The Surreal World of Robert Reed
by John Taylor
World-Herald Staff Writer
Almost every morning after breakfast,
Robert Reed slips into a closet converted into an office in his
Lincoln apartment and starts writing strange messages.
Sometimes, when he feels good and
when the writing is going well, the words come easily.
"Sometimes," Reed said,
"I feel like I've been dreaming, that sense of not having
control. I don't write with words. When I'm really writing it's
more like flying or driving. I feel the terrain."
It can be a bizarre landscape,
one in which plants float in the air, where dead vegetation and
bird manure fall on seas with floating islands of natural plastic.
It's the world of the science fiction
writer, and it's where Reed and his imagination live.
As a full-time producer of what
fans call SF, Reed may be the only Nebraskan among the nation's
nearly 1,000 recognized science fiction writers.
Though he was first published --
a short story -- only five years ago, and had his first book
introduced in 1987, he is establishing a good reputation in the
industry and with SF fans.
"He's a growing voice in science
fiction," said Betsy Mitchell, his editor at Bantam Books,
a division of Bantam, Doubleday, Dell in New York City. "He's
not widely known yet because he hasn't had enough books out,
but he has received good reviews and people like his writing
George Shestak, a long-time fan
of SF, a book reviewer and The World Herald's resident
authority on the genre, has said in a review that Reed "has
the talent, imagination and consistency to establish himself
as a first-rank science fiction name."
Reed's reputation so far stands
on three books: The Leeshore, Hormone Jungle and
Black Milk. A fourth, Down the Bright Way, should
be released soon, and a fifth, The Remarkables, is in
Ms. Mitchell's hands, waiting to be read.
With the publication of the fourth
and fifth books, Reed's stature is expected to receive a boost,
said Ms. Mitchell, a 1977 graduate of the University of Nebraska
at Omaha who also worked in a number of jobs, including that
of reporter, at The World-Herald.
The 34-year-old Reed has come late
to the SF field, his talent apparently overcoming what he acknowledges
has been an unconventional approach. He came to the attention
of the SF industry in 1986, when he was named the winner of the
first L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. He received
$5,000 for his story, "Mudpuppies," which was
published under the pen name Robert Touzalin, a pseudonym since
Although Reed said he had no novel
in mind, he began to think of one at the encouragement of Robert
Silverberg, a judge for the short story contest. "I wrote
a proposal to Silverberg," Reed said. "I rambled on
for several pages, and he wrote back and asked for 45 pages of
the actual book and an outline of the rest."
Months passed with no word from
Silverberg or from Donald I. Fine Inc., the New York publisher
to which the proposal had been sent, Reed said. "I assumed
my career was over," he said. "But then I got a call
out of the blue. They liked it, and I started working. They wanted
to see drafts of it as I was going because I had no track record."
The result was The Leeshore,
the story of the floating plants, avenging Earthmen and a cult
of computer worshippers called Alteretics. "I've been told
since that most writers don't do it the way I did it," he
said. "They'll finish a whole book and ship it off, and
that may take years. I've been fortunate."
Reed said the first book, as well
as the next two, was published in hardcover by Fine, something
that is unheard of for an unknown writer. "There is a market
for hardcover science fiction, but for an unknown writer there
just aren't that many people willing to shell out almost $20
for a book," Reed said.
With publication of his first book,
Reed became a writer, period. That's all he does; it's how he
makes his living, a career that has emerged more by happenstance
than by design.
The bearded Reed, a bachelor, was
born in Omaha and graduated from Benson High School in 1974.
At Nebraska Wesleyan University he majored in biology with, he
said, "no idea" what he wanted to do with his life.
He graduated from Wesleyan in 1978.
"I've liked to read for a
long time, but I got into science fiction late as a reader,"
Reed said. "I really can't say it has been a huge influence
in my development."
Reed's interest in science fiction
may be traceable to his fascination with science.
"Once a week I go up to Wesleyan
and go through the journals or Popular Science for entertainment
and ideas," he said. "I think the speculations by scientists
in a lot of those books are far more interesting than anything
science fiction writers produce."
Because of his lateness to the
game, however, Reed said, he has had to learn the language of
science on his own, although he said his stories don't contain
a lot of scientific jargon.
"Most science fiction writers
and virtually every fan start when they are 10 or 12. They just
read huge amounts. They consume vast quantities of science fiction
literature. I read that stuff, but I also read other things,
It was, in fact, one of those "other
things" -- Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms
-- that sparked Reed's interest in writing. He recalls it as
his "first adult book," one that "really connected
"I felt, having read that,
that an adult had taken me aside, put his arm around my shoulder
and told me how life really is," Reed said.
Reed expresses little interest
in writing general fiction. "In my mind I have a book that
would be considered more mainstream," he said. "But
I write science fiction. I really don't know what else to write.
I can come up with mainstream stories, but science fiction seems
a lot more fun."
It may be fun, but don't get the
idea that it's easy. "I'll write along, do chapter after
chapter, and all of a sudden I just won't have any heart in it,"
he said. "I'll find myself watching a lot of CNN.
"Sometimes I try to control
things, and it doesn't really work. Sometimes the characters
take over. I had a thing in Black Milk, where I had a
scene plotted toward the end. I knew what was going to happen.
I was in total control. Then I had two characters walk off stage,
and I couldn't figure out what the hell they were doing. I was
literally yelling at them."
The characters came back, though,
as Reed knew they would. After all, it's his world he is creating,
his characters. "I write on the general theory that somewhere
in my head or in the universe this whole thing is worked out,"
"It's just up to me to find
out what the perfect solution is."