DR: Your new novel, VITALS, is more of a thriller than is typical for you
GB: I rank it as a scientific suspense novel. My model is somewhere between Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler – with a touch of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers – but I’m not really trying to imitate any of them. I wanted to provide the reader with a strong sense of having been put through the wringer like my main character, of having had a lot of really bizarre and cool stuff thrown at them, so by the end they aren’t quite sure what life is all about.
As far as I’m concerned, if a conspiracy suspense novel doesn’t do that, doesn’t leave you with a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, an “Oh my God, could that actually happen?” then it’s a self-indulgent failure.
DR: VITALS deals with immortality. Why immortality?
GB: For a very long time I’ve been wrestling with the idea of the quest for immortality, whether you should live past a fairly generous lifespan. I’m all for doubling what we have now, but ever since I wrote The Venging back in the ’70s I have had this notion that it wasn’t quite right to try to live forever. And yet I couldn’t think of any good reason not to! This was a problem that I never really tackled. I read books by people like Joe Haldeman. I thought The Long Habit of Living was a very interesting piece of work. I also read Poul Anderson’s Boat of a Million Years and quite a few other riffs on immortality. Heinlein and Poul, in particular, both wrote movingly about the personal tragedy of outliving your loved ones. But I still felt that — in the sense of the bigger picture — something still wasn’t being said.
As I began to study biology more and more getting prepared for Darwin’s Radio it became clear that the quest for immortality was not unheard of in the natural world. It is, in fact, what tumor cells do. Tumors grab for resources. There is a kind of a war going on, as the tumor outlaw basically cuts itself loose from apoptosis – from the command to die – and lives forever. Most of the cell lines that we do research on in laboratories are tumor cell lines. They are immortal. That’s why they keep them, because they are easier to handle. However, they are substantially different from the kinds of tissues we find in a normally functioning human tissue.
I started thinking that if this is the natural way of unlimited longevity – tumor cells cutting themselves loose from the strictures of the body social – then the quest for immortality in the human society could be similarly destructive. That’s where VITALS began. I wondered if human beings seeking immortality would end up having that same kind of struggle, the same change in character.
DR: Should we then be pursuing immortality at all?
GB: I think it is inevitable that we are going to do it, but the consequences are something we haven’t thought through very clearly. Look at the social chaos that’s erupted over human cloning and stem cell technology, both of which are methods of ensuring a sort of virtual immortality. And certainly immortality wouldn’t be cheap. Who would be the first to get access? Immortality would become a privilege of the elite few, the wealthy and powerful.
DR: Which illustrates science fiction’s strength, its unique ability – as a body of work – to explore that conflict between science and morality. Just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should.
GB: That’s the thing about growing up. You learn you can do new things that may lead to negative consequences and then you find ways to deal with the consequences. What I’m most concerned with are the extreme social consequences of a great disparity in individual life spans. It could give power to certain individuals that you really don’t want to have power.
If some notorious personalities in our past had been given the opportunity to live forever, and if my theories on how immortality as a biological function could change a personality were true, many of the horrors in the 20th century might make a perverse kind of sense. Why was the last century such a horrible place? The 21st century isn’t turning out to be too much nicer, but I think we saw some uniquely large-scale insanity in the 20th century, some of which I drew upon to develop the background of VITALS.
Though much of the historical background in VITALS is fiction – the Soviet government-engineered City of Dog Mothers for instance – horrible things actually did happen that were just as bad, if not worse. The historical nightmares I’ve described in the book are not as implausible as you may think. They’re what could have happened in the Soviet Union of the ’20s and ’30s, had this technology been available. That is where the real horror lies in for me.
DR: What kind of research into biology did you have to do to make plausible the things that are happening in VITALS?
