Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1946, Mark S. Geston began writing science fiction novels as a student in the 1960s. Releasing his first book Lords of the Starship while at Kenyon College in 1967, he would go on to write four more novels over the years: Out of the Mouth of the Dragon (1969), The Day Star (1972), The Siege of Wonder (1976), and Mirror to the Sky (1992), as well as several short stories.
Not exactly a household name, as Geston himself admits, he devoted most of his life to working as an attorney in the white-collar world of law, rather than the off-planet world(s) of spaceships and aliens.
Now retired from lawyering, Geston was gracious enough to accept NEEMblog’s invitation for an interview over email. I myself am a fan of his work, and snuck in Out of the Mouth of the Dragon as a non-1970s addendum to my “7 Best 70s Science Fiction Books” article.
Our correspondence is reproduced below.
NEEMblog: How did you first become familiar with science fiction as a genre? Did any authors in particular inspire you to start writing?
Mark Geston: My mother taught college English and journalism for years, and did book and theatre reviews for local newspapers and women’s clubs, so I grew up around books. That, combined with a severe adolescent social skill deficit, pointed me to books and reading. Alistair MacLean, Davis Grubb, and Eric Ambler were early favorites for fiction and Harrison Salisbury for history. I’m not sure how many junior-high school kids back then asked their parents for William Schrier’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for a birthday present or were given one. That endeavor, however, was impeded then, as now, by a painfully slow reading speed.
My entrée into science fiction was the original Twilight Zone television show, which captivated me. Then stumbling into Ray Bradbury’s October Country, Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, as well as others, and chancing onto monthly science fiction magazines that had terrific stories, like the issues of Galaxy with Cordwainer Smith’s “Planet Named Shayol” and “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” and Jack Vance’s “The Dragon Masters.” Most of all, I just felt the plain (and likely escapist) urge to begin writing stories by the sixth grade, stories that had room enough for imagination, and presumptuously engaging in the adult enterprise of trying to get published. I also got used to the idea that science fiction is inherently trivial, looked down upon by the Honors English kids editing the school literary magazine.
NB: You published your first novel, Lords of the Starship as a young man in 1967. What was the process like to get published in the 1960s as an unestablished author?
MG: I’d run out of short story ideas by the beginning of my sophomore year in college and thought I’d try something novel-sized, though the idea of inventing, let along voluntarily typing more than 200 pages of story seemed out of reach. Fortunately, I was attending a very good college, Kenyon, and literature and writing were very much a part of the environment there. I started with the most outrageous idea I had, a spaceship seven miles long, and by the end of that year I had a first draft to rewrite over the summer and into the beginning of my junior year. From prior readership, I knew that Ace Paperbacks published a great many lots-less-than great science fiction novels, some OK novels, and some really terrific. It was Don Wollheim, the editor at Ace, who, after all, brought an obscure English fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, to America; think of what we all would have missed if he had not.
So I took my finished draft (in a shopping bag) to Ace’s office in New York, and gave it to the receptionist. A few weeks later, quite out of the blue, I got a flattering letter from Mr. Wollheim, offering to buy it for the astronomical amount of $1,500 (which, at that time, covered most of the cost of the new BMW 1600 I bought that summer in Munich; times have changed). The book appeared in the fall of my senior year. That emboldened me to crash an English Department reception following a seminar by a featured author, who, in turn referred me to his agent in New York. That gentleman was well positioned to help me sell my four subsequent novels. So, you see, while one cannot discount persistence, my early success was very much a matter of a much more fragmented publishing industry, luck and fortuitous timing.
NB: Your next novel, Out of the Mouth of the Dragon contains a number of Christian themes and narrative elements, especially surrounding Christian eschatology, prophecy, and the Book of Revelations. What made you want to write a science fiction book with such characteristics?
MG: I had been brought up as a not very well versed Catholic. The confluence of fringe Catholicism, with the political upheavals of the late 1960s, a natural attraction with the tragic fragility of so much I found beautiful in modern society, and my own self-indulgent bathos, pointed me to an idea of a final confrontation that would not be final at all, but only one in a succession of similar events. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I read in high school, was also a strong influence, as much for the theology as for the depiction of a future society rooting about in the ruins of a grander predecessor. Once the story was underway, I found that if your characters are on the road to even one Armageddon, it’s to be expected that you’re going to run into the Book of Revelations (described to me by a theologian at college as “somebody’s bad dream.”).
NB: My “pet theory” is that Out of the Mouth of the Dragon possibly acted as an inspiration for Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrilogy. In my opinion, the paralleled religious themes, post-post-apocalyptic settings, scenes of technologically asymmetric warfare, and world-building plot twists are too similar to ignore. Are you familiar with Gene Wolfe’s work, and if so, do you think this is a possibility?
MG: I’ve only been reading Wolfe’s novels in the past several years. I think that Out of the Mouth of the Dragon and whatever modest readership it had were long gone by the time Mr. Wolfe made his mark. I’ve never corresponded with Mr. Wolfe nor have any other reason to think that my modest effort came to his attention, let along influenced his work. I am, therefore, tremendously flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as him.
NB: In 1992 you published your last novel Mirror to the Sky, one of the few science fiction books to address the potentialities of fine art as a vehicle for intergalactic communication. What made you interested in merging the worlds of fine art and science fiction?
MG: The ”discovery” of “new dimensions” is a familiar device in science fiction (and may be integral to a lot of fantasy). So it seemed an easy connection for me to go back in time a little, to the invention of perspective as one of the Renaissance’s “new dimensions” – that is, the depiction of spatial depth in a two dimensional painting. If an artist could convincingly simulate three dimensional depth in a painting, than why couldn’t alien artists manipulate other perceptions such as time and causality in their own work? That seemed like a fun idea at the time, and I’m pleased you found it notable.
NB: As someone who is quite familiar with Washington, DC, Mirror to the Sky is one of the best depictions of the bureaucracy of the U.S. security apparatus, the Smithsonian museums, and life in the city as a whole that I’ve read. Do you have any first-hand experience working for the U.S. government, or with Washington, DC generally?
MG: No personal experience there at all. Just some reading, a Rand McNally street map of D.C., and lucky guesses. Anyway, after spending a legal career in white-collar offices, I assumed that the maneuvering and pettiness of such environments was merely what one would encounter in similar places – where only the stakes would be different.
NB: You’re now retired after a long life of writing, do you have any advice for young science fiction authors in the 21st century?
MG: I’m retired but, apologetically, not from any long life of writing. I’m retired from a long life of being a lawyer, a life which allowed me material comfort but which was not sympathetic to discussions with more prosperous colleagues and clients about seven mile long spaceships and wars between science and magic.
Don’t worry about “science fiction.” Worry about the quality of what you are writing, how you’re doing it, and – most essentially – that you are doing it, rather than sitting around thinking (however anguished) about it. When I was actively writing, Thomas Wolfe and Joseph Conrad were just as much influences as Bradbury and Tolkien.
“Science fiction” is and remains something of a ghetto genre, so best not to seek it out when you start. But if you blunder into it or it ambushes you anyway, don’t resist, take a deep breath and begin something everyone around you would never believe if you had transported them there, no matter how contentiously you had seasoned and equipped them for the un-place and other-world you’re making.