Every teleportation is a little death: Talking with M. Thomas Gammarino about sci-fi, book design, and epistemology

M. Thomas Gammarino’s King of the Worlds is an excellent sci-fi novel that combines the interiority of literary fiction from the 50s, 60s and 70s with the all-out weirdness of the golden age of science fiction. (You can read my review here.) It’s set in an alternate universe in which a child actor named Dylan Greenyears stars in a wildly popular Terry Gilliam-directed sequel to ET: The Extraterrestrial. Greenyears becomes a huge celebrity, but then he’s publicly humiliated when James Cameron fires him from Titanic. Greenyears teleports to a planet nearly two dozen light years away where he spends years living in anonymity as a suburban dad and teacher named Dylan Green. Eventually, Green starts digging through fan mail from his teen idol days, and that sets him down a cross-universe quest for meaning. Gammarino and I talked onstage on Sunday afternoon at University Book Store. What follows is a lightly edited transcription of that conversation.

So, what's the deal with Titanic?

I'm glad you asked that, actually. I have no very strong feelings about this film. I'm sort of sentimental and romantic in general so I'm not insusceptible, if that's a word, to feeling a little something about the love story. I remember having some class issues with the film — I didn't love that the poor guy sacrifices his life to safe the aristocrat, that sort of thing — but I think I've seen the film once, and that was probably in 1997 when it came out. I guess the question is, what's going on here? Why did I write about this?

My answer to that is, in 1997 I was just out of high school and this movie was so popular. Everyone I knew was seeing it, many of them multiple times, and I was, for the very first time, beginning to be a little bit of an intellectual, as much as I am. I came from a blue collar culture and I remember one of the first questions that seemed important to me was, “what's going on? What's up with this movie? Why is everybody interested in this boat? We've all known about it forever, why does everybody want to see this movie so badly?”

I don't have a single answer to that but I liken it to the zombie fad of the last decade. Maybe it's gone away now but for a while there, I was wondering "why are zombies suddenly everywhere?".George Romero invented them in the 60's, the American version, and it went away and it came back in a major way. What was that hooking into in our culture? I don't know the answer. It’s probably not any one thing; it's a constellation of things. Probably something to do with 9/11 and terrorism and technology — ubiquitous technology —and the economy. I don't know.

The idea for this book came to me in a flash, in one shower, so in the course of five minutes I knew the outline of the whole thing and it was just Titanic.

It's the invincible getting vinced, right? It's the unsinkable ship going down, and I guess I feel like that hooked into some other elegiac themes I wanted to explore about America becoming life-sized, for instance.

It's a very interior novel, you described it as a ... did you describe it earlier as a midlife crisis novel or a nervous breakdown novel?

I said midlife crisis.

Midlife crisis novel, then, which was very much a trend and in the middle of the 20th century. You've layered all of this science fiction on top of it but it all seems very reflective of Dylan's inner state, the smallness of America and the sense that we've discovered everything in the universe and the disappointment that comes with that. In that initial shower of yours, how much of the science fiction was necessary to the story? Did you ever envision a story without it, or with the science fiction dial turned down a little bit?

That's a great question. The answer is no, it really did — and this is rare, it never happens this way — but with this book it really did all just come at once and anything I say about why is going to have a revisionist aspect to it, rationalizing what to my gut just sounded like a good idea.

It's an expressionistic novel in a way. I teach a class on modernism and when we cover expressionism I teach students to distinguish from impressionism. It's about taking some interior state and refracting external reality through that state. It just seemed like the right expression — for the reasons you stated — this seemed like the right setting, backdrop, et cetera for what's going on with this guy psychically.

When I'm trying to write a book or dream up an idea for one, I just want to write something that I would want to read. That's a cliché but it’s absolutely spot on. There's no other reason to be doing this, believe me. It hasn't made me rich. I think I bought a latte once to celebrate [publication] instead of a coffee.

I want to write the book that I would love to have read, especially when I was younger and more impressionable than I am now. I like science fiction and I also love writers like Philip Roth — that's one of my heroes — and John Cheever. Updike a little less, though that's here too, I think. It’s just a mashup of stuff I like, I guess.

I did once early on have someone read a draft of one scene and she said to me, "why the science fiction? You've got your story without that." And I thought, "yeah, but that story's been written a hundred times, this is a little different." I don't know another book quite like this. I don't know another science fiction midlife crisis novel, actually.

There's definitely Cheever and there's definitely Roth in there. On the sci-fi side, you wrote in the book about Stanislaw Lem, and Infinite Jest is in there. The brand of sci-fi though, feels more to me like the pulpy stuff that Kurt Vonnegut was playing with and that Douglas Adams had some of in the Hitchhikers Guide books. I guess I'm just asking if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to science fiction and the science fiction side of the influences on the book.

Sure. There is no greater compliment to me than a comparison to Kurt Vonnegut. He was life-changing for me, as for so many 17-year-old kids who discovered Kurt Vonnegut. He was my first favorite writer. I read everything he'd written. My prized possession is my first printing of Slaughterhouse Five. So thank you for that.

