INTERVIEW: Mary Robinette Kowal, author of “We Interrupt This Broadcast”

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the novels Shades of Milk and Honey andGlamour in Glass. She is a winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best new writer, and she has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Tor.com, Talebones, Daily Science Fiction, and in several anthologies, such as The Year’s Best Science Fiction,Clockwork Phoenix 2, Dark Faith, and in John Joseph Adams’s The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A collection of her work, Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, was published in 2009. In addition to her writing, she is also a professional puppeteer and audiobook narrator.

 

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

I describe this as my Punchcard Punk story. It’s set in an alternate 1950s and Fidel Dobbes is a brilliant computer programmer who wants to bring about world peace by destroying Washington, D.C. with an asteroid, before he dies of consumption.

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

I was taking part in a contest in the Codex Writer’s Group in which we were given a set of triggers that we needed to work in to a story. The triggers were “consumption” and “Valentine’s Day.” The consumption is easy to spot, because Fidel has tuberculosis. Valentine’s Day is only visible in the finished story in one spot, a heart drawn in lipstick on a punchcard.

As for the punchcards themselves… My Dad used to work for IBM and when I was a kid I would go visit him at work, where he had all of these punchcards. I even got to program my name by punching out cards, and for years my drawing medium of choice were discarded cards. I wanted to write a sort of retro-SF that nodded back to a time, when it seemed like computers would be able to solve everything.

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

It’s very hard to write a mathematical genius when one is numerically challenged. I tried to focus on the emotions instead of the actual process.

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

Besides the obvious plan to take over the world, Fidel’s coughing fit in the opening scene is based on an asthma attack I had when I’d forgotten to pack my inhaler. The sensation of my throat closing and wondering if I was going to be able to draw that next breath was terrifying.

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

The best! I got to use my dad as my primary source on what it was like to program with a punchcard machine. He talked to me about the kinds of machines and their noises. The structure of offices and the existence of “punchcard girls” was incredibly useful. And then when I was finished with the story, he “debugged” it for me. Less fun was looking into the progression of tuberculosis and the available treatments at the time.

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?

I think it gets back to the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story. Mad scientists go mad because they are geniuses — super-geniuses — and have a vision for the world that no one else has. Personally, I think that part of the appeal is that it dramatizes the struggle that we’ve probably all experienced when we’re sitting in a meeting and have that horrifying moment of realizing that the person in charge is not very bright. The moment of “If I were running things…!”

That and the total world domination.

What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction–or fact!–(in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

Thomas Edison. There’s a reason they called him the Wizard of Menlo Park. In fact he turns up in the 1886 French SF novel, Tomorrow’s Eve, by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, in which he creates an android. Yes, the word has been around that long and this is the book that popularized it. What I find fascinating is that the novel takes a living person and recognizes him for the mad scientist that he was.