FROM THE KODIAK STARPORT
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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
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
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
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
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
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
isat least to start the storylegally 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
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
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
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.