Interview with Hugh A. D. Spencer, Author of Why I Hunt Flying Saucers.
Spencer and his writing have been featured on national radio and television.
It was his writing career that allowed him, along with Dr. Allan Weiss, to curate the National Library of Canada’s exhibition of Canadian science fiction and fantasy. He has had over a dozen dramatizations of stories broadcast on National Public Radio’s Satellite Network.
The stories contained in Why I Hunt Flying Saucers were written from 1990 to 2007. They were originally published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, most notably On Spec magazine and the Tesseracts anthologies. His first novel Extreme Dentistry was published in 2014 and his ebook mini-collection The Collected Progressive Apparatus is available on Kindle.
1. When I first spoke to you about your work, I asked you what the answer was to why you hunt flying saucers. You replied, ‘because they’re trying to kill us’. Could you explain a bit more about that?
It’s a reference to the main thesis of my title story, i.e. the aliens are not bringers of wonder or enlightenment but rather bullies and total jerks with far too much advanced technology. This is a fine science fiction tradition that extends at least to The War of the Worlds. Being a dedicated and orthodox Wellsian, it’s also a completely appropriate thing for me to say.
All Artwork By Hugh A.D. Spencer
2. You are quoted as saying: ‘I’m suggesting that you can think of “flying saucers” as a sort of imaginative shorthand to represent things that are unexplained, uncomfortable, usually inappropriate and generally weird’. How does the concept of ‘flying saucers’ equal the vast array of unexplained or ‘weird’ things that happen in our world? Is this a metaphor or an actual co-relation that you’ve observed? Please explain how you came to these conclusions.
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Alberta and California I heard generally weird things at least two or three times a day – ranging from farmers talking about cattle mutilations; the problems with those pesky Soviet weather control satellites; and how government health care represented a plot by bureaucrats to see naked pictures of our mums and aunties.
Profoundly weird things would usually happen once or twice a year—such as being sent home from kindergarten in 1962 because our teachers were convinced that the nuclear bombs were about to start falling (Cuban Missile Crisis); mistakenly thinking that the bug zapper on our neighbour’s lawn was an alien spacecraft; or watching seemingly normal people vote a psychotic killer like Colin Thatcher into office.
So questions like the physical reality of UFOs are indeed interesting but their social reality – our need to believe in them – is something that affects how we live and how we treat each other. Whether flying saucers are actually extraterrestrial spacecraft may not be as important as the fact that some of us behave as though they are.
3. “Here’s the scoop: I simply don’t believe that anything is normal. My experience has been that every time you look very carefully at the so-called “every day” and “ordinary” you will soon see past the disguise of apparent reality and discover something bizarre and unexpected.1 Such revelations can be terrifying or at least inconvenient. So, that’s “Me.”. I am distrustful of reality.” What has caused you to become so distrustful of reality? How do you justify being at odds with consensus reality?
I grew up in a big family – I was the youngest of six kids and my older siblings married and started having their own children when I was still relatively young. It was fun, I liked the babies and holidays were big parties with lots of human stuff happening. Then when I was 14, my father went on a business trip and a week later (three days after I started high school) I was told that he wasn’t coming back to live with us. Within a year we went from being a rather large and fairly affluent extended family to being a single-parent nuclear unit, right out of a Norman Lear 70s sitcom – at first just my mom, my sister and me and then just mom and me. And oh yes, we were now poor. So in addition to being depressed and profoundly confused, I was fucking dirt poor. Which meant that in most circles, I either didn’t exist or I was some kind of societal problem.
None of this made any sense to me and if this was what reality had to offer, then damn right I wasn’t going to trust it. Fortunately things did get better (on and off) but you’d be an incredible fool to think things couldn’t go seriously south on you at any time.
As for consensus reality…Donald Trump starts in as President of the United States this week. Reality is broken.
4. How has your antagonism towards the mundane impacted your life outside of your writing?
It’s fuel. One of my professors once said that I did very good work when I was angry. It might kill me but I’ll be doing good work.
Also, while I don’t uncritically accept the everyday, I don’t think I’m an escapist, at least in the sense that one uses fantasy to avoid reality. Rather, I embrace creativity and speculation as a way of challenging and coping with whatever life gives us.
5. In your story, ‘Why I Hunt Flying Saucers’, your protagonist actively blames nearly every aspect of his strange life on aliens. Do you connect this desire to blame aliens for misfortune to yourself or is this purely a quirk of your character?
Didn’t Sartre say: “Hell is other people?” In the case of WIHFS, I think we’d have to revise that statement to: “Hell is other people and those damn aliens!”
As to whether I blame aliens for all my problems…no. I would say that those who have hurt me the most have behaved in inhuman or inhumane ways – however I’m sad to say that I’m pretty sure that we were members of the same species.
6. People often say, ‘Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t really chasing you’, in Why I Hunt Flying Saucers was the protagonist actually living in a world as beset by aliens as it seemed to be from his perspective or was something else going on? Was this story the examination of a world over run by aliens or the examination of a mind running off the rails? Do you think there is any other explanation for what your character was experiencing other than aliens?
Maybe. Why not?
People are free to interpret the events and characters in the story in any way they wish. It would be good if you paid me and my publisher when you get your copy, however. If you’re on a budget, the ebook is less expensive and if you approach your local public library they will likely get a copy for you to borrow.
7. Tell us a bit about why the Men in Black keep giving out The Book of Mormon.
The suits. The haircuts. The LDS missionaries and the Men in Black kind of look the same and I figured there was a contrast of the banal and the strange that would make for a good gag.
Since I wrote that story in 1990, I notice that the missionaries coming around to the door are now a lot more diverse with people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and genders. The Men in Black, not so much.
8. What is your theory behind why aliens would have a difficult time dealing with early electric guitar bands from the sixties?
It’s a very complicated thing involving high frequency, artificially amplified sound frequencies and the structure of extraterrestrial bio-aural structures and neurological systems.
I noticed that five years later when the film Mars Attacks came out, Tim Burton postulated something similar when the music of the heroic country western artist Slim Whitman was deployed to explode the brains of the invading Martians.
Obviously Mr. Burton had access to the same Area 51 test results that I did.
9. Why do you think so many reported alien encounters follow the now familiar formula of rectal probing and are so invasive? Do you have a theory as to what so much rectal probing might prove or accomplish?
As the owner of a 60 year-old prostate gland, I can assure you that getting something stuck up your bum is at best embarrassing (when the sticker has good intentions) and at worst profoundly traumatic (when that fucker is raping you).
Everyone is very vulnerable during a rectal exam — which is how the aliens want you – whether you are about to receive transformational spiritual insight or if you are about to be seriously messed with.
10. You compare the aliens to what can be boiled down to insensitive, boorish sociopaths who use their technology to abuse humans for sport, how do you justify this against the reports some people make of aliens being benign and kind? How do you explain the vastly different experiences people report in their encounters, many of which describe profound feelings of peace and love?
Stockholm Syndrome. Which our friend Mr. Wikipedia defines as: “… a psychological condition that causes hostages to develop sympathetic sentiments towards their captors, often sharing their opinions and acquiring romantic feelings for them as a survival strategy during captivity.”
There’s a lot of that about these days.
11. In your story The Triage Conference, you address some interesting concepts about eugenics from a remote perspective. What were your reasons for addressing this controversial issue?
Partly my academic training. For a while I wanted to be an anthropologist and the race/genetics theory governing eugenics comes up when you study the history of the field. There’s a fascinating article in the New Yorker about how the great ethnographer Franz Boas battled leading eugenicists when they were holding their national conferences at the American Museum of Natural History:
Eugenics is also interesting because it’s something of a dirty (not so little) secret in our political history. It is startling to see how many otherwise progressive people like H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Tommy Douglas and Nellie Mcclung were serious advocates for eugenics. The Nazis and their Final Solution cured many of the above of this ideology. Not all of them though and some of those Ancestry.com ads on TV really worry me. It is remarkable (and depressing) to see how some of us are still willing to attribute our good (or ill) fortunes to tiny combinations of organic chemicals.
12. Your ending to The Triage Conference leaves many things unsaid, what do you hope your readers will take away from this story?
Turning to Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” is not a good social default mode. SF readers and writers in particular, are bad that way.
Ever since Malthus we’ve been hearing” “We’ve got a problem, we have to solve it by getting rid of some people.” When you study this assertion, you usually find that the people we need to get rid of are the ones who exist outside your silo and/or people who own some things you’d like to have.
My bias is more towards Bucky Fuller who challenges us by saying that things like refrigeration technology invalidate a lot of what Malthus said about population and food supply. Sure, there are limits to growth but often meeting the challenges of caring for those with disabilities and disadvantages leads us to invent new and more efficient ways of doing things. I wish the first thing we’d think was: “We’re all in this together” rather than “spot the outsider” when we hit a collective speed bump.
13. Do you have any comments on how your religious upbringing influences your writing?
All kinds of them. With regards to my previous answer, here’s another fun history lesson again from good ol’ Wikipedia: “ Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the Extermination Order, was an executive order issued on October 27, 1838, by the Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs…. (who) directed that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description…”
Nice, eh? Mostly the Order gave the State Militia legal authority to kill people, drive the living ones away and, oh yes, steal their stuff. Growing up in Western Canada, I did encounter people who seemed to think Governor Boggs had the right idea. That one kid who stole my comic collection was a real bastard.
