Interview with Award-Winning Author David Brin

David Brin Photo by Shawn McConnell
David Brin
Photo by Shawn McConnell

Today we are joined by award-winning author David Brin. David shines as one of the brightest minds in an industry filled with brilliant authors. His scientific education, which includes a Ph.D. in physics, blends seamlessly with his ability to craft amazing stories that challenge, entertain, and inspire. David treads the pathways of discourse as a contrarian, though some label him an optimist. Evidence of his remarkable gift to touch readers both intellectually and emotionally can be found in his long list of awards. David has won three Hugos, a Nebula, three Locus, a Campbell, and the Freedom of Speech Award.

His vivid understanding of the past and present coupled with his vision of the future elicits great respect from all levels of society. David frequently speaks on the future and science, adding a touch of humor to his inspirational viewpoint. He has been invited to lecture by organizations such as NASA, Microsoft, the American Astronomical Society, IBM, MIT, and Mensa. His novels have appeared on The New York Times Bestsellers list, and they should appear on every science fiction fan’s reading list. His novel The Postman won the Campbell and Locus awards and was adapted into a movie by Kevin Costner. When not crisscrossing the globe in flying chariots, David is drafting a blueprint for humanity’s triumph.        

R. K. TROUGHTON FOR AMAZING STORIES: Welcome to Amazing Stories, David. Much conversation has taken place regarding the symbiotic relationship between science fiction and science. Many suggest that scientists feed off of the science fiction they read, while authors create great works that are inspired by science. You see a relationship that goes beyond this limited scope. In your essays, you write about the relationship between science fiction and all of humanity. Please explain to us how you perceive the significance of science fiction in our culture and the opportunities it presents to an author.

DAVID BRIN: Organs in our brains — the prefrontal lobes — uniquely compel human beings to do “thought experiments” about what might come to pass. We do this obsessively, despite knowing full-well that our forecasts won’t come true, because the process still enables us to confront a myriad bad decisions and outcomes, eliminating many of those and making up stories that might lead to success.

All human civilizations invested heavily in prediction. In the past, shamans read goat entrails or the stars. Our current society employs millions to engage in this kind of work, from stock market analysts to politicians and business leaders whose job — after all — is to appraise approaching needs and opportunities, allocating resources accordingly. Trained as a scientist, I tend to view those professions as ill-disciplined! But even science can be murky as it looks ahead.

Sorry for that lengthy intro! But it is in my role as a science fiction author that I get to stretch a bit, peering beyond the typical five-year horizon. It is the sort of long-gaze shown by the medieval cathedral builders. In science fiction we seldom try to “predict” the future, so much as we aim to point out or illustrate trends, extrapolate possibilities…and occasionally to issue stark warnings. George Orwell’s classic novel 1984  was a “self-preventing prophecy” that stirred millions into action, working to prevent the author’s vision from coming true. That’s powerful stuff! Other effective warnings include Fahrenheit 451, or Dr. Strangelove or Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (which became Soylent Green).

The Postman by David BrinRKT: Speaking of movies. Famously, Kevin Costner made your novel The Postman into a major motion picture. While the big budget film managed to maintain a few strands of your original masterpiece, it lacked the insight and depth of your novel. The Campbell committee and the Locus voters named it the best science fiction novel published that year. For those that have not read the novel, tell us a few of the wonderful things we can find beneath its cover.

DB: People are surprised by how even-tempered I am toward Kevin Costner, despite his having been a rude jerk to me, personally. That’s because he did the one thing that really mattered to me…his film’s core heart did not betray the central meaning of my novel, which was an answer to all the Mad Max style, post apocalyptic tales we’ve seen. Orgies of violence in which survivors meekly accept the passing of everything good from the world.

I have always believed that, even after a horrid holocaust, most people would recall a better world. They would dream of it nightly. Yearn for it daily. Second only to feeding their children, they would have but one agenda in mind — to bring that world back. The gentle comforts, the trade and reciprocity and shared values and tolerance and peace… and dentistry. The Postman is about a wanderer in such a devastated world, who tells a lie in order to be fed. Only the lie takes on more power than he ever imagined, turning him into a symbol for all those yearnings. The focus of determination of a once-free people to become free, once again.

