Jeffrey Ford is the author of several novels, including The Physiognomy, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, and The Shadow Year. He is a prolific author of short fiction, whose work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, SCI FICTION, and in numerous anthologies, including John Joseph Adams’s The Living Dead and The Way of the Wizard. Three collections of his short work have been published: The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and Other Stories, The Empire of Ice Cream, and The Drowned Life. He is a six-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, and has also won the Nebula and Edgar awards.
Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?
My story, “The Pittsburgh Technology” is about George Tisdale, who lives a lonely, sort of dead end life. He goes to work every day as a checkout person at a grocery store, hasn’t had a date in a year and a half, and lives with a low level sodden depression over his state of affairs. Then one day he meets on the street a fellow he used to work with who he’d perceived as being an even bigger loser than he was, but now the guy is so transformed in his looks and dress, it’s hardly to be believed. The newly transformed character tells George that all of his advancement in life, his new job at the bank, etc. is due to the wonders of The Pittsburgh Technology. He gives George a card with an address on it and one day George makes the decision to change his existence and finds the address. There he meets the inventor of the Technology, Dr. Wurms.
What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?
The story has to do with the idea that our past dictates our future. Everything we have done, experienced, thought, reverberates into the future and limits the possibility of what we can possibly do. Real change is near-impossible as we are prisoners of our past lives.
Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?
Once George pays his money to the Dr. in order to undergo The Pittsburgh Technology, the Dr. and his team, on a given day, will in some way, insinuate a single absolutely random act, experience, or image into George Tisdale’s life that will sever it from the chains of the past and allow it to head off in a brand new direction. The Dr. tells George what day it will be but not what the agent of change will be. So George waits and watches all that day, noticing everything from the most minute things, the change in rhythm of the dripping of his faucet to an accident that takes place on the street in front of him, wondering always, for each event, whether it is the one which will change his life forever. Rendering that sense that every bit of every second of existence is potentially fraught with life changing opportunity was a challenge to render.
Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?
I suppose the same for everybody in that we meet junctures in life where we want to sever ourselves from the past and start anew, but that’s easier said than done. Our past actions and days have a kind of gravitational hold on us.
What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
Looked up and read about random number generators.
What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?
Mad scientists are cool because they take a piss at Science. Writing them doesn’t mean the author is not interested in Science or believe in its abilities, or admire scientists, but Science holds very powerful sway in the modern world and we trust the Scientist now more often than the witch doctor or the priest, as we should, but that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t often mistaken or just plain wrong, and that fact has to be kept firmly in mind. The first rules of Science should always be to retain a healthy skepticism, which these types of stories help us do.
What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction–or fact!–(in any media), and what makes them your favorites?
The Tuskegee Experiment is one horrifying real life example of mad scientists at work, which readers should look up if they are unfamiliar with it. As for fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Wells’ Dr. Moreau are classics. In film, I like the mad scientist in The Nightmare Before Christmas.