Artists Using Science & Technology
number 4 volume 24 March - April 2004
New Wave to Hard Science Fiction
“My Conception of Paul Anderson’s Tao Zero” - Greg Bear
SSN 1057-2031 / (c) 2004 Ylem
This issue of the YLEM Journal presents interviews with
three science fiction writers, continuing the project started
last year of dialogs with authors at the leading edge of art,
science, and technology.
Greg Bear is the author of at least twenty-two
novels and two collections of short stories. In 1984,
"Hardfought" and "Blood Music" won the Nebula Awards for
best novella and novelette, respectively; "Blood Music" went
on to win the Hugo Award. In 1987, "Tangents" won the
Hugo and Nebula awards for best short story. Moving Mars
(1993) won the 1994 Nebula for best novel. Darwin's Radio
was awarded the Nebula in 2001. The 1982 story "Blood
Music" and its novelization in 1985 caused particular
attention to be focused on Bear, since it was one of the
earliest works of fiction to treat the emerging science of
nanotechnology. Bear's works range in style from space
operas to ghost stories, but his use of leading-edge scientific
theory marks him as a quintessential "hard science fiction"
writer. While Queen of Angels (1990) is a detective story
wrapped inside an avant-garde exploration of language,
Darwin's Radio and the recent Darwin's Children deal with
the devastating effects of intelligent evolution on a society
which can not comprehend it. Bear has differentiated
between hard science fiction and fantasy by stating that
fantasy reflects the internal world, and hard science fiction
the external. Bear is very approachable at his web site,
Samuel R. Delany no longer writes science fiction,
and his science fiction works are now in the process of being
brought back into print by Vintage. I interviewed him when
he visited the San Francisco Bay Area on the occasion of the
issuing of his short story collection Aye, and Gomorrah.
Delany's first science fiction novel, The Jewels of Aptor, was
published in 1962, when its author was nineteen years of
age. His last science fiction novel, Stars In My Pocket Like
Grains of Sand, was published in 1984. Delany's magnum
opus is his novel Dhalgren from 1974. Delany was associ-
ated with a group of writers including Thomas M. Disch,
Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. LeGuin, whose
writing was characterized by an emphasis on literary quality
and social analysis rather than hardware and technology.
This movement was called New Wave, and was associated
with a similar movement in England centered around the
magazine New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock, and
including such writers as J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss.
In addition to his ten science fiction novels (winners of four
Nebula awards and one Hugo), Delany has also written
fantasy, pornography, autobiography, and critical analysis,
including a non-fiction work, Silent Interviews, in which he
investigates the process of being interviewed and even
interviews himself. Delany is the subject of several book-
length studies of his work, and is a legendary figure. Delany
is also African-American , gay, and dyslexic, aspects which I
did not address in my interview.
David Brin is also a hard science fiction writer, and
is a scientist as well. He has written at least fifteen novels
since 1980, and has won Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and John W.
Campbell awards. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth,
foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world-
wide web. A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was
loosely based on The Postman. The recent Kiln People
explores a near future when people may be able to be in two
places at once. The 144 page hardcover "The Life Eaters" is
a graphic novel with a portrayal of an alternate World War II.
Brin's non-fiction book — The Transparent Society: Will
Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Pri-
vacy? — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American
Library Association and deals with issues of openness and
liberty in the new wired-age. Brin's web page is http://
www.davidbrin.com/. Brin is possibly best known for his
Uplift Saga consisting of six novels and a non-fiction guide,
postulating a universe of sentient creatures who consider
humans to be inferior because they cannot produce evidence
of forbears to give them a pedigree in this universe. Sentient
dolphins and chimpanzees are characterized with depth and
The process of interviewing these three writers
forced me to confront aspects of the in-person interview
which had not manifested for me in the past. When I
contacted Greg Bear, he suggested that if he was not able to
co-ordinate his reading schedule with mine, we could
consider doing the interview by email. I responded that I had
never done an email interview before, and that the prospect
did not particularly appeal to me. Fortunately, we were able
to sit down at Dark Carnival bookstore in Berkeley, CA, and
talk in person. Bear then polished the interview material I
supplied to him and even provided images. This is typical of
my experience over the last forty years of interviewing,
although it is only in the last few years that I have submitted
interview material to subjects before publication.
I set up the interview with Samuel Delany through
his publicist at Vintage. In researching materials on him, I
kept finding references to the fact that Delany tends to
conduct interviews by mail, and refuses in-person interviews.
Surprised, I called the publicist for reassurance, and was told
that he would indeed meet me in person. Delany greeted me
at his hotel suite in San Francisco, and was extremely
gracious to me, but I constantly felt that he was uncomfort-
able with the process, which made me uncomfortable, and I
terminated the interview sooner than I would have otherwise.
I think the interview came out very well, but I am haunted by
a feeling that something about it should have been different.
When I contacted David Brin and suggested visiting
him at his home outside San Diego, CA, he suggested that an
email interview would save me the trouble of driving all the
way down there. I assured him that I would be in that
vicinity anyway, visiting my son and his family in Orange
County. He relented, but told me that he wouldn't have much
time to spend with me. When I got to Brin's home, I discov-
ered a veritable estate with a swimming pool and a stretch of
land. Instead of sitting down with me, Brin invited me to
follow him while he pruned his fruit trees with long-handled
clippers. I put my portable tape recorders into a bag on my
shoulder and tracked him while he shouted answers to my
questions and handed pieces of ripe fruit to my wife, who
then dropped them into the bag with the tape recorders. I
realized that in forty years of interviewing I had never had an
experience like this, and I was amazed that anything came of
the interview. I think this was Brin's subtle way of conveying
to me that an email interview would have been a more
Delany likens a face-to-face interview with a
prisoner being interrogated by a guard. This is an appropriate
metaphor. Instead, he writes interviews with himself. I'm not
clear why he finds it necessary to do this. Why not just write
an essay? But it is true that the interviewer and the subject
are inherently at cross purposes. The subject sees the
interviewer as a press agent. The interviewer sees the subject
as the author sees the reader—an audience who is directed
through a process which results in change. One definition of
fiction is "ritual game and revelation." The protagonist goes
through a process and comes out changed. Thus the question
"Whose story is it?" results in the identification of the true
protagonist as the one who undergoes an epiphany. And by
going through this process with the protagonist, the reader
also reaches an epiphany. This is the whole point of writing
fiction. And this is the point of the face-to-face interview.
The subject is led through a process by the interviewer and
reaches an epiphany, but only if the interviewer is in control.
If the subject retains control, what remains is an essay. I
believe that the best example I can offer of the kind of
epiphany I'm talking about is in my interview with William
Gibson in YLEM Journal Volume 23 Number 4, March-April
2003, available at www.ylem.org.
More about my adventures with the interviewing
process in an upcoming issue of the YLEM Journal, which
will contain more interviews with science fiction authors.
YLEM Forum: "Sex, Time and Power"
Wednesday, May 12, 7:30 PM
McBean Theater, The Exploratorium
3601 Lyon St., San Francisco, CA 94123
Sponsored by YLEM: Artists Using Science and
Technology - great Forums for 23 years!
The YLEM Forum is free, open to the public and
In Sex, Time and Power, Leonard Shlain presents yet another
startling hypothesis at the YLEM Forum. Previously he
lectured at it about his other daring books, Art and Physics
and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. An Associate Profes-
sor of Surgery at UCSF, he brings his knowledge of physiol-
ogy into play in this book, as well as his voracious appetite
Big-brained Homo Sapiens suddenly emerged some
150,000 years ago, he argues, because of profound alter-
ations in female sexuality.
Long ago, due to the narrowness of her bipedal
pelvis and the increasing size of her infants' heads, the
human female began to experience high childbirth death
rates, precipitating a crisis for the species. Natural selection
adapted her to this unique environmental stress by drastically
reconfiguring her hormonal reproductive cycle. Her estrus
disappeared and menses mysteriously entrained with the
periodicity of the moon. Women formulated the concept of a
month, which in turn allowed them to make the connection
between sex and pregnancy. Upon learning the majestic
secret of time these ancestral females then gained the power
to refuse sex when they were ovulating. Men were forced to
confront women who possessed a mind of their own.