It is this matter of People… the citizens and neighbors who are routinely slandered in modern films and novels and yes, in sci fi as well, that I wanted to answer. Lazy directors and authors routinely portray our fellow citizens as sheep or fools or useless. But that’s just wrong. It is a poisonous message that I confronted in a rather widely circulated essay about “the idiot plot.”

Anyway, Costner seemed to get this point. He conveyed it, amid some of the best cinematography ever. And because the film was both Big-Hearted and gorgeous, I was willing to forgive the fact that it was also dumb, having scooped out and tossed almost all of the novel’s brains.

Startide Rising by David BrinRKT: In 1980, the first novel you published, Sundiver, started your exploration of the Uplift Universe. The series as a whole has won two Hugos, two Locus, and a Nebula. Many consider Startide Rising to be one of the best examples of science fiction ever written, having won the science fiction triple crown (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus). For those that have not yet visited the Uplift Universe, tell us what we will find there.

DB: Dolphins in space! Isn’t that enough?

Seriously, I was always fascinated by our relationship with the “highest” animal species on Planet Earth. The more I learned — talking to researchers who knew cetaceans and apes intimately — the more I realized, these creatures are not quite as smart as mythology pictured them… but they wanted to be! Both dolphins and chimpanzees seem frustrated  and eager to accomplish more than they currently can achieve, in solving problems, in communicating with us.

So? Suppose someday soon we became capable of giving them a hand? Of helping them cross the remaining gap and becoming skilled members of an advanced civilization? What an interesting society that might be! With our horizons of tolerance and citizenship expanded, along with new styles of wisdom…

… only what if others, out there, had already done this same thing?

RKT: Take us back to the late 70s, when you were first working on Sundiver. How did the Uplift Universe develop, and what inspired it?

FrankensteinDB: From its very beginnings, science fiction has been transfixed by the eerie notion that human beings may someday pick up the Creator’s toolkit and start “making life,” even new kinds of intelligent life. Robots and super-smart computers make up part of this tradition, but there is another side. Perhaps the most important “technology” ever discovered was the domestication of animals to serve human purposes. Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, countless science fiction tales dealt with our ongoing temptation to meddle with other creatures. Many authors such as H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelly, and Cordwainer Smith explored the concept of of “uplift” — genetically engineering other animals to bring them into our civilization with human-level powers of thought. Most of those writers hewed to the same story-line, suggesting that this process would be abused by madmen who impose a slave-master relationship on the newly risen beings.

These were good stories — cautionary tales that helped mold the attitudes of modern civilization. But after more than a century, the plot seems a bit repetitious and overdone. Nowadays, would such a project realistically be run by mad scientists? In creating the Uplift Universe, I thought I’d try a different tack. What if we begin modifying higher animals — and I think we clearly will — guided by the morality of modern liberal society? Filled with stylish hyper-tolerance and guilt-ridden angst? Would we be in danger of killing our clients with kindness?

One needn’t picture slavery in order to sympathize with the plight of these new kinds of sapient beings. They would face real problems, even if they are treated well. Interesting problems, worthy of a story or two.

Setting this exploration in a far-future background involving aliens seemed only natural. It let me explore a lot of variations on the same theme. There are as many ways to treat uplifted beings as there are ways that parents treat children… some of them sick, or wholesome, or simply a question of style. Anyway, the question is not whether we’ll take on these powers, but when. In the long run, we’ll be better prepared if we’ve thought about it well in advance. Science fiction can play a role.

RKT: A great portion of your life has been dedicated to the study of science. You earned a Ph.D. in physics and became a dedicated scientist. While you continue to maintain your scientific edge, your career is now driven by your passion for writing. What was life like back in those days when you were practicing science, and how did you transition into an author?

DB: Writing was not my own first choice of a career. True, I came from a family of writers. It was in my blood. But I wanted something else — to be a scientist. And by the fates, I became one. I also had this hobby though — writing stories — and it provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I’d scribble a few stories a year… maybe a novel now and then… while striving to become the best researcher and teacher I could be.

Don’t mistake this for modesty! It’s just that I perceive science — the disciplined pursuit of truth — to be a higher calling than spinning imaginative tales, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those tales may turn out to be.

