My appearance on a panel at the New York Academy of Science
My appearance on a panel at the New York Academy of Science
Science does not know its debt to imagination.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Back in southern Alabama in the 1940s, Down the River Road by Mabel O’Donnell was the title of my first grade reading book. It was the Peterson Company hardcover 1949 edition with illustrations by Florence and Margaret Hoopes. Alice and Jerry and Jip went on a trip with a donkey cart, and… I don’t remember any more plot, if there was much of one. But I remember the pictures. I remember being excited about the concept of reading, but bored to death by Jip & Co.
Evidently I stored the memory of the book’s smell and heft back in the locker of the hippocampus. When Marty Greenberg asked me, a hard science fiction writer, to contribute to After the King: Stories In Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, I recalled that time when the lush banks of moist rivers around Fairhope, Alabama were my fantasy lands.
Tolkien had written his antiquity-steeped fantasy in lands much like England. For me, heartland America as revealed by science seemed a natural ground. I recalled Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Back in the 1990s I toyed with this as a rule about tech: “Any technology indistinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” Arthur’s loud laugh at this, when I visited him in 1995, pleased me enormously.)
Would a work be fantasy, though, if I wrote from my larger experience as a scientist?
To me the scientists and engineers of the last few centuries have been the unheralded elite emerging from the culture that has driven modern times. These folk somehow get left out of the equation of contemporary literature. The great modernist innovators – Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Stein, Eliot — saw the novel and poetry principally as an area of technical and formal innovation. They all spoke of the cultures they knew—Paris, Dublin, Yoknapatawpha. Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha as a fictional county inspired by Lafayette County, Mississippi and its county seat of Oxford, Mississippi. He often referred to it as “my apocryphal county.”
But they wrote about fantastic matters of the past, not the future. Science fiction is a form of writing but it’s also a way of looking at things – a mode of thought. It requires mental landscapes more demanding and inventive than modernism.
So, I thought, why not create a far future landscape of fantastic, sufficiently advanced technology? To those who live in that place, it’s natural, unremarkable, yet mystery sleeps beneath. Their advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to them–yes.
Yet a young writer would be a fool to follow such theory, I thought when I began writing this piece. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn mostly by error. Or at least I did, mostly—plus the authors named above, and Hemingway and Heinlein. I came from the backwoods, so I thought of a fantasy that just might be about a riverland derived from mysterious science indistinguishable from magic. A place that reeked atmosphere.
We remember smells more acutely than the other senses because we evolved from a tiny rodent scuttling in the underbrush, avoiding the dominant dinosaurs, living by smell rather than sight. Our big brains cantilevered on long spines evolved from that rat’s smeller, so we can’t ignore smells. We remember them, can be snapped back into our past by their fragrant power.
The South is a smelly place. Southern settings seem, in the mind’s eye, to have an almost automatic, fantastic glaze, with strong scents. We readily call up images of brooding purple ruins, green corpses, melancholy figures shrouding a dread secret that reeks of musty shadows. Edgar Allan Poe, the first great Southern writer, started it all–along with the detective story and, indeed, the short story itself. Reading him, you meet a lot of scents.
The South has played a strong role in American fantasy, but little in science fiction.
I came out of the South a striver. I moved from the succulent South to live and do physics in dry, crisp southern California. So when I think of fantasy, I see the South. California is science fiction territory.
Here’s a 1974 photo of me with my grandmother in the yard of her farm, a few hundred meters from the Fish River where my brother and I explored swampy reaches in search of imagined buried pirate gold.
My grandmother died soon after this photo, and this last visit with her stirs still in memory.
Southerners feel their difference from the beginning. Though I have written fiction about abstruse physics and the people who care about such abstractions, all quite urban delights, I have always been aware that I come from a far distant culture.
I grew up in the rural small towns of Robertsdale and Fairhope, across the bay from Mobile. From my birth as an identical twin in 1941 until my father took us to Japan in 1948, I lived a simple and probably idyllic life, amid a Huck Finn world of sluggish heat, muddy rivers, infinite pine forests, and abundant creatures. E. O. Wilson relates in his memoir Naturalist how the same land made him into a fervent biologist a decade before and only a dozen miles away from my home. Yet somehow, despite a lifelong fascination with the myriad complexities of the natural world, I became a physicist.
