Interview: Time, Space
and Mark Tiedemann
by Russell Gifford
When Jeffrey Carver, Jack McDevitt, Allen
Steele and David Brin write blurbs for your first novels, you know the work
inside must be good. Equally important, you know it must be good SF. Mark
Tiedemann is a journeyman writer, with a solid history of short story sales
before he embarked on the Isaac Asimov's Robot City novels. Mirage,
Chimera, and Aurora were published by iBooks in 2000, 2001, and 2002,
and are currently being republished in mass market paperback now.
in 2001, he published the acclaimed trade paperback novel Compass Reach
for Meisha Merlin Publishing. The story earned him a nomination for the Philip
K. Dick Award for 2001, and has generated two more novels in the Secantis
universe, Metal of Night, and Peace & Memory. (Unabashed plug - read this
interview, then go to
and order all three. You'll get a great deal, and a great read!)
For up to date information about his
publications and appearances, visit Mark Tiedemann's web site at
Vision caught up with Mark Tiedemann at home,
shortly after his Guest of Honor appearance at the Chattanooga SF convention in
Where did you get your start in
writing? What was your first sale, and when? Was it a dedicated effort, made
after many tries, or something sent in on a whim and simply the first of your
Emulating comics as a kid. I used to draw all the time and as I grew older I
began putting stories to my illustrations. I think I really wanted to make
movies, but this was as close as I could get. My first sale came in 1982, I
believe, to Space & Time magazine. I spent far more than the fee buying the
Oh, I became serious about getting published
a year or so before, when my companion, Donna, suggested I could sell my
stories. I turned it into a daily ritual and did the rounds of all the major
magazines. We had begun making jokes about wallpapering the apartment with
rejection slips when Gordon Linzner accepted a story. That sale just whetted my
You've sold to most of the short story
SF magazines of the last 20 years, including Asimov's, SF&F, and Science Fiction
Age. What is your preferred genre? (Assuming it is SF) The page in Compass Reach
reads like a who's who in today's SF/Fantasy genre! Who do you credit as your
I prefer science fiction. Most kinds. I'm old enough to be part of the
generation that lived and died by the periodicals. They were beginning to
decline when I discovered them, but I remember getting Galaxy, The Worlds of
IF, Venture SF, Vertex, as well as Analog, F & SF, and Amazing.
Admittedly, when I started reading novels, the short fiction kind of faded for
me. By high school I'd pretty much stopped reading the magazines.
But I caught the reading flu around nine or
ten and my mother still had a trunk full of her Doubleday Book Club books. So I
cut my teeth on a lot of mainstream writers few people talk about today.
Costain, Yerby, Marshall, Slaughter. So for me, there was an overlap of genre
from an early age. I was very much an omnivorous reader then. When I started
really getting into SF, I found myself looking for the same level of -- I
wouldn't call it craft; maybe immersion is the word, which is a
consequence of good writing. So early on I embraced people like Zelazny,
Pangborn, Asimov, Moore.
The book that made me want to actually write
science fiction was Asimov's Foundation series. I thought "This is the
real thing! This is what I want to find in a story!" It took a long time
before that came to fruition.
Lately, I've been getting back to an
omnivorous diet of reading. As long as the writing is good, I don't care what
the genre is so much.
What do you think makes good science
fiction today? Or: DO you feel science fiction today IS good?
In some ways, SF today is better than it has ever been. The stories feel
better-realized, the scope of imagination is richer, and the characterization is
by far the best it has ever been. The bar has steadily raised since Campbell
took over Astounding back in 1938 and has culminated in works of
luxurious depth and marvelous detail. It has always been true that the best
material is about what people will go through in the face of the various
unknowns SF explores, but the range has been extended. The ways in which the
challenges of new science, new discovery, and new history work through people
have multiplied to include every possible human attribute.
The primary strength SF claims for its
aesthetic is the evocation of Sense of Wonder. That's still true, but more and
more it's combined now with the evocation of all the other human emotions --
those things other genres have based their aesthetic potentials on and which SF
through a good portion of its history underplayed. When you run across a novel
like Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire or Jamil Nasir's Distance Haze or
Carter Scholz's Radiance you can't help but think we're in a terrific
period of really great writing.
So, yeah, I think SF is good today. It is
very good today.