But what can you do? Choose your talents? No way. Eventually, as my beloved hobby burgeoned, threatening to take over, I found myself forced to admit that science is hard! I am much better at art — making up vivid stories — than I ever was at laboring honestly to discover new truths. At least, that’s what civilization seems to be saying. My fellow citizens pay me better to write novels than they ever did to work in a lab.

einstein violinRKT: How old were you when you first discovered your passion for science and what sparked it?

DB: At four, my father took me to see Einstein play the violin. I do not remember it… but still, how about that? My first encounter with a brilliant scientist was through his side avocation in art. One wonders how that impressed me. Though of course, I also watched Sputnik pass overhead. That, too, left an impression.

RKT: Many authors begin writing in their youth. What was the first story you wrote, and do you still have a copy of it?

DB: In fifth grade, Mrs. Thueson emphasized writing and I took to it, scribbling chapters of a story called (believe it or not) “Peter the Porpoise.” Modeled after the Freddie the Pig barnyard detective stories.

RKT: What was your first exposure to science fiction?

DB: “Revolt on Alpha C” was the earliest children’s sci fi book I remember… by Robert Silverberg. Though I vaguely recall some radio and movie theater serials. My exposure to science fiction might have been minimal, limited to the few Bradbury and Asimov books in the local library, if it had not been for those wonderful Best of the Year collections that Judith Merrill put out, that I would happen across in the drug store annually. That, alone, gave me what passes for a fairly good education and background, until high school, when I joined the Science Fiction Book Club.

David Brin
David Brin

RKT: Looking back across humanity’s journey so far, what do you consider to be the most important scientific discovery?

DB: Glass lenses. Because once we had them, there would be no going back. People would see far and deep into the microscopic, shattering older mythologies. Of course movable type printing helped! So did the discovery that mathematics could describe motion and so many traits of matter and nature. It meant that no tyranny could suppress the boffins for long. We could always find a corner in which to work, and where we could undermine any rigid system.

RKT: Looking ahead into our future, what scientific breakthroughs do you most eagerly anticipate?

DB: Brain boost. We humans are anomalously smart! So smart that we are actually capable of noticing patterns of our own self-destructiveness, enabling us to have had not nuclear war since 1945. And to preserve some of the planet. It is possible that no other species in the galaxy got this smart naturally, via evolution, possibly explaining the emptiness of voices in the sky.

But it’s not enough! It is blatantly obvious that we truly need to be smarter, still. It may happen biochemically, or through education and biofeedback training in games! Perhaps external brain-linked augmentations. And dig it — there will be lots of problems that accompany this! But given the complexity of civilization we must maintain and the dilemmas ahead of us, we had better hope.

RKT: Some might consider the current science fiction industry to be driven by dystopian visions. The popularity of dystopia could be attributed to a desire to see others suffer or fail. It could also be that so many relate to the feeling of hopelessness or lack of power and enjoy seeing someone fight against it. Your novels and speeches and essays push a message of hope. You’ve also stated that humanity is 60% likely to survive the crisis. What is the biggest lesson that humanity still needs to learn if we are to cast aside the 40% and come out on top? 

DB: The tsunami of dystopias and apocalypses has a poisonous effect upon people, contributing to the dour public mood, at a time when, in fact, many things are going very well. At no time in history has violence (per capita) been so low, or poverty or ignorance. We should be confidently exploring new possibilities instead of tearing at each other, in artificially stoked rage.

Ironically, much of the obsession on dystopias in fiction and film arises NOT because directors and authors actually believe it’s coming, but out of simple storytelling laziness! Think — your number one need is to hook the reader with characters who are kept in pulse pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of screen time or 400 pages of a book.

But that is hard to do if they are members of a civilization that works! That pays skilled professionals to leap to the aid of citizens. In which some officials are corrupt, but others are honest. Some are incompetent, but others know what they are doing. That’s the world you and I live in, but we almost never see it portrayed. Because honest, competent helpers are a buzz kill for drama.

For more on this, go here.

Existence by David BrinRKT: Your novel Existence peeks into the near future and examines humanity, painting a world both familiar and alien to us. For those that have not read the novel, please tell us what insights are to be found in your latest masterpiece.

DB: In my novel Earth (1989) I took readers to the near future, with no aliens or dolphins, but exploring possibilities over the near term. It had web pages, four years before the web! In fact, some fans maintain a wiki tracking the predictions from my novels, especially Earth.

