Thursday, September 23, 2010

Acts of Minor Interviews: Rob Engen

I'm always on the lookout for new additons to this weblog's repertoire, new subjects and concepts to interest you, the reader, so that you keep coming back. To that end, I'm kicking off Acts of Minor Interviews - hopefully a series in which I interview hopefully interesting people - with a back-and-forth with Rob Engen, man of letters. One of those weird hybrid military historians/science fiction writers, he's recently followed up on the publication of his monograph entitled "The Dynamics of an Asteroid" with a shadowy reign as the Napoleon of crime.

Wait, no, that's Professor Moriarty. Rob Engen is following up on the publication of his monograph entitled Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War with a shadowy reign as the Napoleon of having a science fiction story published; in this case "Thanks for the Game," which appears in the Summer 2010 issue of On Spec magazine. It was described to me before its appearance as "aliens playing hockey in Manitoba," and really - that really gets down to the core of it.

I sat down to talk with Rob about his story, his views on science fiction, and some other stuff recently. By which I mean I emailed him some questions and went back to playing Colonization. After all, those Dutch colonies aren't going to conquer themselves. Thanks for being cooperative, Rob!

Rob Engen - historian, science fiction author, and Man of Beard.

Q: I'd like to start with the question that's on everyone's mind: why the hell do people still go to McDonald's? Their food sucks and it's expensive.

A: A man greater than myself was once posed that question. His answer was so comprehensive that I feel that any response I could make would be but a pale shadow and thus not worth attempting.

His answer, for reference’s sake, involved nanotechnology, exorcism, and armoured machine-gun nests, though not necessarily in that order.

Q: What brought you to science fiction as opposed to, say, historical genres?

A: The boring answer is that history is my day job, and when I want to set my mind to something that doesn’t involve sneezing through archives or cycling through microfilm until my eyes turn against each other, I read and write science fiction. It’s part escapist, but it’s also part contemplating the future as a form of relaxation from spending ridiculous amounts of time studying the past.

The less boring answer is that I like to break stuff. Writing historical fiction feels like writing in a straitjacket to me; you’re constrained by the facts of history insofar as they’re known, and will be flayed by an audience that demands some historical verity from their fiction if you deviate too far. I don’t enjoy having my narrative handcuffed by “real” events before I’ve even had a chance to have a look around in a world I’m writing about. I prefer to explore, to chart cause-and-effect and possibility, to make unexpected things happen ... to break stuff. I’ve had a deep and abiding passion for works of alternate-history ever since I was twelve years old, picked up a book by Harry Turtledove about Nazis fighting space aliens, and thought “This is awesome, he just broke the entire world.”

Q: What's your standard method of writing - do you need a particular environment, music, or the company of a high-class escort with a name starting with "X"?

A: “C”, actually, though the rates have improved since we got married and wow am I ever going to get in trouble for this.

My methods of writing are what they warn you not to do in many of the “On Writing” books. When I’m inspired I could happily write for ten, twelve, fourteen hours in a sitting, eschewing trivialities such as food and personal hygiene. When I can sit down and do that, I’m tremendously productive. But I have a devil of a time just working “a little” on something every day for a long stretch, as my mind can be counted on to wander in a new direction every month or so and there’s no telling when it will come back to task. So when the inspiration is there and the time is available, I sit down and attempt to blitz the writing process. “Thanks for the Game” was almost-but-not-quite written in one sitting.

I do try to write every day just to keep up the practice, although this often ends up being writing of an academic nature.

Q: So what all do you get up to when you're not hammering out fiction?

A: Hey, I suppose I can utter the sacred words “I AM A HISTORIAN” now and not actually be struck down by the ivory tower for lying, can’t I? I published my first book on military history last year and am currently at work on my second, which will double as my dissertation but which I find more mentally fulfilling to think of as “the second book” while I’m writing it. Anyone who has written a dissertation before will nod sagely and tell you that, yes, this is my entire life at the moment. But I also discovered the science fiction writing of Iain M. Banks on a recent trip to Britain, and I’ve been sneakily taking in the brain-wrenchingly intriguing world of the Culture whenever possible. Don’t tell my thesis committee.

Q: Was there anything in particular that inspired this story, or did it just happen?

A: There was a short story I read years ago that was a sort of Canadian Faustian experience involving playing a game of shinny with the Devil. I liked the idea of the supernatural drama playing out in something so familiar to so many Canadians. Hockey as a first contact experience kind of spun itself from there.

Q: Why Manitoba? I mean, there didn't seem to have been any tubas in the story at all.

A: Remember that Robert J. Sawyer wrote about first contact occurring in downtown Toronto. If the aliens will land in Toronto to be overcharged at the ROM, clearly they’ll land anywhere.

In truth, my view of Brandon, Manitoba is forever tied up with my memory of an extremely bubbly girl I knew from Brandon who always made it sound extremely positive despite her having skipped town and moved to Calgary as soon as she was legally able to. I was trying to capture some of that sentiment for the story, so Brandon seemed a good place to anchor it.

Q: Any views you'd like to share on the genre and how it stands today?

A: Given that this blog is one of the places I go to in order to hear the latest thoughts on the genre, I feel like I should be asking you that question rather than answering it myself.

Q: What plans for future writing do you have? Working on anything new?

A: Always, though my ambitions usually exceed my grasp. I’ve returned to a neat idea I had a while ago that started with systematized global-scale genocide and sort of worked backwards from there. I also have a mind to explore some ideas relating to women soldiers and gender roles in combat, which sort of overlaps with my academic work on combat motivation.

Q: Who would win in a fight between your beard and Ed Greenwood's beard?

A: Probably Ed’s, but right now, having recently played through the really, really bad story of the computer game StarCraft 2, it’s Chris Metzen’s beard that I truly wish to claim as a trophy and mount over my fireplace.

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