Interview: Thomas A. Day

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Welcome to the second in an ongoing series of Interviews with authors of Science Fiction. I’m lucky to have had a chance, recently, to review Portland local Thomas A. Day’s A Grey Moon Over China, a totally postapocalyptic epic that takes the ongoing cultural fear of an energy crisis to a particularly dark and alienating place in the cosmos. He’s an interesting writer for his sense of grand scope — in the complexity of the narrative and the breadth of time it represents — but also because of his background: he’s worked in the aerospace industry, flown night-cargo planes, and developed Artificial Intelligence software.

Edit: Thanks to the Willamette Week for the nice mention!

Universe: Tell me about your “day job.” How does it inform your writing practice?

Thomas A. Day: I serve as an expert witness in high stakes, high tech litigation. I examine patents, source code, trade secrets and computer-based evidence in disputes among the big players, advise their law firms on strategy, and then, if they can’t all just buy each other out or scare one another into settling, I go to court and get disemboweled in public for the cause. It would be imprudent to tell you how much of this process is art more than science or law, or how fleeting the truth tends to be in such matters, because then I would get slapped around with a copy of your blog the next time I testified, but…well.

The experience informs my writing in two ways, I think. First, it reminds me how frail even our strongest institutions remain in the face of concentrated economic power. The Anglo-American system of government and law is probably the best the world has managed to date, but any writer interested in the great struggles of civilization should not forget how desperately difficult it is under the best of circumstances to make a true system from such false creatures.

Second are the personal stories. We start in this litigation business, as in so many aspects of our lives, with convenient narratives about the people caught up in it: the conniving entrepreneur, the sellout, the toady, the noble whistleblower. And then we strip them bare. We read everything they’ve ever written, interview their colleagues, trace for each of them the painfully intimate trail we all leave in the computers we use, and finally fillet them alive on the deposition room table–and what’s left in every case is a deeply compelling, ultimately personal story of an ordinary human being caught up for better or worse in a wholly impersonal affair. And this–exactly this–is also the novelist’s job. So I am reminded with every one of these hundreds of stories I get to watch unfold that the writer should also never believe for a moment the convenient fictions that the careless eye is tempted to draw from the dramas around us.

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Universe: Do you find a background in the sciences, as you have, is an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to proposing fictional future technologies?

Thomas A. Day: All it does is keep me honest, probably. I find, heresy though this may be, that I’m not really terribly interested in technology. If it doesn’t clatter, stink, terrify, punish, mock or bear witness–in other words, if it doesn’t challenge our characters or deepen the atmosphere–I tend not to have much patience with it. I certainly have no idea what technology is to come, and neither does anyone else. So all my background does, with luck, is keep me from striking false notes as I set up physical forces and machines into their own roles as characters in the story.

Universe: You wrote Grey Moon Over China 18 years ago, right?

Thomas A. Day: It is curious how differently the book is being read now from how it was at first. All of the passages about the Mexican border fence, the energy wars, the Ganges delta flooding, the hair-trigger realignments of global power–none of this seemed to register with early readers. Now it is the first thing they mention.

Universe: As both a writer and as someone who has worked in AI, where do you think the future of literature lies? I often feel as though my generation is the first to ponder the ultimate relevance of text.

Thomas A. Day: Well, much as we like to flatter ourselves with our despair over the fate of literature, I think the first generation to ponder the ultimate relevance of text was probably the Sumerians of 3,000 BCE, who were appalled at the idea of their living spoken novel, the Epic of Gilgamesh, being killed by fixing it into dead clay tablets.

I’m not worried about the future of literature. We humans love a story, and in particular we love a story long enough for it to breathe deeply on its own, yet short enough to have a complete arc of suspense and resolution. In other words, a novel.

In the past year, in fact, we’ve had delightful proof of this. HBO’s serial masterpiece, the Sopranos, arc-less, is on its way out. At the same time, viewers are demanding that ABC’s Lost, which is arc on steroids, come to ground as it must, and now. And finally, they have told HBO that its exquisite Deadwood, with its low Dickensian characters, high Shakespearian form, and bleak Faulknerian landscape, resolve itself properly, no thread left untied, to the extent that HBO will have to release theater films to do it. So we have witnessed the novel’s form impose itself whole on yet another medium.

I think literature is alive and well, and it is in the viewers’ very capable hands.