Brad R. Torgersen

Catching up with . . . Arlan Andrews

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Arlan Andrews has been a fixture at Analog magazine for over three decades. Between his short fiction and his science fact articles, he’s one of Analog’s signature voices — which speaks to his expansive experience in the hard sciences, and the technical application of same.

From Amazon.com:

Arlan began his technical career working as a missile tracking telescope operator at White Sands Missile Range, where he also honed a lifelong interest in unusual phenomena by exploring the enchantment and mysteries of New Mexico while attending college. He worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories on the antiballistic missile program, spent time in China, was appointed as a Fellow in the White House Science Office, and co-founded both a Virtual Reality software company and a biotech equipment company.

Arlan has published many dozens of pieces over a rich lifetime of work. 2015 sees his name in lights as he is on the Hugo award final ballot for his story “Flow” which is a sequel to the novella “Thaw.” Arlan was nice enough to give a detailed interview. As always, I’ve included image links to the available works. Arlan is truly one of the field’s remarkable men.

Brad: Having worked for so many years in the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy, what are some of the cultural trends and shifts you think you’ve seen?

Arlan: I don’t read much fantasy at all, but in science fiction one cultural shift seems to be away from unique, visionary, outward-looking adventures in space toward more formulaic stories where the viewpoint characters are beset by doubts and concerns that earlier tales either avoided or ignored. As others have commented, such trends may account for the decrease in overall SF book sales. I still look for new ideas, new concepts, things I would never have thought of, cool technologies, new kinds of human relationships.

I have never cared for stories of the future that seem to carry present political or economic concerns into eras when either they should no longer exist or will have morphed into new problems. Examples include natural resources, “peak oil”, “climate change” (ad nauseum) and eco-collapse because of bad ol’ capitalism. But this sort of social fiction occurred in the past as well. One Analog story that was embarrassing even in the 80s dealt with aliens who did not like the way humans cared for their children (a big topic at that time was government-paid child care). And a story in which an alien’s decision to destroy Earth depended upon the gas mileage of an SUV. And an ASF editorial explaining why we should use dedicated grocery bags rather than disposable plastic or paper (back when recycling became a cause celebre). Not very inspiring even back then, not to those who want to spread the human race out among the stars.

As I have written elsewhere, I believe that at least some SF should give readers a reason for wanting either to go out and do the spectacular accomplishments, or to support them, or at least to understand them. “Navel-gazing” doesn’t get it. (Although, in fairness, this weekend I am submitting a story for a space travel anthology which does involve literal navel-gazing.)

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Brad: You’ve got a lengthy history in Analog magazine. Do you think the flavor of the magazine has changed over time, from Bova, to Schmidt, and now, Quachri?

Arlan: I started reading ASF under Campbell, and I wish he could have lived to 100. (Tobacco will do that to you.) JWC, Jr., bounced (trashed!) my one satirical submission, taking it as serious. Ben Bova published all my letters to the editor, but Stan Schmidt bought my first fiction back in 1980 and several dozen after that. For the most part, Stan liked the science-y stories, but most of mine were short, usually humorous. I’ve written seven “Probability Zeros” in all. He did run my only fantasy story of that period, “Indian Summa”, which featured the immortal finishing line, “All sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

Trevor gave me my first dedicated cover for “Thaw”, and it won the 2013 Analog Readers’ Award for Best Cover, though the novella was not in the running. To date, the Quachri Analog seems to show more of a bent toward featuring other cultures, often to stunning effect. It is a different approach, but fresh and intriguing. As long as he continues to take my stuff, I will savor the Trevor flavor.

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Brad: What do you think makes for a good Hard Science Fiction story? Do you think people undersell the diversity and value of Hard SF as merely the “nuts and bolts” subgenre?

Arlan: I don’t know what makes good Hard Science Fiction. I suppose it’s a story where the technologies are not obviously out of whack with what we know now, unless some good hand-waving background takes care of it. I have never paid much attention to the scientific aspects of a story, except that in a 1986 novelette, “The Hephaestus Mission,” I invented a new law of physics (the Isochronous Repulsion Effect) that takes care of all possible time travel paradoxes. I plan to have out an e-novel this year that tells in more detail the rest of that story: Of Time and the Yucatan (for Kindle, Nook, and Print On Demand).
Unless “nuts and bolts” have personalities, I don’t see them as major players. As Heinlein showed, the science and technology of a story should always be assumed and hardly ever explained. The effects should be apparent from the context. In modern times, William Gibson does this very well, as does Walter Jon Williams among others.

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Brad: For your Hugo-nominated story “Flow” (which was preceded by the Analog story “Thaw”) are you building up to complete the series at book length? What can readers expect in future stories in this series?

