Serdar Yegulalp is a writer and technology journalist. His most recent novel is Flight of the Vajra. In this interview, Serdar talks about the sci-fi genre, what originality means to him, which writers inspire him (plus a couple who don’t), and tactics for getting his work in front of potential readers.
What made you want to be a writer?
I can barely recall a time when I didn’t want to be one. Better maybe to say, I can barely recall a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was in my single digits I inherited a manual Remington typewriter from my father, and spent the next dozen or more years pounding it to death until he brought home one of the first IBM PC clones running WordStar 3.3. None of what I produced was very good, and I had the worst time listening to good advice, but I never completely quit. When I realized not writing was worse, that’s when I figured, “Well, I guess I’m a writer, whether I like it or not.” Fortunately, I like it.
Why did you choose to work in the genre of science fiction? What attracts you to sci-fi?
SF isn’t the only thing I write (The Four-Day Weekend definitely doesn’t fit there), although a big part of what I do would end up on that shelf mainly because I’m not sure people would find any other place to put it!
I like SF because of what it can do at its best — it’s not just a way for us to think about what the world could be like someday, but what people themselves could be like someday. The kinds of people we are now would be unthinkable a thousand years ago, and not just because of technology (although that’s certainly been a major chunk of it), but because of the way our notions of what people are and what they can be have also changed.
Besides writing fiction, you’re also a tech journalist, which requires a pretty good understand of how computers and the Internet works. Do you find that knowledge a help or an impediment when you’re thinking about the future?
If it’s been an impediment, it’s been one mostly in the sense of peoples’ unrealistic expectations about what kinds of material I ought to be writing. If I had a dime for every time someone suggested I write a Tom Clancy / Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller, I’d be able to pay off the national debt and have enough left over for a few Pacific islands. My creative side isn’t motivated by that kind of material; I don’t want to read that kind of stuff, and so I’ve got less than no interest in actually producing it. It’s not like we don’t already have plenty of it!
Most of what I know about tech gets employed in my work in only a modest way, in big part because it’s very easy to get the details wrong. So I mostly use it to keep from making gross mistakes about things when the subject comes up. But the vast majority of the time, for me, the technical details don’t make for an interesting story anyway. Human beings make for an interesting story. It’s like Andy Warhol once said: “People are fascinating; you can’t ever take a bad picture [of them].”
Tell me a bit about your latest book.
Flight of the Vajra, which I released late last year, was my take on a “wide-gauge space-opera epic” type of story. A friend of mine put it this way: “A more responsible version of Tony Stark has to save the galaxy, and his elite strike team consists of a circus acrobat, the Dalai Lama, Commissioner Gordon, Seven of Nine, and David Bowie.” (After he said it, I had to use it.)
It’s set in a future where mankind has nearly unlimited control over the physical world through a series of malleable, programmable substances referred to collectively as “protomics”. But the very affluence and longevity created by such things has inspired a social backlash; there’s a religion of sort, called the Old Way, consisting of people who have (in varying degrees) forsaken things like life-extension technology or mind-to-computer cortical linking (“CL”). But the Old Way is losing out, and its most recent pontiff, Angharad, is faced with the possibility that it must reform or die.
The main character, Henré Sim, is a starship designer — kind of like a Jony Ive of the 30th century! — but his life has been in disarray ever since his family perished when one of his own ships was destroyed in what appeared to have been a freak accident. He’s since resigned himself to puttering around in his ship, the “Vajra”, while secretly scraping around for clues about the disaster. Angharad wants him to work with her on a project to reform the Old Way, and the two of them get caught up in this massive adventure that goes from one end of their universe to the other.
Whose writing do you admire?
When I was young, there were two writers who most rattled my eyeteeth. One was an SF author, the other was not. The first was Philip K. Dick, and I remember putting down “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and thinking, “This is the first author I’ve ever read who understands how I think.” The other author was Hubert Selby, Jr., he of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream.” There wasn’t another author I read at that age who affected me emotionally the way he did, save maybe for Dick himself. If both authors had one thing in common, it was the idea that you have no choice but to deal with the cruelty and indifference of the universe through love; nothing else will do the job.
Other SF authors I came to admire as I grew up: Stanisław Lem. He was both playful and serious, using SF as a springboard for the kinds of playful wit that you don’t see much in fiction of any kind anymore. Also Theodore Sturgeon, if only for “More Than Human”; he, too, was of the idea that love beats indifference any day. Alfred Bester, despite only having written a handful of books, was another major influence: “The Stars My Destination” I read when I was still in high school (1988) and it retains all of its spark and energy even to this day.
Among more “literary” authors, there are a few standouts:
Anne Tyler, especially with “The Accidental Tourist” — I’d love to be able to write something that perfectly readable, totally human, and also managing to be profound without also being smart-alecky about it.
