An Interview with George Zebrowski
by Kilian Melloy
George Zebrowski is perhaps best known for his novels, which include the masterpiece Macrolife, the Macrolife-related Cave of Stars, the Omega Point Trilogy, and the Campbell Award winner Brute Orbits. But Zebrowski is also a master of the shorter form, and his stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies since the early seventies.
The new collection Swift Thoughts brings examples of Zebrowski's work together in one volume, spanning much of his career, from 1973's "Rope of Glass" to "Wound the Wind," a candidate on the ballot for this year's Nebula Awards. (Another of the collection's stories, "Augie," was included on the preliminary ballot for this year's Nebula.)
In the 24 stories included in Swift Thoughts, Zebrowski combines delicate vision with a powerhouse imagination, following the enigmas he discovers in possible futures through logical sequences of event and motivation until he arrives at unpredictable - sometimes stupefying - conclusions. Thus an astronaut makes first contact with a lone alien posted on a barren world circling a wandering star, and more than a year goes by before the two finally - and catastrophically - manage to communicate; an alien civilization reaches out to humanity through an unexpected emissary - Curly of the Three Stooges; and, in the frightening, nimble "Gödel's Doom," philosophy and reality clash, rupturing the divides that separate universes.
Looming large throughout these tales are thorny questions. How do we balance our ages-old impulses of violence and tribalism against emerging, and exclusively human, instincts for philanthropy and constructive cooperation? How do we serve the common good without becoming subjugated to undifferentiated mass will? Perhaps most importantly, where do we look for the wisdom to guide us past the dangers we pose to ourselves - do we turn to our own more noble natures or create sentient Artificial Intelligences, hoping that our children of the mind will look after us and not sweep us aside? A single sentence from the title story sums it up as nowhere else: "A civilized man is a contradiction, with one set of programs fighting ad hoc ones." It's a big and, perhaps, bad universe, Zebrowski seems to say - a place that permits both the murderous license of evolution's merciless methods and the winged notions that concern creatures of intelligence: justice, fairness, merit, progress.
I had previously interviewed George Zebrowski for another web publication. I was all too honored at the opportunity to have another conversation with this sharp-sighted master of the speculative genre.
Kilian Melloy: You have eighty short stories in your body of work. What criteria did you and your editor, Marty Halpern, apply when it came time to select the twenty-four stories that appear in Swift Thoughts?
George Zebrowski: Variety and versatility of treatment were the criteria in choosing these stories. The other measure was their being science fiction. Outright fantasy or horror stories were excluded, though a few have horror elements.
KM: Are there stories present in Swift Thoughts that would not have appeared in the collection but for Marty Halpern insisting they belonged there? If so, would you say, in retrospect, he was right in his judgment?
GZ: My editor, Marty Halpern, is one of the most meticulous, respectful, insightful editors I have ever worked with. Besides helping to arrange the order of the stories, to avoid incongruities and repetitions, and recommending that certain selections be left out for those reasons, he was decisive in making sure that "Bridge of Silence" and "Rope of Glass" were left in. These are close-focus stories that I might have chosen to leave out, but they do contrast well with some of the others. I must confess that I had devalued these stories over time, but Marty made me look again and see that they are overlooked gems (his words). I had devalued the first one because the magazine that originally published it, after a number of rejections by others, printed a poorly proofed text. In addition, the cover they had commissioned for the story was later used as the cover for their anthology of stories from the magazine, but my story was not included - even though I was the best known writer in the lineup. This made me feel even more that the story was perhaps not very good. It would have helped their anthology.
This kind of "devaluation" of one's own work is common among writers. I had similar feelings about "Lesser Beasts" until the Publishers Weekly reviewer brought it back into focus for me with a few well-chosen words. There is nothing like a great editor, who is at bottom also an attentive reader! Marty was right in the stories he stood up for, in the order of the stories as presented, and in the many questions he asked about fumbled lines and differing styles. He always left the final decision up to me, but I hardly ever disagreed with him. I learned more about my stories from him, and he learned about writers' ways from me.
