Thank you very much to agreeing to this interview. I just completed reading your new novel, 2312, and I think it
will be very well received in the SF field. What can you tell us about the genesis of the novel?
I wanted to write a novel about a relationship between a mercurial character and a saturnine character, and I
wanted them to be from Mercury and Saturn respectively. That meant I had to describe a civilization that was
inhabiting Mercury and the Saturn system, so this meant going pretty far out there in time, for me, and
postulating a robust space-faring civilization, but within my own notions of realism (thus no interstellar
travel). Once I got going, the project of describing where humanity might be three hundred years from now took
on equal interest for me, and became at least as important to the book as the original idea. The context of the
culture was crucial to making the story of the couple strong.
It's interesting that the characters came first -- not setting and ideas, which seem the primary drivers of the
novel. Did you decide at the outset to include so many original and unique ideas and themes, or did they develop
as the novel progressed?
They developed in a process of accretion, over the time I was writing the novel. One thing led to another. I
wanted to update the kind of science fiction novel that describes humanity in the solar system, and also to
provide some surprises and even shocks to give the story the feel of being actually set three hundred years
in the future. Some of the ideas I came up with seemed to interact with other ideas from different realms,
in good ways, as, for instance, the sabbatical, the idea that people living in space have to return to Earth for
a year every six or seven years, to strengthen their immune systems etc. This struck me as not only plausible
in itself, but a good political complication in the novel, and a real statement about humanity too: we'll
always be coming back to Earth, it will always be central. In a novel that is so spacy, it was a point
worth repeating, just to stay grounded so to speak. Other ideas, as for instance the gender modifications,
and the new social structures in space, also followed from small original ideas.
I heard you have a three-book contract with Orbit -- will the next two novels be sequels? Is 2312
the first of a trilogy?
No, 2312 is a stand-alone novel. I do have a three-book contract with Orbit, and I am at work on the second
book, but the three books will all be different. Possibly they will form a kind of intellectual trio, coming at
the same ideas from three different angles. But it's hard to say at this point.
You appear to have had fun with the Dos Passos multimedia approach. After reading John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar
more than forty years ago, I thought it would become common in SF, but it has not. What led you to use this structure?
I realized that the book would work best with a very high information load describing to the future civilization
depicted in the novel, and yet I didn't want to make the book too massive, and certainly not multi-volumed. I
was looking for a method that would give me some compression and speed, and maybe even sprinkle some fairy dust
on the dreaded so-called expository lump, of which I am so notoriously fond. So, just before beginning this
project I had written introductions to new editions of John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar and
The Sheep Look Up (from Centipede Press), and in writing those introductions I decided to finally
read John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy, which I knew had been the origin for Brunner's structure in these books,
though I had never actually read the Dos Passos titles. The big black Modern Library
edition of U.S.A. had been on my bookshelf
for over thirty years, and on finally reading it, I was amazed. It is truly one of the great American novels,
and the collage form it invents and deploys is very bold, powerful and beautiful. As I thought about 2312,
I decided I would do like Brunner, for similar reasons, and adapt Dos Passos' format for my own purposes; mainly,
to convey an entire culture in more detail than any ordinary plot can provide. It took a real commitment, it's
not something you can do halfway, but as soon as I started using it, I knew it was the right way to go.
2312 appears in some ways closely related to both your Mars trilogy and
Science in the Capital trilogy, but I am assuming that it is not exactly part of the same
future history. True?
That's right, I don't like linking up my various projects into one larger future history. I've never done it,
and so of course now it's too late, and I don't regret it. I don't see that the advantages of some larger
macro-history are very large, compared to the flexibility that I've gained by making each novel have its own
future history. Even within my Mars stories there are a couple alternative historical lines to the main one
described in the trilogy. I think it's best to keep on updating one's views on what is "most likely to happen,"
and write accordingly. And doing it this way means each time I have a chance to invent a whole new history,
and even if they are somewhat similar, there's still a lot of pleasure to be had there in the details.
You seem to be striving in the novel to develop a future where humanity thrives without requiring currently
dysfunctional Earth politics to magically become functional. Is there hope for Earth, or is space necessary for
humanity to reach its true potential?
