I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Damon Kaswell, author of several short stories that have been published on actual squished tree pulp in the form of magazines. The fact that he and I occupy the same physical space made it easier to contact him, but actually getting him to sit still and answer some questions took substantial effort.
Our discussion covered a wide variety of topics, from his writing interests to politics and philosophy. I can honestly say I’ve never interviewed anyone like him, and would do it again in a heartbeat if given a chance.
Q: OK, let’s start with the basics. Science fiction or fantasy?
A: Can I choose both? Seriously, I don’t like to limit myself. While I suppose my general leanings are in the direction of science fiction, I’ve written plenty of fantasy, some horror, several surreal short stories, and even some mainstream literature. And then there are sub-genres… Urban fantasy, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic fantasy and science fiction, space opera, mundane sci-fi, magical realism… There are good things to be said for all of them. I don’t usually want to write a classical sword-and-sorcery story, but if I suddenly find myself wanting to, why in the world would I limit myself?
Q: Good point. Is there a genre or sub-genre you actively dislike?
A: I’m not interested in reading or writing anything in the romance or paranormal romance genres. I wouldn’t be strictly opposed to some form of erotica, but the romance genre itself I find boring and, frankly, very unromantic. I’m also uninterested in westerns, although the space western genre can be fun. If you’ve ever seen Firefly, that’s a beautiful example, cut short in its prime.
Q: Let’s reverse it. Is there a genre or sub-genre you’re particularly fond of but haven’t written in yet?
A: I really appreciate steampunk and decopunk, but haven’t finished anything in either genre. Actually, I’m not sure I could do decopunk justice in a non-visual medium. But it might be fun to write a comic book some time, if I meet an interested artist.
A: Like steampunk or cyberpunk, only the aesthetic is more along the lines of 1930s art deco. Think 1990s Batman cartoon.
Q: Oh, I loved the visuals in that. But why couldn’t you write a story that uses descriptions like those?
A: I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the style is such a feast for the eyes. I feel like if I’m shooting for that particular atmosphere, it would better serve the audience to provide it visually. Of course, I’m not saying I’ll never try it, either.
Q: Most of the stories you’ve had published are fantasy pieces, but you said your general leanings are in favor of science fiction.
A: Yeah. Well, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what I’m best at writing.
Q: OK, new topic. What do you do when you’re not writing?
A: Well, I’m a parent, so that’s a large chunk of time right there. In my day job, I’m a computer engineer, and I tinker a lot. I’m a Linux geek, and something of a technophile.
Q: Does any of your computer expertise end up in your writing?
A: I thought this was a new topic! No, not really. My fascination with science frequently ends up in my writing, but the truth is, real computer work is boring to anyone who isn’t already a computer nerd. You know why hacking is always depicted with whiz-bang graphics in the movies? Because in real life, hacking means running scripts and typing a lot… boring stuff. Who wants to watch a hacker write out fifty lines of perl script? Yawn.
Q: Fair enough. Hobbies?
A: Not a whole lot of time for those. Between parenting two kids, writing, my job, exercise, and chores, my day is pretty booked. I used to play role-playing games and video games — I did mention I’m a nerd, right? — but that stuff’s way on the back burner now. To be honest, I’m not terribly social anymore. Too busy.
Q: I can understand that. I have two kids, myself. So what are your passions outside of writing?
A: Well, I’m something of a science fan, obviously. It comes with the territory as a science fiction writer. I’m a political news junkie, and religion fascinates me.
Q: Wow, that’s a very broad set of interests. What is it about science that appeals to you?
A: Well, to put it bluntly, it works. It’s not mystic mumbo-jumbo, it’s jumbo jets! It’s not medicine men, it’s actual medicine! Science has given us laser eye surgery, intercontinental flight, vaccines, ball-point pens, cancer treatments, and the internet, just to name a few things off the top of my head. Human ingenuity has reshaped our world in awe-inspiring ways. Try adding up the things you did and used just this morning that wouldn’t have been possible without scientific inquiry. Daunting, isn’t it?
Q: So you would argue that science has been a net benefit to humanity? That’s a little like calling water wet, right?
A: Well, yeah. But you’d be amazed at how many people dismiss the wonders of science without realizing how much they benefit from it every single day. When you woke up this morning, you probably used three different things made possible by science from the moment you opened your eyes. Your alarm clock? Science. The climate-controlled air in your bedroom? Science. Even the mattress you woke up on? Science! Without science, you would have woken up on an animal skin rug or whatever soft, leafy fronds you could find, shivering in the morning chill, and late for your mastodon hunt. All the other cavemen would have mocked you. Yet there is no shortage of people un-ironically mocking science in internet chat rooms daily.
Q: OK, so you’ve got some strong feelings there. I’m almost afraid to ask… politics? How would you describe your political philosophy?
A: Very, very progressive and liberal. I’m pretty much a stereotypical Democrat, and it saddens me how few of us there actually are. I’m strongly pro-union, pro-choice, and pro-rights for homosexuals. I believe the rich are woefully under-taxed, and it’s damaging our economy. Universal health care is a basic human right. And so on.
Q: You didn’t mention anything about the environment. Do you not consider yourself an environmentalist?
A: I do consider myself an environmentalist, but I don’t regard that as a political opinion. Take climate change, for instance… The evidence in support of anthropogenic climate change is sound. There is only a tiny fringe that rejects it, and the science doesn’t support their rejection. There’s nothing political about it, and trying to make it political is irrational. It’s like trying to politicize math. There aren’t any credible arguments against it.
Q: But that dismisses an entire political demographic.
A: Yup. Just like I dismiss Flat-Earthers and Creationists. The fact that some people politicize their particular brands of denialism doesn’t mean I’m under any obligation to treat their ideas seriously. Here’s the thing… Science works. We live with the benefits it has brought us every day. There is no rational argument against it.
Q: Dare I tread here… Religion? What are your religious beliefs?
A: I don’t have any.
Q: None? Care to elaborate?
A: I’m not sure what there is to elaborate on. I haven’t seen any convincing argument in favor of any one religion over the others.
Q: So you’re an atheist?
A: I prefer “agnostic atheist.” My use of the word “agnostic” comes from the Greek gnosis, roughly meaning knowledge. Agnosticism, by that definition, is the state of not knowing something, and atheism is the lack of a belief in a deity or deities. I don’t believe in any gods, and haven’t seen any evidence that any exist, but I don’t claim to know with any certainty that none exist. That would be gnostic atheism.
Q: Is there a particular philosophy or school of thought you adhere to, rather than a religion?
A: Be nice to people. That’s basically it.
Q: You’re a writer. Quote someone from antiquity to make yourself sound brainy.
A: So be it. I like the way Marcus Aurelius expressed it. He said, “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
Q: Well said.
A: Thank you.
Q: I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to Marcus.
A: But he’s not here. And this is getting silly. Anything else you want to know?
Q: Just one last question. Why did you write this in the form of a Q&A?
A: I had a very good reason. You see, I– Look! A bunny!
At this point in our conversation, I looked over my shoulder, and when I looked back, I was alone. Pensively, I looked down at what I had written, and realized I couldn’t print this. The only possible venue for such self-absorption is the internet. And so, dear reader, here is where you find it.