Interview with Damien Broderick, Australian Science Fiction Author

Damien Broderick is hard to categorise. Do not get me wrong – he is a hardcore science fiction author that loves his time loops, but I had this opinion of him for being irascible. So when I approached him about doing an Author Interview, I was not really surprised when I got as a reply the following:

“Stephen, the main trouble with your “interview” format is that the “inter-” part is missing. When you send an identical list of questions to many different writers without allowing them to seek and get responses from you as well–process that would probably modify your subsequent questions–all you’ve got is an interrogation, not a conversation.”

So, right off the bat, I knew I was going to have to work harder for this one. Sitting and thinking about how to approach this particular problem, I responded with “I have taken your comments on board and I will write another set of questions that contain more “inter”.” Somewhat surprised, I received a response from Damien relatively (I can almost hear Damien saying ‘what is relative?’) quickly – “I think it’s more a matter of exchanging emails, so that my responses can modify your next question, and vice versa. Such is the virtue of the internet. Admittedly, it does stretch the process out.”

That is where we pick this up. Finally I had an idea of how to start this conversation. The following is the correspondence of 15 emails word for word.  This is a long blog post coming in at over 3,000 words.  Be prepared.

What appeals to you as a writer and, more so, as a person?

In other people (and I would hope in myself, on a good day): humor and wit, preferably hilarious, empathy, intelligence, reasoned skepticism, curiosity, creativity, a sense of wonderment.

But then how many people would reply to this question with: “What really appeals to me is callous turpitude, stupidity, bigotry, hostility, greed, and hatred of kittens”?

Still, I suppose many might add faith in God, sacrificial altruism, dutiful obedience to leaders, disapproval of sexual deviance as defined by their faith and leaders, etc. That’s the way my parents tried to raise me, but that’s not me, brother. Well, some of what turns Chip Delany on makes me want to throw up, but I’ll still read his books.

I suppose as a writer and reader what appeals to me accords, as you’d expect, with the virtues I mentioned at the start.

As a reader, has there been an author that has disappointed you by way of book?

I’m not sure you mean. Have I ever been disappointed by a book? Of course. Writers produce poor books now and then. Some do so all the time, but I suppose you can’t be let down by them–only a masochist goes back for more rotten food. Certainly there have been plenty of highly-hyped writers whose books bored or annoyed me, but it would be unkind to name them. My own have certainly irritated or inflamed some commentators on Amazon. I try to learn from such criticism, but sometimes, sadly, the lesson is that the world has rather a lot of idiots who can’t read properly.

Do you think that any of that criticism has changed a book of yours ie do you feel you would have written it differently if not for a comment?

It’s never that direct. Reading and writing and reading are part of an endless circuit. I’m influenced in some degree by everything I read, even routine stuff in blogs, and it all happens as part of a vast conversation.

We’re social animals, so we tailor our speech and writing to help our meaning come across–but we’re also clannish animals, so we like best to speak to those who share our vernacular, and perhaps exclude those who don’t.

If someone from outside sf complains that my characters use incomprehensible terms in their dialogue (usually dismissed as “techno-jargon”), that critic is usually just displaying ignorance of the dialect that is sf. Still, a lot of quite accomplished sf writers these days are trying to shift register into a kind of simplification, designed to retain what is special in the sf mode while not excluding readers who think they hate “sci fi” but love to watch sf movies and weep as they read THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE.

But that’s risky, because such simplified sf risks dumbing itself down.

In general I prefer to write for readers who’ve known the sf dialect since they were 12, and can run with it fast. A book I recommend strongly is Peter Watts’ BLINDSIGHT, which is just relentlessly intelligent, inventive and terrifyingly entertaining–for those who can keep up, which should be most practised sf readers.

Has it made you consider writing a ‘mainstream’ book?

Give me an example or two of what you’d consider a mainstream novel.

Peter Carey’s OSCAR AND LUCINDA? Robert Ludlum’S THE BOURNE IDENTITY? Updike’s RABBIT RUN? Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL?

Given you mention those four, do you think that you could write in the style of each book?

Nope. Several are geniuses, and I couldn’t write like Ludlum even on a bad day.

I understand that, between them, they are very different but am intrigued to know why you picked those four in particular.

I picked them at random, and precisely because they are very different.

