Sophie Masson interviews Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes
This interview was
published in Viewpoint,
a publication of the Faculty of
Education of the University of Melbourne, in the Spring of 2000.
Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes are two of the most respected names in science fiction in Australia. Individually and together, their work is always of high quality. Broderick's output, in fiction and non-fiction is truly astonishing: as much at home in the rarefied world of literary theory as in the nuts and bolts of technology, his lively explorations of futuristic tendencies and possibilities have been accompanied by a deep interest in character and motivation. He has published all over the world, in many different genres, but his great love remains science fiction. He is also well-known as an essayist on such topics as scientific research and the attitude of society towards it. Rory Barnes's work in the sf field is also greatly respected. Indeed, in the most recent Aurealis Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy, the judges noted that Awards nominees Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes continued to establish their reputation as the best writers of YA science fiction in the country. Rory Barnes's YA sf novels, part of his Horsehead Trilogy, Horsehead Boy and Horsehead Man, were both shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards in different years. The third and final volume of the trilogy, Horsehead Soup, comes out in August. Barnes has also written outside the science fiction field, with two mainstream novels published.
Sophie Masson: What is it like to write a book together? What strategies do you have to adopt so you don't tread on each other's toes? What are the pitfalls, and the rewards? How different is it to write together than on your own?
Damien Broderick: We've tried most methods. With Valencies I reset Rory's slice-of-life novel of the 1960s into the year 4004, which meant changing everything in the background except the basics of human nature, Zones was originally a radio play by me, which Rory helped me thicken up, adding some wonderful new characters. We then worked out a whole new and more satisfying conclusion, by mail as I recall. Stuck was done by the hot computer method when I visited Rory and his family in Adelaide for the biennial Writers' Week. We literally took it in turns to use the machine, meanwhile working out character and plot developments in long sunny walks around inner Adelaide. With our most recent book, still under offer, we alternated chapters by email, after starting it during another interstate visit. But the alternations went out of order, so it's not obvious which chapters each of us wrote - and of course we then edited the other's work to make it all smoother and more consistent. All these methods are fun in their own ways,.
With the adult non-sf novel Book of Revelation strange and mysterious alchemy was employed that cannot be discussed for fear of ruining the magic
Rory Barnes: The surprising thing is that the co-operative process varies wildly from book to book. To be candid, our first joint novel, Valencies, was written with no co-operation at all. I wrote the base text as a mainstream novel, without any help from Damien. Damien then moved the story to a different planet and jumped it forward in time by a couple of millennia - all without any help from me. But a very different process emerged with novels such as Zones and Stuck in Fast Forward.With both these novels we spent some time at my place in Adelaide working on the one computer. If one author got bored and abandoned the keyboard in mid sentence, the other might sit down and keep going, having first edited the existing text on the screen. And, of course, with our later novels we've been able to bat stuff back and forward between Adelaide and Melbourne by email as often as we like. The real trick to joint authorship is to accept that the final novel will be something completely different from the novel one would have written by oneself. Control freaks need not apply. The rewards of working together are easily stated: you get twice the inventiveness when it comes to twists and turns in the plot and you have characters who are the products of two different minds - in some way the interaction between characters in a jointly written novel mirrors the interaction between the authors. And it's fun working with somebody else.
SM: How difficult is it to create an imaginative, yet realistic, scenario of the future? Do you see it as part of your goal to try and make visions of the future more choate, or coherent?
RB: I see that as part of Damien's goal. I tend to see the future as a rich source of farce. Of course the real future may turn out to be pretty nasty or boring, but if I have to imagine one, I usually end up imagining something that holds a satirical mirror to our own times.
