An Interview with Jacqueline Lichtenberg

with Michael J. Tartaglio


This interview was first published in Companion in Zeor #5, senior editor Karen Litman. Corrections appeared in CZ#6 and were applied to this online edition. Note that since this interview appeared in 1980, several more novels have been published in the S~G universe. This online version was scanned and OCRd from the typewritten original and then reformatted for the web. Scanned by Ronnie Bob Whitaker, converted to HTML by Mike Giroux

The Sime~Gen universe was created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. This interview or the S~G setting may not be reused without her explicit permission. This interview copyright 1980, 1997 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.


MJT: Could you give me a little background on yourself, such as where you were born, your family . . . ?

JL: Well, I was born up here in New York out on Long Island, but I grew up in California and I spent a year, year-and-a-half in Israel working for a chemical company there and I got married in Israel. I came back here and had two kids, one after the other, and now I m currently settling down and raising my kids and writing books. My degrees are in chemistry, and all of my work, up until a certain point, from the time I was about sixteen, all of my work has been aimed at the idea of becoming a science fiction writer. So, I took my degree in chemistry with that in mind and also in mind the idea that it's one of the few science degrees that you can get a useful job with at the bachelor's level. That was my basic strategy; and then I did get married, and I was going to go back, (I had a teaching assistantship lined up to take my master's degree), and I kind of got diverted into marriage. But that was okay, because there is practically no better way to found a writing career, than to have a few years to raise kids, you know, to have an excuse not to go out to work every day.

MJT: Well, when did you first take an interest in writing?

JL: When I was 12 or 13 or so I really would have liked to be a writer, I mean, that's something that's always been a little too daring, ya know? And about the time I was 16, a sophomore in high school thereabouts, I made the commitment to say, Yes, I'm gonna do it if it kills me. And from that point on I considered myself a professional writer, although I didn't sell my first story until I was about 25.

MJT: When did you first take an interest in Science Fiction?

JL: When I first learned to read. I actually learned to read on Science Fiction. I could not read until I was in 6th grade. My mother brought me a Science Fiction book from the library. She snuck me one out of the grown-up library. I would NOT learn to read children's books -- something in me would not allow me to read Jane and Spot and all that. So, my mother snuck me out an adult book that looked HARD, and that was enough, then I had to do it! (laughter)

MJT: Do you remember what that book was?

JL: Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. It's a thing called Battle on Mercury by Erick van Lynn. Now, it's only lately that I picked up a copy of the thing in hard cover. I paid almost $20.00 for it out in Los Angeles. The reason that I've never been able to find another title by him is that he is Lester Del Rey, and he's only published one book under the byline of Erick Van Lynn. That was the one that hooked me!

MJT: That blends right in with the next question were there any writers that influenced your writing or ideas?

JL: Oh, yes! A whole stack of them, starting with Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement and Theodore Sturgeon, (I happened to remember them because I was involved in Future Party recently with them), and a whole list about as long as your arm.

MJT: Oh, by the way, congratulations for the Galaxy award!

JL: Oh, thank you! I finally got my hands on the darn thing! It looks magnificent . . . it's a thrill; the whole family's just sort of thrilled by the whole thing. But I don't consider that I won that award. The award was won by the book. And the book is me plus something. I actually outdid myself in that book; I wrote a little better than I was actually capable of doing. And, so, I do not consider that I won the award. The book won the award, and the book is actually a composite of energies from a whole lot of people. Not just the people mentioned in the acknowledgments and in the dedication, but a whole lot of other people have contributed; the energy, the need to write the book, the support and ideas . . . And then of course there are all the authors who influenced me, starting with A. E. van Vogt and going right on up to Marion Zimmer Bradley.

 MJT: It's funny, Lori said you'd most probably mention Marion . . .

 JL: Oh yeah! And Robert Heinlein for example. He was big influence on me. But of course, I'm now talking about Doc Smith (Edward E. Smith) . . . uh . . . I'm naming off some of these old timers, right? Like Fritz Leiber and so forth.

 MJT: OH! I just recently started reading Fafhrd . . .

 JL: Uh-huh!! Oh yeah! That's a trip, huh? Yeah, that's a real mind trip!

 MJT: I'm havin' a good time with it!