GB: Four or five years before I wrote Darwin’s Radio I’d been researching new developments in biology and VITALS developed out of that process. I focused on immunology and bacteriology, but I’d been tracking this notion of the book’s shock ending for some time. I made contact with various scientists and read their textbooks, just to back up my own speculations, ideas I’ve been working with for almost eight years regarding biological networks. In a sense the research here was all part of the long cycle of work, beginning with Darwin’s Radio and moving on to the sequel I’m writing, Darwin’s Children.
DR: One of the ideas you touched on both in VITALS and in Darwin’s Radio is the analogy between genetic and biological processes and information science. For example, there is an analogy between genetics and cryptography.
GB: It’s all about language, isn’t it? All cryptographic systems are hidden language. Any language if you don’t know it is code – hidden language. DNA is hidden language and we still don’t understand it. We understand the genetic alphabet, we understand how genes are composed and what they do but we don’t yet understand really how they interact with each other as words interact in a sentence. Thus the cryptographic context of the genome is that we are looking at this tremendously important linguistic system that has some of the aspects of a computer and many more of the aspects of a neural network.
It’s going to be very tough to describe the behavior of DNA and genes mathematically because – in a sense – they have the freedom to behave like personalities. All of this resonates with the crackpot theories and explorations I’ve been making since Blood Music.
DR: As we’re talking now the whole nature of discourse has changed with the attacks on the World Trade Center. How does that change your approach to your writing when you’re dealing with subject matter as controversial as that in VITALS?
GB: My book, obviously, deals with terrorism on a much smaller scale, but in some respects it is eerily prescient of what we are seeing around us. The story revolves around unknown and frequently invisible manipulators who have a power over you that you can hardly imagine, simply because they can enlist your neighbors – and even your own body – through a kind of biological brainwashing. Anybody around you could be an enemy.
Now, in our own real world, we’re targeted, we are not quite sure why, we are wondering what we did wrong and we are just paranoid as hell. We’re extremely angry but at the same time find ourselves adapting to the idea of living with terrorism.
DR: I’ll admit that my experience reading your book while hearing news reports in the background about envelopes full of anthrax spores being mailed to Congress was unnerving, to say the least.
GB: The whole notion of bio-terrorism is something that is only beginning to open up. But sending anthrax to people is remarkably ineffective. It’s scary and nasty, but it is completely treatable. Smallpox is to me much more frightening than anthrax, because it is communicable, and highly so. And there is a lot of smallpox still floating around, especially in areas of the former Soviet Union.
What I actually think biology is capable of is only just touched upon in VITALS. Everything in the novel is perfectly doable; it wouldn’t require a great deal of research or technology to do what I am describing. To some extent I’m a little afraid that I’m playing into the hands of other people, people that we don’t want to know these things, but it is good to get this out in the open. I think that the FBI bio-terrorism people should be aware of these possibilities, long-term, but VITALS is still more in the realm of a comfortably disturbing speculation than an immediate reality.
DR: Let’s back up for a moment to what you mentioned earlier, the idea of a biological agent engineered to give others the ability to manipulate your thoughts, to alter your will. That’s a horrifying image.
GB: It does ask the big questions. It’s true that parasites alter the will of their hosts and direct them to engage in behavior that benefits the parasites – very much like seed pod behavior, and common in nature. We’re not quite sure that bacteria do this in humans to any great extent, but they have the capacity to do it – and we know they do it in insects. We also know that bacteria do talk directly to our tissues, our intestines, usually setting up a beneficial and cooperative system. But sometimes it goes wrong, and that is the beginning of what I am thinking of in VITALS.
DR: Does this bacterial influence evolve randomly in nature?
GB: It’s like a ratcheting system where doing something wrong makes you die, but doing it right allows you to survive and propagate. This is the big question about evolution. The solution in Darwin’s Radio, and in the way bacteria actually evolve, is that nature has quite sophisticated learning systems tied directly into the genome, long-term and even short-term. Although random changes do happen, evolutionary change doesn’t just proceed randomly.
DR: Are bacteria capable of learning and forming communities, then?
