Five questions for Brad Torgersen, Nebula and Hugo nominee


Even before I met Brad at the Writers of the Future workshop last year, I knew we would get along really well. He had a hard-working, no bullshit attitude that suits me well. At the workshop, we spent late nights in the foyer, in the company of Laurie Tom, Greg Benford, Mike Resnick and Kevin Anderson. Brad, of course was a veteran of the workshop from the previous year. After receiving his award, his first sale was to Analog (hmmm, I do hope that there is a pattern there), and went on to sell five more times to them, as well as Intergalactic Medicine Show. Here are five questions for him. Of course the next time I do this, the main question will be: when is the novel coming out?

One of my interests is military SF. And often SF has a military component, because many writers see it as a natural extension of the armed forces that they will represent humanity in space. You’ve spent more than ten years in the Army. How often does this influence your writing and how would you describe these influences?

My decade in the United States Army Reserve — as a lower enlisted man, as a Sergeant, and now as a Chief Warrant Officer — influences me tremendously. I was an avid reader of military science fiction before I joined in 2002, but my perspective has shifted such that now I have something of an “insider” view. Especially when it comes to the maddening bureaucracy. My all-time most favorite military science fiction series is the STEN series by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole. Bunch (1943-2005) had been a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in the Vietnam war, so there is a lot of his experience in that series, and especially in their co-written, Pulitzer-nominated Vietnam war novel, “A Reckoning For Kings.” I didn’t realize how truly authentic these books were until I myself joined, and though I am not a high-speed supertroop like Bunch was in his day, I’ve seen enough of the sprawling, crazy-making beast that is the United States Army to realize that Bunch & Cole were spot-on with their portrayals. Which is not to say there isn’t pride and even a bit of glory to service. I’m very happy with my decision to join. But I am also happy that I get to be a civilian much of the year, because if I had to deal with Army life every day of every week of every year, for 20 years solid, I’d go nuts. It’s a difficult, contradictory job often populated with difficult, contradictory people. I never really grasped this intuitively until I was part of the military. So when I write military-focused fiction, I find that this new understanding “leaks” into the story quite often. As does my respect for the many amazing men and women I’ve met over the years who have managed to do amazing and often heroic things, despite all the bullshit. That too often goes into my stories. The organization has lots of warts. Big, ugly ones. But the individuals… some of them have been finest, most dedicated and terrific people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

What do science fiction writers forever get wrong about life in the armed forces. What do you consider being some of the best science fictional representations of army life?

Well, I already touted Bunch and Cole as guys who definitely “got it right” in my estimation. So if anyone wants homework, I will always recommend anything and everything Bunch and Cole did. Orbit books is currently putting out STEN omnibus collections of the series. Look for them at Amazon UK, and for Kindle and Nook too, I think. What do SF writers get wrong? Lots of things. One of the biggest problems I often see is the heroic Private or lowly Corporal who jumps into the officer ranks due to a single, particularly brave action. This just doesn’t happen in my experience. Lower enlisted personnel who do brave and heroic deeds get medals, not promotions per se. Medals help a whole bunch when it comes time to hit the promotion board, but jumping from, say, Private First Class to 2nd Lieutenant involves a lot more than just being a hero in battle. There is a heap of schooling that has to happen — both civilian and military — as well as a rigorous selection process that weeds out people who can’t meet certain standards. In my own experience, I had to progress to Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) status before I could submit myself for consideration as a Warrant Officer Candidate, and then once I was selected I had to actually pass through the bowels of the Warrant Officer Candidate School. I don’t see this changing in the future. In fact, I think it will become even more so, especially in highly technological societies where future warfare will be conducted using very-advanced weaponry, tactics, etc. Our officer leadership is going to have to be highly adept, flexible, motivated, and capable. Not everyone who takes a bullet for a buddy or who runs across a field of fire to save a wounded troop is cut out to be a Platoon Leader, Company Commander, or a Brigade staffer. I could talk about more mistakes, but that would take pages and pages and pages. (grin) I think the best thing anyone who is writing military SF and who doesn’t have military experience can do, is find and talk to military members and veterans. Get them to tell stories. You will learn more talking to an actual veteran for one hour than reading any dozen books.