 JL: All right! But you see, these are authors that were publishing in the 30's and 40's and 50's, and then, in the late 50's there came on the scene a lady called Marion Zimmer Bradley. And that's a whole new thing. Because she could do everything. Each one of these other authors could do one thing superlatively. She is the only author who, consistently, in every book, does all of the things that I like the most simultaneously. And it is MIND BOGGLING!! I still haven't figured out how she does it! That is what I'm trying to emulate, you see; I've found somebody to emulate. And, I'm still struggling. I think I could struggle for another 10 or 15 years and not come anywhere near (laugh!) in my own estimation, because she keeps getting better. Each year. She's getting better each year herself, she's learning new techniques, and mastering new fields, and striking out in new directions, and trying new things . . . And so, it's the association between professionals that is really a fandom in itself. I look at the field of Science Fiction and the history of Science Fiction as something that the outsiders can't understand because they don't know who knows who and who's friends with who and who's corresponding with whom.

One thing that was happening, especially in the 30's and 40's, the early Science Fiction writers were inventing a genre by teaching each other to write from scratch. 'Cause none of them were writers - they were all scientist-types. And they had never really written fiction before. So, they taught each other to write fiction without reference to mainstream fiction writing techniques.

MJT: That all deals with the history of Science Fiction . . .

JL: Right! They invented a field. And they invented a vernacular. And a whole language in itself.

MJT: Heinlein . . .

JL: Right!

MJT: . . . and Clarke . . .

JL: RIGHT!

MJT: . . . and Asimov . . .

JL: RIGHT!! And Bradbury and all these guys! Er . . . Fred Pohl, John Campbell, the whole bunch of them. They all came out of New York fandom, the Lunarians, at one time or another. They were part of that Slan shack phenomenon of the 30's, right? They knew each other. And were either friends with each other or were enemies to each other. And there were fan views and other things going on at the time, and a lot of this history goes into who taught who what, and who wrote what story why, you know, to out-do this other guy . . . There was this certain rivalry and there was a certain one-upmanship, and "I've-got-a-better-idea-than-you-have" kind of thing going on, right? And they were teaching each other to write.

Now, that's still going on today. But the circles are a lot more complex, because where they overlap there are more circles . . .

MJT: They started teaching more people, and so on and so forth.

JL: Right! Exactly! So you have to see the whole history in this way. Well, I've become part of that. As I have become a professional I have become more or less accepted as an equal by some of these other people. It actually blew my mind when Bob Tucker (Wilson Tucker) stood in front of a TV camera with his arm around me and accepted me as a fellow writer. As an EQUAL, in public! Mind boggling!

MJT: That's what I deal with in a few of these other questions. A few of them you already covered over.

JL: I know, I'm a good interview, aren't I? (*snicker!*)

MJT: (laughing) I was going to ask you what was the first piece of science fiction that you had published?

JL: That depends on whether you mean fannishly or professionally . . .

MJT: Professionally.

JL: Professionally? Okay. My first professional sale in publication was the story that was reprinted in AZ6: "Operation Hightime". It was in the January 1969 issue of "IF" Magazine. Fred Pohl bought it. Then I sold House of Zeor and then I sold Star Trek Lives! (He also bought Star Trek Lives! But he had moved in the mean time from Galaxy Magazine to Bantam.)

That's another thing in the Science Fiction Field: editors. There are very few Science Fiction editors. They sort of jump around; they play musical chairs all over Manhattan. They jump around from publisher to publisher, magazine to magazine, and so forth. It's very hard to keep track of who's at where right now. The author basically deals with AN editor: A person. Nevermind the house that he's working for. Unless he stays there for a very long time.

MJT: Is the editor usually THE boss?

JL: No. The editor is nobody. The editor, unless you're a senior editor you have no policy say whatsoever and even if you're senior editor you can be overridden. The editor has to pick out from all the slop that comes into his office the few things that he would like to publish.

MJT: Well, as far as the writer's concerned, is the man boss . . . ?

JL: Not really. Because the editor will come back to you and say, "Okay, I wanna buy your story, I'm presenting it at the editorial conference next Tuesday." And then he'll have to come back to you and say, "I'm sorry, the editorial conference decided that I can't publish anything this long this year, I'll have to give it back to you."

MJT: Aha! A little bit of inside into the writing world . . .

JL: Okay, So the editor does not, usually, (unless they're senior editors or editors with other kinds of titles around the word "editor") have final say. They only work there for that company, and the bigger the company, the less significant your editor's word is except within certain very small defined areas. After he's bought the book it's between you and him, the cuts, the adjustments and so forth. But as far as actually making a 'buy' decision is concerned, he makes the first decision, 'yes, I want it.' He makes the recommendation. Without his recommendation you get nothing. But, even with his recommendation you still may not have a sale.

