Since 1980, David Brin has published countless novels, short stories, articles, works of non-fiction, and has maintained a public speaking programme that would give most of us nightmares.
His new graphic novel The Life Eaters is drawing critical acclaim. A collection of short fiction, Tomorrow Happens, recently hit the bookshelves, and Kiln People, his latest novel, is drawing favourable attention at the latest round of awards.
Despite all this, and with a young family to boot, we learn that he has also managed to found time to launch a new software company. Maybe David has somehow managed to turn the concept of his novel, Kiln People into a reality and has indeed found a way to replicate himself several times over. We persuaded him, or at least one of him, to take some time out to discuss his work.
Rowntree & Negus: David, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. We’d like to kick off the interview by asking about your formative years as a writer. Should we have the image of a struggling, penniless author, burning up the wee small hours, or is the truth something else entirely?
David Brin: I suppose one reason that I’m known as an ‘optimistic’ author is that I perceive quite well how much luckier I’ve been than my ancestors (My grandfather had to walk home across Siberia after fighting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905). Growing up in the lower middle class of Los Angeles in the 1950s was not easy. Horrible smog. Bad dentistry. Constant fear of nuclear annihilation. And nearby reminders of genuine poverty. But they beat the past. And all of those things are better now, of course.
Sure, I had struggles. Family crises. Had to wrestle with my muse at night while working by day. Taught myself the tools of discipline that must accompany inspiration, if it is to thrive.
But really, isn’t the struggling artist kind of a cliché by now? Don’t other people have their problems too? You can count on artists to glorify their travails and minimise how much they benefited from sheer luck — and the decency of others.
All told, I had my share of good luck along with bad. The first work I ever submitted — my novel Sundiver — was accepted right out of the post.
R&N: Do you think that fledgling writers have a harder time of it now? How have standards changed in the relatively short time since you first made your mark in the field?
DB: Progress gives…and it takes away. A more open and educated and richer society can allow ever-larger fractions of the popularity to have hobbies in the arts. Hobbies that enrich lives. But the best hobbyists want more. To move into professional status. As I did in 1980 with my first novel.
Great. Only a flood of bright newcomers cannot help but dilute the attention and rewards given to those entering artistic professions! If I must choose, I prefer a world that opens a myriad opportunities. But everything has a price.
R&N: Any advice for our would-be writers?
DB: I have gathered years of advice at http://www.davidbrin.com/advicearticle.html.
R&N: So, what, in your eyes, makes a worthwhile novel?
DB: Being fair with the reader, delivering on the plot threads that you laid down from the beginning, while still managing to spring the kind of surprises that your customers find most satisfying. Those that were well foreshadowed, but still leave the reader saying — “dang!”
And yes, it helps to use craftsmanship in writing to deliver insights to the human condition. Characters deserve some life. They work hard. Listen to them.
R&N: There’s a trend in the publishing world of trying placing SF authors into a sort of thriller-cross-over niche. For example, Greg Bear’s recent novels, some of Paul McAuley’s material and, to some extent, your own Kiln People (published in Britain with a non-genre cover and having the word thriller emblazoned on the jacket). Is this something you welcome or do you see it as yet another attempt to pigeon SF as ‘geeks’ genre?
DB: Publishers have their reasons. I don’t mind reaching out. The Sci-Fi people know where to find me.
Anyway, you will never see me acting all snooty and denying my roots in SF.
R&N: Your non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, and elements of Kiln People deal with our possible future’s lack of privacy. As a scientist, do you perceive this possibility as something we should be concerned with? Is it an issue that you believe we should be dealing with now,rather than later?
DB: Yes. I have been holding up the banner of accountability. A free people must able to use that tool. We are the only people in all of history that could wield it well enough to sometimes even hold the elite and the mighty accountable.
We can only do that if we see. If most of the people know most of what’s going on, most of the time.
R&N: Kiln People has been highly placed in several major polls and awards, proving that not only your readership but your fellow professionals enjoyed the book too. We believe a sequel is in the works, Kiln Time. Can you tell us something about it? And perhaps when it’s scheduled for release?
DB: Progress is slow. But when I finish this interview it’s back to work. (After taking my son to the orthodontist, that is. Dang I wish I could make copies of myself!
R&N: What came first for you? Was it writing or science?
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. Not just a spinner of fables but a discoverer of truths. 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 objective 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.
