David Mitchell was born in 1969 and his first novel, Ghostwritten, was published by Scepter in 1999 to great acclaim and won the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
His second novel, Number9dream (2001) was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He was chosen as one of Grant’s 20 Best Young British Novelists 2003.
Interview: David Mitchell
David Mitchell is the best-selling author of the 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, which was adapted by the Wachowskis into a feature film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. All of Mitchell’s novels are set in the same universe with characters from one book appearing in or being referenced in the others.
Those books include Ghost Written, Number Nine Dream, Black Swan Green, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoey. Mitchell’s most recent books are The Bone Clocks, about a secret war between two factions of immortal occultists, and Slade House, a decade-spanning haunted house novel.
This interview first appeared on WorldCom’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirkley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
We’re here with David Mitchell. Welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, David. Good to be here.
I mentioned that this is a show for fantasy and science fiction fans, so the first thing I want to talk about, is just what were some of your favorite fantasy and science fiction books growing up?
Where to begin? Tolkien, of course, Ursula Le Guinn, the Earth sea books. I’ll start with fantasy. Some you may not have heard of; they were for British kids more at the time. I’m not sure if they made it over to this side of the Atlantic. A Celtic-flavored fantasy quintet called The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, but I’m not sure how well those—
They’re actually fairly popular here, yeah.
Oh really? Great. A British fantasy writer called Alan Garner. Does that ring any bells?
I don’t think I know that one, no.
He’s interesting. Oh, the Stephen Donaldson books. I remember having those. The Thomas . . .
Yes, that’s the one. Thank you. A long time ago, though. Thirty years and longer. It was probably more science fiction that attracted me. Bradbury got involved in the golden age of great American science fiction writers.
I subscribed to a comic called 2000 A.D. that fed the appetites of many hungry science fiction fans back in the ’70s and ’80s. Harry Harrison, Stainless Steel Rat, have you heard of this one?
Yeah, of course.
Yeah, that was big in the U.K. as well. E.E. Doc Smith, the Lensmen books. They probably haven’t dated that well, those books, which was where the 2030s looked an awful lot like the 1950s. But, again, they were good for my imaginative education at the time.
If people don’t know those books, they were very influential on the Green Lantern comic book, so it’s kind of a similar thing.
Right, right. One more, the River world books by Philip Jose Farmer, about an extraordinary planet where everybody who had ever lived, including the famous, was resurrected along the banks of this enormous, never ending river on a vast planet, and they would still all need to be taken care of. That was quite a trippy book, but I don’t meet many people who know them.
I haven’t read the River world books, but I know Philip Jose Farmer because he had a series called World of Tears that was very influential on Roger Zolani’s Amber series, which is my favorite fantasy series, so I kind of know of them, but I haven’t actually read them.
Yeah, there’s so much to read out there, isn’t there?
Yeah, and so how did you start reading the fantasy and science fiction? Was there somebody like a friend or a teacher or something who got you into it?
Not really. This was just back in the days when I think fewer books were published. Book shops were smaller. You knew what was on the shelves, and if you were a bookish kid, you just went there, and it was my idea of the best entertainment to read the back jackets of all these books one after the other.
I’d just go through the whole shop, pretty much, and I had an appetite for it. We weren’t that rich or anything when I was growing up, but my parents always found the money to buy me books because they thought it was good for me, and I think they were absolutely correct.
This was all pre-internet, pre-book blogs, of course, so it was just a question of hit and miss. There were probably some like-minded kids at school as well, and we would compare and contrast past books found a little bit, and you just slowly build up knowledge on your way to geekhood, don’t you?
Did you ever experience any pressure from students or teachers not to read fantasy and science fiction?
No, no. Maybe it became a little bit uncool around 15, 16, 17 when it is more politic for young males to seem to be into sports and the right music and even girls than it is to be into elves, orcs, dwarves, and dragons.
