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Nonfiction

Interview: David Gerrold

When I watched “The Trouble with Tribbles” last year, I was aware that I was watching a piece of science fiction history. This was not my first introduction to David Gerrold’s work, however. Years ago, I was ranting to a friend about how hard it seemed to be to find good science fiction or fantasy with main characters who were gay. They recommended that I read The Martian Child, not only because it was something I might like, but because it dealt with another issue that was close to my heart: adoption. The novel was a lot more subtle than I expected, which worked to its advantage. It haunted me for years. And yet? Somehow, it wasn’t until I began Star Trek: The Original Series as a Mark Watches project that I came across David Gerrold’s work again.

Well, I suppose that also depends on if you consider his posts online ‘work,’ because that’s actually how I became re-acquainted with Gerrold. I’m lucky that I have friends who understand what sort of rants will make my day, because one of them sent me Gerrold’s blistering takedown of Orson Scott Card’s attempt to shy away from his own opinions on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I think, more than anything else, this gave me an insight into Gerrold’s mind and the way he could combine wit and fury to make a point that, frankly, needed to be made. (Which is why I’ve been such a huge fan of his work dissecting the recent disaster surrounding the 2015 Hugo Awards.) David Gerrold is not an apologetic person, nor is he interested in saying or writing anything that’s expected from him over the years. From his work with time travel (The Man Who Folded Himself) to his numerous contributions to Star Trek’s canon (Tribbles! James T. Kirk! Star Trek: New Voyages!), and then to his own inventive contributions to the genre (the War Against the Chtorr and Star Wolf series), that same ethos can be found.

At heart, though, Gerrold was drawn to science fiction much as many of us were — by the promise of a better future. He said to me:

When I was nine, science fiction was an amazing discovery — it was an escape from a world I didn’t understand into one that was far more interesting. There were spaceships and aliens and robots and time machines.

And of course, in those days, if you read books — especially science fiction books — you were the dork, the nerd, the geek, the whatever. But you got to hang out (metaphorically) with Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Leinster, Andre Norton, and the many others who were reinventing the universe. There was a sense of inevitability that these were genuine reflections of what the world would be someday. I was impatient to get there.

Of course, for many of us who don’t fit into dominant cultural and social narratives, we found that this inevitability rarely included us. We waited to find ourselves in these worlds of possibility and promise, often unable to ever do so unless we happened to read the few authors who were breaking boundaries. Such was the case with Gerrold, who began to intentionally break the paradigm of what was considered part of the science fiction canon.

That’s not to suggest that getting queer, gay, and non-white characters into fiction was as simple as writing it. In the context of Gerrold’s work on Star Trek, he knew that the show had to pick its battles, and said:

The Original Series was produced from ’66-’69. In those days, just putting a black woman and an Asian man on the bridge was daring. The Stonewall riots didn’t happen until June of ’69. Trek was already over. So there was simply no awareness then of LGBT people. The episode “Turnabout Intruder” was an interesting attempt, but most fans found it too weird for their tastes, and even today it’s not held in high regard.

The time to introduce gay crewmembers would have been at the beginning of The Next Generation, and even though Gene Roddenberry had made that promise, it never happened. It was one of many promises that were broken. And it was one of the main reasons why I left the show.

I loved the original series, I still do. I might argue that there’s a lot about it that could have been done better, especially when you look at it with 21st century eyes.

But the heart and soul of the show — that marvelous set of characters, especially Kirk, Spock, and McCoy — who wouldn’t want to spend more time with them? We were blessed with the right actors for the crew, every single one of them. And the magic that happened in front of the camera — we fell in love with them because they were the kind of people we wanted to be.

But what happens when you don’t feel like those people are the same as you? Even I can admit to falling for the charm, wit, and joy of the holy Trek trinity. I came to adore Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock; I looked forward to every bit of cynicism and wry sarcasm from McCoy; I eagerly kept track of every time Captain Kirk’s shirt was ripped off. I knew what a huge deal it was to see people like Nichelle Nichols and George Takei on the screen. And yet, like many Trek fans, I wanted more. That’s a sensation that is unfortunately familiar to many queer/LGBT folks; we thirst for anything that confirms that we are part of these worlds. Why is that important, though? Why is that a shared experience between many people who are marginalized along lines of sexual orientation or gender identity? Gerrold knew that this kind of representation mattered because he grew up in a time when LGBT characters weren’t just rare; they were monsters.

