Thursday, March 07, 2013

Questions I’m often asked. Part II: About Science Fiction!

Continuing a compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time, we'll talk about…


 --What are your favorite Science Fiction novels?

GreatestSFReadingLIstStand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, was simply creepy in how well it peered ahead and how accurate was its vision, as well as breakthroughs in both style and substance. It should be read alongside Vonnegut and Huxley and Heller. Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny, was a breakthrough in multicultural SF that was also gorgeous and exciting and all about rebellion! Ursula LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven was darn near perfect. Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End is a gem of recent "singularity fiction." 

Herbert and Heinlein provoke vivid arguments and I like that!  Bear and Robinson poke hard at our biological destiny. Banks and Stephenson believe in us and make me feel we might make it; that counts for something. For short fiction: Robert Sheckley and Alice Sheldon were peerless.

 --Which authors have most influenced your writing? 

201817627023143561_yPwhWOwz_cI grew up on Robert Heinlein and Robert Sheckley, moved on to Aldous Huxley and James Joyce, then thawed out a bit with Vonnegut and Amis and Sharpe. Finally, I decided to become a storyteller, and reacquainted myself with the clear, almost tribal rhythms of Poul Anderson. (See my list of recommended SF books for Young Adults.)

My favorite depends on which "me" you ask. The Serious Author in me, who comments on deep human trends, would like to think that he's grounded by Huxley and Orwell. Popper and Locke. Brunner, Sheffield and Wells. Gilman and Delaney. Shakespeare and Donne and Homer and Swift and Defoe. Some night-crawling with Poe and Coleridge. Some world-girdling with Kobayashi Issa and Scholar Wu and South Sea tales.

LordLightOn the other hand, I can' t write more than a page of heady philosophy or social speculation without feeling an itch... the itch to blow something up. To make something exciting happen. Or something fun. That's when I know I've been influenced by the storytellers who made Science Fiction exciting. Like Anderson or Zelazny. 

But I guess the ones I revere most are those who briefly left me speechless. Unable to write or even move, because something in a perfect story left me stunned. Changed. I guess in that category I'd put Tiptree and Varley. Vonnegut at his best. Shakespeare. And Philip K. Dick. 

Ideally, those three personalities -- the thinker, entertainer and "writah" -- can get along. Collaborate. Work together in crafting a tale that speaks to the brain, heart, and organs of adrenaline. Well, you can try. 

--As a genre, where is SF heading? Will the more general population start to take it serious eventually? 

201817627023414467_oGTcLw10_cIn a general sense, Science Fiction is about expanding the available range of settings beyond the parochial present or familiar, freeing literature by extending it into realms of the possible. Fantasy goes farther, by diving into the improbable or impossible. 

This happens to match what's done by our most recent and powerful portions of the human brain, the prefrontal lobes, or the "lamps on the brow," that we use every day to explore our options, making up scenarios about tomorrow or the next day. These organs let us ponder the whole notion of "future" as a place, a destination. Nothing could be more human. 

Let others wall themselves in with their rigid genre boundaries and absurdly oppressive notions of "eternal verities," needing to pretend that today’s familiar obsessions will last forever. (They won't.) No verity is eternal, though some lessons are best learned and re-learned. 

We in SF specialize in imagining that things might be different than they are. In exploring prefrontally the potential dangers and opportunities. As long as that's our playground, no literary ghetto will fence us. 

--Has a fictional work every made you angry. If so, which one? 

Oh tons!  I try not to get my blood pressure or dander up though.

Heck, I even feel mildly positive toward Kevin Costner, who on-balance did more good than bad in his (visually gorgeous and big-hearted) film adaptation of my post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. (See my essay on the Costner movie.)

Only a few works make me stark fuming outraged. For example,see how I eviscerate Frank Miller's horrifically evil and despicably lying piece of propaganda-for-evil -- a movie called "300."   

