below is an edited version of a
The Killer B's
Michael Burstein: Would the two of you like to talk about the Killer B's Education Initiatives?
Greg Bear: The wrong B -- David Brin started that.
Michael Burstein: I know that David Brin isn't here, but you are two of the three B's
Greg Bear: Wherever we are, David Brin is always with us.
Gregory Benford: There is something in the Bible about that isn't there? Wherefore three or more shall gather together, some one shall ask about this library thing.
Greg Bear: Well, you explain then, you were closer to it.
Gregory Benford: In the beginning we were trying to inspire kids to buy more of our product. Actually we are still doing that, why are we here otherwise?
Greg Bear: I'm the only one who has written a Star Wars book too!
Gregory Benford: Yes, but some may sink even lower soon. At SF Con., we thought of doing an outreach the year before to local high schools and libraries -- we'd sponsor a contest, they'd write a story and the best ones would get a free membership, they'd come and we'd indoctrinate them. The general idea is that the entire culture becomes more aware of SF, they read a whole lot of free books that our friends, the publishers, give to them and we just generally sponsor more attention to SF and use the convention circuit as a focus to make it local. We've done that at several places and it is sort of working
Greg Bear: The fan groups have picked up on it and where they are organized, they are doing good work. Mostly in Utah right now. And where they are not organized there is nothing happening because we don't have the time to actually go out and do all of that stuff. We were hoping to rely on the vast network of fandom. But the vast network of fandom unfortunately is mostly made up of dot com millionaires and they've been very busy the last week. Fandom nature has changed and it may not actually be the medium that we need to go out on this, but the Internet is, and all the emails spreading around and people coming in, there's a vast silent crowd out there listening to all this stuff and if they do a little work with their individual high schools we're on our way.
Kurt Lancaster: I am curious about how the Killer B's got started.
Greg Bear: The Killer B's got started when Algris Budris (he's Lithuanian royalty) wrote a column in FNSF discussing a book by Gregory, a book by Greg, and a book by M. John Harrison and he called us the "Killer B's" and I think he got Harrison in there because the B is "H-mol" or something in German music notation. Well, when David came along he was very sorry that he had not been allowed into that crowd so we sort of let him into it. We have been the Killer B's ever since. I don't know what's happened to M. John Harrison, but he hasn't resented it, or written letters or sued.
Gregory Benford: And he hasn't sold real well either.
Greg Bear: Good writer, though.
Michael Burstein: You know, if you are looking for another Killer B, I could make a suggestion...
Greg Bear: How kind, you're right! Michael Blumeline would be a terrific addition.
Gregory Benford: Actually the other part of the club we never
mentioned, is that although it helps to have a name that begins with
a B, you also have to kill someone to get into the club.
Science Fiction as a Genre
Mike Greenberg: Can you comment on the genre-ization of Science Fiction? It has sort of been separate from what's considered mainstream literature, obviously we've made all sorts of breaks with the public, but are we making any headway into the standard literary establishment? And does it really matter?
Gregory Benford: Well Greg has a whole speech on this, but I'll just say things have backslid. The situation for written Science Fiction in terms of the critical establishment is worse than it was 30 years ago. We are seldom reviewed and the reason is because we are so vastly successful. If you are a reasonably good SF novelist you can easily out-sell a reasonably good mainstream novelist. On the other hand, it means that you are cut off from an audience that really could learn to like Science Fiction. How to fix this? I don't know although it's possible that the new media and the many ways of delivering books will free this up. On the other hand, you know, the establishment will die and we'll still be here.
Greg Bear: I think your answer comes from Science Fiction fandom to a great extent. Science Fiction fandom has been a substantial part of one of the longest lived artistic movements in the history of art. 75 years! So far and counting. The fact that it's grayed a little bit temporarily is being noted by fans all over the country. But as the young people start reading more books, as they are in fact doing, you are going to see it continuing. It's going to be continuing in a herky-jerky fashion. But the Science Fiction culture consists of a lot of people who have never been to conventions and they read these books and they think about them and they are off there in the dark nights of the midlands of America and Europe and Eastern Europe -- huge fandoms growing up in Eastern Europe -- and in China they are starting to publish Science Fiction now, and your cultural influence is going out there and it is one of the greatest and strongest voices that American literature has ever produced. The Chinese will be reading us long before they read John Updike.
So in terms of English language in America, yes, the New York Times
still ghetto-izes us. Who cares?! They are good for politics, I just
don't pay much attention to them when it comes to the arts. So, yes,
the influence of Science Fiction fandom has been tremendous, but the
broader impact is immense, absolutely immense, and very slow in building
over the decades.
Joost Bonsen: Could you both speak about your view on the "mass-ification" of Science Fiction? That is, the growth of this discipline from an arena with a relatively small audience to one where we have at least some works that are known by a large percentage of the population and growing and yet, by the same token, the most popular works also seem to be the most insipid and not nearly as rich and deep as some of the less popular but more thoughtful pieces. What are the prospects for better stuff, more broadly spread in the future?
Gregory Benford: The easiest way to make more soup is to water it down, particularly in the hands of those who do not know the medium well and its tradition. That is, primarily people in the visual arts -- they just water down stuff that occurred to them last week and they don't realize it is half-remembered from a 1955 third-rate movie, so you get Mission to Mars. They spent literally millions of dollars on the script and you can see all the parts glued together. If this thing was a balsa wood flyer, it wouldn't glide five feet. The problem with the genre is over-success and watering-down and that most people know it through the visual media. We have occasional works of genius like 2001, that counter-convey the feeling of what we're talking about. Also, weirdly enough, this back influence on the written media has been able to fill the bookstores with Star Trek knock-offs, Star Wars knock-offs and so forth which have served to further water it down. People say, well it draws people into the written media, I am not so sure that the people who buy the Star Wars books go on and buy us. So I think, at best, it has no effect. It tends to also further worsen our credentials with the rest of the intellectual world because we have this rag-tag band of rich idiots traveling with us.