There is hope for Earth, I think, but it is an open question whether the space project could be a significant
help to humanity in trying to get into balance with the biophysical realities on Earth. I don't think we know
the answer to this question, and it won't be easy to answer it without continuing to try to go into space
usefully, and see what happens. One thing postulated in 2312 is that space elevators will be needed to make
space really accessible from Earth. Already that's a tall order, ha ha. But no matter what we do in space, Earth
will remain at the center of the human story. That's one of the things 2312 tries to say. But mostly the
book is asking questions. It's not really saying "this could be," but rather, "could this be?" I think it may be
that human civilization is so big and various that different things might happen in different parts of it, and
advances in some areas occur despite massive problems elsewhere. But this is mainly a question to be asked; is
that possible? Could we bootstrap our way out of some of our problems while they are still vexing us?
That is indeed a question we all should ponder. Have you envisioned a scenario for human civilization on Earth
becoming truly sustainable that could become the basis for future works of fiction?
Not really, but I have nibbled at the edges of such a scenario, in the last chapter
of The Years of Rice and Salt, and in Pacific Edge, and even the end of Blue Mars. But
really it seems like it should be the focus of an entire novel, and I have got some ideas about some such
project, clustering around a title I took from one of the chapter titles in Blue Mars, which is
Green Earth. But that one is still a ways off for me. I need to find the story that would be at the heart of it.
Your characters in 2312 are engaging as usual -- especially to those of us who are
scientists. I was puzzled, however, that early in the book Swan seemed to me
like an impetuous, slightly spoiled 20-something, and it was a bit surprising when it became clear she was over
a century old. Was this intentional, or a misperception on my part?
No, I think your perception was mainly correct, while at the same time I wanted her age to be a little
surprising. But Swan is just one of those people whose character is persistent and keeps on being the way
it is, even in the face of a lot of experiences. I don't think she's very unusual in that regard, but maybe an
extreme of the type. In the course of this novel she begins to change a little, but not hugely. Our personalities
are extremely persistent, I find.
The pacing of the novel requires that characters travel throughout the Solar System -- from Mercury to Saturn -- rather
rapidly, using a fascinating mass-transit system of orbiting hollowed-asteroid. Did you actually work out the
orbital mechanics in a hard-SF manner, or did you just wing it?
Well, I got some help here from people who actually know about orbital mechanics and rocket speeds. It goes back
to Charles Sheffield teaching me the basics back in the late 1980s, and then Chris McKay and his colleagues at
NASA/Ames, and now I get some help from my older son. But mainly, having had the basic possibilities and parameters
sketched out for me, I have figured out the time-scales myself, and so I have also artfully tried not to be too
specific about details, so that my shaky work can't really be fact-checked. So -- all the errors are mine, and I
am sure they exist, but I have also tried to hide them, and to be accurate within the limits of my
understanding. Also, to make the basic action of the novel possible within the parameters set by physics and the
postulated technologies, which don't include any magic ones. The main thing to know is that if you are accelerating
at a pace that creates one g inside the spaceship, you are accelerating really fast, and soon going so fast that
it is imperative to turn around and slow down at the same rate of speed, and given those speeds, the solar system
becomes a kind of "ocean liners on the Atlantic" time-space, with voyages in the weeks and months rather than
years and decades.
The idea of massive space liners has always seemed to me to be inefficient and unlikely. I think it could be
argued that cost-effective mass-transit systems are essential for space to ever be more than the playground
of the rich and powerful (whether individuals, corporations or governments). So I was fascinated by your
concept of terraria in various solar orbits that can be used for travel with passengers boarding from rockets
that match speed. (It's like a railroad system where the trains never change speed, and passengers and materials
are boarded from automobiles that temporarily catch up.) It seems a totally new idea for traveling throughout
the solar system. How did you come up with this concept?
It's another idea that I've recycled from my earliest science fiction, meaning The Memory of Whiteness
and Icehenge. That means the idea came to me some time in the late 1970s, so I don't have a strong memory
of how it came to me, but I do recall describing the method to Charles Sheffield and having him tell me that
he thought it was workable, or at least not fatally flawed in a physical sense. That was great news to me, as
I thought it made sense, but wasn't sure. Certainly my original thinking about it comes from the time when
people were actively discussing O'Neill habitats in Earth orbit or at the L-5 point, etc., so there was a
context for my thoughts about all that material.
