He writes a rare mix of Science-Fiction and humour but with great concepts in the basis of the narrative. His wife and talented partner writer in the successful trilogy STARDANCE, STARSEED and STARMIND was in the NASA space program and his knowledge of the Brazilian music and culture is awesome.
One of the most talented writer of his generation, Spider Robinson talks about happy and depressing endings, the day Challenger exploded, the political side of Robert Heinlein and lots and lots of info about Science Fiction, literature and more.
OCTAVIO ARAGÃO: You said in an recent Locus interview that you have preference for “happy endings” instead of gritty, pessimistic ones. Don’t you think that this option could reduce the possibility of your work to be taken more seriously outside the SF genre? Or you are not interested in other markets that not the SF & Fantasy public like other authors such as Don De Lilo or William Gibson?
SPIDER ROBINSON: With respect, I must reject the premise of the question. People outside the SF genre aren't ALL depressed...and if they are, then they really NEED me.
The market I'm aiming for is anybody who can read English (or a good translation). I specifically intend my work for people who don't ordinarily read SF-- because there are a lot more of them, and I need the money. I don't see any conflict at all between that my liking for happy endings.
Quite the opposite. John Gardner once said, in a truly great book called ON MORAL FICTION, that art should be the light that beats back the darkness, and makes it possible for the people to get through another night. Art ought to make it EASIER to reconcile oneself to being alive, not harder. You can't accomplish that if the ONLY message you believe worthy of conveying is that life is a howling hell of pointless agony and doomed hopes.
We do not need artists to tell us Life Sucks. We knew that already. We came to them for surcease, for succor, for anodyne. If they insist on masturbatory nihilism, they rob us. Certainly, artists should express their inner pain--but if they cannot find some way to live with it, some trick to cope with it, some perspective from which to transcend it, then they should do so in private, with the door closed, and wash their hands afterwards.
There are enough--more than enough--unhappy endings in the newspaper; we don't need them in our fiction, too.
Once I was in a hospital, in a large ward with eight beds. All of us were in very poor shape. In Lord Buckley's memorable phrase, we were "sittin' at Death's door with our backs to the street." At 2 in the morning, the man across from me started to scream in pain. He needed some medication that could only be given on order of a certain doctor, who would not be back until 7 AM. That man screamed, nonstop, from 2 AM to 7 AM.
For the first half hour, the other 7 of us were very sympathetic. We tried to get the nurses to break rules and give the man his meds. No good. For the NEXT half hour, we were still sympathetic, but less so. After that, we just wanted him to stop. For about an hour--and then for the next three hours, we wanted him dead, with an intensity that grew until we wanted his whole family dead, and finally we wanted all his relatives and neighbors and anybody who had ever smiled at him all dead, in horrible ways. If any of the 7 of us had been capable of falling out of bed, crawling to his bed, and strangling him, we would have done so. The others would have covered for him.
I see no reason for Art to emulate that man. I say, if you're in pain, and you're eloquent and articulate, kindly shut the fuck up. Morale on this starship is rotten enough already, without some idiots demanding free food and beer in exchange for making everyone feel WORSE.
There is a certain kind of writer, too common nowadays, who genuinely believes, deep down in his sick wrinkled little raisin of a heart, that happy endings are something that we just don't deserve--that the human race does not deserve to exist, that Man is so vile, God should send another flood as quickly as possible, before we maim Mother Gaia. I believe such writers should be allowed to work, and publish...I believe nobody should ever be censored....but I'll never understand why anyone READS them. By publishing, they prove themselves to be hypocrites--for if they had the courage of their so-called convictions, they would kill themselves. If only they were that polite...
Anybody who wants to say happy endings are unrealistic has got to get past me. My whole life has been a series of happy endings so far--one after another. All it takes is luck. I KNOW that won't last forever--but so what? Every day I go to bed outside of jail is a happy ending.
