Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With David Brin
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Although David Brin has had phenomenal success as a science fiction writer--multiple
nominations and wins for the Hugo, Nebula Award, Campbell and LOCUS Awards (among
others), his work translated into more than twenty languages--it would be a mistake to ignore his
contributions as a scientist, a futurist, and a public speaker. He has a doctorate in space science,
consults with the U.S. Defense Department, advises NASA, and is a fellow of the Institute for
Ethics and Emerging Technologies. His non-fiction book The Transparent Society won the
American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award as well as the McGannon
Communication Award. Indeed, one could argue that the focus of his career has been to blur the
line between science and fiction, bringing the rest of us along on the ride, whether by serving as
an advisor to the Museum of Science fiction, being the guest of honor at the 2007 World Science
Fiction convention in Yokohama, Japan, or contributing his time and energies as a past board
member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. All of the above gives a hint of
how busy the man is, but even so he found time to respond to a few questions for IGMS.
Schoen: David, you're no stranger to interviews. In fact, you've done so many, you've
compiled a FAQ on your website to save time. Let me move past those and, hopefully, ask
something fresh. As noted above, you advise and consult with the government, with industry,
with some serious think tanks. I know from my own experience lecturing at the NSA that while
there are all sorts of questions that such agencies won't answer directly, you can nonetheless get a
sense of the outline of the thing by asking assorted, seemingly innocuous questions around it. Of
the big topics teetering between science fiction and scientific achievement (e.g., transhumanism,
colonization of other planets and moons of our solar system, averting ecological disaster), what
seems the most promising and holds the most interest for the people who make policy?
Brin: There definitely is high-level interest in all the cutting edge topics--Artificial
Intelligence, human augmentation, augmented reality, bio-engineering, the Singularity--and I've
been traveling around talking about them. Still, there is one subject every policy-focused group
frets about, above all else. Anticipation.
It's the most unique human trait, trying to peer at a future that doesn't yet exist, except in two
wispy little nubs of gray matter, just above the eyes. Those prefrontal lobes are--to crib from the
Bible--'lamps on the brow' that empower us to concoct what-if scenarios about the territory
ahead. It must have conferred advantages on our ancestors, because we've spent a lot of time and
energy on these delusions, ranging from the auguries and ravings of prophets, to stock market
gambling, all the way to science fiction.
Our sincere civil servants in all those alphabet agencies know that anticipation is their
topmost job. When you get it right, you can act to stanch threats, grab opportunities, and open
paths for citizen initiative. Hence, they spend a lot of money and effort refining both data
collection and predictive models (with some fascinating recent results). And yes, that includes
bringing in science fiction authors--like thee and me--to poke and slash at the walls of the
Should we be wary of potential Big Brother implications? Absolutely. That's one reason why
I wrote The Transparent Society. Though did I mention most of these women and men are
sincere? Civil servants aren't the worst immediate threat to civilization. No, but I do fret about
over-reliance on anticipatory models. Anticipation is great and useful, but it is also--at its
core--delusional. Face it, anticipation inevitably fails sooner or later, as it did on 9/11. On that
day we learned that anticipation has a partner that often must step in, whenever foresight fails.
That partner is our other mighty trait--resilience.
Schoen: You've described yourself as a contrarian rather than as an optimist, rejecting
popular opinions and digging deeper into the untouched assumptions that lie at the core of those
ideas. This perspective can be seen throughout your work, not just as a futurist, but also as a
science fiction writer. Given your excellent track record when it comes to prognostication, can
you speculate why we don't see more of this approach among current SF authors?
Brin: Did I mention that delusion is the greatest human gift . . . and curse? Imagination lets
us explore far beyond anything we know, leading to fantastic discoveries and brilliant art. At
best, it can even help us avoid errors. But we also warp our perceptions and dreams to make
them more satisfying, with an unfortunate side-effect. Each of us obstinately insists that we see
clearly what's going on. It's our opponents who are delusional! (And yes, it took me some time
to realize, it's true about me, too.)