Maybe only then there was some peer group pressure, but I don’t think it lasted that long, and I don’t think it was that intense. And from teachers . . . I did not go to the kinds of schools where teachers cared very much what you read, or even if you read. How about you? Did you ever receive any of that kind of pressure yourself?
Yeah, like a lot of, I think, American kids, I don’t know if it’s different where you grew up, but you got teased for being into computers and science fiction, and I did have a number of English teachers who would tell you that science fiction wasn’t real literature and you should read “real books.”
Did you ask them about 1984, or Brave New World, or The Master and Margarita, or early Margaret Atwood, or H.G. Wells? That’s such a nonsensical viewpoint, isn’t it? Like a Charles Dickens is shot through with fantasy.
You’ve got a guy who dies of spontaneous internal combustion, you’ve got ghost in A Christmas Carol. It’s weird how once things have become sanctified on the great canon of English literature, people then forget, conveniently, that it is actually what we would now call genre.
Even Shakespeare, which is full of ghosts and witches.
Yeah, you name it, they did it.
I’ve never found that intellectual consistency was a big concern of people who are of this attitude. You would say, “Yeah, what about 1984?” And they would say, “Oh, that’s not science fiction.” And you’re like, “Well, it’s set in the future, and it’s an imaginary world, and there’s imaginary technology, and all this stuff.” And they’re like, “No, no, that’s not science fiction because it’s good.”
Exactly. I think with that we can rest our case. And Henry James, who had the best, most sustained, most perfect ghost novella in literary history with The Turn of the Screw.
One of the best ghost stories of all time with The Friends of Friends. This is fantastic stuff, but as you say, there’s no intellectual consistency in these arguments, so let’s just consign those to the bowels of the Earth where they belong.
The thing that really frustrates me is that when people actually read a fantasy or science fiction book, they tend to like it, but they’re also convinced that there’s this gigantic body of science fiction books that they just know they would hate if they were to read them, but they’ve never actually read them.
Yes, they do think that. I think people have an allergy . . . well, people judge books by the cover, which is a shame. It’s their loss.
It’s not good for the kind of bookshop culture. It’s convenient to have a horror section, it’s convenient to have a science fiction/fantasy section, it’s convenient to have a mainstream literary fiction section, but these should only be guides.
They shouldn’t be demarcated territory for one type where on type a reader belongs and another type that a reader does not belong. It’s a bizarre act of self-mutilation to say that, “I don’t get on with science fiction and fantasy, therefore, I’m never going to read any.”
We’ve already agreed it’s inconsistent, but it’s also . . . what a shame. A lot of great books that you’re cutting yourself off from.
Exactly, I agree that it’s very destructive, this kind of us-versus-them mentality because since I had been reading these science fiction books from early childhood and loved them so much, when teachers told me they didn’t like them, it made me very hostile to the teachers, and so it cut me off from reading the kinds of books that they wanted me to read because I had this hostility to them. So, even things like you mentioned, Ursula Le Guinn’s Wizard of Earth sea. I resisted reading that for the longest time because it was on the school reading list, and I didn’t want to read anything that was on the school reading list, and so I missed out on this great novel at that time.
Yeah, it cuts both ways, doesn’t it? In a sense, we’re talking about snobbery and inverted snobbery, and they’re both harmful. Anyway, I’m glad you got to Wizard of Earth sea in the end. Isn’t it fantastic? And The Tombs of Atman and The Farthest Shore. I love those too.
I actually saw you said that it was reading Wizard of Earth sea that made you want to be a writer.
Yeah, there’s a lot in that. On the one hand, it’s a packed story and a new answer to an impossible question: what made me want to write? “Because I’m me” is the real answer, but people are never really happy with that.
On the other hand, it isn’t a complicated answer. I do have clear memories from way back of finishing A Wizard of Earth sea on a rainy Saturday morning and just having this incandescent urge inside me, like a magnesium ribbon going toss. I really wanted to do that as well.
I wanted to make those worlds and people, those imaginary worlds, and send them on journeys and give them quests and make other people feel what she had made me feel, so yeah, that’s real. Also, those books just get better.