Greg Bear: There have actually been quite a few really good Science Fiction movies made in the last five years. I would include Deep Impact, Gattaca, Contact, and several others in different branches of the genre. The thing about a movie like Star Wars is that it has basically become the modern equivalent of Tarzan. Now we all grew up on Tarzan and these mythic structures are not insipid, they are stories that reach a broad audience. Sometimes of course they are insipid; there are TV shows that nobody watches.
Star Wars is in fact throughout much of its career, incredibly powerful and we have all watched it and enjoyed it. It is not the same sort of experience we get out of reading say, a John Brunner novel, or an Olaf Stapleton novel, or even an Arthur C. Clark novel or even a Ray Bradbury novel. But I remember times when Ray was so well-published and popular, that he was called insipid by certain segments of the Science Fiction community. And in fact, if what you like is not what dominates out there, you are going to bitch a little bit. I know I do. And every time I see my books not being turned into films, I bitch a little bit.
The whole phenomenon is based from our perspective. Yes, we basically laid down one of the most popular flavors of modern mythology and we are not getting credit for it. But that is not going to last long, all the people not getting credit are eventually going to be examined by historians, and by other people. There are an awful lot of people in Los Angeles who do in fact know where the real good stuff is. They can't get it made all the time, but they try and more and more of them are coming up. I am getting fan mail to this day from teenagers, which didn't happen for a period of time. The kids are coming back. They are also listening to Frank Sinatra and smoking cigarettes, but what the hell, they are reading Science Fiction, they are collecting Astounding! Astounding Magazine is increasing in value as a pulp magazine. There is an amazing phenomenon going on and what it is is the constant re-growth of intelligent people. Guess What? There was no golden age. The golden age, as Damon Knight, I believe, once put it, is thirteen!
And if you are a twelve-year old and you see 2001 ( I saw it when I was sixteen) -- Bang! major impact! And if I had seen Star Wars when I was twelve years old it would have really, really knocked me for a loop also. I have broad tastes in all of these things. My favorite novels include Finnegan's Wake and Skylark of Space! I can switch gears! I think most of us should be able to do that.
As far as Hollywood's ignorance of us and our bitterness -- that's been going on since the 1940's. They do get it right every now and then. There was a George Powell, there was a Stanley Kubrick, nowadays occasionally a James Cameron, the people who did Gattaca, who I can't think of right now. There are a lot of good screen writers out there, under 30, trying to get our movies made. They are working their buns off. I've got two friends who are professional screen writers of some establishment who are trying to do a spec screen play based on Forge of God and Anvil of Stars and they will do a damn good job. I know, because we pitched it to 35 different studios all together. So there is a lot of variation stuff here. We won the war; we haven't yet won the peace, but we will. There will be an accounting in the long run and too many people have read the people that we know and love for them just to fade away. I mean, the clock of the Long Now consists of having been around and having written Science Fiction sometime between 1930 and the year 2000, that's an incredible period of time in human history.
Who do you think is going to be the most popular artist in the Martian
colonies? Picasso? Dali? or Chesley Bonestall? How much would a Chesley
Bonestall original of Mars be worth on Mars? Think of who is going
to be collecting these Science Fiction covers, these Frank R. Paul
covers, these dippy things, in the future. This is the first human
communication medium that speaks to the people living in the future.
And boy are they going to have a good laugh.
Michael Burstein: As somebody who has a PhD in physics and who does research in physics, I wonder if you could comment on the thought that physics was the science of the 20th century and biology will be the science of the 21st century. If you look at Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio or works by other science fiction writers like Nancy Kress you start seeing a trend towards looking at biological science fiction. I was wondering if you feel perhaps like some of the physicists at the end of the 19th century that we are once again at a point where physics may be fading out and coming to an end as it were?
Gregory Benford: Actually I was the guy who wrote that essay, "The Biological Century" published six years ago pointing out that biology would frame the major moral and political issues of the next century. But that's not all. The real question of which biology will be a part is, what is the real meaning of being human? Because in parallel there will be the evolution of smarter and smarter machines, machines able to sense and do things in an ever broadening range, machines able to respond to us with increasing subtlety so that they will for many appear to become as smart as most of the people you pass on the street. That is going to raise just as many deep issues.
Then there is the integration of these capabilities. Put a chip in a biological machine, if you will, and you can sometimes make it work better. Put technology into people and they live longer and they feel better. Put technology in front of their eyes and they can see better, put technology in their teeth and they can eat better, put technology in this left shoulder which I have broken first in baseball and second in surfing and it will actually work even though it's made out of metal. That is just the beginning. I think Science Fiction is going to be increasingly about a theme that it has already addressed many times ever since Frankenstein and that is, What does it really mean to be human? And where is the boundary, or is there any? That issue will become so central to the advanced culture that Science Fiction, I think, will be the only one able to address it.