Science was the first endeavor to attempt a solution, by crafting patterns of experimental
falsification and teaching young acolytes to recite the sacred phrase, "I might be wrong." But
sure, scientists are also human. We question ourselves more than most, but not perfectly.
The real antidote to delusion is criticism. You can't see through your own delusions and
favorite incantations, but you are good at noticing the delusions of others. And others can see
past yours. So here's the great deal. Those others will point out your mistakes . . . for free! The
very thing you need most, in order to improve, to become more effective, and even powerful, is
offered on a plate--by your enemies. Alas, most of us refuse the gift. Because criticism hurts.
Okay, that was kind of long-winded. But it explains why so much science fiction, or any
other art, or business product, or policy, tends to be repetitive, polemical or predictable.
We--both creators and consumers--chase the righteousness of feeling right over the hard and
painful process of incrementally becoming more right. In SF this is a special sin, since we should
try for originality, for surprise, for moments that rock or disturb the reader and assail comfy
assumptions. Even our own.
When I realized all this, I decided to be ornery, contrarian, to seek discomfort, even when I'm
with folks whose premises and values and politics I approve of. Especially then, because by
criticizing their flaws, I can help them to be more effective. And yes, I hope--and I am told--that
spirit comes through in my fiction.
Schoen: You're on record as being more of a pantser than a plotter, though given your advice
to new writers to begin with a murder mystery (and learn the need for solid plotting) you
nonetheless insist that you like to be surprised by the process itself. After more than a dozen
novels, three short story collections, and a huge shelf of awards, how has the ability to surprise
yourself changed? Is there a pattern--a plot, if you will--to the nature of what surprises you
nowadays when you sit down to write a new novel?
Brin: Oh, I can plot in advance. When I wrote Foundation's Triumph I knew I had to
complete Isaac Asimov's universe with great care, tying together several dozen of his loose ends
(even from obscure titles like Pebble in the Sky). That task called for meticulous planning. And
yes, when I teach writing, I always suggest students start with a murder mystery in order to learn
the craft of plot-building: erecting proper foreshadowing so that the First Surprise, and the
Second, and then the Whammy all strike the reader with shock and pleasure.
But sure, I more often just dive into a novel without an outline, exploring where the premise
and characters and implications take me. That was especially true of Kiln People, one of my most
fun books, which took me--and readers--on a wild ride that eventually all made sense.
Fortunately, my writing talents fit this process. Robert Heinlein was a master of the first half of a
novel, but not me; that's where I seek criticism and feedback. It's in the second half where I am
in it for the crazy-fun joy.
Schoen: Reading your work, both fiction and non, reminds me of this quotation from
Confucius: "If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your
plan is for one hundred years, educate children." Even your most dire fiction contains the seeds
for long term hope (Kevin Costner not withstanding). Is this a conscious choice on your part, or
is it your unconscious leaking through and reminding us that we have the power to save
ourselves, if only we'd plant some trees or build a few schools?
Brin: If "fear is the mind killer," then ego is the success limiter. And when you have an ego
as big as mine, you must find ways to keep it under control. One is to live among loving people
who poke at your inflations. Another is to seek out your opponents with some respect.
(Remember, your adversary is never more than ninety percent wrong. And you are never more
than ninety percent right. So there's always something to learn.)
But the main thing that humbles is context. That you are just one in a long chain leading from
a myriad of ancestors and continuing to some kind of posterity. Yes, we have risen higher than all
of those forebearers . . . as indeed the best of them wanted! They struggled hard, planted rice,
planted trees, built schools, made horrible mistakes, learned to criticize each other's mistakes,
and moved forward to achieve their glorious intermediate result--us.
In that context, what is important? My own brittle pride? Even my individual soul? Or doing
justice to that gift, by paying forward?
