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A Conversation with Nick Sagan
An interview with Kilian Melloy
September 2004

© Nick Sagan
Nick Sagan
Nick Sagan
Nick Sagan graduated from UCLA Film School and has written for Hollywood for ten years, creating screenplays and TV scripts. The son of astronomer Carl Sagan and artist/writer Linda Salzman, his greeting, "Hello from the children of planet Earth," was recorded and placed aboard NASA's Voyager I spacecraft, which is now the most distant human-made object in the universe. He is married and lives in Ithaca, New York.

Nick Sagan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Edenborn
SF Site Review: Idlewild

Edenborn
Idlewild

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Nick Sagan and his wife CJ express an interest in spicy Thai food, so we pay a visit to a place called Spice. Sagan and CJ -- short for Clinnette; remember that name because Clinnette Minnis is also a writer, currently at work on her first novel -- find the fare sufficiently hot for their taste (Sagan grabs for a glass for a glass of water with a discreet cough) and we continue the amiable chat we've been having as we trawl Harvard Square. On the topic of the individual's evolution, as life progresses, in matters of taste -- in literature, movies, and other parts of contemporary life -- CJ points out that it's not simply life experience and maturity that cause one's outlook and preferences to change. Every two years or so, the atoms in the human body are swapped over, in a kind of quantum shimmy, with new atoms at large in the cosmos. All of matter and energy are in continual flow; all of existence, human history along with it, is forever in transition.

Set against the backdrop of CJ's philosophical rumination, Nick Sagan's books Idlewild and Edenborn (with a third volume, Everfree, on the way) seem a natural extension of the human drama. In the books, almost all human life has been eradicated from the face of the Earth by a disease called Black Ep. Part of the puzzle is what Black Ep is, exactly, and where it came from. It's a sinister disease arising from the human genome itself; but is this the result of nature and evolution, or has some clever terrorist with a degree and a science kit cooked up a retrovirus capable of turning human DNA against itself?

Sagan has declined to answer that question so far. Of greater interest to him is the story of the last handful of human lives -- "Post Humans," a genetically engineered strain of homo sapiens, emerge from specialized maturation chambers eighteen years after the end of the world. Their bodies have been nourished by machines in life-support alcoves, and their minds have been trained and stimulated in a complex group illusion created by virtual reality. Idlewild tells the story of the young post-humans -- made-to-order geniuses with names like Halloween, Champagne, Isaac, Vashti, Mercutio -- discovering the true nature of the world in which they live and setting out to escape it. One of them -- or perhaps one of the computer-generated simulacra responsible for their education, like the sadistic schoolmaster, Maestro, or maybe the spidery creature called Pace -- has gone mad and is using the computer system into which the group is linked to kill off the last living people on Earth, one by one.

Another eighteen years pass before the sequel, Edenborn, plays out. In the second book, Sagan carefully projects the original characters forward in time, building on the immature personalities he introduced in Idlewild and giving us recognizable adult versions of the surviving post-humans. There are now three tiny groups scattered around the globe; cloned human children live with Isaac in Egypt; the post-human women have set up in Germany with a brood of genetically enhanced post-human daughters; and Halloween, ever the loner, lurks in North America. A new disease has emerged to threaten the fragile remnants of humanity -- the worried post-humans call it The End of the World. The immediate question is how well the young humans and their post-human cousins will cooperate with their parents and one another in finding a cure, and whether one group will out-compete the other. That issue, in all its nasty possibilities, drives the novel without becoming too much the focus, for Sagan refuses to allow his characters to be reduced to mere glyphs to drive home plot points. Human history, Sagan's books point out, has a beginning and a middle and will one day have an end. But, he seems to ask, how much of how our story ends is up to us, and how much depends on random chance and our own brutish nature?

Nick Sagan folded his napkin and addressed some of the questions his novels raise in a chat for sfsite.com.


In previous interviews, you have referred to yourself as having been a "slacker" in high school. That's such an unfortunate label because kids in high school are still kids -- it's not necessarily time for them to be focused on a career path…
It's a hard label to overcome sometimes, I was known as an "underachiever" by, certainly, all my teachers, and, to a certain extent, by my parents. I think other kids didn't really care -- you're either one of the group or you're not, and it's not so much that you're a "slacker" as that there were certain cliques, so that certain people were considered ne'er-do-wells, burnouts, and people who just weren't going anywhere -- and I don't know if that's how I was perceived by the other kids. I think that was, to a certain extent, how I was perceived by my teachers, in that I just wouldn't do what it took to hunker down and focus, to reach the level that they thought I should be at. And of course there was tremendous expectation: I was my dad's kid. I think at a certain point I started to enjoy the label, because it allowed me to keep people at arm's distance: "You want me to do this? I'm not going to do this." It was good for discovering what I did want to do, and then when I finally found it, I was able to embrace it and find a way to make a living at it. Then I went whole hog, and everyone seemed surprised at how effective I was, in that I was actually doing something to shed that "underachiever/slacker" label.