Bill Joy on Robotics, and, Is Being Human
Anonymous: The question for Greg is about Bill Joy's article in Wired. Vernor Vinge first brought it to my attention by talking about technological singularity and you've written about nano-technological singularity where all of a sudden everything changes. Your most recent book, Darwin's Radio is about biological singularity where all of a sudden things change. This morning in the Boston Globe there is a think piece in the Focus section which talks directly to Bill Joy's article so is the discussion beginning to happen? Will people outside of the Science Fiction community, actually begin to talk about these things? Because we are on our way towards building machines or devices or ideas that may make us obsolete as human beings.
Greg Bear: At the Smith College library in the rare book room, I was wondering through their magnificent collection -- it's actually all in a big square room behind beautiful shelves -- pulling out books that I just wanted to fondle and having a spiritual moment as I opened the page to the first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now Bill Joy didn't quote Mary Shelley and he didn't quote me, and he didn't quote Vernor Vinge and he didn't quote Robert Heinlein or any of the people who have been thinking about this. Instead he quoted Ted Kozinsky who I believe John Campbell rejected at one time and started him down his long career towards destruction.
The fact is that Bill Joy says, "Oh sure Science Fiction has always talked about this, but it didn't impress me until I read it in Ray Kurzweil's book." Now, no bitch against Ray Kurzweil, his book on robotics is a fun book. But where has Bill Joy been? And is there still a magazine called Wired? Haven't they changed it to Wireless yet? Because Wired is completely out of date in this day's Dot Com world. So I really felt that his article was in fact about fifty years too late, really ignorant, deeply, deeply media saturated, and who cares? The discussion has been going on at all levels in the US government and elsewhere for well over fifty years on these very subjects including robots, Frankensteins, all that kind of stuff.
Gregory Benford: It is striking that Wired is so out of it that they would publish a piece like this, re-discovering the wheel -- by a guy who seems so dopey that he doesn't understand that hundreds of people have published about this and have thought a lot longer than he has and why is he writing about it? Because he founded Sun Systems.
Greg Bear: Yeah, it's actually kind of pitiful. But that's just our opinion.
Anonymous: A follow up question, Mr. President, in terms of the technological singularity what was interesting to me about Bill Joy and the response is that you have individuals like Ray Kurzweil, who is rushing towards this hybrid creature whatever it might be with open arms, you have Marvin Minsky here who is the same way and who is quoted in the newspaper this morning as saying basically there is no such thing as a soul and who cares anyhow? and you have Hans Moravec over at Carnegie Mellon saying, "I want to be a robot." What do you think of these particular people who are brilliant, brilliant people? What do you think about them?
Greg Bear: Well, in terms of the critic I have before you right now one of the most frightening individuals I've ever encountered. Not only is this man an extraordinary competitor, he is a clone! He is a clone and he's partially a robot! I mean this is heavy metal Science Fiction writer right here! As far as Hans Moravec goes, he wants to become a robot. (sigh) He's a brilliant man but I don't want to become a robot.
Gregory Benford: Have you met him? You could understand some of this if you had.
Greg Bear: Marvin, yes, and as far as Ray goes, they all want to rush off and download into silicon. I want to rush off and download into a better and much improved and possibly far more creative, active, and clear thinking protein machine-- a "pro-chine." Which is the best way to do it. We've got all the extropians out there who think in terms of metal and they are starting to think a bit of proteins, but they didn't study biology in school; they read an awful lot of stuff about robots. I don't want to become a robot. I want to be a better version of me. And I don't want to have to go through what Dr. McCoy would just scream at, that interface of downloading into a computer which right now we know is literally impossible unless you can determine the physical state of every single atom in every single neuron in your brain.
The simple metaphors don't work for the brain. The brain, your memories, your states are not encoded in just neuronal programs, they are encoded in the cyto-skeletons of the neurons and in the molecules and in the proteins and the states of every single one of your neurons and if you take that and diffuse it and reduce the image, then what you get is like VHS compared to DVD. Which would you rather be?
Gregory Benford: Exactly. In fact you can study this effect at home by immersing your brain in a diluted solution of alcohol and see that it changes the myelin sheaths and other things that make your brain function. I recommend this experiment.
Greg meant by my being a clone that I am an identical twin, but then so is the other guy at the end of this dais. The cloning thing is another example of scare tactics. Frankly I think that the talk about robotics is talking about a very long time scale. There are many more interesting problems in between. First the fact that I too would like to live in a real body -- I understand its pleasure is better; I am not sure what robots experience. In fact no one knows.
Greg Bear: "IT IS FUN AND YOU WILL HAVE IT." I like Binder actually, there's the kind of robot I could get into.
Gregory Benford: We have a real problem with the idea of making
copies of ourselves. Since I am a copy of someone else, or he is a
copy of me, or at least a genetic copy, I am something of a bug about
this, but let me point out to you that in order to be downloaded,
you almost certainly have to be killed. Now what you will be given
in return for that is the promise that something will wake up and
think it is you. Do this experiment:
They say: "In the second after you are eradicated by our reading
you expertly right down to the atom, we are going to boot up something
that thinks it's you."
"Oh gimme that, gimme that, gimme that!"
"Well, actually there is going to be a slight delay, it's going
to take about one or two days." "Well, okay so gimme that,
"You know, it's really going to take a few more years of development,
so it will be maybe five years."
"Well okay, I'll still go ahead."
"Well, we are going to put you on the shelf and when we have the technology ready..."
Just do this exercise -- think about it: if the download gets further and further away from you, what happens to your certainty that you really want to do that? My point is that the download is not you. They have to kill you. Having a copy of you is pleasant to think about but it ain't you.
Greg Bear: As Gregory knows!
