Brad R. Torgersen is a healthcare computer geek by day, a U.S. Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer on the weekend, and a science fiction and fantasy writer by night. He has contributed stories to multiple professional publications, including Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Russia’s Esli, Poland’s Nowa Fantastyka, and several anthologies.
Brad’s novelette “Exanastasis” was a winner in the international Writers of the Future contest, and his story “Outbound” later won the AnLab Readers’ Choice Award in its category, for the publishing year 2010. “Outbound” was also included in the Dell Magazines ten-year Analog retrospective anthology, Into the New Millennium: Trailblazing Tales from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, 2000-2010.
“Ray of Light,” also published in Analog, is currently nominated for both the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award in its category, for the publishing year 2011. As of Spring 2012, Brad is also nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Professional Science Fiction and Fantasy, with stories forthcoming in Analog, Phil Athans’s collaborative project Tales from the Fathomless Abyss, Ian Watson’s The Mammoth Book of SF Wars, as well as the Flying Pen Press military SF anthology, Space Battles. Brad lives in northern Utah with his wife and daughter.
First of all, congratulations on the three latest award nominations — the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell. That’s quite the reception!
It’s boggling when you consider the fact I was an unpublished nobody barely two years ago. If someone had come to me in April 2010 and told me I’d be on the three biggest award ballots in science fiction by May 2012, I’d have said they were nuts. Yet, here I am. I can only thank all the readers who have generously supported my writing since I had my double-debut in Writers of the Future 26 and the November 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I like to think my stories speak for themselves. And win or lose, I hope to continue to produce the kinds of stories my readers have told me they both like and enjoy.
One of the things about your work that strikes me as both fresh and very satisfying is the way you drag your protagonists into the darkest places imaginable, or at least to a point of near-hopelessness — and then, through faith and perseverance, they manage to conquer whatever adverse situation you’ve put in their way. How much of your own personal faith would you say informs this kind of pattern? Or do you see it as a pattern at all?
Oh, it’s definitely a pattern. Semi-deliberate, I suppose. To quote Captain James T. Kirk, I don’t believe in the no-win scenario. Yet all of us face hopelessness and tragedy in our lives. It is an inescapable part of existence. Some writers discover this truth and they come to dwell on it as if hopelessness and despair are the sum of all things. For me, I think hopelessness and despair are the beginning, not the end. And yes, my personal faith — I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — informs my view a great deal.
Life is difficult. Almost all of us will encounter various life crises which will seem insurmountable. The question then becomes: do we give up and let the problems win, or do we reach deep down into ourselves and discover resources and fortitude we never knew we had? It takes courage to have hope, especially in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles. It takes even more courage to translate that hope into actions which can make a real, positive difference. My faith has infused me with this sensibility, so it blends into my stories.
Of course, the story I have in mind is “Ray of Light,” but really, “Outbound” and “The Chaplain’s Assistant” deal with similar struggles. One of the ideas in political philosophy I find compelling is that society often needs the “prophecy” element of religion — that is, a prophet – in order to make social progress and solve problems. Is that a theme you try to convey in your work, or is it something more complex?
Hmmmm, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying we need leaders who can speak to us on not just a practical level, but an emotional and spiritual level as well? I can’t say I’ve deliberately set out to create such people in my stories. Almost always, I begin with commoners. Men and women who are otherwise average and unremarkable. Then I thrust them into remarkable situations, and I see how they react. Often this is an organic process, and with my short fiction at least, I never know where the characters are going to go until they get up off the page and assume a life of their own. At least in my mind, anyway.
When I look at history, many of the heroes we admire were just ordinary people, prior to whatever events transpired in their lives to bring them to greatness. I look at the Congressional Medal of Honor winners from World War II or Vietnam and it’s plain to me that most of them never determined to be heroes. Life just stuck them into difficult or deadly situations, and they found ways to win. Not always survive, mind you. But still win. In the history of my own church, there are numerous stories and instances of common men and women surviving and thriving, sometimes against terrible odds and under the clouds of immense tragedy and despair. I think all of this informs my writing to one degree or another. Because I admire these real-life instances of ordinary people becoming extraordinary in the face of danger, challenge, and hardship.
The other major strength of your fiction, I think, is the application of theoretical science in original or fresh ways. What kind of research do you do to get that sort of thing right? What nonfiction do you tend to read?
Blame it on Carl Sagan. I first watched his excellent Cosmos series on PBS in the early 1980s when I was perhaps six or seven years old. A lot of the science contained in that program was over my head, but Cosmos really turned me on to science. Especially the space sciences, as well as space technology. I’d already been attracted to science fiction in televised form — the original Battlestar Galactica being a good example. But Cosmos exposed me to theories and ideas which might actually be put into practice, if not now, then perhaps in the future. From there, a great deal of my curiosity about science and engineering blossomed, and though I am purely lay-educated on these disciplines, I have a strong enough grasp to survive Stanley Schmidt’s scrutiny.
I think the key thing that I try to remember when I sit down to do some of my science fiction, is the fact that Larry Niven — whom I have read extensively and whom I admire very much — was very gifted at taking interesting or even esoteric science and physics ideas, and wrapping compelling human stories around them.
