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Interview with Chris Lodwig

He lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and two dogs. He spent his younger years playing music, throwing illegal parades, adult science fairs, underground wrestling matches, and bring-your-own art parties. His fifteen minutes of fame came from clandestinely installing a monolith in a Seattle park in 2001. He writes science fiction, volunteers at his daughter’s school, flies fishes, and runs the neighborhood haunted house on Halloween. In his free time, he works for a major technology company in the Seattle area. Chris recently published his debut sci-fi novel, Systemic.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
When I lived in Italy as a child, one teacher, Ms. Hewitt, decided that I was intelligent. She had me put into a talented and gifted program. The other kids were annoyed because I didn’t seem very smart (I couldn’t spell very well and still can’t). But that program probably changed the course of my life. It allowed me to consider myself an intelligent person and gave me a lot of confidence in my intellectual abilities. That confidence ultimately gave me the gumption to try ridiculous things, like apply for a job at Microsoft despite having no apparent qualifications or sitting down to write my first sci-fi novel when I was in my mid-forties.

Q.2 Are we going to read more from you in the near future? Any new project you’re working on?
I'm about 120,000 words into the sequel to Systemic and about 10,000 words into the third book in the series. I like to say Systemic is my pre-apocalyptic book, and the sequel is its post-apocalyptic sibling. It takes place after the System shuts down and the world falls apart. There are two main storylines, the first of which picks up Lem and Eryn’s story, where Systemic left off. The other arc deals with an outcast girl. She is adopted by a band of professors who have turned the System’s writings into a pseudo-religion and travel around teaching the masses.

Q.3 What inspired you to write Systemic?
There were a few ideas I was interested in exploring. I think about a lot that I wanted to get down on paper and build a story around. I’m a bit obsessed with the vagaries of memory. We all like to think our memories record facts and play them back verbatim, but that’s not true. Our memory’s job is to tell us stories about our past that help keeps us alive. Your memory doesn’t care if it has to insert facts and embellish. It turns out we don’t remember the actual events of the past at all. Rather, we remember the last time we remembered the same event. Our memories are disturbingly untrustworthy, and yet we build our entire reality on them.

Also, I am completely horrified by the current political environment and the willful destruction of truth. I was thinking-and still am thinking about whether and how we can ever get back to a place where we have a general agreement about facts. I tried to imagine something that could solve that problem; a generally accepted non-partisan arbiter of truth, and the System was born. Along with the many things that it does, the System deep fact-checks whatever you ask it to. In the book, Systemic is synonymous with “true” or “correct,” hence the title.

Q.4 What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
So much of our identity, sense of self, what makes us feel safe for threatened is wrapped up in our gender and sex. You need to allow yourself to feel all of those things when writing about someone of different sex. It’s a little like acting.

I had a very vulnerable situation for Eryn, my main character. And she was overly cavalier. My editor said she would be really terrified in that situation, which had never occurred to me. It wasn’t that Eryn needed to be nervous about everything, just the opposite, she’s extremely outgoing and comfortable in the world, but for me to make her believable in that situation, I needed to build up her character to a point where it felt reasonable and believable.

But in the end, I’m not female, so I have to rely on my female editors and beta readers. When they say something is off, I listen to them and try to address it.

Q.5 How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
No, I don’t have a set formula. I like to make sure that there is something in the story that I personally find interesting: A scene, a character, a moment of tension and growth. Then it’s just a matter of making that moment believable. I ask myself why that character would be in that place, why she would open that particular door, why a benevolent AI that rules the entire world might actively work toward its own destruction? What information do I need to give the reader ahead of time to ensure that a particular plot point doesn’t tax their intelligence? It’s like laying down layers of paint on top of a sketch.

Q.6 How do you see the future of science fiction literature? Will sci-fi maintain its independence or intertwine with other literary genres?
I personally hope that it merges with other forms of literature. In general, sci-fi and speculative fiction give us such an interesting lever to pry into the human condition. In the same way that war stories use life-or-death situations to strip existence down and allow us to examine existential and moral questions, sci-fi uses hypothetical extremes to pressure test philosophical issues. I think that’s an important thing for us to do. We must stretch the limits of what our minds can conceive. And I think adding sci-fi to that exploratory tool chest is a good and useful thing. I also think that sci-fi would benefit from more writers who can inject more depth of character and emotion into the genre.

Q.7 How do you see the relationship between science fiction and culture? How about the boundaries between science fiction and reality?
All art is a mirror of culture, but I think sci-fi is special because of what it allows the author to do. Normal literature might be fantastic in some way but is confined to the plausible. For example, a literary story might revolve around a character who was the only person to survive a plane crash. That is a possibility in the here-and-now. We have jets, they crash, and sometimes people survive. Such a story might work well to explore that person's internal life-their anxiety, guilt, fear, etc.