Women taught men about time and the men used
this knowledge to become the planet's most fearsome
predator. Unfortunately, they also discovered that they were
mortal. Men then invented religions to soften the certainty of
death. Subsequently, they belatedly grasped the function of
sex. The possibility of achieving a kind of immortality
through heirs drove men to construct patriarchal cultures
whose purpose was to control women's reproductive choices.
Come hear how these archaic insights altered all subsequent
Dr. Shlain lectures widely both here and in Europe.
He has been a keynote speaker for such diverse groups as the
Smithsonian, Harvard University, Salk Institute, Phillips
collection, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA Johnson
Space Center, and the European Union’s Ministers of
Culture. He has been interviewed on both PBS and NPR. His
lectures are as lively as his writing!
Contact: Trudy Reagan, 650-856-9593,
firstname.lastname@example.org Complete information listed at
http://www.ylem.org/flash/forum/calendar.html or http://
www.ylem.org/text/forum/calendar.html for modem users.
LM: Can you start out by talking about retroviruses?
GB: Of course. HIV is a retrovirus. Retroviruses are vi-
tuses that write their code into the genome, and wait a while
before they express themselves again. Sometimes they can stay
dormant for a very long time. We have the remains of
retroviruses in our genes that have been there for at least thirty
million years. Now, for the most part they can't really express
themselves clearly; they sort of mumble. Nevertheless, we uti-
lize some of those imported viral genes in interesting ways. So
it appears that in many cases, we've co-opted our former dis-
eases and made them part of our genetic library.
LM: That's what your books Darwin's Radio and Darwin's
Children are dealing with?
GB: Yes. In Darwin's Radio, an old, supposedly defunct
retrovirus manages to reassemble and redefine, and basically
carries an evolutionary signal between individuals of a certain
social group, that is, committed couples, male and female. The
male sheds the virus, the female picks it up, and suddenly the
female is infected with SHEVA, which is perceived by the so-
ciety as a disease that causes miscarriages—grossly misshapen
fetuses. It turns out, as they investigate further, that those mis-
carriages are, in fact, just another interim fetus. It produces its
own specialized egg, its genome reworked according to short-
hand instructions encoded in SHEVA, and that implants and
the women are pregnant again--without additional sex. So it
looks like birth without sex--not quite virgin birth, however.
You can see how this could totally goof us up, totally confuse
us. In fact, it turns out we don't know anything about evolu-
tion, we don't know anything about this extended form of spe-
cies sexuality. So in our confusion, we start to clamp down and
try and treat SHEVA as a disease, cure it, shut it off, and that
doesn't work. Darwin's Radio begins with a weird disease and
ends with the birth of a new kind of human being, Stella Nova.
The story continues in Darwin's Children, where Stella is a
teenager, and eventually has to get together with her own kind
and learn how to create a new society in a very conflicted,
LM: This is something that is generated in Blood Music in
the Eighties, the nanotechnology thing. You basically came up
with that before the scientists did, or paralleled the scientists...
GB: Back in the seventies and eighties, a few scientists
knew about read-write DNA, which is the core of Blood Mu-
sic. They knew about retroviruses. A few pioneers, such as
Howard Temin, got pretty theoretical about the implications of
retroviruses and read-write DNA. But there was heavy resis-
tance to these new ideas, and I certainly did not hear about
them, even when I was writing Blood Music. Because of that
skepticism and resistance, we weren't prepared for the onslaught
of HIV, for example. That kind of fossilized thinking was what
I—unwittingly, I think—was trying to knock apart in Blood
Music. It looked to me as if DNA was a computational system.
That is a very early version of what we now today call
bioinformatics, or systems biology. There was also an aspect
of nanotechnology, but I was dealing entirely with biological
systems--not tiny machines. Though it was very clear to me--
and still is today--that what protein molecules do is very much
what nanotechnologists envision doing. The two versions of
Photo by Maria Malinowycz ©1999
nanotech--biotech and tiny machines--will very likely collabo-
rate nicely in the coming decades.
LM: The concept that evolution happens not only over
millions of years, but can be accelerated to happen right now.
GB: Living systems do actually build up a "library" of
experience over hundreds of thousands and millions of years,
but I also believe that there's a grammar of evolution buried in
the genome that is expressed in tightly constrained ways, which
we can see sometimes in the fossil record and in living species.
If we take a look, for example, at how you would make a dol-
phin, way back in Jurassic times, reptiles don't have the same
spinal structure to allow tail flukes to move up and down. Their
flukes move side to side, right and left, just as in sharks and
bony fish. The reptiles just don't have that flexible, spinal up-
and-down motion. That version of the spine apparently occurred
first with mammal-like reptiles, who passed it on to mam-
mals. Mammals aren't very good at slithering, extreme side-
wise motion, and that explains why dolphin tails go one way
and ichthyosaur tails go the other way. It also explains why
there are no snakes among the mammals, but there are snake-
like forms among amphibians and of course among the rep-
tiles. Our spines changed at one point. When something major
happens, like that, you can't go back — there's a roadblock set
into your bauplan. You'll never make a snake again. That's a
kind of evolutionary syntactic shift. You've changed something
in the sentence structure, or the syntax, so to speak, of the
bauplan of the creatures, the bauplan being the overall pheno-
typical scheme. That gave me a clue that what we're really deal-
ing with is similar to a linguistic system. Living beings are like
architects that carry their own blueprints around, and modify
them occasionally, and in a wide variety of ways, using differ-
ent types of evolutionary processes. And organisms modify their
blueprint not just through totally random rearrangements, al-
though that contributes, too, but by “looking” at the environ-
ment, and making a long-term analysis of the ecological con-
ditions, the rules, and eventually knowing when to make this
sort of change, and when to make that sort of change, to im-
prove the statistical odds of survival. One way we measure our
environment is through the immune system and stress chemis-
try. Both function as a kind of biological radar. We know that
both of these systems can energize the expression of jumping
genes, as well as viruses--and that may be the communicative
loop we're looking for.
LM: So this isn't strict Darwinism...
GB: I think it's a variety of Darwinism. But Darwin was
smart. He never actually tried to pin down what caused varia-
tion. He knew he didn't have the science, the understanding, to
make strong assertions in that regard. He just said, “When varia-
tion occurs, these are the rules.” And he turned out to be pretty
correct that way. Natural selection is kind of a grand arbiter. If
you don't make the right choices, or have the proper anatomy,
you die. The more those like you die, the less your group re-
produces. That makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the
view that that all variation has to be random, that creativity can
only arise from completely random factors in the genome. We've
had a difficult time finding random changes in the genome that
are not edited out. We do find them--they generally cause dis-
ease—but most of the time, random errors are deleted or cor-
rected. That means that if randomness is the sole force in evo-
lution, we're forced to contemplate even more immense peri-
ods of time--hundreds of billions or trillions of years--to ex-
plain the kind of variation that we do see. What we frequently
find in the genome is variation that is not random—transposons
that move themselves and move other genes around. We find
changes in the way genes are activated and expressed. We are
forced to look at epigenetics, which examines how genes are
turned on and off. If a gene is shut down, it might as well not
be there--but at a later time, following certain rules, it can be
revived and put back on line. Sometimes whole groups of genes,
even parts of chromosomes, are shut down, and that certainly
can (and does) affect phenotype. There are many ways of con-
trolling how genes are expressed, all of which can affect our
physical nature, allowing changes that persist over long peri-
ods of time and many generations. We can control our shape in
so many different ways besides just random mutation, and that
means we really have to re-examine the foundation of the neo-
Darwinian theory of evolution, and likely revise it wholesale.
LM: So you're postulating a kind of creativity that's not
GB: It's related to our creativity. Nature utilizes the same
principles from bottom to top. Creativity and problem-solving
is what happens when a distributed network, consisting of flex-
ible nodes that can learn, adapt to change. If you get those
flexible nodes and put them together and somehow manage to
get the whole thing up and running--a very substantial prob-
lem we are far from solving!--you have a distributed network.
