A Conversation With Kevin J. Anderson Part 3 of 3by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2003
For our readers who don't know anything about Dune except that it's a big doorstopper book, but who've heard it's great, what is the best entry point to get into the series?
Luckily, we give them three different entry points with what we're doing. Obviously, you could start by reading the original book, Dune, because that's the first book that Frank Herbert wrote. You might think of it as a doorstopper book, but if you look at it, it's really only about 390 pages long. It's not that long really, it just seemed long because when it came out every other science fiction book was only 130 pages long. It was published in 1963. Another place that they can start which sets up everything that is in the Dune universe and will introduce you to all the characters that you will meet in Dune, would be to start by reading House Atreides, which is our first prequel, which is set 15 or 30 years before Dune. You can start by reading that story, and it might be a bit faster of a read, because we wrote it in the late 1990s, instead of the 1960s, and the style is more modern. There's a little bit more action in it and it will introduce you to the concepts that might bog you down a bit if you just picked up Dune to start. Another possibility you could start reading is with the first book in our other trilogy, called The Butlerian Jihad, which is a whole different set of characters, and it establishes and lays the groundwork for everything in the Dune universe. So you can start in any one of those places and, as I said before, Dune is the bestselling science fiction book of all time. It's something you really need to read in your lifetime. If you're going to read The Lord of the Rings, which everyone should, then you have to read Dune, too.
Since the first book was published in 1963, why do you think it has held up so well when so many other writers' works from that period have really fallen by the wayside?
|"I think that in the next -- insert however many years it's going to take -- computers aren't going to take over, that we are going to synthesizing ourselves and we're all going to have…well, wouldn't you like to have an augmented memory chip that you could plug into your head so you don't have to look everything up and remember everything? Today, we're walking around with Palm Pilots. What if we could just implant the Palm Pilot so we could just access the stuff instantaneously? That's what's going to happen, I think. It won't be giant robots standing there with bullwhips making humans…well, what would a robot want a human to do anyway?"|
But it becomes important and meaningful to us now because we are always going to get stuck on needing oil and it's always going to seem unfair to us that the most valuable resource in the world is buried under this ugly bunch of sand duness out in the middle of countries where the people have cultures and religions that we don't understand.
And they're not really very fond of us.
And they're not really fond of us. But it's relevant. I was watching when we went into Iraq and I thought "This is scary, because it's like the Emperor Shaddam going to fight the Fremen." It looked like Bush was acting like Emperor Shaddam, as in "Well, we have the right here, we have the bigger armies, so we're going to walk in and take over everything." He's fighting against the Fremen, these people that are disappearing in the night. They lob a couple of grenades at us and then disappear. It was so creepy that Frank Herbert set all this stuff up thirty-five years ago. Well, 40 years ago, now.
It is amazing, really. And the thinking machines, as well: Artificial intelligence.
There is all that, although that's the one where we're working with it in The Butlerian Jihad. When Frank Herbert did that in the sixties, it was a realistic fear that computers would become super powerful and take over, and men would be enslaved and that's how he set up this whole future. I don't think anybody is particularly worried anymore that their Apple Macintosh is going to take over the world. In fact, in the Terminator movies James Cameron was using a lot of stuff that was set up in the Dune books.
So you don't believe in the scenario that A. I. is dangerous?
I think that in the next -- insert however many years it's going to take -- computers aren't going to take over, that we are going to synthesize ourselves and we're all going to have…well, wouldn't you like to have an augmented memory chip that you could plug into your head so you don't have to look everything up and remember everything?
What, are you kidding me? I could use one today! (laughs)
Today, we're walking around with Palm Pilots. What if we could just implant the Palm Pilot so we could just access the stuff instantaneously? That's what's going to happen, I think. It won't be giant robots standing there with bullwhips making humans…well, what would a robot want a human to do anyway? I don't understand.
I don't know what Gene Roddenberry thought about that, but I remember in one of the later Star Trek shows, Deep Space 9, there was an entire story arc on how augmenting intelligence artificially (illegal genetic manipulation to make someone a genius) had been outlawed in the Federation.
