A strong voice of science fiction since the seventies, Vonda N McIntyre’s novelette Of Mist, and Grass and Sand won her a Nebula, and her expansion of that story into her second novel Dreamsnake won both the Nebula and the Hugo. She has also written the standalone novels Superluminal and The Moon and the Sun, which also won a Nebula in 1997, and the four novels of the Starfarers series, but to many she will be best known for her Star Trek novels, The Entropy Effect which launched the Pocket series and Enterprise: The First Adventure which launched Pocket’s line of “giant” novels in 1986, as well as the novelisations of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. Active and vocal in promoting new and established writing via the Book View Café, she kindly took time out to have a chat with Geek Chocolate about her career, some of her milestones, and some of the luminaries she has encountered.
Geek Chocolate —The Entropy Effect was the first original Star Trek novel published by Pocket Books, and launched what is likely one of the most successful novel series ever, certainly the most successful science fiction book series, and also broke the mould of the previous Bantam books of the seventies, moving into harder science, with a complicated storyline written in a more sophisticated style. How did you come to write it, and how was it received?
Vonda N McIntyre — The editor knew that I had been fond of the series during its original run, and that I’d treat the characters with integrity. I enjoyed writing The Entropy Effect, though the deadline was brutal. The editor asked me to give the manuscript to him at a convention in Seattle just before it was due (unusual), and I did. He read fifty pages of it at the convention (which surprised me, as this is also unusual), and he said, “This is completely different from any other Star Trek book. Paramount will either love it — or they’ll hate it.” Fortunately they loved it. Mostly.
I did find out some years later that the book nearly got deep-sixed because someone at Paramount took offense at my giving Mr. Sulu a first name. There was no objection to his having a lover, and I still wonder how I might have been expected to write the scenes between them using only their last names.
Eventually my editor had the bright idea of asking Gene Roddenberry and George Takei what they thought of Mr. Sulu’s first name (Hikaru, from the first novel ever written, The Tale of Genji), and they both approved it, so Mr. Sulu got to keep it, the book got to keep it, and later the movies kept it as well.
GC —The Crystal Star feels like it was aimed at younger readers, more so than some of the other Star Wars novels. Was that a specific request from the publishers or a result of a plot that focused on the Jedi children?
VNM — One thing I was asked to do was add some diversity to the Star Wars universe. I didn’t aim the book at any particular age group; I wrote it in the voice of whoever was the point-of-view character in the scene. Women, children, non-humans.
GC — You had written a young adult novel before, Barbary, though that was a very different feel to it. How was the process different, and is that market something you would want to approach again?
VNM —Barbary is technically a children’s book. (The editors of juvenile departments aim books at readers who are 2-4 years younger than the protagonists of the novels, I’m told.) I enjoyed writing it, and finding out from Dr. John G. Cramer, the “Alternate View” columnist for Analog, head of the Nuclear Physics department (now Professor Emeritus) at the University of Washington, and an sf writer in his own right, about what it would really be like to live in an environment with spin-generated artificial gravity. Much different than movie and TV cliches, it turns out.
By the way, John has given me permission to reprint the “Alternate View” column he wrote about advising me. It’s in in the revised ebook edition of Barbary at Book View Café.
GC — You wrote for both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Which was more challenging, and which was more rewarding?
VNM — I’m sure there are complicated behind-the-scenes politics, but I wasn’t in a position to know about them, generally speaking. On the other hand, I do have a copy of the original cover for The Wrath of Khan, which was first called The Vengeance of Khan, at a time when The Return of the Jedi was rumored to be titled The Revenge of the Jedi. However, I’m sure this is all a big coincidence because George Lucas later said Return of the Jedi was never called Revenge of the Jedi because Jedi don’t take revenge.
From my point of view, the only practical difference was that the published Wrath of Khan cover was less fancy than the original Vengeance of Khan cover, because the publisher didn’t have time to redesign it with the embossing and metallic print.
To answer your original question, writing the books in the two different universes was different. I was a pup (a freshman in college) when Star Trek debuted, and I started writing a screenplay for it — I had never written a screenplay before — during the first commercial break of the first episode. Along about the time I finally managed to get a screenplay to Gene Roddenberry’s desk, he left the show. Writing The Entropy Effect was like collaborating with my 18-year-old self.
I was a grown-up when I wrote The Crystal Star. I was pleased to be invited to do it, and the book was extremely successful — it was the only SF title on the compiled bestseller list for the whole year, and it came out in November, which didn’t give it a lot of time to pile up sales. Somewhere I have a box containing a couple of thousand letters from people who enjoyed it.
GC — As well as novelising three Star Trek films, you also adapted the Frankenstein update The Bride, but the only work of yours that seemed likely to cross back to the silver screen was The Moon and the Sun. The book was very well received, winning the 1997 Nebula, and when last you mentioned it, you were still cautiously optimistic. Have you any update on that, or does it languish in development Hell?
VNM — I’m very optimistic. In Hollywood, things often take a lot of time.
GC — Your background in biology shows strongly in your work, the biotechnology of Dreamsnake, the “Aztec” pilots of Superluminal and the diver culture of both that and the Starfarers sequence. In the real world, body modification so far has been mainly cosmetic or corrective, nose jobs and replacement hips. How far are we from an enhanced human, and are the barriers medical or ethical?
VNM — I think we’re still pretty far from anything like the divers, or the characters in Fireflood. Superluminal, not so much — I saw a report recently about an artificial heart with no pulse. Apparently it works quite well, and has fewer parts to break down because it runs at a steady rate.
I tend to think that the ethical barriers worry people because we think of potential changes as being done to individuals, rather than being chosen by individuals.
