Bryan Thomas Schmidt: How Golden Age SF Influenced Me (A Dialogue)

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is in the midst of a month-long blog tour promoting his debut novel, The Worker Prince. Bryan and I had a fascinating discussion about his book, writing, and the Golden Age of science fiction. You can read our discussion below.


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Bryan Thomas Schmidt: Well, Jamie, thanks for inviting me to your blog. I am a big fan of Golden Age Science Fiction, as are you, and I enjoy your updates as you take your nostalgic trip back through the pulp zines of old. In particular, I am a huge Leigh Brackett fan, but, of course, I’ve also been influenced by Robert Silverberg, who started out in the pulps, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Henry Kuttner, Edward Hamilton…so many. So much so, in fact, that when I wrote my space opera novel, I wanted to capture some of the magic feel I found in the pulp stories. Good v. evil, with clear cut bad guys, larger than life heroes, sidekicks, interesting aliens, space guns, space fighters, and also that good clean family fun. So many of those stories were meant to be read by fans of any age, and I wanted the same for The Worker Prince. If people can get lost in my world and escape into some fun for a bit, I’d feel very successful with it.

Jamie Todd Rubin: Let’s see, I’ve encountered Brackett, Asimov and Kuttner so far in my Vacation, but of course, I’ve read Silverberg, Blish and Bradbury elsewhere. One of the things that I find interesting is that these writers were, for the most part, at the beginnings of their careers. I’ve read 2 Brackett stories so far, and they haven’t been great, but over time you can actually see the improvement. You talk about stories that are meant to be read by fans of any age, and “good clean family fun.” I’ve often thought that at its heart, science fiction needs to entertain first and foremost, because how else can you expect to do anything else if you aren’t entertaining your reader? I’ve been criticized for this, but I still think it’s true and it sounds like that is what you are going for in The Worker Prince; something that anyone can pick up, start reading, and enjoy. That is not as common today as it was 70 years ago. There are some writers still doing this, but a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers are writing darker pieces, perhaps reflecting the time. I’ve listened to you interviewed and I know that The Worker Prince is more than just entertainment value. I wonder if you see part of it as a reaction to some of the darker fiction being published today?

BTSIt is interesting to see the development of writers like Brackett, Silverberg and others which you most certainly can over the course of their writing. I would say that I am reacting to the darkness of modern fiction, yes. I don’t personally enjoy over the top sex, foul language and violence. For me, it really has to serve the story and so often I think it’s there for shock value or a writer wanting to prove they reject “moral police” or something. It’s not even surprising anymore, that’s how over used it is. But more than that, in a time when we have faced so much darkness in the real world, where’s the inspiration stories of hope? Anti-heroes have, in a sense, become the new heroes. But the old fashioned heroes of old have disappeared. I remember when Captain America was ended because he had no flaws. He was too good for them to continue it. What is that? When did that become an issue? With moral problems in our politicians, celebrities and others being more and more front page news, perhaps our expectations have been forced to lower. But I still believe admirable heroes exist and that kids and adults both need them. Because they are so inspiring. Thirdly, I fell in love with science fiction as a kid and so much of that market today is questionably appropriate for kids below teenage and maybe even young adult. At least, parents should be aware of the content and involved in decision making. Call me old fashioned, I still believe parents screening exposure to some things for their kids is their responsibility and also healthy. I did some studies in college on the effects of content and they do influence people. I doubt that’s changed much twenty years later. So I wanted to write stuff like the pulps that kids and adults could both enjoy, something they could discuss as a family. Nothing preachy, per se, as I’ve mentioned on the podcasts, but something that inspires hope and a belief in heroism like so many Golden Age stories did. You have kids. How much do you monitor the content their exposed to and when would you stop wanting to?