Gregory Benford: Yes! And therefore you have to seriously wonder about the psychology of someone who wants a copy rather than the original. In fact a standard trick that I pull on people is to say, "If I could tell you one quality which, even in an exact duplicate would not be carried forward, would you admit that in principle something is wrong with this procedure?" They say, "But of course, but you just agreed that it was an exact duplicate." And I say, "But you have lost the fact of originality. You have lost the uniqueness of yourself."
Greg Bear: And believe me the first editions are worth much more than later printings.
Science Fiction as an Influence on the Future
Audience Member: Could you comment on the general role of Science Fiction as a technological predictor or perhaps better as an inspirer of those who ultimately do build the technologies of tomorrow. And to what extent do you see Science Fiction playing a role in encouraging or discouraging certain futures?
Gregory Benford: My track record about all this was set forth in an essay that I did for a book edited by this guy, called New Legends. My essay was called "Old Legends" and it is about my involvement with a number of scientists, many of them great scientists, who all had a connection to Science Fiction. The vast majority of all scientists have read Science Fiction. Most of them don't have the time to read any fiction at all any more, but it plainly still has a huge impact on the culture itself and because science is now the primary driver through technology of World Culture, in turn we have a huge impact on the culture and there's an unease about the strength of that interaction too.
There are a lot of Luddites left on this planet. So I believe, in fact, that Science Fiction is crucial to encouraging generations of scientists to come because that is where they see their dreams talked about when all their school fellows are talking about baseball and girls or boys. We are the dream-makers, the concrete dreamers. If we stop dreaming then this society is going to be a lot worse off and we have seen societies like that. Many societies have slipped into status in the past and have been consumed. If we want this society to continue to be dynamic and to continue to shape the destiny of humankind in terms of our western values, than we had better keep our sense of originality. If we all sit home and try to watch the future on TV and go nowhere, then I think this society will ossify, petrify and finally go the way of the last few centuries of the Roman Empire. It was the best show in town even then, but it wasn't going anywhere.
Science Fiction and Credibility
Woody Bernardi: You were speaking before about the credibility of Science Fiction and its recognizability among mainstream. I first saw "2001" when I was 19 in 1984 and I was at my grandfather's house when I watched it and he wanted to know how I could even enjoy the entertainment value of it much less think that there's any reality or any possibility for reality. My grandfather was born in 1903 and he died in 1997 and up until two months before he died he had his mind and his physical strength, he saw 94 years of the 20th century. At the time in 1984, considering what he had seen up to that point, I couldn't understand how he could think like that. I think that the recognizability or the credibility of Science Fiction among non-Science Fiction people relates directly to the reality of what they have experienced. In the 1940s it was easy for people to criticize concepts of interstellar travel. It is not so easy today.
Greg Bear: You will still find professors here at MIT who will prove it to you with long diagrams that it still isn't possible and they are almost right, based on current knowledge.
Woody Bernardi: Well that was just an extreme example.
Greg Bear: But current knowledge always changes.
Gregory Benford: Just wait a century.
Woody Bernardi: But my point is this credibility ...
Greg Bear: Well you can't convince everyone and that is good. We are not a uniform society. It would be a terribly unhealthy society for everyone to think the same way and have the same belief structures and be credible or incredulous in the same way. I can perfectly understand your grandfather and I would not want to change his mind. I'd sit there and joke with him about it, but that would be it, because I don't know what his talents are or what he saw that I would not have been able to understand or what he could do that I would not be able to do.
In the intellectual elites as we have here, we tend to forget that we are standing on top of bone and muscle, and the brain without bone and muscle doesn't get a lot of work done. I admire my relatives for what they survived, for the children they had, and the work they did and believe me, having a huge imagination, we are not going to be able to spread Science Fiction to everybody and thank God for that! But I think that some of my grandparents would have thoroughly enjoyed watching "2001." In fact, my grandmother did thoroughly enjoy it -- she took us to see it when it was a week old in Los Angeles in 1968. She bought the tickets. She was in her sixties. She also went to lunch with Ray Bradbury and us a couple of years later. So some people get it and some don't and that is fine by me.
Gregory Benford: Exactly. When you say, Woody, that you couldn't see how your grandfather could think that, the point is that he was not thinking. Most people actually don't want to think. It's fairly painful, particularly if you haven't used the apparatus in a while. And many people do not want to imagine a world that is different from this one because frankly they are scared enough of this one. They are having enough trouble getting around in it. So this fear of the future and of changes is an age old thing that will always be with us. Can you imagine an army that is made up entirely of leaders? It ain't gonna work. So you can't carry along even the majority. The future is always made by a minority. This country was founded by a minority and barely squeaked through. So I wouldn't worry about it too much, so far the war is not over, but we haven't lost any battles and we keep winning more parts of the culture. We tend to dominate the terms of discourse. Even a really naive and kind of shocking article by Bill Joy can excite a whole lot of comment precisely because it's a lot easier to reach the table of discussion now than it was 50 years ago.
Science Fiction as a Sub-Culture
Paula Lieberman: Both of you have been very deeply involved in the Science Fiction sub-culture. You were a teenage fanzine publisher and Greg's in-laws are Science Fiction writers. On the other hand there are a lot of writers coming in these days who don't come from that background and I was wondering about the difference between writers who have that background and those that don't have that background -- how does it effect the writing and how does the situation effect you as a writer dealing with other writers who have, versus haven't, come in from that background?
