DAVID BRIN's frequently-asked interview questions

questions frequently asked -- about WRITING, SCIENCE FICTION, & the FUTURE

I have thrown together a FAQ of sorts -- a compilation of questions that I'm asked most often by interviewers and fans. They are posted here by category, starting with...

writing

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.

science fiction

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 Rainbow's 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.

See my full list of personal favorite novels.

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 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, 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 books

Which of your own novels is your personal favorite?

That's like asking: Which of your children do you like best? Glory Season is my brave, indomitable daughter. The Postman is my courageous, civilization-saving son. Earth is the child who combined science and nature to become a planet. The Uplift War... well, I never had a better character than Fiben, the earthy-intellectual chimp!

Were you happy with the Kevin Costner adaptation of your post-apocalyptic novel The Postman?

The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalypse books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization'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. One 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... plus the fact that I was never consulted, even once... I nevertheless came away more pleased than unhappy with what Costner created. Though flawed, it's a pretty good flick -- if you let yourself get into it. One that deals (a bit simplistically) with important issues and is more faithful to the book's inner heart than I expected at any point during the long decade before it was released. Costner's postman is a man of decency, a calloused idealist, not particularly courageous, 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 little things... and big ones like freedom and justice. In fact, it includes some clever or touching moments that I wish I'd thought of, when writing the book.

Visually and musically, it's as beautiful as Dances with Wolves. KC is foremost a cinematographer, I will gladly grant him that.

Would I have done things differently? You bet! In a million ways. But I didn't have the 80 million dollars to make it, and in keeping true to the heart, he earned some leeway when it came to brains. Anyway, life is filled with compromises. I'd rather look for reasons to be happy.

I have posted my full response to this question elsewhere.

Are you planning on returning to the Uplift Universe?

Yes. Soon, even! Next big thing. In the meantime, have a look at the Uplift Universe page.

Can you reveal some of the inspirations behind the Uplift Saga? How did you come up with the idea?

If we don't find intelligent life in the galaxy, humanity will create it. We might contrive new entities through artificial intelligence. It could happen the American way -- by encouraging more and more of us to diversify in new directions, with new interests and passions and quirky viewpoints. And of course, diversity spreads whenever we add new intelligent life forms called our children.

Then there is the idea of creating other species to talk to, through some change in the animal species that already exist around us.

Other authors have poked at this idea before. Cordwainer Smith and Pierre Boulle and H.G. Wells. Boulle's Planet of the Apes and Wells's The Food of the Gods or The Island of Dr. Moreau, and all other attempts to deal with this topic, did stick to just one perspective, however. Just one dire warning: They all portray power being executed in secret by mad scientists, then horribly abused by turning these new intelligent life forms into slaves.

I believe that -- partly because of these cautionary tales -- that's not what we will do. Because of those self-preventing prophecies I wanted to do something else instead. What if we try to uplift other creatures with good intentions? With the aim of making them fellow citizens, interesting people, in ways better than us? Certainly adding to the diversity and perspective and wisdom of an ever-widening Earth culture?

Wouldn't those creatures still have interesting problems? Of course they would! More complex and interesting than mere slavery. At least, that is what I hoped to explore.

prediction & the future

Your writing touches on the impact of technology on humanity, and its power to change our daily lives. Can you expand upon that?

Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? Once upon a time, these were exactly the powers of gods! So why don't you feel like one?

Because we gave these powers to everyone, that's why. Ironically, the moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared it. The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace, risking arrest, in order to view them. Or if we had to crack open a wizard's secret grimoire.

Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal orb on Gandalf's desk with which he can explore ideas, gather information, communicate instantly across great distances. There are only three differences between the palantir and your laptop: (1) The wizards and elfs kept that wonderful thing for themselves, and (2) the result was calamity and horrible war and near-loss of everything, and (3) it sure makes a romantic story, captivating millions.

If only you and a dozen other folks were allowed to use the internet, to see far and access knowledge, the rest of us would be in awe of you, too.

As for the future? Get ready to be even more godlike! If we're lucky, it will be shared with everybody and so you won't notice. But hopefully we'll be wise enough to do so.

Why do you have such a good track record as a prognosticator?

When prediction serves as polemic, it nearly always fails. Our prefrontal lobes can probe the future only when they aren't leashed by dogma. The worst enemy of agile anticipation is our human propensity for comfy self-delusion.

Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for "honey-pot ideas" drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever is fashionable, try to poke at it! Maybe 1 percent of the time you'll find a trend or possibility that's been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels -- even sober business forecasts -- seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time. Never capable of actual discourse.

A contrarian trick that has served me well is to ponder a coming technology and then imagine, What if everybody gets to use it? In really smart ways? Most of those imaginings have come true.

Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future -- and why?

I am known widely as an optimist. This is not quite true. What I am is a contrarian. And hence, when I see cynics and despair junkies all around me -- around all of us -- screeching simpleminded whines, I am naturally drawn to poking at their lazy models of the world.

Even if the pessimists and cynics were right... and they aren't... they are totally not being helpful. Their attitude is the quintessence of laziness and voluptuously smug self-indulgence.