They were good then, but they’re extraordinary now. I revisit Earth sea about once a decade, and I read myself when I’m there, my earlier selves, reading them as a boy of nine, and a teenager of fifteen, and a young man of twenty-six or so, and as a writer of thirty-five. I’ve personally written an introduction to the Folio editions, a recent hardback reprint of A Wizard of Earth sea, so it’s come full circle.
I read the article you just wrote about Earth sea, was that adapted from your—
Yeah, that was actually the introduction. I had no idea that The Guardian were invested in it and were going to put it in their readings section, but that was a sort of homage to Ursula, who I know very slightly.
I accepted the commission on the condition that she would read it herself and had vetted and changed anything she wanted to, but in the end she was happy with it, so that is what was used. But The Guardian, I think, printed it directly as I wrote it.
Did you get any responses on that from readers or Earth sea fans? Anything like that?
I think in the comments section there’s quite a lot, if you hadn’t read the comments. I hope it doesn’t sound standoffish, but I tend not to read comments sections or anything.
That’s probably a wise policy.
You get some extremely wise and insightful people putting considered responses there, but you get responses which are somewhat less than that.
One other thing I was just curious about, just reading The Bone Clocks and Slade House, there are references in there to Dungeons and Dragons, and at one point in The Bone Clocks, a character runs through a comic book convention. I was wondering how involved you are in that geek culture sort of stuff.
I haven’t been to any conventions, not because I wouldn’t go, they seem like enormous fun, it’s just I’m not really at a stage in my life that allows me free time away from my family when I have to be away so often anyway.
I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid; a lot of us did actually. A lot of the writers I know would be at bars late at night after literary festivals. Sometimes the conversation will get around to us huddled over in the corner saying, “So, did you play Dungeons and Dragons?” And it’s amazing how many say yes.
Gary Gyges has a lot to answer for. I know there are probably PhD theses out there somewhere on Gary Gyges’s influence on the 21st century novel. It would not be negligible.
Do you have any memorable experiences from playing Dungeons and Dragons?
Within the world of exploring or in the kitchen and living rooms?
I guess I would be curious about either.
Yeah, one or two. Ingenuity and the way that some of the dungeons, the scenarios, could outwit you and trick you, and the deliciousness of being outwitted and tricked.
So number one, I’ve got no idea what the names are, but an adventure began on a mountaintop, and there was a pool, just a clear pool, and nothing else, nothing else in the world, and you had to work out how to get into the adventure, and I tried to throw a stone into the pool.
And the dungeon master, Charles, said, “You see a splash.” That was it. And we wasted more time looking around for the way in again, and then Charles said, “Just try throwing another stone in.” So, we did, and he said, “You see a splash.” And, okay, yeah and? Nothing. Then the third time, Charles said, “You see a splash.”
Then my friend, Richard, who I’m still friends with, and who is and was smarter than me, said, “You see a splash. You don’t hear a splash. You just see a splash.” And that was the key. So it was an illusory pool of illusory water because you just saw it, you didn’t hear it. Isn’t that cool? And it’s these constellations of, “Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that cool?” in the generation of the world that I still remember and think very fondly on.
More generally, outside the world, and on our level of reality, it was a collaborative art form. It’s something you all made. It was noncompetitive.
It was based on cooperation, and you only won if you worked together, and there was a generosity of spirit in not picking the pieces, or finding faults with, or wasting time on hunting for the inconsistencies within the whole enterprise, and that is something that I don’t feel you get on computer generated multiplayer games.
Computer generated is really a long word for it, but digital versions of the same. But we were speaking with each other. We were laughing, and interacting, and making things, and being friends. And the games, although we took it seriously, in a way, it was simply the vehicle for the human interaction that made the whole thing so very enjoyable. Does that all make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. And it hadn’t really occurred to me until you were just saying that, but I wonder if Slade House was influenced at all by your time spent playing Dungeons and Dragons because it’s a similar idea of getting sucked into this dangerous imaginative world and having to survive.