You have been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards as well as the Campbell Award. First of all, congratulations. Secondly, the nominations were on the back of the strength of your story Ray of Light in Analog. What do you think makes people like this story so much?

Thank you for the congrats. It was a heap of fun being on the Nebula ballot, and I look forward to spending the summer (northern hemisphere) on the Hugo and Campbell ballot. Based on reader responses, I’d guess that “Ray of Light” got a lot of attention because it was a) a post-apocalypse story that didn’t use any of the usual post-apocalypse tropes (zombies, global warming, nuclear war) and b) it focused on the predicament of a small family. Specifically, a father and his daughter. When I looked at telling this story — I got the conceit from a science article discussing new geologic evidence suggesting that the Earth’s surface had completely frozen over at least once or twice in the distant past — I decided it would be easiest and have much more emotional oomph if I considered it from the day-to-day viewpoint of someone just trying to survive and cope with virtually impossible circumstances. The story hints at broader implications, but it is essentially about two people. It’s also not a “downer” story in that while I put the characters through hell, I don’t strand them there. I think a lot of modern SF tries too hard to be edgy and literary by having sad, depressing endings; or ambigious endings, or sometimes no ending at all. This is not what I like to read, so this is not what I write. Amazingly, it worked very well for enough readers that they voted it onto the ballots.

Patty’s comment: the reason why I liked the story so much was for the doubly whammy of its emotional content. A father worried about a teenage daughter is something a lot of parents can relate to, and the hope of Earth recovering from disaster is also something that touches people inside. You know, it’s Earth. It’s kind of important.

Cheeky question: Supposing I would like to be nominated next year. What would you recommend?

I didn’t deliberately set out to make the awards ballots, so I can’t say for sure if I have a formula or strategy that will work. I do think it’s likely that having had previously-published material in a major science fiction market like Analog helped to boost my profile with the readership. My first Analog story, “Outbound,” won the readers’ choice award. I think reader response like that is what encouraged editor Stan Schmidt to boost me onto the cover of the December 2011 issue, once I gave him a story with emotional resonance similar to that of “Outbound.” And of course, making the cover of the english language’s oldest and most widely-read science fiction magazine does wonders for a writer’s “footprint” in the marketplace. So between writing a solid story that scored with readers, on top of having a growing history with a significant publication, I think these two things put me over the top with the Nebula and the Hugo. Especially since I had peers and mentors tell me in confidence that they were giving the story their nod of approval. That especially came as a welcome surprise, because it meant people I trusted to know their stuff — ergo, skills! — thought the story not just competent, not just good, but better-than-good. And I was very touched and gratified by their support. Still am, win or lose. I am necessarily proud of “Ray of Light” as a result. And as the story goes into foreign print, in addition to being available electronically from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc, I hope it keeps winning readers.

You have been to some amazing workshops. Can you elaborate a bit about them and why they were instrumental to your success?

It was 1992 when I first got it into my head that I wanted to be a professional science fiction writer. It wasn’t until 2009 that I finally won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest — birthplace of careers. I think workshops were instrumental in this, because I literally didn’t do my first professional workshop until June of 2009. The thing about doing pro workshops taught by pros is that they usually blow away a lot of myths, peeling back the tinfoil on the realities of what it’s like to be a professional fiction writer. I was fortunate in that the first pro workshop I did was by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has won Hugo awards for editing and writing, and her Husband Dean Wesley smith, who is also an editor and a writer. They could speak to both sides of the publishing fence. Not long after that, I got to go to Los Angeles and do Writers of the Future — with its dozen-plus array of renown and bestselling judges, who spend much of the Contest week lecturing and being available to the winners. Then I did the Superstars Writing Seminar, which featured many of the same big-name authors — Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Brandon Sanderson — and I’ve also done Dave Wolverton’s Million Dollar novel outlines class. In addition to still more workshops with Kris Rusch and Dean Smith — out of which I’ve sold virtually everything I wrote in class. Each and every one of these experiences taught me enormously important lessons about the business, and/or the craft. Which I think it’s important to undersand the difference between. Experienced aspiring and/or newly-published writers who are at a base-line competency with craft, can benefit a lot from exposure to business information. Fledgling aspiring writers who haven’t written much at all, or who may have never written anything, period, may not benefit from a business workshop as much as they could from a craft workshop, such as Orson Scott Card’s famous Boot Camp. And yes, these all cost money. Well, all but Writers of the Future, which is free to winners. But like any other worthwhile investment, it takes money to make money. I wish I’d done these sorts of workshops much sooner than I did. Maybe my career would be just that much further along than it is now?

