The two young men were dressed in Gestapo-like uniforms, complete with military hats, boots, and black-leather pistol holsters. They introduced a resolution that favored Die Weltbund — their home planet. The representative from the Legion of Dynamic Discord, who was wearing a bright blue silk outfit, a blue cape, and a green felt hat with an enormous green feather in it, helped to vote the resolution down.
A dark-haired woman in a red chiffon robe and red leotard smiled enigmatically through the proceedings, while another young man, ostensibly dressed like a normal human being in a sport shirt and blue jeans, tried to speak in a computer voice and referred to himself as BOHB from Alpha Complex. But that, too, was okay, according to the moderator. “You can represent any planet or universe as long as it’s real or from a published work,’’ she explained. “We just don’t want people making up their own universes.’’
This was the Outer Space Model United Nations, one of the more colorful events at the recent ConQuistador science-fiction convention at the Bahia Hotel, which also featured seminars on extraterrestrial creatures and interstellar civilization. The model U.N. was held the same day that Dennis Conner and the America’s Cup returned triumphantly to San Diego, but the minds of those who attended were about as far from celebrating sailboats or civic pride as the Crab Nebula is from Earth.
Like other science-fiction conventions, Con-Quistador is the offspring of fan clubs and magazines, and it unfolds in an atmosphere of relatively focused but not-quite-controlled craziness hinted at both by the costumes at the model U.N. and by the note inside this year’s convention program: “You do not have to peace-bond your weapons at Con-Quistador, but please do not carry real guns or unsheathed sharpened swords ... and avoid displaying weapons so that they point at bystanders.’’
Nationwide, conventions such as ConQuistador have increased in number to about one hundred in recent years, with attendance varying from a few hundred to several thousand; one of the largest, WesterCon, was held in San Diego last July and drew more than 2000 people. ConQuistador has been held annually since 1984, and its attendance has risen steadily from 100 to about 350 this year: The conventions create an opportunity for writers of science fiction to promote their books and hobnob with their fans, and they offer fans a chance to meet authors, socialize, and look over displays of the latest in comic books, costumes, and make-believe weaponry.
Whatever else they are, though, the conventions are also a measure of the growing popularity of science fiction. As never before, the public is hungering for fantasies about the future — often a future in which civilization has been destroyed, saved, overrun, or otherwise transformed by extraordinarily sophisticated technology. As recently as twenty years ago, science fiction appealed primarily to gangly teen-agers with thick glasses; now it has blossomed into one of the major trends in popular American culture.
Consider the boom in science-fiction movies: The box-office receipts for such films as Star Wars, Dune, Blade Runner, Outland, Aliens, The Terminator, E.T., 2001 and 2010, and Star Treks I, II, III, and IV would support the government of a mid-sized republic. Meanwhile, TV is catering to the public's appetite for adventure stories spiked liberally with exotic technology by churning out serialized versions of some of these same movies, along with a host of animated science-fiction shows for children, including Mask, Thunder-cats, LazerTag, and others.
But books have always been the most popular medium for creators and consumers of futuristic fantasies, and science-fiction novels are currently reaching a wider audience than ever. Lou Aronica, publishing director for Bantam Spectra Books, points out that the popularity of science fiction “has increased dramatically in the last few years. On a category level, it’s still less popular than romance, but far more popular than mystery.” Two science-fiction novels, L. Ron Hubbard’s Death Quest and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, are currently among the best-selling books in the United States. And Charles Sheffield, past president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, adds that “it is a golden age for science fiction.... Some people are becoming millionaires writing it, which was unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago.”
What effect this flowering is having on the collective conscious of America is a subject of some debate. Supporters insist that science fiction is educational and thought provoking; critics dismiss it as imaginative but ultimately boring fluff. But there are also those who see a darker side to the flood of stories about intergalactic travel and future wars, and the fascination with exotic weapons and technologies it seems to promote. It is certainly true that science fiction tends to be popular not only among scientists but military personnel, a fact that has helped Southern California, with its numerous military installations, become the second largest market in the nation for science-fiction books (the largest is northern California). And the nation’s community of science-fiction authors currently is deeply divided over the advisability of the Reagan administration's proposed “Star Wars” missile-defense system and what science fiction is doing, inadvertently or intentionally, to support it. One writer, Jerry Poumelle, has actively promoted the Star Wars system in his books and has won the personal congratulations of the president for doing it.