The genome is a kind of neural network. That means that it
does respond to outside input, and not just on an everyday ba-
sis, as in when you run and activate certain genes in your lungs
and muscles, but in the germ-line cells. We have seen many
instances in organisms, plants and animals as well as bacteria,
of changes occurring that shouldn't have happened under the
LM: Vernor Vinge talks about a super-being that comes
around after the Technological Singularity. It sounds like that's
kind of the way you're pointing in Darwin's Children. An el-
evated kind of human being.
GB: Most science fiction writers have postulated that the
next step in human evolution will be enhanced individual in-
telligence. I don't think that's what we necessarily need. I think
we need higher bandwidth communication between individu-
als. Which is really what Darwin's Children is about. What
these new kids are exhibiting is not bigger brains, huge bald
heads with pulsing veins. What they're showing is very high
bandwidth communications between each other, using enhanced
modes of communication,--though not ESP!--and channels that
we can't access with so much success. Smell, muscle patterns
in the face, iris control, two streams of language, all of these
things force the new kids to change the way they interact with
each other, and to change the social structures they use. As far
as god-like beings coming along and explaining themselves to
us--well, smarter beings could certainly explain us to ourselves,
but why would they bother? Do we sit around trying to explain
to otters why they're so cute? No, except on Animal Planet, it's
not worth our effort. So I don't think the techno-gods out there,
the Arthur Clarkian gods, are really all that interested in us.
But I'm willing to be corrected on that assertion.
LM: I wrote this down, because I didn't want to forget it:
quantum logic computers.
GB: My thinking on QL thinkers began with Heads ,
and with Queen of Angels . Queen of Angels posited ar-
tificial intelligence in terms of “thinkers,” as opposed to com-
puters. Thinkers can handle non-formal programming, in other
words, talking. They can give rational or useful answers back
to you, should they feel so inclined. Thinkers tend to be more
like users--programmers--than like programs or tools. In my
conception, a quantum logic thinker would utilize the logic of
the quantum level to explore a variety of answers. Sometimes,
a QL thinker would come back with answers to a question you
might have given it in another universe — not necessarily the
question you asked right here and now, which could be frus-
trating. In the real world, shortly after these books were pub-
lished, theorists began working on chips that would utilize
quantum processes to solve formal problems--quite a different
approach. I think some of the pioneers had been exploring these
notions for decades, probably going back to David Deutsch
and Steven Royer in the 1970s. What four or five people were
thinking about suddenly appeared in science fiction, and then
four years later, it's actually being done. More than likely, how-
ever, real quantum logic computers won't function the way QL
thinkers do in Heads; those devices were kind of spooky and
LM: You seem to be aware of the leading role you're play-
ing, staying neck-to-neck with the scientists.
GB: There's always been a very real interaction. Scien-
tists, of course, are the ones doing the heavy lifting--science
fiction writers, I believe, function more as dreamers, semi-ra-
tional muses, and stinging gadflies. I haven't actually heard
from the people working on the quantum computing systems.
But I have heard from a gentleman who has written mono-
graphs in this area, and he gives me more credit than I think
I'm due. It's a fun feedback system, where programmers and
physicists provide the early ideas that I then take and run with.
It gets back to them later, and they say “That's BS,” or “That
might be interesting.” That's the way science fiction and sci-
ence have always worked together. The fun thing now is to be
able to do this in biology, which I think is the area that needs
the most mixing up right now. Biology is finally getting a dose
of heavy-duty re-thinking--new theorists rampaging over the
landscape, working hard to explain the amazing stuff that we're
LM: I saw James Watson on TV recently, and somebody
asked him how he felt about complexity theory. He said he
didn't like it, because he wanted everything as simple as pos-
sible. So he was asked if he were a reductionist, and he said
absolutely, he wanted to reduce everything down to the sim-
plest way of looking at things.
GB: I think [Francis] Crick is less of a reductionist. It would
be terrific if nature worked to our desires and rules, our job of
discovery would be so much easier. Especially if we believe
mathematics can solve all problems. I don't think we're finding
that's the case. Nature does not have to follow our rules, and
we have to discover what's really out there. When you see some-
thing that is not simple, it's a good beginning to find general
principles, to try to reduce the problem to simple equations.
You can learn a lot doing that, and you can certainly get a handle
on aspects of the problem, but in biology at least, you will
seldom derive a useful big theory. You won't have "solved" the
big problem, so to speak. I don't much like complexity theory
either. Complexity theory and emergent behaviors and so on
are just the beginnings of the necessary language to understand
what we're dealing with. In a sense all of these things, kind of
like the word "randomness" itself, are scientific place-keepers
that remind us that we don't yet know quite what's going on.
They're like the blank spaces on the map that used to say "Here
there be dragons." We try to change the words, while still cling-
ing to the formal underpinnings. While we try to avoid saying
"randomness," we substitute with "complexity," still assuming
that our work can be formally simplified and described. But of
course we're still trying to make very difficult, self-adapting
systems fit into steam-engine mathematics. Complexity gives
rise to emergent behavior, but we don't know how to get from
one to the other. We can't create emergent behavior. We can't
create artificial intelligences. We can't even create language
recognition systems that are very good. (Try discussing your
personal problems with the FedEx phone computers.) So we've
got a long way to go, and I think a little humility is in order
here, and probably a little less reductionism.
LM: Clint Sprott generates a fractal every day, and has a
neural network evaluate if it's good enough to put up on the
web. If not, he kills it and generates another fractal until he
gets one the neural network will accept.
GB: Fractals fascinated me. They started out being gor-
geous, but soon enough I realized they were all pretty boring.
However pretty fractals appear, they are deceptively interest-
ing. By that, I mean that fractals impose themselves upon our
pattern recognition systems in much the same way that caf-
feine jazzes up our neurons. To our neurons, caffeine looks a
little bit like Adenosene Triphosphate, ATP, the source of cel-
lular power. That deception gives you a temporary and decep-
tive boost of jangly energy. Then after a while your neurons
grow fatigued and you fade. Fractals are like that. They're beau-
tiful, but they don't totally describe nature, or coastlines, or
anything like that, not really. We can tell the difference. Fractals
are a mathematical approximation based upon repetitive cal-
culation. We have pattern recognition systems that let us look
deep into nature to see if there's something interesting and use-
ful there. Fractals appeal to that sensibility, for a while. Then,
you get fatigued. So when you get this kind of caffeine of in-
tellectual stimulus, it's fascinating, it may tell us some interest-
ing things, but it fades in significance over time.
LM: I've been working with people doing generative art,
where an intelligence that's not the actual artist's intelligence is
brought to bear.
GB: It's still not an intelligence so much as it is a tool. It's
only an intelligence when it disobeys the artist and finds a way
to keep on working after the artist tries to shut it down. This
kind of program is a marvelous and very complicated servant
friend that has no real intelligence of its own. You can tell it to
do things and it will do them in a certain fashion, with some
tightly defined elaborations. That's very useful. That's giving
you a paint brush that can do whatever you want, basically, as
long as you can describe to the paint brush what you want done.
That's why you have programmers doing CGI in movies and
art. You really have to be able to tell the paint brush what to do.
We've taken our hand out of the equation, with all of its com-
plexity. Long timelines of finished paintings have gone into
computers, who replace our hands, but you have to tell the
program exactly what to do. It takes less time to get a result,
comparatively, speaking, but the artist is still primary, not the
LM: On the other hand, we've got the concept of the abil-
ity of art to create a world that never existed before.
GB: And it's a fascinating world, too. But we're still star-
ing into a deceptive mirror. These worlds are visually enchant-
ing, but ultimately, very simple. They don't threaten us, they
don't spill off the monitor and come to get us (except in movies
that use CGI...). Computers let us better explore mathematical
patterns, and you can manipulate and squeeze dimensions in
interesting ways. It's fascinating. There's lots of cool stuff that
you can do. You can build four-dimensional spheres or tesser-
acts now, and actually have something construct them, then
unfold them and measure their properties. What would a five-
dimensional cube look like, if there is one? But no computer
can generate a world that is, strictly speaking, non-formal. Digi-
tal computers, at any rate. I'd like to see what analog comput-
ers can do...
