Volume 13, Number 01, Winter, 1995

A Sure Bet

An Interview with James P. Hogan

[James P. Hogan is one of those rare writers who skillfully combines the 'science' and 'fiction' aspects of science fiction. Twice winner of the Prometheus Awards, for Voyage to Yesteryear and The Multiplex Man, his plots are intriguing and tightly-paced, and his characters—even non-humans—embody the best of individualism. I met Hogan at Armadillocon in Austin, 1994. Part of this interview draws from that meeting, the rest flowed over the Internet.— the Editor.]

Prometheus: How did you get into writing, and why science fiction?

Hogan: Originally I was an electronics engineer working on scientific and industrial control and instrumentation systems. From there I moved to sales, and eventually ended up in the computer industry as a sales engineer specializing in scientific applications, data reduction and presentation, and so forth.

The customers that I dealt with were all scientists, and from practically every discipline. Figuring out what kind of computing system they needed required trying to understand the problems that they were trying to solve, and getting along with them meant making the effort to express the proposals in their language, not my language.

So I suppose I developed something of a broad view of what they were all doing and how it fitted together. I'd say that I gravitated into that kind of job because of a fascination with science to begin with. The interest wasn't something that followed later, because of that job.

So I never really started out with any deep-seated urge to be a writer. What started it was when I saw that movie 2001 and didn't understand the ending. (No body understood the ending to that movie. I've listened to all kinds of interpretations, but they all conflict with each other, which tells me the ideas exist in the heads of the people doing the interpreting, not what's out there, being interpreted.)

Basically, I was carrying on about it in the office one day, and all of the guys that I worked with said what most of us would say, something along the lines of, "If you can write something better, go do it." I said I would. Somebody else said I'd never get it published, and it ended up as a bet.

So I wrote Inherit the Stars in my spare time. A couple of years later (writing a first novel tends to be a long, agonizing learning experience) I had a finished manuscript and no idea what to do with it. However, I was with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) at the time, and at a sales conference of theirs held at Cape Cod in 1976 I met a software support specialist called Ashley Grayson, whom a number of people in the company had referred me to as the resident expert on science fiction and related matters. Ashley liked the book and thought he might be able to help. I left a copy of the manuscript with him, returned to England, and largely forgot about the matter.

Then about six weeks later, I got a letter from a company I'd never heard of called Ballantine Books, from a person I'd never heard of called Judy-Lynn del Rey (all of which shows how green I was), who had read the book, wanted to publish it, and offered a contract.

Inherit the Stars was published in 1977 and hasn't been out of print since, and is now out in about a dozen languages. So that's my "how I had it tough in the early days" story.

The afterword to the whole thing is that many years later I had dinner with Arthur C. Clarke in Boston and was able to ask him—finally, the ultimate source—"What did the ending to that movie mean?"

Arthur's reply was: "I haven't the faintest idea." Apparently it was based on a short story that he wrote, called "Sentinel." When the movie came to be made, Stanley Kubrick wanted to end it one way, somebody else wanted to end it another, and according to Arthur, "They ended up yelling and shouting at each other, and I walked away and left them to it. That was what they came up with finally. I never understood it either."

Prometheus, What role and significance do you think hard science fiction has today, in the context of our increasingly science fiction world?

Hogan: Not a lot, because the areas that become popular and widely read become absorbed into mainstream almost by definition, and cease being science fiction. But within its realm, what I hope it can do is help promote a better understanding of what real science is when the images presented by the popular mass media can be so misleading. Also, one thing that I try to do personally is promote a more positive appreciation of how much technology has improved life, when we're deluged by so much doom-mongering and nonsense in the form of politics masquerading as science.

Prometheus: Your novels emphasize liberty and positive individual action—two of your novels, Voyage from Yesteryear and The Multiplex Man, won the Prometheus Award, and several others, such as The Mirror Maze and Code of the Lifemaker, are very anti-authoritarian. Can you talk a little about your view on politics in fiction and fiction such as your own that emphasizes individual liberty?

Hogan: A result of writing books is that very often, your beliefs can be different by the time a book is finished, from what they were when you launched into writing it. The effort of research, reflection, and the incessant talking that writers tend to inflict on people when they've got a "hot" topic in their heads can modify one's views.

