Interview: Simon McCaffrey

In your story, “The Cristóbal Effect,” Jason Blackstone, a brane slicer, leaps to alternate realities, profiting from valuable artifacts that don’t exist in his own reality. One of his targets is James Dean paraphernalia. How did you decide to focus on Dean out of all the potential targets?

Years ago, I saw Giant late at night when Ted Turner began broadcasting classic films on cable. I found Dean’s performance captivating. Until that time my impression of him was based on melodramatic clips from “Rebel Without a Cause” and the iconography of the early Fifties. I began reading about his short life, which wasn’t easy—the Internet didn’t exist and people stole his biographies from public libraries—and eventually saw his other two feature films. There was a haunted quality to his life and unfulfilled promise as actor. It stuck in my imagination. If he had taken a different route to the races that day or stopped for a sandwich, what movies might he have starred in as Hollywood shed its post-war formulaic storytelling and embraced more innovative and experimental filmmaking in the 1960s?

Blackstone profits from these artifacts, but where does he store them, and in what time? Do the constrictions of using the Device make this difficult?

Because he can never visit the same timespace coordinate on an alternate Earth and he cannot visit the “future” based on his native timeline, he is forced to hide his contraband on his home Earth. He has multiple “seller” identities and, one assumes, safe-deposit boxes scattered around the globe.

In the end, every action has a consequence, and Blackstone is not immune to this. Do you believe his crimes are deserving of his punishment?

“Blackstone” believes so, and draws the parallel with Columbus and other European explorers who caused such misery and ruination in the New World. They sailed in the name of exploration and to expand the known borders of the world, but they ransacked entire cultures in their quest for glory, prestige and wealth. “Blackstone” becomes a slicer to accumulate enormous wealth, but he develops a conscience along the way.

As the scientific community produces new theories about quantum mechanics, does this make it easier or more difficult to construct a story about parallel universes?

I think it adds fresh ideas and interesting bits for writers to speculate about and expand upon. Hopefully it engages more readers who haven’t grown up reading science fiction and helps them suspend disbelief. Writers have to draw the right balance between establishing an intriguing premise with the right level of detail and drowning readers in complex physics.

If you came across the Device, would you use it? Where would you go?

Could any of us resist using it in some manner? I would probably pop across to an adjacent Earth so I could visit my parents and grandparents, or maybe buy Alfred Bester a drink. I collect vintage die-cast cars; could I resist visiting FAO Schwarz Toy Store on Fifth Avenue in 1967 to buy a case or two of gleaming new Batmobiles? Or would I become obsessed with using it to avert some disaster or personal pitfall? Even if it were nearly impossible to alter events on most Earths, it would be a wondrous tool for historians and scientists, but might be a very dangerous technology for any government to possess.

Finally, do you have any new projects you’d like to announce?

I’m completing a science fiction/horror novel I successfully pitched to a respected independent publisher (fingers crossed), and I have a new “hard” science fiction story out in a UK anthology, Rocket Science, edited by Ian Sales. Other stories and a novella are due later this year in several anthologies and a shared-author, Corman-inspired undead novel LIVING DEATH RACE 2000. You can drop by my blog for news:

What is the appeal of parallel worlds stories and/or portal fantasies? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about them? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

The notion that we might find a way to slip into a parallel existence has appealed to writers and readers for a very long time — from Margaret Cavendish’s (Duchess of Newcastle) The Fiery World (1666) to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower cycle. It’s fun to twist and distort the familiar world, either subtly or substantially, as a setting for characters and stories. And these stories and novels appeal to a much broader readership than hardcore science-fiction fans who feel at home with extreme settings and social extrapolations.

A perfect example is the late Ken Grimwood’s Replay (Arbor 1987, winner of the 1988 World Fantasy Award). Published as a mainstream novel, it became a cult classic, the story of a burnt-out middle-aged radio journalist who dies and begins reliving his life over and over again in some alternate reality where he experiences the pain and exuberance of youth and adulthood pursued with passion, heartbreak and courage.

What are some of your favorite examples of parallel worlds or portal fantasies (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

Besides The Dark Tower and Replay, I loved the novels of Clifford D. Simak (Ring Around The Sun, Mastodonia and others), Philip Dick’s dark novels The Man In The High Castle and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, and adventure novels like Piers Anthony’sOmnivore/Orn/OX trilogy.

Simak was a master storyteller who, like Bradbury, was skilled at leading his small-town characters into fascinating circumstances. Reading Dick’s novels is like falling into a funhouse nightmare filled with paranoia and unreliable narrators. As a young reader they invaded my dreams. Unlike some readers, I loved the conclusion of King’s The Dark Tower VII, the idea of time turned back on itself but the ultimate hope of salvation.

And the best part of any parallel story, for writers and readers alike: we can always return, or cheat death, or take the characters and story in a new mind-bending direction.