There is a certain camaraderie between an author and an editor. And, in the field of Science Fiction, certain loyalties develop between certain authors and certain editors. And no matter where they go they can buy from those authors and the authors will really not want to sell elsewhere. It's really strange, but there is that element in the field, so the field is complex, layer within layer within layer, and the outsiders can't see those inner layers.

MJT: You were co-author with Sondra Marshak and Joan Winston for the book Star Trek Lives! . . .

JL: Right. Fred Pohl bought that after buying my first story.

MJT: . . . and you've created your own Science Fiction universe in the "Sime" series . . .

JL: House of Zeor, Unto Zeor, Forever, "Operation Hightime" and "Channel's Exemption", which was in Galileo 4; so there's 4 (since this interview First Channel (with Jean Lorrah) has been released -- KL) professionally published items in the Sime series so far . . .

MJT: Two of which are books and two of which are . . . well, what would you consider them?

JL: Well, they're novellas . . . Novelettes, actually.

MJT: Are you working on anything now?

JL: Oh, yes, I'm working on 2 or 3 other things simultaneously.

MJT: You see, I know that, but I have to get it in . . . (*snicker!*)

JL: Actually, right now I'm working on Molt Brother. I'm starting a new series. Now, do you know anything about that? The thing, the item on my desk at the moment is a new series that I'm trying to start. Now, you know enough about the Sime series that you can explain it to them, so I won't waste your time with that.

MJT: Well, I was going to ask you to just give a little bit of a basis into that, in your own words . . .

JL: Do you want a connection between Star Trek Lives! and the Sime Series?

MJT: SURE!

JL: You haven't heard that at the conventions? Or were you running around doing other things?

MJT: Oh, you! C'mon! With me working Security?! We bust our humps, and never get to see, hear or do anything else!

JL: (laughing) Okay! I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll do it just for you! A command performance!

Well, what happened was, I had already begun publishing in the Sime series before I got involved in writing Star Trek fiction, the Kraith series. And I then realized that Star Trek had been cancelled and I realized that fandom was not dying and being as my family has BEEN in the news game all my life, and I can recognize a news story when I see one, I knew that I had a big one on my hands. I wanted to write a newspaper article about it for our local paper, and I started out to write the article, and you need to know who, what, when, where, how, how many, you know the basics . . . That research took 5 years. And in the process, the book turned into Star Trek Lives! It turned into a whole book instead of an article.

While we were writing Star Trek Lives! we were using the responses to the Kraith series as research material to discover why it is that people like Star Trek and what it is that they see in Star Trek. And we came up with a theory in Star Trek Lives! called "The Tailored Effect". At that time it was just a wild hypothesis.

Now, what I did was, in order to turn a hypothesis into a theory, you have to run at least one experiment. I took 3 of the 7 Tailored Effects that composed "Spock Charisma Effect" and I constructed a novel in my pre-existing Sime series universe around those three Tailored Effects, and I sold the novel to Doubleday. And that $6.00 hardcover book I sold on a moneyback guarantee, personally autographed, to those 3/7ths of the Spock fans who liked Spock for the particular reasons that I liked Spock.

 MJT: . . . for the Tailored Effects . . . ?

 JL: Right. To the people who were on target to my Tailored Effects. I said, "Give me your $6.00, I'll sign your name in the book, and if you don't like the book give it back to me. I'll give you all your money back." Okay? I've never had one returned! I sold over five dozen of them that way, 'til the book sold out. It sold out its printing. It did not get pulped or remaindered. It sold out its printing!! And I did not get a single one of those books back! Okay? So that means that the Tailored Effect is a bonafide, genuine theory. Not just a hypothesis. It works. At least I can make it work. Maybe I can't make anybody else understand HOW I do it, but it's obvious that I can do something. Because I am right on target to the Star Trek fans. Unto is built out of different material. It is NOT targeted at Star Trek fans. There is, of course, a certain overlap, but it isn't a deliberate, premeditated, specific targeting at Spock fans. However, it does have a certain gut wrenching effect on certain Star Trek fans. But that's not their Star Trek nerve that's being hit. It's something else within them. Do you see? Unto is a very different kind of book. Now that's the connection between the two series. There is one book, House of Zeor, which was written specifically to demonstrate the viability of this, the Tailored Effect Hypothesis. All right? That's the only connection between Star Trek and Sime.

MJT: Okay, could you give me a little basis into your Sime Universe, just a little explanation, in YOUR words?

