Bruce Bethke works, writes, and when time permits lives, in beautiful, mosquito-infested Minnesota. In some circles he is best known for his 25-year-old short story "Cyberpunk." In others, he is better known for his Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash. What very few people in either circle have known until recently is that he actually works in supercomputer software development, and all his best science fiction gets repackaged as "futurism studies" and sold at stunningly inflated prices to various government agencies, where it is promptly stamped SECRET and filed away, never to be seen again.
Bruce Bethke is represented exclusively by the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency.
[Editor's Note: This interview took place in early 2005, before the release of the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.]
Lynne Jamneck: What's your opinion on the current state of SF writing?
Bruce Bethke: I believe you've actually asked at least three questions here. In terms of pure writing, the current state is better than it's ever been before. Compare any current issue of any major magazine to the clunky prose produced by the Grand Masters during the Golden Age or the psychotic fugues whipped out by the Young Turks during the New Wave, and I think you'll agree that for sheer literary quality, there are more highly skilled writers working now than ever before.
In terms of the market, on the other hand, things right now are as bad as I've ever seen in my adult life. From what I've read, you'd have to go back to around 1960 to find a time when the paying market for new SF was as tough.
What this means for writers, then, is that there are a lot of very talented people doing a lot of extremely good work, and publishing it in some pretty marginal venues. It's a difficult time to be trying to earn your living as a professional science fiction writer.
LJ: Are you seeing any interesting avenues in which the genre finds itself expanding?
BB: I think it's a mistake to talk about "the genre" as if it were a monolith. There may have been a time when it was possible for a dedicated fan to read a good sampling of all the new SF being published, but that time—if it ever really was—was long ago. What we've been going through for at least the last 30 years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with "the genre" fragmenting into dozens of related but distinct daughter-genres and microgenres.
The interesting part of this is that, between print-on-demand publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, and all the other emerging technologies, it's now at least semipractical to publish fiction that has no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. If you wanted to, say, launch an e-zine devoted exclusively to publishing stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama, you could do it, and do a very professional-looking job of it. Not only that, but thanks to the Internet, you would actually stand a pretty fair chance of reaching the 500 people in the world who want to read nothing but stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama. So there's more fiction being published than ever before.
The downside for the writer, though, is that there's no money in it. The general interest magazines appear to be following the general interest anthologies into extinction, and extreme specialization and small-niche marketing seem to be the shape of things to come. Readers now have unprecedented power to find only exactly the types of fiction they want to read, without risk of accidental exposure to anything else. I suppose they've always had this power—I can think of entire years when I subscribed to Asimov's and only read two or three stories in each issue—but at least with a general interest magazine, there was always the possibility that after you'd read the Michael Swanwick and Lucius Shepard stories, you might take a chance on Karen Joy Fowler.
But this trend towards extreme narrowcasting—it's both fascinating and disturbing. When the reader can exercise such fine control over the input he receives, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?
LJ: Why was your book Cyberpunk never published when you sold it to a publisher in 1989? And by the way, you should have trademarked the phrase.
BB: Ah, well, hindsight is 20/20.
The book was never released because the publisher hated the ending and I refused to rewrite it. What the publisher wanted me to write was a "Frazetta cover" ending; you know, the hero, center stage, with a mighty weapon in his hands, a cowering half-naked babe at his feet, and the blood-smeared corpses of his many enemies piled high all around. To get to this ending I would have had to end the book with the lead character committing a massacre inside a school—which is what the publisher specifically asked me to write—but even 10 years before Columbine, I found that idea utterly revolting. So I refused to write it.
Perhaps the publisher was right. Perhaps the book would have sold well with a blood-soaked adolescent revenge fantasy ending. But sales aren't everything.
LJ: You recently wrote an essay for The Anthology at the End of the Universe, a collection that takes a look at Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Tell us a bit more about that.
BB: BenBella Books is doing an interesting thing with their "smart pop" series, in putting out collections of alternately serious and funny essays about iconic pop culture subjects. Now, what happened here is that the editor of the series, Glenn Yeffeth, approached me about writing an essay for a completely different book, but when I found out he was in the process of wrapping up a book on the Hitchhiker's Guide—well, I just had to take hostages and make irrational demands until he caved and let me in.
I have always been a huge fan of Douglas Adams, going back to his Dr. Who scripts. I loved the Hitchhiker's Guide books, loved the original BBC TV series, and writing this essay gave me an excuse to go back and reread and rewatch it all—and then to write what I hope was a very affectionate tribute to the story and its creator.
Along the way, incidentally, I discovered an interesting factoid. A fellow by the name of Rod Lord was responsible for both the Guide animation sequences in the BBC series and all the CGI animation used in the original Max Headroom movie. If you want to talk about an unsung genius who defined a good part of what later came to be known as the cyberpunk style, Rod Lord is your man.
LJ: Have you got high hopes for the soon-to-be-released film based on Adams's book?
BB: I have high hopes that the movie won't suck as badly as most Hollywood adaptations of good books do. Based on prior experience, this is probably a vain hope.
LJ: Are people still debating whether the cyberpunk genre is alive or dead? Surely it has simply mutated into something different?