Gregory Benford: Luckily I never took an English course in a University. This proved to be a huge advantage because I always disliked the way literature was sliced and diced when I was forced to take courses in high school. So at the university level they had a really neat deal whereby you could take the final exam in a course and if you got a B you'd get credit but no grade. So I did that for about seven or eight courses and got out in three and a half years -- it was a money-making proposition as far as I was concerned but it also kept me out of the hands of people who were still trying to shape my mind and I think that was actually an advantage. But knowing the field is also a huge advantage -- just having read a whole lot of this stuff. Also Science Fiction invented fandom, it invented conventions, it invented fanzines, it almost invented the amateur press association. It invented these things to carry out a conversation and Science Fiction, more than any other genre, shows us what genres really are, they are extended conversations about circumscribed topics -- not about everything, but about a lot of things. The other genres have belatedly come along and have their small dim copies of our fandom. There is a mystery fandom, a fantasy fandom, even a western fandom, a very strong romance fandom because romance fiction is 40 percent of all paperbacks. All those Romance novels sold to ladies who, uh, ought to get out more.
The point is that it is an extended discussion about really interesting things and the flow goes always forward but you have to remember some of the discussion from before and if you repeat things there will be somebody who will say, "Hey we discussed that last week kid! Go to the back of the line!" That nature of the genre is unique in literature because mainstream literature with its shibboleths and its great works is so disconnected that I often think that it is no longer functioning that way. So it helps that you know the level of discourse and you know the stuff that's been done before otherwise you are going to reinvent wheels just as Bill Joy did. In the long run you can't make a contribution unless you do your homework and luckily it's fun. I've always enjoyed being involved in fandom. I still belong to a "Foot to Anapa" . I still write for fanzines. I still read fanzines. I know Woody Bernardi from a Las Vegas fandom. I didn't even realize you were here in Boston! I knew you had escaped from Vegas, but I didn't remember where. So there are connections. It's actually a very large and strange and very friendly community and I'm just happy that I have always been in it. It's a lot better than being a western fan I can tell you that!
Greg Bear: I came into Science Fiction about 1966 briefly for a WesterCon in San Diego and went to my first convention full time in 1968, BayCon, where I hung out with people. I already knew Ray Bradbury at that point, but I hung out with a lot of other people and met John W. Campbell and so on. I had already found Science Fiction, not through fandom but just on my own which is still being done 90% of the time and what I found was that there was this group. You have to understand, and some of you may remember, that Science Fiction was by and large totally unpopular at that time, as were Special Effects in motion pictures, something else I was interested in (there were five job openings in the entire planet, if that.) And I found that there were an awful lot of people at these conventions who were also interested in that. By the time 1966 rolled by, there were some more women in Science Fiction than there had been before because they all wanted to help Spock with his problem.
Gregory Benford: What was his problem?
Greg Bear: Ask Ted Sturgeon if you can; he wrote the episode. I just had a great time with it -- it was just a sympathetic place to be. And also you get to meet the editors and the writers and the illustrators and all the professional staff, . It is the only part of American culture where that is really done. I finally figured out after talking with Gregory long enough, that this sensibility came from the scientific community's pattern of raising up your graduate students to do better than you. I believe it was Robert Heinlein who said, "you cannot reward me, pass forward." And so you go out there and you do that and we are still doing that. Fandom is still a very inclusive group; they want to go out and proselytize and they want to maintain a certain cultural standard and that is very admirable and it certainly helped me.
Gregory Benford: Actually it's about the continuity of the
human enterprise. Science Fiction gives you a large perspective. One
thing that you do in reaction to the immense scales of space and time
is to emphasize the continuity of the human effort to deal with this
perspective. And that is done through the culture of Science Fiction
which is deliberately constructed to look over long scales. People
don't recognize this about Science Fiction, they tend to think, "Oh,
it's about robots in spaceships blah, blah, blah." But in fact,
at the core is a sense of wonder. The sense of wonder is what you
get out of long perspectives and the reaction to that, the human reaction,
is human continuity. Continuity not of ourselves, but of our effort.
Gregory Benford: Yes, since then.
Anonymous: I am wondering what you think about that particular project and have you talked to the principles in that project?
Gregory Benford: I have talked to Stuart and to Hillis and the other guys about the clock and it's an interesting project. And they've got a lot of interesting people behind it. I think it is doomed. I said so in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago.
Mary Hopper: But you are talking at the Library event. The same group is also doing the Library and you are speaking.
Gregory Benford: Yes, they say they are going to put in a library, but it is really about the clock. They say they are going to put in some other permanent things, but frankly I think that putting a really pricey clock alone in the desert is just -- what did Dylan say? -- "The pump don't work and the vandals took the handles." You could strip down the clock and get five or six thousand bucks just for the metal. Boy, that's got to be tempting. I sure wouldn't want to leave that alone in the desert. You also got to wind it every year. You got to remember to go out there in the year 5680. It's going to be hard to leave a note for everybody to do that. I just think it is a nice idea, but I don't believe it.
Audience Member: What is this clock that you are talking about?
Gregory Benford: They want to build a clock that will tick and mark off ten thousand years to encourage people to think about long time scales. I think the goal is laudable, I just don't think the clock is going to survive.
