Interview with David Brin
November 13, 1995.
DT is Dan Tvedt, DB is David Brin, and DR is me, David Roel.
DT: It's 4:07 on KUCI in Irvine and we've got an incredibly honored, special guest in studio, live--David Brin, introduce yourself to KUCI listeners.
DB: Well, I actually took some courses here back in the mid-seventies after leaving Cal Tech. I was working for Huge Air Crash--I mean Hughes Aircraft--down in Costa Mesa, I then went on to University of California, San Diego and became an astronomer. But I guess what people mostly know me for is as a science fiction novelist. I've written a bunch of novels in the field, have a new one out called Brightness Reef...
DR: What was that you were saying about the Beatles?
DB: Oh yes, well you were just playing what used to be my anthem to some degree during when people were all depressed back in the late sixties and they thought that America was going to go up in flames, and we were all going to be at each other's throats. 1968 was an amazing year for those of us who lived through it--well, it had absolutely tremendous music (can you imagine being eighteen in that year?), but, uh, at the end of that year we all figured that if the year lasted 13 months we all would have died of exhaustion.
Let's see now: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy were shot, the Tet offensive, the Chicago riots... And then, at the end of that year--you all have seen Apollo 13? It's about Jim Lovell's second trip to the moon, when he thought he was going to land, but actually he had already had the most important trip to the moon ever. That was Apollo 8. They didn't land on the moon they just went around the moon, but they were the first people to actually circumnavigate the moon and they brought home, what in my opinion was, the second of the two great artworks of the twentieth century. A great artwork is something that changes human beings just by looking at it. And the first was the picture, the image of the atom bomb--that forever ended the romance of intelligent human males with war. Oh sure, crazy human males and stupid ones still held on to the romance with war. But until that point, intelligent males could actually rationalize that war was an occupation worth engaging in. That image of the atom bomb--the picture--was an artwork. And it changed us--it changed us. We probably would have had World War III by now. The other great artwork of this century was the image of the Earth as a floating blue marble--a blue oasis floating in space. Did you know that until Lovell and Anders and Boorman came back from that mission, the State Department had a rule against ever using the word "planet"? (DT starts in astonishment) It was considered subversive--everything was "international." Since then the word "planet" has crept into speeches even by people like Ronald Reagan. With its implication that we're all in it together, and that we can have our disagreements, but our great-grandchildren are gonna be eggs in the same basket. I've sometimes thought, what would be another work of art that would be as significant in changing the human psyche, as the image of the atom bomb and the image of the floating, blue oasis--the Earth?
DT: Other planets around other stars?
DB: That's actually a very, very good point. I thought lately that maybe a blip on the SETI screen--the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence--a blip that didn't go away. That that would be as powerful an image as the atom bomb or the picture of the earth.
DR: You could probably say that one is a very male image and then another is a very female image.
DB: One could say that. In my novel, Glory Season, I tried to deal with female approaches to government and biology. But in my novel Earth, um, I try to deal with... Well, it's set 50 years in the future and one of the major religions here in this part of the world is the North American Church of Gaia. My job is to have fun with metaphors, not necessarily to be right. One could say that the most powerful form of science fiction is the self-preventing prophecy--not when you're right--
DR: --I know in Earth you wrote that that was at the time the most optimistic future you could imagine. When you think about it, that's kind of scary, actually.
DB: Well, what happens nowadays is that people are only writing Dire Warnings. Nobody is writing a really proper cautionary tale anymore. There's a difference between the two. A Dire Warning is like Brave New World, it's like 1984 or Dr. Strangelove. It depicts everybody as being stupid and we're all going to go to hell. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was the best example of a non-fiction work, but in conjunction with Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang, these two--a fiction and a non-fiction work--brought us to our senses about the environment in the early sixties and these were self-preventing prophecies because they scared people so much about the possibility of ecological destruction that they made themselves not happen. Dr. Strangelove was a great self-preventing prophecy. I spoke with a guy who was in the Air Force back in those days, and he said that at the time the Air Force denied that they were going to pay any attention to Dr. Strangelove--they said it was a ludicrous, ridiculous scenario. What we now know historically is that it scared them to death. They fired a dozen generals and introduced psychological profiling for any officer that was going to have control over nuclear weapons. And if you think of all the close calls we've had--y'know, accidental radar blips and things--it could be argued that Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove saved our butts. I think that art can change people. I think it can be overrated and there's nobody more egotistical than artists.