BB: God, I hope they aren't still debating it. I wrote the story 25 years ago, and at the time I didn't think it was anything terribly special, as I'd been strongly influenced by A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962) and The Shockwave Rider (John Brunner, 1975).
I should hope that by now the cyberpunk trope has become just another part of that amorphous seething mass we call the mainstream, and I believe it has. I mean, when Michael Crichton can make a hacking scene a key dramatic moment in Jurassic Park, and Steven Spielberg can film it, what's left to debate about the influence of cyberpunk?
LJ: Are our social and political structures (in terms of laws, morality) keeping up with the rapid advancement in modern-day technology?
BB: Nope. They never can. Laws and political structures are always reactive in nature, evolving in response to real, or more likely imagined, problems. And let's hope we stay that way, because the alternative is a police state in which all new ideas are subject to prior restraint and government scrutiny.
Morality, on the other hand, shouldn't keep up with advances in technology. I mean, if you're going to claim to be in possession of eternal truths, they really can't be conditional based on whatever gizmo gets invented next week, can they? Morals are prescriptive rules for human behavior, and an immoral act—say, lying—is immoral no matter whether you're lying in person, over the telephone, on your blogsite, or via your subspace telepathic enhancement helmet.
LJ: What do you see as the next big technological revolution?
BB: If I knew the answer to that, I'd be on the phone to my stockbroker right now.
Seriously, as I've hinted before, I tend to believe that progress is the cumulative result of thousands of small changes and innovations taking place all over the world, and big trends are only recognizable by external observers, and then only after the fact. Right now there are some enormously cool things happening in a wide variety of fields like molecular films and materials science, but to get to the next big technological revolution, some as-yet-unknown synergism needs to take place, and I haven't a clue what it might be.
I want to say that bioinformatics and biotechnology will spawn the next big technological revolution, but other people have been saying that for decades and it doesn't seem to be happening just yet. Genetic engineering is turning out to be a lot trickier than anyone ever anticipated. There are subtle mechanisms embedded in the "junk" DNA that may take us decades to understand, if we ever do.
LJ: You've stated that you think the Kyoto Treaty is a bad idea. Is there any other way that you can conceive of cutting down on global pollution?
BB: Ms. Jamneck, you have a knack for asking questions that properly require 5,000-word answers. I'll try to keep this short.
I don't want to argue about global warming theory. I know some scientists who think it's real. I know others who think it's garbage. I've observed that those who believe in global warming do so with an almost cultlike intensity and that trying to discuss it with them is not unlike trying to discuss Darwinian evolution with a Southern Baptist. The one thing I do know for certain is that I work with supercomputers and atmospheric and oceanographic modeling codes on a daily basis, and anyone who believes it's possible to make credible centuries-in-advance extrapolations from small and incomplete data sets is putting an unreasonable faith in hardware, software, and Fourier transformations.
As for the Kyoto Treaty: people have a tendency to say, "I support Kyoto," without knowing just what it is they support. Yes, the treaty protocol sets general goals for reducing atmospheric pollution, but it provides two mechanisms for doing so. Signatory nations can either just plain reduce their emissions, by a variety of methods, all of which are well known, or they can buy the right to pollute from other, mostly Third World nations. The big thing the Kyoto Treaty does is to set up a mechanism, via the UN World Bank, by which nations can buy, sell, or broker their pollution "rights." And these rights, goals, targets, and pollution credits are all based on 1990 emissions levels.
What this means is that, for example, the nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union—one of the worst industrial polluters ever in human history—are now net creditors under Kyoto, as they sell off the pollution rights to their vacant and rusting Soviet-era factories. And it also means that other nations—again, mostly Third World—are in a position to either sell off their pollution rights, or as is actually happening, to import entire "dirty" manufacturing industries from the developed nations. An enormous portion of the American steel industry, for example, has moved overseas to Third World countries with lax labor and human rights laws and plenty of Kyoto credits. If you wanted to create a mechanism to accelerate the offshoring of jobs and manufacturing industries, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with one better than Kyoto.
But never mind that. The biggest single problem with the Kyoto Treaty is that it gives the two fastest-growing industrial economies in the world, China and India, a complete pass on air pollution. Now, both nations get most of their energy from open-pit coal mines, and there are uncontrolled fires in some of these mines that have been burning for decades. The coal fires in northern China alone, for example, put out as much greenhouse-gas pollution as all the motor vehicles in the United States combined. (These are not my statistics. They come from the International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, and you can look them up yourself.)
If you really want to do something effective to reduce global air pollution, forget Kyoto. Put out those coal mine fires in China and India.
LJ: Should we be making space travel an all-time priority then?
BB: Space travel makes for entertaining fantasy, but realistically, the cost of getting into space and keeping humans alive up there is prohibitive, and despite the efforts of Burt Rutan and Virgin Spaceways, likely to remain so. There is a future in space travel, but it belongs to our robots. We'd better make sure they think fondly of us.
LJ: How much of SF writing can be seen as a subconscious group effort? Do you think that writers of the genre unknowingly expand (or try to) on ideas they've read somewhere else?
