|DAVID BRIN REVEALED:
A two-year-long interview with Slawek Wojtowicz
© 2002 Slawek Wojtowicz
SW: Every SF fan in Poland knows that David Brin is one of the greatest SF writers in the world. But most of these fans wouldn't be able to say much about David Brin as a person. What could you tell us about your life?
DB: My ancestors come from Poland, from the area around Konin. My Grandfather was drafted into the Russian army and fought in the Russian-Japanese War of 1905. As you can see, we breed slowly… That's why I walk on my knuckles and have a lot of hair on my arms…
SW: No way! Can you tell us how your daily schedule looks like?
DB: I have children aged seven, nine and four and Civilization is willing to pay me well to stay at home. I used to work as a scientist and a teacher and I consider those to be valuable enterprises. Perhaps what I do now should have been a hobby… But in the Civilization that loves entertainment I appear to be paid much better to stay at home, sleep when I like, work when I like…
Now, I don't necessarily agree with these values, I worked hard to be a scientist and a pretty good teacher, but who am I to argue with Civilization? Civilization deserves my loyalty. If Civilization wants me do this instead, and will pay me much more and let me sleep longer and choose my own hours, then I will do as Civilization commands.
SW: How many hours a day do you spend writing?
DB: If you include editing, then I work perhaps six or seven hours a day. It can be exhausting... When it comes to the actual creation of new text, usually I can only keep it up for 3 hours.
SW: What do you do for fun?
DB: I play with my kids, we do surveying, engineering, that's lots of fun. We also travel. When I get a chance I do some reading, but generally I try to get enough exercise, so that I can last long enough to write a lot of these stories. Sometimes I go to watch sports… I am also a gardener - I have two acres and I am trying to grow an orchard in terrible California clay soil, where it doesn't rain.
SW: What kind of trees do you grow?
DB: Plum trees, citrus trees… It is very peaceful…
SW: Is it a secret what are you working on now?
DB: You know, there are some cultures where the natives only have words for one, two three and many. What if they developed high technology without going any further in their numeracy? It could have happened! You can imagine their count down: many, many, many, many, three, two, one… Blast off!
I actually have that in this comedy I have written, that I have never been able to find a publisher for. I can always get a publisher for anything serious that I write, but they don't want a comedy! I can be a funny guy!
SW: Do you sometimes work on more than one book at a time?
DB: Sometimes. Not as much as I recommend, because I seldom go dry. But if you suffer from writer's block it is the best thing. You go over to the other book. I always have half dozen projects in the works. My next novel is called Kiln People. It will be out around Christmas. It was written partly out of the wish fulfillment to be able to be in two places at once. Don't we all wish that…
My 90-page Star Trek comic book called Forgiveness will also be out very soon. These illustrations are from the Terran agent's guide to contacting aliens from David Brin's Uplift Universe. It will be out next year and it will be really cool.
SW: What are your plans for the future? What topics are you going to explore?
DB: I have more ideas that I could ever write. I would love to make copies of myself! Cloning is a reflection of the same dream, but people can't figure out how to do it right and of course a clone would be an independent person.
SW: And with the current cloning technology, a clone would not really be identical with the original…
DB: That's right! In Kiln People I have a completely different thing than cloning: you can make golems that take all of your memories and their only chance of survival is to come home, having served you and then upload their memories into you. This is a bargain that you have done thousand of times already and you remember having been these golems, so you don't refuse them, unless they had a very bad day… In which case they change their clothes and pretend that they had a good day. But you remember, having been the golems who fooled you before… So you are up onto their tricks. It is lots of fun.
SW: Are you working on a sequel to your Uplift novels yet?
DB: Well, I am always thinking about it, but the Brightness Reef trilogy was so exhausting… There are many approaches to reading and writing. Many readers say: "make me feel exactly the way you made me feel last time". And I could have catered to that kind of reader by writing the same thing over and over again, but I would have died of boredom.
Some of my readers say to me: "take me someplace I have never been before". In order to do that I have to take risks, I have to bounce around, I have to try different things. There are many people who say "I wish you only wrote Uplift books". To them I have to say: "just wait, I will get around to them". I am also working on the next collection of short stories that will be illustrated by Jim Burns.
SW: What do you think about the Postman movie, which was based on your novel?
DB: When it comes to the Postman - I am sorry about the movie, but it wasn't as bad as some people said. Look at my web site - I have there an essay about how I feel about the movie. It really wasn't that awful. It wasn't my fault, and it really wasn't that bad, it was a sweet/stupid version of my book…
SW: What is the latest news about the Uplift movies?
DB: The Startide rising was optioned by Paramount Pictures, by Donald Stewart, the guy who did Clear Present Danger and Hunt for Red October. I got a nice fee for the option and then they started working out how the dolphins would appear on the screen and they decided to hold it off for a few years. Well, you know what? In a few years, they could be dazzling.
SW: Do you like the covers of your books?
DB: When they are done by Jim Burns…
SW: Do you have any input in their design?