But aren't we doing that now? If somebody comes up with a technology where you can literally increase your RAM in your brain, people would be lined up from here to Antarctica to get it stuck in their heads. You couldn't just pass a law to say it wouldn't happen. Technology is changing so swiftly right now. You've seen the sensor gloves that people put on when they are playing virtual reality games, for example. There are wearable computers being developed now. It's helping us speed up faster, do more and experience more and have better entertainment options which generally drives what our society does. I don't see a day where this would be outlawed…unless you have some fanatical religious crisis that would cause a "burn all the technology so we can all go back to churning our own butter" situation.
It could happen. There are people who want that to happen. The Luddites are at the gates.
But how could a logical person want that to happen? I can't believe that we'd ever really want to give up our DirecTV and our DVD players. The only way we would is if, say, some fanatical Muslim group came and told us to bury all of our TV sets in the backyard, and we had no choice but to do it, or we'd be executed in a soccer stadium. But even still, after we cleared out the Taliban in Afghanistan, what did they do in the first two days afterwards? They dug up their TVs, plugged them in and watched Pepsi commercials.
I wanted to touch on another novel of yours that I enjoyed, Captain Nemo, which is a fictional biography of Jules Verne and his more adventuresome friend, Captain Nemo.
Thank you. I love that book.
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Well, Jules Verne's real life is pretty much sanitized for the book. I did lots of research on him and the more I read, the more I started to hate him (laughing). He was really a putz.
I wondered. Because I didn't get the feeling that you liked his character at all.
I entered into this project with this idealized picture of Jules Verne, because I had read all his stuff and he was so imaginative. And then I started researching his life, and found that he was surly and people didn't like him. He didn't even leave France until he was 45 years old. This guy is writing about everything around the world, but he felt that all he needed to do was look at pictures in magazines and he could get everything he needed.
You're killing me here. I loved Jules Verne when I was a child.
That was such a disappointment to me. Although that story about him running off to join the ship and his father racing to stop him, and pulling him off it and locking him up until he promises that he will only travel in his imagination is supposedly a true story. At least it is in all of the biographies of Jules Verne. I was kind of disappointed that he did seem to be cowardly and unlikable.
He seemed selfish in the book, or at least terribly self-centered?
Right. In fact, in the first couple of drafts of the books, my test readers were yelling at me, saying "He's just too unlikable!" "But it's all real," I would reply. So I had to calm him down and sanitize him. I admire his imagination so much that I wanted to set him up as the counterpoint to the swashbuckling, real Captain Nemo. In another sense, I thought Captain Nemo (who was portrayed as the bad guy in Jules Verne's stuff) needed to have a bit of a fresh look at him, too. You needed to understand that there was actually more of that in The Mysterious Island, where Verne explains more about Captain Nemo's background. You find that there was a reason why he had turned against the world, that his wife and his children had been brutally murdered and he had barely escaped this revolution in Turkey or India, or something like that. There's a little bit more of a heart in him. Jules Verne (the real man) got so much fan mail in which everyone wanted him to write more about Captain Nemo. He was annoyed about that, because he wanted to write other things. I had to research this book for three years, not just to re-read all the Jules Verne stuff, but also to understand the French history during that period, which was very complicated. As I was doing the research and putting it all together, it was like real history was cooperating and falling into place, because that was exactly at the time of the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale. This was when the Suez Canal was being dug to come out right by the Red Sea, not too far from the coast of Turkey, where I was making this evil Caliph hold court. So I thought, "Of course, he'd want this submarine boat so he could shoot the ships which were coming through the Suez Canal." All of that stuff just cooperated very well. Jules Verne really and truly was a good friend of Alexander Dumas, he was trying to write for Dumas, but Dumas got into financial troubles and told Verne to go write his own stuff instead. Then Dumas fled France.
I found that entire subplot quite interesting and wondered if it were true.
It was as close to real as I could make it. Yes, there were plenty of fascinating things going on, and you also throw in the mysterious island and the pirate battles and the dinosaurs and the passage to the center of the earth. It really has all the magic of history and the magic of Jules Verne's fantasies.
One scene that was just hilarious…. Captain Nemo is pursuing his "War against War" and destroys what he thinks is a war ship. He decides to pick up one survivor from the shipwreck, who turns out to be Phileas Fogg (the lead character from Around the World in 80 Days). And Fogg doesn't care that he's just been fished out of the ocean, or that he's had a horrific experience. He just wants to know how he can immediatelyget back on schedule. Very funny stuff. All your work has lots of what Terry Pratchett calls Easter Eggs -- little fun references sprinkled throughout his work.