DT: Well the subtitle is almost prophetic: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb"--maybe he loved it because he knew he was going to be putting that safeguard in--
DB: No, actually, actually we are in a good position to love the bomb. The fact of matter is there is no doubt whatsoever that we would have had a terrible, terrible, bloody World War Three sometime in the sixties to seventies if it hadn't been for nuclear weapons, one that would have made World War II look like a piker. But we were scared away from it by the atom bomb. It's a terribly ironic thing to imagine that our descendants may someday have shrines to Saint Bomb for having scared us into growing up. It's an eerie thought.
But then again it's my job to come up with eerie thoughts.
DR: Well, it doesn't seem like it's the taking on of responsibility by a society, though, it was more of a fear of punitive damage, y'know--that a preventative was needed, instead of our own moving onto another level--
DB: And negative reinforcement isn't part of growing up? Don't you learn from pain? I mean, what we did for the first time is imagine the pain before doing it--that's what growing up is about. Instead of sticking our fingers in the fan, we looked at the fan and said, "That would hurt." I call that part of growing up.
DR: Yeah, but that is in the child stage of rearing, when it's not at the level of juvenile... It's not getting to an adolescent culture.
DB: Well, if you're gonna go talking 'bout adolescent cultures, it's a very good point, um... If you take a look at personality traits of different cultures throughout human history, it can be argued that almost every single culture throughout human history has been a frightened child culture. Because the principle emotion in almost every culture at almost all times has been fear. Fear of others, of course, but also fear of disease, fear of the unknown, fear of change, we have no idea...
DT: ...fear of what killed your ancestors.
DB: Exactly. And you can look at this by saying, "Who were the heroes?" Who are the heroes in almost every culture?: Warriors. The man on the white horse, the person who protects you from the tribe over the hill. We are the first civilization whose principle heroes are not warriors. We have taken this ego-maniacal burden off of their shoulders and allowed them to be skilled professionals, to the extent, right now, that our military officers are taught in the academies that if they ever exalt over war they'll be fired. Notice in the Iran-Iraq war some of the enlisted men whooped it up, but any officer who was interviewed said, "I hate this. I'm doing my job, I'll do the best I can, but I hate killing people." Because he knows that his career would be over if he said, "I'm having a good time." Now, this is the first time in history that a military had that as it's official dogma; why?
DT: When did that come in, by the way--when about?
DB: Well, it's been creeping in since George Washington's time. We've always had the old warriors, and then the new warrior. During World War II, the Eisenhowers and Bradleys, as opposed to the MacArthurs and the Pattons. Now the official policy is that everyone should try to be an Eisenhower. The problem is, of course, how do you tell these testosteronic, sexist pigs that they should grow up? That's beside the point; the fact is they are no longer the principle heroes of our culture. Why? Because our principle heroes are those who save us from the things that we fear most. Now what is our principle emotion? Our principle emotion isn't dread of our neighbors, it isn't dread of the tribe over the hill, it isn't fear of starvation. We're the world first adolescent culture. All the bad traits of our culture, our flightiness, our short attention span, our inability to concentrate, our devotion to our opinions... These are all adolescent traits, but all the good traits of American culture--our eagerness, our quickness to learn, our tolerance, our love of diversity, our love of the next new idea--these are all traits of adolescence. We're the first adolescent civilization and our principle heroes are those who save us from the things that adolescents fear most--boredom. (DR laughs.) We're the first civilization in human history whose principle heroes are entertainers. I should know--I was once an honest man, I earned a living as a teacher and a scientist, and now I'm paid much, much more to sleep late, work as I want and have a huge ego as an entertainer.
Only a culture that is throbbing with self-confidence would ever teach its children the moral lessons that we teach our children. It astonishes how few people have commented on the real propaganda messages that come across our media. Number one--in almost every thriller, in almost every book, in almost every movie--is suspicion of authority. You can't have a popular hero unless he gives the finger to authority at least several times in the course of the film. Number two: You look at almost every situation comedy on the screen and one message is tolerance, and the other is have a sense of humor about yourself. Whoever is intolerant or smug at the beginning of a situation comedy episode you know is gonna get it before the end. These are fascinating messages. Ecology is another one. So we have suspicion of authority, tolerance, have a sense of humor and ecology. These are weird messages for a civilization to be teaching its children. Most fairy tales throughout human history have been jingoistic--watch out for the tribe over the hill.
We are a civilization that most popular myth ever shown to American kids was the movie E.T. We are a civilization that teaches its children that if you meet a strange alien from beyond the pale, by all means, hide him from your own freely-elected tribal elders.
