Hi David, thanks for talking with us! What can you tell us about your story, “The Giving Plague?”
Back in the 1980s, biological science was abuzz with a new idea—that the boundaries between species aren’t anywhere near as firm and permanent as we (and Darwin) once thought. Bacteria exchange DNA with each other. Many of our own genes entered our chromosomes, originally, from viruses. Some species even hijack each other, as when a parasitic wasp lays her egg in an ant, who then behaves almost like a living vehicle, taking the growing larva where it needs to be.
Then there’s the Gaia Hypothesis—the notion that our planet behaves much like a living organism, whose many cells consist of the countless species and organisms that seem, at the surface, to be so competitive with each other.
Some of these notions made it into my novels Earth and Heart of the Comet. But there was one really cool idea that I had left over. So cool that it made “The Giving Plague” a Hugo nominee.
“The Giving Plague” was first written in 1987, and you talk a bit about the AIDS epidemic in the beginning of the story. What are your thoughts on the progress of combating the disease?
Of course, I’m glad that finally, after so many false starts, some progress has been made in extending the lives of infected people. HIV is a tough, ferocious enemy and so far it’s been hard to apply standard techniques, teaching our immune systems how to fend it off, by ourselves.
I’m fascinated by the way you look at viruses’ motivations (for lack of a better word) and their own evolution towards survival. Do you see their existence as intention without intelligence, or something different?
No, I have a pretty standard view that life stumbles into things. There are so many viruses of so many kinds, hijacking macro cells to make and spew millions of copies, that some of those copies will stumble into methods and tricks that seem (from an outside perspective) to be very, very clever. One example of a cunning trick would be the kind of disease I describe in “The Giving Plague.”
Another kind, having to do with making whole civilizations “sneeze” across the cosmos, is a feature in my new novel Existence. You’ve never seen anything like it.
With your fictional ALAS virus in mind, do you think that there’s any significant part of our lives that we owe to any sort of biological determinism?
Certainly. But that’s never the whole story. Life consists of layers and levels. What seems deterministic at one level becomes subject to an animal’s will at another. Where creatures compete with each other—to survive, to eat or to reproduce—at a higher scale they are participating in a cooperative ecosystem. Or “circle of life.”
The same is true of human consciousness. We are products of evolution and extreme pressures, not only over millions of years, but also the mere hundred centuries of agricultural and urban existence, which have altered us tremendously. We inherit many compulsions, some of them improper for civilized life.
But out of that mélange, there arise whole suites of “emergent properties.” Perspectives that help us to achieve wonders of imagination, compassion, invention and even transcendent insight.
Lastly, what do you have coming up that we should be looking forward to?
June 2012 saw publication of my first “big Brin book” in a decade. Existence is pretty daring in its portrayal of our near future and the threats we must overcome. It’s a first contact tale with several unusual twists. [You can read an excerpt from Existence in the June issue of Lightspeed. —ed.] And it has the most incredible preview-trailer for a book, illustrated by the great Patrick Farley.
Beyond that, I owe folks that big Uplift novel, at last! And there are a dozen cool other projects. Here’s hoping we all maintain a grand civilization that keeps encouraging us to ponder fresh ideas.