LM: I was particularly struck by the style in Queen of An-
gels. In there, you actually postulate a computer writing po-
GB: Thinkers would tend to do that at least as much as
teenagers. And perhaps for the same reasons. Frustration at not
being able to express your emotions, your changing states,
clearly and rationally.
LM: It seems to me that this is an avant-garde literary work.
GB: Touches of prose experimentation pop up in most of
my novels. Queen of Angels is the most complex example, at
least since. Hardfought. I decided that in the future, fifty-six
years down the road, they would likely not talk the same way
we do. The language will be familiar, but it will reflect changes
in grammar and style, similar to what we read when we com-
pare Shakespeare to Samuel Johnson.
LM: There's Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange...
GB: An excellent example, and an inspiration.
LM: And Brian Aldiss' Barefoot In the Head.
GB: All follow Joyce's example. I'm a big fan of James
Joyce, especially the linguistic pyrotechnics of Finnegans Wake.
LM: I'm reading Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon,
Italo Calvino. I'm finding that there's a whole genre of that
kind of writing, which seems unintelligible until you really get
into it. I don't think sci-fi gets into that all that much.
GB: It used to. Some of the New Wave stuff explored that
territory. Aldiss is a fine example. Calvino kind of fits into
New Wave, both in publication, style, and date of publication.
James Sallis is another example, and some of the works by
Michael Moorcock. Literature almost of exhaustion. Reminis-
cent of Kafka. That's kind of what we're talking about here.
The style is very important, but the mood is going to be dark or
confused, because that's what the Sixties and Seventies felt like
to these writers. Stylistic experiment and change fits into the
New Wave mode nicely. I suppose you could say I've co-opted
these experiments, but not necessarily the philosophies behind
LM: There was a trend for a while, particularly in
cyberpunk, toward dystopia, the dark vision of the bad future,
but most of the hard sci-fi writers I run into are very optimis-
tic, and think this is a really great time to be alive, and that
there are wonderful things going on.
GB: I agree. It's an incredible time to be alive. Most times
in history are, for most people. The Dark Ages were actually
far more fertile and interesting than most historians would have
let on a few decades ago. So I don't believe our world is falling
apart, necessarily. I think things are getting very challenging,
but for that reason, very interesting. I think we're doing fasci-
nating and unprecedented things. For science fiction writers,
that's cool. For people who don't read science fiction, it's not
just confusing, it's terrifying. So that's why I recommend sci-
ence fiction. It's kind of an immunization against future shock.
You read enough science fiction and new ideas may not be all
that confusing--or all that new! But when I write my fiction,
I'm writing neither utopia nor dystopia. I'm trying to create a
balanced, organic, believable world, not unlike our own in ba-
LM: A lot of sci-fi has a political aspect to it.
GB: True. My own politics is strongly anti-elite, whatever
the elite may be. I don't like groups who seek to exclude, or
gain unnecessary advantage by stepping on the necks of oth-
ers. When I wrote Vitals, I was setting out to create a really
paranoid conspiracy vision that any intellectual would find ter-
rifying and confusing. I wasn't going to cut any slack for any-
body. If you had Rightist political views, I was going to skewer
you, if you had Leftist political views, you'd also be skewered.
Basically because Vitals is about paranoia, so why should any-
one feel informed, superior, or comforted? Why should any-
one have their prejudices confirmed? Paranoia is about being
unsure and afraid. That's what I found interesting, and occa-
sionally disappointing, about The X-Files. In many ways, The
X-Files, for all its elegance and suspense, was catering to our
sense of affirmation. It was being familiarly paranoid--it sel-
dom truly shocked or surprised. The paranoia it induced was
like film noir's vision of evil--it was familiar to us, almost com-
forting, like an old security blanket. We often use literature
and art to force our dark shadows into relief and give some
perspective to our pain and fear. In Vitals I intended to cut away
everybody's underpinnings, so that in the end you couldn't even
trust yourself, and in some cases you couldn't trust the narra-
tor. He would set up scenes where you were told to ignore this
information, when in fact it was necessary. I figure that's the
only honest way to treat conspiracy, dark visions, and para-
noia. Vitals pissed off a number of critics. They really didn't
like it at all, perhaps because it contradicted most of the basi-
cally sunny tenets of hard science fiction. Yet underlying Vi-
tals-and providing the final fillip of paranoia--is an idea that I
think is totally valid--the notion of a distributed bacteriologi-
cal network, a huge mind, if you will, that has connections to
us through our guts, our cells, the very parts of our cells that
power our lives--the mitochondria. I was also saying some very
discouraging things about a treasured goal of many science
fiction readers. I told them, if you want to live forever, be pre-
pared to behave like a tumor. Like a cancer tumor, because
that's what you are. If you're going to be an immortal, you're
ultimately going to have to gather resources and power to your-
self just to protect yourself, and that's just what tumor cells do.
That doesn't neatly fit into our nice Libertarian visions of rug-
ged individuals partying at the end of time--a vision, by the
way, which I do not find unattractive myself. I'm just willing
to examine my dreams with a sharper scalpel than some find
LM: So you have had some negative feedback...
GB: A little, yeah. Interestingly, a lot of women really liked
Vitals, which surprised me. Men and women under thirty, cer-
tainly younger than forty, tended to enjoy the novel more than
older readers. Fortunately, my readers tend to be quite flexible.
I'm very pleased to have them, because otherwise I'd be com-
pletely sunk. I keep jumping around in style and subject matter
all the time.
LM: As I understand it, you recently wrote a Star Wars
GB: Rogue Planet. 1 enjoyed Star Wars when it first came
out, and know the universe fairly well, so I found it pretty easy
to write. Also, I've done a Foundation novel, and there are some
aspects of Asimov's universe that mirror George's. I could con-
sider that what George [Lucas] was creating was just a corner
pocket version of Foundation. And in another corner, far from
Trantor, you might find the neglected part of the galaxy we
read about in Dune. The Foundation universe is huge!
LM: Are you tempted to write fantasy?
GB: I have. I've written Songs of Earth and Power, and
short stories. I'm working on a ghost story now called Dead
Lines. It's a high-tech ghost story, though. Some will call it
fantasy, others will wonder.
LM: What are you working on now?
GB: I'm kind of taking a break from the biological thing,
but I'll get back to it. After this ghost novel, I'll be working on
a very near future novel about the FBI and American politics.
Beyond that, I really don't know. I have to wait and see what
movie deals get done. The future is not mine to see. Fortu-
nately, that makes things interesting.
LM: I was fascinated by some of the things that Earl J.
Jackson was dealing with about your writing on the Web and
also in his book, Strategies of Deviance. I was particularly
interested in the conception of science fiction as an alterna-
tive to mundane literature, as a critique of it but also as just
another way of looking at things, the difference between a
subjective approach and an objective approach.
SD: I think the literary precincts, or literature as it
has existed since World War I, has very much been a kind of
subject-dominated enterprise. By “subject”, I’m using that
philosophical term that philosophers use to talk about
personality, consciousness, the inner self, or indeed the “self
per se. Whereas those literary forms, or let’s put it this way,
those para-literary forms, those other practices of writing that
have grown up outside the literary precincts, have reserved
the possibility for talking about the object a little bit more
clearly, and criticizing the object. Especially science fiction,
which actually is “science fiction" through virtue of manipu-
lating the object, manipulating the outside, external world,
and making it into shapes and structures which it hasn’t had
yet. While literature can say of the provinces, “You'd better
get out of them or they will stifle you," science fiction can
say, “What happens if you set the provinces up differently, so
that they impinge on the subject in different ways, so that
they are not necessarily so stifling? What happens if you
organize them in ways that are different?" So it’s a differ-
ence in focus. It’s not an absolutely exclusive difference.