Dig it. All hope has been achieved by problem-solvers. We need more of them. All the can-do pragmatic problem-solvers we can get.

In your opinion, are we 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'm 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. It has happened countless times before.

But Science Fiction 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, fighting for a better future. 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. (See my essay on the topic.)

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. Who knows? They might actually listen to you... heed your warnings... and thus make you a false prophet.

Read the story of Jonah. And then snap out of it! Your job is to be credible. To scare folks with plausible failure modes. To make folks worry.. and then help make it not happen.

Is there hope for the future?

I foresee a 60% chance that we'll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic over-exploiters. One when we have passed over the critical choices before us and passed most of the harsh tests.

I don't view those odds as "optimistic" at all! Not when the alternative is horrible. Such probabilities are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world.

I think we'll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilization 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 photos, video, 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, immortalized, 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.

What is humanity's greatest flaw?

Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors... though it hurts. In his poem "To a Louse," Robert Burns said:

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion..."

("Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many a blunder free us, and foolish notions...")

Or, my own aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end....

Would you rather be living 100 years from now, when we'll presumably have access to so many more answers?

Is it better to sow than to reap? Jonas Salk said our top job is to be "good ancestors." If we in this era meet the challenges of our time, then our heirs may have powers that would seem godlike to us -- the way we take for granted miracles like flying through the sky or witnessing events far across the globe. If those descendants do turn out to be better, wiser people than us, will they marvel that primitive beings managed so well, the same way we're awed by the best of our ancestors? I hope so. It's poignant consolation for not getting to be a demigod.

What concerns do you have about the future?

I am concerned about one thing, above all: Understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment. One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I've come to see that openness -- especially being receptive to free-flowing criticism -- has been key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse than it would have been. It is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty.

transparency, privacy & the information age

Do you worry about the loss of privacy as both the government and amateurs have more and more access to surveillance?

I got some of my nicest letters based on Chapter 9 of The Transparent Society, because I really disassemble my own theory, and I appraise and talk about all sorts of ways a transparent society could go wrong! For example, you could have a really nasty version of majority-rule, such as Ray Bradbury shows in Fahrenheit 451. Even if transparency prevents Big Brother, will that mean we've traded top-down tyranny for the lateral kind? Oppression by hundreds of millions of judgmental Little Brothers?

Serious concerns! Still, real life offers reason to hope. If you look at the last 50 years, whenever the public learns more about some eccentric group, it judges that group on one criterion, and this is always the one it uses: Is this group mean?

Are they harmful and oppressive to others? When the answer is yes, the more we learn about the group, the less they're tolerated. If the answer is no, the more we learn about the group, the more they're tolerated.

If that's true and if it holds in the future -- if people continue to defend others' eccentricities because (a) they think it's cool to live in a world of harmless eccentrics and (b) for the sake of their own protection -- then you would likely see a 51 percent or 60 percent or 70 percent dictatorship by a majority that insists on crushing just one thing: intolerance. Okay, that's still group-think majority-imposed will. But the least harmful one you can imagine.

As far as privacy itself is concerned, I have a simple answer to that. (It makes up chapter 4 of The Transparent Society.) Human beings want it. We naturally are built to want some privacy. Moreover, if we remain a free and knowing people, then sovereign citizens will demand a little privacy, though we'll find that we must redefine the term for changing times -- and practice our tolerance for harmelss eccentricities!

The question really boils down to: Will tomorrow's citizens be free and knowing? Will new technologies empower us to exert reciprocal accountability, even upon the mighty? It may seem ironic, but for privacy and freedom to survive, we'll need a civilization that is mostly open and transparent, so that each of us may catch the would-be voyeurs and Big Brothers. So that most of us know most of what's going on, most of the time.

It can happen! The proof is us. Because it is already the method that we've used for 200 years. And to see this all laid out, have a look at one of the only public policy books from the 20th Century that's still in print and selling more each year: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

What do you foresee as tiny cameras proliferate?

Essentially, this is the greatest of all human experiments. In theory... sousveillance (looking at the mighty from below) should cancel our worst fears about the surveillance state, if we get into the habit of stripping the mighty naked.

If that happens, we should eventually equilibrate into a situation where people -- for their own sakes or because they believe in the Golden Rule or because they think they will be caught if they violate it -- eagerly and fiercely zoom in upon areas where others might be conniving or scheming or cheating or pursuing grossly-harmful deluded paths...

... while looking away when none of these dangers apply. A socially-sanctioned discretion based on "none of my business" and leaving each other alone... because you'll want that other person to be your ally next time, when you are the one saying "make that guy leave me alone!"

That is where it should wind up. If we're capable of calm, or rationally acting in our own self-interest. It is stylishly cynical for most people to guffaw, at this point and assume this is a fairy tale. I can just hear some readers muttering "Humans aren't like that!"

Well, maybe not. But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are now more like that than our ancestors ever imagined they could be. The goal may not be easily attainable, but we've already taken strides in that direction.