February 12, 2008
CI: You have an identical twin. How’s that working out for you?
GB: I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a singleton, as we call you people.
CI: You have a word for us? [Laughs]
GB: Hey, you have one for us. I could’ve said “loners” but it seems unkind. My brother Jim and I are mirror twins, the closest variety of twins. Beyond us lie the Siamese twins, who don’t separate. It’s great. I’m operating with a back-up copy. We’ve used that in our lives. My brother had a burst appendix fifteen years after I had a burst appendix. I took three weeks to get out of the hospital. His didn’t burst in his office as mine did, because he woke up in the middle of the night, felt this pain that I had described, realized it was the same thing, called the hospital, and his appendix burst on the operating table. He was out of the hospital in 2-3 days.
CI: The science-fiction writer in you must have projected the possibilities of having larger communal categories of experience. What would that be like, to have cultures where the twin sense, advantage, and experience are mapped out much more widely? Would that make an interesting context for science fiction?
GB: It hasn’t been done. I haven’t found a clear way to use that, yet, in a story. We now know things like intelligence are roughly 50% determined by genetics and the rest by environment. But there are also many epigenetic effects, which could lead to many paths. The simpatico I have with my twin comes from shared genetics and shared upbringing. We’re extremely close. Twins typically have two states: they’re very close to each other, or they have a well-defined distance between them. We’re of the former. The advantages accrue mostly from being close. We don’t have a literal private language, but we understand each other immediately, have the same buttons, and can quickly and easily work together. We’ve written about a dozen papers together. Those are great qualities. Trying to extrapolate that to a group of cloned people is different, though in Ursula Le Guin’s early story “Nine Lives,” about nine clones, they have great social utility.
CI: So much human misery and mayhem results from poor or inefficient communication. That’s what you have: incredibly efficient and excellent, almost automatic communication. That’s a great cultural advantage.
GB: It is. We grew up in a small town in southern Alabama. We literally went to a one-room schoolhouse, but we’ve both ended up having professional careers in California and are utterly unlike the other people in our family. Most of my first cousins are farmers, fishermen, and manual laborers. We extricated ourselves from a very different place and got where we wanted to be. A lot of it was working together. We went to undergraduate and graduate school together, and didn’t stop living together until we married.
CI: You were a fanzine editor at age fourteen. How did you get started? How did you get the bug?
GB: The restless urge to write beset me, and still does. I got interested in science fiction at an early age, because it’s the literature of ideas. I always think, “Gee, that’s interesting. I wonder what it’s like to do it.” I do that with essentially everything. I don’t watch sports, I play sports. I can’t resist going into fields that are of interest to me, so I’ve worked in biology, physics, astrophysics, and language groups. Being a science-fiction fan is a great way to get deeply into the culture, to understand where ideas come from, and what kinds of people have ideas. Most scientists aren’t like that, because most scientists do fairly well-defined research that isn’t idea-intensive. I like idea-thick subjects. Most scientists have read science fiction. Isaac Asimov said to me once that by his informal questioning, the majority of all scientists read science fiction when they were young, and after graduate school, if they read anything, it’s usually science fiction, but most of them don’t read anything after graduate school!
CI: Most people don’t read anything.
GB: Yes, sadly. Science fiction is deeply wrapped up in the doing of science. The most influential currents of modern times have been dominated by the scientists and the technologists who bring into being all the outcomes of scientific knowledge. When I began writing fiction, I realized that nobody wrote about their mindscape, the way they think and how that influences how they interact with the rest of the culture. There was a huge, pregnant possibility, and I could write about it because I came out of it. Science fiction was the obvious way to attack that. This is contrary to the view of conventional literature, which believes in a grand, canonical, ensemble model, the “great books” theory, which I think is almost completely false.
CI: Science fiction seems to take it from both sides. Scientists may have been weaned on science fiction, but then they put it aside and don’t give it a lot of credibility; and it’s more antagonistic from the literature crowd. It seems like the quality of the writing does not always determine opinion. It’s the category. Do technology and science pose such a big cultural threat that people are unable to view them clearly?
