David Brin is a scientist, technology speaker, and author. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare, and the world wide web. A 1998 movie by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His novels, including New York Times Bestsellers, have been translated into more than twenty languages, and won Hugo and Nebula awards. His new novel from Tor Books is Existence.
This interview first appeared in slightly different form on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Tell us about your new novel, Existence. What’s it about?
Existence portrays a near-future world, roughly 2050, in which terrible things have happened, but guess what? People reacted by coping, as they always have. Only now you can scroll through all the overlays of augmented reality that lay upon the surface world of the “merely real.” Google’s Project Glass was announced the same day Existence came out, taking us a step in that direction. I take it 40 years into the future.
The book is set against a puzzle of our age, the Fermi paradox—that the universe ought to be filled with all sorts of lifeforms, species that came onto the galactic stage before us. Yet we see no signs of them, not even in the rocks beneath our feet. Earth was prime real estate for 2 billion years, with an oxygen atmosphere and nothing living on land higher than slime molds. Visitors who flushed a toilet or tossed a Coke bottle would have changed everything in ways we’d notice. The great silence—or absence—is mystifying.
There’s this astronaut in my novel, in the first chapter he’s out there using a space lariat—a tethered device that NASA’s actually developing—to remove space debris so that form of pollution won’t destroy our access to low-Earth orbit. He snags something unusual, a crystal, about a meter long, that appears to be a message in a bottle, sent by other civilizations. Hence the question—Is it a hoax? And if not, what might be the motives of the virtual aliens inside?
Neal Stephenson has said that some mainstream critics accuse him of being grandiose for titling his novel The System of the World. Have you heard from any of those same critics about titling your novel Existence?
Not really, except in a joking way. “Well, Brin, you had better live up to this.” Later, many of them write back to say, grudgingly, “Oh, all right, you did.”
But there’ll always be snarkers, and my answer is this: If you have useful criticism that I can learn from—great! Join my gang of tough pre-readers who catch mistakes in manuscript.
This book predicts that bags of urine might be worth something in the future. Given the current economic situation, would you advise that we all dump our stocks and invest in urine instead?
The great phosphorous mines of Florida are being tapped out. Soon it’ll be just Morocco and a couple other places that remain with large phosphate deposits. And so, in my novel’s near future, men are expected to either pee on plants, outside, or into phos-urinals that collect the precious phosphorous. Phos-urinals. P.U. Hey, who says predicting the next eco-crisis can’t be fun?
In Existence, an autism plague features prominently. Why does autism interest you and what approach should we be taking to dealing with it?
There’s been a steep rise in discovery of autistic spectrum syndrome cases. Some of it may be due to better diagnosis, and some caused by environmental factors. I posit that another source may the fact that they’re not dying anymore! Instead, some autistics are starting to flourish in a world where the online opportunities to express themselves are computer-mediated, possibly enabling even the severely affected to flourish and lead productive lives. In which case, are they sick at all? An interesting question that’s already been answered decisively by some, at one end of the spectrum. Ask those internet billionaires who are clearly from Planet Asperger. Anyway, Existence got a terrific blurb from Temple Grandin, so I must not have portrayed this topic too wrong.
The book also explores the idea that self-righteous indignation might be a form of addiction. Could you talk a bit about that?
I gave a talk about this at the National Institutes for Drugs and Addiction. (I was trained as an astrophysicist, but I do guerilla raids into random areas of science from time to time. Guild boundaries are no longer as fiercely defended as they once were—take the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination that we’re setting up at UCSD, merging every branch of the arts and sciences.)
Back on topic, studies show that “addiction” is rooted in the most natural of human processes, the reinforcement of positive activities through internally stimulated pleasure. You’ve heard the phrase “addicted to love.” We need to become addicted to our kids! Other positive fixations can focus on comradeship, team effort, creativity, or the joy of exercising a skill. All great stuff.
But you can deliberately enter less salubrious mental states. There’s gambling, or thrill addiction, or rage. And strong evidence suggests that self-righteous indignation is another of those self-induced, self-doped drug highs. Heck, any honest person knows this. We’ve all wallowed in indignant snits. Next time, look in a mirror and admit, “This feels great! I’m so much smarter and better than my enemies! They are so wrong, and I’m so right!”
Yes, like alcohol, some of us can pull indignant snits on occasion, then say, “Enough.” Others seem to live for the high, truly as if it were a drug addiction. Indeed, self-righteousness junkies have the stamina and will to take over almost every political or advocacy group they set their eyes on. How else to explain America’s current bilious, illogical, and pathological “culture war,” in which half the country dismisses the other half as being just shy of satanic?
I’ve heard that you have a list of over a hundred possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Could you talk about that?
