To say that science fiction author David Brin is award-winning would be an understatement as any review of his bibliography easily proves. He is perhaps best known to non-SF readers as the author of The Postman, which later became a major motion picture. With a master's degree in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Space Physics, Brin is known as a deep thinker who develops worlds and characters that travel far outside the box of expected future stories.
While there are many books by Brin that readers should enjoy, I was delighted to see that he has written a YA first contact novella for Subterranean Press. Due out next month, Sky Horizon captured me with these absolutely killer sentences in its opening paragraph:
"Some of the Math Club nerds have got a real live alien! They're hiding it in a basement rec room!"
What follows is the story of Mark Bamford, a military brat stuck going to school at Twenty-Nine Palms High where, "...the football team mascot, Spookie, wore a huge trench-coat, a floppy hat and big black mask." Mark and his friends become involved in the saga of the captured alien early on but do not expect an E.T. retread here. Very quickly Sky Horizon becomes a story about the realities of first contact that are rarely visited in the movies. Most interestingly, conversations about the history of initial contact between the different people of earth fill the classrooms while Mark and his friends wait out the ramifications of their actions. It's a very thoughtful story and wonderfully told. Following the recent publication of the Connie Willis novella D.A., it shows Sub Press as more than willing to bring forth great books for teen SF fans. Readers should not be scared off by the higher price for the small press editions, but rather consider them a gift that will never be discarded half read.
Daivd agreed to participate in a brief interview with me last month for the SBBT and answer a few questions about preconceived notions in SF, writing for young adults, and the dreadful nature of cliches.
You go against type quite a bit with Sky Horizon - most extremely by the interaction between the aliens and people of Earth after the "mother" ship arrives. Was it always your intent to have the alien opinion as you crafted it, or did that evolve after you came up with the idea of Earth children sequestering a stranded alienfor the purposes of making money?
DB: I have this thing... this itch... whenever I see a cliche that's been overused. An assumption or lazy storytelling trick. One such cliche is that there are six types of aliens and various hybrids. I tried to come up with another.
An even worse cliche is what I've called the Idiot Plot... the notion that underdogs are always right. That kids trump adults. That loners beat teams and teams beat organizations. And that civilization is always a clueless, wrongheaded thing.
Oh, those statements are often true. If I lived in the old Soviet Union, where state-hemmed sci fi always had to emphasize communal effort and downgrade individualism, I would have raged like a cyberpunk! Some heroic writers did.
But today's cliche - best seen in the Star Wars universe - is that the masses of normal folk and their institutions do not matter, Only small groups of mutant egotists do. I've had enough of that.
So I showed a few kids acting sensibly, for a change. And a world civilization that - when faced with a crisis - and led by decent leaders - actually decides to do the right and decent thing.
There are several deep classroom discussions depicted in the book most particularly about the nature of colonization and what happens once first contact (between any two previously unknown groups) has been made.
Do you think the idea of first contact has been romanticized in our society?
DB: Classroom discussions were a great device, used often by Heinlein to good effect. And they can often go very very badly for storytelling. But this is my most "heinleinian" story. I wanted to see if I could entertain readers with some of his own tricks.
DB: Sci fi readers know that first contact could have a million different outcomes, from grand to awful. It is NON-SF readers who cluelessly latch onto just one theory and refuse to admit any others. Many many people out there believe passionately that all aliens have to be altruistic, as if it were a natural law. (See "Shouting at the Cosmos" for more.)
You explain quite effectively about why you chose to write about teenagers in your Afterword and also have a very compelling section in the book about questioning authority (another one of those classroom discussions). As a SF writer, do you think that teenagers would respond differently to a colony experience than scientists (the typical choice for such a mission)? If so, could you highlight some of those differences?
DB: Teens want one thing they are not allowed... to be taken seriously. All other pleasures they can access, licitly or illicitly. But that one? Heck, a thousand years ago, sixteen year olds were important people!
Now, they must wait maybe another 16 years...
This story throws teens into an adventure where they get a chance to prove themselves very quickly. Or else a chance to die, just as fast.
Finally, a broader question here. As a SF author, how do you feel about the number of SF books being written for young adults today? Do you feel SF is well represented on the bookshelves for this age group? And why do you think that this genre might be especially appealing to teen readers?
DB: My Out Of Time series was another attempt to reach this vital market. The publisher booted the series,
but a few copies are available online.
I believe it is vital to reach out to new generations and help them grow to love the literature of expansiveness, confidence and courage in the face of change.
Brin's thoughts for Salon on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace ("When the chief feature distinguishing "good" from "evil" is how pretty the characters are, it's a clue that maybe the whole saga deserves a second look.")
Interviewed recently for Discover, he shared his thoughts on future technology. ("Because when pimple-faced teenage hackers canâ€™t mess up just your Web site but they can also synthesize any known or unknown organic compound and then go to work at a fast food joint, are you gonna eat fast food under those circumstances?")
The Green Man review of Sky Horizon. (And for the record I thought the illustrations were just fine!)