That’s the tricky part. And the research is largely an exercise in osmosis. Every time I watch a science series on TV, or read an article, or see something on the internet, my brain is storing details for later use. Even if I don’t realize it. The conceit of “Ray of Light,” which is up for the Hugo and the Nebula, came from an article I read two years ago. Just one article. But it was a fascinating article, and I remembered it when I had to sit down and write a story about the end of the world. The research was not planned.
You’ve often voiced your admiration for Larry Niven, calling him your number one influence as a writer. Who are some of the other authors you read regularly or particularly admire?
Larry Niven is the man who taught me to love short science fiction pieces with rigorous “hard” science in them. I have read the vast majority of his books and most of his stories, and I am fortunate in that this year I am collaborating on a project with him for Arc Manor books. The other authors I read or admire? I always have to name Allan Cole and his (late) writing buddy Chris Bunch. They did a spectacular, sprawling series called the Sten series, which came out from Del Rey Books in the 80s. Sten is now available for download as e-books, and Orbit is doing a magnificent set of hardcopy Sten omnibus editions, the first of which, Battlecry, is already out, and the second of which, Juggernaut, is due out this November. Cole and Bunch are Pulitzer-nominated writers who did a great deal of work in Hollywood, at the same time they wrote excellent war and science fiction.
I could also point to my several mentors who have been actively helping me since I broke into the field: Dave Wolverton (a.k.a. David Farland), Kevin J. Anderson, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Mike Resnick, just to name a few. I’ve been very blessed to have Resnick especially as my “Writer Dad,” and it’s been a pleasure working on several stories with him, one of which, “Peacekeeper,” is out soon in Ian Watson’s compilation titled, The Mammoth Book of SF Wars. Mike and I have another story out, “Guard Dog,” in Space Battles from Flying Pen Press, and a story called “The Ascent,” in Phil Athans’s The Fathomless Abyss shared-universe project. Mike’s not only the most-nominated man in science fiction history, for Hugo awards, he’s won a bunch of them too, plus virtually every other award in existence. And he’s a hell of a nice guy. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher, who has also become a good friend.
Something we have in common, I gather, is that we both come from a background of reading media tie-ins prior to discovering more traditional science fiction. For me, it’s always been Star Wars – I still pick up the occasional Expanded Universe novel, because they make for an entertaining read. If you could write a novelization or tie-in novel, would you go with Star Trek, or Tron?
I’d have to say Star Trek above all. Even though one of the first actual novels I ever read was Brian Daley’s book Han Solo’s Revenge, which may or may not still be regarded as canon in the Expanded Universe that Lucas has created since the ’80s. Something about the future history of Star Trek still fascinates me, and when I was a teenager I devoured dozens of the Pocketbooks Star Trek novels, in addition to watching and re-watching the television series as well as the movies.
At one point my writerly aspiration was strictly to find a way to write the “in-between” years, featuring Captain Sulu and the U.S.S. Excelsior, as well as Chekov and his (presumed) starship command. It obviously never happened, but because I loved and adored these media fiction tie-ins so much during my genesis (no pun intended) I have a soft spot in my heart for them to this day. Tron? Tron would also be a dream project, though given the revelations of the second movie, I am not quite sure where I’d go with it. I am more curious now to see where Disney goes with it.
Speaking of storytelling outside of original fiction . . . do you have any other films or television series that you consider a major influence on your work?
The original Battlestar Galactica, definitely. As well as the kitbashed anime series that was known in the United States as Robotech. From the big screen there is, of course, Tron, and the Indiana Jones movies, and some of Ridley Scott’s work, such as Blade Runner. James Cameron’s done some classics, such as the first two Terminator films and Aliens. Really, I am not much for “small” movies. When I look at cinema, I want story as well as spectacle. I thought the three Lord of the Rings movies were some of the absolute best Big Picture storytelling done in the last twenty years, bar none. I also liked the movie version of 300, which was adapted from the Frank Miller graphic novel.
In all of these things, I am looking for the same elements I like in my favorite books: sweep, panorama, big stakes, tremendous heroes, and a certain degree of ethical and moral assertion. I greatly dislike the deliberately ambiguous ending, or the deliberately ambiguous protagonist. These are trendy, and will probably remain trendy. But our motion pictures are our modern version of campfire stories. They are twentieth and twenty-first century legends. They should have a lot of legendary qualities to them. Star Wars – the first three movies — succeeds admirably in this way.
Do you have a favorite band or musician?
Oh gosh, that’s a tangent ninety degrees to movies. I am not sure I can name just one. I am hugely fond of electronic music in most forms, though I enjoy many other types of music too. About the only music I can’t say I like much is country western, or rap. Beyond that, it’s all good.
I will say there are certain specific musicians and artists I believe were very key to my personal development; my “soundtrack of life,” if you will: Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, The Art of Noise, Vangelis, Harold Budd & Brian Eno, and so forth. Among recent finds — thank goodness for MP3 direct download from Amazon.com! — I really like the groups Helios and Hammock. As well as Royksopp, out of Norway. In most of these instances, it’s instrumental music. Almost all of it electronic or semi-electronic in nature. I also like composer James Horner’s movie work.