I realize that thanks to this philosophy, I'm losing the clinically depressed as a market...but hey, they weren't paying attention anyway.
I think cheering people up is one of the kindest, bravest, most useful, HARDEST things one can do with one's life. I am privileged to have been given an opportunity to do so. The artists I love and cherish, in any genre, are the ones who've made me feel a little better about being alive. Like Heinlein, and Sturgeon, and Pohl, and Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block. Like the Beatles, and James Taylor, and Louis Armstrong, and Dianne Reeves. Like Baryshnikov, and Margie Gillis, and Astaire, and Kelly. Like the immortal Tom Jobim. Like Joao--and Bebel--what the hell, and Astrud--Gilberto. (And Milton Nascimento, and Gilberto Gil, and Preta Gil, and Miucha, and Sônia Rosa and Tânia Maya and Zélia Duncan and Adriana Calcanhotto and Mamond and Erlon Chaves and a hundred others). I'm not saying I'm in the same league as any of these great artists. But I'm on the same side.
OA – Your wife, Jeannie, was once subscribed to the CIVILIANS IN SPACE NASA program before the Challenger accident. Since she is your partner in some literary SF works, how you two managed to work togheter in the trilogy STARDANCE, STARSEED and STARMIND and how, if it happened, her experience with NASA training helped in the project?
SR – So far, all Jeanne's zero-gee experience has been mental, I'm afraid. She never got as far as training with NASA. She was a finalist, on the short list of candidates, along with the late folksinger John Denver and several others--but before they got that far down the list, the Challenger lifted, with Christa McAuliffe aboard....and a few minutes later, the Civilian In Space Program was over.
(That day our phone rang nonstop: journalists around the world who had found Jeanne's name in the files, and wanted to know how she felt about going to space NOW? She spent all day saying over and over, "I'll get on the next one, if they let me. In terms of fatalities-per-billion-passenger/miles, it's safer than bicycles.")
She got on the list thanks to Ben Bova, former President of the National Space Society, former editor of Analog, and then editor of OMNI. At the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention, she performed an original dance called "Higher Ground," which was basically about the interior mental evolution she had gone through in writing STARDANCE. It ended with some simulated zero gee dance, thanks to a trompe l'oeil film backdrop and some lucite furniture that became transparent under the stage lights. A thousand SF fans gave her a twelve-minute standing ovation. Afterwards, Ben came up and asked if Jeanne would like to try that out for real, and she said sure.
It's a pity it didn't happen. Space could really use some good PR. Something more interesting to look at than jocks in spacesuits. Something beautiful, to make it clear to Joe Taxpayer how GREAT a place to go space is.
Interestingly enough, right now Jeanne is in the process of creating a short film involving zero gravity dance, intended as part of the commemoration of Robert A. Heinlein's centennial in 2007. Several people are supporting her with assistance of different kinds, and a few of them are scheming to get her aboard a Russian analog of NASA's famous Vomit Comet, so that she can log some actual hours in free fall, instead of just thinking hard about it. I hope it happens. For one thing, Jeanne is now retired as a dancer due to bad knees, and in free fall they wouldn't get in the way at all. If she somehow manages to come up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to get her film produced, it's going to knock people's eyes out. I've had a more financially successful career--but Jeanne is the real artist in this family.
OA – You’re a great fan of the Robert Heinlein’s work. How do deal with the fact that he wrote so different works such as STARSHIP TROOPERS, that we can consider a straight rightwing novel, and STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, a very liberal-flower power book? Don1t you consider them a little contradictory? Who was Heinlein after all, in your opinion, and which were his political affiliations?