Your AIs in 2312 differ somewhat from most science fictional AIs -- they seem innocently naïve at
times. Were you intentionally seeking to reinvent the AI concept?
Yes I was. I have never believed in artificial intelligence as usually described in sf or in the MIT-style
hyped-up futurology, so I thought I could have fun making a little addition to that tradition. But this became
quickly complicated, because I also wanted to explore also the possibilities of quantum computers, which
are mind-boggling in the usual way of anything quantum. That quickly confused the issue of human vs. machine
intelligence, in this sense: If the distinction I was holding on to (following Penrose) was that computers were
digital and binary while the human brain was quantum and superposed and entangled, then adding quantum computers
quickly confused all that by meaning computers too would be superposed and entangled. So, I set out to
explore by thinking hard about my qubes and what they then were saying and doing, and how it might reflect
a process of search engines and algorithms. It was a lot of fun.
This is your first work, I think, to address sex and gender issues -- indeed getting quite "clinical" at
times. Your postulation of biological gender proliferation beyond male and female is certainly interesting. What
led you to explore in this direction?
It seemed to me that in 300 years we might have gotten quite powerful in terms of genetic engineering,
and that in training this power on ourselves, we would focus first on longevity, then on expanding our human
potential in other ways. I also wanted to suggest that there will be surprises in our future scientific
understanding of things, so I needed some surprises to illustrate the point. So, some of what I postulated
was specifically designed to surprise by going against the grain of what we believe now. The body modifications
described in the book have mostly to do with gender because I thought it was interesting in itself, and also
a good way to model or image what is already happening in our world now. The modifications in the sheer size
of people came from thinking about how dogs have been bred to their various breeds from a common genetic
stock, which is startling when you think about it. Combining all these various modifications is another
mind-bender, but also, the way things will really play out; the future will not be a single-issue thing like
so many science fiction novels seem to be. The future itself calls out a kind of kitchen-sink principle. So
I went at it with this principle: everything that can change will change. This may or may not be true,
but it makes a good stimulus for a novel.
The economics of 2312 appears to be -- for lack of a better term -- "post-capitalist." There is
no sense that anything in the space society is either driven or limited by money per se. Will you further -- or
more explicitly -- explore possible economic futures in later novels?
Yes. There are mixed and competing economies in 2312, but that situation is in itself post-capitalist,
because capitalism strives to be a total system. So, yes, I will indeed explore possible economic futures in
later novels, that's a good call. I'll be doing it not in any stories directly linked to 2312, but in other
novels that will continue the various trains of thought being explored there. And ideas of various
post-capitalist systems strike me as interesting, useful, and even funny.
I look forward to seeing that. Economics as a "science" is not only poorly understood by most people,
but also seldom effectively addressed in science fiction. Are there any SF authors that you think are
incorporating economics speculation in their work?
I'm a little bit at a loss here, because I haven't read most of the science fiction written in the last twenty
years. I hear some sf writers are working this vein, but I haven't read them, and I almost don't want to
know; I want to be free to think up my own ways of going at it. One thing I can say is that I am coming to
understand that economics is many things, sometimes a social science, but often mostly a name for explication
and analysis of a legal system, often pseudo-mathematical or quantitative, which never challenges our current
system's basic rules and assumptions. So "economics" is by definition an explication of capitalism, and as
such it can be clarifying or obfuscatory, but it is never speculative or projective, in that it does not
often propose really new systems. There are almost no worked-out alternative economic systems, although I've
seen some good preliminary work in Albert and Hahn and elsewhere; but still, the best current critiques of
economics are coming out of sociology or anthropology or political science or law, not out of the field of
economics itself. So I am looking around in all these fields and finding lots of interesting things, and
I hope it will turn into something I can use. Seems to me science fiction ought to have a substantial dose
of post-capitalist futures included in it, just to keep sf's edge, and keep people thinking in new ways
about the future. Capitalism as currently practiced will wreck the Earth; people don't want to wreck
the Earth; therefore a better economic system is called for. So, this is the kind of call that science
fiction is supposed to answer.
Thank you, Stan. I suspect I speak for many thousands of SF readers when I say that I look forward to your next novel.
Copyright © 2012 D. Douglas Fratz
D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary
review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and
critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.