Media in Transition" is the title of what this is all about,
I'm going to talk a little bit about the effects of the media
on me and on my work. It's impossible to begin to talk about
myself and the media without going back to how I wound up writing
science fiction and that is by watching a terrible movie. (Laughter)
The movie was called, "Devil Girl from Mars," and
I saw it when I was about l2 years old, and it changed my life.
(Laughter) It was one of those old 1950s movies in which the
beautiful Martian woman arrives on earth to announce that all
the Martian men have died off and there are a bunch of man-hungry
women up there. And the earth-men don't want to go. As I was
watching this film, I had a series of revelations. The first
was that "Geez, I can write a better story than that."
And then I thought, "Gee, anybody can write a better story
than that." (Laughter/Applause) And my third thought was
the clincher: "Somebody got paid for writing that awful
story." (Applause) So I was off and writing, and a year
later I was busy submitting terrible pieces of fiction to innocent
thing that got me going, really, was that the media pushed very
hard in directions that I could be reached in, the space race.
I was very lucky to be born just in time for the space race
to build public support for education. All of a sudden there
was plenty of money for education. All of a sudden there were
plenty of supplies, for instance, for science education. I was
speaking at a university last year--I think it was University
of California--and a young woman said that she was going to
be a science teacher. She was already teaching, actually, and
they had one microscope for the whole science class. And I can
remember being in a science class where everybody had a microscope,
and it was because the Russians were coming. And we had to do
something about it. We had to prepare this generation coming
up to do something about those evil Russians. Sometimes, I guess,
good things happen for bad reasons, but the good thing really
was that I found out a lot about science that I might not otherwise
have found out about.
plenty of films--I don't mean science fiction, but the kinds
of films they used to show in school--and they were available
all of a sudden to make me aware of worlds that I might not
otherwise have been aware of. And we had heroes who were astronauts;
you know, all these guys who were flying through space and it
was OK. It wasn't stupid or crazy or that science-fiction garbage
because prior to this, there had been the idea that comic books
and science fiction could rot your brains.
all of a sudden science fiction was OK. And, I wrote and wrote
and sent things out and collected rejection slips until I realized
that collecting rejection slips was masochistic. And I took
the drawer and threw them all out. And then when I was 23 and
attending Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, I wrote
a story called, "Child Finder." In "Child Finder,"
I had a lot of telepaths fighting like crazy with one another.
If you wonder where this story is and why you haven't seen it,
this is a kind of lesson in writing that I got early. This story
was never published. It was paid for but the anthology was never
this was about a bunch of telepaths who were fighting because
they knew one another far too well. They were fighting because
they understood each other. You know, we always feel that if
we could just understand each other, we'd be fine. But the problem
here was they couldn't conceal their disagreements and animosities
and contempt, and they were killing each other.
Years later I wrote a story called, "Speech Sounds,"
in which everyone on earth was suddenly afflicted by something
like a small, very specific stroke. Everyone acquired some kind
of communications deficit: They couldn't read or write or whatever.
And they had to deal with it, and a lot of them died, of course.
A lot of them were no longer able to function. A lot of them
no longer wanted to function. And I look at these two stories
as the borders of where humanity is. Most of us communicate
pretty well and, in fact, our methods of communication have
improved dramatically. All of a sudden, we can know what's going
on on the other side of the world in no time; we have all sorts
of wonderful ways of finding things out. We have not only the
Internet but the usual broadcast media. We have cable, newspapers,
magazines--all hot on the trail of something or other. For an
example, all hot on the trail of the Monica Lewinsky story,
which means they're all hot on the trail of gossip, innuendo,
and hypothesis. I mean, they're all hot on the trail of, what?
I think of it as kind of media GIGO, garbage in, garbage out.
This made me think that our media is in transition. But does
it matter? (Laughter/Applause) Have we already reached the point
of diminishing returns?
I have a
verse here that I want to read to you from my novel, Parable
of the Talents, which I'm just finishing. I should be at
home finishing it right now. And the Monica Lewinsky story is
why I brought this verse. Here it is:
ago when I was publicizing Parable of the Sower, I heard
on National Public Radio that the population of America could
be considered about 46% semi-literate. Now that's scary. This
doesn't mean that 46% of people can't read--although there must
be a percentage of that semi-literate group who can't read--
but that 46% have difficulty reading or, at least, some of that
46% have real difficulty reading. Probably they don't read for
fun, and probably they don't read for information as often as
they should, so more than anybody recently in history they must
be people who are saying what they hear others say, which is
kind of scary.
was also kind of an introduction to my talking about Parable
of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, mainly because
Parable of the Sower is in my mind right now. I'm so
close to the end of it. It's a novel that I've written over
and over and over again in one part or another, and I've been
unable to finish it, and I'm finally finishing it. So I want
to talk a little bit about it and about Parable of the Talents,
and I do this because these novels kind of grew out of my being
this goes all the way back to when I was watching the space
race and paying attention to what was going on then. I just
absolutely fell in love with the idea of knowing, or at least
believing, that I knew what was going on. This is an illusion,
I think, but I supposed that I knew.
By the way,
one of the things I found out when I began working on Parable
of the Sower was that some people had given up completely
on paying attention to the news. They no longer read it. They
no longer watched it. They no longer heard it because they felt
it to be depressing, and they felt that they could do nothing
about it. And if they were people who paid a lot of attention
to television news -- we all know what's happened to television
news. A few weeks ago in Los Angeles, the whole television local
news for two solid hours was a car chase. There were helicopters
out there; there was instant communication. We knew where that
car was every minute, and I kept tuning in to see if I could
find something else, and they stayed on with the car chase for
So I can't
entirely blame my friends who have given up on, at least, that
aspect of the news, but I haven't. I don't seem to be able to.