It seemed like the postmodern dream is finally being fulfilled where we don't necessarily need sections anymore for literature and science fiction. They're the same thing, finally, right? You can have literary fiction that recycles tropes of science fiction. That's a good thing.

For some reason that's brought into relief for me what science fiction is. Genres have become more reified for me than they used to be. I was always reading science fiction, but I never thought of it as, "Oh, I'm going into science fiction mode now while I read Arthur C. Clarke." It's just reading a book.

It's been all the more reified for me because about four years ago, five years ago, I started teaching a course on the history of science fiction. And some of the stuff I hadn't read before was the early pulp stuff from the actual pulp era. It's called the pulp era because these stories were printed on pulped paper which was cheap and acidic and would disintegrate pretty quickly. It was basically aimed at adolescent boys, for the most part, and most of it's terrible. But even the bad stuff is so vivid, and some of it's not bad. There's a guy named Edmond Hamilton, “The Man Who Evolved” is a story he wrote. I just loved his stuff. It's kind of cartoonish but it's filled with that sense of wonder that's so central to every definition of science fiction, so much so that he gets parodied as "sensawunda" — all one word.

I guess I was drawing on that. It's what I was reading while I was thinking about [King of the Worlds]. I could go on all day about science fiction writers I love. I think there's a little bit of Ursula Le Guin's influence here, Kurt Vonnegut for sure, I loved Douglas Adams when I was 18, 19.

In this book you worked with Chin Music Press who are known for the beautiful design of their books, and there's a very design-heavy aspect to this book. The use of the footnotes is very important to the story and I think the design of that is interesting because it doesn't look like a standard footnote, right? You have a little symbol that looks like, almost, a ping on a radar screen. Did you have any say in the design of that and could you talk about the evolution of the visual sense in that?

King of the Worlds — so this word “worlds” for me has a lot of valance both in terms of content and form. When I was thinking about this book, one of my — I don't know what the right phrase here is — the marching orders I'd given myself were to write a book that was at once ontological and epistemological, to use lit-crit terms.

There's a guy named Brian McHale who wrote a book on postmodernist fiction and he talks about questions of epistemology being the dominant of modernist fiction. Modernism's about characters and what they know. It's about brains and brain activity, it's about psychology, deep psychology versus postmodernism which he says is an ontological dominant, that is, it deals with questions about which world am I in? Ontology is the study of the nature of being. I thought it was a really insightful thesis for this book he wrote, but also there was no reason you couldn't combine them.

One of the things I wanted to do here was combine them. I have a novel that's yes, very close third person, lots of psychology. James Joyce is one of my favorites of all time and I hope his influence is always there. At the same time, it deals with so many different kinds of worlds. On one hand, there's the epistemological sort of world, that is, there are many worlds in this room right now — the worlds inside your skulls. There are worlds as in planets, and then there's the old conceit of the fiction itself as a world created by the god who is the writer, and that's another world that I'm playing with and occasionally invading in a meta-fictional way.

I wanted the text itself, the para-text to have multiple worlds. I didn't want it to be just one thing. These are separate worlds within the world of the book. In terms of ticky-tack design stuff, yeah I think the omni-symbol was my idea. We just tweaked the information thing you see on maps at the mall. Some of us have noted regrettably that it looks a little bit like the Target logo, but these things happen. Maybe they’ll sponsor the paperback.

[Gammarino opens the book, flips to the endpapers.]

There's also this. I love this, and this was a last — literally, I think this came together in the last day before they pressed the button on production. In the endpapers here, you have a bunch of fan mail. It's the letters that are in the box that Dylan opens early in this book that sets the whole thing in motion. These were written by my friends and my kids and they're pretty ridiculous, if you can actually make out what some of these say.

Like this one here says, "Dylan, have you ever seen moth balls? How'd you get their little legs open? Hahaha, I'll eat you up, I love you so. Call me, call me, call me, call me. Kelsey Anne, Call, I love you". That's one of them.

[Designer Dan D. Shafer] was afraid that the cover was a little on the nose, or a little literal, but I loved it immediately, this design. It's right. There's something that everybody in America knows something about this cover. That's good. It hooks into something, you know, it's not just another book on the shelf. It's, "oh, does that have something to do with Titanic?"

[AUDIENCE QUESTION] You talk about teleportation and the fact that — which was sort of implied in Star Trek and other places, but not really spelled out there — that it actually involves the death of the person being transported, and like reconstitution somewhere else. So I was wondering, basically, how is it to write a book like that where your character is actually being destroyed and recreated. Obviously there’s, sort of, an existential effect, but then he's also saying that it's what happens to everybody in the course of a normal lifetime.

Precisely. That was so insightful. In fact there's a moment where Dylan himself realizes what a handy metaphor teleportation is for what we do everyday anyway. We're all dying all the time but also being reborn.

Is teleportation going to happen anytime soon? No. I like to distinguish between plausible and feasible. Which one is which, I'm not even sure. It's not feasible, but it is plausible if you're a materialist as I am.

I don't think there's any special sauce to me, I think I'm a bunch of stuff and that if you could properly reverse engineer that stuff, that'd be me. There's one issue there: if you could clone me exactly with my clothing and my belt and my socks and my microbes — 90 percent of the cells in your body are not you, by the way — if you can clone all that stuff exactly, by definition it can't be exactly where I am in time and space, it has to be over here. Put it right on top of me, we explode, right? It has to be over here and so its experience diverges instantly and it's not exactly me. Pretty darn close, though.

My favorite treatment of that question is not Star Trek but an Australian writer named Greg Egan wrote a story called “Learning to be Me,” which sounds kind of feel-good new age. It's not. It's about this near-future world where, when a baby is born they're implanted with this device called the Dual, as in D-U-A-L, but a British man pronounces it "jewel" and the term jewel sticks.

So you're implanted with a jewel, and between the jewel and your organic brain is something called the teacher and the teacher transcribes all of the information more or less from your brain to this jewel, with the idea that when you turn 30 you have your organic brain scraped out and replaced with a jewel and now you get to live until our sun dies.

The narrator isn't sure he wants to go through with this. Everyone who's gone through with it seems to think they're no different from a moment before and it's just a little hiccup when you have the surgery. A little hiccup in your consciousness, no big deal. He's thinking maybe it is a big deal, “maybe I don't want to die.” It's a fascinating question. It's pretty clear to me that if you die, in terms of your numerical brain, that sucks. It's game over for you, even if some other thing that's identical to you gets to go on. But it's a fun idea to play with. Star Trek plays with it in all kinds of ways.

I have another nerdy sci-fi question.

Cool, love them.

This universe where Dylan was a star is obviously not the same as ours because they have quantum teleportation in the 90's. Did you envision an exact point when that universe diverged from ours?

Yes, 1980. Some of you have seen Carl Sagan's Cosmos, recently rebooted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That's the moment. In our actual universe, Cosmos was successful, a lot of people got turned on to science, and I think it was the first time in America where maybe astrophysics seemed really cool. But I don't know that it had a major effect on the federal budget.

In this novel, in the world of this novel, universe of this novel, NASA immediately begins getting 60 percent of the federal budget. Is it actually reasonable to expect that 15 years later we're settling exoplanets and teleporting here and there? Probably not, but it's an invitation to play with absurd ideas, keeping them plausible while forgetting about feasibility altogether.

That's very clever. That's in the book, too. It's just not pointed out as the central point where the timeline breaks from ours.

It's true, yeah, [the mention] comes close to the end. I think for me I knew early on that that's the first point of departure.

So the big continuity nerd question is, how does all that lead to Dylan landing a role in the E.T. sequel?

That's interesting you say that, though, because that's one of my misgivings all along. In an alternate history you're going to change one thing and there's going to be a causal through-line, and I don't exactly have that. I sort of had multiple points of departure. But your review was really great, I thought, on this question of, “what are we doing when we include all this physics that we don't really understand in fiction?”

I do think largely it functions as a metaphor but I also talked to scientists and do a lot of reading and they're confused too. Richard Feynman famously said, "if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

One of the boggling ideas is the multiverse idea. If you've ever thought about infinity, well, think about the universe for a second. Is it finite or is it infinite? What do you guys think? [Silence.] Well, you're right, the jury's out. Maybe it stops somehow. What the hell does that mean? Is there a brick wall? That can't be right, that feels wrong, right?

And then when I talk about this with students they say, "I think it's shaped like a doughnut" or something clever, and that's attractive but your next logical question, having evolved on this planet to survive and reproduce as we have — by the way, that's not a prescriptive statement, it's just a descriptive one, none of you has a direct ancestor who failed to reproduce, right? — the next question is, what's outside of the doughnut? I don't know. On the other hand, if the universe is infinite, whoa, think about that.

There is one little wrinkle here that I didn't include because it just gets too fussy. I guess it's possible that we could be in infinite space, even with infinite stuff, and not have every possible permutation because what we don't have is infinite time. If the Big Bang really happened 13-point-whatever billion years ago, maybe it hasn't been enough time to make another [Chin Music Press owner] Bruce Rutledge sitting at my reading but with red hair. Maybe that hasn't actually happened yet, but eventually it would. Given infinite time, infinite space and infinite stuff, every novel in this [bookstore] that doesn't defy the laws of physics is non-fiction. It's happening somewhere out there in the multiverse.

Then you hear somebody like Max Tegmark at MIT talk about different types of multiverses, four types, and the Big Bang becomes not even a factor and nor do the laws of physics, and then even every fantasy book in this room might be happening somewhere, because the laws of physics are different inside of different bubbles. This is at the point at which physics becomes almost religious because you can't test these hypotheses, you just kind of speculate and do your math. That's where I get offboard. I can't do the math, I'm just an armchair scientist.