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Reading for the Future: An Interview with David Brin

by James M. Palmer

(Originally Published in SciFiNow January 4, 2001)

David Brin and other professional authors are behind a nationwide, grassroots campaign to get children to read science fiction called Reading for the Future. I asked him about RFF and how important SF is, and what society’s perceptions of it are.

SciFiNow: What made you decide to start the RFF movement?

David Brin: To many in my generation, science fiction was a life preserver for kids and teens amid a culture that seemed unable to deal with real issues of change. Youth is a time of flux and restless energy. SF probed the horizons, exposing both possibilities and plausible failure modes. Including the then-imminent danger of immediate extinction by nuclear war. Indeed, some "dire warning tales" -- like Dr. Strangelove and Soylent Green and Orwell's 1984 arguably helped gird all of society -- not just science fiction fans -- to fend off the worst doom scenarios in the nick of time. The best science fiction even offers ideas worth mulling over in so-called normal life.

So what about kids today? They live in a world that's better in many ways. While oppression, injustice, short-sightedness and even nuclear war still loom, people nowadays express a more vivid interest in change. They face a myriad scenarios in the media. And yet, much of it is pretty low quality, at the level of paranoid fantasies like The X Files. Ironically, a far smaller percentage of today's youth ever get to see the "good stuff'... science fiction literature that explores the ways that real human beings may respond to dramatic changes in the coming few decades. All of which is a bit hifalutin. What it comes down to is my belief that more kids will read if they are offered high quality stories... stories that make them think... and that help stimulate the agility-of-mind that citizens will need in the coming era.

SFN: In the SF community there are those who feel that SF should not go mainstream, that it reaches out to young people precisely because it is rebellious and on the edge. They believe that SF shouldn't be canonized and accepted by the Establishment. What do you say to these people?

DB: I think we have plenty of propaganda that says it's stylish to rebel. No other society ever preached Suspicion of Authority the way ours does in every film and novel. People who think they invented it just don't get it. Oh, I'm a rebel too. How could I not be, having absorbed the same message over and over. It's just that I see the irony.

SF will keep its edge, even if we acknowledge that it's mainstream to rebel. We'll keep our edge because we _want_ to keep it, not because of some reflexive hatred of anything that smacks of being like other people. The latter's just pathetic.

SFN: How do you think most educators who are not SF fans feel about the genre?

DB: In Europe there's a last ditch effort across academia to disparage SF. They have to. The fixation of old-style lit professors has always been to keep their doctoral thesis relevant. Therefore, so-called "eternal human verities" must always remain so. Which means that children must always agonize over exactly the same moral and psychological dilemmas that faced Proust, Shakespeare and even Oedepus! No generation will get better or stand on its parents' shoulders. When you think about it, that notion is so dismal that you have to call it evil. Fortunately, western civilization -- and especially the US -- is coming to grips with the notion that change is not only inevitable, it can be prepared-for, adjusted, humanized... and even welcomed as a way for our children to climb higher, perhaps NOT repeating our mistakes. If they are good people, they will empathize with us -- with our pangs -- through our literature. But their daily pangs will be different ones. Science fiction explores that possibility. No other form of literature even dares to glance in the direction of that vast realm.

SFN: There is a long list of writers who have become literary and commercial successes by not being marketed as SF (i.e. Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Crichton, Robert Sawyer, Neal Stephenson. Is being labeled SF the kiss of death for a book? Do you think that Reading for the Future can change these notions of what SF is in the popular mind?

DB: Despite the desperate efforts of some academics to defend the small visions that they wrote about in their dissertations, the most memorable human dramas always featured a boldness of spirit that cannot be squashed into the framework of an effete aristocratic parlor. And this comes across in the way arbiters of taste keep adopting' authors of the fantastic into the literary fold. From Joyce to Vonnegut to Pynchon to Borges, writers of undeniably wonderful speculative fiction have been offered acceptance at a price -- that they cease calling themselves fantasy or science fiction authors. It's crazy.

SFN: Do you think RFF has been a success so far?

DB: No.

SFN: What else does RFF need to do?

DB: I'm pursuing 4 levels: (1) The Webs of Wonder contest, to help create web sites that help teachers use good science fiction stories to illustrate points in their curricula. (2) The "David Brin's Out of Time" series of novels for Young Adult readers (Avon Books) was created to give teens something higher and more interesting than "Animorphs", with meaty topics & characters written by Nebula-award winning authors. (3) Help get members of the SF fan community to recall how grateful they were for SF, when they were young, and to start trying to "pay it forward" by leaning their conventions and other activities toward helping teachers, librarians and local kids get involved in fun and exciting ways.

SFN: What do you consider to be RFF's greatest strength.

DB: Its near total lack of organization or structure. That's also its greatest fault.

SFN: What does it need to do better?

DB: It has to be local... with lots of shared information via the Internet. If more than a dozen groups began holding the mini-conferences and getting actively involved with teachers, librarians and local kids, creating something with real self-sustaining momentum, then the methods and lessons could slosh from one city to the next. It's the way to get things done when money is tight and you're counting on volunteers to get stuff done.

SFN: SF books like Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Flowers for Algernon are taught in high school classes every day, but are not usually presented as being SF works. Do you think people's attitude about the genre would change if they were presented as SF?

DB: I don't frankly care. The Postman and Earth are starting to be treated the same way. I can understand that SF without spaceships and bug-eyed aliens may seem more relevant to some parents and teachers. Heck, it seems more relevant to me!

SFN: Most new fans to the genre are only interested in media-related items. How do we ween kids off of these, and on to more serious fare?

DB: It's a shame. If the literary end of SF had increased proportionate to the dazzling rise of movie SF, I'd be rich and great young authors like Linda Nagata and Will McCarthy, who are starving, would make a living. More important, people would see that just having lasers and aliens does not make it real science fiction. Star wars is the Illiad in light-saber drag. It has no relevance to real human dilemmas or the way we deal with change.

 

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