interview by Russell Lutz

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



by Justin Oldham
Publisher: Silverthought Press

ISBN-10: 0-9815191-1-3
ISBN-13: 978-0-9815191-1-1

240 pages

paperback: $11.99 $12.99 + S/H
e-book: $5.99

[click for details]


I N T E R V I E W :

Russell Lutz: Justin, you've built a future world in this novel that is clearly an extension of the current one, rather than some fantastic recreation. Can you talk a little about where the fact ends and the fiction begins, particularly dealing with the Kodiak Starport itself?

Justin Oldham: My father was a military helicopter pilot for twenty-one years. As a child, I spent many hours in and around the hangars and machine shops that he worked in. As a visually impaired person, it was never hard for me to sit in the cockpit of a helicopter and imagine that I was in a spaceship. My father's flight helmet is on display in my office to remind me of those experiences.

I'm not sure I could've developed Tales from the Kodiak Starport if I hadn't been in those machine shops to feel the grease, hear the welding, or smell the chemicals. There was a lot going on that I couldn't actually see. There was a lot I could touch, and I did. Aluminum airframes, instrument panels, and tools. As an adult, hangars and airfields still fascinate me. They feel bigger than they really are because I still can't resist the temptation to let my imagination run wild.

The "fact" is that the Kodiak Launch Complex is a real place. I first heard about it in late 1997. I couldn't help thinking about what the place might be like some day. The "fiction" came naturally, as I thought about the kinds of things that might happen at such a place on a daily basis.

RL: Tell me who some of your influences were for Tales. Not necessarily the authors you consider the "best", but the ones you are paying homage to, whose works inspired this book?

JO: I first encountered the concept of a 'starport' while reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, in 1975. I read Haldeman's Forever War in 1976. Like everyone else of my generation, I saw Star Wars in 1977. There's only one line I can still quote from that movie. "Mos Eisley space port. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

I like to imagine what I read. It's like having a little movie theater inside my head. The author's descriptions help me set the scene. My imagination does the rest. I read Michener's Space in 1984. He blended real world fact with his fiction. I blame him for the fact that I still prefer to write in that mode.

I'm not consciously trying to pay homage to anyone in Tales from the Kodiak Starport. I am willing to acknowledge my influences, which include Walter Jon Williams. Hardwired (1986), and Voice of the Whirlwind (1987) are still two of my favorites. I am still influenced by the cyberpunk genre. Metaphorically speaking, I like the smell of burning chrome just after midnight, when all Hell has broken loose.

RL: Was one of these stories the kernel of the idea, a short story that simply couldn't be contained? Or was the idea of an episodic collection of tales the original concept from Day One?

JO: This project went through several stages of development. The initial concept occurred to me in '97, when I heard the first news reports announcing the start of the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation. I started out in the usual way, drafting a conventional twenty-five chapter novel.

Years passed, and I wasn't getting any traction on the idea. I was at an air show one hot sunny afternoon, in 2006. I was struggling to photograph an F-117 stealth fighter, when I realized that I was too close. I couldn't get the whole thing in frame because I was too close. That's when it hit me. I needed to develop Kodiak in small bites.

Later that same year, I wrote "Necessary Measures" in one sleep-deprived weekend. The seven story format evolved from a series of discussions I had with friends and family. Why seven? I needed to build in a self-limiter. Otherwise, I would've over analyzed and over developed. The brief history that appears at the beginning of the collection was intended to serve as a bridge from the real world into the fictional world I was creating.

RL: There's an interesting mix of patriotism and governmental paranoia that runs through the book. Is this a mirror of your own beliefs, or is it simply a theme that you use to drive the tension between private and public enterprise?

JO: I've heard it said that you should write what you know. I'm a former civil servant, and politics is in my blood. I've been around the military all of my life. I know from experience why people mistrust government. I used to be part of the problem. Now, I'm one of many who advocate for solutions to what I see as excessive government.

My family has a long tradition of military service that dates back to the Civil War. I can't join the military due to my bad eyes, but I can still serve my country in other ways. The military and political themes in Kodiak are reflections of my own life experience. Politics and patriotism are two sides of the same coin. When we spend this currency, we get what we pay for. Sometimes, we don't invest it very well.

RL: Many of the central characters in the book are either current or former military men. What kinds of experience have you had with the military that may have informed your depictions of their lives and actions?

JO: I've been around the military for my entire life. Every two years, we moved from one Army post to the next. I've been to twenty-nine of the fifty States. I learned how to read using Army field manuals and aviation spec sheets. Many of my favorite childhood toys were surplus items and obsolete cast-offs. All of the really good Army brats know the lingo and chain of command by the time they are twelve years old.

My parents didn't quite know what do to with me, so I was raised as if I had no disabilities. I don't act like a victim, so it's easy for me to move through a variety of social circles. This includes the military community that I live in the middle of. My house is nestled in the take-off pattern for an Air Force Base. The F-15, F-16, and F-22 each make distinctly different sounds.

