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Ian Tregillis—Master of Alternate Worlds

Laboratory physicist creates intricate, exquisitely crafted settings for his genre-bending science fiction novels

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“I had the misconception that the time would come when I had the time. As I got older and more mature, I realized I’d have to make the time.”

Master of Alternate Worlds

Laboratory physicist Ian Tregillis of the Plasma Theory and Applications group (XCP-6 ) spends his work days studying the fundamental nature of this world we live in. Nights and weekends, he invents his own.

Ian writes category-bending science-fiction/fantasy novels. His Milkweed Triptych veers into alternate World War II history, with magic and superhumans. His “angel noir” novel, Something More Than Night, slips through the literary looking glass, imagining a 1940s gumshoe detective solving crimes in heaven. The Alchemy Wars Trilogy envisions clockpunk robots, fully conscious mechanical men—“a source of endless tocking, ticking, clicking, clanking, clattering, buzzing, rattling, and creaking.”

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In his Lab job, Ian is a computational modeler working on high-energy-density experiments, diagnostic modeling to test physics packages and Los Alamos-developed simulation codes, and experimental designs related to inertial confinement fusion. He also collaborates with Physics Division on modeling gamma ray diagnostics and high-energy-density experiments.

Outside the Lab, with six published novels and a seventh nearing completion, Ian has enjoyed remarkable success with his writing. The book review magazine and website Kirkus called the Milkweed series “an imaginative tour de force.” NPR Books said The Mechanical, the first volume in the Alchemy Wars trilogy, “is as intricate and exquisite as the clockwork wonders it brings to life.” Ian also won high praise from George R. R. Martin—the author of the Game of Thrones series of fantasy novels (which spawned the HBO series of the same name) and now Ian’s literary compadre called him “a major talent.”

Not bad for someone who deflects praise—“You’re very kind,” he likes to say—and insists that “it’s better to be lucky than good.”

The right place at the right time

Still, Ian admits—and this might be the physicist in him drawing on his understanding of the interplay of chance and determinism—“you make your own luck” by recognizing and seizing opportunities, putting yourself into the right place at the right time.

Coming to New Mexico was a right-place move. Ian had earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in his home state from the University of Minnesota. When he arrived in Los Alamos for a postdoc position in 2002, having left friends and family a thousand miles behind, he had time on his hands. So he wrote.

“My writing career has unfolded entirely during my time at the Laboratory,” Ian says. Though he dabbled in creative writing classes in college and was encouraged to pursue it, he didn’t. “I don’t know why,” he says. “I had the  misconception that the time would come when I had the time. As I got older and more mature, I realized I’d have to make the time.”

Starting “from scratch,” he began with short stories, sitting down with his laptop and piles of reference books at the kitchen table. “I had to move my laptop to have dinner,” he says. Soon he joined an online writing workshop, traded critiques with other authors, and “learned the basics” of his craft. In 2005 he was accepted into a six-week residential writing program in Michigan. “I was very, very lucky to work in a group at the Lab that allowed me to take a leave of absence to attend a writing workshop,” he notes. One of the instructors, who liked his work and happened to be from New Mexico, invited Ian to join the Santa Fe sci fi writers group, Critical Mass, which included Martin, Melinda Snodgrass, and other luminaries.

“The group was tremendously helpful,” he says. He began a novel and, on the group’s advice that it was too big, expanded it into a trilogy. In another bit of luck-meets-opportunity, he found a literary agent who liked his writing and found a publisher, Tor, for what became the Milkweed Trilogy. His writing career took off.

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Incubating in isolation

Given the mental demands of a day job in computational physics, Ian has worked out a disciplined approach to his fiction work. His book contracts typically give him a year to submit a draft, so he estimates the book length and calculates how many pages he must produce per day to meet the deadline, writing two or three hours at night—or early in the morning, if the cat wakes him up—and all day on Saturdays. When he finishes a draft, he sets it aside to cool before polishing it and sending it off to the publisher. Next comes another round of revisions based on the editor’s comments.

Last December, Ian turned in the third and final Alchemy Wars installment, tentatively called The Liberation, for Orbit Books, and he’s pressing on with the final revisions. The end is in sight.

Finishing a book, he says, is satisfaction enough, whatever its fate in the marketplace: “I just do it for the joy and the feeling of accomplishment.” That’s underscored by his plans for his next novel, which, he says, “is just for me.” It’s a weird idea, he thinks, but he doesn’t care. And he won’t discuss details: “Sharing an idea jinxes it. Once you put it into someone else’s head, it’s no longer yours. It’s not incubating in isolation.” As he eases into that story, he’ll be filling a folder with notes, ideas, inspiring clips, remembered dreams.


"NPR Books said The Mechanical “is as intricate and exquisite as the clockwork wonders it brings to life.”


“It’s all grist for the mill,” he says. And now the physicist finds a metaphor: “It rattles around in the back of your head. Then two unrelated ideas will bang together and stick together and you have critical mass. Suddenly you have the nucleus of a story”—and, after a year of nights and weekends, Ian will have another novel.

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Ian Tregillis is a computational physicist in Plasma Theory and Applications (XCP-6).


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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.


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