And by "make a living out if it," you're referring to your career as a writer -- being willing to be the one who sits there and puts together different story elements, or dream up fantastic elements to spin into stories.
It's an absurd job to make things up and have people explore them and enjoy them, because it seems like everything I've ever written, whether it's for the screen or a book or a game, is just something I thought up one day. And of course, that's what any writing is, so there's a disconnect. I know there are other writers who feel this way -- not everyone does -- that it amazes me to actually see a book [I have written] in print, and see the words there that someone took the time to type-set, and build a cover around it. Or, for Star Trek, for example, that they would pay actors and dress them in costumes and put funny ears and noses on them because of something I thought up one day. It's a wonderful magic trick to me -- the fact that you can spontaneously generate something that comes out of nowhere but your own imagination, and from that people are willing to give it a kind of life, that other people can enjoy it -- it still surprises me, and it's nice to be able to do that. It never made sense to me that that was what I was going to do as a career [when I was] growing up. I thought, well, I like writing... kind of... but I didn't see myself as a writer per se. I actually fell into role-playing games to escape. I wasn't really that happy with everything around me in my teenage years, and kids look for different ways to get out. I would read Michael Moorcock, or H.P. Lovecraft, or other dark fantasy writers, and then I would write role-playing games. Instead of saying what would happen to a character orally, you'd actually write it out, and you could actually get into some fairly deep, emotional, character-based, fanatic, fun stuff, and from that I really learned the craft of writing, and somehow that turned into a career.

When you're writing a novel or a screenplay, are you writing to make a point, explore a social issue, work things out from your own life? I notice that Halloween, the main character and narrator in Idlewild, has a love of H.P. Lovecraft, and he's got what has to be the most bitchin' gaming platform ever at his disposal.
Yes, all those things, I would say, every single one of them. I think that at its best, writing can be both a means of entertaining people, a means of exposing people to a different point of view, a means of working out your own psychological issues or concerns, and a way of figuring out what it is you feel about the world. And a lot of time, I think people think this is how I am: they think this is my psyche and my word-view. But by writing something you might discover things about yourself that you never really knew, and hopefully you can do it in a way that is entertaining enough that people will want to come along for the ride and enjoy the story you are telling -- and at the same time, you are layering it with levels of social, or ethical, or religious meaning, so that the deeper someone looks into what you're writing, the more they'll see. I approach writing as a kind of subversive activity, [in] that you're trying on the surface to entertain people, but hopefully you can [also] have fun doing something that is very meaningful to you. One of the best bits of advice I ever got from a writing teacher [was] back in film school: my teacher said, "Theme informs structure." Which I took to mean, figure out what you want to say, and let that help determine your choices for what [kind of story] you would tell. In the case of Idlewild, there are a number of things at work, but to a certain extent I'm exploring what it's like to grow up, and contrasting [that experience] with an apocalyptic setting, because when I grew up -- and I think, when every teenager grows up -- you feel, at times, like the world is coming to an end. That kind of confusion made for an interesting story to tell, and I let that aspect of [the story] drive me toward different plot points, different twists, and different characters. But at the same time there were other influences coming in as well -- I really wanted to look forward to the future of education; I have a life-long love of mythology, so I was able to figure out where the intersection is between cliques in high school and pantheons of gods, and that brought my characters to life. Then it was a question of what I wanted to say with them.

I studied Raymond Chandler a while back, and what he would do is take two of his short stories and jam them together, and they were both, in and of themselves, interesting but sensible and conventional short stories. He would jam them together in unexpected ways and create these bizarre, really interesting, intricate mysteries that were the [result] of him cannibalizing two stories at once. [To achieve] the kind of complexity, to amuse myself, I have to find the different aspects of things that amuse me both as an adult and as a teenager, to tap into the kind of person Halloween is, and to bring them together into a gumbo that, hopefully, other people will enjoy as much as I do.