Science fiction can talk about the subject too, just as litera-
ture can talk about the object as well. But the tendency in
terms of the way we read it, the kinds of information we look
for first when once we are clued to the fact that we are
reading a literary text, we look for what it has to say about
the subject more closely than we tend to look for what it has
to say about the object, and vice-versa when we look at
LM: It seems like there is an understanding that
there will be a certain verisimilitude in mundane literature,
whereas in science fiction, the idea is that we’re going to
come up with something that doesn’t exist. It might exist, but
it doesn’t exist now.
SD: You need verisimilitude in both, but the
verisimilitude in science fiction is verisimilitude to the
second derivative rather than to the simple arithmetic outlay.
Science fiction is a form of realism, but the kinds of things
that it cleaves to tend to be a little different. As the Australian
critic John Foyster said, “The best science fiction does not
contravene what is known to be known." So that you’re
doing things that don’t exist, but you’re also staying within
the purview of what “we know that we know." If you violate
too much what is known to be known, then most people who
enjoy science fiction respond to it as “that’s not terribly good
science fiction." When the space ships in Star Wars make
noise that goes across the empty vacuum, and can be heard
in the other space ships, most people who read science
fiction say “This is fantasy, this isn’t really science fiction."
LM: It seems as though there is an emphasis on
hardware in science fiction, but in your work I sense more of
Samuel R. Delany
an emphasis on people, and things that are engineering on
human beings to make them different than they were.
SD: Possibly. I just write the stories. I leave other
people to decide what the emphases are. I think about the
technology just as much, I think, as anybody else does, but
then to put it in the background, although I think it’s just as
LM: It seems to me that you’re really interested in
the word, in language.
SD: Among other things, yes. That’s because I’m a
LM: But other science fiction writers seem to me to
be really interested in science.
SD: I presume some of them are.
LM: Do you read scientific journals and talk to
scientists about the latest scientific concepts?
SD: When I get the chance. I think one of the
reasons I am a science fiction writer is because when I was
about ten or eleven years old, somebody gave me a five-year
subscription to Scientific American, and I’ve been reading it
religiously every month ever since, having missed a few, I’m
sure. I’m a reader of popular science. I don’t think anybody
these days can really be an expert in more than one science,
because the science itself is so complex. It’s become com-
plex in ways that it wasn’t, even fifty years ago when I was a
ten-year-old or eleven-year-old, as the case may be.
LM: Greg Bear has scientists come to him and say,
“You're really on the leading edge of nanotechnology." Now
he’s talking about retroviruses and that sort of thing. That
seems to be a focus of his. And he’s also an excellent prose
stylist. But I find it unusual that when I’m reading you, I
often stop and have to read a sentence over again because it’s
SD: Oh, well, thank you.
LM: The other writer I feel that way about is John
D. MacDonald. I don’t know how you feel about him.
SD: Oh, yes, he’s a wonderful writer.
LM: He’ll be writing some hard-boiled thing where
he’s murdering all sorts of people, and there’Il be a turn of
phrase, and I’ll have to stop—“Wait a minute, what did he
just say?" I think your writing is poetry to a very large
extent, to a larger extent than a lot of science fiction writing
SD: Thank you.
LM: I think that’s wonderful. I really would like to
see that be a major trend in science fiction, that it be beauti-
ful writing, that that be the emphasis. But science fiction has
a reputation in general for not being like that.
SD: This goes along with its pulp origins as
opposed to all its other origins. It’s got many, many. I think
there was tendency, especially in the early days of science
fiction, just after World War I and through the Twenties, up
through the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties, to concentrate on
the idea. Eventually people began to realize that if you don’t
express the idea, you don’t really have an idea. If you don’t
express the idea in some way that remains and that has a
certain amount of stick-to-it-ive-ness in terms of memory
and perception, you don’t really have an idea. The general
quality of science fiction writing has just gone up. I’m just a
cross-section of that process, I think.
LM: I just finished reading Robbe-Grillet and
Claude Simon and Italo Calvino. I don’t know of any science
fiction writers who are quite that avant-garde.
SD: There were a few. There were people who tried
to appropriate the same kinds of literary techniques. Do you
know Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head?
LM: That’s one of my favorites.
SD: I think Cryptozoic is another one of his. And
some of the Ballard things, again from the Sixties, have a
kind of Beckett-esque feel. A lot of the work that actually
came out in New Worlds in the Sixties into the Seventies
when it kind of deliquesced, there was a lot of rapproche-
ment back and forth between the literary precincts and
science fiction precincts. New Worlds was one of the organs
that sat right on the border during its brief and late-lamented
LM: You did some editing at that point...
SD: Well, I did Quark, which was basically just a
quarterly that survived for four quarters. We tried to do
somewhat similar things, I suppose. It straddled. That’s the
idea. If you come from the science fiction precincts, you will
never be accepted. No matter what you do, you are not going
to be accepted in the literary precincts. The genre boundaries
are power boundaries. You can look as literary as you want,
people will look down over there and wonder what are the
natives doing. That’s about as far as it goes in terms of
acceptance. There was Quark, which was a very small thing,
but it had some of the same concepts.
LM: And of course you’re writing all kinds of non-
SD: I haven’t written science fiction really for about
the last more than fifteen years now.
LM: I’m hearing about writers in England, like Jeff
Noon and China Mieville.
SD: China Mieville is a very exciting writer. We
have at least one very exciting writer here, L. Timmel
Duchamp. A young woman. I think she lives in Vancouver.
You can find some of her stuff on-line, and you can find
some of her stuff in best-of-the-year anthologies. She’s an
extraordinary writer, very much like Mieville, and I think far
more interesting than Noon.
LM: I’ve been wondering about the dystopian
aspect of Dahlgren. It seems to me that there’s a dystopian
aspect of science fiction, and then there’s a shoot-em-up, fly-
through-space aspect. I certainly find social critiques
throughout your work. I guess that’s one of the things you
postulated where sci-fi is shooting at mundane literature.
SD: I think an attempt to see science fiction in a
utopian-dystopian model is a pretty limited kind of approach
to it. In fact, I think what makes science fiction interesting is
that it almost has to be looked at through a much more
complicated model. There is a very interesting essay — and it
also works through some of his poetry — by W. H. Auden,
that suggests that there are two kinds of people in the world.
There are some people for whom the city is a wonderful and
exciting place. The city for them is New Jerusalem. It’s a
place where education takes place. It’s a place where people
are exposed to culture. They’re exposed to varieties of
different people. It becomes a very exciting thing. And
frequently the same people who find the city that sort of
place are not all excited by life in rural areas. For them, the
small town is a place circumscribed by public opinion, and
everybody is looking out of everybody’s window into
everybody else’s business. By the same token, it’s subject to
all sorts of natural disasters, diseases, and fire, flood, and
earthquake. For them, the rural place is what you might call
“the Land of the Flies." So it’s not a good place. Then, by the
same token, there are other people who look at the same city
that some people think of as so wonderful and they see it as
Brave New World. They see it as the place where everybody
wears the same clothing and everybody goes to work at the
same time and comes home at the same time, crowds, and
what have you. For them, the city is Brave New World, the
image that Huxley presented back in the Thirties. By the
same token, the rural area, rural life is this Arcadian place
where everything is natural foods and no machine is larger
than one person can fix in an afternoon. The relationships
between people are thorough and authentic, and you can get
your hands in soil, and all of these good things.
I think the way science fiction functions is a very
much a complex of all four visions. When you have a science
fiction story, there will be elements of New Jerusalem, there
will be elements of Brave New World, there will be elements
of Arcadia, the wonderful rural landscape, and there will be
elements of the Land of the Flies. Frequently you will have
all four in the same story. Especially if you have novels, then
you’re even more likely to get all four mixed in throughout.
For precisely that reason, I don’t think you can usually map
most science fiction tales, as opposed to classical utopias-
dystopias onto this utopian-dystopian model, because they
have both sides to both images. Both the urban, the rural
model. They both have the good and the bad of both sides.
