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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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!
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
-- 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
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?
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.
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."
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
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?
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:
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
FC: What is, or
should, the role of science fiction be in inspiring students in STEM or
other science-related disciplines, beyond entertainment?
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?
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.
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?
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.