Journalist-author and entrepreneur Frank Catalano took advantage of my book tour for Existence, in order to pin me down with questions about everything from sci fi to human destiny, in this interview that first appeared on Geekwire.
Frank Catalano (FC): What is right with Science Fiction Today?
David Brin (DB): Science Fiction has so flooded into popular culture and beyond that it’s becoming a staple of discussion in politics and philosophy and daily life. The New Yorker just ran a “science fiction issue” featuring works by some of our literary lights… a few of whom spent decades denying they ever wrote SF. People appear to have realized, at last, that we’re in the 21st Century. Time to buy that silvery spandex outfit, I guess.
Another good thing, the sheer number of brilliant young writers coming down the pike. Michael Chabon, Charles Yu, Paolo Bacigalupi, Mary Kowal, Daniel Wilson, Kay Kenyon…. and dozens more. They can turn a phrase with the best in any genre, any era, and there are so many of them! Liberated by new technology to explore innovative storytelling methods, like novels with embedded media or animated storyboards… zowee!
FC: What is wrong with science fiction today?
DB: Too many authors and film-makers buy into the playground notion that cynicism is somehow chic and knowing. So many 50 or 80 year-old cliches are rampant — e.g. “hey look, I invented suspicion of authority!” — while nostalgia pushes aside what used to be our genre’s golden notion. That we in this civilization might find ways to improve, to solve problems, to become better than we were. A difficult project, fraught with many pitfalls. But too many portray it now as hopeless.
How pathetic! That beneficiaries of relentless progress should repay that debt by casting doubt on the very possibility? And lest you mistake this for political, I see the habit spewing from both ends of the hoary, lobotomizing so-called “left-right axis.” My late, lamented friend Ray Bradbury called this fetish the very lowest form of ingratitude.
Not that all SF has to be pollyanna sunny or tech-praising-pulp! Ray plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul, in tales that could freeze your heart. So? He considered fantasy chills and terrifying sci fi what-ifs to be part of the process, exploring our dark corners and failure modes, always aiming to achieve effective warnings. Self-preventing prophecies.
Some of us are rebelling. Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and others have been laying down a challenge to our peers. If you think we have problems, expose them! But spare a little effort to suggesting solutions. Or stoking others with belief that we can.
FC: Does the ascendence — and some would say replacement — of literary science fiction by multi-sensory media worry you? Editor H.L. Gold, as I recall, once famously said, “the Golden Age of science fiction is 14.” Is this still true in an age of 3D movies, realistic CGI even on TV shows, and immersive video games with science fiction storylines and settings?
DB: Good question. Certainly when it comes to mass media, I can grumble about the immaturity, the cliches, the shallow idea space and the relentless cowardice of sequel-remake-reboot-itis. Whenever I see a new film I deliberately tune down several “dials” in my mind — critical faculties associated with logic, plotting, science… — just so I can retain some ability to enjoy a flick in the spirit it’s offered. (Anyway, that helps to keep both my wife and daughter from strangling me, during the show!) And yes, sometimes I get the dials tuned right, though I do resent having to do it.
But we’re at the dawn of a new era. In today’s Hollywood, writers are the lowest form of life. But that will change when a small team – writer-led — can create a rough, animated storyboard of a film, fully 90 minutes long with spoken dialogue and music, that can gain a web following long before any studio sees it. This new, intermediate art form will change everything and shift the center of power over to story.
FC: What will literary science fiction — paper or digital — do best compared to other media forms of science fiction?
DB: Look, it may surprise you that I, the Hard SF Guy, believe there’s magic. But let’s define it as the use of incantations to create vivid subjective realities in other peoples’ heads. That’s what most magic has always been. The shaman might not really be able to make it rain. But if his schtick was good, he would get fed!
By that light, we authors, especially in science fiction, are the greatest and most consistent, industrial-grade magicians. We concoct long incantations — chains of spaces and black squiggles (a million of them in Existence) — and skilled recipients of the spell (well-educated readers) proceed to scan those squiggles with their eyes, decrypting them swiftly into clever dialogue, deep emotions and insight, unexpected ideas or star-spanning explosions. This partnership of spell-weaver and incantation-user is stunning, and remains far more effective for the full, rich texture of book-rooted invented worlds – where the recipient of the spell has to invest some energy and imagination – than any competing medium.