Sometimes I find myself confronted by somebody over something in one of my books that they don't agree with, and I try to explain, "I didn't write that." They brandish the book and point at the name. "Look, it says so right here." I shake my head. "No, you don't understand. Yes, the person who wrote it had the same name, and allowing for age we're look-alikes. But it wasn't me. That person doesn't exist any more."

I'm not so sure I have such strong views on these matters as I once had—apart from the obvious, that people don't like being interfered with or coerced into doing things that they don't want to do. It isn't really an effective way of achieving things, anyway. It's interesting to note how, through history, oppressors end up being buried by their intended victims. The Romans, the Nazis, Soviet Communism are gone; Christians, Jews, and the Russian people are still here. So all that repressive systems really do are make life unpleasant for lots of people until they're done away with or fall apart.

I don't really care very much these days about rival ideologies or what labels people put on them. The old, simple virtues of kindness, compassion, and tolerance at the individual level are what decent societies are built on. Personal integrity, honor, and modesty are more important qualities of leadership and government than political persuasion. The ends are always shifting and changing, and so you never arrive at them. All there is are means.

Prometheus: Can you talk a little about your forthcoming novels? The Immortality Option (Ballantine books in February, 1995) is the sequel to Code of the Lifemaker, and Realtime Interrupt deals with virtual reality taken one step further. You also have some projects for Baen Books.

Hogan: We left Code of the Lifemaker with Zambendorf & Co. out on Titan amid the mechanical, naturally evolving biosphere of the Taloids, waiting for the Japanese ship to arrive five months later, and obviously for some kind of sequel to happen.

Owen Lock of Ballantine Books wanted a story about the aliens who were mentioned in the Prologue—who sent out the Searcher ships to set up self-replicating manufacturing systems on the planets of distant stars, invented their own version of Murphy's Law, and had cost accountants who worried. I presumed that a sequel would be more about Zambendorf, because that's who the first book had been about.

We finalized a deal without ever really resolving the issue. Then, one day when we were having lunch in New York, Owen remarked, "Oh, I reread Code of the Lifemaker over the weekend. I'd forgotten, those aliens all got wiped out a million years ago." "Owen" I replied, "that's what I've been trying to tell you. That's why it isn't obvious how to write a story about them and still keep the original characters."

His response was, "Well you're a resourceful writer. I'm sure you'll come up with something," and he refused to discuss the matter further for the remainder of the meal.

The upshot, anyway, was that I did find a way of bringing the two incompatibles together without resorting to anything too obvious or contrived, such as time travel or the weak, "Well, they weren't actually all wiped out." Hint: the aliens were very sophisticated computer scientists; the codes being investigated by the Terran scientists on Titan go back to the earliest ancestral times; one of the consultants who helped me valuably with the book was Hans Moravec. But that's as much as you get for free.

Realtime Interrupt is due out from Bantam in March, and as you say, deals with VR. We're not into helmets, gloves, body suits, or any of the other paraphernalia that you read about these days, but direct neural l/O to the brain. The brain centers that interpret and integrate perceptions have no way of telling whether the information coming into them (including kinetic sensations such as heart rate, stresses on joints, muscle fatigue, and so on) is entering from outside via the nervous system or being injected artificially; similarly, the motor outputs generated to move limbs etc. are the same whether sent down the spinal cord to a real body, or intercepted and fed into a simulation.

Hence we have the basis for a total, all-sensory illusion, indistinguishable from the real thing…and, of course, some interesting plot angles involving difficulties in telling whether what's going on is the real world or not. Marvin Minsky helped out a lot with this one, and has a walk-on part as himself by way of recognition.

The deal with Jim Baen is for two books, and I'm about halfway through the first. The theme is the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, which is an sf writer's godsend, and one I used before in The Proteus Operation.

What got me interested in it again was meeting physicist David Deutsch of Oxford University in the course of a visit to England about a year ago, who argued in a way that I found very convincing that the MWI is real. Essentially, it explains in a way that no other interpretation does the QM paradoxes that have been bandied around for almost a century, in which particles appear capable of interfering with themselves.

Interestingly, within a week or two of my meeting David, somebody else sent me the results of a survey of nearly a hundred leading physicists that David Raub in Pennsylvania had conducted, showing that 71 percent agreed totally, and a further 13 percent responded "probably"—a remarkable consensus for a subject so counter-intuitive and on the surface, bizarre. Tentative title for the Baen book is Paths to Otherwhere.

Prometheus: Thank you.

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