Posted on 07/29/2015 at 12:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

James R. Wells has wanted to be a science fiction or fantasy author for as long as he can remember, and it’s no surprise that he’s gotten there.

The 8-year-old who finished “The Hobbit” by himself grew up to design information systems that support energy-efficiency programs, take more than 700 caving trips, write about environmental topics — and, eventually, publish a well-reviewed novel titled “The Great Symmetry.” 

That novel, set in the 24th century, centers on the discovery of an alien artifact that could change the course of civilization, and just how far some will go to keep that knowledge hidden.

Wells, whose great-grandfather you may recognize, recently talked with The Fussy Librarian about his debut novel and his family’s deep connection with literature.

(Photo credit: David Bass)

SADYE: What was the inspiration for “The Great Symmetry?”

JAMES: The starting idea for “The Great Symmetry” was to ask what would happen if there was a single piece of information so powerful that it could bring down the entire structure of civilization — not just by people possessing it, but even if someone imagined that it might be so.

The conflict of new ideas versus the established narrative is core to human history. In the future, control of information and ideas will be even more strongly coveted, and the courage of those who stand up for the freedom of ideas will be the greatest hope for our future.

SADYE: What do you hope readers take away from “Symmetry?”

JAMES: I want readers to know that everyone can affect the outcome of their own story, and of the stories around them.

So many novels are centered on the idea of a single hero or heroine, who is so extraordinary that most other people in the story essentially abdicate their role, or at best act as a kind of sidekick.

“The Great Symmetry” includes acts of great individual heroism, and they matter a lot. But the end result depends on the actions of many people, for better or worse. Everyone matters.

SADYE: You’re obviously comfortable talking about being descended from H.G. Wells — has this always been the case?

JAMES: I have wavered a lot on how much to tout the family connection.

Other authors told me “Use it!” on the theory that whatever gets you a look is good. But it cuts both ways. If people read my novel and it doesn’t measure up to whatever expectation I may have set, that’s a huge fail.

After a lot of thought I came to a kind of bargain with myself. I spent an extra year after the manuscript was draft complete, working with my editor to make my debut novel the best that it could possibly be.

When I was confident that I wouldn’t disgrace the family name, I went forward to publication. I put a huge amount of work and a lot of love into this project.

SADYE: How much do you think your ancestry affected your becoming a writer?

JAMES: I have wanted to be a novelist in science fiction or fantasy for as long as I can remember.

When I was 8 years old, my aunt Katy read the first 30 pages of “The Hobbit” to me, then she told me to go read the rest if I wanted to know how it ended. That was the first full-length novel I ever read.

I was very much aware of H.G.’s science fiction books and certainly read them, but I grew up on classics like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I need to give a shout-out to E.E. “Doc” Smith, whose Lensmen series might seem hopelessly dated today but laid the foundations for many of the tropes we now take for granted.

“The Great Symmetry” is partly an homage to classic science fiction. Instead of exploring the strangest imaginable possibility, it’s based on some relatively small changes from today’s world (OK, interstellar travel, but that’s pretty basic on the scale of sci-fi), and tries to look at enduring human truths in that setting.

SADYE: Does caving help your writing in any way?

JAMES: My dad was a pioneering cave diver in the 1950s in England. He built his diving kit out of World War II surplus gear. He took me on my first caving trip when I was 14. Since then I have done over 700 caving trips.

Caves present an environment that is at the same time both dangerous and tremendously fragile. Mineral formations that have grown over the course of thousands of years can be shattered with one careless move. Caves are timeless places, and we bring only our limited concept of time with us when we visit.

Any time I go on a caving expedition, I do my best to experience and remember that sense of a special place. When I get home it helps me see how every other place in the world can be understood to be just as unique and sacred.

In a way, moving through a cave is not that different from every other day in my life, both in terms of the variety of experiences I might have and also of the people and places I should be aware of and care for. I hope my writing captures some of those ideas.

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Learn more about James R. Wells and his writing at; like “The Great Symmetry” on Facebook; follow James on Twitter; and buy “The Great Symmetry” on Amazon.

Categories: Author Interview

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