Interview With NASA Scientist and Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer Geoffrey Landis

by Aimee Kratts
Published in Interzone, June 1997

AK: Where did you grow up?

GL: My family moved around quite a bit when I was a kid, so I've never had a good answer to the question, "where are you from?" I was born in Detroit, and we lived in Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

AK: What did your folks do for a living?

GL: My father was a patent lawyer for AT&T and various Bell subsidiaries. My mother had a degree in Chemistry, but except for a year teaching, didn't use her degree professionally.

AK: Did either of them influence you toward science or writing?

GL: Well, my mother is a voracious science fiction reader, and nobody in the family thought it particularly unusual that I went to the library once a week, and took out a stack of eight SF books each time [eight being the limit of books you could check out at one time from our local library]. It was, I would say, a rather science-friendly house.

AK: Tell me about your early years. Were you interested in science at an early age? Did you have chemistry sets and butterfly collections or did your love of science develop later, for example in high school?

GL: Well, sure, I had a chemistry set. I got bored with it, I hate to admit, when I found out that chemistry was more a matter of titrating solutions and crystallizing precipitates, than blowing things up and making mysterious compounds.

My real passion was model rockets, which I spent more time than you could possibly believe building, flying, and designing. My main event was boost-glide, that is, trying to make a rocket-boosted glider stay in the air for as long as possible. If MIT gave out degrees for what I really spent my time studying, and not what department you were in, I would have a Ph.D. in model rockets, with a minor in science fiction.

AK: What was your first successful science project?

GL: In my junior year of high-school, I invented a way to put a cluster of rocket engines in the upper stage of a model rocket, and presented it at the MIT Technical Model Rocket Convention. The project took third place, if I remember right. It was a good project. I think it should have done better, but I do admit that it was more tinkering than actual science. The next year I presented a project called "The Zero-Volume Piston Launcher," which was a way to make a launch pad that gives the rocket an extra boost as it takes off. That was over twenty years ago, but in rocket competitions, people still use the grandson of that invention for a little extra altitude.

AK: What was your first published piece of fiction?

GL: "Elemental," which was the cover story of the December, 1984 issue of "Analog."

AK: Where did you go to college and in what field did you receive your degree?

GL: I was an undergraduate at MIT.

AK: What did you do before you worked at NASA? Or did you go there directly out of college?

GL: After graduating with a degree in physics and another one in electrical engineering, I went to work for a small business outside of Boston, Spire Corporation, which was (and still is) involved in research and development. At the time they did a lot of work on solar cells, for a program administered by ERDA (now the Department of Energy). I started out on a project to develop new methods to encapsulate solar cells against the environment, and then went on to develop silicon solar cell technology. For a brief period, Spire had the world record for silicon solar cell efficiency, using technology that I had a hand in developing. The efficiency has improved considerably since then, though! I also started their research on developing a low-cost manufacturing process for silicon solar cells. After I left Spire, Steve Hogan took over this project, and the manufacturing line for silicon solar cells is now one of Spire's major product lines.

I left Spire to go to graduate school in physics. I decided to go to Brown, so I could work with Joseph Loferski, who is one of the important figures in solar cell development. I had some interesting ideas for thesis projects on silicon solar cells. Fortunately, they worked, so I was pretty fast in finishing my thesis and getting out of grad school.

AK: When did you realize that you liked to write fiction?

GL: I started writing seriously the summer before I went off to graduate school. In my spare time at grad school, I kept writing, and finished "Elemental" in the spring of my second year of grad school. At that time I really didn't have an intent to become "a writer;" I just thought that it would be cool to publish a few stories. "Elemental" was accepted at the first place I sent it, Analog, and earned a Hugo nomination that year. Seeing it appear in print and gather some attention was enough of a kick that I decided I ought to go further with this writing thing, and so I decided to apply to the Clarion workshop that summer.

AK: You work as a scientist a NASA Lewis Research Center. What exactly do you do there? Write computer programs? Design hardware for the space program?

GL: I do a lot of different things. I started out at NASA as a postdoctoral fellow, working with the photovoltaics (solar cell) branch, and then after two years as a postdoc, joined a company with a contract with Lewis to do on-site research.

