife Kathy… which is probably true, though I don’t remember when the idea first came up. My Kathy is a psychologist and academic who teaches and keeps a small private practice, so we’ve talked about therapy a lot. I’d just written a YA Lovecraftian horror novel which hadn’t sold yet (but will be out in March 2015 from Tor as Harrison Squared), and I started wondering about what would happen to the hero after he grew up. Therapy was obviously going to be in the picture.
A few years before, Kathy had turned me on to the work of Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist who literally wrote the book on group psychotherapy, and who also writes very funny novels about flawed characters in therapy. So then, what if the survivor of my YA novel joined a therapy group of lone survivors, each of them a last girl or last boy of their own horror story? That would allow me to play around with all the tropes and sub-genres of horror, especially the movie tropes. So we’ve got a survivor from a 70s-era family of monsters, à la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; a victim of a Halloween-style slasher back in the 80s; a modern survivor of a Ringu-style technological horror…
J: What the hell is Ringu-style technological horror?
D: Ha! Sorry. Got nerdy there. Ringu was a Japanese horror flick about a cursed video tape—watch it and evil forces emerge to kill you. It inspired several more movies, include the English-language spin-off The Ring and some sequels. It’s a little strange to think of being afraid of VHS, and it made me wonder if the demons have upgraded to Blu-ray yet. In We Are… one of the characters won’t take off his augmented reality glasses, because he’s sure they let him see what’s “really” going on.
I think every technology has been used as a horror trope: haunted cars, ghost telephones, artificial intelligence (anybody remember Julie Christie getting impregnated by a smart house in Demon Seed?). And any new medical technique is ripe for the picking, going back to Frankenstein.
J: I remember trotting off to see Demon Seed at the Fresh Pond Cinema in Cambridge during the great pre-Star Wars SF movie drought of the 70’s.
D: Terrible times! But speaking of technology, one of the things I loved about The Madonna and the Starship were all the tech details. Several key moments in the book, including most of the final chapter, take place in an NBC live-television studio circa 1953. Those scenes rang true for me. How did you track down so many of those details?
J: My main research tool was memory. Way back in 1973, after getting a teaching degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I went to work for the Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts. Sometime in the early 60’s, not long after the invention of two-inch videotape, the Chelmsford administrators had undertaken to wire the entire system for closed-circuit television, with an elaborate studio at the nexus, located in one of the middle schools.
This ostensibly futuristic installation was actually rather regressive in intent. The administrators thought that by embalming the “minor” subjects on videotape—art, shop, home economics, music appreciation—they could ultimately fire the corresponding teachers. I don’t think the scheme worked out very well. There is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood instructor. But the students inevitably commandeered the facilities for their own purposes.
As the Chelmsford school system’s graphic artist and media specialist, I often found myself in the central TV studio, helping the students broadcast a daily morning show, create instructional videos for their English and history classes, and produce original dramas and comedies for the sheer delight of it. Although most of these programs were recorded on tape, they all employed the grammar of live television—switching from camera 1 to camera 1 to camera 3 in real time, without any hiatus—and the stuff I learned during those years informs the climax of The Madonna and the Starship.
D: Oh, if it weren’t for spoiling the plot I’d ask you about the hilarious turn you make at the climax. Suffice it to say you put all that techno-historical detail and pulp storytelling to excellent satirical use.
J: Thank you. Back to We’re All…. Your PTSD protagonist Barbara has messages and images carved on her bones. Desperate to know herself, she makes a final gesture that’s over-the-top grisly, though if we’re avoiding spoilers, I won’t describe it. Am I wrong to detect a note of absurdity in this character’s situation?
Indeed, do you think that contemporary cinéma du sang flirts with absurdity? Movies like Re-Animator and its two sequels are obviously engineered for laughs (as well as nausea), but what about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the follow-ups to Night of the Living Dead? To what degree do the goriest horror movies unintentionally partake of humor?
D: I don’t think it’s unintentional. I think filmmakers understand that humor, horror, and sex (I’m adding sex to this formulation) all operate by similar mechanisms—they’re all about arousal, tension, and release. I wouldn’t be surprised if neuroscientists eventually discover that they use the same channels. Probably every horror movie since the 70’s has deliberately contained all three, if not in equal measure. You could make the case that moments of true horror work better when preceded by the vulnerability of sex and the laughs of false-scares, except when the sex itself becomes a cliché that inspires laughs. In horror movies, sluts die first, especially the female ones.
