The Last Empire: John Kenny talks to David Brin
Originally appeared in Albedo One #21 (2000)
David Brin is perhaps best known as the author of the Uplift series, including the novels Sundiver (1980), Startide Rising (1983), winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, The Uplift War (1987) winner of the Hugo and Locus awards, Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity’s Shore (1996), and Heaven’s Reach (1997). His standalone novels include The Practice Effect (1984), The Postman (1985), winner of the Campbell Memorial and Locus awards, Heart of the Comet (1986), co-written with Gregory Benford, Earth (1990), and Glory Season (1993). His short fiction is collected in two volumes: The River of Time (1986) and Otherness (1994). He has a doctorate in astrophysics and has been a NASA consultant and a physics professor. He lives in Encinitas, California, where he is hard at work on his next novel.
John Kenny: I read your science article ‘Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution’ recently and found it very intriguing. From what I’ve read about you previously and a look around your website, you have a heavy involvement with science. Which came first for you: an interest in science or science fiction? And I presume one interest informed the other.
David Brin: Writing is a worthy calling that at times ennobles the human race. Still, in fairness, writing was not my own first choice as a profession. I wanted to be a scientist, foremost. And I became one, through hard work. I also had this hobby though – writing – which provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I’d write a few stories a year… a novel every few years… while mainly working to become the best scientist and teacher I could be.
Don’t mistake this for modesty! It’s just that I perceive science – the disciplined and honest pursuit of truth – to be a higher calling than writing stories, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those stories may be. I know this may be an unconventional view, because society puts out a lot of propaganda that entertainers are close to being gods. But don’t you believe it. Other people have changed this world far more, through their skill and dedication to truth.
But what can I do? I am much better at storytelling than I ever was at discovering new truths. At least, people pay me better to write novels than they ever did to do research! I still like to do occasional forays – ‘guerrilla raids’ into science from time to time. The neoteny piece was one of these. So was my non-fiction book – The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? It doesn’t pay as well, but it’s rewarding.
JK: There seems to be a good deal of communication between SF writers and scientists these days, particularly in the States. Do you think this a good thing or is there the potential for a law of diminishing returns to kick in?
DB: One cannot thrive without the other. Our civilisation has profited immensely by unleashing imagination from many constraints laid upon it by prior tribal and/or hidebound cultures. Judging by all the pro-impulsiveness propaganda carried by popular media these days, it seems a great many people in the West fear that too much logic and reason will cramp us again. Perhaps they worry that stodgy reductionists will insist they justify every timid extrapolation, each tiny step into the future.
How ironic such attitudes are! In truth, it was scientific, step-by-step reductionism that helped us to drive away so many ancient, cruel superstitions, and to start learning how, the world really works. Thanks to logic and experimentation, it’s been proven that women aren’t mentally deficient compared to males – even though it was “common knowledge” in nearly every civilisation before ours. Spock-Iike honesty, a hallmark of science, ripped through other age-old assumptions about disease, social class and lifestyle. We still have a long way to go, but without modern scepticism we’d almost certainly have remained trapped by the insidious human tendency to smugly believe whatever we want to believe. Remember, imagination has a “dark side”, lending power to our hatreds and prejudices.
Yet science and honesty are themselves nothing without imagination, which provides the feedstock of notions, hunches and ideas – new metaphors, maps, models and theories – for science to test. Imagination is the ore which rationality then grinds and sifts for gleaming nuggets. In fields of endeavour experiencing vivid, creative times, this balance thrives. The brightest physicists play with Zen riddles and some great engineers are noted sportsmen or musicians. Of course, the best of them read science fiction!
JK: Similar tension can be seen in art and literature, and especially in science fiction.
DB:Two powerful and apparently contradictory impulses have driven science fiction authors since the days of Verne and Wells. On the one hand, we appreciate vividness and boldness. We like the author to depict people and places as startlingly different from today’s “mundane” world as possible.
On the other hand, we also enjoy extrapolations that make sense, that hold together logically, that project believably from today’s world. This tension pervades all levels, from the “macrocraft” of basic plotting down to the sentence- by-sentence “micro-craft” of aesthetic style, where use of metaphor is immediate, almost voluptuous. Ideally, the best novels and stories display both flamboyance and discipline. Up close each component paragraph can be its own gedankenexperiment, forcing the reader to abandon cliched assumptions and test new ways of looking at the world.
