Amid the media frenzy leading up to release of Existence (June 19), some interviewers posed questions that I found especially interesting. Here are a few fun examples.
==The Amazon Book Blog==
– Like Earth, your new novel is set in the 30 to 50 year time frame, taking samples of world civilization all over a planet that’s in danger. What’s the appeal of this kind of science fiction and how do you make it fresh for jaded readers?
Most of storytelling in literature boils down to one basic issue, how we balance our hopes against our fears. Within a novel, we adopt the characters’ yearnings – briefly – as our own, trying them on for size. And when those dreams, those ambitions, are threatened? That drives both empathy and a gripping plot-line. The hopes can be as small-scale as getting invited to a dance and the threat might just be a teen rival…
…or the issues at stake may ramp up to include absolutely everything we value. Our families, nations, civilization, and continuing survival. Our chance to continue existing as a species. Perhaps even the flourishing of life itself, in our galaxy.
Is that topic too both broad and heavy for a summer novel? Maybe so! And yet, I found the experience of writing EXISTENCE both fun and – at times – even humorous.
– What was the hardest part to get right?
Always – making aliens seem plausible. And catching just the right tone for characters living in a near future that is both very different from our time, and yet strangely unchanged. Just the way 2012 would surprise any person brought forward from 1967. Half the time she would say: “Wow! We never thought of that!” And the other half? “You mean you future folks are STILL doing THAT?”
– What was the most fun about writing the book?
The very hings that make peering into tomorrow difficult are the same traits that make it so enjoyable, even addictive. It’s why I keep coming back, trying (along with you) to see a little better.
==A PARTICULAR “BRITISH” MAGAZINE==
– In most of your books and papers you tend to take the optimistic view of the future, but it is certainly not Pollyannaish. You interspersed sections EXISTENCE to discuss the many ways our world could end, and even talked about a game of “choose your own apocalypse.” In the end, though, you are an optimist. What makes you think that way?
I am not, by nature, a Pollyanna or optimist. Rather, I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, into optimism by the plain and simple fact of human progress. After 9000 years of wretched feudalism, in which lords and kings and shamans bullied everybody around them, we’ve spent just two centuries years experimenting with openness, curiosity, freedom and willingness to embrace the diversity of minds.
Imperfectly! Indeed, I hold out little hope for western civilization, if we don’t end Culture War bickering, returning instead to fair argument and negotiation. In 1945, we western pragmatists stopped the rising tide of murderous dogmatism at its peak and then helped ensure that it gradually ebbed. Professor Steven Pinker, in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” proves conclusively that violence has declined while freedom, prosperity and health have climbed in every decade since the end of WWII. We are making the world Gene Roddenberry portrayed in Star Trek! Even though, during each particular year, it doesn’t seem that way.
This puts a born-grouch like me in a terrible bind. I could enjoy the sick pleasures of cynicism… and be a fool for ignoring facts. Or I can grudgingly admit that progress happens, while pointing out the myriad ways that it may yet fail.
I decided on the latter. To embrace the complex tension of our time, between hope and the chance that it may all go away. At least, that’s the suspense in Existence!
– In a hundred years what do you think future scientists will think of the science in your books?
Well, the far-future novels like Startide Rising and Glory Season speculate technologies that may turn out to be impossible, as science advances. Certainly the physics that helps propel the plot of EARTH is speculative, though it helps to drive an unusual plot. And we won’t even go into “warp drive!” So? Look, we still read and love Jules Verne, despite some things that he got wrong. And every novel by H.G. Wells contains a mix of amazing foresight and incredible howlers! I ask future generations to be just as forgiving.
– In EXISTENCE you resurrected some of the earlier themes in previous novels (Project Uplift), as well as philosophical notions in your nonfiction.
Many new readers will find “uplift” intriguing. The notion that we might increase the diversity of culture on Earth by helping creatures like dolphins and chimpanzees to join us, as equals. That may take some meddling on our part. And that raises a whole raft of moral and scientific issues, that get raised in Existence. Of course, longtime readers of the Uplift books are welcome to view this as a prequel, of sorts.
-What are you working on now, or what do you envision will be your next novel?
Several projects. What if Americans and Europeans turn inward, leaving leadership of civilization and progress to nations of the South and East? What would real Artificial Intelligence (AI) be like and what might it demand from us? I have a teen-adventure work in progress – aliens abduct an entire southern California high school! And my first sci fi comedy novel. But I expect I’ll only find out what my “main” project is after I get started. Once I meet the characters. Get swept away.
==A MAGAZINE INTERVIEW THAT VEERED INTO QUESTIONS ABOUT SCI FI CINEMA==
– What are some of your favourite adaptations and what makes them so good? What are some you disliked and what made them bad?
WATCHMEN was by far the most faithful adaptation of a book, ever, down to the look and feel of individual characters. Close behind was the more difficult task that David Lynch did with DUNE, compressing admirably the concepts and ironies of that great work. Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was also dedicated to utter faithfulness. Fans are free to complain about the few-but-necessary simplifications, but they never had to squeeze everything from a giant tome into a couple of hours. (See below about how many more hours of pleasure you get from a book.)
The quirkiest adaptation was Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. The director put author Robert Heinlein’s words into the characters’ mouths, expressing the author’s philosophy. Only then Verhoeven used hints and imagery to suggest that he (the director) did not necessarily approve of the portrayed civilization. He honestly showed the upside benefits of Heinlein’s world, but drew attention also to downsides. I found it fascinating how he combined all of this into an action-drenched “bug hunt.” The after-viewing arguments I had with others would have pleased this provocative fellow. And I’m not surprised that most viewers, even fans, missed all this.
-As an author, how do you think the process of adapting a novel to screen can be improved? What might a publisher/editor do to improve it?
It won’t improve as long as all decisions are made by producers who never read. There is, in Hollywood, no lower caste person than the writer. This will change soon, as we start seeing “animated storyboards” in which the same skills that I bring to a graphic novel can combine with those of a programmer, artist, musician and a few voice actors… to make a 90 minute animated pre-version of a film.
When this can be done for 5 figures, suddenly such writer-led teams will have the power to create rough cuts of entire films… versions that might even gain followings on the Internet. Concepts and fresh stories will become important again, instead of endless remakes and remakes.
And that should suffice for just a sampling, a glimpse at what I’ve spent the last week doing, sometimes answering the same question in several different ways, in order not to duplicate myself (Kiln People, anyone?) and to keep it fresh. Ah well. Things could be worse. Like… what if, instead of too many questions, there were too few!
Now to offer up those entertaining miscellany I promised. And science!
=== Other great Science Fictional News! ===
The second most awesome book on sale now is Going Interstellar: Build Starships Now! Edited by Les Johnson and my pal and sci fi colleague Jack McDevitt. Bold ideas about the kind of stuff we might be doing soon if we stop all the backbiting (and looking backward) and resume our love affair with both science and the future.
Another sure-fire winner and terrific deal in entertainment? Check out Howard Tayler’s latest, The Sharp End of the Stick. I had the honor of writing the introduction for this latest installment in his marvelous and hilarious series. Oh, also have a look at Tayler’s rendering of Schlock Brin. A new member of Tagon’s Toughs? Naw. Just what I might look like if I had the misfortune of being inducted into the Shlock Mercenary universe.
=== And Finally ===
Seriously. (May I? For just a moment?) Next time you contemplate a book’s retail price, try dividing it by the number of hours of pleasure you’ll get, reading it. Then tell me of any other pastime with a better minutes per pennies ratio of sheer joy!
And yes, that is exactly what I’m promising, as a special offer, during publication week.