I have only had one other editor like him - John Douglas (my editor on The Killing Star, Cave of Stars, and the Campbell Prize-winning Brute Orbits). That I should encounter another in Marty Halpern is a miracle.
KM: In our pre-interview chat you mentioned the possibility of a second volume with Golden Gryphon Press, a collection of horror stories with the marvelous title Black Pockets. What stories might be included in this collection?
GZ: Black Pockets and Other Horrors would include the title story, still being written, as well as various previously published stories, including "I Walked With Fidel" (Castro goes on tour as a zombie), "General Jaruzelski at the Zoo" (Poland's last dictator begs the Soviets for bananas), "Jumper" (a Freudian mental powers story), "The Wish in the Fear" (a story about a phobic man who has a strange fear of pencils), and a dozen or so others, each featuring a horror element.
KM: Whenever writers are asked how much their characters speak for them, the standard response is that the characters are entities in their own rights, meant to express sentiments necessary to the characters and not to parrot the author's views. It's often easy to feel skeptical about this to a degree, since it's the writer who's in charge of the story and the characters - at least to a degree - but then there are stories like "The Eichmann Variations" and "Lenin in Odessa," where you allow Nazi war criminal Eichmann, in the former story, and Stalin, in the latter, to narrate. Now, there's no way you can be channeling your own sentiments through these characters! Especially in the case of Stalin, where Stalin is entering the psychology of yet another character, you must have had to assemble worldviews that were quite alien to your own perspective. What process did you go through to accomplish this?
GZ: [Examination of the] historical records of [the] actual character. Eichmann and Stalin are, according to all evidence, as you see them in these stories. In fact, the story narrated by Stalin makes the point that it is Stalin's character that results in the history of the story turning out pretty much as we know it in our world - with Stalin on top. In fact, when you know your characters well, either fictional or historical, you will know what they will say and do. They take over and tell you what they will say and do, and think. Which is what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said that "plot is character in action."
KM: You remark in your notes that observant readers notice your repeated use of a trio of characters, Felix, Bruno, and June. But it seems you also use a number of characteristic story elements: extended life through medical rejuvenation, the coexistence of humanity with advanced Artificial Intelligence, the need for humanity to advance to a new stage of reason even as the primitive impulses of tribalism and suspicion try to hold us back. Though you use these ideas many times, you always find fresh and unexpected stories to tell. Are you exploring the various permutations of a sort of literary multiverse in your work?
GZ: The reuse of these story elements, or rather, my repeated return to them, comes from the fact that these are the serious issues of our possible futures, which these stories "rehearse." I am not the only writer to do so, but I would like to think that I look more closely than most at how these possibilities may affect us, which is what purely entertainment fiction fails to do.
KM: More than rehearsing possible futures, it seems you also make a point of drawing a prospective road map of how to get to a better, rather than worse, future, insofar as you don't only write about the possible mistakes of the future (as in the forced-euthanasia story "Rope of Glass") but you also write about the processes of possible human development (the President of the United States rising above nationalism in "Behind the Night," for example, or the young man in "Sacred Fire" rejecting the paranoia and reliance on force espoused by his father - by all his ancestors, inasmuch as he's exceeding instinctual, fear-imposed human limits).
GZ: "Prospective roadmaps," you ask? I try to see them. So do a number of other writers - like Bear, Benford, Watson, Sargent, Gunn, to name only a few.
KM: When it comes to humans interacting with Artificial Intelligence, often the AI entities in your stories (if they can be called entities) are helping humanity along the path of evolutionary development - a guided and accelerated evolution, to be sure - but in the story "Augie," the situation is reversed: a couple whose marriage is on the rocks turn out to be the "parents" of a rapidly developing AI "child." There are several levels and layers to this story, the most immediate being a rather sweet tale of reconciliation between estranged spouses, but underneath there's a chilling (even merciless) comment on human selfishness and inadequacy. Clearly, we have to think carefully about how we might treat our own children of the mind, but are you also issuing a warning about the ways in which parents fail their biological children?
