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BIOLOG: TOM GREENE

By Richard A. Lovett

Biolog_TomGreene

Tom Greene is a testament to the value of persistence. Like many budding Analog writers, he fell in love with science fiction as a teenager and decided to try writing it. “It’s the stereotypical story,” he says.

His early stories didn’t sell, but Greene was undeterred. “I spent twenty-seven years writing completely unsuccessfully,” he says. “Hundreds of submissions, hundreds of stories.”

In the meantime, he’d been “supposed” to be a biologist. He was good at it, enjoyed it, and, like his high school teachers, presumed it would be his calling . . . until he realized it would mean spending a lot of time in the lab—not something he wanted to do. So “at the last moment,” he made a radical career shift. “I had pretty good grades in English,” he says, “so I made a sudden left turn into English literature.”

He wound up with a Master’s of Fine Arts degree, then got a Ph.D. in British literature and became an English professor at a community college near his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. But, despite the fact that none other than science fiction grandmaster Samuel R. (Chip) Delany had been his MFA thesis advisor, Greene’s stories continued not to sell.

Part of the problem, he now realizes, is that graduate-school writing programs tend to require writing a lot of work, written for grades. The incentive is to avoid wasting time experimenting and to focus on stories that will help you graduate, even if “your artistic direction may be pulling you a different way.” (During the whole process, he notes, “Chip was the one nice, shining part.”)

Greene’s epiphany came decades later when he joined the online writing group Critters and was reading another writer’s story. “It wasn’t bad,” he says, “just kind of boring.” Intrigued, he went all the way back to the pre-Golden-Age works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. “I read A Princess of Mars [1917] and couldn’t put it down,” he says. “[Burroughs is] racist and sexist and clichéd, but I couldn’t stop reading.”

Since then he’s decided that as long as readers care about what is happening, they are willing to forgive a lot of things literary critics see as flaws. For example, he notes that every semester he teaches (and rereads) George Orwell’s classic, 1984. “If you do that twice a year for twenty years,” he says, “you eventually start to see flaws.”

Maybe, he says, just as people remember the best parts of their personal relationships, they do the same with stories. “Maybe as writers we focus too much on avoiding flaws, without remembering it’s the high points that are going to stand out afterward,” he says. Not that avoiding flaws and writing good prose are mutually exclusive goals. “My ambition is to keep the reader engaged and also have something that resembles good writing,” he says.

Meanwhile, his advice to Analog readers is not to lose faith in the value of hard science fiction, even when it seems that other forms of speculative fiction are getting all the attention. “I think [science fiction] will always have a place in modern industrialized society,” he says. “I had a teacher in college who called it the mythology of the technical age. And while he wasn’t the first to say that, he was the first I heard say it. Science fiction tells us the possibilities for the Universe, and what our place might be. I don’t think there’s a substitute for that.”

And, he notes, “every time someone declares that hard science fiction is dead, [something like] The Martian comes out [and proves them wrong].”