These are heady times for writers of science fiction. They are celebrated at conferences and invited to speak on radio talk shows. Some of their books are sold around the world and are read by hundreds of thousands of people. Not all science-fiction authors enjoy that kind of popularity, of course, and those who do have backgrounds and viewpoints that differ widely. But through some quirk of coincidence, three writers who currently rank among the most successful in the nation have a number of traits in common. All are men between the age of thirty-five and forty-one, and all have come by their success recently. Even more remarkably, all three are San Diegans — David Brin, Ray Feist, and Greg Bear.
Greg Bear's rented home on Nate Way in Santee looks strikingly average. Architecturally, it is Sixties Housing Tract: small yard, flat stucco walls, a few shrubs, attached garage. The living room just inside the front door is a comfortable clutter of furniture, newspapers, and baby toys intended for Erik, the six-month-old son of Bear and his second wife, Astrid. The place has the feel of an average suburban couple’s house, but it is not; Bear's works of science fiction can be found in bookstores from Horton Plaza to Charing Cross Road, London, and his income this year will approach $200,000.
The writing business has not always been so easy for Bear, thirty-five, a tall man with glasses, a small mustache, and thinning brown hair. A native San Diegan and a graduate of Crawford High School (class of ’68), he published his first science-fiction story in Famous Science Fiction Magazine in 1967. Bear was paid ten dollars for that story, but it was six years before he sold any of his writing again and twelve before he sold his first novel.
“In my head, I was a writer since I was about eight years old. I started out reading Tom Swift books, and by the age of eleven or twelve, I was reading Heinlein, Doc Smith, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was fairly well adjusted socially in high school, but I wrote on my own whenever I could — afternoons, evenings, over the summer.’’
In 1973 Bear graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in English literature. The following year he finished his first novel, Hegira, a story about an expedition of discovery on a huge artificial world. He mailed it out to a publisher himself, and he kept mailing it in the face of rejection slip after rejection slip for the next four years. In the meantime, he supported himself by working as a sales clerk in local bookstores, including B. Dalton in Fashion Valley and the long-defunct Mithras Books in La Jolla.
In 1975 he moved to Los Angeles and made an agreement with his first wife: she would provide income for living expenses, and he would provide savings and vacation money. The arrangement enabled him to write full time, although he still took part-time jobs as a free-lance artist and teacher to make ends meet. During this period of his life, “I felt I was making progress as a writer, because my short stories were getting good reviews and even appeared in a few prominent anthologies,’’ Bear says. “But it was frustrating from time to time because it seemed like it would be forever before my first novel would come out.’’ Hegira was finally purchased for $3000 by Dell Books in 1977. Over the next five years, Bear sold four more novels and numerous shorter works, but his stock as a writer rose significantly in 1983 with the publication of the novelette Blood Music in Analog magazine. Blood Music is an entertaining and scientifically plausible story about a genetic scientist named Vergil Ulam who accidentally creates highly intelligent cells while working with DNA for a private lab in La Jolla. The book is infused with details about the San Diego area, from Vergil’s girlfriend, who is an advertising representative for the La Jolla Light, down to the secretive attitude cultivated by the high-tech corporations on La Jolla’s North Torrey Pines Road. “The reason the companies are so secretive in the book,” Bear explains, “is because I contacted a bunch of these local companies when I was doing research for the novel, and no one would let me in to see their labs. So I figured the book should reflect that.
“I contacted UCSD and Scripps, too, and they were very helpful. Eventually I wound up with a couple of oceanographers in a lab at Scripps, where all the equipment was similar to what you’d find in a microbiology laboratory. I told them I was a science-fiction writer and what sort of idea I was working on, and one of the guys looked at me with this gleam in his eye and said, ‘Give me a few days and I could figure out a way to do that....’ Anyway, I sat there for three or four hours watching them work, and they showed me all the equipment and told me the names ... so I got a feel for the laboratory environment, which I lifted piecemeal and gussied up a bit and stuck into Genetron,” the company Vergil Ulam works for in Blood Music.
The novelette version of Blood Music won the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1983, which are awarded by the Science Fiction Writers of America and the World Science Fiction Convention, respectively. Neither award includes a cash prize, but the prestige they confer on an author helps to sell his books, much as medals won at a county fair help to sell wines, and the paperback version of Blood Music went on to sell more than 80,000 copies. That makes it Bear’s second-best-selling novel; Eon, published last April, has sold some 200,000 copies. "Eon has just about everything in it,” Bear says, “by which I mean a giant asteroid starship, World War III, a Russian invasion in space, an infinitely long artificial world, alien beings, and travel to the end of time.