Yes, I think it must have been. It hadn’t really occurred to me either, but there would be similarities. It would be quite easy to adopt Slade House, or to adapt Slade House, to that format. I think the room by room, the puzzles, and the challenges, and the doors, and the fickle, mercurial nature of the danger within the world.
Why don’t we just back up and for people who haven’t read Slade House, just say a little bit more about it, and how you came up with it.
It is a story about apparent ghosts and their apparent house. Every nine years, the twins, Jonah and Norah Grayer, they make it happen that guests are invited to Slade House, which exists, or is only ever accessed via a small black iron door that’s not normally there but is when the twins would like you to visit.
And each of the five guests enter Slade House and do not necessarily come out again. The book starts in 1959 and the last one is in 2015. So that is the elevator pitch version of the story without having heard of it whatsoever. And so, what was part two of your question, Dave?
Just how did you come up with it?
It goes way, way back to when I first was thinking about The Bone Clocks, and that was going to be six novellas set in the six adult stages of man over six decades, that was going to be seventeen individual stories set around a seventy-year lifespan, which is one of those ideas that sounds great on the launchpad, but when you are actually lighting the fuse, it blows up because you read short stories in a different way to reading novels, and a novel made of short stories, at least the way I was trying to do it, proved to be unreadable.
However, I didn’t, which is why The Bone Clocks evolved away from that and took on a pretty different form. However, before I found out that it was unwritable in that form, I’d done some work on stories that looked like what Slade House kind of morphed into. Just this idea of a house that’s less a house, and a kind of immortality machine in a bubble of reality all of its own with a mind of its own.
So, I wrote The Bone Clocks, put that away, and then I had another idea for a Twitter story, I wanted to experiment with kinds of fiction on Twitter, just to see if it would work or not. And the first story to hand, and it may not be an obvious candidate, was the first section of Slade House, which back then was a standalone story called “The Right Sort.”
I did that for Twitter. I was happy enough with the results, but it raised a lot of questions and wanted answers. And so Slade House . . . it’s a short book, but it’s got sharp elbows, and it barged its way to the front of the queue of books still waiting to get written. And I sort of spent the next ten and a half months doing that.
The book is just incredibly creepy to read.
Oh, thank you, David. Thank you. You sound like you really know your creepy fiction, so for you to give it that endorsement, it’s a big deal for me.
You never know if you’re being frightening or not, the same way you never really know if you’re being funny or not. You’re immune to its threats and fears. It’s really hard to do on the page. Really hard. So, I’m really happy to hear you say that.
No, I do. I read a lot of horror fiction and most of it I enjoy, but I don’t find that scary, but this book I really found unsettling. I thought it was really effective.
May I ask why? What was it that unsettled? Was it its entirety, or was it some elements you found, or was it a combination of the elements?
It’s hard to say without spoilers, but basically you really made me hope that something good would happen to the characters, right? And I think a lot of it is that it was short. I think there’s so much pressure in publishing today to have long novels, and it’s very hard to make a long book scary. But this was short enough pieces that it was able to sustain that intensity.
Thank you. I broke it down into five parts, and they’re about fifty pages a head, and you can manage it in fifty pages. There are variations as well, so you can mess around with readers’ expectations about what’s going to happen next. We’ve been here before, but aha, you can make it not like it was before. It’s a way of having your cake and eating it as well.
Good ghost stories tend to be short but novels, obviously, do have to have the pages at least long enough to be novels, so I executed a diabolical plan to do both by, in a sense, repeating the same story five times but making the story very different and putting them in the chain.
I don’t think you would have noticed, to go without any spoilers, even though the people who you hoped good things would happen to do not necessarily have those good things happen to them, even though that is the case, they still form a kind of a chain that brings about the raw ending that you may have wished for. That’s a very, very vague, gnostic kind of paragraph I just said, but you understand me as someone who read the book.
