Interview by Shauna O’Meara.
Sean Monaghan studied at the University of Queensland. His stories have appeared in Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Asimov’s, among others. Website: www.seanmonaghan.com
Your short stories and novels such as the Hidden Dome series and Athena Setting are often set in space. What is it about the many worlds of deep space that appeals to you as writer?
As a child I watched the U.S. space programme with wide-eyed fascination. I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Over time the space programme dwindled, and it became clear that with my poor eyesight I wouldn’t be piloting a ship to the moon. I took up work as a librarian, but being a writer as well, I get to play astronaut. And I get to go places farther off than the moon or Mars.
It feels as if endless opportunities and marvels exist out there. As a writer that’s one vast playground.
In 2014 you won the grand prize in the Jim Baen Memorial writing contest with your short story Low Arc and flew to LA to attend the awards. How did this experience affect your writing, both in terms of your career and craft, and the kinds of stories you wish to write in the future?
Heading over to LA really fitted with my love of travel. I’ll take any chance to go exploring. I was lucky enough to be able to take a long leisurely drive through Big Sur on the trip. That had a big impact on my writing (I ended writing a novel set in the area).
Attending the awards felt almost surreal. A friend from LA came to the luncheon, which was cool. I hung out with the other two writers and the publisher from Baen and talked writing and publishing so it all felt like a big step forward. It did inspire me to think that I could possibly even try my hand at writing novels to send to Baen.
As part of your trip you also attended the International Space Development conference where you got to hear experts speak on aspects of space exploration and research. How was that? With science fiction, particularly that pertaining to space, how important is imagination versus accuracy? Do you find yourself having to do increasing amounts of research to remain current as discoveries made by probes like Curiosity and Juno roll in?
The conference was dazzling and boggling. The sessions were at a high level, with expert scientists talking about radical concepts and extraordinary phenomena. The best part was hanging out with some other science fiction writers. We were definitely in the minority. It was pretty cool to attend a talk given by Buzz Aldrin.
With science fiction, I do think accuracy is critical, but there’s room for some imaginative extrapolations. As far as we know, it’s impossible to exceed the speed of light, but I remind myself that once it was believed that heavier than air flying machines were impossible. Who knows what workarounds might be discovered in the future?
It’s funny you ask about doing more research, because reading about Curiosity or Juno or any of the other missions doesn’t feel like research. I just like to keep up with the discoveries as a hobby anyway. I find myself reading Discover or Scientific American for fun. Hmm, that sounds kind of geeky.
Do you think the data coming in points to a future where the human race is more or less likely to extend into the stars?
Absolutely. I not sure that it will be in a Star Trek sense of ‘warp factor 10’, but I’m sure it will come. The distances certainly seem insurmountable from our perspective. One of the things I am enjoying about life in the early twenty-first century is how rapidly technology is evolving. Hyperloops and buildings that consume no energy, encyclopedias in our pockets and watches that tell us the weather, binge-watching streamed television series and shopping without ever leaving the house. So much of this is unrecognisable from my childhood.
Today’s children are growing up in a world where there has always been an internet and touch-screen phones. I love to consider the kind of world that their grandchildren will grow up in. Perhaps even reaching the stars. Those are the kinds of things I like to explore in my stories.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I always enjoy Greg Egan’s work. His Clockwork Rocket is quite extraordinary. I also enjoy Kim Wilkins’s gothic/horror novels. I studied with Kim at UQ, so it’s wonderful to see her go on to such broad success (even if much of that is with her romantic sagas as Kimberly Freeman). And right now I’m loving The Dry by Jane Harper. Remarkable debut novel.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
I think it would Robert Heinlein. His early novels figured highly in my adolescence and his later novels carried me through my twenties. So there’s the fact that I enjoyed his works, but there’s also his whole approach to writing. Vast novels that span generations. I would have loved the chance to pick his brains.