So I wrote Parable of the Sower and continued it with
Parable of the Talents.
of the Sower is the story of a young woman in a very grim
near-future who has assembled a new belief system, a new religion,
and who believes that this is the answer. It's a future in which
the United States has sort of gone in the direction of the Soviet
Union. It hasn't been defeated by outside enemies; it's just
sort of gotten very weary and collapsed. Funny, nobody ever
thought that could happen to the Soviet Union until it did.
That's kind of the framework for the story.
for writing the novel was that I couldn't write about anything
that couldn't actually happen. So my character couldn't have
any special powers. Oddly enough because my character has a
kind of delusion of empathy that is brought on by her mother's
drug use--she has a particular syndrome that is supposed to
be the result of her mother's drug use--some people have thought
that this was a power, an extra-sensory power that she had.
What my character has is--she calls it "hyper-empathy syndrome"--the
inability to observe someone in pain without feeling pain. So
she really does feel your pain.
And I remember
talking to some people who thought this would be the perfect
affliction to make us a better people because it's a kind of
biological conscience, and you wouldn't be able to hurt people
without feeling it. And I immediately began to think about ways
in which that wouldn't be true and ways in which that would
which it wouldn't be true, for example: If you had money, you
could pay some other people to take the pain, you know. Go out
and hurt this person and OK, it's going to hurt you, but what
the heck; you're going to be a lot richer when it's over. Or
little boys discovering that they can be macho by being able
to take more pain as they give it than other little boys. It
worst is who would want to be a health-care professional if
hyper-empathy syndrome were real. Imagine being a dentist. (Laughter).
I give my character this affliction, not power but affliction,
and force her to respond then to the misery that she sees around
her. And one of the responses that she comes up with is this
religion of hers.
the news stories that I was responding to when I wrote the novel
were things like slavery. Every now and then you hear-- and
I'm not talking about ante-bellum slavery but modern-day slavery--every
now and then you hear about some group of homeless people or
illegal aliens or other people who have been held in slavery
and I sort of combined slavery and throw-away workers and prison
problems because in Parable of the Sower there is slavery
and it is entirely legal because it isn't called "slavery."
Nice technological ways have been found to make prisoners very
productive workers without doing them great injury or living
in danger of their running off or doing someone else injury.
So they're very useful and, therefore, of course, you want more
As I said,
I kind of look around and see what's going on and take it a
few steps further. So throw-away workers are more popular now
in this country than they used to be, sad to say. By "throw-away
workers," I mean people who are simply made use of without
benefits, without any hope of bettering themselves until they
can't work any longer. And then they are let go. I don't know
whether this is a nation-wide thing, but in California there
have been some court decisions that say, "It's OK to let
the older workers go when they're in their 50s if you can prove
that what you're doing is economic effort as opposed to mere
prejudice against older people." So if you can prove that
by letting the 50- year old go and hiring the 25-year old, you're
just making an economic move, that's OK. And, besides, the 50-year
old was about to get his pension, maybe. Maybe he's been there
for 25 years or 30 years and he's about due for his pension,
and if you can just get rid of him in time, you won't have that
drain on your economy. So throw-away workers, that's becoming
a lot more popular.
When I first
began talking about throw-away workers, I think I had to explain
a lot more about what they were, but I think we're becoming
more and more aware of just what they are and how sometimes
we become them.
have become big in the economy these days. There's Prison Corporation
of America. There are these private prisons that are very useful
apparently; they give lots of jobs--guards and things. Little
towns vie for prisons. One of the things I did when I was working
on Parable of the Sower, to keep my mind on some of these
things, was to put editorial cartoons up on my wall so that
they would remind me that I should include this kind of thing
in Parable of the Talents.
One of my
favorite editorial cartoons was about a homeless person who
is standing on the street with a big sign that says "Will
Work For Food."--you've probably all seen these signs--and
people are walking past, ignoring him completely. And he sits
there for several panels and then finally he gets an idea. He
takes the sign down and he changes it. He puts up a new sign:
"Will Work To Build Prisons." And suddenly it's raining
money. So, I wanted to keep little things like that in mind.
my character's drug-addicted mother. She is not actually alive
during the story, so you don't get to meet her, but she's left
her mark on the character. And the reason she existed and the
reason I give my character this difficulty is because another
of the stories that I was paying attention to was the effects
of drugs on the children of drug addicts. When I was working
on this novel, the "L.A. Times" came out with a story
about the children of drug addicts, not how they're abused and
all that, but how they have learning and behavioral difficulties
because their mothers took drugs while they were pregnant.
So I thought
about that and included that in my novel.
in the novel is Global-Warming. This is something that I really
wanted to pay attention to, and it's odd how it went in and
out of fashion while I was working on the novel. It would be
very big and everyone was talking about it and then it would
just kind of die, and then all of a sudden it would be big again.
And I wonder about that. It seems to me that a thing as important
as global-warming should get a lot more attention than it does.
So I portray a world in which global-warming is doing things
like creating a lot of erratic weather and severe storms and
drought in California, and other things like that.
not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes- on story.
This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it
was prophecy. All I have to say to that is "I certainly
ago I read some place that Robert A. Heinlein had these three
categories of science-fiction stories: The what-if category;
the if-only category; and the if-this-goes-on category. And
I liked the idea. So this is definitely an if-this-goes-on story.
And if it's true, if it's anywhere near true, we're all in trouble.
I want to
finish up by reading you one more editorial cartoon about the
truth because I think it's kind of the way we're encouraged
to look at the truth when the truth is unpleasant. This is a
Jules Pfeiffer cartoon. It's one of those talking-head cartoons,
and this very ordinary-looking man is making the following comments: