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An Interview With David Brin
by Lynne Jamneck

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print-Friendly Version

David Brin is an author, scientist and public speaker. Several of his novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, and have won multiple Hugo, Nebula as well as other awards. His environmental thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the World Wide Web. His first non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, deals with modern-day concerns about privacy, responsibility and secrecy in the world of the coming century. His fifteen novels have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Was SF always your chosen genre, or did you initially think you would be writing something completely different?

Though science fiction offers me the freedom I like, I have often told my students that their first work of fiction should be a murder mystery. (It can be an SF mystery, like my first novel, Sundiver.) Only mysteries demand total storytelling discipline. No distractions or arty styling can mask or make up for bad plotting. In the end, the reader knows whether or not you cheated.

Which authors have had a profound influence on your own work -- thematically, stylistically? Have there been those writers who have shown you what not to do?

Depends on which "me" you ask. The Serious Author who comments on deep human trends would like to think that he' s grounded by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Popper and Locke. Brunner, Sheffield and Wells. Gilman and Delaney.

On the other hand, I can' t write more than a page of heady philosophy or social speculation without starting 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 SF exciting. Like Poul Anderson or Robert Sheckley. Heinlein 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 pundit, 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.

How much of SF writing can be seen as a subconscious group effort? Do you think that writers of the genre unknowingly expand (or try to) on ideas they' ve read somewhere else?

Both. We often see one writer come up with something new or transforming, and it seems to open doorways, allowing us to write our own tales with greater freedom. When that happens, a certain amount of "imitation" can actually be liberation.

For example, John Brunner' s Stand On Zanzibar showed me that science fiction can be about complex issues; deal in pros and cons, without losing dynamic or moral force. And a hard-driving tale does not have to portray civilization as stupid. (Though that always helps to move your plot along, doesn't it?) I used Stand On Zanzibar as inspiration for my novel, Earth.

On the other hand, much of it does happen subconsciously. Most of our influences are subliminal. We tend to imitate each other less explicitly, while telling ourselves what innovative fellows we are. For example: each of us likes to think that we came up with Suspicion of Authority (SOA), never noticing that the message fills our media, especially in movies and tales of science fiction. Heck, I was raised under the same mythos, so it' s no surprise that most of my stories and novels promote the same thing -- a healthy disrespect for any and every accumulation of unearned, unscrutinized power.

Why doesn't' anybody notice this propaganda? Because we agree with it! And nobody calls "propaganda" something they agree with. (Anyway, it is hard to picture why dark conspiring masters would promote such messages!) Rather, we tend to brag that we invented those values. How many guys have you known, who act as if they originated the Brando sneer? Or dark, disdaining gossip? Or wearing black all the time? How original.

In your opinion, which notion is currently the more popular in the SF writing genre: that we're headed for a dystopic or utopian future?

People tend to call me this huge optimist, because I occasionally portray society as not totally stupid... or our fellow citizens as something slightly more evolved than sheep.

In fact, I am an optimist only by comparison to the reflexive contempt-for-the-masses that you see in most knee-jerk fiction these days. Actually, I am kind of a gloomy guy. History shows how often and how easily bright beginnings failed, giving way to darkness once again. We have a genius for snatching failure from the jaws of success. It will not surprise me if our present renaissance collapses. If we betray our values for short-term expediency.

But sf fights that trend! Our dark warnings poke the ground, finding pitfalls and quicksand just ahead. The best warnings turn into self-preventing prophecies that vividly affect people, ensuring that a particular mistake won' t happen. Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, The China Syndrome, Silent Spring, Soylent Green, and so on. These drew attention from millions of people toward doomsday scenarios. Millions who became active. Were those efforts futile? Or are we here today because of them?

The greatest self-preventing prophecy was surely George Orwell's chilling Nineteen-Eighty Four. Who does not feel girded, inoculated by the metaphors of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth? If we manage to preserve freedom and hold all the big-time liars accountable, it will be in no small part thanks to science fiction.

I just wish more authors would notice what they are a part of...a vast process of error-discover and error-detection. By all means write warning-dystopias! But try to be original and helpful. You did not invent black leather. Or mirrorshades. And the people may not all be fools.

Here's a corker: Genetic Engineering. Does it hold more bad than good? Does it hold any good at all?

I talk a lot about that at http://www.davidbrin.com/future.html

There is plenty of potential both ways.