JTR: It seems to me that this “shock value” was mostly (but not entirely) absent from Golden Age fiction in part because writers didn’t have television to compete with. I don’t watch much TV any longer (no time) but it seems to me that with rare exceptions, shows are aiming for shock value over storytelling. That said, there was a reaction to John Campbell’s notions of good fiction–what today we call “new wave” science fiction. But even the new wave stories didn’t seem gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. If anything, they were attempting to follow literary trends outside of science fiction to better legitimize the genre. Your question about suitability for kids is one that I am particularly interested in. I do have kids, but both of them are at this point too young to understand most of what appears in science fiction. I have, however, thought about how I would monitor what my kids were exposed to. I was fortunate. In my own case, my parents got me a library card and let me read whatever I wanted, telling me that if I had questions, I could come and ask them and we could discuss them. I think I’d want to do the same with my own kids. I don’t want to hem them in, but I want them to understand what it is they are reading, and be there for them to address any questions they might have about what they’ve chosen to read. Of course, as a science fiction writer and a big fan, I could certain urge them in the direction of works that I admire. But even this, I’d hesitate to do for the same reason that I try not to overtly make my boy into a New York Yankees fan: I don’t want him to rebel from it just because it is something I like. ;-)

It does raise a question in connection with your novel, however. As you’ve said, much Golden Age fiction was read by kids and adults alike. Do you find it difficult to write for such a wide audience? Or perhaps is the story clear enough for anyone? I recall Isaac Asimov writing that he never “talked down” when writing to children. The only change he ever made in his writing style was to take care with his vocabulary when writing for particularly young audiences. How is it that you write something that is accessible to both adults and youngsters?

BTS: My approach was similar to what Asimov described. I didn’t write down but I did watch my vocabulary. And I tried to be clear. I also tried to have a variety of strong characters, besides the leads, to connect with. And I found ways to incorporate elements in my world building which tie well to modern issues so people could recognize commonalities and connect, even kids. I avoided four letter words, sex and graphic violence and focused on descriptions which might stimulate the reader to fill in the gap. If you say “Xalivar cursed,” for example, every reader will fill in their own favorite curse word for you. I don’t have to explicitly state it. And the sophistication of the words will vary by age and other factors, of course. But I think that’s a great way to help readers become a part of the story, to draw them in. And I loved books that did that when I was younger. I can understand where you’re coming from about your kids, and certainly as one with no kids, I have limited experience. But I’ve read a lot of studies on how various content affects people and I certainly don’t want to be the one to negatively impact anyone so I tend to feel great responsibility for anything I put out there. And I also would likely want to oversee what my kids read at least to a certain age. I’d also follow your example and try not to push anything but also leave the dialogue open. That’s important. And my effort to write for a broader audience came from a desire to stimulate dialogue. I remember discussing The Hobbit with my dad and other stories as a family and how fun it was, how much I learned. I wanted to create an experience similar to that for readers through my book.

And I agree one hundred percent about the impact of television and movies. I think shock value is a selling point these days. And I think people are so used to more dark or gratuitous content and thus it’s become commonly accepted, even considered normal for good storytelling. But I do find that it often distracts because it can be done poorly in many cases. Not all, by any means. But I find that I work harder when trying to create tension and character and drama without using those shock tactics. I have to be more creative and that makes me a better writer.

JTR: There were some big works that emerged from the Golden Age. There were two Lensman novels by E. E. “Doc” Smith, for instance, published by the end of 1941. Between 1942 and 1950, Isaac Asimov published all of the stories that make up his original Foundation trilogy. Robert Heinlein published most of his Future History. For whatever reason, this established a pattern that lingers even today: science fiction lends itself to continuing story-lines and sequels. Indeed, in today’s market, it seems difficult to sell a standalone novel to a publisher, although often times, I find stand-alone novels enjoyable because there is less of a commitment–or perhaps because there is a deeper commitment to a single work. From the Golden Age, I think of L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout as a fine example of a stand-alone. Today, a book like Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback comes to mind. What are your plans with regard to The Worker Prince? Do you see this as a stand-alone novel, or is this a world that you want to revisit? Either way, where do you go next?

BTS: Well, I wrote The Worker Prince to feel like a standalone, although certainly strands remain which can obviously be explored further. The antagonist is still alive. And as I finished it I realized that there was more I could do, so it became a trilogy and I began to mentally map that out. I am almost finished with Book 2. Another polish pass and work on the ending. It’s called The Returning. Then Book 3, The Exodus will wrap things up. But if there’s demand, I’d love to do a prequel YA series of the adventures of Davi Rhii and his friends in their younger years. And then, after that, as is the trend, I’ll go back and change stuff I don’t like in the original trilogy to make them better, of course. (Just kidding).