In other cases, such as when I co-edited STAR WARS ON TRIAL, I am less angry than concerned that people are missing an important chance to weigh the bad alongside the good. Star Wars has many appealing traits... but Yoda is one evil little oven mitt!

--How do you feel about Fantasy novels? 

Clearly we need both romance and reason, even in creative arts such as fiction. Craft without imagination is like a mill without wheat. Imagination without craft is extravagant… and sterile. 

LordOfRingsThe trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. Heck, I enjoy Tolkien and steam punk and some of the best fantasists. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is a sugary path that leads ultimately to betrayal. Because kings and lords and wizards were never our friends! Indeed, for most of history they were the chief plague destroying hope for humankind. 

Oh, some kings and wizards were less bad than others. But they were all "dark lords." Our fixation on them is a legacy of the 10,000 years in which feudalism reigned, when chieftains controlled the fables by ordering the bards what to sing about. A long, grinding era when humanity got nowhere. When the strong took all the women and wheat, and forced everyone else to recite fables about how right it was. 

Till some of us finally rebelled. (Especially women!) It's the Great Enlightenment and the most wonderful story ever told. The story that should have us all transfixed and loyal and grateful as all outdoors. 

201817627023538708_eFnT5b8r_cWe are heirs of the mightiest and best heroes who ever lived. Pericles, Franklin, Faraday, Lincoln, Pankhurst, Einstein, Marshall and so on. Heroes of flesh and blood, any one of whom was worth every elf and dragon and fairy ever imagined.  

Look, I like a dragon. I just want to remember who gave us a world in which I can go meet a dragon any time that I want -- in books and stories and flicks. Not a world in which I cower in actual fear, because I actually think they are actually out there, because some king and his "sages" are keeping all the books for themselves. Imagination and good writing are enough magic for me.  For the rest?  

Give me light. Let's share light.
--David Brin
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Jonathan Roth said...

I wonder what you think of "A Game of Thrones." I've just stated watching it, and haven't cracked the books yet. I don't know if it's part of George R. Martin's plans, but the series seems to be saying, in part, "It may be fun to watch, but look how much it sucks to live in a feudal world. Aren't ordinary, structured, and democratic elections better than all this treachery, chaos, betrayal, and violence?"

Tony Fisk said...

Must track down a copy of Lord of Light one day!

Taking Martin's works as a whole, there is little doubt as to which side of the fight he's on. GOT sees to have started off as an hobby indulgence (sword whacking). While Westeros is portrayed as a place where life is bit on the nasty, brutish and short side (unless your a lord), it does seem to pander to the royal romantic.

... and yet. And yet, the fifth novel has hints that this is about to change. We shall see (and in the meantime enjoy the masterly character portrayals!)

locumranch said...

Agree with your assessment of Brunner, LeGuin, Sheckley & early Vinge, but later Vinge's 'Rainbow's End' was dry and pointless, Miller's "300" was a hilarious homoerotic parody on par with Spinrad's "Iron Dream", and your list was clearly inadequate since neglecting all the great golden age authors including other subversive 1970's powerhouses along the lines of Farmer (Riders of the Purple Wage), Lafferty (900 Grandmothers) and Spinrad (Agent of Chaos).


Stephen Beres said...

The Matrix Trilogy was fascinating when I skipped the silly fight scenes and focused on the dialogue. It covers topics of "What is Reality?", Choice, Determinism, Hope and Love.

madtom said...

Brunner's "minor" works also show an eerie prescience. I recently tried to clean out my long shelves of vintage scifi and found over a foot of his novels that I couldn't part with. "The Stone that Never Came Down", "The Stardroppers", "Bedlam Planet" - really too many to name, portrayed today's political and economic realities shockingly well, from 40 years ago.

As I am now re-reading "Existence" (and finding even more to applaud than in the first hurried read), I notice that his "Interstellar distances are God's quarantine regulations" is quite central to that plot.