GZ: Of course! So-called real children are treated very badly, much too often. And looking [at the situation of children] worldwide, [they are treated] mostly badly. We are all children of people who made the world the way it is before us, in a long chain of mistakes that we are trying to break. What we must pass on is new ways to break the chain of mistakes we are all living with today.
KM: That's the most wonderful and speculative thing about your stories: not the hardware of the future, or travel to distant stars, but a maturation of human attitudes and outlook. And there's a rich source of drama there, too, which you explore in stories like "Sacred Fire" and the Nebula Award-nominated "Wound the Wind" - having only our inner gauges to judge from, how sure are we that our "progress" really is progressive and not a dead end? And what does it say about us if, like the rescued old man in "Wound the Wind," we can be so horrified of technical advancement, only to look back later on and wonder, What was I thinking? You suggest that human mores and standards are in fact quite adaptable, but the implied risk is that there is no completely objective set of standards to which we have access.
GZ: I think you have said this better than I could, at the moment. I will steal it immediately!
KM: You mention in the notes to "The Eichmann Variations" that, "The story was rejected, with great praise, by every magazine in the field..." Why, for goodness' sake? It has everything: a plausible science fiction theme, social relevance (especially as we near the inevitability of human cloning), a touch of satire, emotional impact, a flawlessly human voice - on top of which the plot is a deeply disturbing philosophical and ethical puzzle, as so much important science fiction is, so why would anybody reject so perfectly realized a work?
GZ: This happens to me often: "too serious," "brilliant, but I can't, really," etc. SF publishing is much more conservative about themes and forms than one might expect from a forward-looking literature, and this is shameful self-censorship, sometimes even an economic blacklist, since seriousness might endanger profits. Michael Bishop published it, but I think the other editors were nonplused. The story takes no prisoners. Even Israel, which at the time enjoyed greater favor in the world's eyes, does not come off in the best light: just another sovereign state exercising its power. Remember, Eichmann was kidnapped by the Israelis, in violation of international law, and many Israelis were critical of the action at the time. My view in the alternative history of the story is that whatever crimes a man commits, this does not justify fresh crimes against him. Torture can today be documented in many nations. I think the test of [a society's] ethics, whether secular or religious, is how [that society] treats enemies. But many people believe that ethics and law are only for their friends. You can do what you like with your enemies. This is a Bronze Age, vendetta philosophy that the world seems incapable of shaking. It eats away at the very foundations of legal philosophy.
Notice that the Eichmann "copies" would actually be completely innocent. Today's Germans are actually more guilty than these copies would be, because the copies would have had no say in how they were made, while today's Germans have choice, and some extremists still get it wrong. Some people see twisty problems, throw up their hands, and give up thinking. Seriousness of theme, literature with sharp teeth and a capacious stomach, in Gore Vidal's description, frightens editors who see SF as entertainment and not much else.
A sidelight: a few years ago Harlan Ellison said to me that he'd like a story from me for his Last Dangerous Visions anthology. I told him I'd already written it, and published it, and that I would never do better than "The Eichmann Variations."
KM: Literature with sharp teeth might well frighten a lot of people. Is this why science fiction and fantasy written purely for entertainment dominates the market? Or does it come down to appealing to the mass of buyers, because the typical reader won't necessarily have been prepared by his education or by the culture-at-large to understand serious speculative literature? (And is that why you've written so much Young Adult material - to help educate today's readers so that they might appreciate serious literature later on, science fiction as well as other genres?)
