By Blake Nelson
Recently, Christoph Weber, a Reno local, competed and placed in the prestigious writing contest Writers and Illustrators of the Future. Weber placed third in the writing portion of the contest with his short story “Möbius.”
The contest was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1983 with the intention of recognizing up-and-coming speculative fiction writers. Judges of the contest include Orson Scott Card among other esteemed writers.
Weber, among other things, is an arborist and a writer with a knack for issues facing the future of the human race. The Nevada Sagebrush recently got into contact with Weber and asked some questions regarding his recent success and what this success means.
Are you a Reno native? If not, how long have you lived in Reno, when did you move here, etc.?
Born and raised!
How do you like Reno?
When I was younger I wanted to get out, and after high school (Reno High), I did. But once I’d seen a bit of the world, Reno grew on me. She has some of the arts and culture you’d find in a larger metropolis, yet still offers the wildland escapes of a rural area. When I realized what a special balance that is, the vortex sucked me back in.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I graduated from Arizona State University, where I studied political science and Mandarin Chinese. I had vague plans of getting a law degree, and took one graduate law class. That was enough to know it wasn’t for me. My senior year, a biology professor sparked a deep interest in life sciences, and I think that drove me to other fields of study and work.
When did you start writing and what inspired you to?
I’ve always been a big reader, but aside from some atrocious poetry, I didn’t give much thought to writing until my senior year of college, when I received some rather backhanded encouragement. I found out that one of my teachers was investigating me for plagiarism because she didn’t think I could have written the papers I was turning in. Of course I hadn’t plagiarized a word, but her disbelief made me think, “Hey, maybe I have a knack for writing!” Strange way to encourage a student, though I’m quite thankful for her efforts to fail me.
I wrote my first piece of fiction shortly after that while working on a wildland fire crew. We were in Idaho, and the fire was nuking off, just turning forest to ash. Those apocalyptic images sort of burned themselves in my mind, and while still on the fire I began writing a novel about a future in which Earth burns and people try to rebuild out of that clean black slate. It wasn’t very good.
Was speculative fiction your first choice? I understand that you write literary fiction as well?
They’re both good genres, but for me, speculative fiction is the most exciting. Until I finish building my time machine, I’m stuck in this moment. Science fiction offers a free vacation to anywhere in space and time.
Yet even with all the cosmos as a potential setting, many of my stories are set on a near-future Earth. I like to look at current trends and extrapolate, to imagine what things will be like in 10, 50 or 100 years, if those trends continue. This is one of science fiction’s great strengths: it has predicted, and even helped bring about, many things that became reality.
What was your mindset submitting your short story to the contest? Many accomplished writers have won the contest before, such as Stephen Baxter and Karen Joy Fowler. Were you intimidated or anxious in any way?
I was about as confident as a seal in a shark’s mouth. The judges include some titans of speculative fiction — Orson Scott Card, author of “Ender’s Game,” to name just one — and they receive thousands of entries each quarter. I almost didn’t send that story, because I didn’t think it was good enough.
You said your initial reaction to learning about winning the contest was shock. Now how do you feel about it five months later? Has it changed your life or writing in any way?
It’s been a shot of motivation. Might be overdramatic to say it’s changed my life, but in April they’re flying me to Hollywood for a week to workshop with a bunch of best-selling authors, and I have a hunch that will do great things for my writing.
Could you give a brief summary of what your award-winning short story is about, and if there are any deeper themes or devices that you use?
“Möbius” is about a future where human genetic engineering is outlawed. It follows a detective on her quest to hunt down illegal underground “gene-tweakers.” Eventually she discovers that one of the criminal technologies she so fiercely opposes holds the key to saving a loved one’s life, and she’s forced to make a brutal choice: abandon her values, or let a loved one die.
Ultimately, the plot encourages the reader to ask an immortal question: if there were a treatment that could extend the human life span to a thousand years or more, would you want it, and would you want everyone to have it?
It’s a question that we may have to ask pretty soon. The first anti-aging drug enters human trials this year. If this drug grants an extra 10 years of life, it may keep people alive long enough to get the next improved treatment, which gives, say, another 30 to 50 years, and so on. As a researcher in the anti-aging field has pointed out, if the rate of improvement is rapid enough, it is possible that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born.
It seems that through speculative writing, like many of the greats, you choose to explore ethical topics. Some come to mind: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and many more. Where do you think this fascination with these more serious themes, in your case, comes from?
I hope that my writing, first and foremost, is fun to read. But yes, “Möbius” is one of the more serious stories I’ve written, and even beneath my lighthearted stuff are serious ethical questions that we’re facing now or will have to face in the near future.
Where does that come from?
Well, if we don’t think about ethics, we end up doing unethical things! Stories are perhaps the best way to develop and maintain ideas of right and wrong (and all the juicy stuff in between). Artificial intelligence researchers are currently facing the problem of teaching robots to achieve their objectives within the confines of our societal norms. How do they do this? They teach robots human stories!
Your writing is largely based around biological issues, e.g., anti-aging and the use of de-extinction. Do you think being an arborist has given you inspiration or possibly a leg up in this aspect of your writing?
Absolutely. I’ve hatched my best story ideas while working with trees. My first published piece appeared in the journal Nature, and I had the idea while working on a giant apple tree right by the university.
Are you working on anything currently? Can we expect any publications from you any time soon?
My winning short story, “Möbius,” will appear in “Writers of the Future, Volume 32,” which is now available for pre-order on Amazon and will be carried by Barnes & Noble and other booksellers this May.
I have about 15 other short stories I’m trying to polish and sell while I finish my novel, “The Descent of Man.” It’s a lightning-paced adventure that deals with the extinction of most bee species and the de-extinction of others, including Neanderthals (which is not as far-fetched as it might sound). It’s a twisty, page-turning adventure, but it also deals with some serious issues, and having a Neanderthal main character is a great way to illuminate the question of what it means to be human.
It’s the best thing I’ve written, and if anyone wants to stay apprised, they can sign up for notifications at www.christophweber.com.
Do you have any advice for a writer that is just starting or starting to think about writing?
Well, I sold my first story barely more than a year ago, so I’m just getting started myself! But I have received some good advice that I can pass along.
First, read! And read broadly, including nonfiction. Knowledge is power, in writing and life. And when you read, dissect. Almost every book has some blank pages near the front; I use these to make notes of all the things that did and didn’t work for me. Periodically, I’ll review those notes, and I find that helps me avoid others’ mistakes.
Critiques are helpful, but beware of listening to family and friends. You might as well get feedback from your dog. They all love you, so they’re all inclined to tell you it’s great (or lick your face). The best critique I ever received was of that first novel I wrote, the one about Earth burning. The reviewer told me I should delete about 90 percent of it. Left me depressed for a week. But you know what? She was right, and I’ll never write another slow-paced novel.
High Sierra Writers offers local critique group options. Online writing groups are good, too — I like Critters.org. Though I’m unaware of any, there might be a critique group on campus. If there isn’t, start one!
Blake Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @b_e_nelson.