Today we've got a heavy hitter in Sci-fi, Martin Shoemaker! An award winning author, I'm thrilled to have had time with him. Let's check out his bio: Martin L. Shoemaker is a programmer who writes on the side... or maybe it's the other way around. He told stories to imaginary friends and learned to type on his brother's manual typewriter even though he couldn't reach the keys. (He types with the keyboard in his lap still today.) He couldn't imagine any career but writing fiction... until his algebra teacher said, "This is a program. You should write one of these."
Fast forward 30 years of programming, writing, and teaching. He was named an MVP by Microsoft for his work with the developer community. He wrote fiction, but he gave up on submitting until his brother-in-law read a chapter and said, "That's not a chapter. That's a story. Send it in." It won second place in the Baen Memorial Writing Contest and earned him lunch with Buzz Aldrin. Programming never did that!
Martin hasn't stopped writing (or programming) since. Today he writes field diagnostic software for big truck transmissions, and continues writing fiction as well. His work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Galaxy’s Edge, Digital Science Fiction, Forever Magazine, Writers of the Future, and numerous anthologies including Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF 4, Man-Kzin Wars XV, The Jim Baen Memorial Award: The First Decade, Little Green Men—Attack!, More Human Than Human: Stories of Androids, Robots, and Manufactured Humanity, Avatar Dreams, and Weird World War III. His Nebula-nominated Clarkesworld story “Today I Am Paul” explores the logical consequences of a medical care android with empathy, able to understand how its actions affect its patient’s emotional state. It appeared in four different year’s best anthologies and eight international editions. He expanded that story into his debut novel, Today I Am Carey (published by Baen Books in March 2019), in which the android learns more about humanity through life with its human family. His novel The Last Dance was published by 47North in November 2019, and was the number one science fiction eBook on Amazon during October’s prerelease. The sequel, The Last Campaign was published in October 2020.
And now onto his questions and answers!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been a writer or storyteller of some sort literally as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is telling stories about my imaginary friends, before I could read. And at around 6 years old, I was fascinated by my brother’s typewriter. I could write REAL BOOKS with that.
I first wanted to be a professional writer when I was 13, and I read a story in Asimov’s from a 14-year-old writer. Plus I saw Barry Longyear and Somtow Sucharitkul debut as writers, and I realized that writers aren’t born that way, they actually become writers by submitting stories until they sell. It was my first peek behind the curtain.
It took 44 years for me to figure out how to make that happen, but that was the start.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
Irregular and irresponsible. I have no schedule, and I should. I want to dictate every night at 6 p.m., but it seldom works that way. Last spring when I actually stuck to that schedule, I wrote most of a novel in five weeks.
What actually happens is I find a spare hour with nothing else to do, and I start dictating. It might be as I drive, it might be on the treadmill, or it might just be in my quiet chair in my Mike Resnick alcove. It might even be live in front of an audience. Wherever it is, I talk for an hour or so and generate about 3,000 words. Then I transcribe them, clean them up, and paste them into my work in progress.
Mike Resnick’s Celestial/Terrestrial Globe, my writing inspiration.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Dictating in front of an audience. And enjoying the hell out of it.
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
The old reliables: web searches, asking my Facebook Friends, and Wikipedia. Those give me starting points for deeper research.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
I’ve published three. I’ve finished four, and I have three or so in progress (plus two or three dictated and waiting to be transcribed).
As for my favorite? That’s a really tough call. Each one is personal to me, but in different ways. My favorite is usually the one I’m writing now, but I can’t recommend that one to readers (yet).
I will say that Today I Am Carey is my most emotionally moving. That one is special. The short story on which it is based, “Today I Am Paul”, will outlive me.
What is the first book that made you cry?
Enemy Mine by Barry Longyear. Decades later, he completely crushed me with The Enemy Papers, which includes Enemy Mine. No spoilers, just read it.
Honorable mention to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, which I read at about the same time. It’s the spiritual predecessor to “Today I Am Paul”.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
A belief in The One True Path. There isn’t one, and anyone telling you there is is either naïve or trying to sell you something. Kipling was right:
There are nine-and-sixty ways Of constructing tribal lays And-every-single-one-of-them-is-right!
This is frightening. Aspiring writers want guidance, and all guidance is conditional. If you treat guidance as a rule, you’ll never find your own way. It’s guidance, it’s a suggestion, it’s not a rule.
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
Do you want the happy feel good answer, or reality?
Happy feel good: Be humble. Don’t have ego. “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” as Clint Eastwood said in some film.
Reality: Fred Brooks once said of software development (loosely paraphrased) that the job is practically impossible, and you have to be arrogant enough to believe you can do the impossible or you won’t last. (He also said that ego is destructive, so it’s complicated.) I think writing is like that. You need enough ego to believe you can make it, or you won’t survive. Nobody likes a writer with a big ego, but you need enough ego.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections between each book?