As for Barbara, I do think her situation is over-the-top. She’s the teenage victim of an 80’s style slasher called the Scrimshander—he’s the monster who inflicted her with subcutaneous scrimshaw—but her response to that is perfectly logical… to her. Other characters in the story know that Barbara is clinically depressed and suffering from PTSD, and so is probably not making rational decisions. We live in a world where these kinds of idées fixes (after you used cinéma du sang I figured I should start using French) are, if not common, at least becoming more well known. Think of the voluntary victim of Armin Miewes, “the German cannibal,” whose greatest desire was to be eaten.
J: I just made up cinéma du sang, but I like it. Is the Scrimshander your own conceit (I found it astonishing), or am I missing an allusion? Is he simply the next logical iteration of the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street cycles?
D: He’s my own creation, and yes, I think he’s in the same family as the slashers in those movies, especially the subset of serial killers who commit evil for aesthetic reasons, like Kevin Spacey in Se7en , or all those Vincent Price villains who just can’t get people to understand why their actions are simply necessary.
But of course, nobody’s going to see all the same references the author does, and you have to make the story work even if they come to it without knowing the original sources. For The Madonna and the Starship, were there allusions and influences from old SF that you knew people wouldn’t get—or that you were surprised that they didn’t get? (This is where I get to be appalled about some young ’uns not understanding your original title.)
J: I’m of the generation of pop-culture aficionados who were routinely told, upon confessing to a passion for science fiction, “Oh, you mean that Buck Rogers stuff.” (The remark was always delivered with maximum condescension.) So when I decided it was time for me to write my logical-positivist lobster novella, I thought it should be called That Buck Rogers Stuff.
I loved the quiet irony of the title. According to my original outline, as the story unfolded it became obvious that “Buck Rogers” tropes were exactly what the human race needed, intellectually and philosophically, to save itself. The “stuff” in question could actually hold its own, mutatis mutandis, against other systems of thought, even the most sophisticated.
But a big surprise was in store for Jacob [Weisman, our mutual publisher] and me. We did some informal marketing research, and it turned out that SF readers under forty have, on the whole, never heard of Buck Rogers.
D: I’m shocked. Do they not even remember the 70’s TV show starring Gil Gerard? Kids these days.
J: Some had heard of it, but it held no iconic status for them. So we changed the novella’s title, lest an annoyed distributor end up scratching his head. However, right before committing the book to print, I realized that my last chapter could be called “That Buck Rogers Stuff,” so I’m happy enough.
Here’s another bit of Madonna trivia that will fly below many readers’ radar. Kurt Jastrow occasionally contributes to a hypothetical pulp magazine called Andromeda. His agoraphobic editor is named Saul Silver, who corresponds to Horace Gold in the real world, just as Andromeda corresponds to Gold’s legendary Galaxy. Gold was also agoraphobic, the result of a World War Two trauma. The late Phil Klass [SF author William Tenn] used to speak of the disconnect between Gold’s fear of open spaces and the vast canvas on which Galaxy stories unfolded, and I incorporated that incongruity into my novella. Indeed, Saul Silver’s condition ends up driving the final plot twist.
There are no agoraphobics in We’re All Completely Fine (another quietly ironic title, I’d say), but each character is about as traumatized as a person might become without lapsing into catatonia. I loved the conceit whereby, beyond the therapist and her five messed-up patients, the book features a sixth viewpoint character. The group itself has a consciousness. Were you influenced by the similar device in Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club?
D: I read that book, but forgot that aspect of it! This is probably one of those times where I’m stealing unconsciously from what I’ve read.
J: Your title also evokes Karen’s most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but that’s probably a coincidence.
D: I think I’ve stumbled into a zeitgeist—people keep telling me about other recently published books that start with “We are…”, like Jeff Somers’ We Are Not Good People. The title came out of a long list of possible titles I was passing back and forth with Jacob, and of course the one we settled on turned out to be similar to some fantastic books. It’s like naming your darling infant some unique name, then finding out there are half a dozen sound-alikes on her first soccer team. (This happened to us with our daughter, Emma. There were two Emmas and two Emilys on that team.) I just hope that if anybody buys my book on accident they’re not terribly disappointed.
J: My dearly departed agent, Wendy Weil, had two young assistants, Emma (Patterson) and Emily (Forland). They both ultimately moved to Brandt & Hochman, and now I’m Emma’s client there, but I sometimes call her Emily.
D: See? They’re everywhere. But as for the idea of using first-person plural, my supposedly conscious decision (which I know arose from unconscious processes—there’s that illusion of free will again) was thinking that in a story about group therapy, the hero of the book should be the group itself. The group is responsible for saving itself.