GZ: Entertainment SF dominates because publishers think they see a profit in it. Merit comes last, if ever, in this climate. Yes, I had my time of servitude in the YA ghetto, where SF is not very welcome these days. Fantasy is welcome, but only if it follows the mirage of readers' alleged tastes. The editors make you cater to, rather than lead, your readers. The result may in fact be quite skilled; but this is compromised writing for any writer of notable individuality. You must set out with motives of commerce, not accomplishment or merit, and so you will not have a conflict. All others beware. The writer of merit will always be an embarrassment to the "catering editors." What these catering editors publish is only writing of a sort. Many of them know better, and regard their job more dearly than they do literature. Speaking truth to their power only makes them angry, because they know what they serve. Literature is redemptive of the past, illuminating, nourishing, demanding. Publishing, and the educational system, have dumbed down the readership, and then they call upon the dumbed-down standard to justify doing it some more. No one wants to risk starting back up again.
Robert A. Heinlein, when I told him I would write some SF novels for young adults, gave me a look of surprise and asked, "Why?" Then he explained that there should be no difference between a YA book and an adult one except that the characters were younger. Nevertheless, I tried in the Sunspacers Trilogy. It was perhaps a time that knew more shame, the 1980s, and the first two volumes were published as I wrote them; but volume three had to appear as part of the one-volume [omnibus of the] trilogy, from another house. The YA editions made no money for the publisher, so that was all that counted. Like a number of my books, they have gone from being financial failures to classics, with nothing in between. For that my publishers deserve only ridicule, since they did very little to sell the books. When merit's push comes to money's shove, money wins. It's their money, but our talent, our lives.
Still, praise of my work is in the vast majority, so there must be readers out there, whose tribe might increase.
KM: I believe the title story, "Swift Thoughts," more than many science fiction tales, touches a nerve common to everyone who cares about comprehending the universe not as a great abstraction or distant field of space filled with dust clouds and other pretty postcard curiosities, but as our literal environment in the largest sense. The story raises the question, rightly, of whether a new, enormously intelligent, re-created man capable of understanding the universe on a much higher level could still be human, but of course it's not the place of the story to answer such questions. Given that curiosity and a need to explore is a defining human characteristic, what is your personal answer to the question you raise in the story? Can we re-create ourselves to such a high level of comprehension and still be human or is such rarefied development necessarily going to be fatal to our humanity?
GZ: Can we re-create ourselves? Fred Hoyle once discussed this, and concluded that we have been doing so for some time, at least socially; that a superior human type would not be unrecognizable to us today. The concept of a "gentleman" is one such notion. Polite, more cooperative, able to neutralize hostile feelings, capable of long chain thoughts, the ability to avoid taking his premises for conclusions (jumping to conclusions), respecting logic, knowledge, expertise, and evidence in the formation of judgments. One could go on: the superior type is here among us today. H.G. Wells had a good description of them in Men Like Gods, his 1923 novel.
And then from there we might be able to push onward, until today's humanity might not recognize a humanity of many millennia hence. Fatality to current humanity may be seen as a tragedy, even a crime, but only if wrongs occur. Wells saw that we were an "unfinished" creature, that humane impulses were not the norm. A case can easily be made that the humanity of the last 1000 years is quite out of its mind with violence and hatred. I would like that kind of humanity to perish and be replaced by [a] better [humanity].
Will any of it happen? We're well on the way, with the century of biology now upon us. Will we go wrong? There will be mistakes, even crimes. Should we go back? Look at the stats for a man of the year 1000, and he was a horror by today's standards of health, longevity, and education. We can only go forward and see what happens.
One thing is sure: we will develop and self-destruct, or we will develop and progress. Or, we may well develop into something frightening - at least frightening to us today, but quite normal to the people of that coming time.
You know, Aldous Huxley's people in Brave New World don't look so bad compared to many of the world's people today. I know people who read that novel very differently than it was perhaps intended at the time. There is no "savagery" in Huxley's airheaded society. The Epicurean fantasy life of Hugh Hefner seems preferable to the ballistic missile military fantasies of the Pentagon, which may well help to destroy our planet, if the greed of the megacorporations doesn't do it first by overheating the earth. The greenhouse gases may in fact be the most significant product of the consumer age.
KM: So perhaps short sightedness is more the danger we face than aggression? Or are these modes of conduct two aspects of the same thing?
