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David Brin

Brin on science fiction, society and Kevin Costner

By Zack Stentz

ASIDE FROM completing The Transparent Society, Brin is also busy writing science fiction. His latest novel, Infinity's Shore, landed in bookstores last November; his current project is the novel Heaven's Reach, the third in a trilogy of sequels to his wildly popular 1983 novel, Startide Rising (the first and second are Brightness Reef and Infinity's Shore).

As far as predictive accuracy goes, the San Diego astrophysicist- turned-author has so far already scored several direct hits. Brin's description of a future electronic "WorldNet," put forward in his 1990 novel Earth, accurately described and even helped shape the development of the Internet; his post-holocaust survivalists in 1985's The Postman proved eerie precursors of today's militiamen.

Asked to account for his impressive precognitive batting average, Brin offers an unusual explanation: his dental fillings. "That's why I'm going to be the last great science-fiction writer," he laughs, "because young kids today don't have enough metal in their mouths, so they can't pick up radio Aldebran the way I do."

Now Brin's tuned his mandible-mounted antenna toward Kevin Costner as he prepares to begin shooting the film adaptation of The Postman (no relation to the Italian film Il Postino). Costner might seem an odd choice to play the protagonist, given that Dances With Wolves and Waterworld were about men running away from the evils of civilization, while The Postman, in contrast, celebrates the benefits of civilized society.

Despite expressing confidence in Costner, it's clear Brin shares some of these fears. He expresses the hope that the finished film will come closer to the pro-community feel of Field of Dreams than the Mad Max­with-gills ethos of Waterworld.

"Most post-holocaust novels are little-boy wish fantasies about running amok in a world without rules," he says of the genre that encompasses both The Postman and Waterworld. "In fact, such lonely 'heroes' would vanish like soot after a real apocalypse. The moral of The Postman is that if we lost our civilization, we'd all come to realize how much we missed it, and would realize what a miracle it is simply to get your mail every day."

Sci-Fi Ideologues

DO BRIN'S defense of collective action and his unapologetic environmentalism make him politically suspect in science-fiction circles, so identified in the public mind with conservative free marketeers like Newt Gingrich adviser Jerry Pournelle or anti-environmentalist, pro-nuke advocate Larry Niven?

Oh, we're not all libertarians," Brin replies. "There is a liberal contingent, typified in Kim Stanley Robinson's famous Martian Odyssey, and a feminist group led by Ursula K. LeGuin. But in fact we're all pretty much libertarian in our basically cantankerous attitudes toward authority. That's because science fiction is the quintessential American literature. It's about hope, change and individuals facing altered circumstances. Above all, it assumes that children can sometimes learn from the mistakes of their parents--a notion that is quite anathema in European literary circles, fixated on so-called 'eternal human verities.' "

Brin continues, "I'm no Pollyanna. I just recognize that I'm a member of a civilization that's fed, nurtured, taken care of me and created circumstances that let me thrive. Any other society would have strung up a loud-mouthed bastard like me, or set me on fire."

Instead, he, points out, "I'm well-paid for my contrarian ideas. What I'd like to hear from my libertarian friends is not less individuality but more simple gratitude for getting to live here and now.

"That's the message I tried to get at in The Postman," he continues, "the ultimate irony that we're cantankerous individuals because of a warm, decent, generous, terribly imperfect society that taught us those values and created circumstances allowing self-righteous individuality to thrive."

Brin's view of a flawed but evolving Homo sapiens puts his work at odds with the cynical, dystopian vibe of cyberpunk, as exemplified by William Gibson's Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

"Look, one of the things preached by our media is that you, the individual, are smart," he says. "You have the answers, you and your friends are in tune with what's going on, but of course your opponents are either vile or sheep. Well, guess what, from the perspective of your fellow human beings, you're one of the sheep.

"If it's true, that our nation and most of our fellow citizens are imbeciles, then we may as well not have kids. Because the problems are accelerating so rapidly that there really would be no point to it. But there are 10,000 bits of evidence to the contrary, that human beings are getting smarter at a rapid clip."

Pressed for examples, Brin continues, "About 15 years ago, a few scientists grew concerned about a decline in the parts-per-million of a trace corrosive gas, 50 miles above the South Pole. Their concern went public and within a year the first ozone-protection legislation was introduced in the U.S., followed by international treaties, pushed by a populist concern over the welfare of our grandchildren, all because of something happening in the high atmosphere over the most remote corner of the world. Is this evidence of a citizenry smart enough to contemplate quicksand before they step in it? All our hopes depend on it being true."

He is quick to add, however, that "this doesn't mean I look at life through rose-colored glasses. I'm active politically. ...I also see millions of other people who are deeply and intelligently concerned about these problems and are arguing vigorously over their possible solutions. This is not a decadent society. A decadent people don't behave that way, but a vigorous, self-confident people do.

Riding the Startide

THIS SORT of cautiously optimistic humanism appears again and again in Brin's fiction, from the citizens of a war-ravaged America struggling to rebuild a civilized society in The Postman, to the benign scientists "uplifting" chimpanzees and dolphins into fully sentient fellow citizens in Startide Rising and The Uplift War.

And even more than the adroit characterization and exuberant storytelling that characterize his novels and stories, it's the vision of a humanity standing in the gutter but looking at the stars (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) that gives Brin's fiction its emotional power and has allowed him to win the respect in mainstream literary circles denied to most science-fiction writers.

"There's no doubt that science fiction is the quintessentially American literary form in its dynamism and sense of possibility," Brin says. "To me, human beings are the most fascinating phenomena in the Universe. Our moral quandaries are riveting. Nothing could be more poignant than the story of the past 6,000 years, of our ancestors struggling through their darkness and ignorance to bring us to where we are--to a generation transfixed by change."

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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