Interview with Stephen Case

How would you describe your spiritual and/or religious beliefs, and how would you say they influence your writing?

I was raised in a fairly conservative evangelical home. My family and I are now members of a Greek Orthodox parish. That was a bit of a journey. I would describe myself as an Orthodox Christian with an abiding love for the idea of Christianity as a narrative, as a living tradition passed down through history. I don’t know how much that influences all my stories, but ancient arguments in the seventh- and eighth-century church provided the basis for “The Chora Gate” [appearing in Mysterion December 2018]. I heard a speaker at our campus chapel recently refer to God as “the God of stories.” I like that a lot. Narrative is central to how I understand myself and my faith.

Why do you think you became a writer, and why speculative fiction?

I’m not sure why I became a writer. I remember writing ghost stories as early as second grade. Writing is something I’ve always loved to do. In graduate school I started writing stories in earnest, I think as a sort of coping mechanism. And speculative fiction was what I loved to read. So those were the kinds of stories I tried to create.

What themes do you keep coming back to in your own writing?

Narrative. I’m drawn to the idea that stories are significant to who we are and how we understand the universe. The universe is a really big place, but as far as we can tell we’re the only things in it that can tell stories about it. There’s something amazing about that. Does the universe need us in some deep way to be able to tell stories about itself? On the other hand, I have doubts. Are stories just the thing we do to manufacture the illusion of meaning for ourselves? My characters ask questions like these a lot.

What books or authors most influenced you when you first started writing? What are some of your favorites now?

My favorite writer when I was younger was Gene Wolfe. I fell in love with his Book of the Long Sun during a hospital stay for an extended illness, and I think that’s where I moved from reading science fiction and fantasy as entertainment to starting to explore it as literature. I’ve read Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus over and over again. I’m not sure if I have any specific favorites right now, but I did just read Linda Nagata’s Vast and loved it.

In your day job, you teach about the history of astronomy. What is that like? Do you find that what you teach, or the experience of teaching, have an influence on your fiction writing? Or are they mostly independent pursuits?

I have the privilege of teaching astronomy as a course for non-science majors. That’s a lot of fun. I get to talk about how astronomy plays a role in their daily lives in ways they don’t realize, like in the development of the calendar, and introduce people to the night sky. In some sense I’m telling stories all day. Sometimes the stuff I’m teaching about gives me ideas for fiction, but I think more than anything (if I’m lucky) the process of trying to explain complicated concepts to students helps me when I’m trying to describe concepts or situations in a story. Every day when I teach I’m asking myself how I can explain things, how can I make things clearer, and I think maybe that awareness (when I’m being careful) helps influence how I craft my fiction.

You recently published a book called Making Stars Physical, about the British astronomer Sir John Herschel. What should we know about it?

Everybody should know about John Herschel. He was the Stephen Hawking of the Victorian world, and like Stephen Hawking he was buried in Westminster Abbey, between Darwin and Newton. He wrote the most important book on optics after Newton, and Darwin modeled his entire approach in the On the Origin of Species on Herschel’s philosophy of science. He was a Very Big Deal in the period when science was moving from the domain of gentleman “natural philosophers” to professional scientists, and he built on the work of his father William Herschel (who was during his life the most famous astronomer in the world) to move the study of the sidereal universe (stuff beyond the solar system) from the domain of a few eccentric amateurs with large telescopes to mainstream science. My book tells that story. It’s the first book-length treatment of a huge scientific figure who is largely forgotten today. And I wrote it in a way that I hope appeals to even non-historians, because it’s a really interesting story.

As a scholar with a particular interest in the historical relationship between science and faith, what do you see as some of the most common misconceptions? What do people not know?

People don’t realize what a long, complex, sometimes painful but often fruitful relationship science and faith have had. They forget that most of what we understand as the scientific method was birthed and matured in religious contexts—in Europe, the Islamic world, and the Far East. Many of the people who laid the foundation of modern science were deeply religious, and in many cases those religious beliefs actually shaped and influenced the science they did. From my own experience, most perceived conflicts aren’t really about science and faith—they’re about science and a particular, literalistic Biblical interpretation. But if you can continue to manufacture a controversy and convince Christians that a particular interpretation of scripture is the only valid one—then you can keep selling them your DVDs, Sunday school curriculum, home-school textbooks, and tickets to your Creation museum.