Now what kind of a people does that? A weird people for sure. But also one bursting with self-confidence. And that's strange. Because most people are talking about how the nerve of our culture is failing. I just don't see that. We are an incredibly adolescent, self-confident people.
DR: So if you take that hubris and arrogance and extend it fifty years do you find cause for optimism?
DB: Oh, I'm accused of being one of the principle optimists writing novels today--I don't see it. I consider myself not to be an optimist at all. I'd say there's a 60-40 chance that we will get our act together enough to create a dazzling civilization and our great- grandchildren will have, in effect, the powers of gods. They'll be able to simulate any reality and bring everything that we and all the previous generations before us have worked for to fruition. 60-40 odds--does that make me an optimist? No, because I give 40 percent odds that we're going to fry this planet and kill everything on it. It's all or nothing. The limited resources of the planet and the... Just look at it this way. It's a race between increasing human sanity, and the fact that we are putting lethal devices in the hands of more and more people.
DR: ...Oklahoma City!
DB: I'm surprised Oklahoma City took so long to happen! We are a remarkably sane people. Look, we sell liquid high-explosives to all-comers on street corners without asking I.D. If you really study history and the demographics of history and some of the accounts of ancient days you realize that there were blithering idiots, there were crazy people on the every street corner all the time, lack of nutrition, disease, horrible traumas... We are getting better. The big romantic race that we face is, "Are we getting better fast enough?"
DR: What are the opposing things we have to beat?
DB: Oh, the biggest thing we have to beat in America is the worst drug problem in America today. It's amazing how many people I've talked to privately who are in public life and who think that the present Drug War is stark, gibbering loony. I've met one person in the last three or four years who supports it and it's my gardener. And yet nobody dares say the emperor has no clothes. I notice you were talking Radio Free Hemp earlier... I'm not supporting hemp, by the way. I finally saw an anti-marijuana commercial that makes sense. It shows a guy who smokes and is the same as he was when he was fifteen (DR laughs), and he's forty years old. Now anybody who knows marijuana knows that's the danger to warn kids about. Not that you're going to be an ax murderer, you're going to be too lazy to be an ax murderer. No, there is a drug that is infesting America and is doing more harm than alcohol and tobacco...
DT: I think I know what you're going to say: television.
DB: No, no. Television turns some people into couch potatoes and other people it has enabled them to go to the moon, stop wars, see other cultures... The glass is about half full. Television is nowhere near as good as we thought it might be and it's nowhere near as bad, as the mind-numbing zombifying thing that some people in the fifties were afraid it might turn into. No, television is like most tools, it's used about half for good and half for ill. No, the drug I'm talking about is self-righteousness. We are now finding out that heroin latches on to certain receptor sites in the human brain that are very, very natural. That are targeted by the pleasure hormones in the human body called endorphins and encephalens. And that all the good things, the wholesome things in life... I'm a father, I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and my four-year-old boy knows how to zap my head so that I won't punish him. He's doing something he knows I forbid, he knows I'm watching and he sends me the devil boy smile. A toddler has this smile that will melt the brain of any parent. So all I can do is love him more. When a bunch of women are gathered around a baby carriage going "Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo" trying to get the baby to smile, they're druggies. They're saying, "Give me a hit, because your smile is going to release endorphins in my body." Listening to good music, having a good run if you're an exercise aficionado, seeing a sunset, making love. These are all things that release endorphins in our brains and reinforce the good things.
Unfortunately, there's large fractions of society who never learned how to release endorphins in their brains by doing things that are good for them and good for society. So they have to go get heroin or they do sick things to release the endorphins. That's neither here nor there. The fact is that there's a large segment of our society that has found a really good way of really giving themselves a good endorphin high, and that's the self-righteousness junkies out there. You look at both the pro- and anti-abortion crowds, the pro- and anti-gun control people. You look at most of the major interest groups in America and they are led by people...
You look at their faces--they are very clearly on a drug high. And there's no way to make it illegal, 'cause it's self-doped.
DT: So self-righteousness releases massive endorphins?
DB: Massive, massive endorphins! I know, because I have been on some self-righteous highs--a small surprise. That's where the sense of humor comes in. If you're able to see your flaws and at least joke about them, or at least pretend that you're a nice enough guy to joke about your own flaws, then people will forgive your insanely large ego.
DT: I know entertainers have said the greatest high is being up there in front of the applauding, thundering masses in front of the microphone.
DB: Absolutely! Absolutely!
DR: I always think that's sort of a Freudian, psychological hang-up, though, that probably got embedded in them when they were like five... They didn't necessarily need this urge to dominate others, and...