Well, one has to keep things tied together. The disappointing thing was that I had trouble selling this book. I was getting these letters from the publishers saying, "Does any know who Jules Verne is, anymore?" "Does anybody even remember Captain Nemo?"
That's horrifying, that they even asked that. I would think everyone remembers Captain Nemo.
It just baffled me. But after a long and serendipitous circumstance, I sold it to Pocket Books to a guy I had been wanting to work with for a long time. We sold him two books: the first one was Captain Nemo and the next is called Mr. Wells and the Martians. That comes out in February, 2004. It's the same kind of thing as Captain Nemo, but it's young H.G. Wells and his professor T.H. Huxley. The Cavorite Sphere is being built in Britain in secret because they are afraid they are going to have to go to war with Germany, and they go off to Mars to prevent the invasion from being launched. And the second storyline involves Percival Lowell, who popularized the theory of man-made canals on Mars, and his friend Dr. Moreau have found a crashed cylinder that has a Martian scout in it. Dr. Moreau does his dissection experiments and actually saves the Martian from the germs that would normally have killed them. Dr. Moreau does experiments on the Martian, while H.G. Wells, Percival and Huxley are off on Mars trying to prevent rest of the invasion from being launched. They stop it. They meet the Invisible Man, all the H. G. Wells things.
That's from Pocket Books?
Yes, Pocket Books, hardcover, March 2004.
I understand you did the novelization of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Have you seen the movie?
I've seen the movie and, obviously, read the script a long time ago. I am also a big fan of Alan Moore's graphic novel. The main reason that I wanted to do it, was I felt it was the same kind of thing. That if people liked that one they would like Captain Nemo. Nobody else is writing these things; I'm calling them fantastic historicals -- I can't think of a catchier name for them. I felt that since I'm doing the H.G. Wells book and I did Captain Nemo, that it seemed like an obvious thing for me to be doing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It's a fun movie. It's very fast and very sharply edited.
I think it's a tough thing to translate a graphic novel or comic to the big screen.
Don't go expecting the graphic novel. They basically took the gang of characters and wrote a whole new story for them.
The leader now is Alan Quartermaine; wasn't Mina Harker the leader in the graphic novel?
Well, she was. They've changed it because Sean Connery is in it. He's the leader of the gang. And they've added Tom Sawyer who wasn't in the graphic novel. But it's a whole different story. It's like taking this old-fashioned Justice League of America and giving them a different story to run around in.
I'd like to turn to the subject of writing. Let's talk about the creative process. I understand that you actually dictate while you hike, and then someone else transcribes the tapes for you?
Yes. I find that I can do my writing better if I'm out walking. As you can hear, I just get too many phone calls during the day. If I'm in the middle of a scene and the phone rings, it really disrupts my concentration. So, two things. I like to take my tape recorder out with me to do my writing, even if I'm just walking around the neighborhood here. Just because I'm out of reach from the phone. What I much prefer to do is to go out the whole day, and go to the Rocky Mountain National Park (I live in Colorado) or go into the forests or mountains or something like that. I like to hike all day.
I've hiked in Colorado and I have to tell you that not once did it occur to me to dictate something as I hiked up a mountain. You must be in awesome shape! (laughs)
Well, I do keep in shape (laughs). I've climbed all the 14,000 foot peaks here in Colorado and I'm doing another one this coming Saturday. You're just out hiking and it does a couple of things: one, as you're walking around (presumably you're not hanging by your fingernails from a narrow ledge or something) you can get into a sort of fugue state and concentrate without interruption about your scene or your world or your character or whatever you're doing. I'm surrounded by fresh and interesting details. I'm hearing the sound of the wind in the trees and I'm looking at the wildflowers, smelling the creek I just crossed over…
Lots of sensory input.
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What's the biggest mistake that you see beginning writers make?
They want to know how to get an agent before they've written anything. I get constant letters and phone calls saying, "I've got an idea for a book, how do I get an agent?" The answer is: You research the book, you outline the book, you write the 400-500 page book, you edit the 400-500 page book, then worry about how to get an agent.
