INTERVIEW: Alex Irvine, Author of “Peter Skilling”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Well, a guy falls into a hole, dies, and is revived decades later to find out that perfectly ordinary things he did when he was alive before are now capital offenses. Of course he didn’t know this, but as has been pointed out to all of us, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Well, as I write this I see a(nother) news story about how the FBI had Greenpeace members added to terrorist watch lists just because of their membership. But back in 2004 when I wrote this story, all of this was happening for the first time (well, since the 60s). I was working as a journalist, so I spent a lot of time reading about legislation, and I ran across some bills under consideration in Congress that would have had some hair-raising unintended consequences. Taking them literally, and imagining that they were passed, I decided to run with one possible future.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It’s always hard writing a political story because it’s going to come across to some readers as didactic no matter what you do. So I decided to forget about that and run with the story as a political satire. It is political, and it does have a point. The worst thing you can do when you’re writing political fiction is pretend you’re not writing political fiction. It’s different than writing a story for purely aesthetic reasons (if that’s even possible).

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I had not too long before writing this story been in contact with a guy who wanted to make all kinds of allegations about what he said were corrupt practices at a military installation here in Maine. He worked there, and kept putting off our meetings even though he swore that he had all this stuff to tell me. Eventually I tracked down his number at work, and then something weird happened. In the middle of the call another guy grabbed the phone and started demanding all kinds of information about me. I refused, and he started to make threats about what would happen to me if I called there again. Being a writer, I started wondering what would happen if he decided to follow through. What would I be able to do about it? Nothing. Now, it’s real unlikely that anything ever would have happened, but what if?

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Anyone who wants to write a future dystopia only needs to read the Congressional Record, The Economist, and the science web site of your choice.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Because we’re not there yet. Dystopias work like a lot of horror, I think, giving us a cathartic experience without subjecting us to the actual horrors. But dystopia is also a cultural warning flag, I think. Collectively a culture’s dystopias tell you all you need to know about what that culture feared. (Compare, for example, We and 1984 with The Road and, say, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang…) And the truth is that no dystopia is as bad as the conditions under which some people on Earth are living right now.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

The ones I just named would be up there. Also Stan Robinson’s The Gold Coast, The Handmaid’s Tale…all of the ones you’d expect, probably. I like dystopias that aren’t just scenery—by which I mean I love the scenery, but the great dystopias aren’t about that. They’re trying to figure out what it would be like to live under certain circumstances, and by inversion to show us why we need to keep certain institutions in place. (Also, of course, all (or most) utopias turn out to be dystopias…)