Even more recently, a third axis has been put across this
double axis that we have. You find some of this in M. John
Harrison’s trilogy The Sound of Wings. You have a notion of,
on the one hand, what I call techno-geno city. That’s the
place where you walk down the street and there are twenty-
seven computers in the gutter because some offices decided
to change their computers. They don’t even bother to throw
them away, they just put them out on the street. Or the person
whose coffee table is propped up under one leg with twenty-
seven video cassettes. This excess of technology. Which is an
interesting place. This is one of the cyberpunks’ images of the techno-geno city, this excess of technology. By the same token,
you have other images that work into this. The name for it I take from Harrison’s work, The Land of the Afternoon, which is
the place where the pollution has gotten so intense that it turns around and becomes beautiful. The green mold on the
swamps. You have to go through them wearing a gas mask, but as long as you wear your gas mask, it’s actually rather pretty.
So you have all these different images that work into science fiction stories. Rarely do you have just one. You’re
often going from one to another. You have the polluted world that’s ugly and polluted, you have the polluted world that
produces a certain kind of beauty through the pollution. You have the technology that is functioning, and then you have the
technology that produces just junk. You have all of these images, and various stories will draw from all of these image
galleries. It’s a much richer model for a complex landscape than a simple dystopian (everything is bad) or utopian view
(everything is good). I think science fiction becomes science fiction precisely when it gets away from this much more
Nineteenth-Century-oriented utopian-dystopian model, that of course goes back to Thomas More, but remains persistent up
through the Nineteenth Century. Then only with World War I and the two decades just after World War I, it begins to blossom
into something more complex.
LM: H. G. Wells goes through transitions where he’s against the machine, then he’s in favor of the machine, then
he’s against it again.
SD: I don’t include Wells in science fiction at all. I think he’s very much one of the last literary writers. I think his
notion is very much within this utopian-dystopian model. The Wells novel, like The Time Machine, we get there and it looks
all pretty, and the Eloi are so charming, but it turns out that it’s dystopian—ah, they are just food for the Morlocks. You have
the two images, but one is essentially a mask for the other one, and the proper interpretation, as we now know, is really that it
is ugly. What seemed to be beautiful turns out to be ugly underneath it all, which is still a pretty simplistic notion. He’s still
working only with the two images, rather than with the more complex concepts that you get once you get science fiction.
If literature starts in 1917, which according to Terry Eagleton it does, then science fiction can’t certainly have started
too much before it, probably started a couple of years after. I think science fiction as we know it starts between ’26 and ’27,
when the name actually comes. I don’t think there’s really any reason to talk about science fiction before 1927. I think you’ve
got what you might want to call “proto-science fiction", but I don’t think you have the real science fictional sensibility, that is
to say a melding of science with fiction. For one thing, you can’t meld science with fiction until you have science and until
you have fiction. Science and fiction don’t separate out until the early part of the Nineteenth Century. The two of them were
all mixed up together, so that you don’t really have two discourses that can then impinge on each other, which they begin to
do slowly throughout the Nineteenth Century, This actually happens when you get past World War I, I think.
LM: So who would you say would be the writers who were taking a mature approach to science fiction in the
SD: It wasn’t a matter of mature, it’s just a matter of generically recognizable. It’s a matter of codes that make
certain kinds of sentences make sense. In science fiction, those codes are in place by 1937. They’re not in place in 1914. They
get in place between 1914 and 1937. The kinds of sentences you find in an Analog story, once [John W.] Campbell takes over
Analog, nobody is writing in the Nineteenth Century, nobody is writing in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. You
have hints of it in something like Ralph 124C 41+. Even those, [Hugo] Gernsback thought of as didactic fables to teach
science. Ralph 124C 41+ was 1911. When you read it, it doesn’t feel like science fiction, or doesn’t feel like good, rich
science fiction. It doesn’t feel like science fiction feels if you read Heinlein’s Gulf or even Double Star or any of the early
Heinlein stories. Something else is going on. When I read Wells, it doesn’t feel to me like science fiction. I can see it’s
interesting to someone who has later been trained to read science fiction. You read some of these early things, and you think,
“Yeah, this is almost the same thing." I think that “almost" is real important. I think we do better to preserve the difference,
rather than in an attempt to give ourselves a legitimating history, to cram all these things into a generic pattern into which I
don’t think they fit.
LM: A fellow sent me a manuscript about how Burroughs was hostile to the computer in the Fifties, and how that
was a prevailing attitude back then...
SD: I’m curious. What work was Burroughs...oh, you mean William? I thought you meant Edgar Rice.
LM: But it does seem that many science fiction stories of the Fifties put forth the notion that computers would
enslave us, and make us act the same way and think the same way.
SD: This is a very old notion, and I don’t think a very interesting one.
LM: And now computers are...
SD: Are enslaving us. You spend two hours on your email every morning. Taking up all our time.
LM: William Gibson says that he doesn’t own a television, but all of the time he’s saved by not watching television
he’s lost on the Web.
SD: Exactly. Damn right. I don’t own a television in Philadelphia.
LM: I tend to think of computers as being for my kids.
SD: And the kids who have grown up with them are a lot more at ease certainly than I am. It’s all I can do to
remember what my server name is. In fact, I can’t right now.
LM: You seem to be unusually aware of avant-garde music and visual arts. Do you think of yourself as unusual in
SD: No. I think of myself as the world’s most ordinary guy. I have a magpie kind of brain, and it’s also like a
sieve—I don’t remember anything anymore. I collect things,
but I don’t think of myself as particularly knowledgeable
about anything, frankly. I know a bit about literature and a
bit about literary theory, because I teach them. I know
enough to keep the graduate students from going to sleep a
LM: You’ve been teaching for a long time.
SD: About fourteen, fifteen years now.
LM: Where are you teaching right now?
SD: Temple University.
LM: Are you alarmed by budget cuts, tenure going
away, professors being laid off?
SD: It is kind of alarming, although the general
attack on knowledge that I see going on is a little weird. I
think the causes behind it are much more complex than
people tend to think. I haven't figured it out, and it is
distressing. Somebody sent me an article not too recently
where if you're getting government grants, there are literally
lists of phrases that you can't use in your government grant
proposal. For instance, you can't get a government grant to
do AIDS that has the phrase "anal sex" in it. This seems real
weird to me.
LM: It sounds like what the Norm in The Ballad of
Beta-2 was focusing on. I’m also wondering how you feel
about Vinge’s conception of the Singularity.
SD: Is this Vernor?
LM: Vernor, not Joan.
SD: I haven’t read any of Vernor’s stuff for more
than a decade, so I don’t really know what he’s doing now.
I'll read your interview with him with great interest. I’m
shamefully un-caught-up in terms of my science fiction
LM: Do you think you’ll get a chance to write more
SD: I hope so.
LM: Are you writing non-fiction now because of
SD: I don't write anything I don't enjoy writing, and
I enjoy writing the non-fiction, I enjoy writing the not-
science fiction, and I enjoy writing the science fiction. I hope
I get a chance to write lots more in all of them.
LM: Is there something in particular that you're
working on now?
SD: Another novel, another novel. ¥
LM: I was talking with Samuel Delany about some ideas that
he had about the difference between mundane literature and
science fiction. The way he sees it, mundane literature is
concerned with the subject, and science fiction is concerned
more with the object.
DB: How interesting. Well, of course, it's always
intimidating to hear "Samuel Delany says”.
LM: But he's not really an intimidating guy. He
refers to himself as an ordinary guy.
DB: Are you kidding? He's one of the intellectual
masters of our field. My orientation about science fiction has
more to do with questioning common assumptions. Delaney
is like that too.
LM: How do you picture science fiction fitting in
the panorama of literature?
DB: Some people say that science fiction is general
story telling free of restrictions on time and place. If you
look at literature in almost every culture before, say,
Thackeray, there were almost always fantastic elements in
the stories, from Hesiod and Homer to the Japanese Tales of
Genji, and so it could be said that science fiction is much
more traditional in one respect. More traditional than so-
called mainstream literature, with its narrow emphasis on a
sliver of here-and-now. But I don’t entirely accept that
explanation. Here’s a different perspective:
For most of human history, life was macroscopi-
cally changeless (society and such remained constant), and
yet on the micro level, the personal level, constantly under
transformation and change... often change for the worse.