Fantasy imagines impossible worlds and creatures and powers and wonders what that sort of a universe would be like. Great for dazzling the mind and helping the reader expand their notions of the possible. Well-conceived sci-fi deals with the future possible. It takes the same laws of physics and the same technical trajectories we are currently on and simply fast-forwards them. This allows authors to take humans, our tendencies, and our culture, bring them to an extreme, and explore how we behave.

So much of Systemic was about my anxieties about culture. The fact that we no longer have agreed-upon ways, to tell the truth from fiction. The fact that the environment is collapsing, the population is exploding, and equality on both the economic and social fronts seems to be deteriorating. Every day, machines are doing more and more things that humans once were uniquely suited to do. If we don’t address these problems, the world will be in a sorry state. And so, I created the System, an AI which was effectively a benevolent god. The System did what we would all hope an all-powerful god-like intelligence would do: It solved all of our problems. Then the question becomes: What happens to humans when there are no more problems? How would a benevolent AI solve the problems that humanity would experience after generations of having no problems for them to solve?

As far as sci-fi and reality, I think that’s a two-way street. Einstein’s concept of space-time and curvature of space leads to the trope of the warp drive in sci-fi. The warp drive trope made the story arcs of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, and a ton of other space-based stories possible. Those stories led many kids to become theoretical physicists who are now working on the theoretical foundations for actual warp drives. So, reality inspires sci-fi, and sci-fi inspires reality. It’s a pretty cool feedback loop.

Q.8 To what extent can science fiction effect or improve the developments in science and technology in human life? Is it right to say that science fiction can change what human life looks like in the future?
I work in technology, and it is widespread to spend all of our energy trying to discover how to do things but not why. We care so much more about getting it done than whether or not we should. We focus on what our paying customers want and not necessarily what the world needs. Sci-fi takes a step back, projects our minds into the future, for better or worse, and tries to see where all of this might lead. It asks the philosophical questions that are not asked in front of the whiteboard when we have deadlines. And so sci-fi can both direct us to better futures and possibly warn us of terrible ones. How many great ideas came from Star-Trek or Asimov's books? How many things never happened because of 1984?

Q.9 Is classic science fiction literature different from modern science fiction literature? Have the key aims of the genre changed considerably or not?
I’m no expert in classic sci-fi. Still, it seems to me that sci-fi (and all art, really) results from a conversation the creator was having with whatever flavor of society was around at the time. So an optimistic time might produce stories of possibility and exploration, and adventure. Anxious times make for anxious stories. I would imagine that the can-do scientific optimism of the post-war period probably generated a very different type of story than the dystopian and post-apocalyptic books that spring from minds that barely escaped the certain annihilation of the cold war only to find themselves surrounded by rising inequality and environmental degradation.

Q.10 What do you think are the main reasons behind the popularity of science fiction? To what extent has the film industry helped in popularizing the genre?
People fetishize technology, and understandably so. Technology and science are changing everything so quickly that there is a real possibility that the world will become unrecognizable to us in our lifetime. The speed with which this change is happening and its unpredictability make it a little like magic, and it grabs the imagination in the same way. And sci-fi is really useful for telling stories. The lost-in-space or generation-ship is a nice framework for telling stories about inescapable isolation. Machines or aliens work as non-racist stand-ins for mindless bad guys. We can deal with awesome powers and effectively create deities without delving into religion or offending anyone’s sensibilities. We can bend societies and social mores to suit the requirements of the story. So I think that sci-fi hits the sweet spot of being imaginative and versatile. That makes it great for movie making, and movies, in turn, definitely popularized the genre.

Q.11 Ray Bradbury considers sci-fi as “the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, and the history of our civilization birthing itself.” Do you agree with him as many sci-fi stories do, indeed, depict disaster?
I don’t go in much for that sort of hyperbole, but I see his point. But I don’t think he’s necessarily talking about a disaster, as I don’t believe that birth and growth necessitate calamity. At least not always. I think what he’s saying is that, for better or worse-sci-fi acts as a sketch pad for our future. It allows us to outline both what we do and do not wish to be. Other forms of literature don’t really do that. For example, one of my very favorite books is Moby Dick. It explores aspects of the human condition in very insightful ways. It’s important because it so clearly illustrates something about humans and our nature. But it doesn’t project itself into the future and imagines how society and the world may someday be as a consequence of the decisions we make today. Sci-fi often starts with hope or fear about the future, then provides us with a map so we can either get there or avoid it altogether.

Q.12 Science fiction has a long history. Which era do you consider the most effective period in the whole history of the genre?
That’s a huge question, and I’m not sure how to answer it. But I’ll tell you that the moment authors like Philip K Dick started considering how technology impacts our consciousness and morality, that was when I started to take notice.

Q.13 In many science fiction stories, the existence of God is denied. Could we call science fiction an atheist literary genre?
I think it’s useful to distinguish two possible meanings of atheism. On the one hand, atheism refers to a belief that there is no God. Another interpretation of atheism might be that a thing doesn’t concern itself with God. I think sci-fi follows the latter definition. It simply doesn’t concern itself with God. But that does not mean it actively asserts that there is no God.