"I had to do a lot of research for it, mostly in the area of Russian military history, and the local library certainly helped. It’s tough to come up with Russian names, for instance, if you don’t have the Moscow phone book handy ... so I ended up going back to some of the letters of Nikolai Gogol [a nineteenth-century Russian writer] and dug up some names from them.”
Largely because of the success of Eon, Warner Books (a subsidiary of Warner Communications, Inc.) recently offered Bear a $150,000 contract to produce four more novels, including a sequel to Eon. He signed that contract and another one with an English publisher that pays him an additional $115,000 for the rights to publish the upcoming books in England. Add to that the royalties coming in from his nine previous novels, and Bear figures he’ll make as much or more money in 1987 as he did during the previous ten years.
One immediate consequence of that, Bear acknowledges with a smile, is that he’ll be buying a house this year, as a tax shelter if nothing else. But for the time being, he works in a spare bedroom of the rented house in Santee, on a broad desk that is a kind of redoubt surrounded by tall, imposing shelves crammed with books. Bear is a voracious reader and book collector, and the 12,000 to 15,000 volumes at his house include works by Plato and Shakespeare as well as more eclectic titles such as Troy and the Trojans, The Norse Myths, and Geology of the USSR. The desk itself is dominated by an IBM personal computer on which he writes, and near it is an easel supporting a half-finished painting — a piece Bear is working on for the cover of a new edition of one of his novels, Psychlone.
“I’ve always enjoyed San Diego. It’s a pleasant-enough place to live,” says Bear, who returned here from Los Angeles in 1979. “But it’s also a good location for a science-fiction writer because you have access to people working in a lot of different subjects — space flight, defense systems, and engineering, among others. So it’s a stimulating environment, and you’re close to L.A., which has major universities and research libraries, the motion picture and television industries — almost everything San Diego doesn’t.” He is friends with both Feist and Brin, and although the three San Diegans aren’t constant companions, they do socialize from time to time; for example, Feist visited the Bears on Christmas Day. “We don’t meet regularly to talk over business or anything like that,” says Bear, “but we are a group in the sense that we’re all here and we all know each other.”
David Brin sits at a desk in his living room. He is wearing a sweater and slacks and has thrown a blanket over his legs; although the central heating in his one-bedroom apartment works, the fireplace doesn’t, and the English winter has been rather chilly lately. Headphones from a portable tape player are clamped around his ears, and he listens alternately to the sounds of the Go-Go’s, Beethoven, and Jefferson Airplane (the original incarnation of Jefferson Starship). On the desk in front of him is a cup with only a splash of cold coffee left in it and an Apple Macintosh personal computer. It is late at night. Brin peers at the computer screen, and his fingers intermittently tap the keys of the keyboard in front of him. As he does, a Tandu spaceship bearing its insectlike builders streaks over the books and papers scattered on his living-room floor. Next to a photograph of a Jupiterian moon that Brin has fixed to a wall, a female Krat materializes, glaring down at him with her mating claw fully.extended. Laser holograms of dolphins light up the room as the animals communicate with each other in English about their damaged, water-filled spacecraft. After several hours, a weary Brin switches off his computer and the exotic beings vanish instantly. “I cannot think of a more insidious profession than writing science fiction,” he tells a visitor the following day. “I sleep late, I proselytize about my ideas and beliefs, and as long as I keep it entertaining, they pay me.”
Brin, until recently a long-time resident of San Diego, is currently living in London, having given up his room in a shared house on Baxter Street in Clairemont for a one-bedroom flat in Hampstead. His occasional visits to the Family Fitness Center on Balboa Avenue have been replaced by even more occasional jogs in Hampstead Heath. “San Diego is paradise, but I had lived in Southern California all my life and always wanted to travel,” he explains. “For a long time, I couldn’t because of commitments, and then all of a sudden everything cleared up. My career is a movable feast — I can ply my trade wherever there’s electricity — and since I’m a bachelor, and Warner Brothers just paid me nicely for the film rights to one of my books, why the hell not try London? Next year I may be back in California or in the south of France. All I can say is that I still consider California my home.”
He was bom in Glendale, California, and developed an interest in writing at an early age. But Brin never really expected to do it for a living. “Mind you. I’ve only achieved my third choice as a profession in life,” he notes. “My first choice was to be Godzilla. My number-two choice was to be a first-rate physicist. And I’d still trade a million-book best-seller,” he notes wistfully, “for one paper in mathematical physics” that would impress the best scientific minds in the country.
For years, Brin actively pursued his second career choice. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, he went on to study physics at Caltech in Pasadena. “Believe me, it was a bitch. I had qualified for the school only marginally in science, and I was not as bright as most of the guys there. But I had this romantic notion that physicists were the people talking to God in the language in which he made the universe.”