DB: A phrase often used these days about good science fiction is 'playing with the net up'. People who don't understand the genre just stick in anything that strikes them, not caring about consistency or logic or indeed the strangeness we must expect in the future. So you end up with people who are too familiar to be plausible, in a world that's often just plain dumb. But the hard parts of inventing a new world and getting the tone right are also the most exciting for the writer (and, with luck, for the reader). I don't think we care about how our worlds turn out - since we're making them up, not engaging in prophecy - as long as they hang together fairly well and are fun to visit
SM: Do you think there is too much gloom about the future? Recently I was reading about a book by Robin Baker which spoke of such possibilities as 'reproduction restaurants' where you went to choose reproductive material, and that most people would not have babies in the traditional way. This struck me as both absurd and abhorrent. Do you think that this kind of extremist position turns many people off the idea of technology and scientific research? And if so, how do you see your own work combating it?
DB: Again, this is often due to a failure of imagination and indeed of common sense. Early in the twentieth century, alarmists predicted a future world of clinical laboratory babies. In fact what we've seen is a tremendous boom in home births with midwives, fathers participating in birth and child rearing, a level of sensitivity that you'd expect if you thought about it for a moment in a wealthy community finally having time to learn about their humanity. At the same time, infertile couples have been helped by invitro techniques that would have made Aldous Huxley's hair stand on end - yet the result is a loved and loving child in a family, although perhaps the family is a lesbian couple. By and large, technology is how we use our intelligence and skill to make life richer and more human. When it's not, when it is used in horrible or short-sighted ways, yes, that's dangerous. SF can help us imagine both paths. Sometimes, admittedly, it's more fun to portray the creepy and the scary possibilities, or to send them up hilariously as Rory does in his Horsehead books.
RB: Across the vast aeons of time, people have got a real kick out of making babies in the traditional way. I have considerable faith in people's ability to embrace those technologies that give them real pleasure and satisfaction. And I have an equal faith in their ability to dump the cruddy ones.
SM: Do you think we face more challenges than in the past? What sort of society do you see us developing?
RB: In the developed world we don't have to worry about starving, which gives us time to worry about a lot of other things. But I suspect that we are not yet challenge-challenged. We can cope. As to the way society will develop, I think there is a very high level of sensitivity to complex initial conditions which makes prediction almost impossible. It may well be that accelerating technical change of the sort that Damien writes about will lead to a much richer, happier, healthier, fulfilled society. It may also be that accelerating environmental degradation coupled with infrastructure destroying wars will win the race. Frankly I'd have two bob each way.
DB: I think we have more options, so that means we do have more challenges - luckily. There won't be a single form of society in the medium future, although certainly there's a pressure to merge different ways of living and dressing and eating and working into a corporate global uniformity. But again, wealth and information allow and encourage people to differ delightfully from each other. The ethnic divisions now ripping some parts of the world apart seem remnants of an old narrow way of relating to reality, through foolish myths of superiority or victimhood. (Sometimes those people are victims, in reality, but making that your self-definition is pretty destructive.)
SM: Why do you think the speculative fiction genre - in all its different strands - has taken off so much this century? And why does fantasy appear to be more popular right now than science fiction? How do you think the different strands may be brought together?
DB: Obviously sf is the inevitable story-telling medium for a culture shaped by science and technology. But very little is actually true to science. It draws on the spectacular power and novelty of science and blends that with traditional tales of magic, wish-fulfilment, dread at the numinous and the awful. So the movie 2001 shows us plenty of spaceships and special effects, but its climax is a patently religious image of a metaphysical Star Child. As real technology accelerates, as the world of change becomes more frightening, people are turning away from this disguised narrative of magic in favour of fantasy that enacts a safer and apparently more moral world, where the torments and joys of growing up and finding a secure place in the world can be managed in a traditional way. It's a turning-aside from reality, in a way, but also offers (in skillful and honest hands) an engagement with the rich resources of myth and legend. Star Wars and its faux-Joseph Campbellism does not seem to me the way to go in weaving these strands together, however fabulously successful the franchise has been at the box office and the book store.