How do you stay in touch with that teenager part of yourself? Halloween, in Idlewild, and the various young humans and post-humans in the sequel, Edenborn, really do sound like teenagers, but I think a lot of people forget what it was like to be at that age -- certainly, there are plenty of parents who find it impossible to relate to their own teens.
It's true. I can't explain it except to say that that 15-year-old to 18-year-old part of myself is very, very strong. I think that within us, like a series of Russian dolls, are younger versions of ourselves, all buried away. Part of... I was going to say, part of the craft of writing, but also part of being human and being self-aware, is to find connections to those earlier parts of yourself, so you can chart how you've grown. We were talking earlier about how every seven years all of your cells are replaced by different cells, so effectively you are a different person, and you [constantly change] as you go [through life]. But you have touchstones that bring you back to what it felt like at that time -- what was the truth at that time. To use that as creative inspiration, I think, is really important. Teenagers are especially interesting to me, because [that age in life] is this hinterland between what it's like to be a child and what it's like to be an adult, and where you really feel like a work in progress. There are very few teenagers who know what the world's about, and who say, "This is what I'm going to do." And if they do feel that, they tend to amend that later on -- they say, "Well, I thought I was going to do this, but really it turns out that..." It's such an important part of growing up, and it's such a tortured part of growing up, to find yourself as you go. That journey of discover is, I think, is the hero's journey in a lot of ways. To find out what you're all about is just like finding out what your characters are all about, and what needs to happen to go from a state of wondering where you are, and wondering what can be done to improve things, to actually doing it. Sometimes it winds up as a successful, positive thing, and sometimes it's tragic. For me, the fun is exploring people's paths, and how they wind up getting there -- or not.

In Edenborn, your teenagers are trying to figure these things out. But because human society is now so miniscule, they things they do and the mistakes they make are so magnified that some of their actions -- directly, or through what you call in the book "the law of unintended consequences" -- turn out to be quite catastrophic.
When you have a planet of billions of people, it's sometimes hard to affect things. No matter how catastrophic a mistake you make, unless you're in a position of power, it's unlikely to affect a large enough number of people to really, really change the course of things. And there are, perhaps unfortunately, people in positions of power who can do that, but most people can't. If you're in a smaller group, if you're a bunch of survivors -- which is really what the books are about, people trying to come back from a terrible catastrophe and rebuild things -- then just a quirk of human nature here or there, if you have only twenty people in the world instead of six billion, you can do some tremendous damage one way or another, and dramatically it creates interesting scenarios that way. In the case of Edenborn, I think that those are teenagers dealing with very real questions: "What is my place in the world? What is my future going to be, and what do I want versus what my parents are choosing for me or pushing me into?" Sometimes the best-laid intentions lead to ruin, both from the teenagers themselves and from the parents who are trying to push them into things.

In the course of these books, you've posited that the human race has very nearly been wiped out as the result of what is either a clever mutation or a genetically engineered pathogen. But, at least so far, you have declined to assign any blame -- to say, "We traced it to this terrorist cell" or "This black ops group from Government X was responsible for the pandemic!" In that way, you seem to allow culpability to fall to all of humankind -- as though Black Ep were a new Original Sin.
Absolutely. I really like to keep things like that open. One of the differences between writing for Hollywood and writing a book is that, when you have a movie... let's say I were to tell you a joke. A priest, a rabbi, and a nun walk into a bar. As I tell you this joke, you are envisioning a priest, a nun, and a rabbi walking into a bar. If it's filmed, you'd actually shoot specific actors who come into the bar, and one looks like this and you know he's a priest because he has a collar, and so forth. But the joy of writing, to me, is that it's a kind of collective dreaming, and my job as a writer isn't necessarily to feed every last detail. I'm not casting [a set of] actors. I want you as the reader to [envision the scene]. Maybe you're seeing a heavy-set priest, maybe you're seeing a really thin priest, maybe you're seeing different races of priests. You're doing some creation yourself, and I'm only supplying the details that I think are important. I really like the idea that we don't know, necessarily, where this plague comes from. It could be terrorists, it could be bio-engineered, it could be just a natural trap set within the human genome that clicks in after a certain amount of time. Maybe it's caused by environmental shifts. We don't know. We may be responsible for it; we may not be responsible for it.