Brin obtained his B.S. in physics from Caltech in 1973 and went to work as an electrical engineer for Hughes Aircraft in Orange County. When Hughes transferred him to its plant in Carlsbad, he began attending graduate classes at UCSD, and he eventually quit Hughes altogether to pursue his academic career. He received his Ph.D in space physics from UCSD in 1981.
During his final few years as a graduate student, Brin worked on a science-fiction novel called Sundiver, which he describes as “a murder mystery that takes place on the sun.” As the manuscript neared completion, he gave it to some of his friends to read and critique, and he was horrified to discover that one of them had forwarded it to Bantam Books. “She thought I had asked her to submit it for me. It was the first work of fiction I had ever submitted to anybody, and I didn’t even submit it,” Brin says ruefully. “It was in terrible condition — all marked up, an absolutely atrocious-looking manuscript. But the publisher bought it for about S7500, which is three times what they were paying most first-timers.”
“David has a unique combination of an extraordinary imagination and a sense of what gets people excited and draws them into a book,” says Lou Aronica, the Bantam editor who first read and purchased Sundiver in 1980. “It’s very common for scientists to write this stuff, but most of them aren’t very good at it. Science and writing are controlled by two very different parts of the brain, and it’s extremely uncommon to get people who are good at both. It just so happens that David is.”
Brin’s rapid success continued with his second novel, Startide Rising, which was published in 1983 and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for the best science-fiction novel of the year. It is a wildly imaginative epic about an intergalactic space flight hundreds of years in the future. The ship itself is crewed by humans and dolphins — the latter having been genetically altered to have intelligence and the ability to speak English — who draw the attention and wrath of a host of bizarre alien species, including the Tandu, Tymbrimi, Then-nanin, Plaha, Fbrsiki, Soro, and Krat. It is also full of Brin’s dry wit. When a genetically altered chimpanzee is accused by a human of harboring racist sentiment toward dolphins, the chimp protests, “Some of my best friends are dolphins.” And a dolphin crew member suffering from insomnia resorts to counting sonar clicks to fall asleep.
“For Startide I did about as much research as one would in a semester-long graduate seminar into things like dolphin physiology and sound systems and how they project sonar through a lenslike structure in their heads,” Brin explains. “To come up with all the names, I just sit at my computer and let something sort of fizz out of my subconscious.” But as for how he came up with a mechanism by which the spaceships in the book can travel foster than the speed of light — a phenomenon that crassly violates nearly every principle of modem physics — he laughs and says, “You got me. Sometimes, for an interesting story, you just need foster-than-light travel.”
At thirty-six, Brin is a pale, bearded man of average height. His voice turns passionate and his eyes gleam perceptibly when he talks of subjects that stir his imagination, and many do — politics, feminism, literature, teaching, the future. Even after the publication of Startide Rising, he worked at UCSD as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute, and he subsequently taught physics at San Diego State University. But for the last two years or so, he has given up most of his scientific work to write foil time, and though he is supremely confident in his writing ability, he seems at times almost guilty about not having been a better scientist.
“I studied comets and asteroids and did some scientific work that was quite creditable, but science has always been hard work for me, and if it’s hard work, it's not your true calling,” he says. “With writing, it wasn’t a matter of thinking I could write fiction, it was a matter of being absolutely convinced I could do it. I knew I had talent, and I knew it was fun for me. And I knew there was a market for science fiction. I had a repulsively smug attitude that sooner or later. I’d succeed. It did happen a little sooner than I expected.
“I’m still involved with science, though. I expect to teach physics again in the future, and I’m working on a nonfiction book for Cambridge University Press about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. So I’m still keeping my hand in science. But look — fiction pays better. I’m better at it, it’s more fun, and I get a hell of a lot more ego strokes doing it.” Studying physics has informed his writing and given him insight into the beauty of the universe and the way it functions, he adds, and “if I can communicate some of that grandeur to my readers, then maybe I’m still useful after all.”
With sales of Startide Rising currently hovering around 300,000 copies, and sales of his most recent novel. The Postman, closer to 400,000, it’s safe to say Brin is communicating rather successfully with science-fiction fans. Who are they? Judging from those attending the recent ConQuistador convention here in San Diego, they are predominantly white males under forty with a passion for comic books, dragons, and space exploration. They are outspoken but friendly, and they combine active intellects with a kind of New Age exuberance. They favor jeans and tennis shoes, and T-shirts adorned with buttons proclaiming obscure slogans from their favorite books.