JL: Okay, what I did when I invented the Sime universe way back in my teens, I sat down with a stack of books which had in them something that I said, "Yes, I wanna write like this. Yes, this book is special." Something that made me memorize the author and the title. Okay? And these included things like "Slan"; a little short story by A. E. van Vogt called "Asylum", things by Isaac Asimov, like "Suckerbait"; also a thing called "Mirror for Observers" by Edgar Pangborn; "Gulf" by Robert Heinlein; the Zenna Henderson "People" stories . . .

MJT: The ones that Bill Shatner did on television . . . ?

JL: Yeah! . . . and a whole big tall stack of things about telepathy. Alfred Bester's Demolished Man, and on and on and on. And I distilled, out of all these books the one thing that I thought was good, because usually there was just one thing that I thought was really SUPER, and the rest of it is just sort of the vehicle to carry that one thing. And I said, "Why not make a book out of nothing but 'super-supers'. You know, why not just have great stuff in a book, why have all this other inert material around it?" I just want active ingredients. No inert material. And, it was that theory which spawned Unto Zeor, Forever. Unto Zeor, Forever is pure active ingredients. No filler. Which is, you know, a different kind of approach to fiction writing. It's not what I'm doing in Molt Brother. Now in the Sime universe I decided I liked Andre Norton's 'after-the-bomb mutant stories' i.e. "Star Man's Son", okay? And various others of Norton's. That was a big ingredient; she's a BIG influence on me. That was a big ingredient. Last Planet was a big ingredient. I compiled it all and I distilled it all out and I decided, okay, I'm going to write about 'civilization collapses', which even in the 50's I could see clearly that we were headed for something . . . I didn't NEED a computer study like 'The Limits of Growth' to tell me that we were in trouble. Even back then. (*chuckle*) I could see that any way you slice it, we are in trouble, we are heading for a brick wall at 90 miles per . . .

So, I said, "Okay, so civilization is going to collapse: so what?" and then I said, "Well, how are we going to put it back together again? How are we going to solve the energy problem?" And the idea is, see, I have this deep abiding faith in God, he's not gonna abandon us, even if we're dumb enough to use up all the oil on the earth. And I said, "All right, well where else can you get energy?" And you have two sources, you have the sun and you have biological energy itself. And so I decided that I would have the human race mutate into one half that could produce energy and the other half that could use it. And that's the Gens and the Simes.

I started working on the dynamics of how these people would really be, how they would really exist, how they would feel about each other, and so forth. And little by little I gradually invented this background until, when I got locked up with children to raise, I had some material to work ON. And I went ahead and did that.

Right now I'm working on the Molt Brother series. My editor was so impressed with the Sime series, that she said, "Okay, let's see if you can do it again in a different background. Show me something." When she moved over to Playboy (I told you, you deal with editors, right? She bought me at Doubleday, she moved to Playboy and started a Science Fiction line there), I was one of the first three or four people she called.

 MJT: Who else does she have on the line?

JL: George Takei and Bob Asprin have just come out with a new novel, Mirror Friend, Mirror Foe from Playboy. The other Playboy release this month is Star Tunes by Joanie Winston, and a whole bunch of Star Trek and related media cartoons.

MJT: I was just going to say, they seem to be handling a lot of Trek . . .

JL: Oh yeah. Well, of course, it's a big push and flood kind of thing, which I don't like. I don't like super-saturation. I like to keep 'em hungry! (*chuckle!*)

But, okay, so I was called, I was asked to do this, so I pulled this premise out of the drawer and wrote up a chapter and outline, and she bought it. So, now I'm writing it. And, it's probably going to be a series of stories - I've already had to cut the outline for the first novel in half and make it two books.

I've invented a galactic civilization with forerunners, and the people involved in this particular story are archaeologists who are digging up the technology of the previous inhabitants of this galaxy, and as we go out into the galaxy we find remains, archaeological remains of a previous galaxy-spanning civilization. And, of course everyone's very curious. They had a very high technology and everything; so, everyone's curious to recover their technology and find out what killed them.

In the center of the story there is a friendship between a human and an alien. And the alien is a quasi-reptile with fangs; he's venomous, he molts . . .

MJT: . . . wherein comes the title Molt Brother . . .

JL: Riiiight! And these essential facts govern the kind of society and civilization that's built on that planet, and there is a human colony on that planet. There shouldn't be, but these people were marooned there, so they lived there, rather than commit suicide. And so there's an accidental human colony on that planet that's sort of halfway gone native.

MJT: You deal a lot with behaviour, don't you?

