Q&A with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro & Alex Shvartsman

Analog Editors: How did you both approach coauthoring “The People v. Craig Morrison” [in our current issue on sale now]? What was the process like?

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: Alex had the general notion of a story involving self-driving cars and what the eventual legal repercussions of their becoming commonplace might be. Our initial discussion revolved around the kind of story we wanted this idea to be in service of. Once we settled on the general tone and effect we were looking for, we brainstormed the plot, and then we divided up the scenes in an alternating fashion. We wrote them in the order in which they appear in the story (I hesitate to say chronologically, because of the flashbacks). As new scenes were completed each of us would provide light edits to the other, mostly on consistency of voice. When the first draft was completed, we went over it a few more times, looking for redundancies as well as opportunities to tighten the drama and get as close to possible to our original vision.


AE: Do you particularly relate to Craig Morrison or any other character in the story?

AZA: When I’m working on fiction, I’m preoccupied with trying to make the technical choices that will hopefully generate desired responses in the reader—including me—and this focus generally precludes my becoming emotionally attached to my characters. But I do my best to relate to a character’s point of view, for sure, to try and get inside his or her perspective and “truth” so as to make him or her as believable as possible.

In the case of Craig this was a particularly interesting experience, since the character and his backstory emerged collaboratively with Alex. As I was writing him I always suspected there were parts of his psyche that might be mysterious or beyond my reach, because those shades were being colored in by Alex. This kept me excited to read new scenes as they came in, and to try to figure out how best to incorporate the new nuances into what I was about to write next.


AE: Alvaro, you mentioned that Clifford D. Simak and his story “Huddling Place” were influences during the writing process. How has he impacted your life as a writer and reader?

AZA: I first learned of Clifford Simak through Isaac Asimov, who wrote about him in his autobiographies and also in the Great SF Stories series. I picked up what used English-language paperbacks of Simak’s I could find while living in Spain and Germany and fell in love with his work. Some time later Robert Silverberg’s piece on Simak in Reflections and Refractions made me want to specifically seek out City, which I proceeded to pick up but didn’t read. Eventually, in late 2012 Bob wrote a piece on re-reading Simak for Asimov’s, and this was the last prompt I needed: I finally read City in January 2013, and found it to be as rewarding as I’d hoped. Since then I’ve gone back and looked at it again, and I’ve also read more of his short fiction, thinking about it analytically. I reviewed, for example, the first volume of his collected short stories. He is a fantastic writer, a Grand Master, whose themes speak to me.


AE: Why did you decide to center this story on driverless-vehicle technology? Did you come across any interesting facts or information while researching for this story?

Alex Shvartsman: I tend to examine any scientific development of note with an eye toward how it might change our society as a whole. I was fascinated by the ethics of self-driving cars and how they relate to the trolley problem. Should the self-driving car prioritize the safety and security of its passengers? If not, how should it tackle the variations on the trolley problem? I’ve unearthed a trove of opinions on the subject. MIT Technology Review has published several relevant pieces back in 2015 (this one is a good place to start.)

However, scientists, philosophers and science fiction writers have all covered the advent of self-driving cars. (And if you haven’t yet had your fill, there’s an excellent novel on the subject, Three Laws Lethal by David Walton, forthcoming from Pyr in February 2019.) So I thought further and extrapolated that, at some point, human drivers would be banned from public roads because their safety records are bound to be far worse than that of the machines. I was interested in exploring the period of that change, when some human drivers would desperately hang on to the freedom of controlling their own vehicle. I also wanted complex and sympathetic characters representing both sides of the issue, and not just special interests and corporations jostling for power.


AE: Like Craig, do you have nostalgia for an outdated technology or practice?

AZA: In our current world of streaming entertainment, I find that many people consider CDs, and to a lesser extent physical media of any form, obsolete. I don’t so much have nostalgia for these technologies but a form of attachment resulting from the fact that I don’t wish to be at the mercy of a particular streaming platform, from which a given film or album may disappear at the drop of a hat, and that I appreciate the ambiance created by a curated physical collection. The same thing applies to books. (This doesn’t mean I stay away from digital services, but they complement rather than supplant the physical objects). Various co-workers at my office have at times expressed dismay at my iPod, which they consider a relic. A relic it may be, but it makes me happy.


AE: Alex, you said that the Frederik Pohl quote, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam” inspired this tale. Is that something you think about before starting any story?

AS: I don’t, not exactly. In some cases the new technology or new discovery might inspire a story, but ultimately each story is a character’s journey, a way for them to solve a problem or learn something about themselves as they fail to do so. For me, Pohl’s quote is more of a way to look at the world around us and try to predict the changes these new discoveries might herald. The result might inspire a story, or serve as a cool background or even an aside for an existing tale I want to tell.


AE: Would you like to coauthor more stories in the future?

AS: This is actually our second collaboration. The first one was a much shorter story, “Coffee in End Times,” which appeared in Nature. While our Analog story was initially my idea which Alvaro fleshed out and found a way to make work, “Coffee” was the opposite – it was a story Alvaro wrote initially which wasn’t quite working and I found a way to rewrite parts of it in a way that, hopefully, presented his concept in the best possible light. Both stories are different from what either of us might’ve written individually and I would gladly work on something else together in the future.