Oh yeah, for sure. I was going to say, I think another thing that makes this so effective is a similar thing that you have in Lovecraft where he tells all these different stories and it kind of builds up this entire world, and so there are references in each story to things in other stories, and in this you have this whole . . . it feels real because it feels like there’s this whole world behind it. And I just love the terms you have: “psychosurgical,” “anchorites,” “horologists,” “orison,” “The Ninevite candle.” It feels like a fully fleshed out world.
Oh, great. I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat on the end of the phone here. You can’t see it, but thank you.
How did you come up with those terms? Did you just dream them up or are they inspired by anything?
You go looking for them, and you stay open for them when they walk in. “Horologists,” my sister-in-law gave me a book about obscure words to go with different times of the day called The Horologion. It was one of these Christmas books that nobody reads but you get given it for Christmas or give it to other people for Christmas, but “horology.”
This is a great word. Horology is not about time, but about the science of the measurement of time. It seemed an appropriate name for who and what the horologists are in The Bone Clocks with some, as you say, some overlap in Slade House. The anchorites are even something bitter.
They have bitter, religious overtones, and anchorites, again if you don’t know, were women who were walled up with their consent—although consent can be a slippery fish—but allegedly with their consent, into the walls of medieval churches. They were alive. They were kept alive. They were fed. Basic needs were met, but they sort of anchored the churches more firmly against the winds, the storms, of the buffetings of sin, of evil, of the devil, of the plague, of war.
And they spent their lives in prayer. You have to wonder how long or fulfilled those lives actually were. Always women, of course, never men, of course. So, an orison is essentially an experience of words of prayer. It appears in Hamlet. “In thy orisons, oh Nymph. Be all my sins remembered.” I think is something like what Hamlet says to Ophelia.
We meet the word in Cloud Atlas, right? It’s a kind of futuristic recording device which projects an image that’s on a replay mode, which is sort of like looking at a prayer, like the ephemeral nature of it, in the same way that prayers are ephemeral, but it’s too cool a word to confine to that.
So, I just like the idea that words have different applications through time and technology as well as particularly adept at adopting or co-opting much older words. And last “psychosurgical,” this is, in a sense, a lot of the reviewers both positive and negative talked about The Bone Clocks as a fantasy novel.
I do end up kind of explaining the fantasy in terms of it being this science that hasn’t been discovered yet, or “psychocentric” mental faculties could actually be acquired or learned or honed and possibly even empirically measured, so in a way, I’ve wanted this in-between them, between fantasy and science fiction.
It’s “esoteric” which puts it into fantasy, but it’s also psychological, it’s of the mind. It’s to do with all those subjects, all those words that begin with the word psycho, except it’s like a killer, which is very different, so the word itself is sort of a tug of war rope being pulled on one side by the fantasy zone and pulled on one side by the science fiction zone, and I like that tension between them.
You mentioned the critical reaction, what sort of responses to The Bone Clocks and Slade House to the extent that you’ve gotten yet, sort of sticks out in your mind the most?
I’ve successfully avoided reading all of them.
But, I’ve had my agents tell me which way the wind is going. I thought The Bone Clocks was generally pretty good. One or two hatchet jobs, but mostly from the British, one or two three-star reviews, but mostly good, solid fours, four and halves, and a few fives.
Slade House, however, I’m yet to be aware of even an indifferent review towards it. There will probably be something appalling in the morning in a major news organ, but one of the majors who have reviewed it so far, as far as I know from my agent and my publicist, have been really good, which is interesting. It’s my slightest book in some ways, but perhaps that’s part of the appeal. Maybe I go on too long, normally.
How about just from readers? Do you ever get like really out there things? Like people thinking the anchorites and the horologists are after them, or anything like that?
It’s happened before with Slade House. I tweeted as Bombadil, or rather I wrote Bombadil’s last ten weeks’ worth of tweets from the first of September to last Saturday, when he goes in the house, and I put tweets into sort of a pre-launch platform to say when you want them going out at which time.