“There’s a scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs pretends to be a manicurist working on Gossamer, the big orange monster,” Gerrold said. “And he says, ‘I think monsters are the most interrrresting people.’”

Gerrold continued:

That’s how I feel about human beings. We’re all different, we’re all interesting, and we’re all monsters too, each of us in our own way. I’ve had the “privilege” of meeting a lot of people, weird, beautiful, sane, crazy, damaged, recovering, sad, ambitious, foolish — and even a couple of sociopaths as well. And that stuff rubs off. (I have no idea what part of me rubs off onto other people, I hope it’s the good stuff.)

When I was growing up, LGBT people were considered monsters. And then I discovered I was one of those monsters. In those days, gay people didn’t get to have teenage romances until you were in your early twenties — so I’d say that was the decade when I was learning the most about who I was and who other people really were. I learned to appreciate the courage it takes just to get out of bed in the morning and face a world of massive disagreement.

[For me] the influential books of that time were John Rechy’s City of Night, which was a horrifying picture of what you didn’t want to be — and Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, which was unashamedly positive. But it was Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X that actually addressed the idea that gender-identity was a fluid, evolving construction, not something indelibly stamped into our bodies. When I wrote The Man Who Folded Himself, it was really an internal exploration of all the possibilities in the world, including the sexual ones — the last lines of the book, Dan Eakins accepts the responsibility that he has to make wise choices.

So how did the world change and how do we continue to change it for the better? It’s very common that demands for an improvement of diversity are met with a single charge: “Well, why don’t you make it better?” Gerrold has never been one to shy away from speaking openly about his experience trying to do just that, specifically with Star Trek. “Gene Roddenberry promised a room full of 3,000 fans that we’d have gay characters on TNG,” he told me. “He repeated that promise in a staff meeting. So I put two gay characters in my script for ‘Blood And Fire’ (unproduced). But the argument was raised that we couldn’t put gay people in the show because it would offend viewers. And when I realized that Gene’s promise would never be kept, I decided to quit.”

That’s not an easy decision to make, obviously, but it was also the reality of the time. Since then, Gerrold contends that the television landscape has changed in incredibly visible ways, and that includes the Star Trek canon. He said:

But that was 1987. Times have changed. When James Cawley asked if we could do “Blood And Fire” for Star Trek: New Voyages, we took my original script, gave the story to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, expanded the gay relationship to have it be much more personal, and came up with an episode that has some very powerful moments.

I think in recent years, television is starting to recognize that LGBT lives are real. We’re seeing a lot more LGBT characters as just people who happen to be LGBT without that being the sole focus of their identity. It’s progress. I’d like to get to the point where the Captain of the Enterprise can be a gay man without someone at the studio saying, “Uh, maybe you might want to rethink that . . .

This process — of writing works that challenge people’s expectations of gender and sexuality — inevitably ends up being a very personal journey. It has to be for those of us who are not heterosexual, cisgender, or a combination of those identities. Where do you draw the line between the personal and the political? How do you navigate such a difficult course? “Starting out, you try to write like everything you’ve read, everything you’ve been exposed to — and you’re channeling yourself into a mold that really doesn’t fit that well,” Gerrold explained to me. “Every time you break the mold, every time you experiment, every time you get ambitious, you redefine yourself.”

There were logistical issues to consider, too. “I stopped worrying about ‘What if Mom reads this?’ with The Man Who Folded Himself,” Gerrold said. “There was a moment when I said to myself, if I don’t write the gay scene, I’ll be copping out. The whole point of this book is to go the distance, to go as far as it’s possible to go. And yes, I was asking — what would I do if I had a timebelt, so a lot of the book is about the adventures I would want to have.”