R&N: Many readers of this interview will be more familiar with David Brin the novelist, than with David Brin the scientist. Can you give us a brief insight into your world of science, share a little of what makes it a ‘higher calling’?
DB: I did theoretical studies of comets…and my papers predicted later discoveries spot on! (You always brag about the stuff that gets least attention). I’ve also done studies of SETI and information-related technologies. The latter is one reason I spotted a huge gap in the way people are using the Internet to do real-time communications, or ‘chat.’
R&N: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Was there one thing in particular that inspired you, or was it more of a gradual realisation that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
DB: It wasn’t my decision. I am better paid to do this (and interviewed by folks like you) than I ever was to be a seeker-of-scientific-truth. Look, I am grateful to have had two ways to contribute. Civilisation chose one of them to value. Who am I to argue with civilisation?
And if that answer sounds unconventional or weird, fine. Because that is the core thing that entertainers and provocateurs are paid to do. To provoke new thoughts. I am paid for that, too.
R&N: Can you tell us about the first piece you ever wrote?
DB: You mean published? Sundiver is a murder mystery set in the the future. I tell my writing students, no matter what genre you want to work in, start with a murder mystery. It is the form that trains you to craft a basic story well, developing a consistent plot that doesn’t cheat the reader, delivering everything you imply or promise.
People say that aspect of Sundiver seems to work pretty well.
R&N: You say that Sundiver was the first work you submitted,and it was accepted straight away. Had you been writing other material beforehand, which you didn’t submit and now have squirreled away?
DB: I have this great big comedy…a sci-fi ha-ha that I haven’t dared to publish. I read it aloud sometimes and audiences are in stitches. But comedy is scary. It is so hard to do well.
R&N: If science and writing were not an option, what else would you have done with your life?
DB: I was a pretty good teacher. I liked that.
R&N: You’re also very much in demand as public speaker,what part does that play in your life?
DB: It drags me all over the world. Really, gab can be a curse. But the audiences seem to find it entertaining and it can pay pretty well.
R&N: The Uplift novels are possibly the novels you’re best noted for; your fan’s passion for them ensures their continued readership. On your website, you mention that your story “Temptation”, first published in Robert Silverberg’s anthology, Far Horizons, (and reproduced on your website) is the basis for the next Uplift novel. Is that getting close to realisation?
DB: Not super close. I have been so busy with non-fiction works, inventions, speaking…plus that incredible graphic novel project for DC, The Life Eaters.
I suppose that’s one reason I wrote Kiln People…out of a wish I could split up and be in two places at once!
R&N: Do you see the series as an on-going work? Something that you’ll often return to?
DB: I love the Uplift Universe, but I can’t do just one thing. I do hope to get back to Tom & Creideiki and other Uplift adventures, but first some other projects. There are a couple of gifts for Uplift fans along the way — as you mention —downloadable at http://www.davidbrin.com
R&N: With the mystery of the Streaker’s discovery resolved, will you take the Uplift universe in a different direction?
R&N: Any other plans to diversify?
DB: Argh. Aren’t I diversified enough? I just started my own software company! (Looking for investors, too! ;-))
R&N: A software company? Wow, impressive stuff. With all of this going on, and with a family to raise, what do you do to relax?
DB:I grant interviews.
R&N: Fair enough. In the past, you’ve mentioned that some readers just want the same types of novel that they’ve read before and are reluctant to experience different material.
DB: Those aren’t my readers. Mine say, “Take me someplace I’ve never been before!”
R&N: Which piece of your own work means the most to you, and why?
DB: I cannot pick one of my children above others. But that metaphor does let me brag about their strong points.
Earth is my intellectual child, earnest and thoughtful about the planet and our near future.
Glory Season is my bold daughter, who takes on adventures, penetrates mysteries and cannot be kept down.
The Postman is my son who won’t give up on hope.
Kiln People is the smart-aleck kid who is always ready with a pun, and willing to take on the strangest of the strange….
…and so on. My real kids don’t seem to mind these comparisons,by the way. They are all working on black belts. Confident little whipper-snappers. Put up with Dad.
R&N: Nice analogy. So what about the other side of the coin? Is there something you’ve written which with hindsight could have been better?
DB: Always! My aphorism — the basic philosophy underlying both my fiction and non-fiction – is CITOKATE: “Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error.”
