Ben Bova

[The material below is an edited version of a discussion held at MIT on April 3, 2000]


Early Influences

Jeffrey Forrest: I am curious what your greatest science fiction influence was when you started writing.

Ben Bova: When I started writing, it goes back to my first visit to a planetarium. I grew up in south Philadelphia. How many of you saw the original movie Rocky? Well if you saw those narrow streets and those hoodlums on the corner, that's where I grew up. We were dragged kicking and screaming from Junior High School to a class visit to the science museum. In Philadelphia, everything is named after either William Penn or Benjamin Franklin, so the science museum is the Franklin Institute. They had a very fine planetarium which was donated by the man who made a fortune out of Fells Naptha Soap, a harsh brown soap that takes off dirt, skin, ganglia, everything. So it's called the Fells Planetarium. So here I am 10 years old and they drag us into this strange place, all I knew of the world were the narrow streets of south Philadelphia and what they tried to pound into our heads in school. We were brought into this domed chamber with something that looked like a giant ant in the middle and they turned off all the lights and they turned on the stars and it turned me on.

So I started reading about astronomy and I found that there were stories -- this was like 1945 or so -- stories about how great it's going to be when we get to the moon, when we explore Mars. For years I did not know that there was a whole genre called, Science Fiction, I just thought they were these great stories. So when I started writing that's what I wrote about, that's what I was interested in. I spent a good part of my life working with scientists, with physicists from MIT and elsewhere, with a research laboratory in Everett, Massachusetts where we broke the back of the Soviet Union with thinking, with "nias." It's been marvelous. That's what I know about, those are the people I know and that's what I write about. It's been great fun. It's very exciting.

The general public keeps getting fed from the media that scientists are different from ordinary humans, they are either evil or unworldly. Scientists are the most human people I know. And science is the most human thing we can do. We try to understand the universe. Chimpanzees have won prizes for painting, but they've won no prizes in physics and none of them could possibly be engineers.

Science Fiction and New Technologies

Kenneth Lu: The earlier science fiction I have read was from back in the 50s and most of it seemed to have very grandiose space opera stuff. Science fiction these days seems to have moved towards biotech and computer technology because those are technologies that seem to move a lot faster, while it would take us forever to get anywhere in space. Do you have any comments about that shift? Where do you think science fiction is going?

Ben Bova: Well I think the biological sciences are in a position today that physics was 100 years ago. It is the exciting blue sky area. And writers like to write about the exciting blue sky area. But there is an interplay. I'm still writing about exploring the solar system and the human race's expansion across its frontier. But as the biologists learn how to allow us to live longer and longer, then the distances in space become less important. If you live a thousand years you don't need a faster than light ride to get to the nearest stars. There will be plenty of stars you can reach. You may get pretty bored along the way but I suspect there will be plenty for you to do. So the interplay is what is interesting to me.

In my novel, Venus, we have people who are extending their life spans and our protagonist, Van Humphries, bumps into a scientist, an expert on the planet Venus, who has refused life extension therapies. Van is shocked. He has never seen an old person. This guy is physically falling apart and that's something different in the world that Van Humphries lives in.

Space Exploration and Politics

Kurt Lancaster: I am sure you are familiar with Dr. Robert Zubrin's book, The Case for Mars, and I wanted to ask you a question about this issue of Mars. I read in the newspaper today that the United States government will have a 3 hundred billion dollar surplus; Robert Zubrin lays out a plan for a human mission to Mars for 10 percent of that budget, 30 to 50 billion dollars. Why are we not going to Mars?

Ben Bova: We are not going to Mars or doing much else in space on the government side because there isn't a single politician in the United States who is afraid of the space vote. There is no political incentive to do a damn thing in space. I am stunned that we have done as much as we have when there is no political push at all. The scientists and, let's be fair, the politicians, too, are to be congratulated that they have done as much as they have. Nobody in the congress, and no president, is going to risk losing his or her job with a vote for space. However, Bill Gates could fund a Zubrin mission to Mars all by his lonesome and I think we should encourage him to do so, before the government steals Microsoft from him.

