In 1995, science/SF writer Aimee Kratts interviewed me for a profile as part of her graduate work at Johns Hopkins (M.A. Writing, 1996). This profile led to an interview with me for Interzone, which was published in issue 120 in 1997. Her original profile, never before published, is printed here with permission.
I met Geoff Landis several years ago at Michigan State University in a dark dormitory hallway filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol. He was sitting on the floor, with his back against the wall, engaged in earnest but quiet conversation with another writer whom I did not know. These two were graduates of a workshop that I had just finished and so, I slid down the wall myself, drink in hand, and introduced myself.
At that time, I didn't know Landis had already won a Nebula award in 1990 for "Ripples in the Dirac Sea", and I couldn't have predicted that a few months later he would win the Hugo for "A Walk in the Sun." I certainly didn't realize that he was a NASA scientist who designed experiments that took place on Mars. I didn't know anything about him at all. What I discovered in that conversation was his superb mind, quick creativity, and, what amazed me later given his accomplishments, a well-regulated ego.
His latest Nebula nomination for "The Kingdom of Cats and Birds" (Science Fiction Age, September 1994), made me think that all we science fiction writers should take the time to learn a little more about Geoff Landis. I caught up with him this past spring to ask him about his work at NASA and his writing career.
Forty years old, of average height, average weight, red hair and pale skin, Geoff Landis was born in Detroit but lived all over the place in Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The son of an AT&T patent lawyer and a mother who had a degree in chemistry, Landis describes his boyhood home, as "a rather science-friendly house." Nobody in his family thought it particularly unusual that he went to the library once a week and took out a stack of eight science fiction books each time.
He had the requisite chemistry set that all scientists-to-be are given at an early age, but he says, "I got bored with it, I hate to admit, when I found out that chemistry was more a matter of titrating solutions and crystallizing precipitates than blowing things up and making mysterious compounds."
His real passion was model rockets and he devoted ten years to competition rocketry. In his senior year of high school, he presented a project called "The Zero-Volume Piston Launcher" which was a way to make a launch pad that gives the rocket an extra boost as it takes off. Twenty years later, people still use the grandson of Landis' invention for a little extra altitude. Landis says, "If MIT gave out degrees for what I really spent my time studying...I would have a PhD in model rockets, with a minor in science fiction." Instead, he received undergraduate degrees in physics and electrical engineering.
After MIT, Landis worked for Spire Corporation, a research and development firm that worked with solar cells. Landis started on a project to develop new methods to encapsulate solar cells against the environment and then went on to develop silicon solar cell technology. He also started the research on developing a low-cost manufacturing process for silicon solar cells, which is now one of Spire's major product lines.
As fiction writers go, Landis' interest in writing developed rather late. First, Landis decided to leave Spire Corporation and go to Brown University to work on his doctorate in physics. He chose Brown so he could work with Joseph Loferski, an important figure in solar cell development. During the summer between leaving Spire and the first semester at Brown, Landis started writing. At that time he really didn't intend to become a writer; he just thought that it would be neat to publi sh a few stories. In the spring semester of his second year in graduate school, Landis submitted "Elemental" to Analog. It became his first published story and it earned him a Hugo nomination for best novella in 1985 and almost more importantly, a John W. Campbell nomination for best new writer. "Seeing it appear in print and gather some attention was enough of a kick that I decided I ought to go further with this writing thing, and so I decided to apply to the Clarion [science fiction] workshop that summer."
Eleven years later, Landis now works for NASA in the photovoltaics branch, which is working on developing solar cells for space. He thinks up new ideas, and tries them out in the lab. At the Lewis Research Center, Landis has become the expert on the operation of solar cells in the Martian environment. "I designed a little experiment which will be on the next Mars mission, Pathfinder, which will be launched this December. [I] want to get a better measure of how much dust is going to deposit out of the atmosphere and onto the spacecraft. I'm really looking forward to seeing some data come back, which will be in July 1997. But since that experiment has already been delivered, it doesn't take up much of my time. [Right now], I'm involved in a project to grow ZnSe semiconductor layers onto solar cells, to try to improve the efficiency of next generation solar cells."
He's also working with the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA Headquarters on a new look at the concept of a "Solar Power Satellite," to convert sunlight in space to electricity, which can then be beamed back to Earth by microwaves to be used for terrestrial energy.
When I asked Landis if he sees humans living on the moon or Mars in the next century, or ever, he replied, "I could see that either way, I'm afraid. Exploration always proceeds in fits and starts, as technology comes along or as people perceive new resources to be exploited. Viewed from the point of view of a century or two ahead, I don't think that the progress we've made since the moon landing 25 years ago is so shabby, although it certainly does seem excruciatingly slow while we have to wait for it to happen. But can we keep making progress, slow as it may seem, in the next few decades, which everybody seems to project as a time of diminishing expectations and skimpy budgets? I don't know."
As far his science influencing his work, Landis thinks that being in a position where he can see actual science being done gives him a good feel for technology. In fact he says that he has a problem with most 'hard' science fiction he reads because he has to keep rewriting the story in his head to have it make sense technically.
Another thing he mulls about these days is the romanticized view of the scientist in fiction. He doesn't think that scientists are portrayed in a particularly realistic manner. His story "Dark Lady," scheduled for publication in Tomorrow, is an attempt to portray scientists in a more realistic manner.
As an experimental scientist, Landis also has ideas about how technology is portrayed in science fiction. He has a better feel for the fact that, in general, technology, doesn't work the way its supposed to. "Equipment doesn't work. Things fail. Rockets blow up. One of the clich‚s of science fiction is the way that some theorist has a great idea [and] puts together a gadget the next day that goes and does something. Well, heck, the average theorist couldn't tell a transistor from an electrolytic capacitor. When, in a science fiction story, somebody tries some desperate idea--you can tell, that's when they usually say 'it's a crazy idea, but it just might work'--let me clue you, it probably won't work."
It is somewhat fitting that after all Landis' successful work with solar panels, the first story he won an award for was about a woman on the moon who used solar panels to save her own life.
But what does the professional writing world think of Landis' integration of science and fiction?
Editor Gardner Dozois buys a great portion of Landis' work for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. He thinks Landis has two handicaps working against him; he is not prolific and he doesn't write novels. Yet despite those handicaps, he has won the two major science fiction awards and is popular with the readers. Why is that? "While there's hard science content [in Landis' stories], there's also a rich emotionalism. Lots of science fiction is bright clever ideas. In Geoff's case, the bright clever idea is supported by the emotional life of the story. He writes about science and the scientific world from a humanistic slant."
Science fiction critic Greg Feeley, however, believes that Landis' style comes more from simple formula than from a sophisticated, humanistic world view. "While Landis is plainly an intelligent writer, relatively little [of his work] has affected me. 'Ripples [in the Dirac Sea]', to me, has been his most interesting story, but it's basically built upon an enormous number of rickety coincidences. 'A Walk in the Sun' is basically a feel-good story about endeavor rewarded and it's not very interesting." Feeley does note that he has had an odd insight into the form of Landis' stories. "Geoff's stories about death are extremely static while his stories about life caper all over the place. Look at 'Ripples' and 'Rorvik's War.' The main character in both dies over and over again in short narrative fragments. 'Walk' lights into other territories."
Landis finds the critical analysis of the structural similarities of "Ripples" and "Rorvik's War" is interesting. He also thinks it's fortunate that the field of science fiction is big enough so that there's room for all sorts of different styles. Landis says he is proud of all the stories that he has written marking "A Walk in the Sun" as one of his favorites. Another of his favorites, which did not receive much attention, is "Beneath the Stars of Winter" (Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, January 1993). "I'll be interested to hear what [Greg Feeley] has to say about [my latest story] "Dark Lady" says Landis.
For his own reading pleasure, other than Physics Today, Landis says that he follows the work of Martha Soukup ("who has a superb sense of character"), Rod Garcia y Robertson ("who has an oddball feel for the past that gives a sense of actual people instead of just historical figures living there"), Phil Jennings, Michael Swanwick, and Bruce Sterling ("I'm blown away by [his] short stories"). He says he could name twenty more if he actually thought about it.
"The Kingdom of Cats and Birds," a fairy tale, is Landis' latest Nebula-nominated story. It's unlike any of Landis' previous work and shows a more obvious mastery of form. When I asked him what the impetus was behind leaving the realm of science fiction to write a fairy tale, he said, "It wasn't particularly premeditated. I had been reading Italo Calvino's collection of Italian folk tales, which rather set me to thinking about what makes a fairy tale, how a fairy-tale is both more and less structured than more modern forms of fantasy..." From there, says Landis, it was almost inevitable that he would try one for himself, to see what he could add, while staying true to the classic structure. "In fact, I wrote it just for my own amusement, not thinking that there might be a market that would want to buy a fairy tale; I was quite surprised to find out that not only was it salable, but nominated for an award." Thus "The Kingdom of Cats and Birds" can now be used as a prime illustration of an old writing adage, "Write what you like and worry about selling later."
Finally, curious about the passion with which Landis speaks about both science and writing, I asked him which was his greater love. He replied, "When things are going well, there's really nothing better than scientific work. Ninety-nine percent of the time, though, being a scientist is just putting in the groundwork. Actually, writing is a lot like that, too. I guess that writers and scientists both live for that one percent of the time when things are flowing almost by themselves."
Oh, that all our one percents could as fruitful as Geoff Landis'.