GB: That’s right. The literary mandarins are virtually unanimous in their fear of science and technology, which undermine conventional world views, and always will. It’s the inherent revolutionary culture.
CI: They embrace someone who deconstructs the language in a clever way, so why wouldn’t they embrace people who deconstruct cultural backdrops in a science fiction book?
GB: They don’t come out of the scientific culture, so the scientific habits of mind are not natural to them. Since you used the word “deconstruct,” I would comment that deconstructionism, whose train has lately left the station and will not soon be seen again, is in my view a way of resuscitating the political conflicts that beset the world academy. The 20th century has been doomed to act out the consequences of the ideas and the political and philosophical landscape of the 19th century: socialism, communism, and fascism. The winner and reigning champion turns out to be the 18th century—free speech, free elections, free markets. This conflict is not over. A lot of deconstructionism is a way of finding that all of human culture is a conspiracy to carry out the agenda of the ruling elite. Where have we heard this idea before? It’s warmed-over Marxism, and Marxism exists in the academy today not in the department of economics, but in the department of literary criticism.
CI: The readers decide. People who care about ideas will gravitate towards the books that are rich in ideas, including science fiction. You were living a double life as a young man. You wrote your first story when you were a grad student, and were heading down the straight, academic, professorial track while you had this other life. Was there any tension there, or was it natural to do both things? Were there disincentives on the academic side for spending time writing, or having a literary persona?
GB: Sure, but I had to do it. I’ve never seen the point in not doing what you want to. Early on, I realized that no one could be good at doing something they don’t like. What’s the point of being a B- businessman when you could be an A+ sculptor? You only go around once, so why not? Most academics are content to do things as conventionally viewed. I didn’t fit that mold. You always pay a price. A lot of people are unwilling to admit that they’re motivated by envy, but we all know that most people are.
CI: The things that happened to Sagan are a good example of that.
GB: The rejection of Carl from the National Academy of Sciences is a scandal that will not go away. I chose an easier path than did Carl. I was lucky enough to find an audience. I wrote because I enjoyed it, and it was astonishing to me that other people liked what I wrote and bought the books, and I had a career, which has made me a fairly large amount of money. That never wears well with academics.
CI: I presume there are no downsides the other way around; having the street cred of being a professor of physics can’t hurt when you write hard science fiction. But was there ever a sense that this was so much fun that you didn’t need the academic side at all?
GB: I wanted to do it, so I did both.
CI: You didn’t feel the need to write more, that you didn’t have enough time to deliver on everything you’re thinking?
GB: I have never written all the ideas I thought of doing, but I’ve written a lot of books, and I’ve done it because I always liked writing. It’s therapy, and they pay you! [Laughs] I did it because it was enjoyable, and it was a blessing that it was highly productive. I’ve had books sell over a million copies, and books that have been published in over a dozen languages, and a lot of books still in print, and that’s great. That’s gravy, though, on top of the meat and potatoes that I want to do it. I would do it even if it never caught on.
CI: How do you define hard science fiction? Is it a useful category?
GB: I find hard SF very useful as a category, because it is the absolute core and center of science fiction. It is best seen as playing tennis with the net up, which is intrinsically more interesting than with the net down. It observes a scrupulous regard for the facts and also the method of science, and that includes the habits of mind of scientists. Hard sf gives you core realism about a part of society that has not had a voice beyond a whisper. Writing about scientists, whom history will regard as far more important than the passing politicians, is the smart-money way to go in literature. Hard science fiction is the source from which radiates much of what then moves into the rest of so-called soft science fiction, social science fiction, futurology, and utopian novels.
CI: Even with hard science fiction as your category, you deal with religion, sentience, emotional landscapes, and linguistic issues. You’ve got enough humanism that it’s not mechanistic.
GB: I try to. Many people think hard science fiction is just fiction with all the rivets showing.
CI: Or two-dimensional characters.
GB: Yes, that’s the cliché comment. I think hard sf should depict how scientists think and work, plus what comes from such habits of mind. You can have a starship captain as your character, but he can’t seem just like a naval commander—his whole ship is a testament to the scientific worldview. But hard sf should be broad, too. Linguistics is an actual science, not hard science, but such are areas of scientific investigation, so they’re fair game. Novels are supposed to be novel, and include new insights. You use the light that comes through whatever window is open at the time.