Kurt Lancaster: I'm going to take us back to Venus for a moment although I haven't read your latest novel yet. I know that in a lot of your writing you do tend to predict things of the future which then actually come true. And I know we haven't landed on Mars yet, but you did a very good job of painting what a real Mars mission might be like. How realistic do you think it is for any sort of human expedition to Venus? Do you think that is something that is likely to happen with the next 100 years?

Ben Bova: I suspect so, but I think only madmen would go to Venus. Perhaps you will see human beings going into orbit around Venus and directing robotic exploration of the surface of the planet. And since robots can explore much more safely than humans, I don't see any reason for people to go there, except for the occasional adventurer.

I wrote a short story, which will appear in Amazing Science Fiction in a few months, about a movie stunt man who builds his career on doing bigger and bigger stunts and his latest stunt is going from orbit to the ground on Venus as more or less a parachute jump. But what are the reasons we go into space? The primary reason has been for knowledge. The second reason that is becoming more important especially in earth orbit is for profit. There is a lot of knowledge to be gained on Venus I don't see any reason why it would be profitable. In the novel, Venus, Alex, the older brother who dies, went to Venus ostensibly for science, but really for a hidden agenda: he wanted to bring back first-hand images of what a real greenhouse effect looks like so that he could use them as a political club against his father and the industrialists who are politically opposed to the Greens. So that is sort of the political background of the novel.


Colonizing Space

Steve Duhamel: I have a question about terra-forming planets. We have, for example, Venus, which is too dense, too hot and Mars where the air is too thin, too cold. You want to get a combination of the two of them somehow. Is terra-forming feasible, worth doing? Any thoughts on that?

Ben Bova: I think terra-forming is an idea whose time has gone. It may be because I live in Florida and I see terra-forming at work and it's really not good for anybody. Why terra-forming? We mentioned earlier Bob Zubrin and his plan to go to Mars called, The Case for Mars. The first half of the book is about how to get to Mars efficiently which is wonderful. Then he says in the second half of the book that we have to go to Mars and raise colonies and terra-form Mars and that's Bullshit. That's strictly an argument to try to convince you that we should go to Mars. We don't need more real estate. And if we do, we'll do it the smart way, we'll build O'Neil-type colonies.

Now I know that O'Neil came from Princeton, he is not an MIT man, but you guys should have invented this. You build colonies where there is nothing now but empty space. You build hollowed structures and you rotate them to give an earth-like structure. You make them big enough so you can put in a complete earthly environment if you want more real estate.

I think we are not going to solve the earth's population problem by exporting people. We don't really need that much more real estate. The wonderful thing about space and the reason that I think it's so important to develop the space frontier is that it will never be a great place for large numbers of people to live. It will always be inhospitable and different and dangerous and by "always" I mean, for the next 100 or 200 years. But the resources and the energy there mean that a few people living and working in space can return riches to the earth beyond the riches that the entire planet earth can give us. Space can make everyone on earth wealthy in real terms. I mean, gold and silver, energy, raw materials, and the only way I know of in history to slow down a population boom is when the standard of living rises. Rich people can't afford to have a lot of children, they are much too expensive. Poor people can divide their inheritance among any number of children; when you got nothing you give each kid the same.

So if you want to solve the most pressing problems on earth today, the way I see it happening is to tap the resources of the solar system and bring that wealth to earth. Only a few people are necessary to go into space. By a few I mean, 10,000 to a million, I don't know. But the idea of taking earth's 6 billion people, or 10 billion in another decade or so, and taking large numbers of them off the earth to solve our population pressure --Athens tried this in the age of Pericles. It didn't solve Athens population problem, it just made new population booms in Syracuse and elsewhere where they planted the colonies.

They could never take enough Athenians out of the city to make a dent in the population growth and the same applies here. Just figure out how much it costs even under the most optimistic cost estimates to put a person in space and you are not going to solve earth's population problems that way. But bringing energy back, bringing raw materials back, making people wealthy, then they will all want to send their children to MIT and they will only have one or two.