In particular, I ask: What mistakes of the past limited human progress? And why did we
recently take off, bursting forward in a thousand directions, at once? Look across the six
thousand years or so that we know about, from records or tales or archaeology. Whenever
humans developed both metals and agriculture, a bunch of thugs took over and imposed top-down feudalism. At which point they decreed laws to insure that owner-lords would keep owning
everything. And they set priests to work declaring how good feudalism was, and how the lords
were the chosen ones! Pericles briefly spoke against this. But a real alternative wasn't found till
1776, the year that Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations, denouncing oligarchic cheating.
And the same year the American Founders rebelled against a king and his owner-lord cronies.
(Most don't know that the Founders seized one-third of the land in the former colonies from
rentier owners and redistributed it to start the American middle class.)
We are living in a new kind of society, an experimental break from the feudal attractor
state--an attractor that may have galactic implications! What if feudalism sucks in most sapient
races out there, the way it clamped onto ninety-nine percent of human societies? Could that
explain the scarcity of science-using civilizations out there, among the stars? If we blow this
experiment, we may join that mass of benighted races, wallowing in stupidities like empire,
worshipping lords who style themselves as demigods.
That is what I gather from the context of six thousand years. And so, I am loyal to the
Schoen: You have a habit of fearlessly straying from the clearly defined lanes of your own
education and expertise, taking your perspective, tools, and metaphors and, as you observe some
phenomena in the world around you, applying them to other disciplines. I'm thinking in particular
of your thoughts concerning addiction and how you radically shift the meaning of the term by
focusing on a different aspect of the process and stepping back to take in the larger view. This
synthesis of ideas seems less and less common as the breadth of human knowledge has exploded
and we tend to reward our experts for specialization over fusion. Why have you bucked this
trend, and more importantly, why do you think we don't see more of it?
Brin: We live in an amazing era when guild rules and class and academic boundaries do not
have to limit your range of interests or activities. Some of the best "hard" SF authors--Kim
Stanley Robinson, Nancy Kress, Greg Bear, Sue Burke--were English majors, yet they fearlessly
ask questions, chase down experts, and give us spectacularly plausible extrapolations of where
near-term science might take us. Likewise, I became a science guerrilla, taking forays and
publishing papers in areas ranging from optics to comets to SETI and spacecraft design, to
evolutionary anthropology and addiction theory. (Heck, a Catholic university recently published
my monograph on "Modern Questions in Theology.") I gave a talk on the wider meaning of
"addiction" at the National Institutes on Drugs and Addiction. (See
Is this impudent? Sure. And mind you, the experts in each field mostly earned their
credentials, with hard work and brilliance. Take the geniuses who developed the cellular gas
dynamics models that enabled meteorologists to expand the old joke of a four-hour "weather
report" into today's spectacularly useful ten-day forecasts. Expertise has merit and credentials
still matter. The recent war on folks-who-know-stuff is just dumb.
Still, we live in a rising Age of Amateurs, when your day job and family aren't the only
things that define you. Millions develop hobbies, for example, that they practice at nearly (or
even better than) professional level. Many folks reading this right now are nodding, because they
do this--from blacksmithing and sword-making to athletics to writing to amateur science--and
ain't it cool? You are many. You are more than those old, limiting definitions. You are positive
Schoen: Let me switch gears a bit and get your take on a current and controversial subject:
cultural appropriation. Do you feel it's inappropriate and/or disrespectful for a writer to represent
other cultures/peoples/identities from the real world in their fiction, or that it's an author's
responsibility to write the Other and tell whatever story they feel needs to be told. Or to spin it a
slightly different way, is there ever an adequate amount of research that one can do to justify
stepping outside of one's own skin/faith/nationality/orientation/beliefs/language? Can authorial
due diligence serve as a justification for artistic license, or are some things just off the table?