I suppose I mean by mainstream is the dumbed down version of sci fi.

Hmm. That’s not the usual sf meaning of “mainstream,” which is a term rejected by some critics as far too broad and rather cringing, but it has its uses. We mean standard bourgeois realism, even if it includes reckless car-chase thrillers. I guess you’re using it to mean sf that is highly mimetic (i.e., copying known reality) with just a brush-stroke or two of “the sense of wonder”. But that’d include FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which is also a wonderful core sf work. And the sf-thriller, POST MORTAL SYNDROME, by me and my wife Barbara Lamar. That was an attempt to use sf high concepts–a major life-extension treatment vectored out using artificial chromosomes carried by a virus–while telling a story that mixes domestic drama, romance, and classic thriller motifs.

I hate to use names but one example I can think of is Ben Bova (please do not take offence if you are his friend). He has always struck as a simplistic sci fi writer. Could you go there?

I don’t much like Ben’s usual approach, that sort of NASA-meets-High Frontier corporate future history of the solar system. But recently I read his THE IMMORTALITY FACTOR (another version of what Barbara and I were doing, although Ben’s emphasized the legal battles), and it reads quite well.

To return to your question whether I’d ever write a mainstream novel:

using your definition, POST MORTAL SYNDROME is one.

Using my definition, TRANSMITTERS (revised in the USA as QUIPU) is a postmodern mainstream novel that, ironically, won a Special Ditmar in the original version, because it is set in an invented fannish group of Aussies. The reimagined version changes them to members of a high-IQ group, most of them still hopelessly dysfunctional and fucked up.

Then there’s the crime novel I’M DYING HERE, with my Adelaide pal Rory Barnes, which is madcap comic noir, a different genre again. (The first edition was titled I SUPPOSE A ROOT’S OUT OF THE QUESTION, but the Americans didn’t understand that…) Like my collaborator Paul Di Filippo, I’ve never tried a Western–and have no wish to do so.

Mentioning the difference between American and Australian audiences, do you find it different to maintain an Australian voice to your writing?

No. I’ve mostly managed to adopt US spelling, but Australian journalism often used that anyway. No Yank in my accent, but. (As a true blue Aussie would put it.) I do have to feign a US voice in some stories, and my dear Texan wife helps me by pointing out the Ockerisms that keep creeping in.

(More for me) How long have you now lived over there?

9 years.

PS: Loved the original title.

ROOT? Yeah, it’d make a terrific movie, and if an Aussie team did it I’d like to see the original title used. 🙂

Is there a theme that you like to tackle?

Right from the start, a recurrent theme (or at least narrative device) in my fiction is time travel/time dislocation. My first little novel, SORCERER’S WORLD (the publisher’s horrid title, not mine), took a post-catastrophe guy from our nearish future a billion years into the farther future. THE JUDAS MANDALA is a sequence of time loops. THE DREAMING DRAGONS uses both time travel and parallel histories. STRIPED HOLES is a comic farce based on time travel from future to now, and deep into the past. This continues on and off all the way through to recent short stories such as “Time Considered as a Series of Thermite Burns in No Particular Order” and “Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone”.

A specific subject matter that you have held on to for some time, but haven’t found how to use it?

I don’t think so. I’ve covered just about all the main tropes of sf other than the planetary romance–you know, the sort of thing Jack Vance did in PLANET OF ADVENTURE and BIG PLANET.

What differences have you noticed between here (AUS) and there (USA)?

Texas is startlingly similar to the hot, dry parts of Australia, although the cities here tend to be insanely dominated by cars and by freeways that smash through old neighborhoods. Here in San Antonio it’s not easy being a pedestrian-I don’t drive for various reasons–and it’s not surprising that so much lumbering obesity is evident. The US is the collapsing empire, and Oz is one of the outlying colonies.

What have you found endearing there? What do you miss of here?

Hey, both places are full of humans, and landscape, and animals, and history. But I do find myself homesick for the call of magpies, say, and the odors of eucalypts. And even Aussie accents.

Do you prefer to have a mixed reaction to your book? Do it make you worry for these books that seem to be universally praised? Should all books split the audience?

