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Beneath Nebraska Skies

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, April 1998)
Robert Reed
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

Robert Reed was gold-prize winner in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest in 1986 for his story ''Mudpuppies'' (under the pen-name Robert Touzalin). His first two novels, The Leeshore and The Hormone Jungle, both appeared in 1987, followed by Black Milk (1990), Down the Bright Way (1991), The Remarkables (1992), Beyond the Veil of Stars (1994), An Exaltation of Larks (1995), and Beneath the Gated Sky (1997). He's also a prolific writer of short fiction, including the recent "Marrow", one of Locus's selections for the top ten stories of 1997.

''I was born and raised in Nebraska, and a lot of my work takes place in various images of Nebraska – I see it in every one of my works, even if they take place in an alien setting. … I'm the only member of SFWA in Nebraska, but I don't pine away for the companionship of other science fiction writers. I [go] to very few conventions. I'm quite willing to be that eccentric who has a very odd job, quite happy to be the only science fiction writer in town.''

''Before I was reading science fiction, I read Hemingway. Farewell to Arms was my first adult novel that said not everything ends well. It was one of those times where reading has meant a great deal to me, in terms of my development – an insight came from that book. A favorite science fiction writer of mine is William Faulkner! It was an idea that came to me once, years ago, and I've never quite been able to shake it. This is facetious, on one level at least. There are telepaths in As I Lay Dying. But I think the most compelling thing for me is there are moments with him where I just feel these are not humans talking to each other. These are some hyper-intelligent, yet-to-be-born organisms. The way they look at the past without having any loss of knowledge – everything that ever happened is still here.''

''When I finally did start reading regular SF, my main influences were Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr., Gene Wolfe. I also read Robert Silverberg. The first three I found so compelling (and still do), I always wanted to write as well as they did, to do that level of work. And I would read Arthur C. Clarke, but the Big Concept is only part of it for me; the other part is the human story.''

''I've always thought of science fiction as being, at some level, a 19th-century business. There's this tendency to try to make it all very logical – Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, and the fact that you can predict the future by the present. But these are notions that, for the most part, 20th-century science has made impractical at best. Chaos Theory, Butterfly Effects, those sorts of things.... I could never write a 'Foundation Series,' because I just don't believe it's at all possible to predict what's going to happen. I feel I'm very conservative in some ways, so I find myself retreating from Greg Egan's more radical ideas. There are certain things I hold onto, and always will, in science. I am a staunch Darwinist, and won't give that up! Mostly, though, science fiction is still a very logical, cause-and-effect, mechanistic universe – which I don't believe in. I made a decision long before I sold anything: I'm not going to have faster-than-light travel….''

''In The Remarkables, my fifth novel, one goal was to try to come up with the most alien alien I could. I changed all the elements. Instead of being a mobile organism, I made it, as an adult, sessile – it could not move at all. In its own natural environment, it was dependent on a symbiotic relationship with a local organism which would bring it resources. In my scheme, humans arrive in this alien world and take over that symbiotic role. The aliens were enormous and very intelligent, with great vision, but of course unable to go anywhere. Having created these aliens, I realized there was no possible way I could write about them from their vantage point. So I ended up having an adolescent phase that was mobile and strange. I remember one review saying the humans I had living with them were stranger than the aliens themselves, because the humans had their own agendas that were very different from ours. It was a small group of colonists that had been isolated for a long time and was very inbred. I got that from a Pitcairn Island book which I found fascinating, the narrowing of the genetics. That wasn't intended when I started, it was just the way the book evolved.''

''After Beyond the Veil of Stars, I did An Exaltation of Larks. … I decided to write a story based, very loosely, on my old college days. I used to be an editor of the college newspaper. What if a college newspaper editor had The Story of All Time? Well, it's the end of time, the far future coming back to remake our present for their own purposes. It was a very difficult story to write. But certain things I like best about that story still have very little to do with science fiction – certain scenes that are just out of ordinary life that I worked on very hard, and I still think are my best writing. My favorite of my own books, in terms of concept, is also probably Larks. This is not a science concept, though, just a personal one. That's the one I come back to, in the sense of mortality and accepting it.''

''My most recent book is Beneath the Gated Sky, sequel to Beyond the Veil of Stars. Neither title of which is mine. The working title for me for the first one was 'Cul de Sac,' because it took place in a cul de sac community, and I felt the Earth is a cul de sac too, essentially. My big science fictional concept is that the sky changes once, without warning, and it's a totally different sky. That was my initial idea, and I had no idea what the sky was, but I eventually came up with the idea that when you look up, you see the Earth itself, reflected down at you. Much more of an enclosed, introspective sky, I guess. From there, I came up with the idea of a multitude of worlds in a much different universe than we assumed existed. They're all shoulder-to-shoulder with each other, and if you walk from one place to another and you know how, you turn into the local organism that suits your mind, if there is such an organism. If there isn't, you can't go there. Essentially, you change species as you move from place to place.''

''What's next? I have a recurring set of stories – 'The Reavers', 'Eon's Child', and 'Marrow' for Science Fiction Age. Like the others, 'Marrow' takes place on a giant starship taking a luxury cruise around the galaxy. It's an artifact-type ship; nobody knows who built it. It now has immortals on board, and it's like a 100,000-year voyage. It's the core of a Jupiter-class world that has been expanded and is traveling along at sub-light speed. It's a world unto itself.''

''I've also been screwing around with a science fiction thriller for a number of years – near-future. I liken it to Jurassic Park meets Dances With Wolves. I've been working on that for a long time. We'll see what happens.''

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.