Brin: Well, your question does raise danger flags. And note that one of my books deals with
this very notion of Otherness. As a novelist, I am drawn toward envisioning and then crafting
characters who are different than myself. Heck, let's put aside all the aliens (and I am known for
some interesting ones). Strong female protagonists have been important in science fiction for
generations, and a male author will only achieve that through both empathy and practice. My first
novel revolved around a hero of very dark complexion. In Existence, there are several characters
with autism, and one who is a re-spliced Neanderthal.
If you are a white male doing this, you must check off a few extra boxes, and there's nothing
intrinsically wrong with that. For example, I asked Temple Grandin to read a draft of Existence.
She gave me a glowing blurb, and henceforth not one person gave me any shit for my characters
Of course, you are referring to political correctness. And yes, at its farthest wings, it can be
another form of in-group bullying, fueled by that deeply human flaw we referred-to earlier . . .
addictive self-righteousness. But let me put that irritation in clear context: Some silly-ass
exaggerators notwithstanding, the direction we need to travel--toward greater sensitivity and
eliminating old, linguistic oppressions--is a valid one. I run all of my novels past forty or fifty
pre-readers for quality control, with full expectation that some of them will catch me in this or
that carelessly patronizing stereotype, or regrettable phrasing, or obsolete assumption about a
group. I'm glad to learn. To adjust and to have my works be part of our general forward
movement, out of the dark ages. No question, we need to travel in that direction, and not
backslide into tribalistic circle-jerks.
But I won't be bullied by litmus tests.
Schoen: Switching gears again and drawing on your expertise as a space scientist, what's
your take on the booming discovery of exo-planets? And can we expect them to make a
significant appearance in one of your upcoming novels?
Brin: I've long been involved in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and of late
have been part of a community of scientists protesting against METI, or "Messaging" to ETI. I
won't go into why, here. But folks can read the arguments summarized here.
Now, you'll be surprised to learn that the exoplanet discoveries fill me with rage! Outrage at
my fellow citizens who have let cable news and radio ranters turn them away from science at a
time when our explorations are rocketing to glorious strata. Stunning new levels of competence,
of understanding, and curiosity, which has to be God's greatest gift, next to love. Monthly, even
daily, we achieve some new wonder that proves we are apprentices in the Workshop of Creation.
As it turns out, we are really, really good at this, better than we've been at anything else, even
killing. And the fact that citizens aren't out in the streets partying each evening in
celebration--instead of wallowing in stoked-up fury over minutia--is just plain dumb.
We boomers had an anthem, taken from the great flick Network. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm
not going to take it anymore!" It was very satisfying to scream, back in the seventies and
eighties, but isn't it getting tired?
What insipid inanity! Drop by this video where I call for an entirely different anthem. One
more apropos for our time and our achievement and our prospects.
And hell, yes! There'll be exoplanets in novels and stories to come.
Schoen: Over the years you've covered a lot of ground. You've had your say on both Star
Wars and Star Trek; played in Asimov's universe and also Eric Flint's; written in the near future
and distant times; presented post-apocalyptic settings and miraculous utopias; explored identity,
sexuality, evolution, sapience, and environmentalism (and I'm sure I've left some out, but those
are some clear highlights). Given your prominence in the field, I have to assume that if there's a
particular fiction goal that remains on your bingo card or bucket list the only thing holding you
back is committing the time to it. So with that in mind, what's still out there that you'd like to
apply your authorial talents to, if only the mundane inconveniences of scheduling would fall in
Brin: I have lots of things on my to-do list, which is why the self-copying machine in Kiln
People can be diagnosed as a wish-fantasy, a cry for help! A wish to be many, in order to get
more done! Heck, I am getting hate mail from my 35-year-old self, demanding, "Hey old man,
get those people off of Kithrup, already!"
Hollywood is--of course--the game-changer you cannot control. Costner's The Postman was
visually gorgeous and full of heart . . . and dumb . . . and came out the same weekend as Titanic,
so it didn't open the door wide for more Brin flicks. But there are always nibbles, and someday
we'll get dolphins in space, I guess.
