James Blaylock on Philip K. Dick, His Complaints About Technology, and Steampunk

Steampunk-inspired photo

Steampunk-inspired photo

According to Wikipedia, writer James Blaylock “is noted for a distinctive, humorous style, as well as being one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre of science fiction.” Blaylock will be coming to Stanford this fall and we wanted to delve a little deeper into how he started steampunk, his relationship with famed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, and why James always complains about technology (or is that just the steampunk talking?).

GBSP: You are said to be “Grandfather of Steampunk.” Have you been surprised by the extent to which this genre/movement has expanded? Does some responsibility come with this role?

I’m very surprised at how Steampunk moved from being a subgenre of science fiction to being a subculture across the world. It’s a little bit surreal, actually. My responsibility, I think, is to write as well as I can. My most recent Steampunk novel, The Aylesford Skull, is the best of my Steampunk novels. My publisher wants another one, and I’m happy to write it. What I produce, however, has to be a positive contribution to the genre, and it has to make my readers happy. That means that the writing has to make me happy (me being the “audience of one” that E.B. White referred to). If there comes a time when I realize that I’m no longer writing what I want and need (as Lewis recommended) then I’ll find something else to write.

GBSP: You had a many year friendship with Philip K. Dick. Though he may not have been a mentor to you, as you have said, how did your conversations or your friendship help inspire you?

Phil Dick was one of those people who was larger than life. (Most of us are not.) He had written hundreds of stories and novels, he was widely read, he’d had strange, paranormal experiences and odd adventures, he’d had troubles and had overcome them, he had a crazy sense of humor, he had the ability to make friends instantly with perfect strangers. From the moment I met him he treated me as if we had been friends for years. He treated my wife the same way. He was eccentric and down-to-earth both. His writing was full of the stuff of his life, taken to wild extremes by his imagination and vision. His books are pure Philip K. Dick: only Phil Dick could have written them. I figured all of this out very quickly once we were hanging out together, and although I wasn’t conscious of it, it entirely reinforced my idea that a writer can be just who he or she is, with no pretences and no chasing after an audience. Back in the 60s there was a TV show based on the writing and cartoons of James Thurber titled “My World and Welcome to It.” I’ve always loved that title. It expresses the nature of Phil’s writing: it was his world, and he was happy to take you into that world for a spin, so to speak. That’s the kind of writer I wanted to be. If Phil made it work, then maybe I could too. As I said, I wasn’t conscious of this at the time – of the extent that I’d been influenced by Phil – but I can see it clearly when I look back.

GBSP: You have expressed some disdain for technology. What are your thoughts on the rise of digital publishing?

My attitude toward technology is complicated, although you’re right, I complain about it a lot – too much, probably. There’s a lot to complain of, however. (There’s a great article by Pico Iyer available online: “The Joy of Quiet.” It expresses some of my doubts about technology better than I can express them.) We need technology, obviously, if we’re going to feed ourselves and solve the problems of environmental degradation, etc. And I love the fact that I can find things I need to know in about a minute and a half online (like the Pico Iyer article). I’m also fond of the fact that readers can look online and have access to dozens of interviews like this one. Never before has it been so quick and easy to reach thousands of readers.

I have similarly mixed feelings about digital publishing. I’m crazy about books, and to my mind a book is a thing of paper and ink. I like what books look like when they’re lined up against the wall; I like what they smell like when I open them up; I like old books – the cut pages, the interesting bindings, old illustrations. I like possessing them, carrying them around. When one of my own books is published, and I hold in my hand, it feels like a solid accomplishment. An electronic book ceases to be anything at all when the battery dies. It disappears. It doesn’t look like anything at all. It doesn’t smell like anything or feel like anything. In many ways it doesn’t exist even when the battery is charged. On the other hand, because of digital publishing, all of my books and stories are in print today. Five years ago they were not in print. Readers can buy them for very little money, and so readers are buying them.

I dearly love readers. I want lots of them. It seems as if digital publishing is bringing me readers. Because of that digital publishing is a good thing. Even so, when I look at the title of one of my books in the contents page of an e-reader, I feel almost nothing. I’m happy it’s in there. But the physical thing, which is largely invisible, means nothing to me. Writers should do what they can to get their work out there, and digital publishing is one way to do that. A writer’s aim, however, should be to publish authentic books – books that a reader can find on a bookstore shelf. Long live real books and bookstores and libraries, I say. If in the meantime digital books can attract readers, then hooray for that too.

For more on James Blaylock, visit his website.

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