When we started getting better technologies, a person's life
became more predictable, for example, less likelihood of
sudden illness or death, and better warnings about crime and
strife. But the outer world started changing rapidly. The
social assumptions, the things they would see on the street,
the political structures around them, became subject to
sudden and major and wrenching transformations. So we
moved from a vast era when your own life might change
suddenly—your children might die, Vandals might come and
burn your village—but you knew the world was going to
look the same, dominated by one class of bullies with
swords... bullies whose right to rule was justified by another
group of guys in spangled robes or priests' gowns.
Here's the irony. In those days when society actually
changed very little, literature was almost always about
macroscopic, powerful change, titanic struggles, intervention
by gods and demigods struggling with fantastic beasts.
Starting with Gutenberg, the Renaissance, sailing
ships, gunpowder, and the beginnings of modern health and
medicine, things began to change. Your own life gained
some degree of predictability. If you had ten kids, there was
a good chance that five of them would survive you. Under
those circumstances, change took on a different look and
feel. Meanwhile, the kings and the priests were the ones
constantly fearing what would happen next. It's no accident, I
believe, that during this time, literature started moving over
to the personal, the subjective, and a myopic, very close
focus. Certainly those prescribing and defining literature
began to exclude thought experiments about dramatic
That’s not surprising. Now it was the powerful who
feared change, and the powerful have always been the ones
who bought the beer for the bards. This is the flaw that Bill
Moyers never pointed out in his long unctuously—respectful
interviews with Joseph Campbell. The fly in the ointment,
when Campbell spoke of the Eternal Hero, was all those
bards in all those cultures spinning the same kind of tale, and
Moyers never challenged Campbell to explain why. It’s not
that these stories are fundamentally human—although they do
resonate, and one can learn a lot by studying Campbell’s
storytelling prescriptions—the reason they’re all the same is
that the bards in all these cultures had to suck up to the chiefs
and the kings who had the beer.
In a long era of social stability, those chiefs de-
manded tales about demigods and, well, chiefs. When social
stability was threatened, the chiefs and lit professors insisted
on stories that hew to a narrow illusion of a stable world.
But we in science fiction don't have to do that. Our
clientele is the people. No form of literature has ever been
more relevant than science fiction. We live in times of
transformation and change. That calls for a literature about
change. Changing circumstances, even transformation of
what it means to be human. Who needs so-called "eternal
human verities’? I've always found that phrase creepy. These
litprofs are telling us they feel so insecure about the continu-
ing relevancy of their Masters' theses that any notion of
human improvement is a thing to find terrifying, dispiriting,
demeaning of the human spirit. The fundamental lesson they
teach is that our children must make the same mistakes as we
have made, endlessly and forever, never growing any wiser
But think about the purpose of literature. At core, it
is to cause people to empathize with, and feel, the emotions,
the pain, the lessons learned by other people, either real or
fictitious. If your literature is effective, shouldn't it result, at
least partly, in some reader gaining insight? "Hey, fantastic!
I'm glad I never experienced that! But vicariously I've
learned the same lesson as the hero.” Reductio ad absurdum.
Isn't that one of the whole reasons we write?
LM: It sounds like you think humanity is improv-
DB: I'm often accused of cuckoo optimism, because
I think that children can, at times, learn from the mistakes of
their parents. My answer is, "I had better be right, or we're
screwed.” Look at how fashionable cynicism is. It's such a
cliché. Find the optimistic voices out there. I don't do this
because I'm by nature an optimist. I do it out of market
incentive. The niche of optimism is so desperately unfilled
that I get a lot of attention for it. I sell more books. Why
shouldn't I fill the under-occupied niche? Isn't it hilarious
how many people claim that sci-fi is filled with fizzing
utopias, but other than Star Trek and a few books by Iain
Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson, they can find no ex-
amples? Yet this notion persists, this bizarre notion. Anyway,
if I'm wrong, we're all doomed, so I might as well make the
bet that I can collect. If I bet along with everybody else that
we're dismally stupid and bound to destroy ourselves, who
will I collect from?
(For more on optimism, see http://
LM: Vernor Vinge seems to think technology is
making our lives better, and it sounds like you would agree
DB: I think technology is making our lives better —
while we are using up the Earth at a tremendous pace. We
cannot live the wonderful, decent, science-fictional lives that
we do for very much longer without paying the piper. I have
to believe we can pay that bill. With more efficient technolo-
gies, we might give today's American middle class level of
comfort and education to every child on the planet, and teach
them to be environmentalists as well, at considerably lower
Photo by Jerry Bauer
If so — if we succeed — does that mean our children
will be smug lotus eaters? I think not. Human beings
inherently worry. For every couch potato smugly watching
TV, there's another person who has joined the Age of
Amateurs, investing hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars,
on some pastime in a furious eagerness to be original at
something. There are people out there jumping out of
airplanes with surfboards. It may be silly, but it sure ain't
LM: Delany was saying, regarding utopias and
dystopias, that there are people who think the city is a
wonderful place and the country is not where they want to
be, and there are other people who think the country is
wonderful and the city is a terrible place...
DB: That's over-simplistic, because, of course,
many of us live in the suburbs and participate in our kids'
scouting troops. I grew up in LA, and went backpacking
every chance I could. What does that make me? Our whole
civilization is based on the premise of having a cake, eating
it, watching it grow larger, and aggressively shoving pieces
in the face of the poor. The only way we can possibly get out
of this mess is if we don't swallow the bullshit about zero-
sum games. We have to make the pie a whole lot bigger and
share it awful fast, or poor people elsewhere in the world are
going to take our pie away from us.
LM: When I saw you in at ConJose in San Jose,
there were several seminars that Vernor Vinge was giving
about the Technological Singularity. What is your take on
DB: Vernor is a very wise man. He's a contrarian.
When he is with fuzzy extropians — people who fizz that we
are about to become tech-gods — he mentions the downside.
When he is among pessimists, he holds out promise and
hope. Contrarians like Vernor and me used to be burned at
the stake for constantly saying "Yes, but” to anyone we're
with. Today, we're well paid and interviewed. I'm loyal to a
civilization with values like that. Why wouldn't I be? I like
people who don't set me on fire.
LM: You've addressed the Libertarian Party's
DB: I see no conflict. The message has always
been, "Don't trust ideologies. They are seductive, they aim at
feeding the self-righteous impulse, rather than the will to
find pragmatic solutions to problems." Take this dismal Left-
Rght political axis we've endured since 1789. For heaven's
sake, in twenty years of daring people to define "Left versus
Right," I've yet to find one person who could do it with a
simple, three-sentence answer that the next person would
agree with. And yet we use it as a stupid metaphor whose
only affect is to hamper flexible thinking. Why would people
deliberately cripple themselves that way? Obviously, at some
level, the Libertarians are right in that in the long run we
need to raise a generation capable of making its own
decisions. Obviously the liberals are right that we won't have
such a generation so long as a third of the children are ill-fed.
I'll take solutions wherever I can find them. The same holds
for feminism. As long as I live my life dedicated to one basic
goal: raising a generation of boys who are twice as respon-
sible and accountable, and a generation of girls who turn into
women who are twice as confident and empowered, what
right has anybody to define me by some litmus test? As a
feminist-liberal-libertarian-capitalist-Earth-lover, I'll go for
whatever practical measures will achieve that better future of
stand-up, educated, individualist-empathic adults. And the
ideologues can go to hell.
LM: Greg Bear seems to have a conception of
intelligent evolution taking place right now.
DB: If we leave it to evolution, the process is going
to be a lot more painful. Take John W. Campbell's famed
expression, "An armed society is a polite society", beloved
by the National Rifle Association. It would seem truly
logical, so why has it utterly failed in places like Texas?
Because young men have rage- response patterns inherited
from the Neolithic, when there were no guns. If we armed
everybody to the teeth, Campbell's old saw would eventually
come true. All the hot-tempered young men would die
without passing on their genes. After a thousand years, we'd
all be a lot more calm and polite. Personally, I'd rather not
run that experiment. We may be able to accomplish the same
end by much faster and much gentler means.
