Q&A with Charles Q. Choi

Although a well-established science journalist, Charles Q. Choi is fairly new to the fiction scene. In fact, “By the Will of the Gods,” in our Jan/Feb issue [on sale now], is the first story he’s ever sold! With a start like this, we can’t wait to see what else is up his sleeve. Below, he chats with us in-depth about how this debut tale came to be.

Analog Editor: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?

CQC: Yes! In the setting of “By the Will of the Gods,” countless worlds are home to branches of the human family tree, and each branch differs from the others in a unique way. At times these differences are minor—everyone might be born left-handed. At times these differences are major—everyone might be immortal.

A key inspiration for this setting was a desire to tell the kinds of stories one can find in Star Trek without their weaknesses. Production costs led Star Trek into the nonsensical situation of countless alien races that are basically humans with funny ears, noses or foreheads, close enough to interbreed. At the same time, the fact that they do resemble humans is part of the strength of these stories, because these exotic cultures can clearly reflect on the human condition. In my setting, you can get stories like Star Trek, except they are all (basically) human.

Another set of inspirations were multiverse settings composed of an infinite number of alternate histories, which can similarly offer fascinating worlds. The problem with multiverses is that they are overwhelming, and if anything can happen, then one can run the risk that everything can seem boring. In my setting, I can avoid getting swamped by infinite possibilities.

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

CQC: I wanted a world in this setting where superstition still played a major role in a futuristic society. My research into the origins of superstitions noted that they may come from a desire to control the environment, a need that might prove especially strong in the face of random events. One of the worlds in my setting, as its unique trait, experienced significantly more cosmic impacts than other worlds, and so I decided to make its dominant culture very superstitious.

Inspired in part by one character’s obsession with The I Ching in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, I made the superstitions of this culture focused on fortune-telling. Seeing how this world experienced a constant inexplicable barrage of disastrous impacts, I imagined it would make sense that institutions would emerge to help impose a sense of meaning and structure onto the world.

I imagined anyone killed by a cosmic impact might be seen as cursed by the gods, a stigma that might linger on their families. I thought that would make an interesting backstory for a character, and so I created Hap, the main character of “By the Will of the Gods.”

AE: What is the story behind this piece?

CQC: Although I had a setting and a main character, I didn’t have a story. The inspiration for “By the Will of the Gods” came largely from how I not only love science fiction, but mystery stories as well.

Although I love classics in the mystery genre such as Chandler novels, Bogart films, Holmes, and Columbo, when I was ruminating over “By the Will of the Gods,” I was strongly influenced by mysteries from writers of Asian descent, such as the Feng Shui Detective series from Nury Vittachi, the Night Market series from Ed Lin, and the book Singapore Noir, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan.

I imagined a murder mystery with a noir feel, and a hapless character doing the best that he could against challenging odds. Ultimately the murder that drove the story came to me, and the plot fell into place very quickly after that.

I got into journalism believing it would help me hone the skills I needed to write fiction, but really, many of the skills are very different. I finally decided the best way to write fiction wasn’t to practice journalism, but to simply write fiction . . .

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

CQC: The main character of “By the Will of the Gods,” Hap, obviously has key bits of me poured into him. The story’s training montage is lovingly drawn from many moments in suffering I’ve experienced in martial arts. The night market in the story is modeled closely on the love I have for Marrakesh’s Djemaa el Fna. The lonely moments Hap experiences are definitely reflective of high school experiences. And I wear flip-flops all the time like Hap, although for very different reasons, ha.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

CQC: I’m working on a short story on a different world in this setting, where the heroine struggles against a utopia instituted by AIs. I’m also working on a novel based in this setting that’s essentially an interstellar treasure hunt. A fantasy short story of mine completely independent of this setting is currently undergoing the cycle of submissions and rejections.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

CQC: I’ve been a science journalist for nearly 20 years, and it’s a career I love. But I’ve wanted to write fiction ever since I was a child. I got into journalism believing it would help me hone the skills I needed to write fiction, but really, many of the skills are very different. I finally decided the best way to write fiction wasn’t to practice journalism, but to simply write fiction, and I finally came up with a setting inspirational enough for me to write stories in.

AE: How did you break into writing?

CQC: My very first sale in fiction is in this very issue of Analog!

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

CQC: Maybe the universe of Iain Banks’ Culture series, with its benevolent god-like AIs, utopian societies and adventures steeped in shades of grey. It’d be nice to have the option to choose interesting times, as opposed to having them thrust upon you.

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

CQC: Try not to get crushed by rejection. I almost did, but luckily I had an acceptance to help lift my spirits to continue onward. Mope, grieve even, and then try and move on.

AE: What are you reading right now?

CQC: I recently finished Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer and Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education, both of which I enjoyed. Currently reading Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Word Puppets, Jo Walton’s Or What You Will, and Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight.

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

CQC: https://cqchoi.com

Charles Quixote Choi is a science journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, Scientific American, and Popular Science, among others. He has also traveled to every continent and holds the rank of yondan in the Toyama-ryu battodo style of Japanese swordsmanship.

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