DB: Well, if you take a look throughout human history, whatever is the "heroic" group is driven mad by it. If you look at the behavior of Hollywood movie stars and producers--and I have to deal with them a fair amount in my line of work--you can squint a little and envision them in chain-mail. And you can understand a lot of human history. Because throughout human history it was the warriors who had the huge egos, who would conspire so that their nephews would get the job instead of some bright, up-and-coming youngster--it's exactly the behavior you see in Hollywood today. Only now they can only rape your script, they can't rape your daughter. We've come some distance.
DT: In your essay "Otherness" you spoke of the five competing forces that are sort of vying for the human mind: feudalism...
DB: Only on a university radio program would I be comfortable talking about this idea. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, coined an idea--and at the time it was just in passing, while he was talking about genetics--and it caught the imagination of many in the world intelligensia. It's the word "meme." It is a self-replicating idea. A virus is self-replicating information--basically all it does is it lands on your cell and it inserts DNA, which is information, that reprograms the computer of your cell to make more viruses and let it loose. Well, what if ideas were like that? What if ideas could be like that? What if an idea was sufficiently interesting that it made you think about it. Well, then it's alive. Well, how does it reproduce?: By making you so interested in the idea that you tell others about it. Now viruses learned how to do this, they stumbled on the technique of making you cough on your loved ones. In effect, right now, I am now "coughing" on you and the listeners in radioland with the self-replicating idea of self-replicating ideas. I am now coughing on you with the meme of memes. Because I find it fascinating, it has the trait of making me want to tell other people about it, and if you think about it, it's alive, and if you tell others, it replicated. Now all you need to do is add a couple of other traits, such as being so entranced with this meme that you devote your life to keeping other memes away from your children, and you have something that sounds a lot like organized religion.
DR: Yeah. That's self-righteousness right there; "My meme's better than yours."
DB: (Sings) My meme's better than your meme... Uh, to an extent... Yeah, yeah, I suppose that's the case. Actually, Dawkins recently published a paper demonstrating a meme in action: It's these chain letters. The chain letters are, in fact, self-replicating memes, 'cause they use guilt, coercion and bribery to make you make copies of them. And the original author of the chain letter is completely irrelevant at this point. The meme itself is a cultural virus that makes you make ten copies of the letter and send them on to others. And the fact is most people are immune, otherwise every person on the planet would now have ten copies of the chain letter.
DR: I think I could see where that self-righteousness meme, though, may actually be diffused by your idea that we're teaching our children tolerance more often.
DB: Well... Yes! The point is that there are many, many complex things going on in American society today because this is an experimental society. You have older memes, older cultural patterns which have tradition, which have the test of time. Paranoia, for instance: the Russian people were paranoid and their basic world view was paranoid for thousands of years; why?: They lived in this great big plain and were invaded twice per generation. Machismo is a meme which has different colorations and different superficial religions in Latin America, Africa, The Middle East... But still in all three places mothers tell their own four-year-old sons, "Someday you will deflower virgins and ravish other men's wives, but if this happens to your wife or sister, cut her throat." Strange, but it's been around a long time, and it is a way that civilizations have been known to work. The East is another way: Imperial noblesse oblige; a class system moderated by Confucian sense of obligation. Our way of doing things is completely bizarre in human history. Our way of looking at things... Our heroes, for instance--entertainers rather than warriors. Another example: almost all human civilizations have had a central myth of a golden age in the past when people were better, knew more, were more like the gods and fell from this peak because of hubris. The psychological reasons why all peoples have had this cultural myth are to me secondary. I mean, if you work them out they're fairly obvious--I mean, what grandfather hasn't told his grandkids that things were better in his day? What's interesting to me is how we've changed. Our culture actually believes that the Golden Age is to be found in the future--something we might build for our descendants. That's a fundamental and revolutionary break, and it may be loony, but then again we're the only people in history who have made the word loony not a four letter word. I mean, how many of you out there listening to me wouldn't mind being called "weird"? My favorite example is if a flying saucer landed in the parking lot of a shopping mall here in California.
Now this wonderful, wonderful, paranoid, clichéd show The X-Files is based on the premise that the government is protecting us against (portentous tone) cultural disorientation and horrible disruptions... This is the same people that made E.T. the most popular film of all time, and watches The X-Files. Exsqueeze me? (Laughter.) It's like in Star Trek IV when Kirk warns--they're in 1983 San Francisco--when he warns everybody, "We're about to enter a paranoid culture," and they go out of the spaceship and the guys say, "Hey, nice threads, man, you going a Trek convention?" (Laughter.) Excuse me... You know, we have this image of the National Guard surrounding the spaceship--you know, all braced and paranoid and people running and screaming--that's exactly what would happen. The National Guard would be surrounding the spaceship, facing outward, to face all the tens of hundreds of thousands of people running screaming toward the ship, shouting, "Take me for a ride--expand my consciousness! Have you got any new cuisine?" We are a very, very bizarre people, and proud of it.
