2012 Snapshot Archive: Sean McMullen

First published at Alexandra Pierce’s blog.

Sean McMullen has had seventeen books and seven dozen stories published. His neo-steampunk story Eight Miles was runner up in the Hugo Awards in 2011, and he has won a dozen other Australian and international awards. His latest novel is Changing Yesterday (2011), a young adult time travel story described as Terminator on the Titanic. Sean works in scientific computing, has a PhD in medieval fantasy literature, and teaches karate in Melbourne University. More of Sean’s background and some sample stories may be found at www.seanmcmullen.net

Last year you were nominated for a Hugo Award, for your novelette “Eight Miles,” which appeared in Analog in September 2010 – belated congratulations. What was it like to be nominated? Did it change how you felt about the story?

Thank you, belated congratulations are still congratulations and are very welcome. As a general observation, once you have “Hugo” attached to your name life is never quite the same again. I had represented nominees several times at Hugo ceremonies, and I once I even presented a Hugo, but nothing prepares you for the celebrity status of actually being a nominee. As it happened, Eight Miles came in second, but I then discovered that being runner up is pretty special as well. It’s rather like winning a silver medal in the Olympics: it may not be gold, but nobody else has one and people cheer almost as loudly.

I always felt that Eight Miles was an exceptional story, but I never thought it would be noticed widely enough to get a Hugo nomination. The final version turned out pretty well exactly as I wanted it to, which is probably rare for all authors – no matter what they say in interviews. We tend to know what we want from a story idea without being able to get the full 100% of the vision into words. When we do manage it, I think it happens more by luck than design. For me, stories like Neil Gaimen’s Ramadan, George R. R. Martin’s Sand Kings, and Terry Pratchet’sTroll Bridge manage to get it all together in this way. My most recent story, Electrica, gives me the same general feeling as Eight Miles, but unfortunately getting a story noticed is just as much a matter of luck as turning the vision into text, so I’m not getting my hopes up yet..

Your novels have often garnered praise not just for the characters and pacing but for their humour. Is the humour an intentional inclusion, or is it a result of what you yourself are like and like to read? What can humour add to an otherwise already enjoyable story?

Without humour a novel cannot be realistic. Humour is everywhere in our lives, so how can anyone leave it out of fiction? Humour helps us cope when we’re staring into the abyss, just as it gets us through the mind-numbingly boring bits of our lives. We use it to deflate the pompous, to take the edge off tragedy, to get over loss, and to resist the temptation to take success too seriously. I can’t write anything without humour sauntering in and making itself at home. I’m particularly proud of getting some laughs into my PhD thesis and still passing (warning to other PhD students: don’t try this at home, I was probably just lucky). So what does humour add to an otherwise enjoyable story? Realism, as far as I’m concerned.

If you can’t joke about an extreme situation, you are probably not aware of how terrible the situation is. During the S11 attacks I was in a United Airlines jet over the Pacific, and when we landed in Auckland the captain announced what had happened to the World Trade Centre. We passengers were horrified and terrified, yet we tried to cope by swapping jokes about it. For example, someone said I looked like a member of some Goth Liberation Movement, so I was sure to be taken away for questioning. My contribution went thus: “The LA terminal was shaken by three minor earth tremors while we were waiting to board, which was pretty unsettling. After we took off I said to my daughter If a bigger earthquake happens now, at least we’re up in the air and safe.” It was gallows humour, but everyone laughed.

Getting back to fiction, have a look at some serious and often quite bloody TV shows like Rome,Dexter, Babylon 5 and Game of Thrones. They are definitely not comedies, but they contain more humour than many supposedly funny shows.

You have mixed writing novels and short stories for much of your career, exploring different sorts of issues and ideas in the different lengths. Why do the different formats appeal to you? Do you see yourself continuing in this vein?

If you have a great idea, you need the right vehicle to display it. The idea might be wonderful, but too limited for a novel or too big for a story. That means you must either throw it away, or write it in a length that suits it. True to my Scottish heritage, I’m too stingy to throw anything away, so I write everything.