If you read “Mormonism and the Saskatoon Space Programme” in WIHFS and my novel Extreme Dentistry you will discover that I am not a latter-day saint apologist and I don’t think I fall into the category of disgruntled ex-member either. Growing up LDS definitely gave me some unique material to draw on in my art. I am grateful for that and some of the kindness members of that faith community extended to me and my family. I’m no not so thankful for the bad info regarding masturbation and race relations.
14. In your story Robot Reality Check, you dissect Issac Asimov’s rules of robotics in place of your own version of what the real rules of robots are. As we are faced with actual androids such as the restaurants that offer service with only robot waiters, driverless cars and ‘smart’ houses that handle basic functioning of our homes, do you feel that you or Asimov was closer to the truth in how robots would interact with society?
(A quick overview of Asimov’s laws of robotics for any of our readers who may be unfamiliar with them. These ‘rules’ are widely accepted amongst many scientists and science fiction authors to be the standard for why robots would never try to overthrow humanity or work towards their own motivations despite having adaptive artificial intelligence that may surpass human intelligence.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.)
As much as I admire Dr. Asimov and is work (I, Robot was the first grown-up SF book I read) I’m afraid I’ve got him totally beat here. His Laws of Robotics are like the League of Nations Charter. Lovely ideas, never happened, never going to happen. As for my Real Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot will always break down just after its warranty period has expired.
2. The instructions for the proper operation and repair of a robot will always exceed the understanding of its owner.
3. A robot will always be purchased on the basis of features and functions that the owner later discovers will never be used.
4. A robot rarely ends up doing what it was designed to do anyway…
We’re already there now, aren’t we? Some of you may have to stop reading this while your computer unexpectedly pauses for a three-hour software update.
15. How often do you write? Would you consider yourself to be a prolific writer?
Usually something gets written every day. Answering your questions is a wonderful excuse for not working on my novel this morning. I am also an illustrator and I am much more prolific in that area. Thanks to my Bamboo pad and Corel drawing software, I usually generate 3-5 pictures a day. I post the better ones on my FB page. Ira Nayman, the noted speculative humourist recently secured one of my illos as the cover for an upcoming book. I am very pleased about this.
16. Your stories are often dystopian views of the ‘not too distant future’, do you see the future in the new technologies and the leanings of our modern breakthroughs and the politics and ethics that govern how such discoveries are used?
I’m not sure my stories are dystopian, at least in the classic sense of 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale. The closest thing I’ve written along that model is “The Progressive Apparatus” (available on Kindle in the ebook The Collected Progressive Apparatus) but even in that one, the forces of oppression wane in the sequel stories – and they are not so much overthrown but just become irrelevant.
I think much of what I write is anticipatory social realism where new technologies might be helpful or they might be harmful – it depends. I think this is more intellectually honest. Eg. Yes, it is terrible that elections might be hacked and fake news abounds via social media. However, it is wonderful that you and I can communicate electronically and share all these ideas, especially because all this discussion is mostly about me…
17. Do you consider your writing to be controversial?
I don’t set out to be controversial and if we were speaking in person you would probably find me to be a boring old fart who looks incredibly ordinary.
I write things that interest me. Otherwise I will get bored and go do something else. It used to be drinking but I gave that up recently. I’ve been going through the DVDs of the 1990s Outer Limits series and that’s likely what I’d get back to. Some of those shows are really fun in a scary, really downbeat way.
I like to create and experience, new things or things that help me to understand the world in new ways. I suppose that might make some people think my stories were controversial but really I’m just an irregular mind positioned in a pretty regular body.
18. Many of your stories break off abruptly at the end and are launched into with little explanation for the world that you show a brief window of, is this done deliberately? If asked to turn one of your short stories into a novel do you think you would have a large enough view into the worlds you have created to do so?
I like to keep things moving and I find that readers often enjoy being able to fill in some of the details themselves – makes the narrative experience more of a conversation than a discourse. And who wants to listen to some boring old fart go on and on about stuff?
Oh yeah, all of the stories in WIHSF could be spun out into novels. Trilogies maybe!
I’ve already adapted many of them into radio plays and film scripts and if someone was willing to pay me, I’d happily expand them into books. Extreme Dentistry started out as a short story that I never submitted for publication because I didn’t like how it was working – it turned out that it needed to be a novel right away. For a while I was experimenting with connecting some of the stories in WIHSF into a larger Pulp Fiction sort of thing with the working title Bad Jobs in the Future. The collection pretty much precludes that project now.
19. How do you feel about your writing when you sit down with an inspiration in mind to start a new story? How do you feel after you’ve completed your story?