There are two areas I work in. First, I'm still involved with the photovoltaics branch, which is working on developing solar cells for space. So I still am involved in inventing new ideas, and trying them out in the laboratory. We're also involved in worrying about what the effect the space environment is on solar power systems. I worked a bit on looking at solar power systems on the moon, and after that on Mars. I've become pretty much the Lewis expert on the operation of solar cells in the Martian environment. A significant concern on Mars is the effects of dust. I designed a little experiment which will be on the next Mars mission, Pathfinder, which will be launched this December, get a better measurement of how much dust is going to deposit out of the atmosphere and onto the spacecraft. I'm pretty excited about this experiment, and I'm really looking forward to seeing some data comes back, which will be in July 1997.

My second area is in advanced concepts, which is coming up with new ideas for far future applications. I've looked at all sorts of ideas here, from solar power satellites through use of huge laser systems to propel an interstellar probe.

AK: Are you into the theoretical end of science or the more tangible manufacturing end?

GL: As I've gone on, I've been less and less an actual hands-on experimental scientist, and moved more to analytical side, although I still interact a lot with the guys in the lab.

AK: Do you expect to stay at NASA for your entire career?

GL: No, that seems increasingly unlikely. The research budget has been cut every year, and I don't see that this trend is going to end.

AK: What kind of person do you think enjoys your fiction the most?

GL: I don't think that I have a good answer to that. Intelligent, curious people, I suppose. I write a variety of different kinds of stories, and I think that different stories may appeal to different kinds of people.

AK: Which is your greater love, working as a scientist at NASA or writing science fiction?

GL: When things are going well, there's really nothing better than scientific work. 99% of the time, though, being a scientist is just putting in the groundwork. Actually, writing is a lot like that, too. I guess that writers and scientists both live for that 1% of the time when things are flowing almost by themselves.

I don't think that I'd ever want to completely give up being a scientist.

AK: What are your future plans as a writer? Do you have any hard and fast goals or will you continue to write whatever moves you?

GL: No, I don't per se have hard and fast goals. A great advantage to not being a full-time writer is that I can write whatever I feel like working on, without having to worry about what's popular, or what's sure to sell.

AK: How does your science career influence your writing?

GL: Well, it does mean that I'm sitting in a position where I can see actual science being done, and I have a good feel for technology and know a lot about science, which certainly helps when I write hard science fiction. In fact, I have a real problem in reading most supposedly "hard" science fiction these days; I keep having to rewrite the story in my head to make it make sense.

One thing I've been mulling about for a while has been the rather romanticized view of scientists in science fiction (or, for that matter, in any fiction). There haven't been very many stories in which actual working scientists are portrayed in a particularly realistic manner. Benford's “Timescape” comes to mind. I've been thinking about sometime trying to write something that's a bit in that direction. Actually, a story that just came out --"Dark Lady"-- is a bit of an attempt at doing this.

Another thing that has influenced my writing is the fact that, as an experimental scientist, I have a much better feel for the fact that, in general, things don't work the way they're supposed to. Equipment doesn't work. Things fail. Rockets blow up. One of the clichés of SF is the way that some theorist has a great idea, and puts together a gadget the next day that goes and does something. Well, heck, the average theorist couldn't tell a transistor from an electrolytic capacitor. When, in a SF story, somebody tries some desperate idea-- you can tell, that's when they usually say "it's a crazy idea, but it just might work"-- well, let me clue you. It probably *won't* work.

AK: Do you do much writing at work? If so, what?

GL: A moderate amount. Papers for conferences and scientific journals, mostly; some proposals.

AK: What is your current project at NASA?

GL: No, security is not a problem. As I said, I work on several different things. The Mars instrumentation project doesn't take a whole lot of my time at the moment, since we've delivered the instrument and now it's a matter of waiting for it to launch, but I'm still involved with studying the properties of dust on Mars. I'm involved in a project to grow ZnSe semiconductor layers onto solar cells, to try to improve the efficiency of next-generation solar cells; this work is going pretty well right now, and we've got a paper on the subject accepted for the next Photovoltaics Specialists Conference. I'm also working with the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA Headquarters on a new look at the concept of a "Solar Power Satellite," to convert sunlight in space to electricity, which can then be beamed back to Earth by microwaves to be used for terrestrial energy.