LM: Would you like to say something about your
experience in Hollywood with the film of The Postman?
DB: That's another topic people can read about in
detail at my web site. If you go to Hollywood with one of
your babies, with one of your ideas, their standard operating
procedure is to hold you down, rip open your chest, tear out
your still-beating heart, bounce it around the room, cover it
with filth, and then — if you're very, very lucky — they'll stuff
it full of cash and sew it back in your chest. There are five
things that you want to have happen when you sell your book
to Hollywood, and I hope they all happen to all of you:
1. It can at least be morally related to what you were
trying to say.
2. It can be exactly your story, adapted to the
3. It can be a wonderful movie.
4. A successful movie.
5. They can treat you well.
I got one out of five, but it was the only important
LM: That was the first one.
DB: That's right. Somehow Kevin Costner nailed
the deep inner meaning of my book... after scooping out and
throwing away all the brains. That hurts, but a LOT less than
if it had been the other way around.
LM: I watched the film last night. I kept thinking,
why didn't they just do it right?
DB: Egotism. Mind you, there are other good things
about that film. It was made by the same guy who made
Dances With Wolves, so it's visually gorgeous. If he had born
pig-ugly, Costner would have an Academy Award as a
cinematographer. Another thing I tend to be grateful for with
Costner is that he rescued the movie from a screenplay that
was truly evil, and substituted a screenplay that was kind of
sweet, even if it didn't make a lot of sense. Anyway, what's
the sense in grousing? I'm not going to bitch and complain.
There is a movie out there of my book, and it's not evil. It’s
even kind of pretty. Worse things have happened to people in
Hollywood. You've got to be cheerful, if you have any
excuse. And hope for better the next time.
LM: William Gibson seems to feel that it's better
just not to make a film of a book, that's you get a better
experience just reading the book.
DB: Yes, that's true, but there's also the point that
the two are not mutually exclusive. If he meets people in
airports and folks ask him "So what have you written?" I'll
bet he mentions Johnny Mnemonic. It gives you a way to
connect with people quickly, efficiently. People get a little
thrill. Why cheat them of that? And why cheat himself of
some pleasure? I don't understand why people make things
so hard on themselves.
LM: You teach physics at San Diego State Univer-
DB: I got my undergraduate degree at Cal tech, in
astrophysics, and then did my doctorate at UC San Diego.
They recently had a gathering of UCSD Science-Fictional
alumni. That was fun. It turns out to have been a hotbed.
Nobody knows why. Maybe something in the water. Kim
Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, myself. Greg Bear is a San
Diegan, but he went to San Diego State.
LM: You and Vernor were both teaching at San
DB: I taught part-time for a while. He was a tenured
LM: You seem to be particularly interested in
defining humanity through interaction with postulated alien
DB: Science Fiction continues the long human
literary tradition of contemplating the Other. (Hence the title
of my book Otherness.) Often the Other was a metaphorical
creature. Poor hapless Minotaur. Unfortunate bitter Medusa.
But just as often, it was a demigod or a person facing the
unusual. We've always done that. It's a question of horizons.
When you have a full belly and your planet is fully explored,
it's only natural that both your threat horizons and your
tolerance horizons should stretch farther. Today, our official
morality, at least, includes all humanity, all sexes and races,
within the big tent of those worth deserving protection.
Those whom it is murder to kill. We are far from completing
that transformation, but the mere fact that it is official is an
historical anomaly and deserves notice. Upon hearing that
there are dolphins stranded upon the beach, most of us would
hurry toward the shore with as much enthusiasm and speed
as our great-great-great-grandparents would have, upon
hearing the same news, but with very different intent for
what to do when we get there. I call that progress.
LM: I get the impression that William Gibson and
Neal Stephenson are abandoning science fiction, but it seems
that you still think of science fiction as a powerful approach
DB: I don't see any point in deserting the one who
brought me to the party. I consider science fiction to be a
license to explore. That doesn't mean I don't want to do a lot
of other things. I just finished a hundred-and-forty-four-page
graphic novel, based on my Hugo-listed novella, Thor Meets
Captain America. What the French call a bains dessinnait. A
hard-cover graphic novel called The Life Eaters — very dark.
An exploration of an alternate world in which the Nazis
succeeded at something bizarre. Loads of fun.
LM: It seems that mundane literature deals with
trying to give a picture of what's going on right now, and
science fiction is talking about what doesn't exist but could,
and has to make that believable but at the same time give us
a sense of wonder.
DB: I made one distinction, and that has to be with
transformation and change. Here's another one: the most
popular articles that receive the most hits on my web site are
still the ones discussing Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. 1
make the distinction between Romanticism and the Enlight-
enment world view. They were once allies, but parted
company once they started having victories against their
common enemies, the priests and monarchies. Romanticism
has a very different view of time. Almost every human
civilization believed in a Golden Age long ago, when people
were better, and closer to the gods, but fell from grace
because of some hubris, some mistake. The only people who
really mattered were those who were born exceptional:
demigods, superheroes, elves, princes. The Romantic
Movement has always distrusted democracy, production,
industry, urban life, education, social mobility, craftsman-
ship, and co-operation—emphasizing instead the particular,
the mysterious, the hierarchical, the nostalgic and the feudal.
It's a legitimate and outstanding human worldview.
It has a hell of a lot longer track record than the Enlighten-
ment. But I know where my loyalty lies. I'd have been a
peasant or a burned heretic by now, if it weren't for Enlight-
enment civilization. In the long run, even the Earth will be
better off, because no civilization ever created so many
environmentalists. Western culture, with science fiction at
the lead, is the first to move the notion of a Golden Age from
the gloomy past into the future. Something that might be
built by our grandchildren, if we raise them properly. A
notion epitomized by Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan.
Alas, romanticism is fighting back hard, as typified
by Star Wars and Tolkien... and even Star Trek! In Star Trek
3, the director and screenwriter return, precisely and reli-
giously, to the Romantic world view, checking off every box
of the Frankenstein ethos. The new world that Kirk's wife
and son had created by picking up God's powers is, by that
token, automatically evil, corrupt, falling to pieces, and kills
its creator, Kirk's son. Is it any wonder that people like the
Faustian Star Trek 2 better than the Frankensteinian Star Trek
LM: Are there particular writers who inspired you?
DB: In general, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce. I grew
up astonished by Fred Pohl, Poul Anderson, Ursula LeGuin
and James Tiptree, Jr. A good historian will get you through a
cold month, and leave you all the more dedicated to seeing
that those poor people of the past did not strive and suffer in
LM: I've been reading Robbe-Grillet and Claude
Simon. It seems to me that they break up the narrative into
tiny units and move them around freely. Does science fiction
usually get that avant-garde?
DB: Is that a dare? Once there was a contest to
write a science fiction story precisely 250 words long. I find
stuff like that irresistible. It's very hard to fit a high concept
into something that size.
LM: Are there younger writers who you think are
DB: At the hard sf end, there's Will McCarthy, Ken
Wharton, Linda Nagata, Kay Kenyon, all doing wonderful
work. At the less intellectual end, but good reading —
Howard Hendrix, Eric Flint, lots of fine writers.
LM: Do you like the English writers?
DB: I think Iain Banks is one of the great hopes for
science fiction. He and Kim Stanley Robinson are just about
the only people who dare try to portray a society that our
great-grandchildren might even to want to live in. It's a
challenge that most of us simply shy away from. It's far
easier to write a dystopia. Almost pathetically easier.
LM: Do you like China Mieville?
DB: That's moving a bit away from the hard sf end.
I thought you were asking my expertise, instead of just what
I like. China Mieville is wonderful. Vivid and fizzing with
joy, just below a cynical surface.
LM: I'm running into artists who are generating art
DB: You mean writing?
LM: Writing and visual art.
DB: Jim Burns, who has done a lot of my covers,
switched from oils to acrylics to air brush to computers, and
he does almost everything by computers. I talked to Michael
Whalen recently, and he finds that transition disturbing. He's
staying with his brushes. It takes all kinds.
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