GB: Bacterial colonies are already a coordinated learning system, in the sense that they are communities with requirements and regulations. Bacteria are able to swap genes with each other, to swap techniques and recipes and to learn much more rapidly than randomness would allow. Bacteria are social beings in a real way; they can get together and form small city structures called bio-films that protect them from predators and from antibiotics. The way bacteria can coordinate their activities to ward off their attackers is actually a major problem in modern medicine. Most bacteria are perfectly benign until you show any sign of weakness and then they behave like wolves. They bring you down, because the resource balance tips at that point.
In that way, incidentally, anthrax isn’t a very interesting bacterium. It isn’t interested in changing – it’s something of a conservative country bumpkin among bacteria, with very few genetic mutations over time. That’s why we can still treat it successfully.
DR: It seems at times that there is a lot to be nervous about, when the technology and resources of a superpower like the former Soviet Union still exist but the structure and stability of that superpower go away.
GB: There’s a lot to be afraid of, and a lot to be hopeful about. Many former tyrannies are beginning to develop functioning democracies, which is absolutely extraordinary. I think the experiment is going to be fascinating to watch, because there are some major questions in history about certain cultures being capable of changing their ways substantially. America comes out of the tradition of the English yeoman resistance. We’ve been cantankerous SOBs since at least the 16th or 17th centuries, and that’s kind of our tradition. It’s not the tradition all over the world. For centuries and even tens of centuries, some of these cultures have been fixed in different modes of behavior. Can you change that? It’s a fascinating question. I think the 21st century will answer some of that for us.
DR: Do you think the West was surprised by the way the Cold War ended? Did the complete lack of credible information coming out of the Eastern Bloc lead to our government severely overestimating Soviet capabilities?
GB: I think we deliberately overestimated them. Much of the defense department information given to the civilians in government in the 60s, 70s and 80s, briefings about the buildup of missiles and the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, were deliberately inflated to force us to build up our own systems.
This too is a social process that mimics the natural process. We always grab for more resources than we need because we’re never quite sure if we’ll need them at some later point. We’re certainly greedy enough to want them. That’s true of all aspects of society.
That alone should sober us when we think about how social systems work and whether we should give power to those who are claiming they are going to protect us. We need them, we need our protectors, our law enforcement officers and our justice department and our soldiers and our military, but we have to be cautious at the same time because they are also part of the social matrix and not infallible. After all, societies have their own form of auto-immune disease. They’re called police states!
DR: Let’s change the subject for a moment. Last year your book Darwin’s Radio won the Nebula Award for Best Novel. You’re working on a sequel, Darwin’s Children; does it go further with your idea of evolutionary leaps?
GB: Yes, absolutely. In Darwin’s Children I’m focusing on the story of Mitch and Kaye, and how they cope with the fascinating biological revolution that appears on their doorstep in the form of their daughter. In Darwin’s Children, that daughter is now a teenager. She and the other children of Darwin’s Radio are growing up. What they become and how they interact with each other is the core of the novel.
DR: It seems as though the concept of “family” is becoming more important these days in science fiction. It was certainly crucial to the plot of Darwin’s Radio.
GB: I’ve always written about families and females and child-rearing and young people, the problems of growing up. Think of Forge of God and Anvil of Stars, for example. And science fiction has always had writers who could do that sort of thing well. But science fiction emerged from the pulp magazine tradition, and its model was sort of the rugged individual in an unappreciative world. It was also traditionally the story of David and Goliath, of the small guy outsmarting the bureaucrats and entrenched institutions. You think of the Bill Gibson model or the Raymond Chandler model. “There goes a knight down these mean streets who is not himself mean.”
My approach is to understand why those streets are mean and to find within myself the similar meanness that I can overcome, and that – hopefully – society can also overcome. To do that, I have to look at the fundamental building block of society – the family. I guess I ask the big questions because – to me – the big questions are really tied into the little questions. After all, how we deal with family and society, and how we raise our children ultimately determines the flow of history.
From the Hardcover edition.