So, over those ten weeks, I’ve been tweeting the last seventy days as Bombadil. That’s more likely to mess with people’s heads if anyone is suffering from schizophrenia, that kind of thing, when it’s arriving in the phone from someone who’s really apparently believing in this stuff, as opposed to being in a book by David Mitchell. I think the tweets are likeliest to be mistaken by people with a tenuous grasp on reality as reality.
How did that idea come up, to create that Twitter character and have it be sort of outside the text?
By my reluctance to write the kind of . . . How I tend to write this book article that I have to do, that I’ve done for all of my other books.
I’ve done one about fourteen months ago for The Bone Clocks, and I’m really grateful for the attention there, and I don’t mean for this to sound as precious as it may sound, but I just couldn’t really muster any enthusiasm whatsoever about cranking out another twelve-hundred word article on how I came to write this novel.
So, I asked the publishers, “Instead of doing that, would you let me off that if I give you this? If I do these tweets?” And so that was a major reason. And my publishers being the forward looking, compassionate people that they are, said, “Yeah, sure, go for it.”
And so I did. It was a lot of fun. It’s also letting us use this technology, Twitter, as something more than just a notice board where I put up my bookshop appearances. I’ve got no interest in tweeting about my life. I don’t find it that interesting.
So, that’s really all I want to use my Twitter account for. But, I do get excited about fiction, as you may have noticed already, so to use Twitter, sort of as a work of art, as a reading of a character development, that’s interesting. I don’t have to feign any interest about that.
One thing I really wanted to ask you about is I interviewed Kazuo Ishiguro back in April, and he said that you were one of the authors that really made him feel empowered to add these fantasy and science fiction elements to his work.
Bless him, yes, I did see that. Bless him. He’s one of my favorite writers ever, in any language. He is the first official writer I ever met on my very first book tour across America, last century, in Minneapolis, I think we met. I would just say in return, he empowers me. And I’m not the only person in my generation who thinks that.
His first two books were very Japanese, then he wrote a very English book, a quintessentially English book, then he wrote a 1930s Germanic novel, sort of a seven-hundred page modernist novel. That’s what it is. It’s everything that The Remains of the Day wasn’t.
Him doing that empowered me, after I got my hit, with Cloud Atlas, you know . . . “What would Ishiguro do?” Would he write another version of Cloud Atlas but kind of not as good, or would he go in the other direction, and do something completely different, which he did.
And then When We Were Orphans, there were great sections in that, and then science fiction, Never Let Me Go. That’s a science fiction novel. But, I’m already thinking about your teachers who would say, “That’s not science fiction.” I mean, it is. It’s an alternate universe, and it’s a dystopian one.
But, maybe this is the point. The book doesn’t care what it is. The book doesn’t care if it’s science fiction. The book doesn’t give a damn about genre. It just is what it is. And that’s what I want to do.
The Bone Clocks, that was in the corner of my mind of I don’t care what genre any of this is, this is what the book wants to be, and then he did it again with The Buried Giant. There’s a dragon in it! Have you read that, may I ask, Dave?
Yeah, that’s the book I interviewed him about.
Ah, right. I think the book depends partly because he’s of a certain age, because he’s of his generation, full of writers who mostly are now still writing the same book, essentially, that they wrote when they were forty because he is one of two people, five remaining kings of greatest living British writers, and there’s just a big brouhaha in the press, in the admittedly tiny corners of the press that the book will occupy, there was just this, “How dare he?
Has he lost his marbles? What does he think he’s doing?” A lot of people didn’t get it, that this is what the book wants to be, and you’re possibly entitled to not like the book because you don’t think it works.
You’re allowed to not like the book because you don’t get on with his style of writing. You don’t like the book because of its uncertainty and strangeness.
But don’t not like it because it’s got a dragon in it. But don’t not like it for that reason, please, anything but that. So, he has said very nice things about me in the press, but he’s a friend now, and he’s sort of a mentor, but more than that, he’s an example of how to age and still be writing really worthwhile stuff into his sixth decade.
