Trope-ing Down the Alleyways with Edward M. Lerner

 Analog regular Edward M. Lerner, whose novella “Harry and the Lewises” will be out in our September/October issue, sits down with the editors to chat about his latest project—a collection of essays (some familiar to our readers) recently published as a book: Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction.

Analog editors: To judge from repeated appearances in the Analog Readers Poll, your “science behind the fiction” articles about SF tropes have been well received. Maybe the place to start is with a definition: what is a science-fictional trope?

Edward M. Lerner: In grammatical usage, a trope is words used other than literally—a figure of speech, like metaphor or irony. In literary usage, a trope is a widely used plot convention, like coming of age, or the hero’s quest, that the author expects the reader accepting without much—or any—explanation. And in science-fictional usage? An SF trope uses science other than literally, often as a plot enabler. Many an SF story presumes time travel and faster-than-light travel (to take two common examples) for storytelling convenience. Never mind that both travel modes are beyond our technology. . . .


AE: Your articles go well beyond pointing out tropes. What was your goal for these articles?

EML: Writers guidelines for Analog have long stated, “We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” That begged the question of when and how a trope-based story qualified! I set out to explore the science and technology that would justify many of the common tropes of the genre.

I mean, who wouldn’t like an excuse to study up on time travel, or transhumanism, or interstellar warfare?

AE: And these articles do contain overviews of relevant science and tech, from quantum mechanics and relativity to the latest in bioengineering. But that review wasn’t your entire purpose, was it?

EML: Quite right. I also wanted to look at how the genre has used, or even anticipated, science and tech. I drew examples from stories and novels, TV series and movies, even the occasional video game. Quite a few of the literary examples I chose were originally published in Analog, sometimes back to its Astounding era.


AE: How did you come to come to start the series?

EML: When I began “Say, What? Ruminations about Language, Communications, and Science Fiction,” which later found a place in the March 2011 issue, I had no idea it would be anything but a one-of. This was simply a topic that deeply interested me. But I had so much fun researching and writing that article that I took on another subject of interest. Then that second article—“Faster Than a Speeding Photon: The Why, Where, and (Perhaps the) How of Faster-Than-Light Technology,” (January/February 2012 issue)—turned out to be the Anlab-winning fact article for its year. And so—after some discussion with Trevor—a series was born.


AE: You make it sound serious. But it isn’t entirely.

EML: Well, the science and tech is covered seriously. Stories and videos I chose as examples run the gamut from the prophetic to the amusing to (occasionally) the cringe-worthy. And then there are the asides . . . I take my science seriously. Myself? Not so much.


AE: Any one of these articles was an ambitious undertaking. I know you have a tech background, physics and computer engineering, but weren’t some of these topics still daunting?

EML: Sure. That’s why I tapped various science and tech experts—in my own specialties, too—as sanity checkers, and to keep me straight with some of the more esoteric aspects. Analog authors, mostly, as it happens. What are the chances?


AE: Pretty good, I think. If we haven’t lost count, there have been a dozen articles in the series. Is that right? And do you anticipate any more to come?

EML: A dozen topics sounds right, and three topics expanded into two-part articles. As for more, well, I thought the two parter on AI (“A Mind of Its Own,” in the September and October 2016 issues) would be the last. Since then, a few ideas for new articles have been clamoring for my attention, and I’ve gotten suggestions via email and blog comments. So stay tuned.


AE: A dozen articles? That seems like a book’s worth. Did you ever think about—

EML: Funny you should ask. Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction integrates, expands, and updates those dozen articles. Trope-ing was released on April 30. I think anyone who seriously reads, writes, watches, or studies SF will enjoy it.


AE: At least until this article series started, you wrote mostly fiction. Why the change?

 EML: And fiction remains most of what I write. But every prospective article in the series was an excuse for me to dig into a fascinating topic. I mean, who wouldn’t like an excuse to study up on time travel, or transhumanism, or interstellar warfare? And that research, in turn, brings up new story ideas. . . .


AE: Fair enough. So what’s new with you on the fiction side?

EML: Upcoming here in Analog’s September/October issue, a novella of which I’m particular fond. “Harry and the Lewises” is, in part, a secret history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. And I just completed the draft of a new novel, a near-future epic adventure.


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

EML: Through many of the usual social-networking venues. My website is “Edward M. Lerner: Perpetrator of science fiction and techno-thrillers,” my blog is “SF and Nonsense,” and my authorial Facebook page is (shockingly)

Edward M. LernerAuthor EDWARD M. LERNER worked in high tech and aerospace for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as his hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time.

His novels range from near-future technothrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like Dark Secret and his InterstellarNet series, to (collaborating with Larry Niven) the space-opera epic Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Lerner’s 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award “honoring excellence in interstellar writing.” His fiction has also been nominated for Locus, Prometheus, and Hugo awards.

Lerner’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, collections, and many of the usual SF magazines—most often, in Analog. He also writes about science and technology, notably—including a long-running series of essays for Analog about science and SF tropes—updated and expanded into Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction.

His website is

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