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SunLit Interviews

Interest in paleontology, evolution prompted Colorado author to take the (very) long view of humanity

When he found himself struggling, Gary Raham abandoned a traditional approach to sci-fi and went tongue-in-cheek. Then the novel practically wrote itself.

Author and illustrator Gary Raham. (Handout)

Author and illustrator Gary Raham loves to engage kids (and adults) with his stories and illustrations.

He has written 19 books of science fact and/or science fiction and numerous nature articles.

Raham writes science columns for The North Forty News and Colorado Gardener Magazine and serves as Assistant Editor for Trilobite Tales, the newsletter of the Western Interior Paleontological Society. Some of Raham’s paintings and illustrations were featured in the 2018 exhibit From Saur to Soar at the Loveland Museum and Gallery.

The following is an interview with author Gary Raham.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

Science fiction has stirred my imagination since I was ten years old. Having fun exploring the natural world led me to getting degrees in biology and becoming a science teacher. Writers like Loren Eiseley and Ray Bradbury inspired me to use language as a way to teach and inspire others. The specific inspiration for this book is a little hard to pin down, but it grew from the idea that a sufficiently advanced alien species might admire humans more for their cute simian characteristics rather than for their intellectual skills—especially if those aliens encountered human beings in a feral state without the trappings of civilization.

“A Once-Dead Genius in the Kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand” by Gary Raham.

I struggled with a couple of false starts, writing the novel like a traditional SF story, until I finally decided that a tongue-in-cheek style might suit me better. The story began to write itself quickly after that. The title for the book is meant to echo “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Like Mark Twain (and much later, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.), I enjoy pointing out the hubris and irony in the human conceits we all tend to take for granted. Because of my interest in evolution and paleontology, I find taking the long view of humanity on Earth provides an interesting backdrop for looking at a favorite subject of SF —first contact with an alien species—in a unique way.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I’ve mentioned Loren Eiseley and Ray Bradbury. I love their writing for the elegant way they use the written word. I devoured Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula LeGuin, Andre Norton, and many other writers of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Later I was drawn to the work of David Brin, Stephen Baxter, and Greg Bear. I love the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson whose work is not only elegant and imaginative, but reveals the tremendous depth of his grasp of history and science. I also feel a real connection to the Canadian writer, Robert J. Sawyer, who has a mutual interest in paleontology and human evolution, and who explores some of the philosophical ramifications of the human condition. When I was learning how to write in the 70s and 80s, Ed Bryant and Dan Simmons had a strong impact. Ed started a science fiction & fantasy writers critique group in Denver that helped inspire and start the careers of many Colorado writers.

As far as characters, I loved Ender Wiggin in Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card, from the very beginning, seemed to have an intuitive grasp of what makes people do what they do. In my own work, I have enjoyed writing from the perspective of Neesha (in The Deep Time Diaries, Fulcrum 2000) and Skeets (in A Singular Prophecy, Biostration 2011). Both characters are strong women—partially inspired by my wife, Sharon—and they are characters whose voices came naturally to me. When they started speaking in my head I knew it was time to get copy down on paper—or at least in the word processor. Rudy’s voice came easily too, as the cranky, once-dead genius in my recent book.

MORE: Read more SunLit author interviews

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

I like this chapter because it shows the interaction between Rudy and his AI guardian, Mnemosyne (Nessie) as well as the moment when the Jadderbadian aliens arrive on Earth. In the prologue to the book, the planetary intelligence of Gaia describes humans as “primates with delusions of grandeur.” In a similar fashion, the hubris of the alien ambassador, Kranium, illustrates that the worm-a-pede Jadderbadians suffer similar delusions. Perhaps that’s the price organic intelligences pay for confronting the immensity of the universe.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

My writing group really seemed to enjoy it, even though only two of them had much experience with science fiction. That was encouraging because of each of them are excellent writers in their respective specialties. I truly enjoyed spending time with my characters. I wasn’t on a tight deadline so I could work at a steady pace—one that allowed me to think for awhile about each segment of the book, get feedback, and think a little more before proceeding. And, of course, when the book became a finalist in the Colorado Authors’ League competition, I felt vindicated by the opinions of my professional colleagues.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

I probably wrote more than half the book before I was really sure I would have a satisfying ending. For a control freak who usually outlines non-fiction projects in some detail, that’s hard. In that sense, I felt a certain tension until I had figured out that the book would, indeed, have an ending, but there was not any one part that was harder to write than another. I let the characters coax me along until I could see my way toward a resolution to their problems.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

I used the Voyager missions, launched in the 1970s, for part of the resolution of the book. Because those probes are still sending data after 50 years of service I was able to watch their distances from Earth add up in real time from the NASA web site. It was humbling to have the size of the universe reinforced by probes that I had seen launched and read about for many years.

What project are you working on next?

Within a few months of finishing A Once-Dead Genius I began writing A Twice-Dead Genius Cavorting with Misunderstood Abominations. At first, I just enjoyed revisiting the characters I had become comfortable with, but I soon realized that perhaps I could tie together the story lines of the dead genius books with my first traditional SF book: A Singular Prophecy. So, I find that I am now finishing a trilogy that I didn’t know I was writing! Go figure. The hardest part of this new project is keeping all the details consistent and dealing with more characters. I seem to be fulfilling delusions of grandiose authorship.

— Buy “A Once-Dead Genius in the Kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand” at BookBar

— An excerpt from “A Once-Dead Genius” by Gary Raham