Interview with S. M. Stirling – Part One

S. M. Stirling has had a rich and varied career to date. His bibliography includes science fiction, alternate history, and (quasi) post-apocalyptic novels.

I first became aware of his books with Island in the Sea of Time–a rousing tale of adventure and alternate history centering around a mysterious event that throws the island of Nantucket back to 1200 B.C. I devoured this book, then began searching for more. I discovered that Mr. Stirling had collaborated with another one of my favorite authors, David Drake, on a far-future science fiction series called The General.   His most recent novel, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings is a homage to the golden age of pulp science fiction. If you liked Burroughs, Bradbury, or Heinlein, then it is very likely you’ll like this novel as well.

In the circles that I travel, I hardly hear any buzz about his books. It is my opinion that S.M Stirling is one of the most underrated authors in the field. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read his novels, please use the links above to order one (or more) off of Amazon.

With no further ado, I give you S. M. Stirling.

You recently completed the latest novel in your Lords of Creation series, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. Do you have any future plans for the series?

That depends on sales, I’m afraid.  Right now I’m in the enviable position of being able to write pretty well anything I want, and I have more projects outlined than I can handle.

What sparked the idea to write books that are a homage to golden-age science fiction?

 Why should the old guys get all the fun?  Face it, the pulp Solar System was just more interesting than the one we got.  The magic of Alternate History, or what you might call Cosmological Alternate History, is that you can hit the rest button.

 That being said, I’ve tried to keep the books as close to “realism” as possible, granting the initial premise.

How did you arrive at the meeting of science fiction authors that opens In the Court of the Crimson Kings? Did you expect most of your fans to “get” who the various players in the dialogue were?

That was more or less a homage to the greats.  Besides, it was just fun to imagine how they would react to this situation!  People who’ve read deeply in the genre will get it, but I think the scene will also be fun for amateurs.

You voice and style in these books is noticeably different. How difficult is it to change styles for a given piece before returning to a voice you’ve previously used?

Not very.  The structure of the book demands a certain approach, I find.  That generates the ‘voice’ and then it’s just a matter of being consistent.

You partnered with David Drake to write the The General series. In it, a Belisarius-like character reconquers a world fallen into a dark age. How well did the collaboration work? Would you consider doing another collaboration?

Those collaborations worked very well, I thought, but then Dave is unique.  He did very detailed scene-by-scene outlines, and our styles meshed very well.

Baen was and is big on collaborations.  I’ve got no absolute objection, but right now I don’t have the time.

How does a collaboration work? Does someone like David Drake provide your outline, and you fill in with the prose? Do you have the freedom to take the story where it might need to go and deviate from the outline?

There’s no single way to collaborate.  I’ve done collaborations where we went to a cottage in the country and handed the keyboard back and forth, taking turns as we got stuck.  Boy, did that go fast!  So did the one (with Susan Shwartz, Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove) where we e-mailed each other chapters, round-robin style.  Dave gave me a detailed outline; Anne McCaffrey a much shorter one.  With the Terminator spin-off books I just made a deep study of the movies… which is collaboration too, in a way.

I received the omnibus edition of your Draka novels for a gift and devoured them quickly, but unfortunately long after they were originally published. In the series, you propose a society originating in South Africa that conquered the African continent in much the same way that the U.S. did with North America. What was the feedback on the novel?

The scary ones were the people who wanted to move there.  What’s the polite way of saying “It’s a dystopia, you twit!”

In your experience, have most of your readers been fascinated or repelled by the Domination? I’ll admit to feeling a strange sort of magnetism when I read about that society.

Well, it’s supposed to be a dystopia, but any society that lasted that long would have to have some attractive features.  Besides, part of the challenge of using the bad guys for p.o.v. was to force people to identify with them and then go ICK! mentally.

There’s a small internet industry of ‘proving’ that the Domination couldn’t happen.  I consider this a complement.  How many people go on at great length trying to prove that vampires and werewolves don’t exist?

In this world of political correctness, were you ever accused of being a racist? Do people mistake your dystopias for your actual opinion on how things should be run? What do you tell people who make that mistake?

Oh, all the time.  Niven’s Law applies:  “There is a technical literary term for people who confuse the views or opinions of a character in a work of fiction for those of the author.  The term is “idiot”.”

As the saying goes, when you think you’ve made something foolproof, it just shows you’re underestimating fools.

I give the Nantucket novels a faithful re-read every year; I recommend them to all of my science fiction and fantasy loving friends with the endorsement that you are one of the most under-rated science fiction authors in the market today. If you had your choice, what novel(s) should I be giving those who are curious about your work?

Oddly enough, the Nantucket novels!  Or the series starting with “Dies the Fire”.  Though the Lords of Creation Mars/Venus books would be good for someone who knows the SF field, and “The Peshawar Lancers” is my homage to the historical-adventure field.

Marian Alston, the black, lesbian commander of the Eagle (and later the military commander of all of the “friendly” forces) in Island in the Sea of Time was an odd choice for a character, but she ended up being my favorite behind William Walker. How did your characterization of Marian, an obvious square peg in a round hole, evolve? Was it your intent to challenge the preconceptions of your readers?

No, she just sort of “came to me”, the way my major characters usually do.  That’s the intuitive/subconscious part of the process, at least as far as my writing style is concerned.

How much of your information processing happens at that level? Do you find yourself waiting for those “Eureka!” moments when you’re stuck?

No, if you’re a professional you’ve got to be able to write ‘in between’ the moments of inspiration.   The answer to writer’s block is to write.  You can always improve it.