FC: You’ve occasionally dipped your pen into non-fiction, including 1998’s The Transparent Society (winner of the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award) which seems oddly prescient in time of privacy leaks and, some would say, sloppy privacy boundries both on the part of companies (Facebook) and individuals. Back then, you effectively said that openness, or letting everyone see the cards each other are holding that could be played on the other — be they corporate, government or individual — was the best policy when it came to organization’s collecting and hoarding of private information. In the more than a dozen years that have passed, do you still maintain that? Or has your position, well, evolved in light of recent web social media events?
DB: Across at least 6000 years, nearly every civilization stuttered with barely perceptible progress and dismal statecraft. The Enlightenment’s chief tool in changing all that has been a suite of “arenas” in which we can compete, make fresh alliances, buy, sell, argue or negotiate without blood on the floor. These arenas are democracy, science, markets and justice courts. And here’s the thing. All four work best when most of the participants know most of what’s going on, most of the time, and make good decisions accordingly. All four enlightenment arenas wither and sicken and die, when denied light.
Dig it, in The Transparent Society I am no radical! I accept that some secrecy is necessary and avow that human beings have an intrinsic need for some privacy. But here’s the irony. We’ll be far more likely to be able to defend some privacy if we all can see! (Thus catching the peeing toms and would-be Big Brothers.) The term is “sousveillance.” Look it up!
Oh, while we’re at it. Also look up the concept of the “positive sum game.”
FC: Many in technology used to say they were heavily influenced by science fiction — both the literature and, famously, the first television series to treat literate science fiction seriously, Star Trek. Lately, though, tech startups seem to cite their primary influence as other technologists, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Does this show a lack of imagination? Or a lack of good science fiction? Or something else?
DB: Well, once some kids started making billions while turning sf’nal ideas real, who do you think will be the role models? I just hope those billionaires remember to re-prime the well. There are scores of ways to do it.
FC: Plug time. Since we’re talking around Hollywood, if you had to give a high-concept pitch for Existence in a phrase, what would it be?
DB: It’s 2050. People have been smart and solved some problems… but there’s a minefield of threats and dangers ahead! At which point a message in a bottle washes on our shore, with an offer and a warning: JOIN US.
Of course, what I’d really do is refer producers to the vivid, three-minute preview/trailer for the book, with gorgeous hand-painted images by the great web artist Patrick Farley. (Yes, books now have trailers; I told you times are a-changing!) tinyurl.com/exist-trailer
FC: What is, or should, the role of science fiction be in inspiring students in STEM or other science-related disciplines, beyond entertainment?
DB: Not all SF or fantasy has to inspire new scientists and engineers. But it’s good to know that kids are still reading the challenging stuff. The tales filled with adeventure and personal drama… but also lots and lots and ideas.
FC: What one thing excites you in science today that even most geeks may not be aware of?
DB: What? And give away my best new story notions before I can write ’em? I was jazzed to learn of Planetary Resources, the new company with deep pockets, aiming to mine asteroids and make us all so rich we can transform Earth into a park.
It turns out that Europa and Enceledus may not be the only ice-covered moons with buried seas. The solar system may contain dozens!
And did you know that mammals have an inherent ability to regrow body parts and limbs? We appear to have abandoned it many many millions of years ago, but docs are learning how to insert the missing gears and crank that old machinery, wow.
Do you doubt I could go on and on? I can. And can you imagine that there are those who aren’t excited by the possibilities? Or determined to stay alert to dangers, and eager to help progress? Can you believe you’re a member of the same species as… but well, by now those folks aren’t reading this interview anymore.
FC: What one writer is writing in science fiction today, aside from you, that you consider a must-read for solid yet accessible scientific extrapolation?
DB: Well I already mentioned some of the young whipper snappers. A great hard SF guy? Vernor Vinge in Rainbow’s End. Though I find Stephen Baxter and Rob Sawyer to be right up there. Geoff Landis gets the science right. Three English majors, Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Bear, have an uncanny knack, as do writers like…
But you asked for just one. I’ll stop at seven, but attach some recommended reading list links.
Now let’s cross that minefield.