For that matter, it could be some form of Divine Retribution.
It could be Divine Retribution. There's a certain quality of storytelling that I really like that ties it to myths and fables and the possibility of these kinds of things, whereas I know there are a lot of people who need things that are more specific: it came from this lab, and this location, and at this time. That provides a certain closure that I think certain people like, but for me, and for a lot of other people, there is something very tantalizing about not knowing that, and about the possibilities. If I can make a reader raise questions, in addition to enjoying the story, if they [ask], "I wonder where [Black Ep] did come from," and it makes them assess and re-assess things that are happening now, then I feel like I'm on cloud nine, because I've done my job. My goal is not only to entertain, but hopefully to provoke, to make people think about things differently. That's, to me, what a good story does.

In today's post-9/11 environment, especially with the kind of fear that has been politically generated this election season, people reading these books might be inclined, automatically, to say, "My god, it's terrorism!" But one thing that you do, and I wonder how deliberate it was, it to inoculate your novels against anti-Muslim sentiment, especially in Edenborn. You bring so much in the way of wisdom and beautiful meditations out of Islamic tradition into your book.
I'm fascinated by Sufism, I think it's a very interesting tradition within Islam. There are traditional organized religions that, to me, have done a lot of good, but have a lot of warts as well. There are many wars that have been fought in the name of religion; there is a certain kind of intolerance that is attributable to certain aspects of all religions, I think. But there are always these interesting derivations within traditional western religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and also within the Eastern traditions -- that lead to a real sense of spirituality first, and specific organized religion second. It's not so much about, "You must do this!" as basic truths about humankind. There are some really beautiful things to be found within all religions, and when you have a tradition like Sufism, which... there are divisions within Sufism itself, but [there are] schools of it in which they try to bring everyone together, in which all religions are part of the same sense of connection to something bigger than yourself, to some kind of divine force. I really wanted to be able to use that, especially where, if you look into the wake of the catastrophic plague, people draw one of two conclusions -- either they become irreligious and say, "Well clearly there's no one looking out for us, because if there were, what kind of God would let something like this happen?" or they become very religious and they see things in religious terminology -- that there is a Rapture, or you are saved, or you have been given a second chance to live your life in a certain way. I wanted to show different contrasting points within that. I could have used any religion, but I really thought there were some very beautiful traditions within Sufism that I wanted to give a chance to have voiced, especially when you hear about Islam in the news these days. It's usually a very intolerant kind of version of it that the West is at war with, and I think that you can't deny there is a clash of civilizations going on, but not everything is quite as cut and dried [as it's made out to be].

Haji is the most compelling character, for me, because he's so young and he's presented with such difficult expectations. And yet he's so centered: he doesn't get involved in the petty squabbles around him -- he stays calm in the midst of his brothers arguing about fundamentalist religious interpretations versus more user-friendly faith, he stays above the fray of his female cousins and their rivalries. One of the most beautiful things I have heard in a long time is that thing Haji says: "Whatever's in your head, forget it; whatever's in your hand, give it."
It's a Sufist saying. There are some beautiful very wise and meaningful aspects to that tradition of Islam. And admittedly, there are other religions that have... there's a kind of communal soup of wisdom in a lot of religions. On a certain level, there's a kind of acceptance that [Haji] has that's a lesson everyone can learn from. It's also tied to the Taoist concept of wu wei, which I have always seen as divine surfing: going with the flow of things instead of resisting and struggling. Sometimes it's better to, much like [with] judo, use the force of the way the world is going in the direction that you want, instead of trying to oppose it -- make it work for you, and to accept it. After writing Idlewild, with the main character [in that book being] Halloween, who I love, but [who] is a very abrasive character in certain ways -- he's paranoid, he struggles against things, he's dark, he's sarcastic --

He's a loner.
He's a loner. And Haji is the anti-Halloween in a lot of ways. He's accepting, he's wise, he's gentle, he's willing to do what's asked of him, and still find a way to make everything meaningful for him and to be good to the people he cares about. To a certain extent it was an experiment, after writing Halloween, to try to write a character who would view things in a very different way, and a way in which I'd like to be. I try to channel my inner Haji when I can, and unfortunately I tend to channel my inner Halloween and my inner Penny more often than I'd like. [Laughter.]