DT: Is our mindset gaining any memetic dominancy in the world, do you think, or...
DB: Well, all I can say is that every year in San Francisco there is a meeting--an auction--at which TV directors and radio directors from all over the world come and buy our TV. They buy our worst TV and they buy our best. And they buy situation comedies by the loads. And, um... You know, what can I say?: It's cultural imperialism.
DT: So if you want to influence the memes of your culture, get into the mass entertainment business maybe?
DB: Well, well, no other culture has ever preached tolerance. So therefore we are doing something very ironic. Through our situation comedies we are committing cultural imperialism and crushing every other worldview that does not preach tolerance. That almost defines irony.
DT: But then you've got the whole Islamic part of the world trying to keep out the pagan western entertainment ideas and... It seems like a face-off is developing...
DB: Oh, they know! They know! Satellite dishes are a major source of infection. They are acting as if they are protecting their young against smallpox. It's the same thing. And 500 years from now, the judgment of history may be that we were smallpox. (Laughter.) We were cultural smallpox. That we were the cultural equivalency of a horrible fever.
DT: What could we do about that--if anything?
DB: Well, I believe what Polonius said was right: "To thine own self be true." The fact is that I don't believe we're cultural smallpox. I happen to like tolerance, I happen to like suspicion of authority, I like sense of humor, I like ecology. There are some cultural messages that are out in our media that aren't so healthy: Three generations of American women have been preached to in almost every film--every romantic film has had the lesson if you meet a bright young nerd who would love you forever and be your friend for the rest of your life, run screaming for the nearest romantic biker. This is not good propaganda, speaking as a former nerd. (Laughter.) But it happens that I approve of much of the rest of the propaganda--the suspicion of authority, the tolerance messages. But that's only natural, I was raised on them.
DT: When did you start writing science fiction, by the way?
DB: Uh, on this campus. I had graduated from Cal Tech--my undergraduate degree--I had done some writing there as a hobby, but here I was working for Huge AirCrash and taking some courses, and I went and visited your own professor Gregory Benford here on campus--world- famous science fiction novelist, truly one of the few science fiction novelists who has a worldwide literary reputation. And I knocked on his door and he was very kind to me. We spent an hour talking about my novel about how to go the sun. And not long thereafter it became my novel Sundiver.
DT: Is there anything you attribute your prolific-ness to?
DB: Prolific? I'm not prolific. I've been in this game for 15 years and I have 11 books.
DT: But you have a lot of hits with them. (Laughter.)
DB: I have had a lot of hits, that's true, that's true... Ideas 'R Us. Um, I don't know. In the end what you have to do--the ideas will only take you so far--what you really have to do is make people feel a human story, you have to make them feel for the characters, you have to get the reader to feel a sense of tension. We're in a sadomasochistic relationship, fundamentally. You the reader are the masochist: You want the writer to write a book that is impossible to put down--to go to bed, to get up, to go to work, to feed the cats, to feed the kids, to make love. You want the book to be so hard to put down that you get in trouble.
DT: That explains a lot about fandom.
DB: I think that explains a lot about your masochism. I, on the other hand, as a sadist, would LOVE to keep you up all night and get you fired. It's my job. So I circulate my manuscripts a lot and I ask of my pre-readers, "Where were you able to put the book down?" And if more than two people say this particular scene, I tighten that scene so that it's more tense, more dramatic...
DR: That's a good idea.
DB: ...and... Well, it's the tricks of the trade. Most magicians don't tell them, (fast talking) I'm a self-confident--I'm an arrog--a concei--no, uh--Well, um... (Laughter.)
DT: The endorphins are flying!
DB: Endorphins flying! Uh, I'm almost as--I think almost as highly of myself as Gregory Benford thinks of himself, and that's pretty da--Well. (DT laughs.) In any event, I'm self-confident enough to tell you my tricks, and one of them is to put enough action, tension, drama and character in, between the ideas--make no lecture last longer than two pages. But that brings up something very interesting. We like our 90 minute movies, we like our 600-page John Grisham novels. It's interesting what they all have in common. First off, they all have in common suspicion of authority messages. Secondly, they all have in common what I call the Idiot Plot. Now what is the Idiot Plot? The Idiot Plot is fifteen, a dozen or so spoiled white teenagers in a haunted house, the lights go out, and somebody screams. And then somebody gets the bright idea, "I know, let's all split up!" How many times have you seen that? And you're going, "Oh no..." Why do they split up? Because if they link arms, go out the front door, go down the block and dial 911 the movie's over.