According to Aronica, sixty percent of the reading audience for science fiction is male. Adolescents “are still a very significant portion of the audience,” he adds, “but there are also more casual readers of science fiction now. I think it has to do with the generation buying paperbacks these days. They have grown up their entire lives with science fiction as a reading option. They’re used to it and accept it, instead of looking at it as something that only nerds read.
“It’s tougher to sell science fiction in New York than in Southern California,” Aronica continues, “because the New York literary establishment has not gotten over its snobbishness in regard to science fiction. Little of it is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and it is never reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which are major arbiters of literary taste in the New York area. On the other hand, the largest market for science fiction is northern California, which has traditionally been more open-minded than any other place in the country — and to a certain extent it takes an open mind to get into science fiction. There are also a lot of New Age types in northern California, and science fiction is the voice of the New Age.”
Beth Meacham, editor-in-chief of Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of science-fiction books in the United States, notes that the audience for science fiction has been widening gradually for about ten years. “There have always been a lot of people who read a little science fiction, but with the advent of the big science-fiction movies like 2001 and Star Wars, it has become a tad more respectable.” Jane Yolen, current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, adds that “science fiction and fantasy writers are old-fashioned storytellers. A lot of people still like reading adventure rather than modern novels about dull people leading boring lives”
In other words, they are readers who want a strong plot and some action. But it is a quirk of science fiction that its readers also demand a lot of exotic ideas — junk food for thought — and one reason for the success of both Bear and Brin is their ability to introduce a succession of extraordinary concepts in the course of their stories. For sheer numbers, it would be hard to top Startide Rising, in which Brin introduces English-speaking, genetically engineered dolphins who must take oxygen pills to supplement their oxygen intake inside a water-filled spacecraft; a distant ocean planet where trees have metal-tipped roots; a mysterious fleet of giant spaceships the size of moons; a compendium of all knowledge in the universe called the Library; and several distinctly different alien species, all by page twenty-five. In Eon, Bear writes in detail about an asteroid-size spaceship and its self-contained ecosystem; an infinitely long corridor with an infinite number of entries into other planets and universes; future humans who can choose any body shape they desire, and so forth.
But Bear, who says he “thinks as a painter — I see the scenes in my mind and then try to work them out on paper,” is also working to bring higher literary standards to a genre that has traditionally been more concerned with adolescent war fantasies and elaborate hardware than such things as plot and character development. Bear’s characters are, for the most part, finely drawn and believable; they live in houses with carved teak statues, they have annoying allergies, and when they cry, they wind up with dried snot on their noses. “Until recently, good characterizations were not even a prerequisite” for writing a science-fiction novel. Bear points out. “You could have fairly standard characters, and as long as the ideas were wonderful, you could get by with them. But the audience is getting more sophisticated.
“I’m working very hard to get my characterizations as good as the very best that have ever been done in any kind of fiction. It'll take me five or ten years to reach that point.... I love James Joyce, and I would love to have his eye for language — and I’m working on that, too. I want to do for the science-fiction story what Joseph Conrad did for the sea story. But the one thing that is absolutely essential in science fiction is that it not be dull, because the audience is not a bunch of literary critics; they’re average Joes who want a good book to read. You don’t necessarily need a lot of shoot ^em-up action, but you need a lot of intellectual action — a lot of ideas flying around. In every book I write, I want to leave the reader asking, ‘How does he know all this?’ ”
Brin also tries to do more than simply satisfy the genre’s requirements for ideas, action, and adventure. “My goal is to write literature — literature that has a lot of scientific pizzazz and exploration to it. Startide Rising is in part a story about a war in space ... but in that book I also tried to deal with what I think are important questions, like the moral issues we’ll face when genetic engineering really hits — when we start modifying the animals around us and are tempted to modify ourselves. And there are issues of ecology, and the implications of how one might run a galactic-wide civilization. While dealing with these issues, I also wanted to have strong characters and also write a rip-snorting good read.
“Both Greg and I believe that we are journeymen writers, in spite of all the attention we’ve been getting,” Brin continues. “We’re both also flaming egotists.... You’ve got to have more than enough ego to think that people will pay to read your drivel. But I have all the respect in the world for Greg. We party together, and I circulate my manuscripts to him and some of the other writers in San Diego ... to find out where my writing drags a little, among other things. I’m absolutely paranoid of boring the reader, which is why I tend to be a little less descriptive than Greg. Sometimes I emphasize the action too much. But I’m working on that.”