There's more of a sense of community, too, in Haji's book than in Halloween's. In Idlewild, the story is told from Halloween's perspective, and he is not a community-minded sort of person. But in Edenborn, you branch out: you don't tell the story through just one voice, now you have several voices. It seems that the theme and the execution of Edenborn are all about community, and Haji is really the soul of that community -- he's why community exists, he personifies a common ground where people can find ways to cooperate.
I think that's right. He's the soul of the book in a lot of ways. He's what we're fighting for, in a way -- he's very innocent, trusting, wise. He's willing to make things work. Halloween, at the end of the first book, is not willing to make things work. To a certain extent, the second book is about pulling him back in, bringing him back into the fold. Without Haji, we would not feel the conflict in Edenborn as much as we might otherwise, because you have a character like Penny, who has certain goals that she wants to go after, and whether she gets them or not, we feel for her, we follow her. But she's tough in certain ways that Haji's not, or at least she thinks she's tough --

And she's all about Penny.
And she's all about herself, absolutely. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Giving Tree, which, I don't know if you've read -- by Shel Silverstein --

I saw the cartoon version. [Laughter.]
It's this beautiful story of a tree who loves a little boy, and basically gives the little boy whatever he wants -- is self-sacrificing in a lot of ways. Not to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it, but at the end the little boy is an old man, and the tree has nothing left to offer except that the tree has become a stump, and so is a place for the old man to sit, and the tree still loves the boy -- who has become the old man. I really like that kind of devotion and that kind of purity, as a contrast to selfish, manic aspects of characters. I think that each of us embodies both of them, and we give ourselves over to one or the other more. Unfortunately, part of civilization, I think, requires that we live in a certain manic, aggressive, self-centered way. Part of being human is being cooperative -- we wouldn't have gotten this far unless we were both, unless we were both aggressive enough to fight off other animals to get [to the top of the food chain], and cooperative enough to make things, to use tools, to create civilization. But I don't think we know how to make those two sides work together. We have millions of years of evolution [behind us] and only thousands of years of civilization, so the conflict between those two is hard to reconcile. In addition to telling a fun, engaging story, I like to explore the different parts of man and see what are the different paths we can [follow], what are the traps, and even through Haji is, I would argue, a much kinder and morally better character than all the others, he falls into his own traps as well.

Your books step away, at times, from that anthrocentric supposition that, "Of course these are the heroes -- they're human beings in a world now devoid of human life." And, "Of course they are going to succeed -- they are our heroes!" You impart to the reader a genuine sense of the possibility that they might not succeed -- that the next book might end up with everyone dying, and that's the end of humankind forever, and maybe that's not even such a huge tragedy after all. Do you have a temptation, as you contemplate the third book, to allow us to see humanity fail?
I haven't decided. I'm trying to figure it out -- I'm trying to figure out what speaks to me. I think that's really good, first of all, because I've read too many books and seen too many movies where you know that good will always triumph over evil, and the hero will survive the villain and wind up with the girl, and everything will work itself out. I think that's an important myth that needs to be retold, that's reassuring -- but it has no power if the hero always wins, and always gets the girl, and everything always works itself out. [If that's the case], then why do you care? If you've been given a glimpse of hell, but it never actually materializes, then you stop fearing it. I think life is more complicated than that -- I think there are beautiful stories to be told, in which sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't. That's particularly meaningful to me, because I don't know where we stand as a species. I don't know it we're going to work out or not. There's something very reassuring in saying. "Oh yes, of course we will." But we may not. We are these brilliant primates who have figured out wonderful technology, and we've done so much to propagate ourselves across the planet. There are billions of us, and if it weren't for our wits there's be many, many fewer -- [the natural limits on] agriculture alone [would ensure that] there wouldn't be more than tens of millions, but there are billions because of what we've been able to do [in terms of circumventing natural limits]. But we also have these very aggressive tendencies -- we make bigger and bigger weapons. We don't create the kind of weapons that we don't use. We always use the weapons we create, and the stakes become higher and higher because we get to the point where you can do tremendous damage to everyone and it just takes one mistake to let out a kind of plague like Black Ep, or start a nuclear war, or any number of other things. The future of the human race is unknown: are we going to make things work or are we not? Dramatically, I'd like to give glimpses of both [possibilities]. The third book… I don't really know. I'm going to get to that point. I know the jeopardy I'm building towards, I know what's leading up to it, and then once I get there -- I'll just have to see how I feel as I'm writing it. If it's a happy ending, then that's a hopeful sense of the future, but not an assured one. If it's an unhappy ending, then it's a cautionary tale, but not necessarily what I think is doomed to happen. I don't know. Let's talk in a year.

Copyright © 2004 Kilian Melloy

Kilian Melloy is the Editor at Large for wigglefish zine, and a columnist and reviewer for EdgeBoston.com. Hoping to make a living at this some day, for the moment Kilian is thrilled just to be talking to the creative, intriguing people he has the chance to interview for these and other web publications.


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