Because lots of people write great stuff in their 30s, and then it tails off, and it behooves us to think about how to avoid that failure and how to keep writing vital, thriving work that never sits on its laurels and never falls into a cycle of diminishing returns. Am I making sense, or am I going all over the place?
No, absolutely, yeah. I want to ask you, speaking of the future, obviously since this is a science fiction show, we like to think about the future a lot, but there’s just this real pattern these days where stories set in the future tend to be really depressing, and you’ve written about this too in your work. I’m just curious, do you think we’re heading into a depressing future, or do you see hope for any kind of bright science fiction future?
Well, it’s the future, so we do not know. What we know is that there are a range of possible futures that our timeline can enter. Civilization ally, which isn’t a word, but never mind, we can be pretty sure we’re headed for some kind of a hard landing. Our civilization is addicted to oil, and nothing really is coming close . . . there’s nothing really on the horizon that can cow it, at least not on the near horizon.
Solar power, wind power, these things are great for electricity, for our domestic usage, but we need oil to move ourselves around. We need oil to create enough food to feed seven billion and growing very quickly people.
We need oil to bring container ships from China to bring things that we need to satisfy the thousand and one things that human beings have. We need oil to fly. And without it, how is any of this going to work? Unless we answer that question really very soon, the hard landing will not only be hard, but maybe worse than hard.
Then there’s ecology, climate change, the safe point to keep them, the average increase in global temperature within the two degree limit, that’s probably in the rearview mirror now. That’s probably gone. We don’t have the political systems to save it.
We are too bad at voting for politicians who will transform our societies to save the life support system that Earth is. We’re too bad at voting them in, and we are too good at voting in people who mock the former. Antarctica is melting, sea levels will rise, most of the world’s greatest populations are on the coast. Hurricane Katrina, I should fear, it’s just a mild early warning.
And while all of what I’ve said is true, it should be an impetus to action. It should be a reason not to roll over, give up, and think slightly guiltily, yes we screwed the world, we’re all screwed, but it’s not my problem, and I can’t do anything about it any way.
Yes, the possibilities are real, but that’s all the more reason to become scientists and engineers who will devise technologies that don’t yet exist to soften the hardness of the landing we are headed for, and to become artists and voices and administrators and a thousand and one other things that human beings can become. I’m on a soapbox. You’ve put me on a soapbox, Dave. I need to come down. There isn’t much oxygen up here.
I can join you for a second on the soapbox because I think that, one of the things I think is so important about science fiction is that it gets people to think about the future, and I tend to think if more people were reading stories set in the future and thinking seriously about it, it might shift the conversation in the way you’re talking about, that would shift the political system to actually act on some of these problems. But I wanted to ask you, speaking of that—you’re actually writing a novel that’s not going to be read for a hundred years.
Yeah, that’s a vote of confidence in the future. I can’t be that convinced that we’re all headed for The Planet of the Apes, or for Mad Max, if I was doing that, would I? Yes, it’s a complicated project.
Scottish artist Katie Paterson has started a project whereby she or her appointed successor is asking a writer of the day once a year to write a work that will be put away in a library in Oslo and will not see the light of day until the year 2114 when it will be printed on books made from wood pulp of trees that were planted last year, so it’s this time vaulting art project.
I was asked, and I considered, and it was idealism that made me say yes. A bit of idealism in the night is very important. Like Vitamin C, you don’t need much, but it’s really crucial. It protects you from scurvy. It protects you from cynicism, which is very easy, and it looks very cool, cynicism, and you’re rarely wrong, and it’s a dry, Teflon-coated droll, posturing, cool position, but it’s also cowardly. So, that’s why I said yes.
The purpose is sort of like, I don’t know if you know The Long Now foundation, but it’s just that if people are aware, it’s just anything that’s not going to happen for a century is just trying to get people to think on that timeframe and just realize that a century from now is just as real as the present.