He continued:

After The Man Who Folded Himself, I didn’t worry anymore about how much of myself was in a story.

See, here’s the part about any piece of writing that isn’t obvious. Whatever you want to write, you have to become the kind of person who can write that story. So if you’re going to set yourself an ambitious goal at the keyboard, you’re also setting yourself an ambitious goal in your own way of being.

In Moonstar Odyssey, I wrote about a society where children choose their sexual identity at adolescence. It’s about a gender-fluid world. It was certainly the single most ambitious thing I’d ever attempted at the time. To write it, I had to put myself into the head of Jobe, the heroine. So that meant walking around in her skin, looking at this world through her eyes — after the book was finished, I did not go back to being the person I’d been before. Now I was a person who had looked at this world through different eyes.

So yes, that’s liberating.

Such was the case for Gerrold when he wrote The Martian Child, published in 1972 and made into a fairly terrible (and decidedly not gay) film in 2007. The work is imbued with personal meaning for him, largely due to the autobiographical nature of the story. Gerrold himself is a single adoptive parent, and it’s hard not to see him within the novel. “When I got to The Martian Child, all I set out to do was write a story about how much I love my little boy,” he said. He continued:

When I finished, I knew it was like nothing else I’d ever written before. It was sloppy, badly structured, and didn’t seem to have a real ending — until you realize that it’s one long internal conversation about coming to terms with being a parent. The SF element is almost negligible. And 90% of the story is how it actually happened, with only one or two lines of dialog tweaked for dramatic effect.

That the story was so well received by the readers was liberating — it showed me that I could go to very personal places in my own life, exploring what I’d learned along the way, and the audience would respond well to that.

In terms of audience response, there’s been a longstanding interest in Gerrold’s works, from the numerous series he’s written to the work he’s done in the Trek world. It’s also been rewarding to watch the response to many of the pieces Gerrold has written on his Facebook account. It’s fascinating to see how these posts toe the line between personal screeds, nonfiction works, and social commentary. “I use Facebook as a way of getting out of the house without leaving my chair,” he explained.

He added:

Writing is little more than sitting alone in a room talking to yourself. You need to take a break. You need to go out in the back yard and look at the flowers. You need to throw the ball for the dog. You need to take a walk around the block and get a snack from the corner diner. But most of all, you need contact with other people, because that’s your source material.

So Facebook is a momentary break. More than that, it’s a chance to discuss what you’re experiencing. It’s a chance to share, connect, listen, and learn.

And Gerrold does a whole lot of connecting and teaching through his posts, which helps foster an environment where he can re-think his perception of the world. He said:

Where I sometimes get frustrated — with myself, as well as with others — is that almost-daily discovery of how hard it is to listen. When you’re writing, you’re the author of the conversation; the only people who are allowed to talk back are your own characters.

When you go to Facebook, you don’t have that arrogant luxury. You have to listen. And after you listen, you have to get it. You have to grok it. You have to respond to what was said — notice, I said “respond.” I didn’t say “argue.” People do not share stuff on FB as an invitation to argue. They share it because they want to know they’re not alone. They want to know that other people understand.

Over here, when I share stuff — half the time, it’s because I’m sorting it out in my own head. Some people don’t do this. They speak and they think that settles it. They run their tapes, they type their screeds, and they think they’re done.

No, that’s just the first part of the job. The real job is to reread what you wrote and see if that’s really true for you, or just something convenient to type.

• • • •

David Gerrold can be found on his official website (gerrold.com) and his Facebook (facebook.com/david.gerrold).

Mark Oshiro

Mark OshiroWhat if you could re-live the experience of reading a book (or watching a show) for the first time? Mark Oshiro provides just such a thing on a daily basis on Mark Reads and Mark Watches, where he chronicles his unspoiled journey through various television and book series. He mixes textual analysis, confessional blogging, and humor to analyze fiction that usually makes him cry and yell on camera. He’s been nominated for a Hugo in the Fan Writer category in 2013 and 2014 for his work, and he’s nearly done with his first novel.