John Barnes Reaches Beyond Science Fiction2008-02-01
"Lately I find the weird stuff isn't disturbing enough, the hard stuff doesn't engage anything emotionally for me, and the warmer, fuzzier things by the new writers seem terribly derivative.”
HSF: How did you first become interested in science fiction?
JB: I'm not quite sure in what order I encountered the Mushroom Planet books, or Space Cat, or Mike Mars, or Tom Swift Jr., but I'd read and liked all of them before I ran into Andre Norton's STAR MAN'S SON, and then I went to the public library in Bowling Green Ohio and read every Andre Norton book that had "Star" in the title, of which there are a lot. In that way I found the science fiction section, and eventually stumbled on Heinlein, Asimov, and most especially Poul Anderson. About the time I thought I was outgrowing all that, the New Wave got into the library and I suddenly discovered a source of dirty books that the librarian would let me take out; I think science fiction would have been just a passing phase for me if it hadn't been for DANGEROUS VISIONS and STAND ON ZANZIBAR.
HSF: Which writers, books, or scientists have influenced you the most to become a writer of SF?
JB: My mother wrote -- certainly not science fiction -- and so there was just never a time when I was unaware of writing as a possible way to exist. So she gets the most influential writer nod. After that, I guess what influenced me was what frustrated me; I get a lot more drive to write a book if I'm not happy with any of the ones it's like, or if I love the idea but don't like the execution, or if there's just something that rings false to me. One thing I always thought was frustrating about Heinlein juveniles, for example, was that they tended to end just when they were getting good -- right as everything opened up into a hopeless-to-interpret weirdsville. Asimov had that problem for me, too; once the intellectual puzzle he wrote about was solved, he put the pieces away. I guess I like to think about going one step farther behind the scenery, or sticking around for one more act.
HSF: As a hard sf writer, how much weight do you put on scientific accuracy in your fiction?
JB: Everything and nothing. Scientific fact is to hard sf what the brush is to bird hunting. Everything interesting is in there somewhere, and it constrains everything you do, but finally you're there to get the bird (or the story) and when you leave the brush will be mostly untouched. Well, okay, some of us trample it a little. It makes it grow back stronger and provide more cover for more birds for next year.
HSF: How important is it to you, if at all, that your readers learn scientific concepts from your stories?
JB: When I think of how many things I knew that weren't true when I was 14, thanks to sf, it is very important to me that nobody trusts a damned word I say. When I think about how many ways sf opened doors for me and helped me get out of the narrow little Midwestern universe I lived in, and how many real and true things it did point me to, I try to be really good about the research and point at all kinds of interesting stuff. And when I think about how much time I don't have to finish the current project, I have a tendency to say "good enough" as soon as I think I understand -- which is why people shouldn't believe me, except when i'm telling the truth, which I do when I can. So it's so important to me that I wish people wouldn't except when they do.
HSF: Do you generally write what you know about, or do you intentionally write in unknown territory?
JB: Both, actually, depending on mood and on whether I want the territory to stay unknown.
HSF: What types of research do you do to achieve scientific accuracy in your stories?
JB: Almost all at the library nowadays; now and then I'll run something by a scientist friend but almost never onea scientist who reads or writes sf, since they start trying to write the story for me. I used to do a lot more interviewing of scientists, engineers, businessmen, etc. and I really ought to get back to that; also used to travel more and wish my life permitted it now.
HSF: In your novels, you've dabbled in politics, religion, and socio-economics. How intermingled are these subjects with the science of the future? In other words, what kind of influence do you think upcoming scientific advances will have on politics, religion, the world economy, etc?
JB: Somewhere a hundred or more years ago we got to the point where you can't do science without money and legal protection. That means some sort of government connection (even if it's just living where the cops can be trusted), some sort of budget, and not having angry mobs at the door (which covers not just religion but things like the animal rights movement). The more interesting question in many ways is how the social system is going to prioritize research, and on that I don't have any immediate answer, except to say once the technology is developed, regardless of the original reason for it, everyone sooner or later gets to use it. Does that mean as more effort is poured into ecology (the science, I mean, since some people use that to mean a cause or the environment), eventually we will see a big war with ecological weapons? Since large numbers of New Agers are using "quantum" to mean "magic" these days, will products that contain transistors and lasers start carrying labels that read "Certified Quantum," and will quantum effects become the preferred technical choice for as many applications as possible? Will the slowly growing strength of the anti-abortion people lead to a shutdown of research on early pregnancy (since donated abortions are often useful for that) or to widespread, cheap processes for removing, storing, and implanting fetuses (and in that case, where will all the mothers come from -- even if you grow them to babies in tanks, who or what will raise them?)