GC — The hot potato passed between the scientists and the politicians for the last few years has been stem cell research. Considering how keen the big pharmaceuticals are to make a buck, why are they not fighting to conduct research that could pay huge dividends while opening up whole new approaches to treatment?
VNM — Politics and fear are stronger than money?
GC — One thing that you were very accurate with was the ubiquity of the internet in our daily lives. When you wrote Starfarers it was in its infancy, yet you had the computer system Arachne interacting with every aspect of the ship and the characters lives, updating them with news and sensory feeds.
VNM — Yeah, I kind of got some of that right, didn’t I? It’s a complete coincidence. SF writers don’t predict (if we have any sense), we speculate. I have a terrible sense of direction and among other things was thinking how nice it would be to have some help with that. Now my phone does that with its GPS, though I had to speak sternly to it this evening when it was less than helpful pointing out the correct lane to be in, on the freeway. (Washington State’s traditionally bad signage didn’t help much either.) Arachne from Starfarers has a much better sense of direction.
GC — There is a scene in Starfarers where the character JD Sauvage is recalling a novel she wrote, and reflects that many who read it found that it made them uneasy, not realising that had been the intention of the book. Were you speaking of yourself at all in that? I remember when I read that passage it made me think of The Exile Waiting, when Mischa finds where the bodies really go when her people put them to float downstream in the river.
VNM – J.D. is a much more experimental writer than I am. My sales are a little better.
GC — You’re active these days in encouraging new writers and providing them avenues for their work to be distributed, not to mention making out of print works available electronically. Tell us about that.
VNM — I’m happy to point new writers in the direction of things that will help them be better writers, such as learning spelling and grammar — the tools of their trade. And toward places such as Writer Beware, which will vaccinate them against the many scams aimed at new writers. I’m a supporter of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, whose first incarnation (1971-1973) I founded, and whose second incarnation has been going strong in Seattle since 1984.
Most of my work with my own and other professional writers’ backlist is visible at Book View Café, which recently debuted a shiny new bookstore.
GC — The publishing industry has been going through radical changes these last years with the advent of e-books. While it allows many to publish directly, and so open gateways, it sidesteps many editorial controls, and while it opens new markets, it makes it harder for authors to control copyright and track royalties, and it’s something you’ve been closely involved in. Where do we stand, and what is the future?
VNM — How do you feel it makes it harder for authors to control copyright? Because of pirating? Pirating is going to happen whether there’s a legitimate ebook or not, and I think there’s some evidence that having a legitimate ebook out there cuts down on some pirating. Pirating doesn’t steal your copyright — you still own it — but it does steal your work and damages your ability to make a living.
As for royalties, are you talking about ebooks from commercial publishers, or ebooks from independent publishers such as Book View Café, which is a co-op, and whose royalties are higher than anyone else’s that I’m aware of, and whose sales numbers are open to all members? Royalty information from commercial publishers has always been pretty squishy. Adding ebook royalties in may make them more squishy, but it’s probably a matter of degree rather than kind.
GC — We recently lost the great Anne McCaffrey, one of the first women to win the major science fiction awards, who paved the way for many other women in science fiction, you included. How have the genre and the literary field changed since those days?
VNM — Pretty much the same way everything else has, speaking for my own country. It’s depressing to see so many radically conservative men (and some women, which baffles me) working so hard to turn time back to 1955, which was seriously no fun. I was seven in 1955, and was continually being told, “Girls don’t do that.” “Girls can’t do that.” “Girls shouldn’t want to do that.” Everything I wasn’t supposed to want to do, I wanted to do, and I could do.
It’s certainly true that Annie, and Kate Wilhelm and Ursula K Le Guin (and a list of other women writers that’s longer than we tend to think) opened doors that as a result I didn’t have to kick down, and I’m very grateful to them.
GC — Robert Heinlein included you in the dedication of one of his last novels, Friday. He was a prolific, diverse and often contrary writer. Having recently reread Stranger in a Strange Land, I feel like his personality comes through very strongly in Jubal Harshaw, but with a writer as masterful as Heinlein, you can never tell. Of the many voices he used in his books, who was the real Robert Heinlein?
VNM — I have no idea. You’d have to talk to someone who knew him well, and you might not get a final answer even then. Many of the writers of his era (and mine) tend to point out that they aren’t their characters.
GC — I know you were acquainted with the late Frank Herbert. How did you feel about the Sci Fi Channel adaptations of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, and do you think he would have preferred them over the David Lynch version?
VNM — Frank always said there was enough footage shot from the Lynch version to make a really good SF miniseries. I think if he’d lived he might have been able to make that happen. He was a force of nature. He and his wife Beverly were extremely kind and generous to me when I was a no-name pup. I miss them.
GC — Staying on that theme, which of your stories would you most like to see adapted, or do you have any favourite novels from the golden age of science fiction that you think Hollywood should take notice of?
VNM —Starfarers started out as the best SF miniseries never made. Book View Café has reprinted the My Book, The Movie essays on the (imaginary) casts of Starfarers (video included!) andDreamsnake, and another essay on the history of Starfarers.
When I was in the Chesterfield Workshop that Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment used to sponsor, I tried to get Austin Tappan Wright’s novel Islandia made into a movie or a miniseries, and my mentor read it (all 1000 pages of it) and liked it. No idea why it never went any farther.
I think any of my novels would make a good movie. Producers looking for the next Hunger Games should look at The Exile Waiting, my first novel (1973).
GC — Which of your books or series do you look back on most fondly?
VNM — The one I’m working on.
GC — It’s a long time since we’ve had a novel from Vonda N. McIntyre, and we would love to see one. When do you think we might hear something from you?
VNM — You mean aside from my Twitter novel (a novel in 140 characters)?
Special thanks to Vonda for her generosity and time