The contributors to Between the Shelves, after being peppered with my incessant queries, thought it only fair to ask some of me in return. Below are their questions, and my answers.
Brian Clarke: What is the biggest thing you have learned from this self-publishing experience?
Hal J. Friesen: I learned how achievable it is to put out a product of professional quality using readily-available tools. There were some frustrating moments getting the book formatted properly and tweaking cover blurbs, but on the whole it felt great to see a self-published book that could easily have come from a professional publishing house.
I also need to mention how pleasantly surprised I was at the scope and variety of stories submitted to the anthology. I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was going to get from the EWG group members, but they surprised me in a very good way.
Vivian Zenari: What is your educational background, and how has that influenced your writing?
HJF: I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Science from UNBC with a Joint Major in Chemistry and Physics, and a Minor in Mathematics. Basically for my undergraduate degree I was trying to refuse specialization, which in hindsight might not have been a good approach in terms of employability. I had knowledge in many fields but was missing snippets from each to prevent me from being completely proficient. My Master’s Degree in Science, focusing on Plasmas and Photonics, helped me tune my abilities and knowledge toward more practical applications – as ridiculous as that might sound after working on laser fusion experiments.
The breadth of theoretical and experimental science experience I’ve gleaned through the years helps me to appreciate how certain science fiction ideas might be implemented, the realities both pleasant and unpleasant of logistics that really help make a fantastical proposition seem real. When I wrote in high school I was thinking of sci-fi notions in a more detached and academic way. After academia, ironically, I think about them more in terms of what’s happening on the ground, what’s happening to the little guy who has to pull the levers, which helps make science fiction more meaningful to readers.
Brad OH Inc: Hal, your story is about a man (Albert Einstein), gaining great knowledge from libraries, but also experiencing stunning existential terror. Do you consider libraries to be places of hidden danger, or is learning in general a threat to our sense of being?
HJF: I used to read these time machine choose-your-own-adventure books, and they were like puzzles where you got stuck in time loops until you figured out the correct sequence of events to escape a grisly fate. There was one particular instance where I was trying to avoid being guillotined, but kept getting sent back over and over again, being chased, being caught, having the blade fall – to the extent that I fell asleep and had nightmares about it. Libraries taught me to be utterly terrified of the Spanish Inquisition.
I think in our age of ubiquitous fear-mongering, it’s important to recognize libraries and their potential role in contributing to the general fright that fits so well in a terror-state. In this story I wanted to show that even a brilliant Einstein can’t escape the spine-tingling horror of a nameless source of danger. His existential cataclysm in a place of learning draws close parallels to the dread during the discovery of a newly-christened terrorist cell, or the announcement of the construction of yet another totally-necessary prison. I felt that the role of books and libraries in general has been undervalued in terms of their capacity to inspire totally irrational fear, and wanted to emphasize how deeply they can touch our being versus other forms of media.
BOH: Why did you choose Einstein as your character? Do you have some arcane knowledge of his life the rest of us aren’t privy to? Is there any biographical truth to this tale?
HJF: I have a copy of Einstein’s original manuscript on Special Relativity, and if you go to the trouble of reading it you find very strange references in the margins, almost as if he was placating some unseen observer. With extensive and advanced calligraphic decoding I was able to parse some of the scribbles he had tried to hide after the fact, after whatever it was had stopped peering over him threateningly. It was clear he had communion with a library spirit, or as he named it, Wilfred, though exactly which library was unclear – I used artistic liberty in that aspect.
It’s amazing how much you can discover when you read the source material rather than just taking secondary sources at face value.
BOH: Your passion for libraries is clear in this story. Share with us some of your most formative memories of being in the library. Is there any encounter in particular that stands out as a moment where knowledge was so startlingly thrust upon you?
HJF: Guillotines were startlingly thrust upon my unsuspecting neck in that traumatizing time machine book…
When I was a child, there were summer reading challenges where you got to move your pawn along footsteps lining the library walls, taking a step for every book you read. The path took a circuitous route around the two-story Prince George Public Library, and I would take out piles of books in order to get to the end. And I did.
My prize? PTSD from an impossible and horrific Spanish Inquisition time machine loop. And a ribbon.
The library used to have person-shaped chairs in bright colors, and I would sit near the large windows and browse through Goosebumps books, Tintin comics, and fantasy books. I would sway back and forth in the S-shaped chairs, knocking them flat onto the back, or upright again with a satisfying thunk. The trips to the library were a fairly regular occasion – my mother would tiptoe off to the romance section, and my brothers and I would spin the carousels housing adventure and horror novels.
Getting my first library card was actually one of my happiest childhood experiences, because I felt like I had graduated from this semi-weekly family ritual and had become an adult. It was a lot better than any actual graduation, that’s for sure.
BOH: Your writing has historically been focused on some pretty heavy scientific concepts. What do you consider to be one of the most interesting unanswered questions in modern science? Do you have any possible ‘dream scenario’ solution to this quandary that strikes you as the most appealing?
HJF: Not to avoid the question, but I guess the more interesting questions are ones we haven’t thought of yet. The untapped potential and dark corners of our understanding are very exciting places, which is why I enjoy good hard science fiction so much. One recent discovery was that the brain might have a lymphatic system, which opens the door to all sorts of medical progress and better development of humanity.
The unanswered question of life beyond Earth is a continually fascinating one for me, and my dream scenario is that I live long enough to see contact happen. That would be a great privilege.
The unification of gravity and the other fundamental forces is another issue that fascinates me. I remember the exact place where I first read Maxwell’s derivation of electromagnetism and the intimate relationship between them. I literally got up and wanted to run around (but couldn’t in my cramped dorm-room) because I was so excited by the beauty of something so connected and intertwined. Connectedness, for lack of a better term, is something I explore a lot in my writing, and it interests me equally in the natural world.
Similarly, the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity – the small with the very large – is also quite an interesting unanswered question. I’ve read a proposal that suggests the answer might be in our interpretation of time itself, which sent my head spinning in beautiful pirouettes.
I think some of the deeper philosophical-physics questions might go unanswered for a long time, but can make you experience some of the same existential schism Einstein does in the story. Questions like: what exactly is charge? What exactly is mass? We have equations that describe what they do but that’s different from knowing what something is. There’s a joke that if you want to drive a physicist crazy, ask him what charge is. Try it sometime.
BOH: As a follow-up to the former question, of the myriad scientific discoveries throughout history, which would you most like to have been a part of, and why?
HJF: I’ve developed an unlikely fondness for light and optics, so I think I would have loved to have been a part of Maxwell’s discoveries unifying electricity and magnetism. Any of the so-called Maxwell’s equations. Ampere, Gauss – to have been around any of those guys would have been gnarly and radical, and I’m sure my language wouldn’t drive them crazy. Gauss was a genius.
I would say quantum mechanics, but the results aren’t as easy to put your hands on or see with the eye. The laser would have been pretty amazing to discover. I got the chance to hear Charles Townes, one of the co-inventors of the laser, speak, and it was surreal to see him use a laser pointer to point at a slide of his original laser conception. He made lasers originally for astronomical purposes, and at the time of his talk (age over 90) he was still doing that. There’s a raw enthusiasm and electricity some scientists exude and I think to have been around any of those remarkable individuals would have been illuminating and inspiring outside of the discoveries themselves.