RB: I suspect that a lot of the attraction of speculative fiction can be summed up as: Look, mum, I'm flying. People have always fantasized about being birds - Leonardo was hard at it, the Icarus myth was a favourite with the Greeks, any number of Aboriginal myths have people sprouting wings and flying up into the sky. But now we can fantasize about actually being flying machines. I doubt that the underlying psychological mechanism has changed at all - it is just that technology has broadened its application. As for fantasy currently being more popular than sf, perhaps for many readers the creaking cart-wheel on a muddy, quasi-medieval road across a blasted heath is easier to hear, feel and smell than the music of the spheres beamed directly into the skull by means of a brain implant. And is there actually any need to bring these different strands together? They work quite well by themselves.
SM: What do you think of the genre in general? It's often sidelined by critics, isn't it - especially fantasy. Why do you think this is?
RB: It is often sidelined by me. In the company of died-in-the-wool fans I often feel a bit of a fraud. I actually read very little fantasy and not much science fiction. I'd read more if the interaction between the characters was more complex and believable, if the insights into their personalities were deeper and more engaging, and if irony and humour were brought into play more often.
DB: Frankly, both sf and fantasy appeal to young readers, unlike pensive novels of adult heartbreak or politics. So it's easy to suppose that it is a medium fatally mired in childishness. Often that's true. Luckily, when you're writing YA sf, you evade the slurs - since you are writing for kids. As for more sophisticated work - that's a highly complex form of narrative built on top of the many specialised skills of reading and writing that this new mode has evolved in the twentieth century. Unless you've learned how to decode and unpack such texts, you're unable to see what on earth (or off it) is going on. It just looks like technobabble and wistful dream. Sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, skeptics are missing out on a wonderful imaginative experience that can't be got in any other medium.
SM: Is there anything different about the genre in Australia? Do you see any particular preoccupations here in Australian spec fiction as opposed to other places?
DB: Until recently, local markets have been very limited, and prior to the Internet it was extremely expensive and time-consuming to submit work overseas to the major markets. So Aussie sf writers were in the position of the Golden Age American and UK writers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, who published in poorly paying pulp magazines read by only a few tens of thousands of highly motivated fans. Our sales figures weren't even that high, so economies of scale didn't kick in to make local sf profitable; it was done out of love and devotion. But the paradoxical impact of such privation, here as in the early 1950s in the States, is that hacks tended to stay clear (no profit) and dedicated, highly skilled sf specialists such as James Blish and Robert Heinlein and many others wrote superbly strange and complex work for peanuts. Aussies still expect peanuts, so our chief reward, as for the Golden Age pioneers, is in creating the richest and most interesting work we can. Because the market is so small, that means it is mostly composed of expert readers who don't need to be patronised, who resent dumbing-down. Suddenly all that is changing. Fantasy and sf are the biggest box office the world has ever seen, but their narratives, because of that fact, get reduced to the lowest, dreariest, 'safest' denominator. Corporate global publishers want the most bang for their investment buck, so they prefer to stick with the blandest fare, able to attract many while distressing few. That's a recipe for death in fiction, at least in good fiction. May they rot in hell and their profits crash down around their ears!
RB: I'd love to answer this question, but I don't know enough.
SM: What's next for Rory Barnes and Damien Broderick?
RB: At the moment we're working on separate projects. (My working title is Boat People from Outer Space but I'll have to come up with something a bit snappier). However Damien and I continue to bat suggestions for joint projects back and forth on the email. The last one was for a comic book about technological change, but neither of us can draw.
DB: Hard to say. We'll probably fall foul of these same forces I was talking about. I was immensely pleased the other day when classic American Golden Age author Poul Anderson, to whom Stuck in Fast Forward is dedicated, commented: 'My wife and I both enjoyed the book a lot. In fact, I'd compare it to middle-period Heinlein, and that's meant as a real compliment. We hope to see more from you.' It is indeed a superb compliment, but I wonder if Heinlein himself, these days, would be able to prevail against the mushy forces of the Force.
Masson spoke to these authors by email.