On the other hand, I see a lot of SF that has
embraced the jargon of the genre so much that it leaves inexperienced readers
behind. Or outside. The stories are often being written for the benefit of
other SF writers and the dedicated fan at the expense of leaving a little room
for a new reader to find a way through the text. The writing is still
technically good, but it's specialized way too much.
What has always made SF good, though, hasn't
changed: it is potential to ask complex questions and tackle philosophical
issues in ways that are beyond mere theory. Science fiction has always had the
ability to act as a test bed for new ideas. We build our models -- testing a
new way to see mind-body dualism or the problem of Other Minds or the moral
problems of genuine biological improvement or the economic questions that arise
out of a post-scarcity civilization -- wind up the Cartesian clockworks, so to
speak, and see how these ideas play out through "real" people, namely the
Tell us about the Asimov Robot books
- that seems like quite a project. How did it come about? Assuming you are "of
a certain age," you remember a time when Asimov nearly defined science fiction
to most of the country. How does it feel to be in the driver's seat for the
expansion of such a key part of SF history? Can you share any moments of
excitement (or panic!) on the creation/extension of these works?
Quite literally, I was in the right place at the right time. The Robot
Mysteries are based on the Robot City universe created by Asimov in the '80s.
This was the last contract open in that milieu and Byron Preiss was looking for
someone to write the material. I had to "audition" for the job, which led later
to the publication of my own novel, Realtime.
It was less intimidating than I expected. I
grew up reading Asimov, the universe was familiar to me, and the idea of using
the Three Laws in what became essentially "locked room" mysteries seemed a
The best part of it came during the writing
of the last volume, Aurora, when I realized that I had a chance to
comment on one of the central mysteries of the whole Asimovian construct. What
became of the Spacers and,
importantly, Why? The problem I saw with the Three Laws is that there is no
criteria set forth on what is meant by Human. Asimov had no aliens in his
universes so that small problem was sidestepped. But with the advent of genetic
alteration and advanced cybernetic prosthetics, what definition of Human are all
these robots using? Clearly, Asimov used a biological definition. But the
Spacers had changed themselves and, in the case of the Solarians, were
continuing to change -- so on what basis do the Three Laws maintain? I gave an
answer, which I won't spoil here, that I think is a direct response to the
dilemma Asimov set up. I have to say, that was exhilarating.
Your scenes are VERY clearly painted,
almost like a picture. Readers can see the trash on the floor and the graffiti
on the walls, yet it never overwhelms.
The action and the situation flow from the picture into the moment for you. Is
that a result of your years of photography?
Probably. But I've always read with a motion picture screen running in my
imagination. When I was a kid I'd play games with new books, casting actors in
the various parts as if I were watching a film. I've always been strongly
visual in my approach to, well, everything. As I said, I drew comics as a
child. Photography came naturally to me. Getting the action right, getting the
scene right, I think, is vital to the writer's craft. Stories from which the
visual elements are difficult to imagine fail for me.
Speaking about photography....(smile)
which do you prefer - digital or film? Darkroom or computer? How deep into
photography are you, and how do you feel it affects your writing?
I started doing my own darkroom work when I was fifteen. Maybe that suggests my
preference. I'm of the Edward Weston/Ansel Adams school of printmaking. I
honestly haven't even looked at a Photoshop program, although it's becoming
increasingly clear that this is how the future will be.
I am a very serious photographer. I've made
my living at it for thirty years, in the lab, the studio, and for a short while
in retail. It has affected my writing as I indicated above by enhancing my
visual sense. But also, I'm very much an advocate of black & white, which I
think goes directly to writing in that it enforces an appreciation of
composition, texture, and form which color very often obscures. It makes you
see what is important more clearly and this translates to writing very well.
1999 or 2000 seems to have been a
for you. You wrote sold short fiction for 17 years, then your chapbook comes out
from Yard Dog Press, you get the Robot City series from iBooks, and Meisha
Merlin bought Compass Reach. What happened that it all seems to have come
together at once? Had you been writing novels all along? Was there a big change
that made it all come together at that one moment?
