|Interview - Sci Fi Author Alan Dean Foster|
A Modern Master of Science Fiction Speaks
By Jasen T. Davis
The Big Three of the science fiction community are commonly considered to be Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. I believe there to be a Big Four of science fiction, with Alan Dean Foster completing the list. He’s certainly as prolific as any of the others. Much like Conan the Barbarian’s early gladiatorial victories in the film of the same name, Foster’s works cannot easily be counted, from more than twenty stand- alone novels to the Commonwealth novels, the Damned, Taken and Icerigger trilogies, the novels of Pip and Flinx, and the Journeys of the Catechist books, to name only a few.
That’s not to say that Alan Dean Foster’s successes are isolated solely to the realm of science fiction. He’s also published work in the genre of fantasy, but then, so did Asimov. Foster’s Spellsinger series has received numerous well-deserved accolades, pushing the boundaries of the sword and sorcery field.
More than just the aforementioned, Foster is the man to go to in the industry when it comes to film novelizations, from Krull, Star Trek, Transformers, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Terminator Salvation, The Thing, Chronicles of Riddick and many others. Uniquely impressive is Foster’s ability to write for both the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. He has not only written many episodes of the Star Trek animated series, he’s also composed Star Wars books like the Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and The Approaching Storm.
Foster has since become involved with MyOuterSpace.com and was kind enough to sit down with us for a one-on-one exclusive interview.
Although it is one of your earliest works, The Man Who Used the Universe seems vastly ahead of its time in that with it’s somewhat dystopic view of the universe, and the dubious moral nature of its protagonist it seems very much like an example of the cyberpunk genre. Was that intentional?
Very much so, and very atypical compared to what I usually write. MWUU actually came about because I was sitting around, speculating one day on what would happen if Jesus came back, was raised in difficult circumstances, and ended up thoroughly pissed at what he saw. That notion combined with the idea that massive corporations sometimes end up doing good things out of pure self-interest. The protagonist in MWUU, Kees vaan Loo-Macklin, does all these wonderful things including making peace between humanity and aliens, not because he’s in any way altruistic but because ensuring peace in his corner of the galaxy is the best way to ensure his continued personal survival.
Is there a chance of seeing that made into a future film?
Predicting social and technological developments for the next hundred years is easier than predicting what Hollywood will decide to make into a film.
The novel very much seems like a sci-version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Had you read that book before you wrote your novel? Is that your own take on the objectivism? Is that your own view of capitalistic political thought? What was the ultimate philosophy of your novel?
Never gotten around to reading Rand. Too many books, not enough time, bad eyesight. As to a view of capitalistic thought, it’s hardly unique. Just look for the TV and internet ads where oil companies talk about how deeply interested they are in clean energy, or what drug companies are doing in the third world. Such adverts and the efforts they promote are entirely hypocritical, of course…but that doesn’t mean that the efforts to which they are alluding are bad. When capitalism does well by the general population and ecology, it’s usually out of unadulterated self-interest. What matters to me are the results, not the motivation. If, say, Walter Burns-Lytton 3rd uses family money to buy and protect a marsh in Connecticut in the hopes it will gain him votes for Senator, what matters is not his cynical motivation but the fact that the marsh gains protection.
You have written many books for the Star Wars universe. In your books, you have usually expanded quite a bit from the material in the films, often filling in gaps that the movies possess. Is this something you work out with Lucas, or is this something you come up with yourself, based on your own imagination?
I wouldn’t call three books many, but… When I work in anyone else’s universe, I enter as a fan. And as a fan, one of the greatest pleasures is being able to toss in things I would have liked to have seen in the original books or films. While I can’t contradict canon, I can try to add to it. Generally these inventions are my own: it’s a large part of what I have been hired to do.
Are you going to be included in the team of writers for the upcoming Star Wars television show?
Haven’t been asked.
You were there for the very beginning of the cyberpunk genre, next to Gibson, Sterling and Effinger. Where do you think it has gone? Is there a real future for post-cyberpunk genre? How post can you get (what with Zenith Angle and Pattern Recognition) before it’s just Tom Clancy?
Good question. With the average American kid sending over 100 text messages per day, the Web replacing traditional media, and people walking around talking to themselves on their earpiece phones, it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate the tropes of cyberpunk from actuality. One difference is that the societal grittiness depicted in a lot of early cyberpunk can’t really eventuate because delving deeply into computers and such requires a mindset and character that’s at odds with any kind of street ethos. Hackers want social acceptance, too, even if only among their own kind. If you want anger and rebelliousness, look to rap and hip-hop, not cyberpunk.
How did you get involved with MyOuterSpace? What do you find to be so interesting about the enterprise (pun intended)? Is this your own way of contributing your spirit to the future of sci-fi and the online population?
I was asked to participate. I regret I don’t have as much time as would like, but I intend to try and involve myself as much as I can. As an ex-teacher, I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to spark creativity in others. Bill Shatner and I have had very intermittent contact over the years. The energy he continues to exude when most of his contemporaries have elected to sit back and rest on their laurels astonishes me. I wonder what drives him.