Mike Greenberg: So we could create these wonderful colonies that would make the earth rich. Well, we all know what happens with colonies, it happened over here with the British. How long do you think that wealth will be pumped down into the gravity well before the colonies take off and do their own thing?

Ben Bova: Well for your penance you must read my novels, Moonrise and Moon War, where I've explained all that. It'll happen as soon as these settlements -- I don't like to call them colonies -- as soon as these communities or settlements off the earth are reasonably self-sufficient. And that's what happened with colonies on the earth. The thirteen colonies of North America weren't fighting to win their independence, they were fighting to keep their independence. They had been independent from the time the charters were first signed by the king and the colonists here thought that parliament and George III were trying to take away their liberties -- that's why they fought. Later on they invented a new form of government, which was a very nice thing to do. And it will happen in space too.

Susie Lynn: On the same vein of conversation about the new world, I think that what you said before sounds disturbingly like what the colonists must have said back in the 1400's or 1500's. What you have talked about so far has been so optimistic that I feel like saying, "Oh yeah! We should definitely go out and explore space!" But when the colonists came to these new lands they brought with them new diseases, so I was wondering what your thoughts are about man's negative impact on space.

Ben Bova: The fact that you are here should fill you with optimism. Think of the struggles that each of our families has had going back generation after generation, back, back into the past. We are living in wonderful times. I think we have every cause to be optimistic. We know more, we are healthier, we live longer, we have much better tools with which to grapple with the universe. We can and I think we will expand outward. Every biological species expands to fill every ecological niche it can reach. We are smart enough to bring our ecology with us.

Susie Lynn: I agree but what about our impact on space?

Ben Bova: Again, I am going to refer you to previously published works. Read my novel, Return to Mars. It is all about that question. Should we muck up Mars? Should we make it into a tourist site? Should we plant colonies there? Or should we keep it as a scientific preserve -- especially if there is the faintest chance that life once existed on Mars? And in Return to Mars, the protagonist is an American geologist who is part Navajo and he keeps thinking, "My God we are going to put the Martians on a reservation -- even though they are only microbes -- so that we can come and gawk at them!" So he feels very strongly about this, not just intellectually but viscerally.

Science Fiction and Hollywood

Kurt Lancaster: A couple of films dealing with Mars are coming out now: one is Mission to Mars, another is Red Planet. A lot of science fiction people watched Mission to Mars and even though it offers a seemingly realistic representation of a Mars landing, we still wonder why Hollywood doesn't go to the science fiction novelists to look for more realistic science fiction stories.

Ben Bova: "Lemme esplain this, Lucy." How many people are here? There are 50. Now if you spend 50 million dollars to make a movie you'd need to sell more tickets than 50. Movies are not made for us. Movies are not made for people who read science fiction. Movies are made for the largest possible audience, which unfortunately, often means the lowest common denominator. Mission to Mars has some good technology in it from what I have heard. They haven't seen fit to make a movie of my novel so I haven't seen fit to go see their movie.

Although they can get the best advice and the best technology they very often have to produce plots that are just idiotic. One night I watched a James Bond film with a very attractive, bosomy young lady playing a nuclear physicist. She couldn't quite pronounce "nuclear," but that's all right, she breathed well and they managed to get her completely wet. And this is Hollywood's idea of physics. "Nuclear" means something is going to blow-up and contaminate everything and it is just dumb. I think that all of you, in fact every citizen of the world should be forced to read the Marching Morons, a Cyril Kornbluth story from back in the 50s because we are living that world. Idiots have more children than geniuses and movie-makers make movies for the idiots.

Science Fiction and the Internet

Kurt Lancaster: As a follow-up question about Internet fiction: I am wondering about those online communities in which people from different parts of the world come together in virtual space to play fantasy games and games of life within interactive narratives, do you foresee authors going down such a track in the future where they would try to shape a game in that kind of multi-authored environment?