BB: Yes, absolutely. All literature is either an overt or subconscious group effort. You can't help but be influenced by what you've read; after all, if you didn't like reading, you probably wouldn't have started writing. Literature is the common collective memory of our civilization, and if you were to write something absolutely, totally, completely original—well, for starters, who else would be able to read and understand it?
After that, it's just a question of how much you're borrowing from other sources or paying homage to earlier works, and whether you're doing it accidentally or intentionally. In SF, in particular, there's this large body of tropes, and you must at least tip your hat to one or more of them just to produce something that is recognizable as "science fiction."
LJ: In your opinion, which notion is currently the more popular in the SF writing genre: that we're headed for a dystopic or utopian future?
BB: Oh, it's always dystopic, for the simple reason that utopias are boring. If everyone is happy, well-adjusted, and comfortably well-off, where's the conflict? Where's the story?
We like our utopias with dirty secrets, seamy underbellies, and a little rust and rot somewhere. It makes life interesting. If our lives get too comfortable, we seem to have this need to shake things up, just to keep ourselves interested in our own lives.
LJ: What are you currently reading—any good books you'd like to recommend?
BB: That's a tough one to answer, because I read omnivorously. Limiting it to just SF, I recently finished Cusp by Robert Metzger, which was both terrifically entertaining and contained more new and interesting Big Sci-Fi Ideas than any six other novels. After that, I generally read anything new by Greg Bear, anything I can find by William Barton, and I at least take a look at every new Robert Sawyer book, although he seems to write faster than I can read.
Mostly I read history, though. My bookshelves are overflowing with history. The wonderful thing about history is that it's always far more absurd and entertaining than anything a reasonable person can imagine.
LJ: What is the Internet moving towards as an electronic entity? Do you agree with the assessment that it is turning people into inadequate socialites?
BB: I think that as an entity, the Internet is in serious danger of choking to death on its own excrement, e.g., spam, viruses, Flash animations, etc.
As for whether it's turning people into inadequate socialites: define "inadequate." It changes the way people interact with each other, but then so do televisions, ATM machines, iPods, and self-service gas stations. Any technology that reduces the need to interact face-to-face with other people changes a person's social patterns. Is this a bad thing? No, it's just a change.
To say that it is bad is to say that change is inherently bad and we should all be living in tribal villages, listening only to live music, and never interacting with anyone outside of earshot or walking distance. Granted, thanks to the Internet I now have more communication with people in Australia and Europe than with my neighbor across the back fence, but on the other hand the people in Australia and Europe are far more interesting and intelligent than my neighbor. I'd rather be communicating with them.
So if this means that the Internet has made me an inadequate socialite, then inadequacy is a blessing.
LJ: Any inventions or technological breakthroughs that are not yet around that you thought would have been achieved by now?
BB: Yes. It's 2005 now. WHERE'S MY DAMN FLYING CAR?!?!?!
LJ: Will electronic publishing have a negative or positive influence on the publishing industry?
BB: This is a case where "positive" and "negative" really are a matter of your point of view. For the delivery truck driver who makes his living hauling magazines around to newsstands, it's bad. He's going to have to find something else to do. For the writer who'd be willing to sell his mother for transplant parts in order to get published, it's good. As I said earlier, there is a lot more material being published now than ever before, and thanks to the Internet, you can reach readers you've never reached before, literally all over the world. I mean, consider us; here's a guy in Minnesota doing an interview with a writer in New Zealand, for publication—where?
As far as professional writers are concerned, the big problem is that the old business model for the publishing industry is dying and electronic publishing won't be "just like it, only electronic." We're probably moving to some model where author payments are based on actual unit sales, and the days of publishers giving out big advances based on the hope that the author's latest book might break out of the midlist are probably over. Positive? Negative? It's change, is what it is, and the emotional quality of that change depends on how you deal with it.
As for what this new business model might look like: kindly remember that the original novel is a fairly recent development and the paperback original even more so. Dickens, for example, sold most of his work as newspaper serials, and people subscribed so that they could read the next chapter. The future of fiction authorship may look very much like the past.
LJ: Any advice you would like to offer to aspiring speculative writers?
BB: Oh, yes, I have lots of advice, which is why I started a blog: The Ranting Room. "Practical discussions of the craft, trade, and business of writing. No politics. No gossip. No cute cat stories."
If you're going to force me to pare it down to one piece of advice, though, I'd say it's this: there is only one good reason to write fiction, and that is for the love of telling the story. While getting published and getting paid for your work is enormously validating, of course, if you don't love telling stories, there are plenty of other ways for someone with good communication skills to make a living.
If you ever find yourself in the position where you're writing a piece of fiction solely for the money, stop. There's already an adequate supply of indifferently written hackwork in the world. Don't add your contribution to that vast, fetid heap.
LJ: Tell us something about Bruce Bethke no one else knows.
BB: I'm only two degrees away from Kevin Bacon.
LJ: What would you like your epitaph to read?
BB: If it says, "He was a good father to his children, a good friend to those who knew him, and a good husband to at least one of his wives," I'll be content.
LJ: Parting shot, rant, or rave?
BB: Sorry, but I can't think of one. I'm surprisingly happy and well-adjusted. For a writer.