Your novel, First Fleet, could be described as Lovecraftian science fiction. What can you tell us about it?

It actually started as a short story for a Lovecraft-themed science fiction anthology. It didn’t make that anthology but went on to be published in an online magazine. A friend worked for a publisher who was looking for new fiction in the scifi horror vein and put us in touch. The publisher (a really great guy named Chris Hanada) asked if I could flesh it out into a novel. I actually said no at first, because I was working on my dissertation (which would eventually become Making Stars Physical.) But I had a holiday weekend coming up and told myself I’d take a few days to start writing a continuation of that first story and see where it went. 20,000 words later I felt like it had legs and we signed a contract. The novel was originally released as a series of novellas, which was fun. Chris’s team designed a separate cover for each one with a really cool retro/pulp feel and even put together a book trailer.

First Fleet doesn’t have any Christian characters, but it does ask many questions that are of interest to Christians, particularly about the soul and resurrection. Was this intentional, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?

I think questions about consciousness, intelligence, self-awareness, and the soul are compelling to a lot of people right now. If you can upload and download the human brain, what does that mean about the soul or about individuality? If I can regenerate a body and download a stored personality back into it, is that immortality? I’m not sure how soon we’ll have to ask those questions, but they’re worth thinking about now. There’s a part early in the novel where the character Paul learns that his wife Cam has been regenerated multiple times before they met, and he has to wrestle with the idea of whether she’s the “original” Cam—whether that concept even has any meaning. Even if we don’t get there with human consciousness, we may be asking similar questions soon about AI. Then there are of course ideas about love and family and loyalty. How far will Beka go to find her sister Jens? How much pain and terror is she willing to risk? The idea of the search for her sister driving her out into the blackness to face things I would never want to face was fun following out.

How much time would you estimate that you spend writing in an average week?

Never as much as I would like. When classes are in session, if I can get a solid 40 minutes of writing before the kids wake up and start getting ready for school, that has to be good enough. I can manage more on the weekends, so maybe an average week might be around eight hours. Double that for summers and breaks.

Do you tend to plot out your stories first, or just start writing and see where they go?

I rarely know how a story is going to end when I start it. Maybe if I did I could finish them more easily. I usually start with a scene in my head, or even just a word or phrase, and then I write from there. Usually the pieces come together on the page. I’ve learned that writing is another form of thinking. If I can’t figure out where a story is going, I’ll usually work it out while writing.

What's the first thing you do after you finish the first draft of a story? Do you start revising right away, or wait? Do you have a critique group or beta readers?

I do a lot of my drafting longhand in notebooks. After I write out a story I’ll let it sit for a while, maybe a few weeks depending on how busy I am, before I transcribe it. If I enjoy the process of transcribing it, that’s a good sign. Then I’ll polish it up and start sending it out to markets. I’ve been able to connect with some other writers as part of a critique group, which has also been very helpful.

Do you have any stories you want to write someday, but aren't yet ready to?

I’ve tried historical fiction with some of the individuals I’ve done scholarly work on, but I’m not ready yet. There are some really great stories to tell, but right now those characters seem interesting enough with their own actual stories. Eventually though I hope to write some good science fiction involving actual nineteenth century British astronomers.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the final stages of revising a fantasy novel that I’m really excited about. Hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot more about that soon.

What advice would you give to authors who'd like to see their work published but aren't there yet?

Keep writing. Connect with other writers. (Twitter has actually been really useful in this respect for me.) Read excellent work. Know the markets. Make friends with editors and agents. Get used to rejection. Don’t give up.

Stephen Case is a historian of science who teaches at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. He's published over thirty short stories in magazines including Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. His book reviews have appeared at Black Gate and Strange Horizons. Case's first novel, First Fleet, was recently reviewed at Mysterion and is available on Amazon. This year his first non-fiction book, Making Stars Physical: The Astronomy of Sir John Herschel, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. You can read more about his fiction and his research at or by following him on Twitter @StephenRCase.

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