SR – Here I must take refuge in quoting myself, because I addressed this question as well as I knew how, once, and there's no sense saying it over, worse. In a 1980 essay I wrote called "Rah, Rah, R.A.H.!," I defended Robert against several sorts of then-common accusations, and here is the political section (copyright 1980):
“Heinlein is right wing.” This is not always a semantic confusion similar to the “fascist” babble cited above; occasionally the loud nit in question actually has some idea of what “right wing” means, and is able to stretch the definition to fit a man who bitterly opposes military conscription, supports consensual sexual freedom and women's ownership of their bellies, delights in unconventional marriage customs, champions massive expenditures for scientific research, suggests radical experiments in government; and; has written with apparent approval of anarchists, communists, socialists, technocrats, limited-franchise-republicans, emperors and empresses, capitalists, dictators, thieves, whores, charlatans and even career civil servants (Mr. Kiku in The Star Beast). If this indeed be conservatism, then Teddy Kennedy is a Liberal, and I am Marie of Romania.
And if there were anything to the allegation, when exactly was it that the conservative viewpoint was proven unfit for literary consumption? I missed it.
(5) “Heinlein is an authoritarian.” To be sure, respect for law and order is one of Lazarus Long's most noticeable characteristics. Likewise Jubal Harshaw, Deety Burroughs, Fader McGee, Noisy Rhysling, John Lyle, Jim Marlowe, Wyoming Knott, Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, Prof de la Paz and Dak Broadbent. In his latest novel, “The Number of the Beast˜, “ Heinlein seems to reveal himself authoritarian to the extent that he suggests a lifeboat can have only one captain at a time. He also suggests that the captain be elected, by unanimous vote.
(6) “Heinlein is a libertarian.” Horrors, no! How dreadful. Myself, I'm a serf.
(7) “Heinlein is an elitist.” Well, now. If by that you mean that he believes some people are of more value to their species than others, I'm inclined to agree˜with you and with him. If you mean he believes a learned man's opinion is likely to be worth more than that of an ignoramus, again I'll go along. If by “elitist” you mean that Heinlein believes the strong should rule the weak, I strongly disagree. (Remember frail old Professor de la Paz, and Waldo, and recall that Heinlein himself was declared “permanently and totally disabled” in 1934.) If you mean he believes the wealthy should exploit the poor, I refer you to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and I Will Fear No Evil. If you mean he believes the wise should rule the foolish and the competent rule the incompetent, again I plead guilty to the same offense. Somebody's got to drive˜should it not be the best driver?
How do you pick the best driver? Well, Heinlein has given us a multiplicity of interesting and mutually exclusive suggestions; why not examine them?
(8) “Heinlein is a militarist.” Bearing in mind that he abhors the draft, this is indeed one of his proudest boasts. Can there really be people so naive as to think that their way of life would survive the magic disappearance of their armed forces by as much as a month? Evidently; I meet 'em all over.
(9) “Heinlein is a patriot.” (Actually, they always say “superpatriot.” To them there is no other kind of patriot.) Anyone who sneers at patriotism˜and continues to live in the society whose supporters he scorns˜is a parasite, a fraud, or a fool. Often all three.
Patriotism does not mean that you think your country is perfect, or blameless, or even particularly likeable on balance; nor does it mean that you serve it blindly, go where it tells you to go and kill whom it tells you to kill. It means that you are committed to keeping it alive and making it better, that you will do whatever seems necessary (up to and including dying) to protect it whenever you, personally, perceive a mortal threat to it, military or otherwise. This is something to be ashamed of? I think Heinlein has made it abundantly clear that in any hypothetical showdown between species patriotism and national patriotism the former, for him, would win hands down.
In sum, Robert was a man of many seeming contradictions--that's exactly why his work resonates for so many people. I disagree with several opinions he held dear, and he not only didn't mind, he approved. He said once arguing was the only means of learning that was nearly as good as experience. And he was always ready to drop any opinion, however cherished, the second that evidence proved it wrong.
OA – And what about you? Your work seems very light-hearted and full of fun. What’s your social-political options and how does it influence your work?