Arlan: As usual, in writing SF, I visualize a scene and characters and wonder what the hell they are up to. “Thaw” began with a vision I had of a glacier melting and revealing artifacts from our time. The little bird-riding people rode into the scene and I just tried to describe what I saw after that. I often wish I could go straight from mental pictures to video. And in 1998 my story “Parameters of Dream Flight” (More Amazing Stories, ed. Kim Mohan) showed just that. “Flow” is the second part of the story, to be followed by “Fall”, which Trevor has committed to. Other parts will take place on the Moon and Mars; it’s a long story. These three parts will comprise about half. I can’t wait to see what happens, though I already know the end, which is also the beginning. Related stories in that new world keep popping up, so short fiction in that era should continue apart from the main story lines.

As a matter of possible interest to readers of the stories, I wrote most of “Thaw” in the airport at Lima, Peru, during two long layovers en route to and from Cusco and the Sacred Valley in 2012, where I visited not only the tourist spots but also other more secluded sites where rather astonishing stoneworks remain. I believe that some of these places are many thousands of years old, probably preceding the last Ice Age. My passion is ancient civilizations and technologies, and I have often wondered what future peoples will find and analyze when our own civilization is destroyed by the next Ice Age. That’s probably where my first vision originated.

Brad: Of your many non-fiction, science-related pieces, how much technical research do you devote to a given piece, and what causes you to get interested enough in a specific topic to write about it from a non-fiction standpoint?

Arlan: I really don’t do much research. Every technical article I have written for Analog and other publications represented research that I had already done, or for which I had amassed relevant data. In 1992 I was working at the White House Science Office and attended meetings and conferences on high tech subjects. From one such conference in Texas came my 1992 ASF article, “Manufacturing Magic,” which was the first popular article about what is today called ‘3D printing,” and in which I predicted that we would someday manufacture most things that way, “including our organs.”

Interested in space travel, I met Air Force officers from the Pentagon who were promoting a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) project. From this came my 1993 ASF article, “Single Stage To Infinity!”, the first popular report on the DC-X SSTO program, where I coined the phrase “A spaceship that takes off and lands the way God and Robert Heinlein intended.” The DC-X did that in 1993; Space X’s orbital rockets are close to doing it now. In later years, the U.K. magazine The New Scientist commissioned me to report on DC-X launches at White Sands, to interview the Director of NASA, Dan Goldin, and another time to speculate on the future of private space programs. Interviews and observations provided all of the information. With only the ARPA Net available back then, face-to-face meetings and phone calls were necessary. And sufficient.

Nowadays, my technical interests tend toward archaeoastronomy and ancient technologies. I have written speculative articles on ancient science and technology in Atlantis Rising and other venues.

Brad: For younger writers wanting to break into Hard Science Fiction, do you think science training is ever bit as important as literary training?

Arlan: To write the hard stuff, to keep stories real, one just needs a B.S. (Basic Science) filter to help weed out the impossible from the plausible. In my own case, I would recommend some kind of overview courses or just light reading in various aspects of astronomy, architecture, biology, mathematics, computers, mechanical design and construction. No need to know many of the details, unless it’s necessary for your plot or your characters, but being a little conversant in the field won’t turn off your readers who may indeed be experts. And if you keep the technology far enough in the future, nobody will know how it works anyway. That is why almost all of my own “hard stuff” is either unexplained background or else not necessary to the plot.

My own background as a young kid was reading about the lives of the great scientists, engineers, inventors and mathematicians – Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Steinmetz, Edison, Tesla, Goddard, von Braun, Einstein, and others. Biographies and history are fun for me, and you can pick up a lot of background and jargon without ever taking a formal course in the subjects. Of course, if the technical aspects are important, do the detailed research.

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Brad: What other works have you got on the horizon? What’s coming up next in Analog?

Arlan: In addition to finishing the story arc of Thaw: After the Ice Age, soon I will be putting my two e-books, Valley of the Shaman (Kindle and Nook) and Other Heads & Other Tales (Kindle and Nook) into Print on Demand for those wanting hard copies. A near future dystopian novel, tentatively titled Silicon Blood, will follow.

In Analog, three items coming up. Very shortly I will have the first guest column of “Alternate View”, following Jeff Kooistra’s departure. And believe me, many of my views definitely are alternate. I expect heat from some of the readership, not all of it from global warming. A short story of the near future, “In the Mix”, will follow soon after, and then eventually, “Fall”, which provides more detail on the post-Ice Age world of “Thaw” and “Flow.”

My primary research and writing focus at the moment is to complete the 3D modeling and analysis of two ancient Peruvian sites, and to produce at last two technical books that will detail some amazing discoveries that have been overlooked by archaeologists.

One last thought: because I have never tried to make a living at writing SF, I have done it for the love of the field and to put forth my own ideas about reality and the universe. My 1987 ASF story “Epiphany” describes a lot of my thoughts on religion; “The Alien at the Alamo” (2010) is close to my actual take on possible extraterrestrial visitors; and many of the other short stories, though perhaps humorous, contain similar philosophical ideas.

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