Or, worse yet, the writer might actually have to work for a living. Unfortunately, what people have not noticed is that the Idiot Plot pervades almost every movie, and almost every thriller. Think about this: When was the last time you saw a Michael Crichton movie in which anyone ever even bothered to dial 911? "Hello, we have dinosaurs here." (DR laughs.) The utterly fundamental assumption in almost all thrillers, almost all novels and almost all fiction is this: Thou shalt always depict all American Institutions as venal, corrupt, stupid, insane or incompetent. Now that's not the same as saying, "I'm going to satirize or attack this institution. This particular... The CIA here, or the Nuclear Power industry." That's different--that's criticism, and criticism is the only known antidote that has ever been discovered against error. Criticism is fine. But when you say that ALL of our institutions are corrupt, evil, stupid, incompetent... Nobody but Oliver Stone actually believes that, so why do they say it over and over again, in almost all films? Because your principle job as a filmmaker or the writer of a thriller is to keep your hero in dire jeopardy for ninety minutes or six hundred pages. And that's hard to do, if you depict your hero as being a member of a civilization.
When have you ever seen a cop film in which the cop's supervisor was not a blithering idiot? Why? Because if the cop's supervisor's not a blithering idiot he'll say, "Now, now, now--don't go off half-cocked, it sounds like you have some good preliminary evidence, let's get together a team of fifty guys..." And then it's not impossible to have a film, but it's harder. Notice the movie The Fugitive. Our institutions failed Dr. Richard Kimball--they convicted him. But other institutions are working--Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Marshal. You'd be glad to pay taxes to keep him on the job, right? In order to have Richard Kimball, Harrison Ford's character stay one step ahead of Tommy Lee Jones' character, they actually had to write for a living. They actually had to write something imaginative and entertaining. A far easier way of doing it would be like in the Lethal Weapon films. Assume that civilization is filled with imbeciles. Now, they do this in the Batman movies, too, but I forgive that because Tim Burton isn't talking about Earth.
DR: Well, that's the requirements of the film industry though. I mean, Hollywood is money-based, they need the bottom line.
DB: Yes, but if people ever wised up to this, if they ever said, "Tell me a story that actually takes place in a world that's believable." I mean, in a typical modern-day thriller you get to page 80 and the hero or heroine is hiding from a dozen guys with Uzis who are watching the airport, the train station and the bus depot. Ok. It never seems to occur to the heroine to WALK out of town. Find some local suburb with a reputation for honest cops... The book is over on page 80. If people ever started becoming aware of the propaganda and therefore critical of it, we'd probably wind up getting better movies, better books.
DR: Well, yeah, also no one reads, everyone goes to the movies.
DB: But look at the effect! That's not really a fair statement actually; Americans read more books per capita than any other nationality in the world.
DT: And writes more too, I would wager...
DB: And writes more too. Per capita, Americans read and buy more books than the French or the British.
DR: What are the books though? They're all these Judith Krantz...
DB: Aww no, you're, you--listen to this--listen to this... Listen to the elite intellectual here. The books run the gamut. They run the spectrum. I assure you I could not earn the real good living that I am earning--and I ain't Judith Krantz--in any other country, and I think I write stuff full of content--I mean, there's letters on every page! (Laughter.) This whole business of the Idiot Plot--the need to depict all American Institutions as corrupt, stupid or inept--this is what I think has really been poisoning America, not the news media. The news media's standards have fallen, but they're just doing their job: Looking for errors to flash on the screen. Granted, they've lost their standards and they've gone to the tabloid format, but nevertheless they're doing their job. But what is the American people to think when every work of fiction, every thriller, every cop film, every romantic comedy has as its fundamental premise that there are no institutions that work in America. None. I mean, this has been the message for twenty, thirty years. Over and over again. And, mea culpa, it's fiction that has been promoting this fiction. And again, the biggest reason for it, is laziness. Because the easiest way for a writer to get his or her hero in dire jeopardy for ninety minutes is if nobody will answer the calls for help. Almost nobody--I think a couple of times I've heard Bill Clinton say this and recently Colin Powell said it--but almost nobody, in public life, is saying, "I am a member of a civilization." And by damn, it's the best civilization that's ever been. And it's the most tolerant, most decent... I'll tell ya, I wouldn't be this rich, opinionated jerk on radio right now if it weren't for this culture. Y'know, I'd be a slave, I'd be a serf on somebody's farm somewhere. I'd have been cannon fodder. Name me another civilization that such a small fraction of the young men have had to be warriors. The more you learn about history the more you realize all males were either serfs or warriors almost all the time.
