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Earth in the year 2050 and our first contact with alien life are explored in David Brin's new science-fiction novel "Existence."
June 19, 2012 1:08 p.m.
David Brin, futurist,and science fiction novelist. His books including The Postman, Earth, and The Transparent Society.
Related Story: San Diego Futurist Explores The Nature Of 'Existence'
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The new science fiction novel by writer and futurist, David Brin, paints a complex picture of the world just 40 years from now. It's at once familiar and shockingly unravelled. Into this broke upon-down version of the planet, a new element is introduced from beyond our world, and it's left up to the reader to discover if that element saves, destroys, or transforms the earth. The book is called Existence. And David Brin is a celebrated science fiction writer and scientist. He lives in San Diego. It's a pleasure to welcome you back to KPBS.
BRIN: Great to see you again, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: On your website is an article that contrasts your book with the new Ridley Scott movie, Prometheus. Both of these works of art seem to explore what kind of alien species we may ultimately come into contact with. Is it 50-50 do you think that our aliens will like us or we'll like our aliens?
BRIN: Well, this is a huge topic. I've explored it as an astronomer, and also as a science fiction author. It's a fascination to all of us, especially American, because the "other", what's beyond the hill, seems to be in our bones, in our blood. We think about this, I call it otherness, and Hollywood has responded to this with stories this are passionately fearful about what's on the horizon. And our ancestors and their tribes were fearful about what was over the horizon, but also fascinated. That's where they went to found their spouses, you know? The dreams of the princess, and that sort of thing. So this is reflected in our fascination with the alien. And it does always come back down to us. So it's a way of looking in the mirror. I always talk about how our civilization -- has been incorporating the other. It's been our passion to incorporate the other within the firelight, within the light of what's called human beings, genders, races, diversity. And we'll continue doing this when we create artificial intelligences. Although that's up for fear in Hollywood. And we may alter dolphins and other animals. And who knows? Another 150 years from now, they may be part of our civilization. It happens at the notion of whether or not -- why we haven't seen any sign of aliens with our fantastic astronomy, and now we're finding thousands of extra solar planets, why there's been no search of them is called the feramy paradox. Because he said, so, where are they? And this is -- a lot of people are mulling over answers. And it may be that they simple he all fail before they rise up as far as we hope to raise.
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned what you see in the mirror as human beings transform themselves through the dawn of time till now. You hold up a mirror to a future that's not that distant. It's only 40 years away in your new book. And it's really kind of disturbing, considering what you see going on in 2050. Tell us a bit about what you do see the earth to be like in 40 years.
BRIN: Actually, I'm quite optimistic. I foresee there will be terrorism, I foresee there will be rising tides. My fans keep wickies tracking my more predictive books like Earth. And for every good score they talk about oh, you nailed this, I always point out the ways in which I flubbed because it's the job of a science fiction author, including got bless him, Ray Bradbury, my friend who just passed away, to point out metaphors about what if, not what's going to be. Upon but it turns out in existence, I think we're coping. The 40 or 50-year projection is a difficult one. If you go tone years in the future, you tweak one thing, and everybody is the same how they react to that thing. 300 years from now, it's playing tennis with the net down. You say -- you can hypothesize and just stay within the boundaries of science. But 40 years from now, people reading the book today, will still be around.
BRIN: And you have to capture this wonderful mix. If you brought somebody from 40 years ago to today's 2012, half of that person's reaction would be wow! We never thought of that. And the other half the time she'd be saying you mean you're still doing that?
CAVANAUGH: Right! You haven't figured that one out yet?
BRIN: We thought you'd be wearing silver and flying private cars.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly! Now, do you see the world that you've created therefore as a logical progression of where we are now?
BRIN: Oh, that's what I try to do with the 40-year projections. The 300 year projections I'm saying this might happen. The ten year projections, I'm saying warning. And that's what really distinguishes science fiction. I think it was badly named. Only 10% of science fiction authors are scientifically trained like I am. But it's the gedankenexperiment, continuing poking around just saying what if therapy to happen, what if therapy to happen? And the one thing that distinguishes the genre is that it's fascinated by the effects of change on human beings. In pride and prejudice, John Austin's characters are in [the|ed] middle of a period of fantastic change, and Lizzy is helping that change to happen, but she doesn't reflect to. Well, we're experiencing change, it's got half of our citizens terrified, and not just on the right, on the left as well. And if we're going to handle this change, we have to stand up and look it in the eye. Existence just isn't about dauntingly scary changes that are going on, but a lot of really, really hopeful ones.
CAVANAUGH: David, science fiction can be one of the most profound genres to get people to think about the very things you've been talking about. Does it annoy you when it's sometimes dismissed as fantasy fluff?
