Why did you become a science fiction writer?
Because I loved the Arthur Conan Doyle stories when I was a kid. And one of the things that really impressed me about them was the sense of how real it was. How true it was. People go to London and look for 221B Baker Street. They used to. And I always aspired to have that quality of reality in what I do. Trying to make people think it was true.
What's changed in your field since you were a kid?
Storytelling has enormously changed in my lifetime as a result of two kinds of storytelling which have emerged. The first is commercials and the second is cartoons. And they have produced an enormous change in the first case in terms of pace. And the second in terms of the kind of exaggeration of story telling people have come to expect.
What's your opinion: Does the general public appreciate science?
The last study that I saw, they asked people what scientific instrument or what technological device they appreciated most in their house, and the overwhelming majority named the microwave.
Any advice for young people?
It's my belief that for people who are engaged in any kind of a technology, that it's tremendously important not to fall too much in love with it. And to not lose the human characteristics.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered by the people that knew me as a good person who made a difference in their lives.
Has your audience surprised you?
When I wrote the first novel that was successful, called The Andromeda Strain, I was really writing about technology that was already 20 years old at that time. And it was, "Oh wow, this is so hip and slick and up to date." And I thought, "Really? Okay. Well, I'll write something that really is up to date." And the next book was a book called The Terminal Man, it was about psychosurgery and atomic pacemakers and stuff like that. And it was based on real patients, it was all happening. And people went, "This is ridiculous." You know, "Who could possibly believe this?" It's very hard to persuade your audience about what's happening right now. They're living in the past, so you kind of have to write a little bit that way.
What do you think the biggest threat to life is today?
I think that the greatest hazard now comes from biotechnology. In the heyday of the nuclear standoff, it was never conceived of really as wiping out the species. I think it is absolutely conceivable that somebody could do something in biotechnology that would wipe us out.
Is technology irreversible?
I'm actually unpersuaded about what can't be turned back. You know it's interesting to me that in most of my lifetime, what powered adolescence was the desire for the freedom and mobility of the automobile. You know? And that was a peculiarly American dream; an early 20th Century dream, and now we have the entire world sitting in traffic jams. And the most forward thinking people are dreaming of a world without cars. And I think we'll eventually have that. I mean I think we're going to probably begin to crank that one backwards.
Talk about the technology in fiction.
I think all fiction of the past seems simplistic. Except for James Joyce. You know, but certainly anything that's technical, I mean you look at it and you just think, "Oh well, that's just like child's play." I'm sure that in 100 years from now people will look at the problems that we find overwhelming and we'll say, "What was the big idea? And what was the problem? It's nothing." That seems to me characteristic.
You write books about serious science, you must think that entertainment can educate?
Tom Wolfe once said, "Movies are great, but cannot explain anything." And what people need now in terms of science and technology is they need explanations. They need to understand what are the risks of this? What are the benefits of that? What are the issues involved? What are the tradeoffs? Because there are always tradeoffs. Most people don't understand the notion of tradeoffs. And they don't understand the notion of risk. I mean you can say to them, "Do you want arsenic in the drink you ordered?" And they go, "No, not me." But you know, if you say, "Would you be willing to spend this amount of money and that means maybe your kid can't have a heart transplant because you're spending it on you know?" they go, "Oh, wait a minute." But they don't carry these concepts into societal issues.
Did you major in science in school?
Oh, I don't have a science background, but I do know where the library is, and that's pretty much what I've leaned on all my career.
Do your own science research?
I don't write hard science fiction for the most part. My Xenogenesis trilogy is, I guess, as close as I've gotten to hard science fiction and that's biological science fiction. So far, I haven't been writing about the scientist busily doing science. I'm more likely to be writing about the people who are affected by the science. I always wondered when I watched movies or television what was going on with the ordinary people because so often you would see the leaders and the scientists and the generals, and I was much more interested in how all this was affecting Joe Blow, Jane Doe.
Why science fiction and not just fiction?