AE: What is the story behind this piece?

AZA: In 2014 Alex and I collaborated on a flash story titled “Coffee In End Times”. The experience was a positive one and so we talked about working together again on something more substantive. We met in person for the first time at Spokane, the 2015 WorldCon, and carved out some time to talk about potential story ideas. That’s when Alex floated the suggestion of the legal implications of driverless cars, and I was hooked.


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

AS: I was thinking of the landmark court cases like Brown v. Board of Ed, or Miranda v. Arizona. Even those of us who are not lawyers are generally aware of them. So I wanted something similar here to imply that Morrison’s case would have lasting significance as our society moved from human-operated to automated vehicles.
However, I didn’t want it to be too dry, like “State of Vermont v Morrison” and took a bit of artistic liberty with the naming convention. This way, the title can carry an additional meaning as our protagonist does feel like the entire world is against him during his low points in this story.


AE: What is your history with Analog?

AZA: Like Asimov’s, I discovered Analog as a teen and have been reading it ever since, on a subscription basis. I think I was around fifteen or so when I realized Analog had previously been the legendary Astounding, key issues of which I’ve now read as well. After having a number of stories appear in Analog, it was a real pleasure to get to interview Stanley Schmidt (December 2015) about his formidable tenure at the magazine and his own writing. Incidentally, I recently came into possession of several hundred back issues of Analog that really helped flesh out my collection!


AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

AS: I grew up on the steady diet of Silverberg, Sheckley, Fredric Brown, and other translated short stories, reading them in Russian, back in the former Soviet Union. In many ways my own writing is a bit of a throwback to those days, as I try to live up to the broad imaginations and clever plots of those authors.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

AZA: I have a new science fiction novelette and a new science fiction flash story on submission. I’m partway through a weird story which may or may not be horror. There’s a potential story collaboration on the horizon. The most time-consuming project lately has been my debut novel. My story “Shades of Void” will be appearing in the original anthology Shades Within Us: Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders, edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law, and another new story will appear in an anthology which hasn’t yet been formally announced, edited by Eric Miller. Meanwhile I’m continuing to review books for IGMS and films for Words and to write the occasional piece for Tor.com.

AS: I just finished my second novel, The Middling Affliction, which is a humorous urban fantasy story I like to pitch as Harry Dresden meets American Gods, in Brooklyn. It will be off to my agent once I complete another proofing pass. Meanwhile, I’m in the process of getting my latest anthology, Unidentified Funny Objects 7, funded on Kickstarter. If you like humorous science fiction and fantasy short stories, check out this annual series!

As for short stories, I also have a story forthcoming in Shades Within Us, and some other tales forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and here at Analog again soon.


AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

AZA: It’s too hard to limit this to a single prediction, but I’ll narrow my answer by saying that I’m most excited about SFnal visions regarding the medical sciences, basically anything that will increase our quality of life and our longevity. And to be even more specific, for selfish reasons, there are some eye-related problems that I hope will be amenable to treatment in the future.


AE: What are you reading right now?

AZA: Over the last couple of weeks I finished Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Paul Jessup’s Close Your Eyes and David Langford’s Up Through an Empty House of Stars. Currently working my way through Gardner Dozois’ solo short fiction in chronological order, with Michael Swanwick’s excellent Being Gardner Dozois as my guide, Luciano De Crescenzo’s The History of Greek Philosophy: Volume 1–The Pre-Socratics, and Ray Bradbury’s Quicker than the Eye.

AS: I consume most of my novel-length fiction as audio books these days. I’m currently reading Tom Doyle’s War and Craft and listening to Octavia Butler’s Dawn: Xenogenesis. Up next are William Ledbetter’s Level Five and Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn: Alliances.


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

AS: Getting your fiction published involves a lot of waiting, often followed by many rejections. One must develop a thin skin and keep working on improving their craft. I’ve seen too many talented authors give up because success didn’t come quickly enough. Keep at it. Equal parts persistence and talent are needed to succeed in our field.


AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?

AZA: I have a BS in Theoretical Physics from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM), which I earned back in 2003. I’ve always been fascinated by science and I read popular science books frequently. Sometimes these, or friends’ recommendations, lead me to read actual research papers. Specific scientific ideas often inform my science fiction. I’ll give you three examples. When I wrote my half of When the Blue Shift Comes, a collaborative project with Robert Silverberg, I made my plot hinge on the use of the holographic principle, which I haven’t seen used much in science fiction. My first pro short story sale, “All Quiet on the Golden Front” (Galaxy’s Edge, November 2013), was conceived after reading this article. Lastly, my first sale to Analog, “Hot and Cold” (July-August 2014), which deals with the extraction of work from a system of two black holes, was directly inspired by this research paper.

AS: I can BS about theoretical physics, but in fact have barely passed high school physics and chemistry. It goes to show you that a competent writer can lie skillfully enough to convince readers and editors that they know more about science (or anything else) than they really do!


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

AS: www.alexshvartsman.com; @AShvartsman

AZA: https://www.facebook.com/alvaro.zinosamaro; @AZinosAmaro; https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6563092.Alvaro_Zinos_Amaro; https://www.amazon.com/Alvaro-Zinos-Amaro/e/B009FQH1MU/; http://myaineko.blogspot.com/p/home-page.html

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