I didn’t start reading Dostoevsky until recently, in big part because the newer and far more faithful translations of his work weren’t available when I was first force-fed them in college. This changed after I picked up the new Pevear/Volokhonsky edition of Crime and Punishment on the way to grabbing a flight, and I ended up reading half of it on the way home. I’ve since burned my way through most of the rest of his work. I don’t think anyone else has come along since that did such a job of dramatizing the way our lives are ruled by ideas, and how those ideas are really just the embodiments of passions we often don’t know anything about firsthand.
I’m also fond of a great many Japanese authors — Osamu Dazai, for instance, again despite his relatively small catalog.
I find that as I get older and read more, individual books tend to become more significant for me than individual authors, although if a given author has kept me up all night once, I tend to give them that many more chances.
Are there writers you feel you’re supposed to like but don’t?
There are many SF authors that seem like they should be shoo-ins for me, but I’m often unable to bring myself to like them. I admire Heinlein’s work for being as foundational as it is, even if I find the vast majority of it unstomachable.
Most of the books by “literary” authors trotted out today, with the usual cross-author blurbsmanship on their book jackets and a bevy of prize nominations trailing after, seem to be more about winning accolades with fellow authors than in telling an enlightening or humane story. I don’t think most of the authors that get praise thrown at them by the fistful are worth it, in big part because the general level of critical standards for fiction has become so badly degraded. But this is, I suspect, another discussion for another venue.
In an age when the barriers to putting a book on the market are so low, how do you attract attention to your own work?
Just putting up a website and having your stuff on Kindle isn’t going to cut it, because how does anyone even know you exist? My current tactic is to build face-to-face connections with specific people who see it as their job to speak well of things that need more attention — e.g., podcasts that cover SF. More people listen to those than they do, say, podcasts that cover self-published authors, because nobody says to themselves, “Gee, I wonder what self-published authors out there are worth reading?” They just want to hear about a good book, period. So it’s my job to connect with people who want to hear about a good book, and sell them on why I think I’ve got something to give them.
You wrote a blog about the risk of being too original. You wrote “There’s less of an incentive to not repeat what’s been done before.” So how would you define originality? Or to put it another way, what stories or ideas do you see being repeated? In a genre like science fiction, where new ideas or concepts would seem most valuable, why do you think the market is less likely to reward originality?
To me, originality is about having a point of view, an outlook on things, that stems as directly and completely as possible from who you are as a person. Nobody would ever confuse Phil Dick with Heinlein, and not even just because they didn’t construct their sentences anywhere nearly the same, but because they didn’t see the world remotely the same either. Out of those differences came everything of them that we call original.
The problem for me isn’t so much that any specific ideas are getting overused. It’s that people seem to be turning to the idea, the concept, the ready-made notion, more than they’re turning to anything within themselves or within their own lives as drivers for their work.
A lot of this stems from them not being taught to draw on other things. When Hollywood was in its infancy, there was no such thing as film school: you came into the industry from wherever, and you brought in some bit of whatever you had been before. You had a whole vast spectrum of things to draw on that weren’t movies. It’s the same with SF: when it was younger, it seemed like there was more of a sense on the part of the people writing it that they were drawing on a wider range of things, even if the end result was aimed as a mass-market audience.
I bump into plenty of folks who say they want to write SF or fantasy, but don’t seem to have any curiosity about the genres other than what they’ve already read in them, or seen on TV. If you don’t read outside your own genre, if you don’t read nonfiction, if you don’t read anything older than you are, if you don’t have an interest in current events outside of the need to reinforce your existing prejudices about the world — then you’re not going to produce anything that isn’t a recapitulation of the previous generation of work at best. You have to peer further, be a more curious and empathic person. That’s what SF and fantasy are supposed to be about, anyway — bigger and better horizons, right?
I think SF&F publishing has grown timid because it’s got the misguided notion that it needs to be a growth industry to survive — that the only winning strategy is to create as many things as possible that stand a chance of being bought and turned into movies.
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) once said that the movie companies aren’t in the movie business anymore, but the risk-management business. They take a property and try to monetize it as broadly as possible while also minimizing risk. The end result is a multiplex full of films with a number after the title. SF&F has the same disease, where you have all these books that are “Part 1 of X”, because of the weird idea that it’s somehow better to take one story, pump it full of air, and chop it into three pieces (or five, or twenty-eight) instead of telling one good one.
We’d be better off if publishing cultivated tight connections to modestly-sized groups of people, instead of trying to be demographic shotgun-spray machines. My favorite metaphor for this sort of thing is a record label — not a big conglomerate like Warner Brothers, but a Motown or a Stax/Volt, a label that can speak directly to its audience without being condescending. A few of them do exist — Millipede Press comes to mind — but we could do with a few more.