AK: Have you had any training as a writer beyond freshman English in college (excluding Clarion)?

GL: I've taken an erratic selection of courses here and there, including an undergraduate creative writing class I took when I was a graduate student at Brown, but I haven't really had "training" per se in writing.

AK: Do you go to fiction workshops these days to keep your skills honed?

GL: Yes, I'm in a science-fiction workshop in the Cleveland area that meets once a month.

AK: How big of an influence was Clarion in your career? Also what year did you attend?

GL: Clarion did not teach me how to write SF-- after all, I had already sold three stories before I went-- it did change my attitude, making me want try to tell a bit more complex stories with more attention to characterization. [I attended in] 1985.

AK: Do you go to conventions? If so, which ones? If not, why not? (I'm interested in non-science conventions, such as Philcon or Balticon.)

GL: Yes, I go to a few conventions each year. I usually make the Worldcon, and then two or three local conventions in Ohio or Michigan, such as Marcon, which I'll be at in May. I was science guest of honor at Confusion in Michigan this January.

I also do a lot of science conferences, maybe five or six a year, but you said you weren't interested in those--

AK: Is there someone to whom you have sent your stories and poems who consistently rejects them?

GL: Well, I've never sold anything to "Omni," as many times as I've tried.

AK: Have you ever taught writing science fiction? If not, do you have any desire to do so?

GL: In fact, I teach a fiction writing workshop once a year for the Berea School district's community education classes. I just started this year's class the beginning of the month. I've been doing this for about ten years. It's not a class in science fiction per se; it's a general fiction-writing class, but I do get probably a bit more people interested in SF than the average writing class, I expect. It's interesting, I get all sorts of people with a vast range of writing interests.

AK: What do you do in your copious spare time when you are not working long hours at NASA or writing fiction?

GL: Read. Hike. Go to the theatre or to the movies. And, I spend a lot more time than I like to admit just looking around on the internet.

AK: Do you write science fiction as a way to escape the confines of 20th century technology or do you write science fiction because you love to write fiction with a scientific flavor?

GL: Both, I think. I'm quite fond of the 20th century; I'm quite glad I got a chance to live in part of it, but it's important to remember that there are other centuries, and will be more to come, and they will be different. And, I'm also fascinated with science, so I do love to try to put a bit of that fascination into my work.

AK: What is your strangest "fan" story?

GL: Hmmm, I don't think that I have a strange "fan" story. I guess the oddest fan story is a science story: I got a letter one day at work from Sri Lanka, and it was Arthur C. Clarke, commenting about an article I published in the journal "Acta Astronautica" about using lasers to provide power to communications satellites.

AK: What was it about Arthur C. Clarke's letter to you that was strange? Was it the fact that a scientist and writer of his reputation would take notice of your work?

GL: Yes.

AK: What piece of your fiction are you the proudest of having written?

GL: Well, of course everything I've written I'm in some way proud of. The stories that have won awards of course; I'm quite glad I wrote "A Walk in the Sun," which is one of my favorites, and I'm glad it got the attention it did. Some of the stories I like very much haven't received much attention. "Beneath the Stars of Winter," for example, which was in Asimov's Science Fiction in January 1993, is a story that I'm quite proud of, but didn't draw much attention. "Dark Lady" is another one I like very much. It was a hard story to write. It was rejected by the major U.S. magazines, with comments that the ending was a bit ambiguous, which is a true comment; the ending was deliberately ambiguous, real life is. I'm glad that “Tomorrow” will be publishing it.

AK: I interviewed Gardner Dozois, editor of Asimov’s, and a Washington Post SF Critic, Greg Feeley, about your work. Here’s what they had to say:

Gardner Dozois: He [Geoff] is not prolific which is a handicap. He also doesn’t write books which is a big handicap these days. Yet, he’s won the two big awards [Hugo and Nebula] in spite of those two factors, which means he’s really got talent.

He writes about science and the scientific world from a humanistic slant. While there’s a hard science content, there’s also a rich emotionalism.

I think he’s popular because he investigates things from the POV of the people. Also, he’s a good storyteller. You’re interested in the story from the beginning to the end.

Lots of science fiction is bright, clever ideas. In Geoff’s case, the bright clever idea is supported by a rich emotionalism. For example, [Across the Dirac Sea] is basically a hard science generation ship story. But the handling of it, once you get in the ship, is humanistic and emotionally charged.”

Greg Feeley: While Landis is plainly an intelligent writer, relatively little [of his work] has affected me. 'Ripples [in the Dirac Sea]', to me, has been his most interesting story but it's basically built upon an enormous number of rickety coincidences. A 'Walk in the Sun' is basically a feel-good story about endeavor rewarded and it's not very interesting.

Geoff's stories about death are extremely static while his stories about life caper all over the place. Look at 'Ripples' and 'Rorvik's War.' The main character in both dies over and over again in short narrative fragments. 'Walk' lights into other territories.

GL: Well, it's an interesting analysis of the structural similarities of "Ripples" and "Rorvik's War." I'm sorry that little of my work to date has affected Greg Feeley, but fortunately, science fiction is a big enough field that there's room for all sorts of different styles. I'll be interested to hear what he has to say about "Dark Lady."

AK: Who are your favorite writers?

GL: I tend to read a lot of the newer writers; you're always being surprised by them. I'm fond of Martha Soukup, who has a superb sense of character, and of Rod Garcia y Robertson, who has an oddball feel for the past that gives a sense of actual people instead of just historical figures living there.

I like the imagination of Phil Jennings. I like Michael Swanwick, and I'm blown away by the short stories of Bruce Sterling. I could easily name about 20 more if I wanted to think about it. Of course, when I was younger I read everything there was by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Sturgeon, LeGuin, and the rest of the classic writers.

I have a lot of problems with many of the books that are being promoted as "hard SF" these days. I guess you can't really expect writers to be experts in science.

AK: What kind of fiction and non-fiction do you read for pleasure?

GL: I don't have a lot of free time; I do try to keep an eye on the magazines, to see the new short stories by my favorite writers, but lately I've been way behind in that, too. A few years ago I discovered books on tape, and I'm always listening to a book whenever I'm in the car; it's a great way to read if you don't have a lot of free time! Unfortunately, I also discovered that most of the books on tape are abridged, and badly abridged at that. I have an inflexible rule-- I never read anything that's abridged. I want to hear what the author wrote, not somebody's summary of it. This has meant that my tape reading has been a bit eclectic!

AK: What scientific journals do you read regularly?

GL: I skim a lot of journals, but about the only one I read regularly is Physics Today.

AK: At convention parties, I have heard other professional writers remark that they think you are unfairly overlooked as a talented writer because you choose to write only in the short form. Do you think it is true about you being overlooked?

GL: Well, it's certainly quite flattering to think so.

AK: In general, do you think that there is a kind of unspoken prejudice about someone who is a good writer but doesn't want to write novels?

GL: The main prejudice is that, in general, it's impossible to sell a short story collection these days unless you have a novel out. I've got enough short stories for two or three collections, but publishers aren't interested-- unless you have a novel. I've sometimes thought that I have to write a novel, just to use as bait to sell a collection.

AK: Do you think the safety of the space program (quality of manufactured parts thus the safety of the astronauts' lives) will be affected in a positive or negative way by NASA's decision to contract out more and more of the program to private industry?

GL: Day to day flight operations of manned spacecraft isn't an area that I work, so I probably don't know much more about this than the average over-educated SF-reading space enthusiast. That said, I would say that safety is not in general a question of who is managing the program, but a question of whether you have competent, conscientious people working on the project, and do you give them the authority to make decisions and the tools to get the job done right?

AK: Do you see humans living on the moon or Mars in the next century? Or ever, for that matter...

GL: I could see that either way, I'm afraid. I'd certainly like to think that we will be expanding into the solar system in the next century, but it's hard to predict. Exploration always proceeds in fits and starts, as technology comes along or as people perceive new resources to be exploited. Viewed from the point of view of a century or two ahead, I don't think that the progress we've made since the moon landing 25 years ago is so shabby, although it certainly does seem excruciatingly slow while we have to wait for it to happen. But can we keep making progress, slow as it may seem, in the next few decades, which everybody seems to project as a time of diminishing expectations and skimpy budgets? I don't know.

AK: Thanks, Geoff.

To see Geoff's latest publications, visit his webpage.

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