No matter how imaginative or well written, though, it seems doubtful that any story set, say, 50 million years in the future, or one that resolves global political conflicts through the intervention of extraterrestrials, will ever touch human readers as deeply as the writings of Chekhov or Dickens or even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today more than ever, science fiction has succeeded primarily as entertainment; people find it attractive to leave behind everyday concerns such as their children’s illnesses or the demands of their jobs (not to mention fears that strife in Africa or the Middle East will escalate into World War III) and set their minds awash instead in a sea of laser battles, weird creatures, and high-tech engineering marvels.
But Bear and Brin vigorously reject the notion that their stories are simply escapist fantasies. Both men excel at a category of science fiction known as “hard” science fiction, in which sound scientific principles are woven into the plot, making it seem more plausible and heightening its dramatic effect. “Plausibility is the sine qua non of good science fiction,” Brin insists.
Bear points out that many science-fiction stories are simply glitzy allegories. “What they do is look at society through a skewed mirror. You can talk about large issues like life and death, the future of the human race, economics — and at the same time, you’re designing an alien species. The big issues are all wrapped up in what you could call symbolism, but the symbolism is fairly transparent.
“Even in the most standard fare of science fiction — Star Wars, for example — the underlying themes are tolerance, freedom, and the necessity to undergo training and grow up. Or take another example — the movie Alien. On one level, it's about a mother who brings home a boyfriend who then rapes and murders all the children. If you recall, the name of the computer in the spaceship is Mother, and the name of the crewman who is raped and impregnated by the “boyfriend” is Caine. Not all science fiction is that direct [in its allegory], but it’s usually strong enough that a literary critic could see the parallels.”
Bear is not nearly so kind in his assessment of fantasy, however. Fantasy shares readers, publishers, bookstore shelf space, and even writers with science fiction — Bear himself has written fantasy novels — but it eschews high technology for elves, unicorns, and other magical beings. As critic Luc Sante has noted, fantasy is not really science fiction at all but “a species of medieval western.”
“For me, fantasy is a little easier to write,” Bear says. “You can fake fantasy, and you can even fake something like Star Wars, but you cannot fake hard science fiction. You have to know science to do it.
“The standard fare of fantasy is ... limited and not very stimulating. A lot of it will take you off into territory that will do nothing to increase your maturity or even give you new ideas. But it does provide a good breather. rather like a good television show does, for the reader out there who may have an entirely too serious life. It relieves his burden for a few hours.”
Fellow author Ray Feist agrees. “I think a lot of fantasy fans will tell you, ‘I just got home from a hard day at the office, my boss is an asshole, and I just want to put my feet up and go somewhere else,’ ” he says.
For the last nine years. Feist has lived on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in a standard two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his mother. A glib talker with jet-black hair and a beard, he jokes that his mother “is the best roommate I’ve ever had. Sometimes with mothers it’s a problem, but I’ve got a rare one — she hasn’t been afraid to let me grow up.”
After graduating from UCSD in 1977 with a B.A. in communication arts. Feist worked for a time as a social worker on the Campo Indian Reservation, gathering information on the vital statistics of the residents and their health needs. That job ended in the wake of Proposition 13, and Feist began writing a fantasy novel called Magician while looking for a new job. He was down to applying to Burger King for a job as a management trainee when a few of his friends told him they’d loan him some money to finish the book. The loans dribbled in; S50, $200, whatever he needed to pay the rent or buy some groceries. Feist finished the novel, sold it the following year — 1980 — and has gone on to become one of the rising stars in the field of fantasy fiction. The fourth book in his Magician series, A Darkness at Sethanon, recently climbed onto the New York Times' paperback best-seller list, and Feist, whose income was about $80,000 last year, says he is “rapidly approaching solvency on the way to affluence.”
Feist, forty-one, works at an Apple IIC personal computer that sits on a desk on one side of his unkempt bedroom. “The idea in having it close to my bed is so if I get a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, I can leap out of bed and write it down before I forget,” he explains. “That’s never happened, of course, but anyway, it's a hope.” He has known both Greg Bear and David Brin for years, but although the three used to critique each other’s manuscripts, “we rarely interact as writers anymore,” Feist says. “The critiquing used to be helpful, but with David and me, it got to the point where it was more like, ‘Let’s pick a reason to argue.’ So we stay out of each other's careers now. But we enjoy each other’s work.
“David is the hardest-working writer I know. He used to live five blocks from me, and I used to see him every week. I’ve known him to re-write scenes eight or nine times before coming to the conclusion that the entire thing doesn’t belong in the novel, and he’d throw it out. He’s rigorous.