DR: To what extent would you attribute that to the economic shift?
DB: Of course, we're rich as hell! That's why we have such low fear, and when the fear is low you start to become tolerant. Well, duh--it's a cause and effect relationship. But the point is... Y'know, I asked some of my friends who were so irate during the angry '94 elections, I asked them to name one other human civilization they would rather have been a part of? That was even half as close to what they want as what they already have is? And they would go, "Ab, ab, ab, a, a, w-well we can be even better!" Well, of course we can be even better! But how can you parse the phrase "We can be even better" angry?!?! It's a phrase that one says with a smile on one's face. We have the best, most tolerant, richest, most decent, most easy-going civilization that's ever been, and yes, it can be a hell of a lot better, it had BETTER be a hell of a lot better because if it stays as it is we're doomed. But all of the wherewithal for us to be better people is here, it's now, it's available, if we don't fall apart. If we remind ourselves while we're criticizing each other that we're members of a civilization!
DR: It seems that kind of self-actualization of "To thine own self be true" can only come about if you are distrustful of the way other people have done it, saying, "No, let's try something else..."
DB: I am all in favor of individualism and suspicion of authority. Look, from 1805 to 1822 every newly independent country of Latin America copied our Constitution and its checks and balances. Not one of them stayed free. Why? Why did we stay free? The Constitution wasn't the only reason. We also had myths of suspicion of authority even then. All the old American fairy tales were suspicion of authority myths, from Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett on down. Combine this with the Constitution and you have something that has kept us free, because almost every other human renaissance was shut down within a generation or two--not by socialism, not by revolutionaries, but by conspiratorial aristocracies. That's what the Soviet Union was. It wasn't socialism; it was a conspiratorial aristocracy of about ten thousand royal families who are descended from Bolsheviks and kept everything for themselves. Aristocrats conspire for power--we're seeing that in the Republican coup in the Congress right now. They weren't satisfied with the Reagan tax cut that gave a couple trillion dollars to the rich; they want another couple trillion dollars to go to the rich. Speaking as a rich person, I say "shame." But I earned my money, y'know, by doing bread and circuses for all you crowd, paying me royalties. The point I'm getting at, though, is this: Suspicion of authority has kept us free. But lately it's metastasized... Because if you look at movies, up until about the fifties, there was always suspicion of authority mixed with a message of "Hey, we're all in it together." Deep underpinnings of these messages that we used to receive were, "I am a member of a civilization." And I may not agree with the president of the United States, and on leap years I'm going to fight hard to get him dis-elected, but you know what? While he's in office, he's my president.
DR: I remember Gore Vidal saying that just before 1938--just before World War II started--you had all these movies about the French Revolution, which was about a common people getting together and fighting this great...
DB: But we have had revolutions all through America History, about once a generation. We fine-tuned the rules of capitalism, so that people could still get rich by providing goods and services but they could not become an obligate aristocratic class. For an example of this kind of thing--well, you might cite the Anti-Trust revolution, the progressive movement at the turn of the century--but a better example would be the GI bill at the end of World War II which sent a million sons of the working class to the state land grant universities like this one, and shattered what was left of the class system in America, absolutely smashed it. So that when I was growing up, we didn't even know there was such a thing as a class system. Because the state universities took over as the center of intellectual life, from Harvard and Yale. Because of that one piece of social legislation. Amazing. We can fine tune away the problem, the curse of conspiratorial aristocracy without giving up the engine of capitalism, the engine of free enterprise. But would you be able to characterize from listening to me whether I was a conservative or a liberal? I hate the polarization that has been taking place.
DR: ...meaningless dichotomy anyway.
DB: It has some meaning. In that, nowadays, the Republican party is sitting in the ideological position that the Libertarian Party deserves. They claim to represent free enterprise but in fact represent the aristocracy. If the Libertarian Party were to get some support and actually elect some officials, you might see a major change in this country.
DT: In the few minutes left, I wanted to get you to talk about space exploration. What's the right way to do it? Privately? Publicly? Other? (Laughter.)
DB: Oohh... Get into the Junior High Schools and teach the children again to have a sense of wonder. To say the most beautiful word in the English, or any, language: "Wow."