HSF: In what way, if at all, do current events influence your ideas?
JB: Events of several years past will slowly percolate up, often being changed so utterly that I'm the only one who recognizes them. And current events are so often replays of events of the recent past that if, for example, I have an idea that I want to say something about the peculiar ability of ethnic hatred to materialize almost as soon as any two groups are thrown into contact -- a thing I noticed when I saw conflicts between Hmong refugees and Northern Plains Indians back in the late 1980s -- two populations that had never encountered each other until less than 20 years before, but were developing stereotypes, taunts, the whole nine yards of mutual nastiness -- by the time I get the book written, in, oh, say, 1997, people think it's about Serbia or Sri Lanka or Lebanon (to name three places that various reviewers "knew" EARTH MADE OF GLASS was about). I tend to change things a lot, too, exaggerating and shrinking, pulling and pushing to make them fit.
HSF: Do you think the genre of science fiction has become stale, or are there still a lot of exciting ideas to explore? Which ideas are you excited about exploring?
JB: Well, I think I'm pretty stale. At the moment I'm proposing mainly non-science-fiction books because nothing's exciting me; as soon as something does, I'll be back into it. Lately I find the weird stuff isn't, somehow, disturbing enough, the hard stuff doesn't engage anything emotionally for me, and the warmer, fuzzier things by the new writers seem terribly derivative. We can go with the hypothesis that the field is temporarily low on new ideas, or that I'm an old grouch. I published a couple of articles in www.helixsf.com lately in which I expressed the former hypothesis, and this prompted many bloggers to express the latter. But I think the most likely thing going on is just a fallow period for sf for me; there are certainly many other kinds of things I'd like to write, so I'm going to do that for a while. No point sitting at a keyboard doing something that bores you; if I were going to do that I'd have stayed in computer programming. But I don't think at all that I'm gone from the field for good; I have a few sf projects under way and perhaps by the time I finish those, I'll have something or other else to do.
HSF: You have quite a diverse body of work. What general message or concept do you want readers to take from your work as a whole?
JB: Well, maybe several different ones, for the several different audiences I imagine having:
"See, that wasn't such a bad airplane ride. You hardly noticed the crying baby at all. Now take a deep breath, take along the nice daydream about settling Mars, and get on with your day."
"Kid, the people who tell you that all there is is what you've already seen, are lying to you. Pawn your birthday presents and catch the Greyhound to the nearest bigger town."
"Oh, for crap's sake, if they ever invent that, it won't work like THAT, it will work like THIS, and you won't like it half as much as you think you will."
"Don't be lonely. There's love someplace, especially for the hopelessly odd. And you are carrying around the love someone else needs. Better get that delivered. Look for someone odd."
Probably fifty other things like that, and none of them would really refer to science, politics, religion, or whatever.
HSF: What do you think life will be like in the year 2100? Will we finally have personal jet packs?
JB: Well, it will be very dark and peaceful and I won't be moving much. It won't even wake me up when my damn idiot great-great-grandson zooms in on his personal jet pack to leave a wreath.
Hmm, okay, a more fun answer: about one quarter as recognizable, from our persepective, as 2000 was from the perspective of 1908.
HSF: What are you working on right now?
JB: Right this moment, doing a major book doctoring project, helping get the "almost" out of "almost-publishable" for a new writer. Per hour I do a lot better helping to finish other people's books than I do writing my own; probably just more evidence that I have a lot more craft than I do things to say these days. I'm also finishing up EENIE MEANIE MINEY MOE, which is a YA space adventure -- Sharyn November, my editor, refers to it as "Losers in Space," and it's basically THE BREAKFAST CLUB meets SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON on a disabled Earth-Mars cycler. I'm also proposing books under pseudonyms in several genres that I like to read but haven't written in, and perhaps something will come of that. In SF, after the book for Sharyn, probably A FAR CRY, which will be the last Giraut book, and THE KNIGHT WHO, which is the first book of the tricycle of which ONE FOR THE MORNING GLORY is the middle book. And that gets me to somewhere in 2009, at which time, according to the books I read when I was a kid, my Sears Personal JetPack should arrive for Christmas, and I'll just fly over to the moving sidewalk and catch the saucer for somewhere else.