“Greg is a kid who from his earliest days wanted to be a science-fiction writer and grew up to be what he wanted to be. He’s a gifted speculator; he’ll start giggling, and if you ask him what he's giggling about, he'll say, ‘What if cities could walk around?’ He’s the purest science-fiction writer among the three of us. Brin is more like a mainstream novelist. I’m the purest fantasy writer.”
Feist explains the difference between fantasy and science fiction this way: “When I go to the library, I research how one would lay siege to a castle, not what the latest in research on recombinant DNA is. In Magician, armies travel across the galaxy through a gate created by magicians, not in spaceships with lasers.” And unlike Brin and Bear. Feist does not claim to be writing serious literature within a popular-entertainment genre. “I ain’t Tolstoy,” he says. “I’m a yarn spinner. I’m getting paid to play ‘Let’s pretend.’ I like to think the characters in my novels are multidimensional, and the conflicts they face are not only epic but personal and emotional. But my dad, who was a TV producer, used to tell me, ‘Give the reader someone to root for and a plot. All the rest is window dressing.' ” Jane Yolen, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, points out that fantasy novels attract readers partly because of their medieval code of behavior. “Our society has no cohesive mythology any more, so people are looking to get it somewhere else,” she says. “When you pick up a newspaper, you don’t see much about love, honor, and truth. But you do find those in a fantasy novel.” Feist agrees, but he is also convinced that, aside from their obvious attraction as diversions from everyday life, one reason for the popularity of many fantasy and science-fiction novels is that they belong to “a literature of hope. Just by using a setting in the future, they’re saying, in effect, that humans will survive, we’ll manage our problems, we’re not going to blow ourselves off the planet.” What effect such books are having on the American public, which consumes them in staggering quantities, is “probably pretty innocuous,” Feist says. “I don’t think they have much effect, but they may have some salubrious effect overall in that they make people less fearful of change, less fearful of tomorrow. They’re telling us the future is not a bad place — that we’re in the future, and we’re doing okay.”
One thing many fantasy and science-fiction novels have in common is an affinity for a kind of pseudo-medieval social order. But nearly all works of science fiction also share a vision of the future in which it is assumed the human race will colonize space with fantastically complicated machinery — spaceships, robots, and computer-directed laser guns, among other things.
In an article that appeared not long ago in the Nation, science-fiction author Thomas M. Disch noted that the science-fiction community has long served “as a debating society, moral-support system, and cheerleading section for the present and future personnel of space-related industries and military services.... For many science-fiction writers and fans, the perpetuation of a manned space program stands as the central tenet of their faith in mankind’s destiny as explorer and colonizer of outer space.” Disch argued that this attitude has in turn led to knee-jerk support of the space-shuttle program, and he criticized 288 science-fiction authors who took out a $36,000 ad in the New York Times shortly after the shuttle Challenger exploded; the ad urged the president to restore, enhance, and resume the shuttle program. It would have been wiser for the authors to question the value of the program, its cost, and its safety and management, Disch wrote, rather than implicitly endorsing NASA’s view that “everything is A-OK.”
Bear signed and contributed to the New York Times ad, and he comments that “a lot of the people who had knee-jerk emotional response in support of the shuttle also had reservations about the shuttle program.... Disch’s attitude is a little confused. I respect him enormously as a writer, but there were two reasons for putting that ad in the paper. One was to unload our enormous sorrow; the other was to show support for the NASA people who had survived and had to go ahead. That does not mean we supported every concept that led to the Challenger disaster.” He himself would like to see NASA devote more effort to technology other than the shuttle and permit more private-industry involvement in the nation’s space program.
Disch also pointed out that “the desire to get man into space may become so overriding ... that (science-fiction writers and fans] may be willing to advocate the ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defense Initiative solely on the basis of that desire, calculating — probably correctly — that only by ceding the space program to the military will it receive the funding required for such a mammoth effort.”
But Bear takes issue with Disch’s "standard liberal viewpoint, which is that all militarization of space is bad. I don’t fall into that camp. I support the research on SDI; I see it as almost historically inevitable. When you have technology that basically tells world leaders that it will change the balance of power, they have got to pursue it.
‘‘The Russians have been working on an SDI program for a long time. The United States is moving into the field much more rapidly now than in the past because of Reagan and the support of some of the people in the science-fiction community, who originally suggested the idea of SDI, along with military experts. These people are, on the whole, politically conservative.... But there are few knee-jerk thinkers in science fiction. There are very strong conservatives and very strong liberals, but they’re all heavily educated, independent thinkers. On the specific issue of SDI, the community is probably divided sixty to forty in favor of it.”