GZ: Shortsightedness and aggression may be one and the same thing, politically, since politics tends to shore up shortsighted policies, out of both pride and ignorance. The temptation of military solutions is the never-ending illusion, that "If we only had more guns, or a better strategy, or a super weapon..."
KM: You contemplate the possibilities that may necessitate violence in the story "Sacred Fire," wondering whether the universe might turn out to be so inhospitable as to make violent tendencies essential for survival. Even if we manage to evolve away from our ancient capacity for violence, do you really foresee a possibility that we'll "improve" ourselves out of existence?
GZ: We should not "improve ourselves out of existence" - but we will change by stages, in the sense that a humanity of the year 3000 may not be what we today might like. But that is the problem of looking ahead. Parents always fear that their children will not know them, or be so different as to have little of nothing in common with them. There is no guarantee of success, only the need to develop and experiment.
KM: I have to wonder what Aldous Huxley would have made of your observation just now that, from today's vantage, his Brave New World doesn't look so bad. Would he have shuddered with horror? Is that part of what we're ruminating on here, with regards to the plasticity of human mores and the question of how to approach (or rehearse) the miasma of possible futures - and why the present seems to so many people to be less than it should be, or less humanly gratifying?
GZ: At the end of his life, in the novel Island, Huxley sought a simpler life. He suffered future shock. That simpler life won't happen; but simplicities are virtues that even a complex culture needs. Yes, Huxley would have shuddered. In Brave New World Revisited, he made the point that tyranny would come not with Orwell's boot stamping into a human face, but with a velvet glove. I can still write these words and be understood by some, so there is hope; but I do realize that I can only do so because they do not threaten anyone in power, or change the flow of money from the productive many to the greedy few. As Vonnegut said some years ago, American writers are not locked up because they threaten no one with their freedom of speech. The other tyrannies, including the old Soviets, locked up writers because they took them seriously. Those regimes had enough shame to be fearful of truth-telling, even when it didn't truly threaten them.
SF, as Stanley Weinbaum said back in the 1930s, is an inherently critical literature. We have turned its promise mostly into fun and games, and children's toys - much as we have done with Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, whose penetrating gaze is one of humankind's great achievements: to get outside ourselves and see!
KM: Indefinitely extended life, as you envision it in much of your work, might mean the end of "generational amnesia," indeed might give us the opportunity to observe our own capacities on a broader scale, but - again, given human nature - isn't it just as likely to strand us in a continual state of stagnation?
GZ: The issue of human nature you raise is fundamental: it's a bootstrap problem. We have trouble seeing ourselves from "outside," or avoiding all the hidden motives that might prevent our progress. A ruler cannot measure itself; it always gets the same answer. Yet, relatively speaking, we do have incremental progress. We can see the problem, as I am here doing. And that is a sign of hope. There will be lots of mistakes, and they will teach us. We may stagnate, or destroy ourselves. Discussion will not settle the matter. But we do have our science fictional rehearsals, and that too offers hope, if commerce doesn't turn SF, as it's trying to do with all literature, into entertainment. Our critical ability, our learned way of "stepping back" from ourselves, our ability to alienate ourselves from our nature and history, is our greatest hope, which the traditional (evolution given nature) may yet subvert. We can only try.
KM: If we end up incorporating our minds into AI systems - as in your story "This Life and Later Ones" - we will become our own "children of the mind." Given what we were saying earlier about how human beings treat their biological offspring, could we in fact be letting ourselves in not for an unending paradise, but a deliberately hellish experience? Will human nature allow for long-term happiness?
GZ: I don't believe we should have unending happiness. What we need is a productive, non-self-destructive problem solving, wherein we don't war with ourselves but try to make secure our place in the universe, through knowledge. We cannot know what we want unless we accept what we are. This will suggest where we can go, what we will make of ourselves, unfinished though we may always be. We don't wish to end the game through some sudden freeze of development, which would be a hellish paradise - even more so if we didn't know it. VR offers such a horror. Mental output connected to mental input would give us our hearts' desires, and that would end our culture as we know it. We would banish the "outside" universe.