CI: I agree. Hard science fiction hasn’t won its fair share of Hugos. Within the realm of science fiction, and how the subgenres are perceived, do you sense any lack of respect for hard SF?
GB: There’s a fair respect for hard SF, because most people agree with my characterization that it’s at the core of the field. But awards are determined by essentially sociology and politics. The Hugo audience is interested mostly in great storytelling with lots of keen ideas, and that’s perfectly fine. Most of them don’t find it in hard SF. I haven’t won a Hugo. I’ve been on the ballot a few times, but frankly I don’t pay much attention to that. I’m in it for the life. I’ve won some other awards and that’s fine. But who on his death bed says, “My life is worthwhile! I won the XYZ award!” instead of, “I enjoyed what I did.”
CI: They’re always giving Charles Barkley a hard time because he didn’t get a ring, he didn’t win an NBA title. But he had a great career and is considered one of the top fifty players. Titles go to a team. He’s totally happy.
GB: It’s a piece of metal, that award.
CI: When you look back at your books, you’ve written over thirty. Why was Timescape so huge? It’s classic, it’s like Led Zeppelin III. Do you know why it was so huge?
GB: Timescape’s popularity is somewhat mysterious to me. I finished the novel thinking, I’ve finally written the novel that completely indulges my pleasure in being able to write about my own experience. It’s often said that review articles in a given field of science are actually forms of concealed autobiography. That’s also true of novels. There’s so much autobiography in Timescape. I appear as several different characters. Gregory Markham is me, and the two unidentified twins in graduate school at UCSD in 1962-63 are obviously me and Jim. It’s about going to graduate school, being an assistant professor, and being a fellow at Cambridge, all of which I’ve done. I wrapped it around this plot that’s always obsessed me, the sense of missed possibilities in our lives. The remark I made about the death bed is commonly said, but true. Nobody regrets on the death bed the things they did, but rather the things they didn’t. To echo Jackson Brown: “Although the future is there for anyone to change, sometimes it seems it would be easier somehow to change the past.”
CI: You’ve explained it succinctly. By coupling a classic science idea of tachyons to a deep-rooted human issue, regret, or the sense of things passed, you twinned a deep emotional thing to a deep physics thing. That’s the core, that’s the mother lode.
GB: That’s a good way to describe it. But I didn’t remotely sense that when I was writing the novel.
CI: But you were having a good time, so you knew you were writing a good book?
GB: I didn’t know I had a good book. I knew I had a book that I liked. But so what? My second-favorite novel is the one right after that, Against Infinity, which is also the easiest book I ever wrote. Some people think that’s good, but I think it’s just as good as Timescape, and it’s half the length.
CI: Timescape is probably for an audience that had never had this window. For people in the business, it’s just their world, but you gave such a clear window into what it’s like to do research and be an academic—the whole texture of that world. For people who don’t know what it’s like, you embedded them, and they probably had never seen that before.
GB: That surely must be part of the charm of it. It’s been quoted in books about science and all over the place — always the stuff about what it’s like to do science. That still is a largely unexplored territory.
CI: I agree. When Leon Lederman was nearing retirement and wanting to go do good things in the schools in Chicago, he was spinning up all sorts of ideas, a lot of which he pitched strongly to the major networks. He said, “Have a reality show about scientists. Show scientists sharing a dorm.” The producers said, “But they won’t have any girlfriends. Where are the women?” Esteemed as he was, they said, “Nobody cares what scientists do.”
GB: There’s a sitcom running right now that does exactly this. It’s funny, but it has the same few jokes—they don’t have girlfriends, and they’re non-realistic about the world. If you know real scientists, you realize that’s not true at all.
CI: So it’s still waiting to be done.
GB: The problem is that working scientists do have their exciting moments, but most of science, just like most police work, is about as interesting as watching paint dry.
CI: You need an audience that’s willing to invest in the intellectual back story, the idea landscape, and develop that.
GB: Right, although no one wonders how many people went into archaeology and were disappointed because they watched Indiana Jones movies.
CI: You like to layer ideas in your books, develop and then redevelop. Is it because you had a thread that you hadn’t mined enough and you wanted to return to it, or are you consciously interconnecting all these things as you build them?
GB: It’s not conscious. I do a lot of my writing unconsciously. I let things mull around for a while and realize that there’s a question I hadn’t answered, and didn’t understand. My first thoughts about Timescape were: Is time travel possible? You have to have the right physics. Is there any physics around today that might make it happen? Maybe tachyons. Suppose I was a real scientist—wait, I am a real scientist! What would I do first? Build some kind of phone booth that you walk into, and it turns you into tachyons and transports you? That sounds appetizing. [Laughs] Why don’t we test these ideas by sending a couple of tachyons into the past to see if we can convey some information? My first notes said, time telegraph? I want to send a signal to the past, and that’s actually enough. My God, if you do that, wow! Marconi wanted to send signals to other people; he didn’t want to transport human beings through radio waves. It was the investigation of how I would do it, what would be the first step, that led me through the logic to build the novel. I never got around to the phone booth that transmits people into the past.
CI: Bill and Ted did that, eventually.
GB: I found that a really funny movie. Timescape has been ripped off for so many projects, I stopped making a list. There was even a segment of Star Trek: Next Generation titled “Timescape.” It had no relationship to the novel except for the ideas. The title was trademarked with Simon & Schuster for ten years, and when it fell out of trademark, Simon & Schuster didn’t let me know, so it fell into public domain. Within months, people had used it for all kinds of purposes. There are several books of that title, there’s a Timescape corporation somewhere, and of course the Star Trek show.
CI: So you never clawed it back?
GB: No. I never trademarked it again. Although it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary.
CI: So it’s your gift to the world, then.
GB: It credits me with inventing the word, which seemed like a pretty straightforward word to me. People have now used “mindscapes” and other variants of the word. So what? Life is too busy and too short to try to hold onto everything.
CI: How well can hard science fiction inform astrobiology, this enterprise that hopes to start detecting biological traces in the next decade? Whether or not the SETI side bet ever pays off, we’re moving in that direction. How do you view what you do in that realm as feeding into the enterprise of asking that big question?
GB: You can’t do anything that you do not first imagine. Questions about alien life should be informed by science fiction, so that we properly think about what variations we can expect. Suppose the aliens aren’t organic at all, but computers have taken over civilizations that eventually lost their original life forms, and the automatic cities and great spacecraft of some advanced civilization were all that remained. That’s a whole suite of novels, the so-called Galactic Center series.
CI: Post-biological evolution is a real possibility in a lot of parts of the universe, if biology’s common.
GB: Right. The extension of Darwinian mechanisms into other substrates is a straightforward idea. That idea largely came out of science fiction, not biologists. My brother and I have done a detailed compilation of what the beacon builders we imagine in SETI would actually have to do. How much money does it cost? How does the cost influence what the signal looks like? We did this in the face of what appears to be this slackening resolve about SETI. We have now been doing SETI for almost half a century, not well, not often, and we’ve found no signal. What does that mean? A plausible low-cost beacon will still cost maybe ten billion dollars to put together, and it will not be a continuously beamed signal. It will not be one cycle per second wide in frequency, it will be broad; it will not be around the frequency used by cell phones, but rather at ten times larger frequency. This changes enormously how we should look for SETI beacons. That kind of interplay is the great advantage of hard science fiction. You try to imagine how it would really be, and the more concrete your imagination, the more useful its conclusions.
CI: We’re all bounded in anthropocentric traps and ways of thinking, even the scientists who do astrobiology, especially the life scientists. The imagination of a writer must allow you to see those traps and potentially move beyond them. Are you conscious of trying to do that?