Of course the highest form of SF is the "self-preventing prophecy," warning folks of a danger
so vividly that they dedicate themselves to making the story not happen. People on both the left
and the right accuse each other of conniving with Big Brother, taking their metaphor from
George Orwell's famous self-preventing prophecy. Soylent Green turned tens of millions of our
most-sapient neighbors into environmentalists. I've achieved nothing like that magnitude of
effect, though Earth and Existence are said to have nudged some people. And I'm getting a lot of
mail lately about The Postman, from folks who are fearful that the villains of that scenario have
Schoen: Let's conclude with a few words about uplift. My own most recent novel has
"raised mammals" at its core, and whether consciously or not, I'm sure I was influenced by
Sundiver and Startide Rising and the rest--which is presumably why you insist I owe you a
candy bar to be hand delivered to you annually at the World Science Fiction Convention. One of
the perks of writing about uplifted animals over writing about aliens is that they are both alien
and familiar at the same time. Whether talking about apes or elephants, there's a wealth of
ethological data to draw on and extrapolate from. Do you see this as a continuum of sapience,
human to uplifted animal to extraterrestrial sophont? Or is the comparison less a matter of apples
and oranges as something more orthogonal, like apples and Studebakers?
Brin: A while back we were told that only humans used symbolic speech and tools. Later, it
was admitted that dolphins and chimpanzees could parse simple sentences. In recent years, both
rudimentary language skills and tool use have been documented in grey parrots, corvids (ravens),
sea lions, elephants, every variety of ape, and even prairie dogs! Some people--admirably
empathic folks--have declared that "this means we humans aren't so special, after all." And yes,
in a sense it does mean that. Certainly, it is right that we expand our respect for Nature's other
wonders and fight to preserve them.
But there is another way to look at this. If so many species--all coming from different
directions--appear to have plateaued at about the same level, then it implies that both Darwin
and Mother Nature are generous, but only up to a point. "This far, you may rise easily, many of
you! But no higher. There is a glass ceiling through which you may not pass!"
Think about it. If so many species achieved rudimentary linguistics and tool use today, would
it not have been likely for the top-brainy dinosaurs? Were velociraptors equally endowed? Can
we ever know? Alas, because none of them managed to put together a space program, all
No, the lesson from all this is to be even more amazed that humanity pushed through this
glass ceiling. Smashed through it, actually, by orders of magnitude. Which then demands of us
not to feel overweening pride, but a sense of duty and obligation. To use our titanic brains to
benefit the planet, not just ourselves. But it goes beyond that. If getting past the barrier is rare,
then don't we owe it to our neighbors and cousins to turn around and offer a helping hand?
Of course, all of this relates to the "Fermi Paradaox" or what I back in 1983 called "The
Great Silence." One potential explanation for the (apparent) absence of any signs of ET
civilizations out there may be that our kind of vigorous, tool-using and exploring and scientific
sapience is rare. (Earlier in this interview I posed a variant on this: that many other races might
get trapped in science-hating feudalism, the way ninety-nine percent of human societies were.)
Okay then, let's suppose our huge set of leaps were very rare, indeed. Then what I've done in
fiction with chimps, gorillas, dolphins, dogs and such . . . and what you did so wonderfully in
Barsk, with elephants . . . may be pointing at the way that our galaxy may finally fill with lively
voices. If we make it so.
What happened maybe once, as a fluke, could be repeated deliberately. So, are we fated to be
the Old Ones, the elder race?
One wondrous thing about science fiction is the way it gives us a chance to re-evaluate
assumptions, to appraise the implications of new discoveries and, with an open mind,
contemplate the possibility that, "I guess I might have been wrong! Ain't it cool?
Schoen: Thanks, David. I'll see you in Helsinki. (I'll be the one with the candy bar.)
Brin: I hope to be there! And if not this time, then life is long. Let's fight for a civilization
that pays guys like us to shine light on the horizon. Good luck to us all.