I feel an obligation to make my military depictions credible. I'll hear about it from my friends and neighbors if I get it wrong. I make it a priority to wear, use, or handle as much military gear as I can. I've got more than a few technical advisors who are willing to help me do research. I ask a lot of questions, because I can't always see some of what I'm dealing with.

RL: The chapter "There Are None So Blind" is clearly a personal one for you. The protagonist is—at least to start the story—legally blind. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're trying to say about the disabled and how they currently fit into society? Have any of the protagonist's revelations happened to you personally?

JO: I have been partially sighted since birth. Once upon a time, my vision was much worse than it is today. As I write this, I've had five major medical operations. I lost an eye to one, but the other four have been successful. I'm still classified as Legally Blind, but my vision has improved by two hundred percent. I can't see well enough to drive, but I can see well enough to jog without hitting stop signs and light poles… very often.

Disabled people have the same hopes and dreams that any "normal" person does. We want success just as much as anyone else. We want to overcome our adversities. We want to achieve. We don't want to be defined by our infirmities. The permanently disabled spend their lives fighting off two kinds of prejudice. The kind that means well, and the kind that doesn't mean well.

"There Are None So Blind" is an acknowledgement of these things, and much more. At some point in their challenging lives, the average blind person will daydream the what-if scenario of being fixed, repaired, or cured. What could we do with normal vision? It's a powerful fantasy that many of us eventually put aside. What would it be like?

We don't know, but it sounds pretty good. So, we keep on hoping. People with normal eyes seem to like them just fine, so we'd like to have some of that. "There Are None So Blind" can be read as a blind man's fantasy. It can also be viewed as one possible answer to the question of what one does with good eyesight, once they have it.

My life has been radically transformed each time I've survived another corneal transplant. Limitations that once governed my behavior have gone away. People and objects that I hadn't seen before are now visible and in focus. I like it very much, but the question that keeps me up at night is, what should I do with this new capability? I could lead a calm and quiet life. Or, I could push myself. What are my new limits? I don't know. Let's find out.

RL: What about space elevators? Won't they eventually make rocket launchers and piloting into LEO obsolete?

JO: I have no doubt that space elevators will someday be the norm. I didn't think that technology would be viable in the settings I created. Not at that point on the timeline. There is one more point of consideration.

I'm a scrapper. I don't know how to be anything else. I live in a State that embraces rugged individualism. We work and play in weather conditions that would cripple most cities in the Continental U.S. We share land and water with animals that think of us as food. If we have to ride dirty noisy rockets into space, we'll do it. Who knows? The first space elevator might be constructed by skilled Alaskans who have been working in low orbit for several decades.

RL: My favorite chapter is "Real Money". It's something I don't think I've ever seen in fiction: watching a character build a new business up out of almost literally nothing, right before our eyes. So, did Ivan succeed? Is he the millionaire he always wanted to be? I was half-expecting him to show up in the final act as a powerful tycoon…

JO: Starting a business from scratch has been done in every genre that I can think of. It's one of my favorite themes. Rags to riches. Poor boy makes good. Cyberpunk tends to be much more corporate, and now that I think of it, many SF writers in the 80's did the business thing. Even so, it remains one of my favorite story lines.

My father saved his money for twenty years, so that he could start his own aviation repair business. I helped him build the hangar, and to run the company for a short time. I've known many aviation "gear heads," and most have NOT succeeded in business. It's one thing to turn the wrenches, its another thing to balance the books. It's a rare person who has the knack to do both.

"Real Money" could easily be developed in to its own full-length novel. If I happen to be so lucky as to write More Tales from the Kodiak Starport, I guarantee that we'll see Ivan again. He's managed to surround himself with colorful cohorts, and he's got a good attitude. I'm sure he has many highs and lows in his fictional future.

RL: What's your favorite chapter? What's your least favorite chapter? And why?

JO: My favorite story is "Combat Fishing." It's the one I had fun with. There are more than a dozen references throughout the entire collection that Alaskans will get as inside jokes. Things which are funny, if you live here. The title of this piece is ironic, if you are familiar with the Alaskan fishing industry.

Even if the Alaskan references don't tickle your funny bone, the story is still a good read that romps along through some interesting scenery. I'm told that certain parts of this sorted salmon saga compare to the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, which I have never seen.

My least favorite story would have to be "The Price We Pay." Five pages of material were cut from the final draft. They had to go because the story was too long. Everything that was cut could be called "minutia." Kodiak was my first foray into science fiction. Before that, I'd been writing near-future political fiction. Old habits are hard to break, and I was getting too wrapped up in details that didn't move the story.

RL: What's next for you?

JO: I try to work two projects back-to-back. I write one while the other is being edited. I completed the full-length novel format of Bibix Unchained in December of 2007. It'll take all of 2008 for it to be cleaned up and made presentable. I'm shopping a lot of manuscripts around just now, so nothing happens very fast.

My current project is a space opera. Traditional format, twenty-five to thirty chapters. Lots of politics, lots of military. Just the kind of thing I need to keep me off the streets and out of the bars. Projected completion date is late October of 2008. That finish date may change if I get side-tracked by any good short story topics.


Copyright © 2008 Russell Lutz

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Russell Lutz is an Associate Editor of Silverthought.

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