Sometimes I finish a story and realise that I could incorporate it as part of a novel. Queen of Soulmates was a story of love, longing, betrayal and mathematics that finished with all sorts of possibilities that could be explored further, so I later expanded it into the novel Voyage of the Shadowmoon. My 1999 novel Souls in the Great Machine had four earlier short stories in it. Would the novels have been written without the stories coming first? Probably not.

By contrast, my story of time travel and music, The Colours of the Masters,was built around an idea which only needed about seven thousand words to tell it very nicely, and had no scope for further development. In the same way, some plots can only be told as novels. Before the Storm was very heavily character based and needed a lot of background to establish the 1901 Melbourne setting and society, so it could only work as a novel.

Scriptwriting has a lot in common with short stories, so I seem to be writing more short works now that I am also doing scripts. On the other hand, I’m also writing another novel because I have a great idea for a Regency steampunk plot. Stoke up that furnace, Heathcote, her batteries are running down…

What Australian works have you loved recently?

I have been concentrating on non-print Australian genre works for a while now, so this is probably not the answer you are expecting. Currently Australian companies produce about one movie in four that is identifiably SF, fantasy or horror. Although most are written overseas, this still represents a lot of Australian creativity in these genres, so I’m calling them Australian works and using them for my answer (My apologies for talking about some things that are not yet on release, btw).

Generally speaking the recent movie themes are fun rather than profound, but then we need a bit of fun. The Last Man On Earth features a girl telling her blind date that she would not see him again if he were the last man on Earth. In an echo of The Quiet Earth, she wakes up the next morning to find everyone on Earth but herself has vanished. In Iron Sky, Nazi spacecraft have secretly taken the Third Reich off-world in 1945, and now they are returning to give us a dose of deja vu. Speaking of carrying retro carnage on into the future, I, Frankenstein has Frankenstein’s monster become immortal, and pop up alive and well in the Twenty-First century. Rather cheesily, he is now called Adam. According to Ben Adams has the devil being so thoroughly outclassed by humans in terms of evil behaviour that he has a nervous breakdown and has to book himself into a clinic.

As I said, most Australian genre productions are written elsewhere, but occasionally something great comes out of a local story. Back in 1998 the Australian director Alex Proyas turned his vision Dark City into a brilliant movie with international stars and local production companies. Why are there not more locally written genre movies like this, while there are dozens of genre books from Australian authors being published? According to my calculations it costs about a thousand times more to fund a commercial movie than a commercial book, and this sort of money is generally not available here. Because most of the finance for the films comes from overseas, the scripts tend to come from there too.

I have been spending a lot more time on scriptwriting lately, and have had movie options taken out on six of my published works. Out of all these, one script for a short film, Hard Cases, has got as far as casting, and it probably has enough finance to actually go ahead. This is out of out of over a hundred stories and novels that I have had published, and a couple of dozen scripts that I have written. As I said, print is a lot easier and cheaper than media, but I like both so I do both.

Two years on from Aussiecon 4, the World SF Convention held in Melbourne, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?

The massive expansion of social media and digital publishing are, without a doubt, the dominant factors. Fans are spending a lot more time on Facebook and Twitter, which are making authors accessible on a scale undreamed of even five years ago. This has pretty strong implications for promoting books, getting awards and everything else associated with publishing.

However, add this to online publishing and ebooks and we start to see the down side. There was a time that one person could get a book published for every thousand who wrote one. Now the whole thousand authors can and do get themselves published, so promotion has become a nightmare because there is just so much stuff out there. We authors with pre-existing reputations are not quite so badly off, because our names are recognisable, but talented Australian beginners have problems that were not even invented when I started writing, so they certainly have my sympathy. Readers have my sympathy too, because the ratio of drek to quality has increased enormously, making it much harder to track down a good read. Eventually some sort of literary spam filter will be developed and make someone very rich, but currently that particular app is just science fiction.

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