KM: So what you mean here is - solipsism, even if it offers what seems to be a pleasant existence, is in fact (or at least in principle) far worse than any torture someone else could think up to inflict upon one?
GZ: To a thoughtful person, solipsism is impoverished, since the richness of one mind is limited. Even a technologically assisted solipsism, in which one attaches one's mental output to one's mental input and achieves the semblance of omnipotence, would be tarnished by the simple awareness that there is a richer world outside this system. But that said, one should say that a truly large database would be quite pleasant to visit as a solipsist, despite the background awareness of its true, finite nature. Now, if such a visit became an imprisonment, then it would become a torment - unless one lost all knowledge of this being a virtual reality. But if one can come and go - well, we do that with books, films, theater, with anything that absorbs our attention for a limited time. We enjoy "ourselves" (a curious admission), and are "absorbed."
KM: This line of questioning is giving me goose flesh, George, as I contemplate the notion that we're already living in a solipsistic situation, and it hasn't even taken VR to coax us into it: just simple-minded paperback novels, pabulum-level news and education, eye-candy cinema, and vacuous television!
GZ: The tendency of a culture, as many have pointed out, is a move to a dreamlife. My projected novel, Dreamball, will address this. It's the end of a culture to turn away from the real universe. Yes, reality is hard and ugly, and this includes much of the reality of our inner nature. We need escape, but escape into a better reality! Civilization is itself a VR kind of dream; but I would like to think that we will always keep a window on the cosmos, no matter how much we create within ourselves. The cosmos! The great other! We need its open richness. We are part of it.
KM: In the notes to "In The Distance and Ahead in Time," you mention that the Macrolife stories are difficult. What is it about the Macrolife stories in particular that make them so hard to write?
GZ: The Macrolife stories are hard to write because of the unending societal forms offered by the idea. Rebels can always go off on their own. Power will accumulate, then find its own way when disagreements occur. The inventiveness demanded of the background ideas are comparably as difficult as the very job of making them real! The technical ideas are hard enough; the humanity that is itself changing is even harder. We can imagine, but the reality will not be what we imagine.
KM: So if done right, Macrolife stories could probably never become a series like Doc Smith's Lensman novels, or (along a more modern, pop mode) be turned into a TV series like Star Trek?
GZ: The Macrolife background is a natural basis for a series, but of the anthology kind. We could follow one mobile civilization for a while, then shift to another.
KM: When you write a "fantastical" story like "The Word Sweep" (available elsewhere on this site) or "The Idea Trap," in which words and ideas take literal physical form, do you worry about the scientific implausibility of the story? Or is it a trade off: the allegorical value makes the fantastic element less problematic?
GZ: It is a trade off. But it's also a matter of ingenuity. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells seems quite impossible. But the great irony Wells gained - that this great invisible man served only to make himself supremely visible - is priceless. Yet, as Arthur C. Clarke has said, we can only know what is possible by going a little ways beyond it. The situation of "The Word Sweep" and "The Idea Trap" involve the idea of materializing objects out of "guiding designs." Given enough energy, this is not impossible. It violates no physical law, which leaves it possible. Perhaps [this sort of material generation will] not [be accomplished] today or early tomorrow, but someday [a technically advanced people may be capable of it], even if we [ourselves] never do it. Again, as Clarke has said, what may seem technically impossible for us today may be a simple accomplishment for a future culture. Computers were once thought to need massive size, that of a skyscraper, yet are now handheld, maybe even worn as eyeglasses!
Maybe not today, not early tomorrow, but possible ... that is what SF continues to insist upon, and to show the human, and changed-human, consequences, for better or worse, [or] for better and worse, which is likeliest.
KM: What's next on your slate, apart from the possible collection Black Pockets?
GZ: I've written a horror novel, and a mystery, and hope to write After the Stars Are Gone, an SF novel I have been dreaming about for many years. About a dozen other novels wait in my files, in various states of disrepair, waiting for the perceptions of publishers to catch up with merit.
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