David Brin's best-selling novels include The Postman (filmed in 1997) plus explorations of our near-future in Earth and Existence. His award-winning novels and short stories explore vividly speculative ideas through a hard-science lens. His nonfiction book, The Transparent Society, won the American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award for exploring 21st Century concerns about security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Being an author wasn't your first career choice; you earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics. How did your multi-track career evolve?
I came from a family of writers and always figured that storytelling would be my artistic side-line... most scientists have one. I knew science would be harder that storytelling and I respected it more, drawn to the Enlightenment's greatest project. After all, every culture has had storytellers, but only one ever invested heavily in training a myriad brave investigators to find our what's actually true, despite our preconceptions. And indeed, I managed to contribute a few new bits of knowledge... while maintaining passion for my art.
Ah, but sometimes life takes a turn. Your pastime can take over and become the central profession. I was a pretty good scientist and I still keep my hand in the game. But civilization seems more eager for my art, for tales that shed a different kind of light on the transformations we're all going through. And who am I to argue with civilization?
What is special about writing? What drew you from seeking scientific facts to literary truths?
Literature was the first truly verifiably repeatable and effective form of magic. Picture how it must have impressed ancient people to look at marks — on papyrus or clay — and know they conveyed the words of scribes and kings long dead. Knowledge, wisdom and art could finally accumulate. Death was robbed some of its sting.
Writing still is magical. To create strings of black squiggles that millions of others skillfully de-code with just their eyes — into emotions and thoughts, or the struggles of believable characters, or spectacle beyond Hollywood's wildest dreams.
Despite all of that, science and the honesty that it engenders have been our true accomplishments. I believe in a literature that explores this revolution, that presents alternatives and hard choices and that might help us to be wise about the onrushing process of change. One that helps to remind science and progress that it needs a heart. I reject the dichotomy, the notion that these things oppose each other.
When a chance came along to combine the two? Who wouldn't grab the opportunity?
Was Science Fiction always your chosen genre?
Though SF offers me the freedom I need to explore a world undergoing drama and change, I often tell writing students that their first work of fiction should be a murder mystery.
Oh, it can be a sci fi mystery, like my first novel, Sundiver. Or you might give it romance or set it in the wild west, or ancient Rome. What matters is that it should follow the plot patterns and revelatory structure of a mystery yarn.
Why? Because only mysteries demand total storytelling discipline. No distractions or arty styling or array of gimmicks can mask or make up for bad plotting. This all becomes apparent when the reader finds out who-dunnit in a mystery. In the end, the reader knows whether or not you cheated. And once you've had that lesson, you will never neglect it again.
Do you develop the world of a novel fully in your mind before beginning to write?
I like to be surprised. Fresh implications and plot twists erupt as a story unfolds. Characters develop backgrounds, adding depth and feeling. Writing feels like exploring.
Oh, I sometimes plot an outline in advance. That works well. Still, not too much detail! I like to be surprised.
Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?
Write. Love writing. Love stories. Love the sound of language, the vividness of description and ironies of the heart. The marvelous web of misunderstanding that is conversation. The astonishing, non-linear gyrations of cause and effect and surprise.
Ray Bradbury said that — deep in the heart of the writer's relationship with story and reader, there has to be love! Love the words. Love the tension that propels your plot and characters like a steam boiler. Love a civilization that gives you plenty to read and the food and shelter and safety to do it in comfort. Love to poke hard at that civilization's flaws. Love the fact that you have enough conceit to think others might like to read your drivel!
Only then, amid that love... be competitive! Aim to do it better than anybody else. Have patience to refine your craft... but never stop burning. Burn like a flame. An inferno.
Art is like any other exercise in skill: a combination of talent, hard work and learning from criticism. And luck. Any three of those things can make up for a deficit in the fourth one. But those three had better be really strong.
The core point? CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error! Seek and relish criticism, because that is how to get even better. If you put your work out there and look upon criticism as your friend — (not easy, but worthwhile) — you will improve. And having that attitude will gain you 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.
That's only a very small summary of a long list. There's lots more. After typing countless answers to requests for advice from would-be writers, I finally put it all together in a handy place.
What are your favorite Science Fiction novels?
Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, was simply creepy in how far ahead it looked and how accurate its vision. 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 (James Tiptree Jr.).
Which authors have most influenced your writing?
I 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 Sharp. Finally, I decided to become a storyteller, and reacquainted myself with the clear, almost tribal rhythms of Poul Anderson.
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.
On 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?
In 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.
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 The Postman film. 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 called "300."
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.
The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. Heck, I enjoy Tolkien and steampunk 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, and 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. The great Rebellion and the most wonderful story ever told. The story that should have us all transfixed and loyal and grateful as all outdoors.
We are heirs of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Pericles, Franklin, Faraday, Lincoln, Pankhurst, Einstein, Marshall and so on. Any one of whom was worth every elf and dragon and fairy ever imagined.
See this page for more on the differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!). Learn More
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form. Learn More
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore. Learn More
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages. Learn More
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research. Learn More
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy. Learn More
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.Learn More
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others. Learn More
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