I also learned something of storytelling. My step-grandfather, universally called Mr. Fred, even by my grandmother, told tales beside a crackling fire in the tin-roofed house on stilts beside the Fish River. (The pictures in the story itself are from the Fish.) He smoked a fragrant pipe that blended in the air with the woodsmoke. I listened to the cadences and swerves of dense, Southern spinning, and found it marvelous.
Decades later I found a recording of Faulkner, one of my favorite authors, and heard my grandfather’s identical accent telling stories that seemed to flow from some unfathomed wellspring, and knew that I came from some roots that ran deep.
It was an idyllic time. My brother and I had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we wore no helmets. We rode in cars with no seat belts or air bags.
A ride in the back of a pick up truck on a warm day was great bouncy fun, not cause for parental alarm. Or even driving a tractor to clear away corn stalks, a great adventure at 9. We drank water from the garden hose and certainly not from a bottle. We ate real butter and drank soda pop with sugar in it, but stayed slim because we were always outside playing. There were no “play dates,” just play. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and nobody filed a lawsuit. We got BB guns for our birthdays and didn’t put out very many eyes at all. I even recall running through the house with scissors.
We were athletic. I tried out later for a basketball school team and didn’t make it. OK, not my sport. (Later, I learned to surf pretty well, and scuba.) We liked sports and had freedom, failure, success and responsibility; we learned.
As a boy I worked on farms, and remember both the pleasure
of physical labor and the clear idea that in the long run it might be better to work inside and sit down a bit, too. My relatives who stayed in farming got beaten down then fairly badly by age fifty, and not many lived long lives. (My grandfather died of lockjaw (!) before tetanus shots existed.) So I went first into engineering and then quickly realized I liked my physics pure and undiluted. Eventually I became a mathematical physicist, then went back to doing experiments and running labs—mostly because there’s nothing like hands-on work; labor, again. And experiment has the raw rub of reality. Nature bats last.
My brother and I quickly became Us against the pervasive Them of rural Alabama. Aware of a larger world out there, the narrow hardscrabble life did not appeal even to Huck and his buddy.
So now I dwell in a vastly different world. Here’s a photo from the 1980s of me on the left, the other sf writers arrayed in front of a Saturn V laid on its side in Houston: Fred Pohl, Jim Gunn, Brian Aldiss, Jack Williamson. All these sf writers write out of their own experience—all writers do—and yet we go a-roving into futures and places no one has ever seen. We imagine times determined by technology, often strange. It’s the trade.
So, considering how to use this background of mine, I went back to that reader, Down the River Road, stole the title entire, and wrote a story about a place that recalls the South …and yet it’s a place where time is an active flux, not a remorseless ticking reminder of our mortality.
This story is a blend of hard sf ideas and the fantastic. You can work out where these people live, and that it’s a tubular place where somehow space-time warps. Yet this place feels old: the rural setting, country mannerisms, odd technologies that recall our past.
I enjoyed writing this expedition into the territory of fantasy. Many readers have remarked on how this novella seems like both past and future. I think fantasy’s ability to convey familiar feelings and resonances, among quite different atmospheres, is much of its power. After the King is still in print; Tolkien stands the test of time, though his work is set in the distant past.
I’ve added photos to this new edition of the novella, and 600 new words. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of where my brother and I grew up—always a deeply felt place, lingering in the mind.
I hope this new form works for you.
The book appears for now only in e-editions.
1. What are you working on now? Books? Short stories? Any upcoming projects you want to let us know about?
I’m systematically getting my older books reverted from Harper Collins (done!), Bantam (now done!–Heart of the Comer is out), Ace (working!) etc. Then I have Lucky Bat reissue them in e-editions and sometimes Print on Demand, as with my 1992 novel Chiller, reissued in 2011. I often include a new introduction, making them true second editions.