This is a very good story. Take take my word for it, see it for yourself. You can read your own copy of Ray of Light on Amazon and B & N

why you should read military SF

A discussion of a Worldcon panel ‘Military SF revisited’ with panel members Toni Weisskopf (Baen’s editor of military SF), Howard Tayler (Hugo nominee and cartoonist of military SF) and Jean Johnson (novelist)

What is it with the military in Science Fiction?

I’m not talking solely of the subgenre military SF, a market well and truly cornered by Baen’s, but the fact that the military has a place in a lot of SF. In fact, point me to an SF novel that doesn’t involve military, militia or police.

I think the reason may be this:

In order to mount large operations, and space flight and space colonisation are prime examples of large operations, you need to have an organisation with tight discipline and fairly authoritarian decision-making processes. A military-style organisation is supremely suited to fill that spot.
They could be mercenary armies or merchant forces, but it is likely they will all function to a fairly rigid command structure. The military provides logistics, rescue and defense and simply people to do things.

Hence, military SF.

This was a very well-attended and emotional panel. It was the last panel of the day. The room was packed. I mean emotional in that it engaged a wide range of emotions. There were many panels I enjoyed and found useful, but this was the one where I felt most ‘right’.

Toni started by asking the audience who had served in the military (many hands went up), or who had a family member who had. I fall in the latter category. My father was an air traffic controller in the air force for seven years. He’d taken a civilian job by the time I was old enough to remember, but military life was still fresh for him. If I remember anything about my youth, it’s his stories of life in the barracks. Mostly, they’re stories of discipline, of consequences. This is precisely what I like about the military. The discipline is harsh, but the consequences of not following protocol and orders are clear and straightforward. In fact, I believe that every parent-to-be should hear or read these stories so they can understand the sequence order, disobedience, consequence.

Today, perhaps thankfully, the military is a long way from the lives of a lot of people. Most countries have abolished compulsory conscription. On the other hand, governments make decisions that require military involvement. In other words: someone’s got to do the dirty work. People go out and serve in whatever locality the government decrees, most often in third world countries these days, and find themselves in hostile territory once they return home. Their former civilian friends have seen the brutal images on tv; they never agreed with the government sending troops anyway, and why can’t we all get along and be happy. Who needs the military anyway?

One of the functions military SF can fulfil is to bridge that gap, by making soldiers’ lives real through fiction.

And ‘real’ is neither good nor bad.

Military SF as subgenre is about the military, with military applications and problems, but not the glorifying of killing (Toni called this military porn). Military SF can involve an army representing a government, a private force or mercenaries. Characters often face crises of command. The military doesn’t have to be portrayed as either good or bad (there are examples of both within military SF). Most often, the military just is, a part of life, necessary. Sadly, perhaps, but necessary.

It is important that the writer knows the military, and has access to readers in the military. The everyday situation of soldiers is important, a life which is often monotonous and involves a lot of waiting.

For me personally, this panel put a lot of pieces into place. I had previously been hesitant to call my upcoming novella Charlotte’s Army military SF. It does involve a character in the military, but being a doctor, she’s on the outside. The story neither glorifies nor vilifies the armed forces, and involves a serious breach of command.

Military SF further allows us to look at the military aside from the political baggage that it comes with in the real world. Whereas a novel about a present-day military situation always draws questions about whether or not the conflict is justified, stupid, racist, or whatever, in SF, the adversaries aren’t real, and military processes and attitudes take centre-stage. Hidden in the pages of military SF are gems about human behaviour, about social structure, and about human reactions in extreme situations.

For all the reasons above, you could do worse than pick up a military SF novel.

P.S. Howard Tayler is an incredibly fun person, aside from his amazing boots (does anyone have a picture of his boots?). While most nominations for graphic novel involved an entire team of writers and artists, Howard does Schlock Mercenary all by himself. I haven’t read graphic novels, but meeting him makes me think I should check them out.