We’ve all seen examples where the balance fails. At one extreme are yeomanly works scoring high on consistency and basic readability but featuring uninspired gimmickry and cardboard characters, but close to nil on inspiration or originality. Then there are flashy works that sparkle and scintillate with brash imagery and actinic, skyrocketing prose, but often prove dense, impenetrable, self-indulgent, or implausible.
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.
JK: One thing that strikes me about your work is that balance between imagination and craft. And I think it may.be a significant contributory factor to your popularity. If there is any variance, approach-wise, I would say it is between the Uplift novels and your other work, Earth, Glory Season, et al. Do you shift gears when you’re writing an Uplift or other work?
DB: I try to alternate among several kinds of work, in order to keep fresh moving from a heavily space-oriented Uplift adventure to a more thoughtful near future book, like Earth, then on to something that’s pure fun. I always thought it a mistake for a writer to stay committed to just one series or universe or style of storytelling, which always seems to get repetitious or stale. On the other hand, maybe some people have just one melody in them. I shouldn’t be mean or criticise them for it.
JK: It’s been well documented in other interviews that you are regarded as, and regard yourself as, an optimist. I’ve always regarded myself as a pragmatist, my personal definition of which is: an optimist tempered by cynicism. Do you think optimism has developed a bad name? Popular conception of the trait seems to include, erroneously, naivete as one of its major attributes.
DB: Over half of those alive on Earth today never saw war, starvation or major civil strife with their own eyes. Most never went more than a day without food. Only a small fraction have seen their city burn, heard the footsteps of a conquering army, or watched an overlord exercise capricious power of life and death over helpless serfs. Yet these events were routine for most of our ancestors.
Of course, when I speak of fractions, that still leaves hundreds of millions who have experienced such things! I won’t minimise the terrors so many still endure. Our consciences should be prodded by the relentless power of television, into compassion and vigorous action.
Still, it’s worth noting that things have changed a bit since humanity wallowed in horror, back in the middle years of the Twentieth Century. The ratio of humans who now live modestly safe and comfortable lives – (though in conditions modern North Americans might deem scanty) – has never been greater. It means the slope hasn’t been all down, since the despair of 1942. Some might even argue that progress has been made in attacking our worst bigotries and wastrel tendencies.
Am I an optimist? I see hope in the very fact that we brag so little, and that we worry so much about the parts of the task still left undone.
JK: There is, certainly on this side of the pond, a popular conception that that same ‘naive’ optimism is a major component of the United States’ national psyche. Among Europeans, this notion is fuelled, no doubt, by the whole idea of the country being a land of promise and new hope for all those people who migrated there throughout the last couple of hundred years. A look at the reality of life for many people in the US today belies this notion. But there is no doubt that the United States is the major power in the world today, and enjoys, overall, massive resources and a central role in what goes on worldwide.
DB: The Chinese had a word, Chung Kuo – which meant ‘the Central Kingdom’ – for their nation’s position in the world. And for most of recorded history it was apt. The Chinese invented many things, from gunpowder and paper to pasta. Less known Is their record as explorers. In the early 15th Century, when Henry the Navigator’s mother was a child in the English midlands, a Chinese admiral led a fleet of sailing ships to Arabia and the tip of Africa. Had this enterprise continued, we might all today be speaking Chinese today.
But the admiral returned to an indifferent imperial court. What need had China, they asked, of anything from the outside world? The ships rotted at their moorings. Records of the voyage were burned.
All the way up to the eighteenth century, the Chinese were correct in figuring the rest of the world had little to teach them. But times were changing. Rapid development and social transformations pushed the barbarians into new realms of art, science, geography and trade. Eventually, Chung Kuo paid terribly for their insularity, yet every blow to their pride only inspired frantic resistance to compromise and change. Only when every vestige of ancient grandeur was toppled did this proud nation, once the centre of the world, put aside its pride to learn what others had to teach.
The Romans, Moghuls and many other nations at their pinnacle, likewise cultivated smugness and ignorance of the outside world. Chung Kuo Disease is a sickness of conceit that seems to accompany wealth and empire. Britons also had days at the centre, responding with patriotic fervour exceeding a frenzied Reagan pep rally, while signs of senescence were ignored.