The Fermi Paradox is the perplexing question of why we’ve seen no indications that advanced civilizations ever sailed the interstellar sea. Alas, usually, whenever this comes up, all the smart guys—from Paul Davies and Michio Kaku to Stephen Hawking—tend to pick one explanation and say, “This is it, obviously!” I don’t see the purpose served by that. I mean, why leap to conclusions in the only scientific topic without any subject matter?
It’s far, far better and more useful to catalog these things, and so in my 1983 paper, I compiled about 70 explanations—(in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society—you can fetch it at davidbrin.com)—summarizing the dizzying array of explanations that have been proposed for The Great Silence. There have been about 30 or 40 more, since then. But all suffer from various flaws.
My favorite, that might reduce the numbers a whole lot, without being horribly pessimistic, is the water worlds hypothesis. It turns out that our Earth skates the very inner edge of our sun’s continuously habitable—or “Goldilocks”—zone. And that may be anomalous. Circling so close to our sun, we might have an anomalously oxygen-rich atmosphere, and an unusually high 32 percent continental mass. In which case, creatures like us, with hands and fire and all that, could be rare. When we do build starships and head out there, perhaps we’ll find life worlds like Polynesia. Intelligent life forms, but they’re all dolphins, whales, squid, who could never build their own starships.
What a perfect universe for us! Lots of interesting neighbors but nobody could boss us around. We’ll be the voyagers, the Star Trekkers, and so on. Alas, most “Fermi explanations” are nowhere near as nice.
What do you think about the current approach to SETI, and is there anything you’d do differently?
Some recent research shows that the SETI Institute’s search strategy—using the Paul Allen radio telescope array to look for extra-terrestrial intelligent life—is brilliant, it’s clever . . . and designed entirely wrong to detect the kinds of messages alien cultures might send.
If ETs want to contact new tech races, they’re not likely to waste time and resources on gigantic beacons. They’ll know the thousand—or ten thousand, or fifty thousand—life worlds around them that have oxygen atmospheres. But the odds that any one of those has a shiny new civilization will be very small, at any one time. So they’ll just send a ping to each of them, once every hundred years—or maybe once a year—saying, “Is there anybody there yet?” Because that’s cheap to do.
Another option that I talk about in Existence is dispatching probes. Now, any one physical probe is going to be vastly more expensive than sending a radio ping. It’s costly to accelerate even a small package or bottle to ten percent of light speed with a laser. But once it arrives in the destination system, it can then wait for millions of years till—say—a tech civilization arises nearby. In contrast, a brief radio signal is cheap, but you have to keep sending them over and over across those millions of years.
You wrote an article called “World Cyberwar and the Inevitability of Radical Transparency,” which is a follow-up to your 1998 book The Transparent Society. What motivated that article?
Put aside the ridiculous, lobotomizing talk about “left vs. right” for a minute. (An absurdly stupid metaphor that no one can even define.) What we’re seeing right now—what every generation across the 300-year-old Enlightenment has had to face—is repeated attempts to reinstate the old pattern of human government—feudalism.
It’s the standard form of governance and probably woven into our genes. Ninety-nine percent of human civilizations that had agriculture were pyramidal in structure, ruled by obligate oligarchies, a ruling caste, that made sure its powers were inherited—because that’s Darwinism at work. The child of a peasant would remain a peasant, never getting to compete fairly against sons of the lords. (And note, I include the Soviet Nomenklatura caste as one of these feudal-oligarchic cliques.)
Look, we’re all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick! How else to explain why feudal or kingly or wizard symbolisms grab our hearts so easily? Once, in 6000 years, an alternative approach has been tried. Our enlightenment uses stiff rules and division of power to maximize the number of participating competitors, so that the old failure mode of top-down cheating will fail, whether it is tried by kings or bureaucrats or priests or a new caste of owner-lords.
Today we hear that “rules are the enemy.” But just try running a major sports league without them. That’s a sure guarantee for competition to fail. Alas, the left has forgotten that competition is the great creative force. And the right forgets that competition only works on a level playing field. (You can see why I despise the “left-right axis.”)
So how do we restore a level, competitive playing field without stifling it with too many meddlesome rules?
What? Just because I peer ahead a bit, you think I have definite answers? Still, you can expect one prescription from the author of The Transparent Society: unless we have open information flows—and that may require radical transparency—the Enlightenment Experiment will surely fail. Barring floods of light, empowering billions with information, this attempted putsch by a new aristocracy is going to succeed, or the next one will.
More and more of the world’s wealth is being hidden. The latest estimate is 20 trillion dollars has been squirreled away, and nobody knows where. Half of the wealth produced by some developing nations may have been robbed by their own kleptocracies. Can you imagine how rapidly the middle class in those countries could rise if that money were returned? Or left in Switzerland but reassigned, so the interest would come home? Do I sound like a socialist? What’s socialist about saying that everything should be above board?