Deep Time and Science Fiction
Gregory Benford: I do know a lot of Science Fiction that touches on these issues, in fact, the crucial thing about Science Fiction, the reason I think many people like it is that it talks about perspectives in time and space and acknowledges that they are linked. That's why time travel is such a big deal -- because it gives you perspective, never mind that its kind of implausible that you could really make an easy time machine. Yeah, sure, "Canticle for Liebowitz" is full of a sense of wonder precisely because long time scales give you that, they also give you some sense of fatalism. It's notable that many Science Fiction writers write about eras in which they will themselves not be living. It has a striking shadow effect on how you think about a narrative like that. I've got a number of references in the book to things that have influenced me but it's not an exhaustive list of Science Fiction because that list would be too long. There is a lot of Science Fiction that looks at these issues. Actually I expect this crowd will probably know it better than I.
Mary Hopper: The fact that you picked that reading was interesting to me because it relates to the same ideas that Deanna Marcum writes about and she is speaking here later this week. In fact, you are both scheduled to speak at the Library event for the Long Now Foundation which is coming up and I was going to ask you what you thought of their efforts to create the Long Now clock and library. I assumed you would be more positive since you were scheduled to speak at their event.
Gregory Benford: Long Now is a good group. I am on their side. But I think that focusing on the clock, on a thing that is exactly like the kind of stuff that always gets destroyed is being ahistorical. The one thing you learn from history is that most deep time messages -- by design anyway -- failed. No museum, no library survived. Pieces of them did, but no institution survived. That is really striking for those who work in institutions that are devoted to this cause. And I think we ought to learn from it. Many of the riches of the ancient world were preserved precisely because they were not marked and nobody was in charge of them, because they were lost and then rediscovered such as King Tut's Tomb. That's sobering too. I would just like some knowledge of that in the mix when we think about doing this because you can't always count on it being supertended. The US Waste Facility will be marked by about the year 2030 and the guards will be withdrawn within 20 years and then it's got to last 10,000 years. Lotsa luck.
Mary Hopper: So your feelings about the clock and the library are roughly the same then?
Gregory Benford: Right, I mean, libraries don't last either. The aim of a library is to be used and that just wears it out.
Greg Bear: Did you mention the Tomb of ShiWong Di? because we don't really know what's in there, but the mound has been preserved since 250 BC. We just don't know what ShiWong Di, the man who burned all the books and started his reign in the year 0, managed to do. I really wanted to set an Indiana Jones movie in the opening up of that tomb but nobody asked me. But anyway that might be the real surprise.
Gregory Benford: Do you know why it's not opened?
Greg Bear: The Chinese have been holding it, since the Chinese have been in control. But before that, since I am doing the movie version, it's those 7500 clay soldiers coming up at night and grabbing all those trying to break in. But I think it was actually superstition about the big mound being cursed and in China that really works. Over here, you're going to have 5500 people from Boston going there to take the metal; they don't believe in superstition, so you're gonna have to put those laser things up there.
Gregory Benford: And then you have to worry about the power supply.
Greg Bear: Yeah, but I see this movie. I see the clock of the Long Now and it's this huge 17 jeweled ticking movement that sprawls across the landscape for a mile and a half and you can't take it down because it's too big to move and the guards shoot you anyway --those 7500 clay guards spread around the perimeter.
Greg Bear: Well, I have been talking about this for 17 years now
Gregory Benford: And it still hasn't happened.
Greg Bear: Actually it has, I mean look at "Blair Witch Project." In another two to three years there will be HDTV home movie cameras. If you see an HDTV it is pretty jaw-dropping. You can get together a crew of high school students with some talent and put them together with a screen writer and a couple of wanna-be actors and send them out and lo and behold they do "Blair Witch Project". They can do it very cheaply, they don't have to use film at all. In "Blair Witch Project" the film camera is basically a prop. That's going to change things and the studios are recognizing this and what they are going to do is shift their money over into theme parks. Because you can't put a theme park in virtual reality yet, although I am sure Michael Crichton will write a book about it shortly. If he can make a plot out of that, more power to him because no one else has been able to. You know, virtual reality: "And they started the book and it was all a dream." Oh really? I don't think so.
The power of that is what I called in 1983 the power of the visual typewriter, where you can have 100,000, or 10 million, or however many, creative individuals sitting down and making really awful movies which they then post on their websites. The crickets gather around those websites, but every so often a critic stumbles upon it and you are found! The "Do Drop Inn" is suddenly the hottest video restaurant in town selling and uploading and downloading those credit card numbers and taking two or three bucks a piece and no one is sharing that with you except maybe the credit card company and maybe the critic who you have to pay off five percent. He's called an agent now.
When that happens, however those movies are produced, whoever is doing them, it puts the movie on the same level playing field with the novel and the short story with typewritten text and that is going to be the greatest liberation in the history of cinema. Understand what is going on in cinema right now: the producers and the studios and the directors and everybody involved has to try to guess what 60 million people want to see at this given moment. They have to do that in competition with 45 other films being made which are also trying to guess what other people want to see. Is it no surprise that there are five or six ghost movies, two versions of volcano movies? No they double up and of course they steal from each other surreptitiously or otherwise and it is just a mess! A monumental mess! It is the most agonizing form of doing business imaginable except for any other form of big business. Since I haven't worked in big business it took me a while to realize this.
Movies are really no worse than working for IBM or AT&T at a certain level. -- Get that out of the way, get it down to where it should be, you know, like putting sex back in the bedroom where it belongs, and there it is, that's the liberating moment. Suddenly teenage kids can really do what I wanted to do when I was 16, which was make movies! How many of you have seen the spin off of "Star Troopers"? Pretty bad actually, terrible script writing, really interesting technology because now they are 75% on the way to replacing real actors --these are three-dimensional cartoons and they are looking pretty good! In another four years they are going to have the facial algorithms and everything else and those people on the screen are going to be almost indistinguishable from real actors and a hell of a lot easier to deal with. So that is what is going to happen.