DB: Usually they ask me for input when they are done by Jim Burns and then I don't need it.
SW: Do you have any other favorite SF painters?
DB: I love everything that Michael Whelan does except for the paintings he has done for me. He is a genius.
SW: What about Donato?
DB: Donato is incredible; he gave me a wonderful cover for Otherness. And Fred Gambino has given me covers for all of my British editions and he is fantastic!
SW: Have you ever tried to paint something yourself?
DB: Yes, as a matter of fact. I did one painting and it was anomalously good. It was actually very good.
SW: Perhaps you should put it on your web site…
DB: I suppose I should some day… Now, Greg Bear paints…
SW: I have seen his artwork - it looks great.
DB: We live in a civilization where a certain fraction of us has a luxury of picking and choosing which talents to develop. I have some talent in music. My Grandfather spoke 12 languages and I only realized too late that I have his bump for language. But he was a European, a European cosmopolitan. It was important for him. I grew up in America.
SW: So you only need English and Spanish…
DB: You don't even need Spanish. The point is that I discovered too late that I have this talent. When I went to live in France I got the accent perfectly and was able to jabber like mad, but I am too old to try to learn the grammar. I won't bother. It is too late for me to bother with painting.
SW: What do you think about current trends in SF?
DB: There are no current trends in science-fiction. There is an explosion of different directions. This is how science-fiction should be. Now, do I get upset that some clichés aren't being broken often enough in science-fiction? Like always giving a new thing to some faceless corporation, some dark conspiracy, hidden aliens or a mad scientist…
When in fact, what is done in our civilization is that new things are peddled and sold to everyone. Show the new thing in the hands of everybody. It is much more interesting and it shows an interesting and different culture. Yet the cliché of some faceless dark conspiracy almost always dominates, since it is easy to put your hero in jeopardy if society is incompetent. Clichés like that frustrate me. But, are there wonderful things going on in today's science-fiction? Of course there are!
[Folks, I am going to do an announcement! My new novel is called Kiln People, a hard cover from Tor Books and it will be out in December. And this is a page from my 90-page hard cover Star Trek comic book, called Forgiveness, using an idea I had in 1966. It will be out next month. This is my non-fiction book about openness in the information age and these are illustrations from The Uplift guide to David Brin's Universe, which will be out mid next year.]
DB: I read a lot of history. I tend to be more cosmopolitan than a lot of Americans - it surprised some of my friends in Europe that I actually knew where the Prague was… and I knew that Budapest was two cities once. But, you know, that's not unique. Only a quarter of science-fiction writers are scientifically trained. But almost all science-fiction authors read history. Science-fiction was misnamed. It should have been called speculative history. Speculations about things that might be missing in our knowledge of the past, parallel worlds…and of course extrapolations of how human experience may go…
SW: or perhaps it should have been called alternative history…
DB: Or alternative history. So this is perhaps over-long, over-philosophical answer to your question, but I do read science-fiction. I enjoy science-fiction, but since I am a busy parent and have many things to do, and my public speaking career has really taken off, the result has been that I read science-fiction that is sent to me for recommendations or blurbs.
SW: So do you have any mainstream writers that you like?
DB: I used to like Aldous Huxley for many years.
SW: Can you reveal some of the inspirations behind the Uplift Saga? How did you come up with the idea?
DB: Well, one thing has to do with one thing I have been talking about, clichés. The idea of making others - if we don't find others, we will make them. We might make them through artificial intelligence; we might make them the American way - by causing more and more of us to become weird in new directions and creating our own aliens that way. The idea of creating other species to talk to through some change in a species that already exists has been around before.
Cordweiner Smith did it and Pier Bule did. The difference between Pier Bule and HG Wells' The food of the gods, The Island of Dr Moreau, and all of those attempts to deal with this is they all put this power in the hands of mad scientists and civilization then abused, horribly abused and turned these animals into slaves.
I believe that, because of these cautionary tales, that's not what we will do. Because of these tales I wanted to do something else instead. Cliché! What if we bottle it and give it to everybody? What if we try to uplift other creatures with good intentions? With the aim of making them fellow citizens, interesting people? Wouldn't they still have interesting problems? Of course they would!
SW: And then you jumped to the idea of aliens doing the same thing?
DB: Yes, because of the Fermi paradox. What would prevent species from raping the Cosmos? These species have gone through this problem before and they decided that the only way to do it is to make it in their own best interest. To preserve environments. So it is a fascistic isosensitivity that we have to adjust to very quickly. And besides, it is very delicious idea that by accident, just because we did something nice, we would evolve to the middle of the Galactic society and people would hate us for it. It is actually a very American idea…
SW: Do you believe that something like that may actually happen in the future?
DB: It looks as if the Galaxy is empty. And it is very frightening. You can get a copy of my paper published in 1985, on why we seem to be alone. It has not been improved upon, unfortunately. Instead of saying here is one reason we are alone, I catalogued all the reasons and some of them are scary. And the one I believe is most likely is that we are anomalously smart. That we are much smarter than average for species that reach tool-using intelligence. And that we are even smart enough not to destroy ourselves.