Ben Bova: Yes. I think the wonderful thing about electronic publishing and the opportunities it offers is that you can say "yes" to almost any suggestion. It is a wide-open, new field and you will be able to do all kinds of things and we are limited only by our daring and our imagination at this point in the game. Market forces will obviously come into play. But right now it is a wide-open field. The real question is, will there be people who get so involved in an alternate reality that they leave this one? There have been science fiction stories from 20- to 30 years back about people literally starving to death because they are so jacked into their alternate reality game that they forget to get out of the game and eat. It is a new kind of narcotic.

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Michael Burstein: I want to throw a question at you from a different angle. These lectures are called Media-in-Transition, ostensibly because they are sponsored by the Media Studies department. You're a good person to talk to about how media is changing the written word. You wrote a book called, Cyberbooks, which predicted the electronic book. You are also the main person behind an online magazine called I was wondering if you had any predictions for the next few years? I have heard everything from "paper books are going to disappear in five years" to "paper books are never going to disappear" to "everything is going to become print on demand." Where do you see publishing with the new electronic format going and how soon do you think it's going to get there?

Ben Bova: I am going to take a pass at how soon because that depends on lots of factors. But there is inevitably a point where the cost of paper gets so high and it keeps rising that the cost of disseminating information electronically is the only way to go. Most paper publishers will be driven out of the business. And will, with great reluctance and many times unsuccessfully, go to electronic publishing. Galaxyonline is a new internet site that has text, motion pictures, videos -- it's interactive and you can read the finest work that science fiction writers are doing today. We have lots of non-fiction. We are attempting to explore the future in the way that Omni magazine did when it first started, but with many different forms of media.

Book publishers today who are printing on paper are basically in the wood pulp and paper industry. 90% of their costs comes from hauling tons and tons of paper from one place to another. Standing between you, the reader, and me, the writer, is an army of publisher, editor, distributor, bookstore people -- you go electronically and a lot of those middle people are eliminated. Much of the cost of hauling paper around is eliminated. So the cost of electronic publishing should be much lower.

Now I have been appalled over the years and years of talking about this, when even the most faithful science fiction fans says, "Yeah, but a book ought to be on paper, I like the feel of it." And I say, "No, no, a book really ought to be on clay tablets and weigh about 11 pounds each." Be that as it may, if you want it on paper, it will be distributed electronically, you print it! You bind it! You want to feel the paper? Use your own damn paper! There is an enormous amount of inertia in our social systems, but certainly 20 years from now, publishing on paper will be rare.

Michael Burstein: I agree that paper is not the most convenient way of transmitting information. On the other hand, paper is one of the best ways to preserve information. We were talking before about how the 20th century may be the best documented century in history. Did you hear about how the New York Times decided to create a time capsule that would last for a thousand years? They asked how they were going to preserve all the information and they kept looking into all kinds of digital media that they might use and they were essentially told in the end to go with paper. So I wonder if you feel that if we start making works in electronic format, that it is going to be a problem for preserving works, or do you feel that the formats will just keep being renewed? I know that right now it is impossible to get hold of an Edgar Panghorn novel because it is not in print.

Ben Bova: Novels that are not in print is not a factor of the form in which they were printed, it is a factor of the economic decisions made by the publishers. If the New York Times does a time capsule and it doesn't last a thousand years I will be the first to stand up and cheer. I think the New York Times is a terribly overrated tissue of lies... more or less. If you really want to preserve information over long periods of time we know perfectly well how to do it, you carve it in stone. I mean, we can still go and read Egyptian hieroglyphics, we can see the Rosetta Stone. I mean there are wonderful ways of preserving things for long periods of time, they are a bit labor intensive perhaps, but they work. I think electronic systems, as you say, newer systems and better systems, will leave all and they will be preserved for long periods of time. People will preserve the information that they want to preserve and they will change from one format to another as the new capabilities arise.

Kathleen Lynch: What about your own books? When Stephen King's last book came out it crashed the server how many times because they had everyone downloading it?

Ben Bova: Well, the technology isn't perfect yet.

Kathleen Lynch: But what about publishing your books that way?