One of the gods of the right, Friedrich Hayek, founder of the Austrian School of Economics, said the absolute necessity of capitalism is for all players to know most of what’s going on most the time, so they can make good, self-interested decisions. Even a laborer or peasant can make the best deal for the fish he just caught or the yam he just grew. The greatest hypocrisy right now is for those who defend capitalism not to favor radical transparency.
Your Uplift series explores boosting the intelligence of animals such as dolphins and chimps. How close are we to achieving that?
Uplift is one of the more popular themes I’ve put in some novels. People love to read where I portray the endgame, 200 years in the future, when dolphins and chimps are almost ready—they can talk, add their wisdom to our culture. A wonderful thing, expanding the range of citizens who participate, compete, and partake in this wonderful enlightenment.
(In Existence, I explore this expansion of diversity further—how we may add artificial intelligences, or autistic savants, who will suddenly be technologically empowered to communicate. We’ll probably resurrect Neanderthals, and even more surprises.)
People write to me about that end product 200 years in the future, and I’m flattered! But in honesty I respond. “You’re just looking at a hypothetical end product. Are you prepared to get this project started, knowing that the road will be a hard one filled with mistakes and pain?”
Oh, sure, the mistakes and pain will be minimized if instead of doing this secretly or stupidly, we take this road wisely and in the open. Not to make them slaves, as Boulle, Smith, and Wells portrayed, but trying to get additional voices for our culture. Still, there would be years of pain. Hence, if anybody tried to get started on an uplift project, they’d get pounded from both right and left. It’s a quandary that I explore in Existence, which (among many other things) shows how the uplift project might get started, despite all that.
The idea of boosting primate intelligence was recently dealt with in the prequel movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Did you see that movie, and what did you think of how they handled the idea of boosting of primate intelligence?
I was won over. They departed from the standard Frankenstein/we’re going to treat them like garbage notion. Instead of the humans-are-all-vile cliché, in this film individual human beings make mistakes, or act shitty. Science, in fact, creates something terrific! Then it makes a bunch of mistakes because of secrecy. It’s not our oppression of ape slaves, but a transparency error that winds up killing us.
Speaking of movies, you’ve been highly critical of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. What sort of reactions do you get when you criticize such popular stories?
I’ll tell you, I didn’t get anywhere near as much hate mail for my dissing of Star Wars and Yoda as I got for pointing out that our personal computers don’t have Basic—or any other reliably simple-accessible gateway programming environment—on them anymore. The geeks came out in droves to attack me for that. But people can look it up. “Why Johnny Can’t Code” points out that the computers and tablets kids have these days don’t have a good, universally accessible, entry-level way for a kid to learn programming.
But The Lord of the Rings? Well, I respect Tolkien. My essay calls him the most honest of the Romantics. I deem nostalgic romanticism to be a deeply harmful addiction. But Tolkien was the truly honest Romantic, pointing out the very flaws of his beloved elves. Anyway, if I had gone to World War I like he did, and watched the flower of my generation mowed down by machine guns, I might have turned against modernity too.
There’s a big distinction between Tolkien and George Lucas, who was given everything by modernity, and who has spent the last thirty years relentlessly denouncing it, preaching Romantic claptrap about demigods and mystic warriors and snarling against democracy. Can you name one moment when he shows the Old Republic functioning at all, at any level, in any way? Or normal people serving as anything but squires and spear carriers?
The same question applies to Yoda, perhaps the most relentlessly evil character I’ve ever seen onscreen. Name one scene in which Yoda is ever helpful to anybody, ever true to his duty to the Republic, or says anything genuinely wise.
“Do or do not, there is no try.”
Really? That utter crap is wise? Up yours, you horrible little oven mitt! “Try” is how human beings get better. That’s how people learn! Some motions bring you toward your goal, others farther from it. We learn by reinforcing what works and repressing what doesn’t. It’s how Obi-Wan taught Luke, in the excellent, enjoyable first film. Enough with the abhorrent, junior high school cartoon-Zen.
Anyway, I had fun being the ornery “prosecuting attorney” in the debate book—Star Wars on Trial. Matthew Woodring Stover, one of Lucas’s novelizers, organized the defense. Huge fun—a lot of snapping of suspenders and shouting “objection!” and calling witnesses back and forth on a dozen different themes. And come on, you don’t think I take any of this seriously, do you? It’s just another fun riff off the biggest science fiction hit of all time.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Well, people ask why it has been nine to ten years between major Brin novels. First, Existence was so complicated! Had to make sure it was dramatic and fast paced and easy to read, as well.
But I’ve also been doing other projects, in parallel. One is my first science fiction comedy. Folks will groan, but whether in appreciation or despair, we won’t know for a while! Comedy is hard. Another project: a YA series. Aliens kidnap a California high school . . . and eventually regret it.
Then . . . finally . . . I’ll write about how those dolphins finally make it home.
Perhaps even to a civilization that has forged ahead. One we all had a hand in making better.