INTERVIEW: Joe Mastroianni, Author of “Jordan’s Waterhammer”

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

A genetically engineered race of bipeds is bred and raised underground to perform hard labor too dangerous and difficult for the human race.  They have genetic roots in humanity, though they are considered soulless, thus expendable, and they believe as much themselves.  However, some time in the recent past one of their kind exhibited extreme intelligence, and progressed in the ranks until he was brought to the surface where he experienced a miraculous way of life, rich in sensory experience and inter-being communication.  A forbidden conversation channel becomes the medium of the tales of that adventurer, along with a book of poetry which the beings interpret as a form of instruction — as they do all writing. The poetry and lore that circulate amongst the creatures become their raison d’etre.  This sparks an awakening in the community that frees them from their moribund existence, albeit temporarily.

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

About 15 years ago I was in the middle of my career in an unrewarding dead-end job with a confused future and few options. I felt very much like the possession of a faceless corporate entity that extracted value from my labor, but associated no value to myself as a human being.  After a year or so of that toil, I was very much becoming a soulless, sexless laborer whose primary purpose was to produce for others until expiration.

The bright light at the end of the tunnel for me was writing.  My agent was Virginia Kidd and I was extremely lucky she would have me and mentor me.  I felt writing would be my ticket out of the day to day silicon valley grind.

It wasn’t.

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

It didn’t start out so.  In the original drafts of the story I called the creatures “androids” or some such subhuman designator.  Virginia was convinced the story would be more powerful if the creatures were actually human men.  She liked the possible homo-erotic context much better than the idea of sexless biological automata.  I fought her initially, and then realized it would be a growth path as a writer to stretch myself in that direction.  Thus, the creatures became a form of male human, and the story became that much more powerful.  Virginia was right, as always.

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

Having Virginia as an agent gave me access to a living encyclopedia of American Science Fiction.  She made sure I steered clear of anything that smelled of classic prior work.  She didn’t like my original choice for the poetry — can’t remember who I picked, but next chose Blake, whom she disliked and initially vetoed.  Somehow I won that argument, probably because the copyright issues were nil.

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?

Life is a series of intertwined trials. Some result in effects we like, but desire taints our vision, and we perceive undesirable effects occur more often.  Thus we often feel we’re living in a dystopian reality.  Fortunately, the beauty of life, probably the secret to life itself is in its underlying chaos.  Dystopia is crystalline, static, and almost perfect in its gray stasis. Love and life are amorphous, dynamic, and messy.  We want to believe that spark of chaos introduced by our free will can defy the laws of physics that drive us and our entire universe to some cold, future, death.

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

I can never forget reading Sheep Look Up by John Brunner as a teenager.  It’s detailed.  Precise in it’s motion.  Logical.

You put down that book in 1972 and said to yourself, “Watch out. Could happen.”

Here it is 2010.  Sort of is.