I began writing because life was incredibly boring, and I began with fantasy. And when I went to science fiction it was mainly because of "Devil Girl." It was supposedly science fiction, and if I was going to compete with it, which I was at first, then I should write science fiction. And I went off and got a little book on astronomy and read it, and was very disappointed in Mars, but I wrote anyway and tried to just see what I could do. It was fun. I got to learn things that I didn't really know. I really enjoy having an excuse to stick my nose into all sorts of things. I think most writers are just -- we don't stop. I was going to say natural liars, but that's not the word I want. We're that, too. We eavesdrop. We do all sorts of things that, you know, get us into everyone's business, but we're also into a little bit of everything. If you're talking to a writer about almost anything, you can at least have a brief conversation that isn't stupid.
Were you surprised when the MacArthur Foundation called?
My immediate reaction when someone, a total stranger with a very nice voice called me and said, "You've been chosen for the MacArthur Fellowship," et cetera, and I thought, "What is this? When is she going to ask me for my credit card number so I can hang up?" I couldn't believe it. And I didn't really know very much about it. I've heard of it vaguely, but I didn't know very much about it. And it took me a while to begin to believe it. They asked me not to tell anyone for a while, and I thought, "That will be my choice." You know, I want to see what's going to happen here before I run out and tell people and then later look really bad.
How do you think you'll be remembered?
They're going to say that I'm a black science fiction writer, or I'm a feminist scientist fiction writer or something, you know. People have to have these labels because it's a shorthand way to, well, failing to think. You know, you don't have to read my stuff if you already know what I am. Comfy.
Why did you become a scientist?
I wanted to become a scientist because it seemed honest. Every civilization has had artists -- it flows from our pores. All the fine scientists I know have artistic hobbies. Most of the people I know in my neighborhood have artistic hobbies. The idea that art is rare is a myth foisted on us by artists. All civilizations have had art, and I was born to be an artist, I was scribbling from an early age. But science -- only one civilization has ever had science -- training millions of people to actually be honest, and to doubt themselves and to try to find out what's true whether they like it or not. I wanted to be part of that and I struggled. I wasn't very good at it. I got my union card -- my Ph.D. You know what? Lying is easy. This civilization is willing to pay me a lot more to fib about people who can't sue me because they're fictitious, and who am I to argue with civilization?
Ever had any close encounters?
If you go to the Encounter's Restaurant at the center of the LAX airport. You enter this little brushed aluminum elevator and all of sudden as soon as the door close there's, "Ooh-e-o-ooh," Star Trekkie music comes on and you go up and all the waitresses -- they were all wearing Star Trek miniskirts and there are lava lamps everywhere.
Will technology outpace civil control?
The fact is that it seems likely that the biologists will do and the biochemists will do to their big, huge building-size laboratories what the cyberneticists did to the computer. And not only make them smaller, but cheaper. It's happening at a curve that's even faster than Moore's Law. Within 10, 15 years you will see the MolecuMac in which any teenager in America will -- on his desktop -- be able to fabricate any known or unknown organic compound. There are all sorts of possibilities, but science fiction is supposed to look ahead a little ways and see what they are, and I see the MolecuMac. Under circumstances like those, civilization cannot hold together if we remain stupid.
Do you think the impoverished are doomed to exploitation?
I mention the social diamond in which the well-off outnumber the poor. And the chief argument among Republicans and Democrats is how to keep the diamond rising faster so that the poor live better lives than kings in the past, and so that the absolute fundamental moral minimum is that no child born into poverty should automatically inherit poverty. Even Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, they all agree that that would be a bad thing. So I'm ragging on this diamond and someone might respond it rests on the back of a pyramid. And I agree but it's not the one you think of the Third World. That's easily disproved. The more a foreign economy is enmeshed with the American economy, the richer the people are in that foreign economy. It's the economies that are least attached to our economy that are the poorest, so that's easily gotten rid of. So what is this pyramid that we are on top of that we exploit? It's called machines. And here the science fiction writer comes in because in a few years will the machines be the latest slave population demanding their share of the diamond? It could happen.
Is mankind exploiting the earth?