Look at the back of every book. At least 40 names of pre-readers who helped me notice/catch stupidities before the book was set in type. Few authors continue this habit after they gain status. But I figure, why stop doing the very thing that brought me to the party? It’s called quality control.
And yet I keep a file of glitches that people later find…grrrr.
R&N: What about other people’s work? Is there any particular piece of writing that you’ve found enriching?
DB: Goldman’s The Princess Bride is one of those stories you can read aloud to your kids. I admire that. Aldous Huxley was underrated even in his own time. Non-fiction like Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing can make you feel for the predicament of human beings…essentially jumped-up apes who can destroy the world, but who also have ambitions to become like angels.
R&N: We’ve briefly touched on the publication of your two graphic novels (The Life Eaters and Forgiveness). With these, you’ve taken a step into a totally ‘new’ genre. What prompted you to enter this arena? When you look at them against the traditional novel, what merits do you think they display?
DB: Writing a big graphic novel is like directing a little movie! The script is similar, and then you deal with artists, designers, and technicians. I really feel that I have had an apprenticeship in cinema.
R&N: Changes in lifestyle, advancements in technology, and accessibility to the Internet has given rise to a new generation of publishing, where quality can seem to take second place to quantity. It has suddenly become very easy, very cheap, and ultimately very accessible. As a futurist, what do you foresee for the written word?
DB: I foresee technology liberating guys like me, to not only write fiction but to direct more complex efforts.
Think about it. In a few years, it will be trivial for a very small team of maybe five people to create a feature length animated film. The one aspect that cannot be technologically simplified is the actual writing. If this happens before I get wheeled into the Home, it should be an absurdly fun time!
R&N: As well as writing, science, public speaking and granting the occasional interview, you’re also well known for your articles, in which you seem to enjoy putting a controversial view forward, arguing your case with passion, clarity, and humour. You have on occasion upset fans of both Star Wars and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings by delving into their symbolism and social orientation. Do you enjoy the debate these broadsides create? Or is it more of a stand for quality, logic and better understanding that drives your desire to write these essays?
DB: Punditry and public speaking have been a fun and lucrative sideline. And some of the things I have said in defence of much-maligned modernism have long needed saying, in the face of the knee-jerk impulse to knock our decent civilisation. But I need to remember that nobody will be reading that stuff 100 years from now. I need to stay focused on novels, not interviews and …such…dang, I did it again.
R&N: Do your opinions ever land you in deep water? Or should the question really be: How deep is the water that your opinions have landed you in?
DB: Feh. A few people holler. A couple of Hollywood types have declared a ban on dealings with me. That’s persecution? Talk to my ancestors. Talk to Giordano Bruno, a guy a lot like me, who was burned at the stake exactly 400 years ago. Naw. The dopiest people around are those who indignantly yell persecution when they are having the time of their lives sticking it to the Man.
By all means stick it to him! The Man deserves it. All power centres need accountability.
Just keep your sense of humour. Notice the progress that you are an essential part of.
R&N: We visited our local branch of Waterstones recently and couldn’t help but notice that two whole shelves were dedicated solely to the novels of David Brin. With such an eminent body of work behind you, what drives you to continue?
DB: Novelty. Fun. A chance to help pay back a world that’s been pretty good to me.
That theme of gratitude — plus fear that it might all go away — is inherent in much of my work. The artists and film directors I despise most are those who have had favoured, lucky lives, benefited from a wonderful civilisation, then turn around and express nothing but contempt for the people who have been so good to them.
R&N: One final question (hoping that the answer isn’t ‘bothersome interviewers’), what annoys you?
DB: Ingratitude. People who are supposedly ‘of the people’, but who hold nothing but contempt for the people. I mean, look around. Things are working so well…the water is potable and the traffic lights work. People wave each other ahead at stop signs. Almost nobody steals. Stand on a street corner and notice how many things work, quietly, as sophisticated and educated people co-operate in a zillion little ways.
Face it. Your neighbours simply cannot be as stupid as they look.
Grow up a little. Be a member of a civilisation. Enjoy.
R&N:We would like to thank David Brin very much indeed for his time. His latest novel, Kiln People is available from Tor SF, ISBN0-765-34261-8 and is available from all usual retailers, including www.amazon.com. For a wealth of information on David Brin and his work, it is well worth a visit to his website at www.davidbrin.com.