Beyond that, I have a new novel coming Fall 2012 from Tor, co-written with Larry Niven, Bowl of Heaven. More novels to follow that, including the Bowl sequel, to be called Shipstar. Many of my books remain in hard editions (“p-books” I’ve heard them called; printed) like Timescape and continue to sell well. But I spent five years starting and running some biotech companies and did little writing. That blows you out of the stores. I had half a dozen paperbacks in Barnes and Noble in 2005; now there are few. Time to get back in, on new terms.
I always write a half dozen or so shorter works per year, usually commissioned, to stay in the game. In science fiction (sf) you can get new readers with your short fiction, the traditional path. It’s nice being included in Best Of Year collections—good advertising. To drive this further, Lucky Bat has brought out my 5th short story collection, Anomalies.
2. What about topics? You’ve broken ground in your novels about time/space and even about cryonics. What science are you tackling now?
Bowl of Heaven is about what Larry & I call a Big Smart Object. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. There’ve been several Big Dumb Object s in sf by John Varley, Bob Shaw, George Zebrowski and others.. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine. But why? Fun!
As well, Lucky Bat brings out further titles like my novel Cosm this year, which did well at Harper. They reverted my books, so now it’s my turn. Publishers just can’t get their backlist into e-formats fast enough to avoid having authors like me get them back. It’s a rought & ready era!
3. You’ve mentioned — and you’ve proven — that you’re intrigued by the new world of publishing. Why? What is the magnet for you?
Of all genres, sf should look to the future. The digital transition can liberate authors and readers as never before, with publishers playing not the single pipeline but one of several paths. Plus, digital carries the scent of permanence, liberating prose from matter so it can transcend time.
Want to be read in a century? Go digital. I have dozens of books and hundreds of stories that need moving to e-formats.
4. All but your book, Chiller, recently published by Lucky Bat Books after rights reverted to you, have been published by traditional publishers. How does that model differ for you from the experience of publishing through a house like Lucky Bat Books.
After 47 years publishing, I know enough to shape my own books – art, especially. So getting to commission new art, arrange formatting and not dealing with %$@#*! art directors is a gift. Where else in the arts does a creator get so little say in how his work gets presented?
(I had arranged for a jacket illustration of an anthology I coedited: a lovely 1948 Bonestell painting showing the US east coast from orbit…and an art director flipped it because he thought it looked better mirror reversed…for the jacket of Skylife, from Harcourt. So the coast was unrecognizable. Aaargh!)
Plus, publicity (what little remains) can be contracted out. Distribution through Amazon is potent, and one can arrange placement with Barnes & Noble, etc. Piecemeal publishing, distribution and advertising can be quite effective. Look at the newbie authors who’ve sold a million e-books! These are methods in their infancy, a brave new whirl.
5. Are you planning to be on the road or at any conventions this year where your readers can see you?
No plans as yet…last year I hit worldcon, World Fantasy Con, Condor & Loscon—plenty of fun. I’m Guest of Honor at VCon in Vancouver late Sept and I’ll be at Loscon the day after Thanksgiving. In October Larry & I will do a west coast book tour—Mysterious Galaxy in LA & San Diego, Books Inc in Palo Alto, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, Borderlands in San Francisco, University Bookstore in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland, maybe more.
6. As a professor of physics at the University of California Irvine, you’re conversing with students every day. Do they ever challenge the physics in your science fiction? Or make it a part of the classroom discussion?
I use sf examples especially in mechanics classes—is the ringworld stable, etc.. I’ve been a lifelong researcher, with hundreds of scientific papers published, and several books—so I truly care about communicating science to people.
A fun part of Physics Through SF, a course I taught at UC Irvine, is seeing where you should tweak the physics to make the story work better. Hal Clement called it “the game” and it’s mostly played these days at Analog. I posted a long piece about this on my blog, gregorybenford.com.
7. What lies ahead?
A whole new landscape in publishing. I suspect that within this decade fully half of all new books will appear in e-formats and stay available forever. An enormous backlist will reside there. Many editors will be as freelance as writers are now. (A fine senior editor I worked with many times has gone freelance already, http://betsymitchelleditorial.com/.)
This is more than an opportunity; it’s a revolution. Join it!
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.