I have many books and stories in my Blue Collar Space universe, including two of my novels, The Last Dance and The Last Campaign. Many of my stand-alone stories have series potential. My current project is a nine-book modern fantasy series set in what I call the Congruent Universe. I started with book 9, and then discovered the other books hidden within.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Give up giving up! My first submission, at age 14, got a personal rejection. I didn’t know what that meant. I got discouraged, and I gave up. For four decades, I would take a stab at submitting, get rejected, and give up. At 47, somehow a switch flipped, and I kept trying. A little over a year later, I made my first sale. A few months later, I sold a story to Analog, and then another. My big mistake was giving up.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
My dictation tools. Around $600 for a professional recorder, a cardioid microphone, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional. That’s about what it would cost to hire a human transcription service to transcribe 48,000 words. At my current rate of productivity, that’s 16 hours of dictation. I can do that in two weeks or less. My transcription service, iDictate.com, is really professional and provides great service; but if I paid for human transcription on a regular basis, I would go broke.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs. It vies with The Lord of the Rings for my favorite fantasy ever, but The Lord of the Rings is hardly under-appreciated.
If I had a couple hundred million dollars to spare, I would turn The Face in the Frost into a movie starring Ian McKellan as Prospero and Patrick Stewart as Roger Bacon. It would be a blockbuster hit.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters, if anything?
To never tell them.
It’s not wise to base a character on any one real person—unless that person is yourself, because the character will be based on yourself no matter who else is an influence. Your characters will necessarily be amalgams of at least two people, probably more, as you adapt traits and behaviors from multiple characters. So it’s better not to tell anyone that a character is “based on” them, because they’ll have expectations that you’ll never meet.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
One unpublished. At least five half-finished counting the one I’m writing now.
What do you have coming next?
The only things I’ve sold recently are short works.
· “Riding the Storm Out” in Gunfight at Europa Station from Baen, edited by David Boop. Technically this is out already, but the printing has been delayed. I’m not sure if print copies will be available yet by the time this interview runs. It’s a sequel to my Blue Collar Space novel, The Last Campaign.
· “A Line in the Stars” in Weird World War IV, coming in March from Baen, edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett. This is a story of espionage in orbit, and it might grow into a novel in the future.
· “Today I Go Home” in Robosoldiers: Thank You for Your Servos, coming in June from Baen, edited by Stephen Lawson. This is set in the same universe as Today I Am Carey and involves one of Carey’s friends caught up in the aftermath of a tropical war.
· “Today I Know” in an anthology on the history of robots, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Robert Silverberg. This one is a Carey story, occurring as a “missing chapter” of Today I Am Carey. This one is special to me, and not just because I get to work with Bryan Thomas Schmidt again. See, the first paperback science fiction anthology ever was The Pocket Book of Science Fiction. My mom owned a copy, and I read it repeatedly while growing up. This book largely defined print science fiction for me when I was young. Just the titles are enough to give me a nostalgic thrill to this day. These were formative stories for me, including “Moxon’s Master” by Ambrose Bierce and “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The final table of contents for the Schmidt/Silverberg anthology is subject to change, but “Moxon’s Master” is in there. There’s also a Benet story (though I’m sure it won’t be “By the Waters of Babylon”: no robots). It still makes me nostalgic to see Bierce and Benet in the same table of contents. To see my name alongside theirs (plus Silverberg, Schmidt, Dick, Bradbury, Williamson, Leiber, Wilson, Levinson, Scholes, Cooper, and Willis!) is like seeing my writing come full circle.
In addition, I’ll soon finish and publish Making Story Models, a book on visual modeling for stories.
Web site: https://shoemaker.space/
Excerpt from Today I Am Carey
“Good morning,” the small, quavering voice comes from the medical bed. “Is that you, Paul?”
Today I am Paul. I activate my chassis extender, giving myself 3.5 centimeters additional height so as to approximate Paul’s size. I change my eye color to R60, G200, B180, the average shade of Paul’s eyes in interior lighting. My silicone flesh stretches, and I flood it with pigments to adjust my skin tone as well. When I had first emulated Paul, I had been troubled that I could not quickly emulate his beard; but Mildred never seems to notice its absence. The Paul in her memory has no beard.
The house is quiet now that the morning staff have left. Mildred’s room is clean but dark this morning, with the drapes concealing the big picture window. Paul would not notice the darkness (he never does when he visits in person), but my empathy net knows that Mildred’s garden outside will cheer her up. I set a reminder to open the drapes after I greet her.
Mildred leans back in the bed. It is an advanced home care bed, completely adjustable and with built-in monitors. Mildred’s family spared no expense on the bed (nor other care devices, like myself). Its head end is almost horizontal and faces her toward the window. She can only glimpse the door from the corner of her eye, but she does not have to see to imagine that she sees. This morning she imagines Paul, so that is who I am.
Synthesizing Paul’s voice is the easiest part, thanks to the multimodal dynamic speakers in my throat. “Good morning, Ma. I brought you some flowers.” I always bring flowers. Mildred appreciates them no matter whom I am emulating. The flowers make her smile during eighty-seven percent of my “visits.”