JL: Fascinating, isn't it? Well, I've gotten all wound up in this particular background, but Jean Lorrah and I are still working on the Sime Universe . . .

MJT: It sounds good. It sounds, like you were saying before about Marion, like the two that she did, Hunters of the Red Moon and Survivors.

JL: Yeah, with her brother. Only it's not that, it's different. (*chortle!*) It's more Nortonesque in flavour, but with a lot of me in it too.

MJT: Well, there's always a lot of you in your work! That's the whole idea!!

JL: Well, I get a lot of imitations, too. I don't tell new writers that they should not imitate, as many authors will say. I think that imitation is one of the ways that you learn, and I think it's important. I think that the pastiche that we do on Star Trek is very important, too. I think it's a very good tool, a very quick way to learn writing techniques - one of the quickest. I have seen more rapidly developing authors come through that avenue than you will find anywhere else. People struggling by themselves without anything to fasten onto and to get into, like we have in the Star Trek scene. They don't develop as rapidly, and they don't develop as well.

MJT: How does the message from the Sime series in all your writings apply to you as a woman and as a woman Science Fiction writer? Do you think that women writers' talents have been overlooked in the field of Science Fiction, and how can you see that changing? And, what does the future of Science Fiction look like to you?

JL: Good questions. All right, what you want, a little bit, is the role of women in Science Fiction, right? Okay, I have a five-minute lecture on that. (*chuckle!*) One for every occasion!!

For me personally, the fact that I'm a woman, I won't say that it's irrelevant to my career as a Science Fiction writer. It's becoming more and more relevant, especially as more and more women get into the field and I realize that I really don't know what it is, but there is something texturally different about a woman's writing than there is about a man's. Good, bad or indifferent, I mean, they come in all sizes and shapes and forms and colours and flavours, but there is something different about what a woman wants in her fiction and a field that is exclusively all read only by women or read only by men will develop a certain "flatness" which is what has caused, I think, the world to look down on Science Fiction and other genre fiction in general, category fiction in general because it develops a sort of flatness to it, the writing, the characters somehow or another lack a certain dimension that gives them a sense of reality, even to the person who is looking for that particular genre. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?

MJT: I think so . . .

JL: And Science Fiction has traditionally been targeted at the adolescent male. Having never been an adolescent male, I can't imagine why the field has gotten into the shape that it's in. BUT, I was an adolescent FEMALE, and I know what an adolescent female wants out of their fiction, and I know that Science Fiction sometimes delivered that, but very rarely, and usually just a flash in the middle of a story, or a thread running through a novel. Never as the baseline or the main point, or the substance and meat of the story. Well, what I'm trying to say is that in real literature, you see, (and NOT because the author is male or female) because the author is writing FOR both men and women, real literature has a certain balance of psychological actions and physical actions, psychological story and physical story, psychological resolution and physical resolution. Right?

Science Fiction traditionally has never had to have this because they were ignoring the women in the readership. Not that they weren't there, but that they were ignored. NOW they're beginning to realize, especially through the impact of Star Trek, that more and more women are reading Science Fiction, and more and more women are writing Science Fiction, and the competition is ON, to develop stories and characters and premises and ideas and universes . . .

MJT: That are equal to both . . . ?

JL: RIGHT!!! . . . that allows you to combine both of these elements in one story. And I think through the entry of women into Science Fiction you're going to find Science Fiction elevated to the status of REAL literature.

MJT: Because it makes it much more full now . . .

JL: If you want a significance to my work, THAT'S the significance of my work, to add in the soprano line in the chorus. You know what I mean? There really is a difference . . . An all male chorus is very nice, but there's something fuller, and more realistic to . . .

MJT: There's another half to be dealt with . . . There's a whole other portion to be dealt with . . .

JL: Right! And they mix nicely, don't they?

MJT: Always!

JL: See? So we're going to have something as Science Fiction becomes more and more 'respectable' I think that the respectability has to do with it being left strictly limited to the adolescent male and more targeted at the adult male . . . . . . . you know, in that raw, initial awakening period.

MJT: Once you become an adult you can see both . . .

JL: But when you begin to write for adults you have to have that kind of depth because that's the world that adults live in, okay?

MJT: I understand exactly! Terrific!

JL: I did three questions in one, how 'bout that? Now, let's stop arguing, okay? (*chuckle, chuckle!!*) I didn't really say that!! (*chortle!!*) Look, I GOTTA go, I am SO late, I don't know if I'll ever catch up with myself!


From Companion in Zeor #5

Last modified on 21 June 97 at 2000