BRIN: Well, we science fiction authors are gradually getting over our worry about fratting over being inside a ghetto. It turns out we're nowadays -- I mean, New Yorker just had a science fiction issue, totally science fiction, with some of our best authors in it. It used to be the best science fiction authors who made literary breakouts, they were offered a chance by the community to say oh, I don't right science fiction. Lately the lions are refusing this offer. They're saying this is the bold genre, the genre that discusses how change might affect humanity. It's also the most uniquely American genre. Of
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned the passing of ray Bradbury. I'd like you to be able to talk about that, and what kind of impression or inspiration he was to you.
BRIN: Well, we went to the same high school 30 years apart.
[ LAUGHTER ]
BRIN: But the one time my three kids ever gave me unallowed respect respect at the same time was when I took them to meet Ray. He lived to 91, he left a fantastic body of work, including one work that fell into the category that I consider to be the greatest category of science fiction, and that's called the self-preventive prophecy. That's the prophecy that so chills people with a failure mode that millions devote the rest of their lives to making sure that it will never come true. The greatest of these was orwel's 1984, which I believe unarguablia helped prevent its self from coming true. And I believe this is the case for his wonderful novel, Fahrenheit 451. It's the peak, the ultimate accomplishment in science fiction. Although Ray accomplished the other peak of writing things that were simply beautiful.
PENNER: Right. Have you tried your hand at this self-preventing novel?
BRIN: Well, the postman could look looked at that way. That's the one Kevin Costner made into that film, which I have feelings about. And Earth talked about things that people then talked about. No grand things prevented, but a few things. My nonfiction book, the transparent society talks about how we have to not be afraid of these cameras and websites, and all the things that are threatening privacy. We'll better defend our privacy in a mostly open world.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, I know that's one of the things that you talk about, you lecture about, you've written about. It's one of your tenants that civilization benefits from openness. Do you think this complex, dismaying world created in 2050 in your book Existence could have come about if there had been -- could not have come about if there had been more transparency? Is that what this science would have needed to keep it from some of its perils?
BRIN: I portray a society that wisely tried to become more transparent, and because of the powers that be in our world, failed to go as far as perhaps it ought to have but is surviving because it did take on some of those forms.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
BRIN: The situation we face in this world is that the western enlightenment has to make it across the next 50 years. Maybe 60, 70. And if it does, then our wiser great grandchildren will really have the tools they need. And we can manage this planet that will be diverse and yet courageousous, moving into the future.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a couple of things not related to the things you've written about, if there are such things. I don't know!
[ LAUGHTER ]
BRIN: If you mention something I've missed, I'll try to bring it into a book next time.
CAVANAUGH: Fair enough! It just occurred to me as we're talking about science in general and the passion that that generates in people, it seems to me that the entire notion of space travel has really gotten more prosaic in recent years. Instead ever the grand seek to seek out new world, we're talking about private asteroid mining. Does it seem that way?
BRIN: Of course it does. As a child of the '60s, I found it awkward that my kid are who are forward-looking are les excited about space. But we experienced in the '60s an incredible anomaly. Human beings desired something that was out of their reach. There was no reasonable way we could have gone into the moon in 1969, so we went insane and went anyway. The VCR gave us the ability to record and watch whatever we wanted, even though if you open one up, it's a rub Goldberg device that should not work! I think sometimes we have to recognize that there's divine madness that takes over, and then we face reality. And it turns out we is of our generation and our children's generation aren't going to conquer Einstein and get to the stars right away. But meanwhile we can get out there far enough to mine those asteroids and get so rich that we can take the filthy industries off this planet, turn it into a garden, and make our children so rich that they can start explaining that we're holding them back from the stars. And we see this in this interview with these wonderful, wonderful students that you just made at the San Diego academy. In my novel, Earth, I talk about this business that we're going to run out of phosphates. Now the kids are already working on that. And I just published the book today!
[ LAUGHTER ]
BRIN: This accident about science literacy, I want to mention one thing. We're used to flagellating ourselves over how terrible our schools are, and nobody noticed that this last year there was a poll taken around the world on adult science literacy this didn't use standardized tests. But it measured how much adults knew about science. You know which country came in first? The United States of America. Way ahead of anybody else. And the reason is because we have these breath requirements at our universities that require for you to get your four-year bachelor's degree, you have to take these science classes. And the science nerds have to take the business and English and history classes that then enable them to become entrepreneurs. So this is what is so exciting about the western, especially the American branch of the western enlightenment.
CAVANAUGH: I have to tell everyone that David Brin will be signing copies of his book, Existence, tonight, it comes out today so you can get it first, at mysterious galaxy bookstore on Clairemont mesa at 7:00 PM. Thank you for coming in.
BRIN: Sure thing, Maureen.