David Brin on the Need to Restore Optimism to Science Fiction

David Brin fans can rejoice: It's been nearly a decade since his last novel, Kiln People, but the critically acclaimed science fiction writer is now set to release his much anticipated book, Existence, on June 21st.

Brin, the author of such hard SF works as Earth, The Postman (which was adapted into a major motion picture), and the Uplift series of books, is renowned for not just his ability to weave an entertaining sci-fi yarn, but for his remarkable prescience as well. He has a excellent track record when it comes to making predictions, and has long speculated about such things as global warming, cyberwarfare and the rise of the surveillance state.

With his new novel, Brin once again sets his sights on the near-future. Set in the 2050s, Existence addresses a wide array of social, environmental, and cosmic-scale issues. The book features a world in which squatters have taken over abandoned beach-front mansions, and where the rich chill out in orbit, inside their space-yachts. But it's also a stratified world, one that's being pulled apart by not just economic and environmental stresses, but by the very potential for technology to alter the human condition itself. And then humanity makes first contact with extraterrestrials.

We recently had a chance to chat with David Brin about his new novel and ask him about the new project.

It's been nine years since your last novel, a long time considering this age of accelerating change that we're in. How have you altered your approach to science fiction?

Well, I've been writing the whole time. Existence is big, but a number of other, parallel projects should emerge now in rapid succession. Still, you're right, we live in an era of rapid transformation. Science fiction is the field that explores how change can affect us, for well or ill. And SF has adapted.

More of the "serious" authors are writing SF set in Einstein's universe, for example, without cheats like warp drive and such. Oh, I'll pretty soon write another Uplift Universe novel, with twenty ways to get around old Albert. Great fun! But our most carefully crafted thought experiments — the stuff we write for grownups — these tales try to test reality the way we see it, playing with the hand that nature dealt us.

Lately, a lot of SF has peered at the so-called "Singularity"... the issue of whether exponential increases in computing power might transform us into gods... or unleash AI to leave us in the dust. That's certainly a topic in Existence.

On the other hand, as we recently saw with the announcement of Planetary Resources, a company aiming to extract mineral wealth from asteroids, it seems that space ain't dead yet. Indeed, some of my most important scenes are set out there, in the good old Belt.

In writing Existence, how difficult was it for you to convey an accurate depiction of the future while at the same time striving to weave an entertaining narrative?

The future is trickiest to deal with at the middle range. If your story is set within a decade or two, you just take the present-day world and warp it in some way, say by adding a disruptive technology. Or imagining some crisis or collapse. Set it more than a century from now? Then almost anything goes.

But the 40- or 50-year projection, that's special. Some of your characters were alive in 2012! Maybe they even read this interview in io9. Say you could time-snatch your younger self from 1962 and show him or her today's world, what would be the reaction?

Half the time she'd say "Wow! We never thought of that." But the other half, he'd sneer "You mean it's 2012 and you're still doing that?"

It's that oddball mix of surprise and disappointment you have to convey in the mid-range. I loved the challenge when writing Earth, and wanted to take it on again.

It's been said that Existence could serve as a prequel to your 1983 novel, Startide Rising. Is this true, and if so, what is it about this particular universe that drew you back in?

One of the novel's sub-plots goes into how difficult — but not impossible — it would be to get started on a project to alter and "improve" the functional intelligence of dolphins and/or apes. It seems a worthy goal, if the end result might be other minds, treated as equal citizens, broadening our perspectives and adding wisdom to a wider Earth Civilization. It addresses a wider definition of personhood (as we'll surely do with AI).

But along the way, there will be problems, pain. Is such a fine goal worth all that? The Uplift Universe books explore the other end, when the job's almost done and the answer is a resounding yes. But it won't seem so obvious when we start. In any event, the issues are fascinating and it also invites the crafting of some wonderful characters.

You mentioned the current obsession of so many SF authors — the technological Singularity. You've spoken widely on the topic and written nonfiction. Why no stories?

Existence certainly discusses the matter from many angles, including some funny glimpses of a funky "godmakers conference." But any transhumanist leap is only hinted at.

Where I've done my best to portray a post-singularity society is through an independently published novella Stones of Significance. I think you'll find life in that culture interesting, somewhat creepy-attractive... and ultimately ironic.

Your new novel, set four decades from now, shows a world ravaged by global warming, economic disparity and widening ideological divides. What would you say to those who might accuse you of scare-mongering and the painting of an unrealistically bleak picture of the future?

In fact, I am known as rather an optimist, in that I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson — our problems may be dire, but they are within reach of being solved by creative men and women of goodwill, millions and billions of us. Especially if we rediscover the arts of discourse, argument, negotiation, compromise, invention...

...and, above all, if we can defeat the worst drug addiction of our age. By far the most destructive of all: the way that so many humans get on a self-induced high called self-righteous indignation.