Ha ha. None of my novels (or other books, for that matter) have been praised by everyone. I can’t imagine that ever happening. About 25 years after it was published, THE DREAMING DRAGONS, included by David Pringle in his SF: THE BEST 100 NOVELS 1949-1984, was attacked in the Britlitcrit journal FOUNDATION by a rather self-righteous young critic who complained about my tragic Aboriginal character Alf. As I recall, she figured he should have been the focal point of the novel; in fact, I wrote him in quite late in the development of the book, at the suggestion of US editor David Hartwell. But it seems inevitable that readers will construe a story through the insights and prejudices of their own local time and place.

Of course, I am also a professional critic and theorist, so the boot is often on the other foot. When Paul Di Filippo and I released our sequel to Pringle’s book, SCIENCE FICTION: THE BEST 101 NOVEL 1985-2010, some people were outraged that we’d selected a few items that would never have appeared in ASTOUNDING, let’s say: books by Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood. And what was Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE doing there?! Isn’t it a fantasy? (No, it’s a divergent history where dragons are real evolved cultural creatures, less fantastic than time machines or faster than light spaceships.) And where were the much-loved John Scalzi and Peter Hamilton and Piers Anthony and Dan Simmons and…?

Sorry, too bad, so sad.

How do you find working collaboratively? You have mentioned Rory Barnes, your wife Barbara and Phil [Paul] so far. It is a challenge to work that way?

Not at all. It’s delightful to be part of a gestalt mind.

Do you ever disagree with a direction or theme that your collaborator has introduced?

Not often, because usually there’s some discussion back and forth ahead of each new section. Barbara and I talked out the plot of POST MORTAL SYNDROME while we walked or biked along a railway track path from Coburg to points north, and the book just unfolded itself. Rory and I have tried almost everything possible with our books: talked out scenes while walking (when I visited Adelaide), written segments by the hot-typewriter method where you blast away for a few thousand words then hand over to the hapless collaborator until it’s your turn again, sent chunks to each other via email. I’ve even revised one of Rory’s early mainstream novels into a far future ambiguous utopia. Di Filippo and I have done a couple of gonzo short stories by email–but we’ve never met.

Did you and Phil agree on all choices for the top 100 books? Which would you have included that you couldn’t?

Oy, wake up there, in the back of the room. <Flings chalk. A yelp> His name is Paul, not Phil, and the book lists 101 top novels, not 100. (The sad news here is that I have interviewed Paul Di Filippo and got him to ask Damien on my behalf. Apologies Paul if you ever read this – Stephen.).

We drew up a lengthy list and whittled it down. A couple of choices by one of us would get booted out by the other, a few would be smuggled in, a number had been read by only one of us but his advocacy won over the other. We originally planned to include a brief list of exceptional candidates we couldn’t fit in, but it would have irritated or upset the excluded, so we didn’t. I can’t give you any names for the same reason.

We came to praise the best writers, not to bury any of them. Well, except for Orson Scott Card, who is important but… disturbing.

Unfortunately, the publisher glitched with the Table of Contents (he left off the author names and dates of first publication, but luckily lots of online commentators have filled those in for curious browsers).

There really should have been an index, too, but it didn’t happen. Maybe in the reprint, if there is one. Meanwhile, our book is meant to be read, because we carefully give our reasons for admiring each of these

101 novels, and provide a context for them. You can’t get that just by looking at the list of titles, as some have tried to do. Hey, you should read it too and get back to us with some comments. We’re always up for a fight– I mean a civilized discussion.

As soon as I sent it I realized it was 101 novels, but I did miss the Phil/Paul error.

Are we doing this on a candid basis where you retain your questions as is, including glitches, or do you plan to spruce them up? I think there’s something to be said for letting it all hang out, but it’s your site. (I want to leave this in as this conversation did really happen – Stephen.)

What is your stance on God?

Never met the guy.

What you think of the political mind games going on over there at the moment?

Grotesque. So what’s new?

What book have you enjoyed the most in the last 6 months? Why?

I’ve been so busy with my own (I’ve had four books released in the last two months), and with researching a bunch more, that I haven’t read as much as I used to. Let’s see… maybe some of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsy/Harriet Vane mysteries, and the quite good sequels by Jill Paton Walsh, which I’ve been catching up on. Wonderful use of voices and landscape, sly wit, social observation from a world I’ve never been part of.