As Baudelaire (I think) put it, “Every little bourgeois feels inspired when he sees a sunset.  It’s application that makes an artist.”  Talent is cheap, inspiration fairly common.  The discipline and persistence necessary to make something of them, much less so. 

Stay tuned next Friday for the conclusion of the interview! We’ll cover the usual questions, as well as an opportunity to hear Mr. Stirling react to a comment by John Ringo!

8 Responses to Interview with S. M. Stirling – Part One

  1. Vince says:

    I really enjoy these interviews and am so impressed you are able to get them. I also like that the questions are intellegent and you’re familiar with their body of work.

  2. Blitzfike says:

    Stirling has been one of my favorite authors for several years. I thoroughly enjoyed the Draka and their exploits. Stirling has the unique ability to draw you in to the perspective of a thoroughly nasty society and make you cheer them on. I was repulsed by some of the actions in that series, but still found myself identifying with them and their struggles. To me, that is the mark of a master wordsmith. Keep ’em coming… Blitzfike

  3. JW Johnson says:

    “Talent is cheap, inspiration fairly common. The discipline and persistence necessary to make something of them, much less so.”
    Aint it so.

  4. Scott McGlasson says:

    I started with Mr. Stirling by picking up “Stone Dogs” at the BX right after I got down with Air Force basic training. I had no idea that it was, in fact, not the first book in the Draka series, but eventually completely devoured each one. From there, I discovered the Island series and have farmed those three out to all of the men in my extended family. Why the women aren’t interested, ever, I just don’t know. My father particularly liked the obvious homage to the movie “Zulu” down to the diamond-in-the-rough NCO.

    Stirling is by far and away one of my two “go-to”, of whom I will by new material at retail cost regardless of what it is, simply based on my past experiences with their work (Peter Hamilton being the other). In fact, I won’t buy paperbacks from either author at this point, insisting on hardbacks as soon as they come out.

    Stirlings style gels very well with my own sense of things or how I would approach a story given one of his very original premises. This, along with his sense of scope and obvious dedication to his craft, make me a die-hard Stirling fan.

    I would have to take issue with Stirling himself, though, at his invocation of Niven’s Law. I believe that it’s impossible to have a large body of work without stamping it with your own opinions or views of the real world. For instance, there have been more than a couple of mentions, in different works, where Stirling observes that it is also gratifying to watch someone at work who is clearly a master of their craft. Likewise, his treatment of character archtypes like Lisketer (the save-the-whales tree-hugger in Island) seems to have a pretty consistent bent as well. In my humble opinion, this is a sort of common-sense conservatism, which, again, is more in line my my own outlook on life and thus, more enjoyable to read.

    I have noticed something lately, though, after finishing Crimson Kings. In true Stirling form, the beginning of each chapter is small piece taken from (supposedly) a much larger body of scholarly or journalistic work and always a good obtuse insight into the universe we’re reading about.

    Kentucket, The Change, and now the events taking place in the Kingdom Under The Mountain (et tu Tolkien?) all seem to occur in 1998. I’m curious about this as it seems to coincedental to be pure chance. Might there be a Stirling-Multiverse tying it all together? Or am I now targeted for termination for noticing?

    Either way, S.M. Stirling has been and remains one of the brightest lights in the sci-fi sky.

  5. Sylvia Sims says:

    I take issue with the statement above that women are not interested in Stirling’s novels. I am female, a published author myself, 75 years old and he is one of my top SF favorites, with the Nantucket and the Change series in the lead. I love his gritty realism combined with wild speculation. My only problem is living long enough to find out what actually happened in Nantucket!

  6. Scott McGlasson says:

    I was referring to the women in my extended family. I have no idea what the general female population thinks of Stirling’s work, although you’d be hard-pressed read it and somehow think it’s “male” oriented. I find it all faily even-handed without being overly, or overtly, PC.

  7. Tina says:

    Dear Everyone,
    I have been rereading the Change novels(beginning with DIES THE FIRE)this year, I read them last year, but stopped before I’d finished with MEETING AT CORVALLIS, End-of-the world novels(or however you call them) had faded in my interest for a bit. I wanted to read something a bit more upbeat.
    This year I gave it a go again, and found a lot upbeat about this series–excepting the bit about France ‘going under.’ Why France? I should think a lot of people would have had the will–and the creativity–to survive the Change, unless there was a special reason why France was singled out by Mr. Stirling in the Change novels.
    The death of Mike Havel broke my heart a bit, though I understand how it fits with “The sacrificial king’ motif. Those curious about this concept should read a series by Stephen Lawhead(not the Merlin/Taliesin series) the deals with that–the name of the books escapes me right now…
    There are plenty of places where the Change would have not affected the people so badly. I lived for eight years near the mouth of the Amazon River, and many people there used(still use, I think) wood stoves, spears, canoes to get around, and have never seen a television set…these people would still go on in their immemorial way. I was lucky enough to see that, and even to stay in a farm(belonging to my aunt) that had no electricity. Wood stoves, kerosene lanterns for light, an out house(would you believe it?) and beds made of straw–I know, cause I slept in it!
    Thanks for letting me post here!

  8. Darren says:

    Hello and thank you very much to Mr. Stirling;

    I have just started Stone Dogs after finishing Marching Through Georgia and Under the Yoke. I have not read any other Stirling novels and am a bit saddened at the comparative lack of attention this series garners. I have not enjoyed a dystopian fiction this much since reading 1984 many years ago, but I suppose this means I have a lot to look forward to in Stirling’s other works.

    I am curious, how was the Domination Series recieved? I find this to be such a compelling and brilliant alternative history, I am suprised I only discovered it by accident on wikipedia. This saga of a people and an empire which very plasusibly might have been, seems like such a jewel that is primed for rediscovery !!!

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