Gregory Benford: I actually have some caveats about that. I think that will happen, but reasoning by analogy and looking backward I did not notice that the typewriter suddenly made everyone a novelist. It made everybody think they were but everyone thinks they have a book in them, thank god most of those books never escape! So you know you can produce a desert of plenty by an enormous Internet filled with films that you don't want to see. And then of course editing begins.
Look what has happened to publishing: you still have editing, you still have filters, you don't have a critic who says, "Send off for this terrific novel written by a ten year old in Detroit and give him three dollars for it." That is not the way it is played out. Instead you still depend upon publishers to filter things and you go to a bookstore to get it. Now I know it is not an exact analogy, but I would just say as a caveat, you are going to need filters and they will be like book editors or magazine editors. We now have magazines on the Internet but they still have to be edited. I have a column in a couple of them and there is occasionally some editing at least on Space.com, None apparently on GalaxyOnline. I have columns in both. Nonetheless, there will be filters between you and this plenitude precisely because there will be 20 million people trying to sell you their movie and you do not want to look at all of them.
Greg Bear: Yes, but the filters right now are Stalinist filters. They stop you from being seen by anybody except if you hand your manuscript over to them directly.
Gregory Benford: The Stalin in New York?
Greg Bear: Yes, the Stalin in New York. And that is the difficulty or the difference here. On the Internet of course it is going to be garbage -- I mean, do you want to sit in every music store in the land and listen to some kid plinking on the electronic Wurlitzer? I don't think so. But if you ever want to go cruising through the wild wastelands of the equivalent of MP3 cinema, as you can believe that 20 or 30 million young people will, just because they don't want to go to "Simon & Schuster_Dot_Com, where we guarantee best sellers recognized by your friends." No. Those kids are going to go out there and search because they have time, teenagers have time to waste. And they go out there and search and explore and dig through the back woods and come upon a moldering skeleton of video done by some Ed Wood 25 years ago and they elevate it to cult status and suddenly you have this upburst from under. As Kevin Kelly puts it, it's bottom-up art development.
That's what the Internet makes different. You can still get the stuff the New York people don't want or that the editors don't like. For example, the man who did not edit Gregory Benford, did edit Greg Bear. He rejected my column for no good reason. He asked me for a personal column, I gave him a personal column that explains what I want to do, who I am etc. etc. and he said, "You put a lot of names in here like Robert E. Howard and people don't know who they are." So I said, "There was a movie made about him!" Well, okay so anyway, I pulled it and put it on my own damn website -- thank you.! -- which gets at least one thousandth of the hits that other website will get, but at least it's available and you can find it: GregBear.com costs you nothing -- no advertising yet!
Gregory Benford: Sorry, I didn't mean to bring it up again. What was the name of that Howard movie? I want to look it up.
Greg Bear: It's called, The Whole Wide World. It is a wonderful film, it's absolutely a tear-jerker. It is quite extraordinary because it is perfectly respectful of all of that fantasy.
Gregory Benford: Can I get it on the Internet?
Greg Bear: No, because it was very poorly distributed -- it's on video.
Tony Lewis: When making films on the Internet, I assume that you won't have to hire actors, you won't have to build special effects -- this would mean that a huge fraction of the money that's available would go to the writers. Do you see this as actually occurring?
Greg Bear: To the auteurs, you mean, this is film. remember?
There may not be any writers. There are always going to be screen
plays but who knows if they are going to be sketched out on a sketching
system with dialogue written in very carefully by hand? No, the old
models just don't really apply. This is going to be Judy Garland and
Mickey Rooney in the garage, "Gee, we can make Lawrence of Arabia
in the garage, I've got a computer!" It will start off with cartoon
style animation first, but the money will then be parceled out to
the five or ten people who will make up the movie crew. Very seldom
do you have a Ray Harrihausen who can, in fact, do all the special
effects all by himself practically.
Kurt Lancaster: I wanted to get your thoughts on the idea of a human mission to Mars. As you know, Robert Zubrin wrote the book, The Case of Mars, in 1996 in which he talked about how you could do a human mission to Mars for about $40 billion which is about ten percent of our surplus of the United States budget this year.
Gregory Benford: Bob Zubrin got my interest in Mars reinvigorated so much so that I wrote and published first, A Cold Dry Cradle with Elizabeth Melartre and then The Martian Race which someone told me a couple of days ago had been nominated for the Prometheus Award, the libertarian award, apparently because it is about going to Mars with private enterprise. The crucial idea is, you set a price. Let's say six governments get together and say, "Here's 30 billion bucks for whomever returns with a manned expedition to Mars that does this kind of biological sampling, all you have to do is get back." The point is you are not out any money until somebody does it. It is assumed that NASA was going to do this and then the Magnum Booster blows up on the stand, kills six astronauts and Congress loses its nerve and then a Ted Turner type says, "Hey, that prize is still there! It's still a treaty obligation. If I can do this, I can keep all the media rights and I get 30 billion bucks if you guys get back alive -- I'm not going." And it is a story of how they do it and what they find and how tough it is to get back which I think is the real story for the space program.