What I do not see is cowardice and retreat as an option. Anything that we "ban" will only be done in secret by some elite. And because it's done in secret, it will be totally screwed up and wind up endangering us all. People who rant and criticize tend not to notice THAT their criticism is part of a corrective process that can only function well in the open. It cannot work if you drive your opponents underground.

Yeah, I am this generation's "anti-secrecy guy". (See The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?) But I am not a purist radical. Secrecy has some short-term uses, some justified purposes. There are harms that both governments and private people can legitimately avoid with temporary secrecy. Secrecy may not be the root of all evil.

But dig this. You cannot think of a single evil that is not made worse by secrecy. And human beings will reliable come up with excuses to justify their secrets, while denouncing their opponents'.

All the dangerous toys we will be playing with in the coming century -- all of them -- will be better understood and the bad parts better avoided, if it's done in the open. Discussed and argued over by a civilization that's bothnoisy and free.

There's an aphorism I want to suggest, for pondering.

CITOKATE - Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error.

What are your views on electronic publishing? In the long term, will it have a negative or positive influence on the publishing industry?

Something like iTunes had better come to the rescue, or we authors will all have to get day jobs. You gotta have faith that honest people will find ways to pay a decent value-price for stories that take them on journeys to stimulate the mind.

If you weren't writing today, what would your alternative vocation probably be?

I worked hard to become a pretty good teacher, engineer, scientist. I would feel honored to do any of those things, participating in a decent, growing civilization. But -- as I say atop my web site -- this wild/wonderful civilization seems more interested in my 'out-of-the-box' explorations about the future. (Who am I to argue with civilization?)

What are you currently working on?

Other than inventions, games and being a good dad?

I love the Uplift Universe, but I can't do just one thing. I do hope to get back to Tom & Creideiki and other Uplift adventures, but first some other projects. There are a couple of gifts for Uplift fans along the way. See the story "Temptation" downloadable at http://www.davidbrin.com/

Contacting Aliens: An Illustrated Guide To David Brin's Uplift Universe is a fun tour of the many alien races people enjoy in books like Startide Rising and Uplift War. Also the legendary game, GURPS Uplift! has a new, updated edition.

My recent novel, Kiln People, takes the notion of a "home copier" to its limits. Just ditto your memories onto a cheap clay duplicate. Send it to run errands, attend classes, do all the drudgery work. Then, at day's end, download its memories. It's a fast-moving noir detective story, too. Lots of fun.

DC-Wildstorm asked me to come up with a new hardcover graphic novel. The Life Eaters covers a dark theme, my own take on how the mystically-obsessed Nazis might have hoped to conquer the world, using a bizarre kind of magic. Based on a Hugo nominated novella from 1985, but expanded and explored with stirring imagery by Scott Hampton. The French, especially, seem rather keen on this one.

Also in the works, a "Heinleinian" book in which aliens kidnap 3,000 kids from a Californian high school...

As a genre, where is SF heading? Will people other than its readers start to take it serious eventually?

In a more general sense, sf 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.

This happens to match what's done by the 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 absurdly oppressive notions of "eternal verities." We specialize in imagining that things might be different than they are. As long as that's our playground, no literary ghetto will ever enclose us.

Any advice you would like to offer to aspiring speculative writers?

After typing countless answers to requests for advice from would-be writers, I finally put it all together in a handy lumo, available at http://www.davidbrin.com/

The core point? CITOKATE.

If you put your work out there and look upon criticism as your friend -- (not easy, but worthwhile) -- you will have gain real advantages, leveraging your talent, however great or small it may be.

Good luck. There are lots of ideas out there waiting to be mined. It's not an endangered resource.

Unless... maybe it is....

Hey...what an idea for a story!

Copyright © 2005 Lynne Jamneck
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Lynne Jamneck is a writer/photographer from South Africa. Her work has been accepted to and published in a number of diverse markets, including Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, H.P Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly, On Our Backs Anthology Vol. 2 and anthologies Raging Horrormones (Oxcart Press) and Darkways Of The Wizard (Cyber-Pulp Books & Specficworld.com). She was the editor and creator of Simulacrum: The Magazine of Speculative Transformation. Her first Samantha Skellar mystery, Down the Rabbit Hole, was published by Bella Books in 2005. Lynne currently lives in New Zealand with her partner Heidi.
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