Why didn’t Simmons’ Hyperion cantos not make the cut for 101?

Do you think it should have done? Why?

I might edit out Ben Bova, considering I called his work simplistic. (This conversation also happened. That is why Ben’s name is still here. Apologies to Ben!)

Leave it in. He surely wouldn’t object (although he’d disagree)–it’s your honest opinion, and besides I pay him a compliment for a recent book, so he comes out a winner.

I must admit it is an awful lot of fun trying to get a question to you that you will answer.

But you were going to make this an *inter*view. I want you to answer my question.

(We get a bit muddled here. I shot off two emails within quick succession. The first was about Hyperion and the second giving Damien a free shot. I have tried to represent them the best way I could see – Stephen.)

Email 1: That’s a funny thing about Hyperion. I’m struggling to remember the book, which I suppose causes it to fail what I would consider a major element of the 101. That is being memorable. I remember it won the Hugo, and it felt like a series of short stories but beyond that I have no recollection. Shocking isn’t it?

I feel as though I have answered my own question.

Email 2: So, given my failure on that previous question, is there a question you would ask me?

Answer 2: It’s not a failure, although it’s rather revealing and useful for that reason. I’ll treat that as your answer, and respond to it. Probably tomorrow, it’s late here.

Answer 1: Exactly. And don’t forget, there were three more volumes. Did you rush to read them? I suspect Mr. Simmons got his reputation because of his perceived ambition rather than his accomplishment–true, his work is abundantly ambitious and various, have to give him that. But look, a book based on The Canterbury Tales with John Keats as a sort of cyborg construct and his tough but sexy detective lover named, for the love o’ dog, “Brawne Lamia”, daughter of Senator Byron Lamia. Yes, it’s a tip of the hat to Keats’s own gf and a major figure in his mythos, but this is all so ineffably vulgar, so tone deaf– Hey, I’d sworn off the dissing, right? (And I have a novel based on Hamlet with a protagonist named Telmah, so who am I to talk, right?)

But since I’m being critical of an sf writer far more famous than I am, I guess I should encourage readers to chuck pies at me. People could start with my recent short fiction collections: UNCLE BONES and THE QUALIA ENGINE, both from Fantastic Books, and this month’s release, ADRIFT IN THE NOOSPHERE, from Borgo/Wildside. Fantastic and Wildside are two boutique presses in the US, but I believe their handsome trade paperbacks can be ordered online and printed in Australia. Google will find them.

Then there are two rather specialized books containing most of my radio plays and one unfilmed movie script, GAIA TO GALAXY and RESTORE POINT, both from BearManor Books; I got my first copies today, and they are good-looking things.

A year ago, Borgo did a very pretty tpb I co-edited with Professor Van Ikin from Perth, WARRIORS OF THE TAO, a selection of essays from his famous fanzine SCIENCE FICTION. Van and I have another three companion volumes coming up later in 2012 and next year.

I have a suspicion hardly anyone in Oz knows about these books, or most of my other more-than-50-so-far, which is very weird in the age of the internet. Maybe some day soon I’ll get rediscovered in the country where I’m probably the most productive writer/editor/ critic of science fiction. And your interview here will surely help. Thanks for that, Stephen. And good luck with your own writing!

That’s it. Damien Broderick is a brilliant writer of science fiction, but very underrated. I remember starting with his Striped Holes, a time travel comedy, and loving it. Give him a try if you would like to test your science fiction brain. He is considered to be Australia’s premier SF novelist.

The best place to leanr up about Damien is here:  Here’s Damien’s old homepage as well:

Here is a google search string for you to find Damien.…0.0…1c.RcnVIW3P86k&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&fp=383af8d7530055c1&biw=1273&bih=607

One thought on “Interview with Damien Broderick, Australian Science Fiction Author

  1. Read your ‘inter-view’ with Damien Broderick. I found it when I googled ‘Damien Broderick’ in an attempt to search him out. I’ve been going thro wld photos an came across some of my first communion snaps. There was little Damien, my ‘partner’. Seems we were always having partners in my primary school and he was one. That’s the only recollection of him but I remember his mum very well. As a little girl I was impressed by her. Anyhow I’m just wondering if you could give me a contact point because he might be interested to get a copy of the photos.
    Good piece you wrote about him.

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