Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy
Philadelphia is full of sci-fi legends. The science fiction community has deep roots in this city. Philadelphia is where the first Hugo Awards were given out at the 11th Worldcon (Philcon II) in 1953. Isaac Asimov lived in West Philadelphia while woking at the Navy Yard’s Naval Air Experimental Station during World War II. The Philadelphia Science Fiction Society has been going strong since 1938 and is widely considered the second oldest group of science fiction fandom in the world. Whether you know it or not, we’re steeped in rocket ships, aliens, robots, dragons, and wondrous worlds.
So it may not surprise you that one of our local legends has released a brand new collection of short fiction. Tom Purdom has been a fixture of the Philadelphia science fiction and classical music scene. He’s lent his words to Asimov’s Magazine, published a number of novels, and continues to be a voice in the classical music community in Philly.
Purdom’s new collection, Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons (Now available in eBook format), features stories that first appeared in Asimov’s Magazine from 1992 to 2012. It is a stunning array of stories that surprised me at their breadth of concepts and topics. They could explore interpersonal and philosophical ideas of a community living on an interstellar asteroid or debate the reasons of war. All of these ideas come wrapped up in a cocoon of thoughtful sci-fi concepts and stellar writing.
At their core, they’re idea driven stories that not only entertain but expand your thinking into new territories, which is what the best science fiction always does. Don’t just take it from me, local legends Michael Swanwick and Gregory Frost have also sung Tom Purdom’s praises on the back of this very collection.
If you’re interested, there is also a Tom Purdom book club featuring this collection as one of their summer reads. For more info, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom was kind enough to take a few minutes away from contemplating baroque music and the sociological intricacies of a people living on an interstellar spaceship to answer a few questions.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Sometime in my childhood. I started reading heavily when I was seven and I soon realized all this wonderful stuff was created by writers. An aunt helped plant the idea when I wrote something around seven and she told me I should be a writer. Around twelve, I started reading books on writing by writers and a bit later started mailing stories to editors. It seemed like a great way to spend your life—writing things and selling them to editors.
How did you find yourself here in Philadelphia?
My family moved to the Philadelphia region after my father retired from the Navy after the Korean War. My father got a job working on the electrical components of nuclear submarines. I moved into center city after I dropped out of engineering school in 1954. Philadelphia was the nearest city and I had always assumed you started a writing career by moving to a city, getting a job, and collecting rejection slips. I already had some Philadelphia contacts, through the mail, with a group called the Philadelphia Astronautical Society—a bunch of young guys who were interested in space travel pre-sputnik. From there, I hooked up with the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. Big cities are the natural refuge of people with odd interests. When you have two million people living in one place, you can usually find twenty or thirty who share your eccentric preoccupations.
Why did you start writing science fiction?
I discovered science fiction in a big anthology in 1950, just after I started submitting short stories. I responded to its special qualities: the special emotions it evokes, the visions of the future, the ideas, the romance and zest communicated by writers like Heinlein and Bradbury. So I naturally started trying to write it.
Some of your stories have a certain human quality to them where the science fiction elements take a bit of a backseat. The first story in your new collection for instance. What made you decide to focus on the people and the way they behave rather than some grand space opera?
To me, science fiction is primarily about people coping with developments that could take place in the future. The science fiction elements should be interesting in themselves but the heart of the enterprise is a story about people struggling with the conflicts and problems created by the science fiction elements.
What do you think makes for a great sci-fi story?
A unique, fascinating concept coupled with all the basic literary values: characterization, plot, style, and literary technique.
Besides science fiction, what other sorts of writing have you done? I know you’ve been an active music aficionado here in Philadelphia.
I’ve reviewed live classical music for various publications for 25 years, currently for The Broad Street Review. I’m particularly interested in Renaissance and Baroque music, chamber music, and new music. I’ve written magazine articles on subjects like arms control and city planning and I’ve done a lot of “business writing”—stuff like brochures and press releases for clients like the University of Pennsylvania. Non-fiction and science fiction work together. Science fiction writers develop backgrounds that can help them write non-fiction, non-fiction exposes you to things you can use in your science fiction.
Who are the authors you most admire?
There are dozens. Shakespeare when I was young. Hemingway in my teens and twenties. After that it’s easier for me to name some of my favorite books: War and Peace, The Last Temptation of Christ, Zola’s Germinal, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Chekhov’s short fiction. In science fiction, the first names that come to mind are Heinlein, Bradbury. Damon Knight, Fred Pohl, Ursula K. Le Guin, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, Ian Banks. But any list I came up with would just be representative, not definitive.
What have you been reading lately?
In science fiction, two anthologies: Twelve Tomorrows and The Other Half of the Sky. In general fiction, a short story collection, Redeployment, by an Afghanistan veteran, Phil Klay. In non-fiction, which is what I mostly read these days, I’m currently reading Richard Overy’s history of the European bombing campaign in WWII, The Bombers and the Bombed. Recently I’ve read books on banking, the history of news before the invention of the newspaper, and the development of Japan since WWII. For science, I mostly rely on magazines like New Scientist, Wired, and the science and technology sections in the Economist, along with all the stuff that’s available on the web. I’ve also been rereading Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series as they’re reissued as ebooks.
Do you have some advice for aspiring authors?
Resist the social pressure to consume and rack up debt. Be content to live on a lower middle class income. A writing career is an adventurous, unconventional, financially insecure enterprise. Learn to save and invest—but remember you are trying to maximize your financial independence, not amass wealth for its own sake. Your satisfaction with your life will be based on achievement and personal independence, not the size of your house or the labels on your possessions.