However, I'll bet that in another 40 years your books are read and cited with even greater amazement as being shockingly insightful in the present as well as prophetic and inspirational. [And I take special pleasure in your treatment of "Hamish", since I shocked myself some years ago when I actually literally burned my copy of the book we might call "Condition of Panic" - something I have never done before or since.]

beoShaffer said...

I recently saw something that reminded me of Earth, specfically and app the will record criminal interactions while backing up the recording to a secure server and dialing 911. See for details as the cnet comments point out (and exaggerate) there are some problems with this app, but it feels like a step in the right direction.

Alfred Differ said...

The author who spooked me the most in the last 10 years or so was Octavia Butler. It sucks to be a human in some of her stories.

David's Temptation story revived that spookiness for awhile. I only just read it a couple weeks ago. It made me nauseous near the end, but I suspect that was the intent. What a nifty little incantation. 8)

Ormazd said...

in one part of the existence book, david brin mentions a episode of the outer limits and comic of the 80's that influenced the "work" of Hamish, somebody knows what comic is that? and for that matter, the episode?

LarryHart said...

Ormazd, I don't have Dr Brin's book open in front of me, but I'm pretty sure I remember the scene you are talking about. If so, he was referring to the "Watchmen" comic book/graphic novel from 1986, recently made into a movie.

locumranch said...

Did anyone else notice that Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' -- with its introduction full of seemingly disjointed factoids followed by disparate narrations that converge at the end -- utilized the same format as Melville's 'Moby Dick' ?

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

Regarding the main post, it's nice to know that even famous writers like yourself can get their minds blown (in a good sense) by other writers.

For me, at a fairly young age, I began to understand that my mind worked like a writer's, always taking mental notes and playing "what-if" games crafting stories around real-life events. One consequence is that I'm often left disappointed in stories when I think "I could have written that one better myself," (Return of the Jedi, for example).

The flip-side of that is the ability to be absolutely blown away (again, in the good sense) when a writer creates something that I know I could not have possibly managed to do myself. The example I always give is the play "Death Trap" (there was a movie with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, but the play was much better). The play is ABOUT the writing of a play, which turns out to be the same play going on on stage. The concept is brilliant, and at the tender age of sixteen, I walked out of that performance thinking something like "THAT's worth paying a professional to produce."

And just so you know, I often think similar thoughts about your novels.

Anonymous said...

At the earliest points chieftains were elected. They got a bit more cause they had the responsibility of protecting the tribe from marauding bands. Their position could be quite precarious based on how well they led - or even entirely out of their hands based on the changing seasons and the crop yields.
The fisher king myth derives from this, the land was tied to the chiefs and reflected his leadership and ability, and if the crops were withering the dude could find himself the subject of human sacrifice to renew it.

Remnants of this proto-democracy can be seen in the Viking 'tings' of the middle ages

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LarryHart said...

Ok, I just took my kid to see "Oz, the Great and Powerful," and during the previews of other movies, there were two separate films about a future where Earth has been abandoned and those wanting to live here face a hostile environment. Plus another movie called "Olympus Has Fallen" which looks like a sequel to "Air Force One" in which an even OLDER president played by Harrison Ford has to deal with the aftermath of (what looks like) a successful terrorist invasion of Washington.

Post-apocalypse seems to be firmrly in the zeitgeist these days.

Ormazd said...

thanks LarryHart, i was hoping that it was something i hadn't read, but nice comic anyway, and a decent book

MaysonicWrites said...

Recent mindblowing SF: rereading Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis, and Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm series (January Dancer, Up Jim River, In the Lion's Mouth, and upcoming On the Razor's Edge).

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Ian said...

"At the earliest points chieftains were elected. They got a bit more cause they had the responsibility of protecting the tribe from marauding bands. Their position could be quite precarious based on how well they led - or even entirely out of their hands based on the changing seasons and the crop yields."anonymous, you might want to read up on the Melanesian phenomenon of "Big Men".

Big Men are not chiefs, they have no power to compel anyone to follow them.

They mostly get their pay-off not in material goods but in terms of prestige.

A typical Big Man might, for example, organize a raid on a neighboring tribe or convince people to take part in a trading mission.

The general theory is that Big Men flourished so long as people could simply get up and move away if their local big Man got too overbearing.

Then with the development of agriculture, people found that a lot harder.

Most Big Man groups probably didn't evolve into chieftainships but the ones that did took over or marginalized most of the rest.

(A related issue i that Melanesians lacked a convenient way to store wealth and surplus food which in turn meant Big Man couldn't hire a standing army.

The San people of South Africa have similar traditions. When an anthropologist asked a group of San what stopped the best hunters bossing everyone around the answer was simple: "Everyone has to sleep some time."

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LarryHart said...

Oops, my mistake on Harrison Ford. Apparently that's not him playing the president in the trailers for "Olympus Has Fallen"--just someone who looks like him.

Which means it's probably not actually a sequel to "Air Force One" after all. Oh well.

Paul451 said...

It's also not a post-apocalypse film. It's just "Die Hard Does The Whitehouse".

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Brian Rush said...

Hi, David,

Thank's enormously for dropping by my blog and responding to my most recent post. I put a response to your comment there, but as you suggested I'm copying it here, and this seems like the appropriate post of yours to attach it to.

I’m going to reply here, and then I’ll copy this to David’s blog. I really appreciate him taking the time to drop by, even it is a hit and run.

There’s a lot to say in response to this. Starting with:

“First off… those cultures of the past most definitely did have “wizards!” They were also called priests, shamans, grand viziers and so on.”

Well, there’s a problem with that, David, when you’re comparing those “wizards” to the wizards of fantasy. Priests, etc. held a position in society which fantasy wizards almost never do. Fantasy wizards aren’t official voices of sacred authority, but more commonly outsiders bringing visions that those in power foolishly reject. (Either that, or they’re the bad guys.) The comparison doesn’t really work. So really we are talking about kings and lords, and one might add “priests” to this list; wizards are a fantasy element added to a medieval (or other) setting and not really a part of that setting.

“To blithely claim that most modern fantasy does not take place in feudal or quasi-feudal settings is so counterfactual that I really wanted to see if Brian was trying to pull it off with a straight face.”

I’m quite serious, and it’s not counterfactual in the least! To illustrate this, I’m going to pop over to the Amazon Kindle Store and take a look at their top fantasy sellers (I’ll examine only the paid bestsellers rather than the free ones). In the top 10, I find four books that are even in a medieval setting at all, and only one that MAY romanticize such a world in the way you suggest is the norm. (I include that “may” because I haven’t read the book and so can’t evaluate it for certain, but for reasons stated below I strongly doubt it.) These are Disenchanted by Robert Kroese (a humorous fantasy), The Mongoliad book 1 by a number of authors including Greg Bear (and I have a hard time imagining that author — who is another of my favorite science-fiction writers — contributing to a work of that nature), A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (a grim, bleak, and extremely harsh view of a medieval society, hardly a panegyric to it, as is this entire series), and A Game of Thrones by the same author to which the same observation applies. Of the remaining six, one is set in a pure-fantasy setting (it’s a life-after-death thing), and the other five are all contemporary fantasy.

So among the top sellers at Amazon, at least, what you are regarding as the norm is not only not the norm, it’s not to be found at all these days.

Now, I’m not suggesting that medieval romances are no longer being written at all. I’m fairly certain they are, but this is not a current trend in the genre.

This fact alone pretty much undercuts your entire argument, David. If fantasy ISN’T a romantic rapture with times gone by, then one cannot level valid criticism against it based on the idea that it IS.

[continued in next comment]

Brian Rush said...