And that our present is only as good as it is because people a hundred years ago were thinking of the long-term as well. We’re living off savings put aside, environmental savings, social savings, laws that mean that life is much better for the non-rich now than it would have been for great, great grandparents.
All of these invisible, multitudinous strivings that we are oblivious to, that’s why the world is what it is. Speaking from Pittsburgh, I’m in a nice park that’s under a museum of the university section with these beautiful, huge trees, but they were planted by strangers, kind of for my benefit; they weren’t very impressive in the lifetimes of the people who planted them.
They were just sort of mediocre, 18-year-old oak trees, but now they’re these beautiful, blazing fall-colored giants, and we need to do the same. We can’t just spend that. We need to invest for the people who come after us. We bloody well should, anyway. And we need to take care of their planet for them. To take care of their now for them. Still on the soapbox, great view.
Okay, so we’re almost out of time, and I want to end things on a slightly lighter note, so I came across this thing that you said. You said, “If you know anyone from Japan, just ask them about Hanako-San?” Can you tell us about Hanako-San?
Hanako-San is a ghost who lives in . . . I can’t remember which toilet cubicle it is, but in every school toilet there’s a row of cubicles, and Hanako-San is presumably in the girls’, though for some reason boys aren’t always necessarily immune to her murderous intentions either.
I think it’s the last stall but one, and if you use that cubicle without basically saying a spell of protection, or offering her due homage, then she will extract a murderous and bloody revenge.
The terms of the deal vary from region to region and from generation to generation, but I have yet to meet a Japanese person who does not know about the toilet of Hanako-San. It’s an urban myth. It’s more than an urban myth, it’s a piece of universal folklore that is graded into Japanese popular culture.
It’s funny, because when I was a kid, I used to go to the video store, and one of the boxes in the video store was this movie called Ghoulies 2, that featured the Ghoulies coming up out of the toilet, and I think that disturbed me more than anything else I ever saw. I maintain to this day that my childhood would have been about twice as happy if I’d never seen the cover of Ghoulies 2.
That’s an even more entertaining sort of British-English . . . because in British-English, “the goolies” is a euphemism for testicles, so the idea of testicles coming up out of the toilet is both comic as well as deeply disturbing.
David, that’s why I have to have you on this show, for those kinds of insights.
Except instead of ending on a light note, I’ve ended on a somewhat smutty note, haven’t I?
Well, that’s good too.
Let’s end with The Martian. Have you seen The Martian?
I read the book, and I just interviewed Andy Weir, I haven’t gotten a chance to see the movie yet.
Oh, really? You interviewed Andy Weir?
I interviewed Andy Weir, yeah. Just a couple of episodes ago. He’s a fantastically nice guy.
Oh, wow. If you’ve got his email would you just say he’s fantastic, and if he’s ever heard of me, I’ve got no idea, but say I thought the book was great, and I really enjoyed the film as well. What an ingenious book. It just feels sort of effortless, doesn’t it? It’s clever, and unexpected, and brilliantly plotted and paced.
Absolutely. And it was self-published originally. And I think what’s so interesting about the self-publishing revolution, I mean a lot of published novels, you kind of get the sense that the author is going through the motions, that they wrote this book because this is their job, this is what they do. But some of these things like The Martian, you get the feeling like this guy, his whole life was leading up to writing this one book. He’s been studying this stuff since he was a kid, and this is the culmination of a lifelong passion.
That’s maybe why the protagonist is so convincing. There’s a lot of passion in the book. I doubt very much that the standard of self-publishing is anywhere near that, but it is good to remember that it happens sometimes, and however many the haystack might be, sometimes you’ll find a needle of pure silver in there.
I have to go to and iron a shirt, my friend, because I’ve got a lecture at Carnegie in fifteen minutes, but thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
Me too, me too. Thank you so much, David, for joining us on the show.
I hope our paths cross again, and keep up the fantastic work at Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.
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