SW: That can be good news, then…
DB: Well, it is hopeful. If we are the only guys who get out there, but we find the younger ones to save… what a wonderful role for us to have!
SW: What kind of writing do you find most pleasurable?
DB: Non-fiction books are ten times the work for one-tenth the money and your characters can sue you… Whereas I can do anything I want to these fictional characters and they can't sue me. Which of course I thought about and then realized that it would make a great story. So I just won a prize for my story "The stones of significance" which is about the future in which these characters can sue you.
SW: A question that may be surprising for you - at the dinner with artists last night we had a lively dispute about so called "Moon hoax". Any thoughts on that?
DB: I think it is very silly. As I said in the "Transparent Society": most of these conspiracy theories are based upon contempt. That only the people who know and believe in the hoax are smart enough to see - much smarter than the masses. It ignores the fact that we live in a civilization in which people who know a secret would benefit far more by being the first to tell, so that all the other ones go to jail and they get on all talk shows and get million dollar book contracts.
SW: My wife pointed out that it isn't in human nature to keep such secrets…
DB: In a society that passes a certain level of openness and safety. Below that level conspiracies are very easy to evolve, because you can kill people. Above that level it is extremely hard to keep painless secrets, because of what I just described. It is called prisoner's dilemma - it is a mathematical game theory and if you are in a situation where all the benefit goes to the first person to tell.
That's the problem with the X-files - how can you maintain a conspiracy like that? It is impossible! The first person to tell will be a hero and everyone else will be shot. It is different from keeping a weapon secret, like a B2 bomber, because most of the people involved are interested and they find it hard to imagine that it is heinous. They can at least talk themselves into believing it is not heinous enough to risk the penalties, because the people who are going to rescue you are the people. If the public says "this was heinous and you were good" then you are saved. But if the public doesn't rescue you, you are dead. Quite literally.
SW: Who do you think will be the next president of the United States? Will this be good or bad for us?
DB: If we look at the last time that the son of a one-term president became a president, the son defeated a popular man, who got more popular votes, that man came back and kicked his butt the next time. So it is an interesting coincidence, John Quincy Adams, George W Bush, Andrew Jackson… I hope that President Gore would be a nicer guy than Andrew Jackson was. These parallels aren't perfect, I hope.
SW: If you were to choose a place and time to live in, when and where would you choose? And why?
DB: It is an interesting thing that people often ask. In science-fiction scenarios people ask which science-fiction world would you live in. Some people say Dune, Star Wars where you would be just at the mercy of these mutants… The most hopeful science-fiction world that portrays the world where people may actually want to be normal people in is Star Trek. But I think we can do even better.
SW: Would you want to live in your own Uplift Universe?
DB: My universe is much too dangerous. I would be proud to be a member of human, dolphin and chimpanzee civilization that I portray there, but it is a difficult time. I am hoping for better. But then again, science-fiction is supposed to explore things that are both dark and bright. The prescriptive Utopias are mostly tedious. And they mostly begin on oceans of blood, because they usually start with a horrible plague, disease or war… You see, that did not happen six blocks from here - it was to be just another revolution - but then, this was the first time they decided not to create a ruling class.
SW: What do you think is the most difficult barrier to overcome in figuring out the methods of interstellar travel?
DB: Well, we have to teach ourselves to hibernate; to make intelligent machines that think of themselves as human, so they can go; try to find a form of a warp drive that doesn't blow up the original planet (if nobody is out there it may mean that such experiments are dangerous!). We would have to try approaching all of these methods at once.
SW: Do you think that we will someday travel faster than light?
DB: I think our machine descendants will go to the stars - maybe not faster than light… If we don't develop FTL travel, it will probably be our machine descendants. That's all right, as long as they think of themselves as human and carry downloaded copies of my personality.
SW: Would you be interested in attending a SF convention in Poland?
DB: I would love to! We were considering taking our children to southern France to live for six months, in which case we would travel all over the place. We are not sure when it will happen - possibly in two years. It is in order for them to learn another language. Unfortunately that would mean they would learn a fairly useless language (French), but it is a language that Sharon and I know and it would be comfortable and very pleasant. If we were really going to do it for our children, we would go to live in China, but it would be very difficult.
SW: Chinese may indeed become the language of the future…
DB: I hope it will be the second language of the future - if you believe in democracy, it should be # 2. But an important one. However I can't envision us going there and living in a small Chinese house.
SW: Do you know anything about the Polish Fandom?
DB: Well, I have met some Polish fans over the years. I would love to visit, for one thing there are many interesting sites there and I'd like to find out where my Grandfather came from.
SW: How much do you know about the history of Poland?
DB: Oh, I know about the Mongols destroying about half of the population, about the king inviting various ethnic groups in, I know about the rich cultural history, I know what I saw on Taras Bulba….
SW: Awesome! Do you have a last word, a message to Polish fans?
DB: Marsz, marsz Dabrowski….
SW: Thanks a lot for this interview!