DR: Why Junior High? Start in Kindergarten.
DB: Well, Kindergartners are already saying wow, it gets killed in Junior High, especially in the girls. But it's being killed by the tribal wars among each other. If you look at who's most cruel to the kids who say wow, it's other kids. There's a tribal warfare going on there. And if we were to grow another generation that's capable of saying "wow", I think we would go into space no matter whether it was private, public... I mean, I could go on for an hour about what the problems are with NASA, why we should be developing solar sails, and we should be having contests... I think the biggest thing that we should be using is the inter-generational transfer of wealth that's coming up. About a trillion dollars is going to be inherited, during the next ten to twenty years, by we baby boomers. As if we hadn't had enough already. About a trillion dollars. And someone is going to have to form a foundation that will go around to all the World War II generation and say, "Don't leave it to those ungrateful wretches. Instead, make foundations." And some rich guy is going to say, "Screw NASA. I'm going to take us back to the moon." It wouldn't take that much. Think of Sam Walton. Think of Andrew Carnegie. Andrew Carnegie bought his way out of Hell. He's in Heaven right now, through all the libraries and all the gifts that he did. Now there's Sam Walton of Wal-Mart. 25 billion dollars and he left it to five people who didn't earn it... Crackle crackle, hiss, pop. (DT laughs.) He could have taken us back into space all by himself. So all you heirs and heiresses out there, turn to your folks and say, "I'm all right, dad; a million dollars is fine, that's plenty. Take us to the stars instead."
DT: Is the universe a dangerous place, or do we know?
DB: Ahhh! My friends in the SETI program are quite convinced that starships are impossible. Because if you think about it, if starships are possible you aren't just looking for one or two radio beacons out there; they would have been here by now. And my usual answer to those who say, "Oh, they're here right now in the form of UFOs", is not to downplay the UFO contact scenario, because then they say I'm a stodgy defender of the status quo, a conspiratorial suppresser of new ideas. Excuse me, goombah, scientists invented freedom of speech. No, I won't take the rap. I'm one of the top-qualified people to meet extraterrestrials--I've been both in SETI and science fiction. I'd love to meet an alien, or better yet, be the second person to meet an alien. Uh, no, just name me one purported, described case of a UFO encounter that describes the behavior of grown-ups. Every single encounter scenario that I've ever heard of describes the behavior of space jerks: twirling wheat fields, disemboweling cattle, kidnapping American citizens and doing anal probes...
Exsqueeze me? Y'know, this is... this is very, very highly advanced behavior NOT. I've been on radio a number of times when UFO callers have called in and I've asked them.... Well, you play devil's advocate with me. These people are very, very smart, right?
DT: Oh yes. They're galactically wise.
DB: Our technology is child's play to them, right?
DB: They've been monitoring our broadcasts for years, right?
DT: Oh, yes, yes.
DB: So then, they're probably listening to my voice right now!
DB: (Tapping mike) Hello? Little silver guys? It's me again. Get out your space pens because I'm about to give you the phone number of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now tell my friend Dr. Michael Klein there at JPL, that you will do something to the moon tomorrow night, in order to prove that you're really an extraterrestrial and not one of the human jerks who's going to call on a lark. But all you have to do is do something to the crater Aristarcus, tomorrow night, and my friend will arrange landing sites, rent-a-cops, Visas--of both kinds!--gigs on Letterman, dates with Madonna--anything you ask for, we will give; we will roll out the red carpet, any security measures you want, meet anybody you want, preach to us to your hearts content. No guest could ever ask for more, and no host could ever ask for more than to have an honest guest who comes openly and talks to us. And if you turn down this offer as you've turned it down, through silence, the last ten times I've said this on the radio. Then we've settled what you are: space Jerks.
Go Air Force.
DT: David Brin has been our special guest, he'll be on the campus tonight in the Crystal Cove Auditorium signing his new book, Brightness Reef, and...
DB: ...talking about anything the audience wants to talk about... Propaganda... How about egotism? (laughs.) Anyway, it's been a real pleasure, you guys have been a lot of fun; I don't usually get questions like this.
DT: Thanks for your wonderful work, you really inspire optimism, in me as well as many other people...
DB: Well, go thou forth and try to help save the world because those 60-40 odds I spoke of are just good enough to mean that we could make it if we all pitch in. Each of us should wake up every day thinking, "I'm going to live my normal life today, but at least once today I'm going to do something to help tip the odds 61-39."
DR: It's worth fighting for.
DT: Well said.