GB: Yes. The charm of ideas is new ones. How much can you push the parameters of biology? The most important thing to do in the entire space program is to find out if there’s life on Mars, if it was the original life and colonized the Earth, and if it persists, holds out. How different is it, if it’s there? Those questions could be answered with our space program in the next generation. That tells you what you ought to be doing in the real world, to make a scientific contribution. You shouldn’t be using up all your money going around in circles in low-Earth orbit. You shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on the Moon. You ought to attack the main problem. If you find something really fundamental on Mars, the field will explode. You’ll have all kind of questions to ask. Then there are the other bodies in the Solar System which are much harder to explore, like the oceans under the ice of Europa, or Titan at 100 degrees Kelvin. Is there anything alive there? Those are going to take much longer to explore. You can’t do Europa or Titan without the development of large-scale nuclear rockets. That’s not going to happen next week. Mars is hard to do with chemical rockets, but pretty easy with nuclear rockets. That suggests what you ought to be doing next.
CI: Given that the space age is obviously in its infancy, and all our technologies are in their infancy, how well can we even extrapolate? It’s hard to plan more than an election cycle ahead for anything. The great pyramid building, the historical efforts that consume civilizations, took a hundred or more years. We don’t seem to have that appetite.
GB: Some things do last. The American republic is older than the entire pyramid building era of the Pharaohs. To extrapolate the space program, you should learn from historical analogies. I’m fearful that the Lee Harkins conception that we are the Columbus of space is wrong, and that there’s a good chance that we are going to be the Leif Erikssons of space. [Laughs] Europeans tried to get to North America and settle colonies before Columbus, and they failed. They even forgot about it! Failure is an option. Infrastructure comes before exploration.
The Europeans were lucky to explore the New World using caravels, which were developed for use in the Mediterranean. America was barely within reach using caravels. Within a century they had completely different classes of oceangoing craft. We can’t do much more in the Solar System with chemical rockets. We’ve got to have new infrastructure. That will open up lots of great options, like asteroid mining. The use of resources on the Solar System scale is how we build a brand-new culture such as the world has never seen. That’s how we got to the New World last time.
The most important thing out of the New World was neither tobacco nor the potato. Those were pleasant, but the great outcome of the New World was new ideas. The greatest danger to modern society is the closed box of the Earth. It’s going to get more crowded, and with crowding comes control. Controlled societies don’t innovate much, so if you want to have an opening future, you have to open your frontiers. The existing paradigm for us, the only species of chimpanzee that got out of Africa, is the opening of human horizons. If you play that suit, you’re probably going to keep winning. If you stop playing it, you’re probably going to lose.
CI: One more topic before we wrap up. There’s this dichotomy of “rare Earth” ideas, people who play the contingency card in what happened on this planet over four billion years, and other people who see convergence, inevitability, and the huge numbers of the real estate out there. Where do you sit in that debate? Do you think we’re alone or not? Regardless of what you speculate and write, what do you really think?
GB: I doubt that we’re alone in this galaxy, but I know we need more data. SETI is the fastest way to get the data. It’s the best investment of our funds. Going to Mars and finding out if life arose there separately will cost us in the range of $100 billion. SETI we can do for $100 million. I believe the galaxy has given birth to life elsewhere, probably intelligent life, and it’s quite possible there’s a lot going on, but we live so far out in the boondocks that we don’t see it. The vast majority of the life-bearing stars in the galaxy are on average well over a billion years older than our star. Life-bearing environments have had a long opportunity to proliferate and get in good conversation, but they’re all many thousands of light-years away, where the action is — in the big ball of stars that makes up the core of the Milky Way. We’re out here in the suburbs wondering what life is like in the big city. The first thing we do is look for the search lights broadcast by the wealthy people who have time to waste. Look toward the galactic center, which is twenty-seven thousand light years away. Look steadily in many frequencies.
CI: We’re thinking of experiments of that nature with these new funding sources. I have one last question. Is it true you’ve broken something like ten bones?
GB: Yes, from various sports.
CI: Not pugilistically, just in normal rough-and-tumble sports.
GB: My spine and my left shoulder surfing; then softball; and some ribs in various sports. I was exceeding the strength of materials.
CI: You have the badge of a doer. How about your twin—do you match on bones broken as well?
GB: No, my twin hasn’t broken as many bones. I tend to take more risks. After all, he hasn’t written much science fiction.