Americans, especially, used to have a national characteristic of pragmatism, always emphasizing practical solutions that mixed every available tool, from market methods to well-scrutinized government to chaotic amateurism. This can-do spirit, emphasizing a tomorrow that can be molded for the good, has been under relentless assault by dour folk at both ends of the dismally insipid "left-right political axis."

If we can't get past this wave of dogmatic fury, then yes, the future is bleak.

The character Tenskwatawa is a kind of Ted "the Unabomber" Kaczynski of the future. Do you foresee the rise of radical neo-Luddism, and if so, do you believe such a movement could ever be successful in turning back the technological clock?

Kaczynski was an extreme version of a very wide movement called Renunciation. Luddites represented a second kind — resentment of machinery that transformed labor. Another example was Michael Crichton's relentless preaching against scientific hubris, always concluding that science should slow down — that we should not try new things.

The worst face of this broad movement has been the "war on science" that's now expanded to include almost every knowledge caste in American life, from teachers and civil servants to doctors and journalists etc. But the left has its dour grouches too, like Paul Ehrlich and Jared Diamond, whose worries are on-target, but who seem not to think we can solve problems by moving forward. Even a brilliant optimist like James Cameron seems to have forgotten how to get people thinking about confidence and hope, though these are infinitely more effective than chiding and guilt.

At one level, you can understand the root cause of today's gloomy attitude. Future shock is a very real thing. Many of our fellow citizens don't want to think about tomorrow - one more reason to insist that candidates take part in science debates. And indeed, technology can sometimes bring as many problems as it solves. We need relentless criticism and accountability. The kind that comes from transparency.

Still, the can-do spirit was the heart and soul of science fiction. It has my loyalty. With open eyes to all the problems, and lots of goodwill, can't we get past this silly fetish-fad of cynicism? The vile lie that there are no solutions?

Your story features advocates for human enhancement, which would include such things as intelligence augmentation, virtue engineering, and even synthetic biology. How realistic are these visions as a way to address the hard problems currently facing human civilization?

Ever read Poul Anderson's great novel Brain Wave? Oh, what a fantasy, if all human beings, across the board, started simply getting smarter?

Well, there'd by ructions and negatives — but isn't that what's happening already, as several billion Earthlings suddenly have nearly all human knowledge at their fingertips? Sure, it's gonna take a lot more than Google searches and angry yelling on Facebook to generate solutions. But in Existence I portray thousands of smart-savvy citizens forming instant smart mobs to swarm on any problem in real time. With the right tools, that should be possible.

It had better be.

You're especially jazzed by the blurb that Existence got from Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures and the most famous autistic person in the world. Why is that?

Relief! I like to test the envelope, so I have characters who are autistic, some who live in Shanghai and one who speaks Jamaican patois. I seek a lot of feedback in every work, for quality control. Still, I was very nervous about parts of it. Her approval means a lot to me.

You've been concerned for a long time about the potential for Active SETI or METI (Messages to ETI), the deliberate and seemingly dangerous attempt to send messages into space in the hopes of gaining the attention of extraterrestrial intelligence. How much of this informed the story of Existence? Is the alien Artifact a kind of clever work-around to the problem of interstellar trust?

I've been engaged in SETI and the question of extraterrestrial life for 30 years, both as a scientist and as an author. I've catalogued and published about a hundred explanations for the "Fermi Paradox" or Great Silence - the question of why we seem to be alone in the cosmos. Some theories are silly or unlikely. Others, chilling or frightening or dismaying - even optimistic. Several play a role in Existence.

But no, I don't portray the first contact situation in Existence arising because of METI. I'll do that in another tale!

For now, let's just say I am a member of a community of astronomers and others who have resigned from all the SETI committees in protest over what we deem a reckless attitude toward the destiny of our grandchildren. We believe in listening and learning more about this strangely silent cosmos, before screaming "yoohoo!" into that silence.

Come on, give us a taste. What do you think might actually account for the Great Silence?

Okay then. There are two general classes. There are explanations that put the Great Filter behind us (e.g. planets are rare, or life is rare, or intelligence or technology are rare) and those that put the Fermi explanation in front of us (e.g. most young races destroy themselves). This is certainly a topic in Existence. Or do they dive into cyber-realities and disappear from view? I've counted about a hundred. Sadly, nearly every smart guy or gal seems to glom onto just one glib theory and announce this is why! But we simply don't know enough to do anything more than rank them very roughly, in some order of plausibility.

Oh, before folks write in — no our radio and TV noise is NOT as easily detected as you were led to believe. I Love Lucy dissipated before reaching one light year. Furthermore, there are lots of ways intelligent life could travel, even in an Einsteinian universe, without warp drive and such. You just have to work harder and be a lot more determined.

But that applies to anything of value. Anything worth doing. Like saving the planet. Restoring hope and future-eager ambition and a can-do spirit to this renaissance of ours. Or giving our grandchildren a civilization to be proud of.

You know, simple stuff like that.

Top image via David Brin.