Momentum. When I talk to students or people who aspire to being a writer, the
question that always comes up is "What's the most important thing?" They expect
some advice about the art. And that is important, but it's something that is
always in need of improvement, in need of practice, in need of honing. You do
that whether you're trying to publish or not. Journal writing requires
what they want to know -- and often don't ask -- is what does it take to Get
Published. Beyond basic storytelling skills and a professional approach to the
manuscript and polish, the key thing is Persistence. The people who never make
are those who stop trying. Some people never get the hang of how to write for
publication. But there are many who can write perfectly well but won't tolerate
As for that particular year, well, the Robot
Books I explained. The Secantis Sequence has been making the rounds
for a long time. When Stephen Pagel began Meisha Merlin, he remembered the
books from his days at another publishing house. Phone calls were made.
But, yes, I'd been writing novels all along.
I had them ready.
Now - to Compass Reach and the
beginning of the Secantis Sequence. When did you first conceive of the story,
and the series?
The series emerged from an amalgam of short story ideas that never quite
worked. They were better suited to novel-length treatment. I had been trying
to come up with a plot for my first novel the year I decided to apply to Clarion
Writer's Workshop. The one element that anchored it was my decision to write
about people you almost never think about -- the poor, the disenfranchised. A
lot of writers have touched on the subject, but I didn't recall one at novel
length. So the idea of the interstellar hobo emerged. I wrote the opening
scenario, let it lie for a while until another idea joined it.
the problem of telepathy teased at me. I don't really buy telepathy, but it's a
useful conceit in SF. One of the main sources of a rich thematic material has
always been the question of Other Minds. Bit by bit the story of the first
contact between humans and aliens came together around the use of telepaths as
interpreters -- with, of course, disastrous results. At some point, this merged
with the hobo, and Compass Reach took shape.
Once I had the background universe -- the Pan
Humana, the Seven Reaches, the Commonwealth Republic -- other stories
developed. There are several short stories (including one about that disastrous
summit between the telepaths and the aliens, called Texture of Other Ways)
and more sketches for novels.
It's a very versatile story-generating
machine and I can't see any real limits.
Along with the earlier chapbook at
Yard Dog Press, we hear there's something new coming on that front. Can you
illuminate just what a "Double Dog" is, and what your part of that will be?
The "Double Dogs" are like the old Ace Doubles -- two short novels published
back to back in one binding. I've written a space opera that takes apart the
notion of the interstellar empire, but I've done it as a kind of homage to Jack
Vance and Poul Anderson, two of the greatest space opera composers. Of
Stars and Shadows will be in one of the first couple Double Dogs.
Any other hobbies or passions besides
Donna, SF and photography that you'd like to talk about?
Music. I'm woefully out of practice, but I play keyboard and guitar, and I
compose. I've written some pieces based on SF stories. The first one of these
I did because the title was too hard to pass up -- Blues for a Red Planet,
based on Allen Steele's short story. It's okay, he's heard the piece and given
it his blessing. So I thought it would be fun to do a series of them. Usually
I do them for friends -- I've done one for Nicola Griffith, one for Kelley
Eskridge, and one for Laurell Hamilton -- but I've done some "incidental music"
for my own work. I'm hoping that some time in the next couple of years I'll get
the opportunity to record them and produce a CD.
Any other things you'd like to share,
like the secret to selling lots of short fiction to lots of different magazines,
or how you broke into the New York Times Review of SF? Perhaps the secret to
sustaining a long term relationship - you and Donna have been together for over
twenty years now? (Feel free to add anything you'd like here!)
Donna and I have been together for (by the time this is published) 24 years.
She likes to read, she likes SF, and she really likes me. Secrets? Hm. Only
one observation that came to us in time to keep us together. Relationships are
hard to keep together and relationships with artists seem particularly so. We
realized that one reason for this is the level of obsessive commitment the
artist has -- has to have -- to a given craft to be successful. It is, in fact,
a complete relationship all on its own. It's much more than just a job. It's
much more like having a three-way partnership. The art is, at least in its
impact on the artist, very like another person.
Now, realizing this, some people might still
choose to break up. But if you don't realize this, the stress on the
relationship doubles because you end disregarding the true nature of the
I'm sure there are couples who find a way to
manage this without going through this particular process of discovery. But the
reverse seems to be more the case.
Donna is my first reader, my first editor,
the person I talk stories over with, the person who helps me at every stage of
the process. I'd go so far as to say she's more of a collaborator. She doesn't
do any of the writing, but the writing wouldn't be as good as it is without her
Besides -- we really like each other (which I
sometimes think is more important that love: love is the reason, like is the
Congratulations on all your successes,
and we look forward to many more great stories. Thank you for your time!