I am reading Unwrapped Sky at the moment, your first novel which springs from the world created in some of your short fiction. Novels and short stories are obviously very different beasts, what did you hope to achieve with Unwrapped Sky, that couldn't be done in the short form?
A novel allows you to see a society from all angles, so to speak. In Unwrapped Sky, we have the seditionist Maximilian, who is in one sense at the very bottom of society (almost outside it), and you have the House Official Boris, who is rising to the top. The assassin Kata connects the two. In some ways this is an old realist idea of a novel, the kind of thing done by Tolstoy or Zola (and discussed by Lukacs). You get to picture the society in some kind of fragmented totality. You get to throw many ideas against each other, watch them clash. I want my novels to be rich, complex, multilayered. On another level, of course, that richness is expressed in the story itself, the intertwining narratives, which were quite a challenge to write. You can’t do any of that in a short story. A short story is about one or two ideas, two to four characters. It’s compressed, a bright little jewel. A novel is a sprawling feast. This makes a short story harder to write, I think. Or they have different challenges.
Your short works are non-realist and range from magical realism to fantasy and are collected in the The Library of Forgotten Books. It could be just my perception, biased as a reviewer in the Speculative Fiction Field but I fell as though we are sometimes the last bastion for the short story or one of the only genres where there is a healthy proliferation and love for the short story. With you additional experience as an Associate Editor at Overland Magazine do you think this is the case and if so would you hazard a guess as to why?
The speculative fiction field is blessed in a number of ways. One way is the importance of short stories to its development. The short story is where a lot of the cutting edge of the field can be found. It’s where the most radical stuff is written. But speculative fiction also works a bit like jazz: writers riff off each other work. They conduct a long dialogue over the years, rebuilding each others ideas, talking to each other from story to story. It’s a wonderful thing. This dialogue takes part in a cultural community, one which has its own institutions (conventions, magazines, etc) and this means that the speculative fiction field is able to sail the seas of fate better than the literary world.
Having said that, from the last figures I saw, the short story magazines in SF are struggling more and more. Modern market culture tends to flatten things out. Local cultures are erased, replaced with a global one where there are certain people at the top who everyone reads: George R. R. Martin, or Dan Brown or John Grisham. All the smaller, local publishing ventures get put under great pressure. I think we’ll probably see Fantasy and SF, or Asimov’s Magazine shift online sooner or later, and then they’ll become indistinguishable from the other online sites. That’s just a guess, of course.
So the fate of the short story is intertwined with that of publishing as a whole, and the one thing that seems obvious is that the market doesn’t care about books, writers or readers. The market cares about profit. When you add in the ease of production and distribution, all the technological developments such as digital publishing, you have a recipe for the demise of the dinosaurs. Recent research in the UK showed that most writers’ incomes had declined to ‘abject’ levels, for example. So in the future, for publishing to survive, we’re going to need to find non-market ways of supporting cultural work. The most practical ways would be independent, but state-sponsored, publishing houses. Kind of BBC’s of publishing. But that’s so wildly far away from where we are today that it’s just an idea.
You are working on a film script, The Uncertainty Principle with Ben Chessell. It is science fictional, so it is no great departure in terms of milieu, but I wanted to ask what you have discovered creatively through the process of writing a script and whether that has caused you to view your short or long form fiction differently?
Film and TV is all about structure. Working with Ben - whose film Sucker will be out next year - taught me a great deal about how to think about a story. Film typically begins with a beat breakdown - what happens when, expressed in one line - then moves to a larger treatment, then to a fleshed out script. What’s important then are the ‘events’, the skeletal structure of what happens. This was a really steep learning curve for me, who was prone to the prose-writer’s understanding of a story, which sees the flowing passages of inner dialogue, description and so on. We’ve been through many rewrites - on our own and for our former producers (who optioned the film for 2 years) - and I had to overcome my aversion to rewriting structure. We threw out entire scenes, entire acts in fact. When we were doing this, my brain was going “No, wait!” As an example of this, I think you can see George R. R. Martin’s experience in TV coming through in the Game of Thrones novels. His command of structure is unparalleled (in the early books at least). It’s one of the reasons it makes such good TV.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
There are some fantastic SF writers in Australia. I might mention Ben Peek’s Dead Americans, for which I wrote an introduction, Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, the short fiction of Kaaron Warren, Angela Slatter, Lisa Hannett. I feel back leaving people out because there are so many to mention. It’s a terrific scene: lively and innovative.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
They’ve made me much more worried about where we’ll all be in the future. Will prose go the same way as poetry? Read by a small enclave in a vast sea of mass culture? Five years isn’t too far off though, and I hope I’ll be writing more novels and scripts. I’ll be keeping up with the genre, but also reading outside of it (which every SF writer must do). My own work will still be SF. It’s the only thing I can write. I need the ‘what if?’ element to make anything worthwhile. My realist stories are mostly bland (or seem so to me). I’m finishing an Australian steampunk novel at the moment, in which the inland sea still exists and so do the megafauna: diprotodons and marsupial lions and the like. In five years the last of the Caeli-Amur novels will be out. Hopefully that all goes well. I write a lot of non-fiction and am planning to rewrite a book I did on New Wave science fiction. So that will be fun.
Rjurik Davidson is a writer of short stories, essays, screenplays and reviews and Associate Editor of Overlandmagazine. His novel Unwrapped Sky is currently available. Sci Fi Now claims it can “go toe-to-toe with China Miéville’s best.” Kirkus Reviews calls it “Impressively imagined and densely detailed.” And according to Library Journal, it “marks Davidson as an author to watch.” Newtown Review of Books says it’s “one volume you cannot ignore.” A sequel, The Stars Askew, will be released in April 2015. PS Publishing published a collection of short stories, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. He has been short-listed and won a number of awards.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and collating the links at SF Signal. You can find other interviews in this series at the links below:
- Tsana Dolichva
- Stephanie Gunn
- Kathryn Linge
- Elanor Matton-Johnson
- David McDonald
- Helen Merrick
- Ben Payne
- Alex Pierce
- Tansy Rayner Roberts
- Helen Stubbs
- Katharine Stubbs
- Tehani Wessely
- Sean Wright
- Nick Evans