SR - I'm afraid I don't know how to answer, with anything shorter than a novel. I am not aware of ANY political party or school of thought that comes close to representing me. The best I can do is choose, year by year, the one I find the least offensive at the moment--which fluctuates so randomly that it's pointless to keep records. Heinlein's character Manuel Bernardo de la Paz in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS defined the position he called "rational anarchism." In those terms, I guess I'd say I am an irrational anarchist.
I will say this: I think that regardless of what political philosophy he claims to represent, George W. Bush has overseen the destruction of most of the things that made America great, the corruption of its most fundamental principles, and the greatest disgrace it has earned in three centuries--with the eager cooperation of an appalling HALF of the population. Half of America does not even know what it was supposed to be--or care. The America that Robert Heinlein loved and fought for no longer exists: in its place is a country of smug thugs that detains people indefinitely without charge, counsel, visitation or due process; tortures prisoners as policy; attacks nations that have offered it no offense, on grounds known to be lies; pisses on the very concept of an international community; and has the unlimited power to suspend its own Constitution and Bill of Rights internally, any time it feels like it. A country too cheap and mean to feed its hungry, to house its homeless, to heal and medicate its ill.
I did not move to Canada for political reasons. But if I were living in America now, I would move to Canada for political reasons. I believe in my heart that America will recover its soul one day, not too far in the future, and become again what it used to be. But as Paul McCartney said, in his great song "Tug of War," "It won't come soon enough, soon enough for me."
It needs great leaders. Right now, just about every one of its leaders and potential leaders is exactly what Sting called them in one of his better songs: game show hosts.
OA – Golden Age, New Wave, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Ribofunk, Science Fantasy, New Weird... What's the future for American Science Fiction? Is SF’s future a dark one?
SR – We're certainly going through dark times. At the moment the government and the media have everyone scared silly, and people who are scared silly don't much want to hear about the future. At the moment, most of the audience is looking at what they think was a rosy past, when they think things were better. Trust me: I was there, and things are much better now. And are going to be much much much better before too long.
Think about it: thirty years ago, when I started writing, the world faced thermonuclear apocalpyse--Nuclear Winter--the End of All Things. All thinking people expected it to come in our lifetime. Now our worst problem is a bunch of psychotic religious loonies, who got slightly lucky once, but haven't managed to kill a single American in the last three years.
Thirty years ago, the Population Bomb was going to kill us all: we were going to drown in people, if we didn't starve first. Today, world population is leveling off, and evil Frankenfood is feeding billions.
Thirty years ago we had an Iron Curtain, a Berlin Wall. Today we're basically down to spilling blood over which of three groups of nitwits has the most right to pray on a particular piece of dirt.
Thirty years ago NOBODY had the musical sound fidelity that can now be tucked into a shirt pocket. NOBODY had a laptop. Nobody had a DESKTOP. Only institutions had computers AT ALL--and no two of them were connected in any meaningful way.
When I got married thirty years ago, it happened to get videotaped. It took five guys to handle all the gear required. It never even occurred to me to ask for a copy of the videotape. Two years later the first VCR went on sale.
The future will be bright. Brighter than the present, at least. But until our governments and our "religious leaders" and the wise old men of our media stop devoting their considerable efforts to scaring the living shit out of us every second of the day, it will be hard to convince people of that bright future.
It is much easier to believe in doom. The ecosystem will collapse, the biosphere will bite us on the ass, we'll pollute ourselves to death. If you believe that, you are instantly, automatically, free of any possible responsibility. If you're on a sinking ship, you have no duties.
That's okay. The wheel always turns. The pendulum always swings back. And each time, progress is made. People will get tired of expecting doom. We did back in the 50s, and there was a great resurgence in science fiction. It will come again.
Just as soon as the elders have sense enough to quit frightening the children.
OA – Thank you very much, Mr Robinson! You are a true gentleman and I hope you like this small interview.
SR – I enjoyed it a great deal, Octavio. You ask interesting questions, and had me typing much longer than I planned to.
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