Do you think that most people aren't willing to put in the vast amount of time required to be a published author? I know you put in an amazing amount of time.
That's part of it, too. But also, they get ahead of themselves. You need to write something publishable before you need to worry about the mechanics of it. Before you even have written a story, they are worried about how you're going to find someone to sell the movie rights to. Well that will come later, if you've done a good job of writing the story. I guess that's what I'm trying to say is that they need to focus on getting the story done right and making it publishable, before they worry about the next step.
As a practical matter, it seems to me that you handle an amazing number of life tasks, if you will, especially since you and your wife have a young son. So you're a father, a husband, an author with lots of deadlines, and you obviously spend a lot of time hiking and staying fit. How do you do it? Are you a big scheduler? How do you juggle it all? Many people couldn't handle your workload and that busy of a lifestyle.
I've actually never thought about it! I just try to fit it all in. I multi-process. I'm hiking and writing at the same time, so it's not like I'm taking a day off. Because my wife is also a writer, the "husband time" (that is, the spending time with her) is easy. We are always going off to science fiction conventions together, editing each other's books, brainstorming something while we're both cooking dinner our going out to a restaurant together and we spend all of our time doing stuff. We are full-time writers, both of us. My schedule is to get up at 6:30 or 7:00 and I'll usually work out and have breakfast and start writing by, say, 8:30 in the morning. I work non-stop until I have to stop to make supper (and, yes, I do most of the cooking) and in the evenings we generally watch movies or TV shows or talk or do something. There's plenty of time!
So you love to cook? What kind of food do you like to cook? What are you really good at making?
The one that I make when I'm really trying to impress someone who's coming over is a killer lasagna recipe that's been in my family for five generations. It's an all day (or more) thing, if I can manage it. The sauce has to cook for a couple of days. Each pan of lasagna weighs at least 15- 17 lbs…I also do some Moroccan cooking. I have a handful of recipes that I've either made up or picked up from somewhere. I've always felt, even when I was a bachelor working full-time and coming home from work at 5:30 at night, that I would take the time to cook myself a couple of chicken breasts and make a salad or something because I work too hard, and I deserve to have a decent meal instead of heating up a pot pie or something like that. I don't know if that makes me a gourmet cook or not. I think that you make time for the things that are important. That really is an answer for a whole bunch of the questions you are asking. You don't waste time on things that aren't important.
Well, that's the trick, isn't it?
Yes, and that's why there are so many leaves in my front yard.
I'm curious. What are the kinds of things in the science or political news know that really fire your mind? I have to admit that one of the things that surprised me, as far as how fast science is progressing, is about a year ago, on TV is the president of the United States telling people that we were not going to be cloning humans. While most people jumped off on the issue of whether that was morally right or wrong, I was more focused on the shocking fact that we've come so far that our politicians are talking about cloning people. That speech would have been impossible to imagine the president giving ten years ago, because it would have been an absurd thing to talk about: I mean cloning people. It sounds like science fiction.
Yes, that's true. But what gets me about that is that you have people talking about cloning and they are saying things that anybody with eighth grade science knows that what they're saying is wrong. Nobody is calling them on it. Or what they do on the talk shows when they have a discussion about human cloning, is to have an expert in genetics speaking on one side of the issue, and the expert on the other side is somebody from the local church choir who just thinks "It's bad." They are putting these people up as equally informed and I get so mad listening to these people. Say the topic is whether you can keep stem cells to do any sort of research on them in order to help people who have severed spinal columns or something. The woman from the church choir is ranting that "You are killing babies! These stem cells could eventually be made into human beings!" And the answer is "No, it can't!" Even though the experts know that's wrong, the expert isn't given any greater credibility than the moron who doesn't know what she's talking about.
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This is our typically American-centric idea. As you mentioned earlier about the idea in the Seven Suns books about how shocked we are that we aren't the center of the universe, sure President Bush can say that the U. S. government won't fund stem cell research, but believe me, Japan is applauding. Because they will just do it first and get all the patents. Does he think that by him saying that because the U.S. (who theoretically has the most ethical researchers in the world) will not fund it, that no one else will do it? Are you going to let Saddam Hussein's old chemists work on it instead? Do you think that everybody in the world is going to stop stem cell research? That's just dumb thinking.