I work at Microsoft. We’re a technology company, and our work also does not concern itself with deities. There are many faithful Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, etc., who work there. I would not call Microsoft an atheist company.

Sci-fi is interested in technology and science. If things got interesting, a supernatural being showed up to solve the problem or complication, it would ruin the story. That said, my series is very much about the nature of god and the creation of religion, just not expressly so.

Q.14 Who designed your book cover?
My cover art was a collaboration between my good friend/ex-girlfriend, who goes by her nome d’arte Love Like Salt, and my best friend, Todd Lubsen. Love Like Salt did the cover graphic, and Todd did the layout and custom typography.

Q.15 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?
When I wrote the first draft of Systemic, I wrote about 70% of it on my phone while commuting to and from work on the bus. I thought that writing a 120,000 word novel with my thumbs was pretty cute, but as I started telling interviewers and other authors that I did that, a surprising number of them told me that they did the same. So, apparently, it’s pretty common. The other thing I do is switch up how I write depending on how I'm feeling. So, if I get blocked typing one day, I might switch to handwriting, or I’ll switch to working on my phone, or I’ll take a walk and dictate. I find that that helps keep me unblocked. Then I combine them all together later in Scrivener.

Q.16 How do you select the name of your characters?
As a rule, the character’s name is the first sound that came to my mind when I was writing the first sentence they appeared in. That said, I'll often go back and change them later if I come up with a better name. In Systemic, the names Eryn, Thomas, Edner, and Arley just happened as I was writing. Then there's a couple of other generally minor characters that I had to think through. I chose Mei Frost because I thought it was descriptive of her character, and I thought it was funny, then there's a character named Lafs whose name is actually an acronym, but I also needed it to sound like it a nickname. I had to think on that one a bit. I also like to borrow names from people I work with or whom I meet whose names I particularly like. Maik, Shailender, Rishi, Aruna, Per

In my current book, I’m starting to experiment with meaningful and completely made-up names. So, for example, the main character in the sequel to Systemic is named Reyankaiya, which means “Raises above the chaos.” It was a mixture of sounds from words that meant those things from-as I recall-Hindi, Swedish and Afrikaans mashed together then spelled in a way that made it pronounceable in a way that I liked.

Q.17 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?
I read every review of Systemic that I come across. Fortunately, all of the reviews I've seen thus far have been positive. When I finally do get a bad one, I should be able to tell myself that at least the majority of the reviews were positive. If the reviews were all bad, I would like to think I would use them as a learning opportunity, but the truth is it would probably stop me from publishing. It wouldn’t stop me from writing, of course, but getting a book ready for publishing is a huge amount of time, effort, and money. I worked on Systemic every day for hours over the course of three years. I certainly don’t write for cash, so if no one liked what I wrote, I probably wouldn’t bother.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?
A. Carl Sagan
. He was brilliant, and by all accounts, he was a really nice person. Anyone who knows as much as he did about the universe and chooses to spend his time trying to make it comprehensible to the masses is a guy I would like to buy a beer.

Q.19 What is your favorite book from other authors and why?
The book I force every young person to read is Ender’s Game. That book probably turned me on to reading and sci-fi in particular. Dune is so epic and vast it blows my mind. Blood Meridian is the most beautifully written and wrenchingly horrible book I’ve ever read. Moby Dick’s not bad either. But I love all sorts of books for all sorts of reasons. Currently, the books that have me pounding the table and shouting at people to read them are The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, which is incredibly charming. Erin Morgenstern’s, the Night Circus wins for atmosphere, and Strange, the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, was refreshingly original.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
By journey, I assume you mean my writing and publication experience. It’s been great. When I started jotting down a scene on the bus, I had no idea it was the beginning scene of a sci-fi novel. It was just something to pass the time for a half-hour. Then suddenly it was a book. I read it, and it was a story worth editing. Then I got it back from my editor, and she had really nice things to say about it, but enough constructive things that I knew she wasn’t just nice. She helped me craft the book into something I was proud of. Then I started showing it to people I respect, and they liked it as well. 

When I finally read it aloud to my wife, and she said, “You know I don't really like sci-fi, but I really enjoyed that book.” Then my old friend and published author Ramez Naam beta read Systemic, gave me beneficial feedback, and even wrote the blurb for the back jacket. Finally, my old girlfriend offered to make my cover art, and my graphic designer friend was there to help me make it all beautiful. All that continual and surprising support from everyone around me was amazing. Self-publishing a book is a bit of a misnomer. It’s really group publishing.

When I hit the publish button, I thought that it would be worth it if 100 people read Systemic. Far more than that have not only read it but have told me they enjoyed it and have given me wonderful reviews. I cannot get over the idea that people I've never met have read my book and have liked it and have reached out to me and complimented my work. That's been quite a humbling experience.

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