How has your military career had an impact on your writing? Do you see yourself bringing more military science fiction elements into your work?
I think my ten-year (so far) career in the Army Reserve has obviously given me an insider’s view, when I sit down to write a piece of military-oriented science fiction. More deeply, however, I think my military experience has taught me a lot about what it takes as a person to not quit, to not give up, and to outlast difficult situations. Here again I will point back to something I said earlier: Difficulty is the beginning, not the end. I am not sure I understood this before I joined up, but I definitely became intimately familiar with this after I enlisted.
There are things I’ve done in my military life which still make the civilian, full-time side of me sit up and say, “Man, we are so crazy for doing that!” And yes, I see myself working to bring a lot more of this to my fiction. Especially with books, where I can tell a much bigger kind of story and incorporate more characters with larger backgrounds, and more to gain and/or lose.
You’ve hinted that we may see a Brad R. Torgersen novel on shelves in the imminent future. Anything you can disclose on that front yet? If not, what sort of books do you hope to publish?
Yes, at this point it seems inevitable. Though I won’t disclose specifics, simply because so much is in flux right now. I don’t want to bait and switch. Like I said with the last question, books are a bigger canvas than short fiction. You can do more with them, and there is a wider — and more lucrative — audience. But I’ve discovered that some of the key skills I developed for successfully selling short fiction, don’t necessarily work when I am doing book-length work.
So I have had to go back to the drawing board a lot and invent new skills for myself, often with the help of teachers. I mentioned Dave Wolverton earlier. He does some phenomenal workshops on novels and writing outlines for them. He definitely has his finger on the pulse of what can take a good idea or character, and turn them into a book that’s not just good, but which also has the potential to be a bestseller. Many of his students are current superstars. Stephenie Meyer. Brandon Sanderson. Just to name two. I am hoping to bring a little bit of that to my books, though again I won’t give details because a lot is in flux.
I recall you mentioning something about one of your goals as a novelist being to build the kind of audience rapport that Orson Scott Card managed with his universally acclaimed novel Ender’s Game. Is that still something you’re aiming for?
Absolutely. Some writers aim for narrow audiences with niche or critical appeal. I think this is a recipe for a silent career. I’d rather go the opposite direction. The so-called “Enderverse” is one of the most widely-read science fiction epics of all time. It’s second probably only to Dune, in terms of its audience appeal across generations, and now that it’s going to be on the big screen, with presumably a big budget and some big stars, I expect the Ender’s Game saga to explode all over again.
This is the kind of thing I sort of think all writers should aim for: timeless appeal to generations of people. Not all of us will have it. Probably most of us won’t trip across that specific series of ideas, or characters, or that combination of factors which take a good novel or a very-good novel, or novel series, and elevate them to the status of timeless, commercially-successful, and widely-read classics.
Tolkien did it with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Herbert (and his son, with Kevin J. Anderson) have done it with the Dune books. Orson Scott Card did it with Ender’s Game. Rowling clearly did it with Harry Potter. I fully expect the Potter books and movies to be going strong in twenty years. Maybe even fifty years? That’s the sort of longevity that keeps an author alive in the minds of the public long after he or she is dead. That’s impact!
Any inkling as to what makes that book at once so fun and so resonant?
It’s the story of an underdog who goes on to be the big hero, and it’s set in a near-magical future where the hero gets to journey far from home and engage in fantastic battles, both real and virtual. These are exciting to most people during that crucial period between eight and perhaps twenty-five years of age, when our tastes in music and books and motion pictures and television solidify. Everyone knows about how hard it is growing up. Many of us know what it’s like to be bullied, or even to be the bully. Each of us longs for the chance to shine, to show our quality, as the fictional Faramir once remarked.
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is the runt who, through his skill and brains, overcomes multiple social and practical obstacles, and ultimately leads humanity to an impossible victory over the Bugger threat. And because the setting is very much current with emerging entertainment technologies which are 3-D and virtual in nature, the Battle School seems as plausible today as it did when Ender’s Game first came out. I could go on, but I think I have covered the main gist of it. I think the Harry Potter books do a lot of the same things, only they were told with magic, not technology. Assuming the motion picture version of Ender’s Game does well, I expect the Enderverse to thrive on the big screen just as much as Potter, or The Hunger Games.
Well, I certainly hope that we get to see a novel from you soon, and as always I look forward to your next appearance in Analog. Thanks again for dropping by to answer some questions, Brad. Best of luck at the Hugo Awards ceremony. I’ll be there in Chicago rooting for you!
Thanks a lot, I appreciate the opportunity to write about this stuff. As for Analog, I know of at least two stories coming in the not-too-distant future. “Strobe Effect” was written with my friend and fellow Analog MAFIA member, Alastair Mayer. And there is the solo stand-alone story, “The Exchange Officers,” which is a military science fiction piece; which makes it a rarity, as Stan Schmidt sets rather high standards for anything military in flavor that comes across his desk.