Interview by Tsana Dolichva.
Simon Petrie’s formative years, as well as some years that should have been formative but weren’t, were spent in New Zealand. He now lives in Canberra. His fiction (which has twice won NZ’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and has also been shortlisted for the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards) has been published in many different venues, is showcased in his collections Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album, and is upcoming in Cosmos Online and Dimension6. He is the Southern Hemisphere’s only licensed velociraptor breeder, a member of the Arcturan Cultural Exchange Program, and an inveterate liar.
Some of your stories share settings. What’s your favourite setting from any story you’ve written? What makes you want to come back to a setting after you’ve already written about it?
My favourite setting, based on the numbers, would apparently be Saturn’s haze-concealed moon, Titan. I’ve so far written nine short stories—or, to be pedantic, eight short stories and a novella—set on Titan; I’m still trying to find a home for the novella, but the shorter pieces have all seen publication, or are in press, in various places.
The things I like about Titan as a setting are that, one, it’s an intriguingly challenging environment—intensely cold, shrouded in a surprisingly thick atmosphere, and with a gravity only one-seventh of that on Earth; two, it’s sufficiently stocked with carbonaceous material such as hydrocarbons that it should be a very promising site for colonisation if humanity ever manages to stumble into the outer solar system; and three, almost all of what we know about Titan—its weather, its methanological cycle, the distribution, depths, and composition of its lakes, its various terrains from craters to mountains to presumed cryovolcanoes to long serried dunefields of hydrocarbon sand—has been uncovered in just the last dozen years, thanks to the Cassini-Huygens mission—which means that, although it’s featured in SF quite a bit over the years, anything written about it over a decade is likely to be no more plausible than the Golden Age stories set on a hot, swampy Venus or on a cultivated, canal-cut Mars. So, while Titan’s not exactly new territory, it’s nonetheless reasonably fresh, and the environmental challenges it poses are hopefully sufficiently unusual as to make for interesting fiction. It’s almost inevitable, given the necessity to resort to guesswork where concrete knowledge is just not available, that my own stories contain mistakes of various kinds (and there are already things I’d change about my own earlier Titan stories), but I hope that the stories can remain somewhat plausible for a few years yet, until more parts of the map are filled in.
And what brings me back? It’s a world; it’s a very different world; and it doesn’t reveal all of its aspects at once. I’m fascinated by the equipment, and by the modes of habitation, that would be required to maintain a human presence in such an unforgiving environment; this equipment obviously isn’t a story in itself, but it can permit the occurrence of certain kinds of stories, and I suppose I’m still experimenting with just what stories can be told with such a toolkit. Lately I’ve written my first Titan-based murder mystery, and I’ve also tried my hand at coming-of-age, wilderness survival, SF puzzle, and armed-combat stories, all of them naturally evolving from the combination of environment, equipment, and human nature.
I like using lots of other settings as well, but Titan’s one I keep coming back to, and I reckon there’s a few stories to go before it will release me from its gravitational pull.
As well as writing, you’ve also done some editing, including issues of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and some anthologies out from Peggy Bright Books. Are there any more anthologies on the horizon? What feels, to you, like a good balance between editing and writing?
Although I’d certainly like to be involved in further editing projects such as anthologies, there aren’t any in the pipeline for me at the moment. As of October last year, I’m no longer involved with ASIM—after eight and a half years with the magazine, I was feeling quite burnt out—and although Edwina Harvey and I have discussed the possibility of co-editing another anthology for Peggy Bright Books, nothing’s been greenlighted on that yet. We may just have to see what turns up.
The balance, for me, is more one of layout versus writing. The first few months of this year were largely taken up with typesetting the two most recent books from Peggy Bright: Adam Browne’s The Tame Animals of Saturn, which involved a lot of finessing between illustrations and text, and Sean O’Leary’s lit/crime collection Walking (which I also edited). There’s been other typesetting work, during that time, for one of the American writers and publishers with whom I’ve been involved over the past few years. The balance between layout and writing (or, on occasion, between editing and writing, or even between reading and writing) seems to waver quite a bit, for me: sometimes I do feel frustrated at not managing to claw out the time to do my own creative writing, but I’m not one of these people who’s able to write every day (I was rather surprised at the speed with which the Titan murder-mystery novella, mentioned above, came together, in only about ten days to complete the first draft, but for the most part it’s usually a process of writing a scene, adding the next one a few days or even weeks later, and tinkering obsessively with the fragments over a reasonably extended period of time), so it’s useful to have other word-based activities with which to occupy myself while the inspiration is less than white-hot. And I enjoy the challenges that such activities occasionally throw up—learning how to build glyphs so as to accurately reproduce characters that don’t exist in a particular typeface, working out how to embed footnotes in a reasonably primitive epub file—and trying, always, to give the page a natural, uncluttered appearance that will, I hope, be pleasing to the reader’s eye. But there are times, almost unavoidably, when such considerations get in the way of the need to write. If there’s a trick to achieving the perfect balance, I haven’t discovered it yet.
What stories are you working on at the moment? What can readers expect to see from you next?
In terms of the stories I really want to finish: there’s a pigeon-pair of interstellar cloud colony novellas (in the same setting as my stories ‘Dark Rendezvous’ and ‘Trajectory’) that I’m keen to get completed before year’s end. They’ll likely be usurped, though, by another Titan murder mystery novella, which has fixed its beady eyes upon my hindbrain; and I also want to finish off the latest Gordon Mamon story, once I’ve got enough excruciating name-puns to flesh out the list of suspects.
As for what will be out next: my xenobiological-conundrum novelette, ‘All the Colours of the Tomato’, is due out in the October release of Keith Stevenson’s Dimension6 zine, and my Titan story ‘The Goldilocks Hack’, which picks up from the moment its predecessor ‘CREVjack’ closes, is due out sometime soon(ish) in Cosmos Online. [There will also, I suspect, be a successor to ‘The Goldilocks Hack’ itself, but as I haven’t written it yet it’s best not to hold one’s breath on that score.] Beyond that, I have a few pieces out in the wilds, at the mercy of any kindly editor willing to give them a home. Fingers crossed.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I’ve been unforgivably remiss in my reading of Australian work over the last year or so—practically the only things I’ve read have been Adam Browne’s The Tame Animals of Saturn and the CSfG’s The Never Never Land anthology. I very much admire Adam’s work, which I think deserves a larger following. And the story that most appealed to me in Never Never Land is Leife Shallcross’s wistful and wonderfully subtle ‘Adventure Socks’. But I must make a point of working through my to-be-read pile, because I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
As fate would have it, I was in Europe on a study tour holiday when these questions reached me, so I have in fact had a long plane trip since then; I was seated next to Edwina Harvey, and we seemed to get along alright. So she would have to be one contender for the position as advertised.
Casting the fellow-passenger net more widely, I’m tempted to nominate my all-time favourite author, the late Finnish writer, illustrator and artist Tove Jansson, but in truth I suspect that might not be such a good idea: she was, in some ways, a famously private person, and I think this, in combination with my not knowing what to say, could make for a rather awkward flight. I suspect I’d feel more relaxed in the company of someone like Spike Milligan or Douglas Adams, who I think would have a lot of naturally interesting things to say about life.