Your name is certainly up there with greats like Heinlein, Asimov, Ben Bova and Arthur C. Clarke. How do you think that your contribution to the sci-fi field of writing is different than their works? How is it similar?
You flatter me unmercifully. If I had to single out a difference, I’d have to say that rather than following a set aesthetic arc, I tend to flare off in as many different directions as possible. I’m always interested in trying something different. So I ricochet from fantasy to science fiction to contemporary fiction, mystery, travel writing, and so on. My father and I were constantly at odds. Exasperated when I wouldn’t do something he wanted done unless I got a reason for it, he would say, “Do you have to know everything?” When I would reply, in all honesty and innocence, “Yes”, he thought I was being a smart-ass. That need, that desire to know everything, is what stimulates me to shoot off in multiple directions and write in a multiplicity of genres. As to similarities, I couldn’t say if any of my work is similar to any of the giants you’ve mentioned. With the exception that along with Heinlein and Asimov I’ve also enjoyed developing and filling in a fairly elaborate future history.
Do you think that Cameron’s latest film, Avatar, attracted more interest in sci-fi writing? Do you think Cameron’s contributions to film has enriched the sci-fi field?
I would hope that it would attract a great deal of additional interest to science fiction writing. As he himself admits, reading SF is what led to his wanting to translate it into film. Certainly his best work is in the genre and has added much to the cinematic lexicon in the field. He’s a great director who I don’t think gets enough credit for the work he does with his actors because everyone is so focused on the action and special effects. I have the feeling every time he sits down to do an SF film that he’s torn between a desire to make a statement and the overpowering need to produce something that will be a commercial hit. It’s a mental maelstrom that afflicts anyone who seeks success in Hollywood.
When George was making Star Wars, I asked him what he wanted to do if the film turned out to be a hit. He said, “I’d like to make small experimental films.” He still says that, but success is a personal devil that’s difficult to shake. To a certain extent I believe Cameron suffers the same affliction. So does Ridley Scott. Or maybe I’m way off-base. Maybe they’re all happy and content with how their lives and work has turned out. I would hope so.
Now I have to ask you a question that could get you in hot water. Which do you prefer, Star Wars or Star Trek? Or are you one of those zany Babylon 5people, like I am?
I prefer Forbidden Planet, 2001, and Dark City.
As our own world’s technology evolves with so much increasing regularity, how does this push the envelope in science fiction writing? How does it force your own work to adapt with the times, has it so often in the past?
You just try to keep as much ahead of the technological curve as you can. To give just one example, a reader recently chided me for something in Icerigger, my third novel. In that book, a group of mismatched travelers is marooned on the icy world of Tran-ky-ky with little hope of making it back alive to the single human outpost on the planet. The reader wondered why they didn’t use GPS, or why a satellite didn’t pick up their crashed transport, or why they simply didn’t use an obviously advanced phone to call in their predicament. The answer, of course, is that none of those things existed when the book was written (1972). When the books are (hopefully) reissued, I intend to go back and revise the science and tech to at least bring them up to present-day standards. It’s easier to write a book set five thousand years in the future than one that’s set only fifty years ahead.
Why are you often chosen to write book versions of movies? You have a reputation in that field, and it always seems like you are the guy to call when Aliens or Star Wars needs to be made into a novel. Do you find that writing novelizations is easier than writing your own novels?
Certainly it’s easier. The plot and main characters are already there. Where novelizations are concerned, I consider myself to be the contractor to the original writer’s architect. I’m the guy who puts in the wiring, the plumbing, the windows, and paints the place. But the design is already done.
As to why I’m frequently asked to work on such projects, I reckon it’s because I do a good job. Additionally, I never miss a deadline (I usually finish early) and more importantly, I have no ego issues. It’s not my work to radically alter. Using the contractor analogy again, if someone wants their house painted puce and chartreuse, that’s how I paint it. I may suggest earth tones with yellow trim, but the final decision never rests with me. Studios appreciate that. They have enough egos to deal with.
The Human Blend, the first book of The Tipping Point trilogy, is a December release from Del Rey. We are very close to agreeing on a contract for Oshanurth, a fantasy trilogy set entirely underwater. I am peripherally involved with Future Fighters, a film to be produced in Hong Kong that would represent the first U.S. – Japanese – Chinese SF co-production…with, apparently, an ex-North Korean as director. And there is another project about which I cannot speak, but which is Large.
This is a tough one…if a fan could only read one of your books, just one, which would you suggest is the best example of an Alan Dean Foster novel (Of course, there are many to choose from, but this is just a question)?
Artists are usually the wrong people to ask to evaluate their own work. But Drowning World would be a good candidate. And for fantasy, certainly Spellsinger.
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|Governor Alan Dean Foster's work to date includes hard science-fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, western, historical, and contemporary fiction. He has also written non-fiction articles on film, science, and scuba diving, as well as the novel versions of many films. Visit the Governor's profile here.|