Tangent Online: Author Profile Series
by Michael A. Burstein

Copyright © 1996 by Michael A. Burstein

Less than two years ago I was a hopeful wannabe writer. I had been trying to sell a science fiction story since I was 14, and had seriously started up again when I was 22. Since then, I've done the following:

  • Been accepted to and attended the 1994 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop
  • Sold a short story, "TeleAbsence," to Analog, after two rewrite requests
  • Sold a second short story, "Sentimental Value," to Analog, a story about the events of my first sale
  • Seen both stories published (in the July 1995 and October 1995 issues, respectively, my first two published stories)
  • Won the Analog Analytical Laboratory Award for Best Short Story of 1995 (for "TeleAbsence")
  • Been nominated for a 1996 Hugo Award for Best Short Story (Again, for "TeleAbsence")
  • Been nominated for the 1996 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (the only person on the ballot who hasn't published a novel yet)
  • And, oh yes, most important of all: Gotten married.

It's pretty much a safe bet to say that most of you reading this have never heard of me before. By now, I've probably hooked half of you into reading this, hoping to find out how I had such fast success, in hopes of emulating it. I've also probably driven the other half of you away with my semi- obnoxious list of recent successes.

Well, for those of you who stuck around, I'm afraid I have no great secret to success. I just seem to be leading a charmed life. But if it's of any interest at all, I can tell you a little bit about the path I took which led me to where I am now.

I grew up, as I'm sure a lot of us did, reading science fiction. Somewhere I got it into my head to be a physicist, and so when I left New York City for Boston to attend college, it was to study Physics. I got my degree in 1991, and then went on to graduate school.

Graduate school made me realize that I didn't want to be a physicist.

Now, during all this formal education, I did try writing stories once or twice. I was inspired by my high school friend Charles Ardai, who has written quite a few excellent mystery and horror stories, and was even nominated for the Shamus Award. I kept thinking that maybe I could produce something halfway decent.

I think you know the drill. Rejection slip after rejection slip. I left graduate school in 1993 with my M.A. and returned to NYC to teach for two years. And it was during that time that I garnered my first personal rejection letter, a note from Stan Schmidt of Analog. From then on, every piece of drivel that I wrote was sent to him for a first look, since I knew he was taking me seriously.

And so it was because of his own insight (an insight that is impossible for me to understand, now that I look back on some of the atrocities I commited to paper), that he managed to publish a Hugo nominated story by a neo.

I want to talk a little about where "TeleAbsence" came from. At a convention a few years back, I was on a panel about what we might expect in the year 2001, when one of the panelists suggested that one thing we could all agree on was that by the year 2001, everyone would have an e-mail address.

Two of us disagreed.

Now don't get me wrong. I've been surfing the Internet since before that metaphor was used (1987, if you must know; and yes, I hear some of you calling me a youngster), and I love e- mail. It's kept me in touch with a lot of friends, and I've made a lot of new ones whom I would never have known otherwise. (I'm at mab@world.std.com if you want to drop me a line.) But this guy was claiming that there would be a world of information out there, free for the taking.

Oh, sure, it would be free. After you pay for your computer, and your modem, and your phone line...and let's not forget your commercial Internet provider, assuming you're not a college student or working in the computer field.

I decided to write a story pointing out that just because the technology is out there, it doesn't mean that it's going to get to everyone who might need it. The Internet wasn't SF anymore, but I'm a teacher, so I thought, what if I created a classroom metaphor for the Internet? Say, a Virtual Reality classroom, where students from all over the world could jack in and interact, even if they really lived miles apart.

My original notes on this story played up an angle that I soon dropped. The VR classoom seemed like a good solution for violence in schools, and I thought of writing a story about a media scientist whose teacher friend is killed by such violence, and how she develops the idea of VR schools to solve the problem. But it was depressing to open a story with a funeral.

What if, on the other hand, I projected this into the future? After all, my point was that just because the technology was there, it did not mean that it would go to the people who needed it. What if these telepresence schools were set up as private schools, because the government couldn't afford to fund them, and what if one day an economically disadvantaged kid whose neighborhood school is lousy finds a pair of virtual spex, and sneaks into the telepresence school because he wants to learn?

Hence the title, "TeleAbsence," with an intercapped A because it was the only way I could think of to get people to pronounce the title correctly without a hyphen. Besides, last time I checked Wired magazine, intercapping was in.

I don't remember when I started writing "TeleAbsence," but the first version ended much too quickly. Stan Schmidt sent it back for a rewrite. I drew out the conflict, kept the original happy ending, and got another revision request.

Thank God for Howard Waldrop at Clarion. He pointed out to me that the way I was ending the story missed the point I was trying to make. I wanted things to work out well for Tony, the kid in the story, and I ended up letting him stay in telepresence school twice before realizing that doing so drained the story of its emotional impact. So no, Tony doesn't get what everyone wants for him, but the story ends happily. (See for yourself if you want; in the ultimate irony, I've made the story available on my web page, http://www.mabfan.com.)

Back to me, I guess. Last June, I got married, and moved once again from NYC to Boston, where my wife Nomi and I had decided to live. It's still a city, but more manageable than New York is. And I'm still teaching Physics (and Mathematics) as my dayjob.

I'm also still writing. A year after my first two sales, I made a third sale, a short-short, which allowed me to join SFWA as an Active Member. I proceeded to submit a list of works that I recommended for the Nebula. Although a writer, I am also still very much a reader of science fiction, and I still find myself in awe of the writers I admire.

The writing is starting to become more successful, too, and not just on the award scale. When I was at Clarion, I had this idea that I really wanted to turn into a story -- what if the abandoned Superconducting Supercollider started hiccuping, and the project (which died when its funding was cut) was renewed? (This is the kind of thing high energy physicists would fantasize over.) I wrote a 3,000 word version of this story, then called "Collisions With Reality," at Clarion. It didn't really work, and I spent almost two years trying to figure out just what this story needed.

Now, I'm the kind of writer who needs a workshop for constant improvement. I've been blessed with a wonderful group in the Boston area, called Critical Mass, which already had its share of success before I happened on the scene. I finally figured out what the story needed, and the members of Critical Mass helped me make it work. "TeleAbsence" may have already been published when I joined them, but if not for that group, "Broken Symmetry" would still be languishing in my computer as a 3,000 word failure instead of a 12,000 word sale, my first novelette. It'll be in Analog sometime soon.

My next project -- a novel, which I hope to write this summer. There are some advantages to being a high school teacher.

Last November Joe & Gay Haldeman invited my wife and me over to their Cambridge apartment for a Clarion alumni party. I vividly remember drooling over Joe's 1995 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. It's a beautiful, gleaming rocket statue, as all Hugos are, and I thought to myself, "Well, maybe someday, I'd be up for one of these."

I guess someday has arrived, a little sooner than I expected. But isn't that what science fiction is all about?