J: A marvelous strategy, by the way. I found it quite moving: a ringing note of affirmation in a story not exactly brimming over with optimism.
D: So the first sentence of the book reads, “There were six of us in the beginning.” After the first meeting, every chapter starts with “We,” and discusses the state of the group as a whole, before moving the focus to one group member or another. It’s just one of those writer games: trying to make the way the story is told echo the themes of the story.
You seem to be doing the something similar in Madonna and the Starship, aren’t you? It’s the time of the pulps, and you give us bug-eyed aliens straight out of an Astounding story, complete with rubber-science “death rays.” What conventions did you want to pay homage to, and which ones did you want to subvert?
J: I wanted to celebrate the über-convention of popular culture aimed at kids: the fact that, ever since the invention of childhood (it’s largely a Victorian construction, I’m told), middle-class kids in the West, and frequently poverty-culture kids as well, have been privileged to absorb visual and acoustic worlds explicitly designed to spark their senses of wonder. That’s an unprecedented situation when you think about it, and I would argue it’s entirely benign. The abrupt ascent of “monster kids,” “sci-fi geeks,” “comic-book nerds,” and “fan girls” (and boys) is a phenomenon without historical antecedents—for the simple reason that childhood itself is such a recent bourgeois innovation.
As for subversion, I had lot of fun upending the pulp convention whereby theological issues never figure in the lives of SF heroes and heroines. True, my religious-drama writer, Connie Osborne, isn’t a churchgoer. But she’s unequivocally theistic, and her anguish over turning her biblically-inspired play into a farce is my favorite emotional element in a story otherwise short on psychological realism.
Some critics have interpreted Kurt and Connie’s opponents—the hyper-rationalist Qualimosans—as stand-ins for the so-called New Atheists. That wasn’t exactly my intention, because it turns out that the lobsters aren’t essentially atheists at all, nor are they truly rationalists, scientists, humanists, secularists, or even logical positivists. They’re simply nihilists. But I can understand why a reader might think I’m mocking Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.
D: I laughed every time the Qualimosans exclaimed, “Praised be the gods of logic!”
Last question: now that you’ve covered that Buck Rogers stuff, and played with monster movies in Shambling Towards Hiroshima, what pop-culture era are you itching to tackle next?
J: Jacob and I have discussed the possibility of a third Tachyon novella. The working title is The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, and it would spin off from that iconic German-expressionist horror film. Our chubby old Italian sorcerer-psychiatrist is still in business. He’s built a labyrinthine mental institution full of zagging corridors, zigging walls, and crooked portals. His theory is simple: an environment that could cause a sane person to go mad might very well cure a psychotic.
D: I demand that you write this immediately.
J: The plot concerns the physical dissolution of the outside world, and how a brilliant woman painter (an inmate in Caligari’s madhouse) attempts to forestall the apocalypse with her art, but I haven’t worked out the details. Hey, maybe I’ll end up addressing the free-will conundrum in this one. If the psychic sovereignty of so-called normal people is illusory, what does this say about the selfhood of individuals whose symptoms appear in the DSM? Another day’s discussion.
Before signing off, tell me about a future Daryl Gregory project or two. Are you also planning to do something more with pop culture?
D: My daughter, Emma—or is it Emily?—has made her own demand for a sequel to We Are…. And I must admit that at the end of the novella I left the plot door wide open. But until I get around to that, she’ll have to make do with the bent prequel that is the Harrison Squared novel coming next year. I’ve based previous novels and short stories on pop culture, and I’ll undoubtedly go back to the well again. How can I not? That Buck Rogers stuff—and comic book stuff, and horror movie stuff—made me who I am.
And with that, this is Jim and Daryl, signing off. Tune in soon for the next exciting episode of the Locus Roundtable!
About the Authors:
Daryl Gregory is an award-winning writer of genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His first novel, Pandemonium, won the Crawford Award and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. His other novels include The Devil’s Alphabet, Raising Stony Mayhall, Afterparty, and the upcoming Harrison Squared. Many of his short stories are collected in Unpossible and Other Stories. He lives in State College, PA, about two miles from James Morrow.
James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since, at age seven, he dictated “The Story of the Dog Family” to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Morrow wrote such satiric novels as Towing Jehovah (World Fantasy Award), Blameless in Abaddon (a New York Times Notable Book), The Last Witchfinder (called “an inventive feat” by critic Janet Maslin), and The Philosopher’s Apprentice (“an ingenious riff on Frankenstein” according to NPR). His shorter work has won the Sturgeon Award and, on two occasions, the Nebula Award.