Another perspective is that the pyramid is the earth and that we're extracting resources from it -- we're taking away the resources that our children will need. A science fiction author feels this very deeply because, of course, it's going to take a lot of surplus for us to be rich enough to colonize space, to plant colonies on Mars, to go out to the stars. Only very rich human earth-wide civilizations will have the surplus that it takes to go and do these bold things. We are in a window of time during which we have enough surplus that we can spend some of it on trying to help raise up the poor while at the same time investing in making our children better than us, while at the same time putting enough aside for research so that the whole pie gets bigger. And the resource-intensive approach to getting wealthier cannot be sustained, but in the long run, it's going to be human creativity that's going to be the ultimate resource.
Talk about anti-globalization -- is it a democratic movement?
Karl Marx was the greatest of all science fiction authors because in the East, where he was taken seriously and followed as a prescription, his effects were actually fairly ineffective at changing humanity in positive directions. It was in the West where his work was read as a plausible scenario for a failure mode, but something happened that he never imagined could happen because he felt contempt for the masses. He never imagined that the masses would read his work and then say, "Ah, interesting, let's reform this scenario away." And he never imagined that elites like Franklin Delano Roosevelt would say the same thing. That's the point. The young anti-globalization fellows out there, they are assuming that international law will be controlled by these elites, but their own countries are counterexamples. They should be out there in the streets demanding a place at the table, demanding institutions, doing what the Jeffersonians did when Madison and Monroe were writing "The Federalist Papers," acting as the counterbalance, demanding that the people have a say. This is a good role they could be playing. They're not doing it.
What's going to be our failure mode, if we have one?
Failure modes are a fascinating topic. Of course, they attract a lot of science fiction because if you can expose a failure mode very vividly as in On the Beach, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, Soylent Green, 1984 and Das Kapital, then you can create the greatest of all science fiction stories, the self-preventing prophecy, the prophecy that does not come true because people actually paid attention to you because people were smarter than you expected. So we're all looking for that next danger. Let me put this in perspective. Barring UFO fantasies and you don't want to get me started on that, the obvious fact is that the Earth has never been visited by aliens for two billion years because if they had flushed their toilets in our primitive ecosystem, it would have changed the history of life on Earth. It means there's a lot of empty loneliness out there, and mind you, I believe that there are aliens -- that alien life is out there. I worked on that both as an astronomer and as a science fiction author, but it seems to be sparse, why? One possibility is that some set of failure modes is always encountered by intelligent life forms before they reach the stars. Carl Sagan came up with this when he discussed nuclear winter, that this might be how civilizations destroy themselves. If that's true we've proved that it's at least possible to get past the nuclear crises. We've proved that it's not automatic, but what about resource depletion and environmental degradation? What about bioengineering of diseases? I don't know. It could be that human beings are anomalously smart. If that's true, it's a scary universe.
How do you think we can insure survival of the species?
I don't think we're even going to have colonies on Mars, let alone in the asteroids, let alone on other planets and other solar systems unless we do something that is very rarely portrayed in science fiction -- actually grow up a bit. Gene Roddenberry is one of the only creators of science fiction who ever posited the possibility that our grandchildren might be better than us. And when you think about it what's the point in having kids if they won't be? If we raise a generation of boys who are three times as responsible and girls who are three times as confident, that's all you need for feminism, all the rest is petty details and they'll be smarter than us. We don't have to preach to them what ideology they should have. They'll be smarter than us. So that's our hope.
Has science fiction served us well?
Why did Gene Roddenberry and me and Ray Bradbury -- there are only a few people in science fiction -- ever portray futures in which people are better. Why? Because of the idiot plot. Because your main job in a novel or in a movie is to keep your hero or heroine in jeopardy for 90 minutes of the film or 600 pages of a novel. And it's hard to do, hard to keep your heroes in heart-pounding jeopardy to keep the reader going or the viewer watching the screen if it's a better society. And I think this has actually a deleterious effect on us, because we tend to absorb through our books and through our movies the assumption that we live in this horrible civilization filled with idiots. Yes, it's comforting to think, "I got my opinions because of rational analysis of the evidence, but everyone else got their opinions because of flaws in their character." One hundred percent of us do that. But it's time to wake up and smell the roses. Sorry folks, you actually live in a pretty decent civilization that's getting better every day. I hate to break it to you.