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Truths of One
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, March 1999)
Photo by Beth Gwinn
Sean Stewart was born June 2, 1965 in Lubbock, Texas, an only child. He moved with his parents to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada when he was three. For his seventh birthday, his presents included a copy of The Hobbit, and he decided to become a writer when he grew up – a decision he has never regretted. In high school, he took a detour into drama, acting in more than 20 plays, but he veered back into writing with a submission to the Young Canadian Writers Award; of the more than 600 entries, Stewart's story came in as one of the 12 finalists. He received an Honors Degree in English from the University of Alberta in 1987.
His first published novel, near-future SF Passion Play, appeared in 1992, with a US edition the next year. It was followed by fantasy Nobody's Son (1993) – winner of Canada's Aurora Award, alternate-world fantasy Resurrection Man (1995), fantasy Clouds End (1996), near-future fantasy The Night Watch (1997), set in the world of Resurrection Man, and last year's well-received magic-realist fantasy Mockingbird.
After time spent in Vancouver BC, Canada, and Houston, Texas, he now lives in Monterey, California with his wife (once his high school sweetheart), Christine Beck, and their two daughters.
''When I was writing Mockingbird, I was talking to Houston old-timers, people who've lived there all their lives, and they say a tremendous change came over the city with the great oil boom. Houston now proclaims itself 'the most air-conditioned city in the world,' and there are a lot of structures in it that don't make sense in terms of the landscape. When a lot of money and a lot of power started moving through Houston, Texas, they imported vast numbers of financial and business people from the East Coast, who basically wanted to wear their sweaters. They recreated, in Houston, a climate more like the one they came from. The business world of the East Coast obviously doesn't need siestas, which have been part of Hong Kong or Barcelona – or Houston. With the technology of air-conditioning and skyscraper building, and the underground tunnels that honeycomb the city, the commercial influx of people from the northeast changed the climate literally, not just the climate in metaphor.
''People who read in the genre have come up to me and said, 'One of the things that's interesting about Mockingbird is that there are moments when you think none of this is really exactly happening.' But the people who don't read in the genre come to me and say, 'You know, I started this book sure this was just psychological, but sometimes it seems like it was really all happening.' And it's striking how strong the difference is. I can almost guarantee, if I know what other books you've read, how you'll read this one. I'm tempted to be coy and say, 'All reading is really very privileged' – and in fact that's the right answer, and the one I should stick with. But what I don't want people to do is read the book thinking, 'Oh, the main character's just some nerdy person having a neurosis,' because that diminishes what the book is about.
''Science is about the external world. My wife once said, or quoted someone saying, 'There are several different kinds of truth in the world: truths of one, truths of two, and truths of three or more.' Truths of three or more are what science is concerned about. They're external, and they're about the manipulation of the world that is shared by everyone. Truths of two would be things like the love you have for someone else – very difficult to measure or quantify, but clear to that individual. Truths of one are those things that seem intensely true and meaningful to you but are impossible to communicate, to measure and give to someone else in quite the same way you can give someone else a wave length or a hundred kilos of mass, or whatever.
''And when you get magic like you have in a role-playing game, that is profoundly concerned with using theoretically magical things to manipulate the external world – like, 'With this spell, you can generate a fireball that will do this much damage to a physical structure' – that's like a truth of three or more. It seems to me, magic in its most important sense is about those truths of two and one. It has to have some transformative, powerful relationship to the people doing it. Science does not. The whole point about science or technology is that once it's engineered out, it doesn't matter if you turn on the light switch or I turn on the light switch. Magic shouldn't be like that. It isn't reproducible, isn't the same for everyone. It's intensely personal, and speaks to those more personal and subjective truths.
''My new book, Galveston, is set in Galveston, a little island south of Houston. What a staggering number of people don't realize is, Galveston is the site of the worst natural disaster in American history. More people died in the Galveston Hurricane than died in the San Francisco Earthquake, the Chicago Fire, and the Jonestown Flood, put together and doubled. Galveston on September 7, 1900, was the largest, richest, most cosmopolitan city of the South. On September 8, 1900, it was a ghost town. And it's hard to find another place of which that's true. In Resurrection Man, I had this idea that I would write a book in which magic was creeping back into the world, and there's some of that in The Night Watch as well. Galveston is sort of the middle term in that sequence, in that it's about life when the high water mark passes, and you drown. So I picked a city that had drowned before and knew something about it. My book is set in 2028.
''What's next after Galveston? I have an idea that's so high-concept, I'm not even going to say! But I'll probably set it in California, because geography's been good to me. After the 'being freeze-dried' experience of shuttling back and forth like Folgers coffee, from Canada to Houston, it's nice to have settled someplace in the middle. The house we're in has no air-conditioning because you don't need it – which is nice to a person from Houston. I've written books set in the Canadian cold and the Texas heat. What you have here that you don't have there is the sea and the fog, and if you can't do something with fog, you're not hardly trying!
''You know one of the things that bothers me the most about science fiction and fantasy books? It seems like someone just made 'em up! If you poke the wall, you'll find it's just a flat for theatrical production, and it will fall over. I really like to be able to hit the stone wall and not have it turn out to be the stuff the rocks are made out of on Star Trek, that high-bouncing paper maché. One reason I'm paying an increasing attention to setting is, I just like the feeling that it's real. If it's going to have magic and elves, that's great – I grew up on magic and elves. But I want them to be real magic and elves, I want them to matter.''
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