“Oh, thank you,” Mildred says, “you’re such a good son.” She holds out both hands, and I place the daisies in them. But I do not let go. One time her strength failed, and she dropped the flowers. She wept like a child then, and that disturbed my empathy net. I do not like it when she weeps.
Mildred sniffs the flowers, then draws back and peers at them with narrowed eyes. “Oh, they’re beautiful! Let me get a vase.”
“No, Ma,” I say. “You can stay in bed, I brought a vase with me.” I place a white porcelain vase in the center of the night stand. Then I unwrap the daisies, put them in the vase, and add water from a pitcher that sits on the breakfast tray. I pull the night stand forward so that the medical monitors do not block Mildred’s view of the flowers.
I notice intravenous tubes running from a pump to Mildred’s arm. I cannot be disappointed, as Paul would not see the significance, but somewhere in my emulation net I am stressed that Mildred needed an IV during the night. When I scan my records, I find that I had ordered that IV after analyzing Mildred’s vital signs during the night; but since Mildred had been asleep at the time, my emulation net had not engaged. I had operated on programming alone.
I am not Mildred’s sole caretaker. Her family has hired a part-time staff for cooking and cleaning, tasks that fall outside of my medical programming (though I am learning), and also two nurses. The staff also gives me time to rebalance my networks. As an android, I need only minimal daily maintenance; but an emulation net is a new, delicate addition to my model, and it is prone to destabilization if I do not regularly rebalance it, a process that takes several hours per day.
So I had “slept” through Mildred’s morning meal. I summon up her nutritional records, but Paul would not do that. He would just ask. “So how was breakfast, Ma? Nurse Judy says you didn’t eat too well this morning.”
“Nurse Judy? Who’s that?”
My emulation net responds before I can stop it: “Paul” sighs. Mildred’s memory lapses used to worry him, but now they leave him weary, and that comes through in my emulation. “She was the attending nurse this morning, Ma. She brought you your breakfast.”
“No she didn’t. Anna brought me breakfast.” Anna is Paul’s oldest daughter, a busy college student who tries to visit Mildred every week (though it has been more than a month since her last visit).
I am torn between competing directives. My empathy net warns me not to agitate Mildred, but my emulation net is locked into Paul mode. Paul is argumentative. If he knows he is right, he will not let a matter drop. He forgets what that does to Mildred.
The tension grows, each net running feedback loops and growing stronger, which only drives the other into more loops. After 0.14 seconds, I issue an override directive: unless her health or safety are at risk, I cannot willingly upset Mildred. “Oh, you’re right, Ma. Anna said she was coming over this morning. I forgot.” But then despite my override, a little bit of Paul emulates through. “But you do remember Nurse Judy, right?”
Mildred laughs, a dry cackle that makes her cough until I hold her straw to her lips. After she sips some water, she says, “Of course I remember Nurse Judy. She was my nurse when I delivered you. Is she around here? I’d like to talk to her.”
While my emulation net concentrates on being Paul, my core processors tap into local medical records to find this other Nurse Judy so that I might emulate her in the future if the need arises. Searches like that are an automatic response any time Mildred reminisces about a new person. The answer is far enough in the past that it takes 7.2 seconds before I can confirm: Judith Anderson, RN, had been the floor nurse 47 years ago when Mildred had given birth to Paul. Anderson had died 31 years ago, too far back to have left sufficient video recordings for me to emulate her. I might craft an emulation profile from other sources, including Mildred’s memory, but that will take extensive analysis. I will not be that Nurse Judy today, nor this week.
My empathy net relaxes. Monitoring Mildred’s mental state is part of its normal operations, but monitoring and simultaneously analyzing and building a profile can overload my processors. Without that resource conflict, I can concentrate on being Paul.
But again I let too much of Paul’s nature slip out. “No, Ma, that Nurse Judy has been dead for thirty years. She wasn’t here today.”
Alert signals flash throughout my empathy net: that was the right thing for Paul to say, but the wrong thing for Mildred to hear. But it is too late. My facial analyzer tells me that the long lines in her face and her moist eyes mean she is distraught, and soon to be in tears.
“What do you mean, thirty years?” Mildred asks, her voice catching. “It was just this morning!” Then she blinks and stares at me. “Henry, where’s Paul? Tell Nurse Judy to bring me Paul!”
My chassis extender slumps, and my eyes quickly switch to Henry’s blue-gray shade. I had made an accurate emulation profile for Henry before he died two years earlier, and I had emulated him often in recent months. In Henry’s soft, warm voice I answer, “It’s okay, hon, it’s okay. Paul’s sleeping in the crib in the corner.” I nod to the far corner. There is no crib, but the laundry hamper there has fooled Mildred on previous occasions.
“I want Paul!” Mildred starts to cry.
I sit on the bed, lift her frail upper body, and pull her close to me as I had seen Henry do many times. “It’s all right, hon.” I pat her back. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of you. I won’t leave you, not ever.”