Ben Bova: Well, right now the market doesn't exist. Stephen King can afford to have a flop. I can't.


Kathleen Lynch: This happened a month or so ago and I think King said that he made more money with that particular book than he had in the past.

Ben Bova: Well, that's very interesting, but for most writers publishing electronically is a grave risk.

Kathleen Lynch: In fact one of my friends downloaded the book into a palm pilot. Now I am not quite at the point where I read everything on the palm pilot, but I guess many people do. Peanut Press is the reader they use.

Ben Bova: Yes there are several electronic systems that you can buy. I think it will really take off when the reader becomes very low in price and the books themselves come down to a dollar or less. The reason a hard cover book costs $20 to $30 is because you are buying a lot of paper, and a lot of Teamster Union people who have been moving that paper around. And the information you could have, if it were disseminated through the internet, could be had for pennies.

Susie Lynn: But the same thing was said about CDs and cassettes, that distribution would be mere pennies. Now we know that it costs the same amount of money to produce CDs as it does cassettes, but CDs are substantially more expensive than cassettes. I'm afraid that the same thing is going to happen with electronic publishing. In the beginning we will be motivated by the thought that we are saving the environment and we will be cutting costs, but I think it might end up that we will be spending more.

Ben Bova: I think that price is always a combination of factors, one is the cost of producing the item, the other is how much people will pay for it. Somewhere in-between those two factors the producer makes a profit. Another factor is that writers generally work for a lot less than musicians. There are many, many more writers available to any kind of publisher than there are musicians -- with the exception of rock music, anyone can do that.... at least that's my personal opinion.... Oops, I just destroyed myself with the rock crowd.

Isaac Roseman: What about copyrights? Right now copyrights are pretty well enforced by the fact that nobody's going to sit at a copier with a big, fat book and let thousands of pages fly through. But if you have a book online, then people can just email files to one another so that one person buys the book and all his friends can get it for free. With that kind of insecurity as far as copyright goes what do you think that will do to the world of sci-fi authors and yourself specifically? Would that discourage you from writing more books? Not that you are only in it for the money.

Ben Bova: Well, the writer is put on the horns of a terrible dilemma. In the first place you are right that someone could very easily make thousands of copies and you will never see a penny from it. On the other hand, suppose no one copies your work, you will feel as if no one wants it. I think there has to be some way of encrypting the work so that it can't be easily copied. As you said, the reason it is not much of a problem with printed books is that it costs more money to copy a book than it does to go to the store and buy one. That kind of safeguard does not exist electronically and it is a major drawback and a major problem.

Naomi Burstein: Do you see electronic publishing changing the way you write? The novels and stories on the internet do not lend themselves as well to the chapter format. Do you see yourself changing the format in which you write to accommodate people who will sit and read all the way through whereas a paper reader might read a chapter and then stop and pick it up again later.

Ben Bova: Well at Galaxyonline we are finding that people do not want to read very long material. So the chapter organization of the novel probably will survive into electronic publishing where you can take it in small doses.

Michael Greenberg: Among the problems that people have in getting published, one is that they might have a good story, but the editor can only put six stories per month in the magazine or per six months depending upon the distribution. Do you think that there would be more acceptance of stories or bigger markets for writers? And how do you think electronic publishing will get around this tax problem where you see things going out of print because you can't store them in warehouses anymore?

Ben Bova: Two good questions. First I think that electronic publishing will open up enormous markets. At Galaxyonline we publish something new every day. We add to our bank of information every day and we keep all the stuff. You can access anything we have published and that just keeps growing and growing and growing. So there is a demand for more material, not merely from publishers who will pay you for stuff, but you can publish your own material on the internet.

As for the second half of your question, you do not have to have warehouses full of paper to store the world's literature. You can do it on a couple of chips. We are already seeing companies that offer books on demand -- books that are not available on paper are digitized; you call up and they will print one copy of that book for you. So it's going to make books much easier to get, it will eliminate this business of books being out of print a few months after they are published, and it will open new markets for writers. All to the good, I think!

Kurt Lancaster: Thank you all for coming!



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