I spent a lot of time working in the space program; I have been working on an experiment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for just about all of the last year. And I really care about the space program, I suppose that we all do. It's been pitiful to watch NASA do anything possible to stay away from the obvious. Mars is the scientific goal that the space program must have. It is the number one outstanding issue, the real scientific reason to go to Mars is to find out if life began there or even if it persists beneath the surface. You cannot do it with robots, everybody at NASA knows that, they are just not good enough. You know when Sojourner was trucking around and making everybody identify with it, do you know how far it went in 30 days? 90 meters. And it had a team of six people working on it continuously, day in and day out, because it is just very hard to move a robot which has a mind about this big on the surface of a planet that is 40 to 60 million miles away.
Going to Mars will be a great drama, usually interesting, a cliffhanger -- literally in some cases -- lasting two and a half years. People could die at any moment, and it will be one of the marker events of the entire next century. If we do not do it -- people say, "it will be easier to do 30 to 50 years from now" -- it may never get done. The Chinese never did get control over the world's oceans and discover the New World once they stopped expanding. The Portuguese and Spanish never really did master the New World in the way that the northern Europeans did, mostly from a failure of nerve. There are lost opportunities and what I am afraid of is that Mars may be a opportunity that if lost, could conceivably never be done. Nobody can predict the future. But the only countries that can do it are those who now have plenty of time and are rich and famous. Frankly, if you've been reading the news in the last decade, there are ample signs that this is a civilization with too much time on its hands.
Greg Bear: Yeah, with all those Internet videos coming up! I agree with everything Gregory said. What do you believe is the biggest obstacle technologically in the way of our surviving a trip to Mars and back?
Audience member: It's not a technological obstacle it's a political problem.
Greg Bear: Good! Anybody else?
Audience member: Maintaining the same environment for two and a half years or five years.
Greg Bear: Right, getting closer, anybody else?
Audience member: Osteoporosis
Greg Bear: Right the internal biological stuff.
Michael Burstein: Psychological difficulty? --Isolation?
Greg Bear: We just saw that an American female astronaut just entered a sexual harassment complaint against a Russian astronaut in space station training. That's probably going to be a problem. They didn't have that in Mission to Mars, they all stayed happily married.
Audience member: They shouldn't have any males on the trip.
Greg Bear: Yeah, well Dan Golden tried to get that going and then there was a report that there is no scientific reason to have an all female shuttle crew, in fact women are going to have some of the same problems.
Audience member: Years ago, a physiologist noting that the soviets did very careful psychological screening for compatibility and the United States didn't, said, "One of these days somebody is going to get killed up there!"
Greg Bear: Right and that is quite likely. Well the real problem is that we have never sealed off an environment with no external power supplies, no water, no oxygen for anywhere near five months -- we have no idea what happens to the ecosystem of five or six astronauts within a spaceship over a period of two and a half years totally taken away from the earth's ecosystem. I am sure you are all familiar with the Guy Hypothesis, I don't quite believe it, but something very much like that is in fact happening now. MIR has always been supplied with water, food and everything else. We have never done a lock-down for more than a few months. That is going to be the most serious difficulty and that I believe firmly is the biggest technological problem to returning the astronauts alive because it is the one least studied.
Gregory Benford: Yes, and why? That's the interesting thing. NASA has not studied long term, totally enclosed, encyclable environments. It has never done, nor have the Russians, a centrifugal gravity experiment and yet every damn fool knows that the way to go to Mars is under centrifugal gravity, which is not difficult to do but it does need to be tested. But the fear of Mars is so great that these experiments cannot get green lighted at NASA because it plainly says we are on our way. And there is nothing that strikes fear into the heart of a bureaucrat greater than the fear of failure. Because if you do nothing, of course, you can't fail.
Bucky: A further concern rather than just the closed environment is perfect quarantine when they get back. If there is life out there what do we bring back, safely or not?
Greg Bear: Well perfect quarantine is probably not necessary because they are going to be a year and a half in space something is going to get them before they get here, barring a Martian retro-virus of long duration.
Bucky: And we could probably finance the whole thing if we do have an all female crew and sell the fictional rights to the adult market.
Greg Bear: Ha-Ha, No, the male/female crew in space would be much more lucrative, I'll tell you. Although they could parcel off different compartments. Gregory's got a big dumbbell on one side and a compartment on the other side, my design was to have two spaceships parceled out and then rejoining after a while, for new partners.
Advice to Novice Novelists
Mike Greenberg: Do you have any advice to new writers?
Greg Bear: Write, don't give up, keep your day job. Don't invest in Dot Com stocks. Use sunscreen.
Gregory Benford: I say, write what you really like to read.
Greg Bear: Yeah, exactly, whatever it is and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. If you don't write about what you love or about what scares you nothing you write is going to be any good.
Gregory Benford: I tend to doubt the usefulness of writing classes.
Greg Bear: Uh, there are classes taught at MIT which are in fact extremely valuable.
Gregory Benford: Oh yes, the exception is Joe Haldeman's class; there you get a seasoned pro. I mean there are very few writing classes taught by real pros and when I hear the sorts of things that happen in writing classes they fill me with terror. The idea of listening to the opinions of other people who want to be writers, horrifies me. I don't know what would have happened to my career if I had done that. I just started writing short stories and after a while I sold some. You know, the "How jazz came up the Mississippi to Chicago" story. It is a long haul. Unless you really, really must become a writer, I would advise a career in real estate, or something that is frankly just a hell of a lot easier. If you really feel that you really want to write, then remember that you write because you like it. I write because I like it. I have a day job. In fact at the moment I have decided that I am going to take a year or so off and not write anything for a while and see what it feels like to breathe.
Greg Bear: He's been saying that for the last five years,
I've seen no sign of it.