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Notes on "Nine Hard Questions"

By Lewis Shiner

This was the title story of my first collection, where I had this to say:

I'd been reading some back volumes of Terry Carr's BEST OF THE YEAR and I thought I really had a handle on what it took to write an award-winning, best-of-the-year-anthologized story. Something epic, and yet very human. Lots of alien scenery and blatant sentiment. A lead character people could identify with, a catchy title, and a gimmick (the numbered sections).
I was wrong, of course. UFOs were the wrong subject, for one thing. There was a time when science fiction readers and flying saucer nuts were lumped together, and the residual bitterness is still around, especially among the older editors. This may be one of the last real taboos in SF.
Also I made no effort to show the reader a good time. Instead I tried, to the best of my ability, to be in the reader's face as much as possible, to defeat every audience expectation I could think of-and to hell with whether it was any fun or not. As my friend Paul King once said, "This is the eighties. Who the hell wants to have fun?"
I did do my research, however. It seems to be the same research Whitley Strieber did for COMMUNION. this is why--surprise!--my aliens look just like his, even though my story was written five years earlier. All the saucer stuff is based on a consensus of what people who believe in that sort of thing have written. This is the same approach I use in researching other areas of mysticism, such as quantum physics or medicine.
My other motivation in writing the story (after fame and fortune) was to make a point about aliens. Most of the other aliens in this collection are used in the standard way, i.e., as metaphors for the "otherness" of other people. In this story I wanted to express my conviction, as forcefully as possible, that if we ever ran into real aliens, we wouldn't have a hope in hell of understanding them.

The original version had the nine questions spelled out--in fact I started with a list of questions as a sort of outline, once I had the basic idea of the story. It was quickly obvious that it was better if the actual questions were left to the imagination.


© 2007 by Lewis Shiner. First published in Fiction Liberation Front, November 2007. Some rights reserved.

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