Existence is in that same genre, peering ahead toward the drama that many of us will live through, very soon, smart mobs of agile citizens, focusing on threats and problems faster than governments or corporations. Wearable augmented reality in all its amazing vividness. Surprising outcomes from global climate change. The strange ways that artificial intelligence might arise… and our own struggles to deal with the strangers we are fast-becoming.

And into this maelstrom… there comes First Contact in a variety that no one ever imagined. With a surprise revelation that I guarantee you’ve never seen before.

Oh… have a look at the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley!

RKT: Science fiction seems to have a special bond between fans and authors. The symbiosis between the two often produces greatness. How do you view the importance of fandom to science fiction? 

DB: I have a pretty extensive public speaking and consulting career, asked to describe future scenarios by corporations and agencies. All of it derives from the experience we SF pros get at science fiction conventions, where even shy authors soon gain experience explaining and exploring in front of audiences.

We also learn to take criticism with a thick skin!  At the end of every one of my books, there are fifty or so names of folks I thank for helping me with their sharp eyes and sometimes sharper critiques, helping me with quality control so that no scene is without drama or emotion or ideas. That, too, is an attitude that science fiction engenders in its professionals, in large part due to interactions with the liveliest band of readers on this lively planet.

RKT: Looking back over your career from when you published your first novel until now, how has science fiction and the publishing industry changed?

DB: What? Audio books?  E-books? Hypertexted books? (Earth was designed — in 1989 — to be hypertexted… and so was John Brunner’s great 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar.)

One thing that can’t change too soon… movie making. Amid Hollywood’s present desperate inability to tell original stories, there will soon arise a great wave of indie creativity, led by writers, empowered by the ease by which  simple animation can be harnessed for good storytelling.

Sure things change. But ours is the agile genre. We adapt. I am ready to try brain-engram telepathy storytelling, when it arrives.

Kiln People by David BrinRKT: What editor, author, novel, scientist, or invention was the most influential to your development as a writer?

DB: Robert Sheckley for perfect stories. Poul Anderson for the gift of tribal, storytelling magic. Aldous Huxley, for showing me that speculation needn’t abandon literary quality. John Brunner, for scaring every other science fiction author in the world half to death, for a dozen years. Alice Sheldon for her courage. Homer, for lighting a candle and all of those who kept lighting them across the dark, dark ages, till we learned how to maintain light.

And the many great scientists I have been privileged to know, ALL of whom had artistic hobbies, proving that we are many people. Each of us can be more than just one thing. A lesson that I took to heart when I wrote Kiln People.

RKT: Rumors are circulating that you are working on another Uplift novel. Are the rumors true? If so, when can we expect to read the next installment?

DB: Yes, it is true. And, I am trying. These other darned things keep coming up. Like the fact that I find it hard to turn down interviews. Um, especially from the oldest name in science fiction publishing!

RKT: In your novel Kiln People humans can replicate themselves, after a fashion, by creating creatures known as dittos. How many dittos would you need to accomplish all the things you want to get done?

DB: Right now, I figure maybe five per day. But it is a human blessing and a curse that we expand our ambitions, our goals and endeavors to fill the horizons that surround us. May it always be so!

(Oh, you should read Leslie Dixon’s screenplay for Kiln People. Wow. I hope someday you get to watch it on screen.)

RKT: Thank you for joining us today. We always appreciate the positive energy and insight you bring to every topic and discussion. Our horizons are expanded with each book you write. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?

DB: Stay Amazing. Stay amazingly Amazing! Do not listen to the playground bullies and sourpuss cynics who preach despair. You are heirs of the greatest heroes who ever lived, who rescued us from the beastly feudalism that dominated every other culture.

For all its faults, this civilization is more deserving of the name than any that came before. The first the teaches each generation of children to criticize their parents’ stupid mistakes and assumptions! The one that might (if we don’t lose heart; if we stay the course) bring something as nice and strong as Star Trek.

Tell the cynics to blow off. They are trying to make their forecast come true and that makes them traitors to tomorrow. We can do this. Read the good stuff. Proselytize it! Believe in tomorrow.


Ed. Note:  David Brin’s website can be found here.  His often contrarian thoughts can be read weekly, if not daily, on his blog here.  His books can be purchased just about everywhere.  His own listing is here and particular attention is paid to his Uplift series here (excellent tales that any fan would be remiss to miss…)

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