I’m with you on standalones. Especially with the Chihuahua killing size of so many books these days. It’s just a real investment to ask a reader to make. Being not only a new writer but one who’s had that experience, I worked hard to keep my novel a smaller size and the sequels will follow that pattern. I also have an epic fantasy series which should be shorter than average and an urban fantasy series as well. I have a standalone steampunk book and a future steampunk book in the works as well. So much to write, so little time.


Bryan continues his blog tour tomorrow over at Charles Tan’s Bibliophile Stalker. Be sure to follow him over there.

Bryanbesteditedsml.jpgBryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the exciting new space opera trilogy: The Saga Of Davi Rhii.  Book 1, “The Worker Prince”, released on October 4, 2011.  In addition to his new book, Bryan has published numerous short stories and 1 serial (The North Star Serial).   In his “spare” time, he hosts the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9PM on Twitter and also writes the SFFWRTCHT interview column for GraspingForTheWind.com, chatting with people like Lou Anders, Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, A.C. Crispin and Kevin J. Anderson. He lives in Ottawa, KS with two excitable dogs and is working on several more novels and editing anthologies.

10 thoughts on “Bryan Thomas Schmidt: How Golden Age SF Influenced Me (A Dialogue)

  1. I should not have been surprised that the subject here would be Golden Age SF. :)

    “I’m with you on standalones. Especially with the Chihuahua killing size of so many books these days.”

    Well, that’s a way to describe doorstoppers I’ve never heard before, Bryan… :)

  2. Paul, I learned the term on an epic fantasy panel at World Fantasy. It was suggested that’s an industry term because for any book so thick that by dropping it on the average Chihuahua you would cause it’s death. I loved that term.

  3. My experience was similar in many ways to Jamie’s: my parents handed me a few dollars and let me pick whatever I wanted off the racks of the Bookmobile. If I had any questions – ask. Otherwise ‘as long as he is reading….’.
    Teachers from 4th grade on pretty much followed my parent’s lead, since I’d already moved beyond the programmed reading course.
    Just two things: first, if I’d have had kids of my own, I’d have made darned sure they were SF fans. They might hate me, but they’d thank me later on in life. (“What the hell is this? Huck Finn!?! How dare you read such trash in my house! I bet you haven’t finished I, Robot yet either! Go to your room!”) and
    I’m sure the studies exist that demonstrate the effect these materials have on kids, but do they show a comparison between the effects on kids with involved parents vs uninvolved? I think ultimately it comes down to that, more than the content itself.
    Finally; Jamie, you mentioned RAH’s Future History, Asimov’s Foundation and Smith’s Lensman as series. I don’t think that those are truly valid examples; RAH’s novels connection in series was entirely exterior to each individual work, consisting of a framework, rather than detail within each story; Asimov’s Foundation was finished with 2nd Foundation and they were all, of course, shorts cobbled together (the rest came later as part of the trend you are discussing) and Lensman is the tail end of the “old way” (just an extended serialized story in the pages of a pulp mag). I think the soap opera nature of much of contemporary work is another symptom of whatever disease is revealed by the insistence on showing everything you guys also referenced. I don’t think it is film and TV’s fault. I think it’s Kornbluthitis, popularly known as Marching Moron Flu. Everything has gotten dumbed down to accommodate a wider, less intelligent and discriminating audience. Why make the morons learn new characters and settings, they might lose interest? Sure, put the same cover on the next volume, what’s the difference anyway?

    1. Steve, I can’t speak to the Lensman stories specifically because I don’t know much about their creation. But as for Foundation and the Future History series, I call them such because Asimov and Campbell at least felt that they were both designed to be “series” from their inception. Asimov writes about this in some detail in the first volume of his autobiography. When he pitched “Foundation” to Campbell, he did so as a short story, or hoping perhaps for a novelette. Campbell “caught fire’ with the idea and said at once that this was too big for one story. He suggested “an open-ended series” (Campbell’s world) and sent Asimov home to write an outline similar in vain to what Heinlein had done for his Future History. Asimov never worked from outlines and eventually tossed the one he created for Foundation and just wrote the stories. But it was conceived as a series from the start. The different between Future History and Foundation is that the latter was done without much planning–and that comes through in some of the discrepancies that show up in the stories.

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