I meant no insult, of course, in saying that your characters are generally larger than life and well above the average. (Does that truly sound like an insult? Would you prefer if I’d said, “David, your characters bore the hell out of me and put me to sleep”? Come on.) And I admit I haven’t read literally everything you’ve written — but not too far from it. Jacob Demwa? Tom Orley? Captain Creideiki? The main character in Earth whose name escapes me, who tried to solve our ecological dilemmas through mass murder? The cream-of-the-crop chimpanzees in The Uplift War? Very rarely do you present an ordinary, average person as a character, and when you do that character is not the main protagonist or villain. This is not an insult — I’m saying you have the ability to create powerful, interesting characters that are exciting to follow along with, either to love or to hate.

“How, when evil is recognizably ugly, with red, glowing eyes, do we learn a darned thing?”

Ah, but even when that’s the case (and it isn’t always), the important evil isn’t that, but what’s in us. Our own capacity for it is the important thing, and the shadowy figure with the glowing eyes only serves to put us to the test. Its evil isn’t in doubt, but ours is.

The fact is, there are other questions facing us — I won’t say more important ones, but certainly important ones — besides the struggle to achieve an advanced society and leave the darkness of the Dark Ages behind. Not every story is about that, or needs to be. The fact that a story is set in a medieval or ancient setting doesn’t mean that those times are being offered as a model for how we ought to live, anymore than your own matriarchal world in Glory Season is presented as your recommendation for society. (Or at least I didn’t take it as such.)

“Star Trek heroes may be above average, but that is okay and a BIG difference from being demigods, as the heroes are in Star Wars.”

Well — not really. A person with extraordinary abilities, whether he is a master of the Force like Darth Vader or an uber-thief/spy like J. Demwa, is a potential danger to those around him who are less able. As this is a fact of life in one form or another — we are not, in fact, all created equal — I hardly see why depicting it in fiction is a problem, unless one depicts the victimization as just or a good thing, which no stories do that I can think of offhand. (Except for a few in the Bible, and that’s off-topic.) There’s a huge difference between someone who is empowered by society to oppress the weak (like a feudal lord), and someone who is enabled to do this by his own personal abilities — particularly when the judgment of society harshly condemns his doing so, rather than claiming that it is his right of birth.

I will say this much. I am a fantasy author, but I doubt I’ll ever put anything in a medieval setting, because the idea bores the hell out of me, and also because I share your condemnation of the problems with such a society. But that’s rather than point.

Brian Rush said...

Rather than copy the comment I made response to you over on my blog, which got a bit long, I'm going to start from scratch and see if I can be a little more pithy and brief.

The genre of fantasy does not consist of stories about the days of old. That's historical fiction. Historical fiction can be fantasy (anything can) but it becomes fantasy only with the inclusion of fantasy elements, which are mythic elements. It is the inclusion of mythic elements -- gods and devils, magic, wondrous items, quasi-human races, fantastic beasts -- that makes it fantasy. The Arthurian legends weren't fantasy because they had kings and knights in armor, but because they had Excalibur, the spells of Merlin and Morgan la Fée, mysterious entities such as the Lady of the Lake and the Green Knight, and the Holy Grail.

Fantasy goes back to the dawn of writing. The ancient myths and legends were fantasy. It's also possible for science fiction to be fantasy, if mythic elements are included in it.

In short, reducing all of fantasy to a Tolkien knock-off is unwarranted. Even with such works, even with Tolkien's writing itself, the draw is not the medieval panoply but the mythic elements in the story, which can be (and these days mostly is) presented in a different context.

"In all my works . . . a major topic is accountability and the give and take of a wise and open civilization that let’s no one man’s delusions go unquestioned."

Actually, David, that's untrue. I can't think of a single fictional work of yours in which that was a major topic. Due process vs. public safety, environmentalism, open-mindedness vs. dogmatism, fanaticism vs. moderation, you've done all of these, but I can't think of a single work of fiction you've written in which the accountability of powerful individuals to society was a major theme.

Which of course doesn't lead me for one second to think that you don't believe such people should be accountable to society. Why, then, does it lead you to a conclusion like that merely because someone chooses to focus on other themes?

Thanks again for taking the time to talk.