I am a functional depressive and writing and making art is one of the best means I have of coping with that condition. The writing is definitely work but I can find it very immersive and entertaining – I’m definitely “making movies” in my head.
I’m not a big celebrator of things because life is its own reward. When I finish a project, I usually think, “okay, on to the next thing.” Seems to keep me sane and more or less out of trouble.
20. You mention how the criticism of writing groups affected you in your writing and how you came through various stages of hurt and rage. What is your current take on criticism of your writing? How would you advise other authors to respond to criticism?
If you don’t get at least a little upset when you hear crits of you work, it probably means you have nothing of substance invested in it. And if you don’t care, why should anyone else?
The good part of the regular emotional root canals you get in writers groups is that you will develop greater awareness and knowledge that you can use in your work. If you are encountering useful stuff from the workshop process – regardless if the feedback is positive or negative—stick with it. If it isn’t helpful, get out of there. Medical science still hasn’t extended the human life span to 300 years and you have books to write.
21. What comment about your writing effected you most deeply and why?
The late Keith Scott advised me not to quit my day job when I made my first submission to the Cecil Writers Street Group. I might have replied by quoting Ava Gardner from the film Night of the Iguana: “You sir, are gambling with your front teeth.”
In truth, I have heard a lot that has been very helpful in that workshop. In particular with my novel; the responses were both very positive and very negative from different members and these contrasting perspectives rendered valuable ideas about how to develop and refine the story.
22. When it comes to sitting down to a keyboard how much does earlier feedback inform your current projects?
It may come as a shock to my fellow workshop members but I do not make up a check list of all their comments and work my way through them. Who has the time?
Instead I look for trends and patterns in the comments and see if those suggest problems or creative opportunities. Sometimes you take those insights on board and sometimes you don’t. Either way, you usually find yourself taking a more mindful and inventive way forward.
23. Have you seen how your writing effects other people who read it? Would you consider your work inspiring, a cautionary word of warning or a bit of both?
Cory Doctorow said in a review (and in the quote we use from him on my book covers) that my stories make him laugh and make him think. How could any statement be better? Perhaps I should retire and quit while I’m ahead.
I’m always delighted when people say they’ve enjoyed reading my stories; but what they do with their experience of my work seems like a whole bunch of my none of my business.
Some of my stories address social issues although unlike my literary heroes lH.G. Wells and Rod Serling I am not much of an activist or polemicist. I usually have a lot more questions than answers. Well, I have some answers but I’m not all that dogmatic about them.
One of the joys of adapting your work for other media – like radio or webcasts or film – is that these are collaborative ventures and it is fascinating to see how other creative people interpret and animate your work. I discovered that I’m not a huge control freak. Once I know that others have a basic understanding of my intent, it’s nice to see them play with what’s in the narratives.
24. Why do you write? Why do you write what you write?
As I said in the mini-essay “Why the Flying Saucers Are Hunting Me” — I write because I have to and I don’t know any better. I write about things that I care about and entertain me. Pretty deep, eh?
If I probe my motives a little more, it is also fair to say that writing creates a place of safety and reflection for me – a vantage point to consider the surrounding universe and invent ways to deal with it.
25. How has your work changed over the years?
Much of my early work was targeted at some specific markets. There was a hierarchy of publications, publishers and editors out there and like many of my colleagues, armed with my stamps and envelopes, I was working may way down the list with each story.
Many of those institutions don’t exist anymore and it’s difficult to track where the new markets will be. Or even what they will be. I did spend a lot of time and energy trying to get into television or film writing and I’ve pretty much given up on that. The upside of my media initiative was that it did get me involved in radio drama and that has been great fun. Not terribly profitable but exciting and educational.
These days I essentially write what I like, in whatever format I feel works the best, and act on faith that it will find a suitable home. Oddly, this has been the best strategy so far and I’ve made some cool friends.
Photo of Hugh A.D. Spencer
26. Do you have something that you are working on now? If so could you tell us about it? If not, could you tell us why not?
Over the holidays I wrote a radio adaptation of Water Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Partly because I love that book and partly because I really miss David Bowie; his role in the film version was my introduction to his astonishing talents. My script is not authorized but I hope I can enlist the aid of some producers to secure the audio drama rights from the Tevis estate and get this thing done. Long shot really but it was a most informative opportunity to explore a truly brilliant work of fiction.
I’m about two-thirds through a novel that combines pop music, nostalgia, penal colonies and space travel (of course!). The working title is The Hard Side of the Moon.
27. What has writing fundamentally taught you about yourself, other people and the world we live in?
Humans have been defined as the tool-using species.
Chimpanzees, some birds and even a couple of types of bugs use things to manipulate other things.
We are the story-telling species.
So we have proof that I am human.
Way too human.
But so are you.