Is it a coincidence that the uproar over stem cell research happened right after the crazy Raelians claimed to have cloned a baby and we had all just seen the latest Star Wars film: Attack of the Clones. I'm being somewhat facetious here, but can we blame LucasFilm? Remember the scene when Obi Wan walks in to the facility and discovers they're building a clone army? Is that what everyone thinks is going to happen if we allow stem cell research to proceed?
You can blame them for the uneducated people getting the wrong impression. But the people who make policy decisions should damned well know what they are talking about before they make the decisions. There is nobody who is an expert on cloning who would be afraid after seeing Attack of the Clones. Ok, I'm getting off on a rant here. But this is one of the reasons I was baffled and perplexed that under our jury system that you are guaranteed a jury of your peers. So you have this O.J. Simpson trial where an expert on DNA analysis is put on the stand for days explaining DNA. And another expert was also put on, refuting some of the technical details that the first guy said and to explain that there may well have been some other person on the planet Earth who had this same DNA as O.J. You have those two people explaining highly technical material, and the people who are making the decisions are people who have such limited lives that they can't get out of jury duty?? You are talking about the waitress and the street cleaner and the guy who's out of work who used to be a disc jockey, deciding this DNA test was accurate or not. They didn't know beans about a DNA test. What you were saying about the Luddites earlier, I think that's what's happening with making these decisions about stem cell research.
Is that where this is coming from?
Where it's coming from is that I don't think that the people who are making the policy decisions are the people who know the most about the subject, on either side of it. They are being swayed by the church choir lady who doesn't like stem cells because they could be babies, so this is abortion somehow. Which is just absurd. What I'm surprised is that people are asking, like Hitler did, what if someone comes up with an eugenics program. And to them I ask, "Ok, but what if we can make Christopher Reeve walk again?"
Next subject, the space shuttle.
Ok, sore subject, obviously! Where should we be going with the space program?
First off, let me vent about this: It's been how many years since the Challenger disaster and we never replaced that space shuttle? And now we've lost the Columbia and we still have no plans to replace it so our fleet of five ships is now down to three ships, all of which are very old. And no one's even got a new one on the assembly line. Talk about short-sighted thinking. Now, it's been since forever that NASA and the other contractors have been attempting to come up with the next generation space shuttle. I obviously think this is where we need to go. I mean, we need to have a regular commerce between the surface of the Earth and at least near-Earth orbit from which we can build other things and send them to the Moon or further. It's the stepping stone. You have to have it. Having said that, whether NASA is, with it's apparently crippling bureaucracy, the place to get it done or whether the Sultan of Brunei should just say "Here's my money, build me a space shuttle." That may be the best thing to do. I have long -- and I don't know very much about the man, so I'm not saying anything him personally -- I think that Ted Turner was this wonderful thing that happened to the communications industry. He showed up, did everything his own way, which wasn't the way that anybody else did it, and created CNN. Because of CNN, our entire way of receiving news is totally different than it was before.
They laughed at him when he founded CNN, saying nobody would want to want to watch 24 hours a day of news.
Of course. They laughed at the new style of CNN Headline News, which had the ticker at the bottom, but it took about all of three weeks for every news station to copy it. All of that is a lead up for me saying that I think that somebody with the resources and innovation and the idea is going to come out of nowhere and come up with a successful space travel program, whether it's Bill Gates wants to do "Geeks in Orbit" or whether the Sultan of Brunei decides that he wants to have a satellite named after him or what. But I'm not convinced that the NASA space program is the best and most efficient way to retool everything. However, I'd rather that they build another space shuttle and that we'd at least have four of them working than just sitting around waiting for some miracle to happen.
What's your opinion on the debate about manned vs. unmanned space flight? What about those who say that manned space flight is just too dangerous and they should all be unmanned? Of course others say that they must be manned, for a number of reasons.
|"[W]hat gets me.... is that you have people talking about cloning and they are saying things that anybody with eighth grade science knows that what they're saying is wrong. Nobody is calling them on it. Or what they do on the talk shows when they have a discussion about human cloning, is to have an expert in genetics speaking on one side of the issue, and the expert on the other side is somebody from the local church choir who just thinks 'It's bad.' They are putting these people up as equally informed and I get so mad listening to [them]."|