Brin agrees that the community of science-fiction authors tends to be politically polarized, about SDI as well as other issues. The conservative group, he says, ‘‘exists in part because of the demography of science-fiction readers. It’s impossible to typify it today because it crosses all demographies, but the core readership is still adolescent boys. These young men tend to buy, in large quantities, books about war in space, and there is a fair number of writers who are pandering to them.”
But while some of these novels probably promote SDI indirectly by glorifying technology and its benefits, Brin insists that many others are “cautionary tales, in which the authors explore ways that technology can be misused and examine mistakes that we have not even started making yet. So I don’t see science fiction as glorifying technology. I see it as exploring technology, demystifying it.
“Science fiction is the research and development department for myths for a new era. In a sense, science fiction is the only relevant literature of our time, because it is dealing with a world in an absolutely furious state of change. If you write about the so-called real world, it’s already obsolete.”
“Science is the most important thing affecting our lives,” agrees Bear, “and science fiction is important because it is telling us what we can be doing or warning us against what we shouldn’t be doing. There are wonders in technology; there are also problems. I love technology, and I think it will probably save our asses in the long run, but it’s going to change us, no question about that.
“We are on the verge of a revolution so substantial that no one can conceive what’s going to come out of it, except science fiction writers, maybe. And that is the revolution of understanding the language of DNA. Once we understand it, we’ll be able to design anything we want in terms of living flesh. We will be able to redesign the human body. We will also be able to design computers that are be completely biological.
“But genetic engineering is just the surface,” Bear continues. “The next step will be understanding how the brain works and how to supplement the way it works. We will actually be repairing bad thinking. Within twenty years, we will understand how diseases evolve; things like AIDS and herpes will be under control. And in the next twenty to fifty years, we will have the means to design our own desires and emotions.
“Now, with that kind of power, there are lots of ethical problems.” The specter of a government manipulating human behavior through biological engineering. Bear points out, “is a danger that will almost certainly come to pass in some countries.
“Science-fiction writers are saying, ‘Look at this stuff and think about it.’ Some of these ideas are quite possible. But few science-fiction writers would say they are trying to construct a cohesive vision of the future. We don’t take ourselves so seriously. We’re visionaries, perhaps, but not prophets. We expect our ideas to be given serious consideration, but we don’t expect them to be swallowed wholesale.
“But that doesn’t mean science fiction is a meaningless exercise,” Bear is quick to add. “If there are people who believe that, they’re idiots. They don’t understand how science and technology has advanced, they don’t understand how the universe works, they don’t understand ... that the world is changing around them. Whether these changes are going to be good or bad is irrelevant. It’s like a teen-ager asking whether being an adult is going to be good or bad. Changes are inevitable, and there’s no way we can stop the process.
“But in a peculiar way. I’m an optimist at the same time I’m describing nightmares. Because the nightmares I’m describing are the down side of change. The up side is incredibly powerful, and chances are we will survive long enough so that the up side will come into play.”
Brin, whose latest novel The Postman documents a shattered American society trying to pull itself together after a worldwide nuclear conflagration, is also optimistic. “We’re in a race between sanity and power,” he says, “but I think we have a sixty-percent chance of surviving and having a marvelous civilization.
“I wrote The Postman partly because I was sick and tired of two types of post-holocaust science-fiction novels: one, the kind that feature Rambo-type survivalists; and two, all these sappy stories about how we’re all going to die and look how horrible it will be. To me, that really soft-pedals the real horror — that life will be worse for the survivors. Not the people dying from radiation, but the real survivors. The most painful tragedy of all would be remembering how close we came to a sane, decent world.
“But I believe very strongly that we’re in a renaissance,” Brin continues. Partly because the discoveries of modern science “have humbled us, we are addicted to doubt, to self-criticism, to exploring the territory we’re heading toward before we sink into quicksand. No other civilization has done this.... And the very fact that we’re a people that worries fills me with optimism. Like Greg, I really feel that within forty years we’ll have a civilization almost unrecognizable from what we have today.”
But even in the midst of that glorious technological flowering, some things will probably remain the same. According to Tor Books editor in chief Beth Meacham, “Science-fiction novels sell continuously over long periods of time, as opposed to general-fiction titles, which have a shelf life of six months and then fade into oblivion. Science fiction is the single most consistently profitable area of publishing. It’s not unusual for a science-fiction book to be in print continuously for forty years.” Which means that even as babies are given drugs to eliminate murderous thoughts from their brains, and adventurous workers probe for precious metals on asteroids, the masses are likely to be reading books such as Eon and Startide Rising for entertainment.