America since 1945 seems to have escaped some of the worst symptoms of Chung Kuo. Pax Americana was horribly expensive, but more benign than most empires. The Vietnam War was cosmically wasteful and tragic, as has been the Arms Race, but on the whole, a larger fraction of the world’s people had a chance to spend less time protecting themselves than in any prior era. Europe and Japan have thrived as a result. Even so, the question arises whether America is repeating the errors of other pinnacle powers. Barbara Tuchman, in The March of Folly, warns that there are many types of fatal, imperial over-extension – such as volunteering to be the world’s policeman. Even the generous trade allowances given our allies in the past, for which we are paying today, had their roots in a type of arrogance – an assumption that we could afford a self-inflicted double standard because we were too rich and powerful to feel any inconvenience.
Chung Kuo belief has other consequences. Young Americans seldom learn foreign languages or properly study geography. Superficially, their politics seem crude and infantile. Especially, they don’t want to be bothered with long analyses of foreign affairs, and prefer encapsulating complex matters under simplistic labels, e.g. “communists” and “loyal allies”.
Still, I come away encouraged. The policy of welcoming immigration has meanttransfusions of fresh culture and language every generation. And though empires attract ire, no prior Chung Kuo has ever been hated as little as ours, or reaped such genuine outbursts of occasional goodwill. America’s fall may be gentler and ,less traumatic than any preceding empire’s. The inevitable plummet may not be quite so low. Finally, and especially, for the first time it is on the agenda that, after we finally cede the imperial throne, there should be a serious effort to have no further empires.
Call that naive optimism, if you like. But as we saw in the transformation from Woodrow Wilson to George Marshall, one generation’s naivete can be the next one’s bold and visionary action to pragmatically change the way things are done, forever.
JK: Ah, but if the last empire fell, all you’d need is a couple of ‘postmen’ and we could be right back where we started. Speaking of which, you’ve had a couple of brushes with Hollywood. Were you happy with what they did to The Postman?
DB: The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalypse books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilisation’s fall. It’s a story about how much we take for granted – and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. A man who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were.
Was the film faithful to this? Well, despite several scenes that can only be called self-indulgent, or even goofy, I came away more pleased than unhappy with what Costner created. Though flawed, it’s a pretty good movie – if you let yourself get into it. One that deals with important issues and is more faithful to the book than I expected at any point in the last decade. Costner’s postman is a man of decency, a calloused idealist who has to learn the hard way about responsibility and what it means to be a hero. The movie is filled with scenes that convey how deeply we would miss the gracious little things, if ever they were gone. In fact, it includes some clever or touching moments that I wish I’d thought of, when writing the book.
Visually, it’s as beautiful to the eye as Dances with Wolves.
Would I have done it differently? You bet! In a million ways. But I didn’t have the 80 million dollars to make it. Life is filled with compromises. I’d rather look for reasons to be happy.
JK: And what’s the latest news on the Startide Rising film?
DB: Recently I sold film rights for Startide Rising to Paramount Pictures and Mace Neufeld, the producer of The Hunt for Red October. They want a potential ‘franchise’ that will strain computer graphics technology to the limit. I guess talking dolphins would do that! I met the screenwriter and he seems determined to protect the heart of the story. One can hope. There are other movie deals in the works.
JK: And your other recent books?
DB: My most recent novel, Foundation’s Triumph, completes the epochal series created by Isaac Asimov, projecting a continuation of human history 20,000 years into the future. I had fun tying ,all the loose ends and getting even with those @$@*A# robots!
My Out of Time series of novels for teenagers hit the stands this summer, targeted at weaning kids off Animorphs and Star Wars knockoffs, drawing them toward reading genuine, thoughtful science fiction. I’m also funding a $1,000 prize for a web contest, spurring creation of ready-to-use guides that tie good science fiction to today’s teaching curricula (Rules will be announced on my own web site and in Analog Magazine).
JK: Finally, if there is one major theme that runs through most of your work, it is that of humankind’s destiny. Do you think there is any hope for our little species?
DB: I think we’ll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilisation that may emerge after a century of hard times may be missing some fine treasures… manatees, blue whales, krill, the Amazon Rain Forest, and every human being who wasn’t immune to Virus X.
I had a thought, lately. Heaven and Hell may not be such bizarre thoughts, after all! Consider our godlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to ‘call up’ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century .folk, what with all the data available about us, including skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books, etc. What will they do with that power?
Those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalised, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of Purgatory have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader.