INTERVIEW: John Varley

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture


PLEASE NOTE:

The following interview contains some coarse language, non-conservative viewpoints, and anti-religious sentiment. It is really cool and interesting, however. If these kinds of things offend you, do not read further, however if they do not it is well worth your time to read on. While we here at Republibot are conservatives, we feel that it is extremely important to ask questions and listen to all the answers before making up one's mind, and that simply can not happen if there are no dissenting viewpoints. Hence, when someone is kind enough to grant us an interview, it is our policy to let them say whatever they want without bugging them about it or censoring them.

Read at your own risk

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Republibot 3.0:
Our guest today is John Varley, author of the Gaea Trilogy, the Mars/Thunder Trilogy and of course his ongoing Eight Worlds series. In the course of his career, Mister Varley has racked up two Nebulas, three Hugos, and an impressive ten Locus awards. He is clearly one of the brightest lights of his generation of Science Fiction authors, and entirely too impressive and important a man to be wasting his time speaking with the likes of us. And yet here he is!

Thank you, John, for agreeing to this interview.

John Varley:
No problem. The trilogy is actually called Thunder and Lightning, and there will be a fourth book in the series. What’s the word for that? Tetralogy? Quadrology? Whatever. The title will be Dark Lightning.

Republibot 3.0:
Before we get started, I want to say that it’s a sin more of your stories haven’t been turned in to movies. "The Funhouse Effect" just by itself would make a great SF thriller, and the fact that no one has turned "Red Thunder" in to a movie yet just drives me nuts.

Varley:
I’d probably do better with Hollywood if I wrote comic books … sorry, I mean "graphic novels" … but I never enjoyed them, even as a kid, except maybe for Uncle Scrooge. Superheroes bore me. I sometimes think that if I ever watch another comic book movie like Sin City, I’ll puke kryptonite. … I’m sorry, I meant graphic novel.

3.0:
On that note, I really like the way you occasionally use film as a touchstone in your books. In particular, I loved the way you used it in "Golden Globe." In addition to being a really great story, it has that underpinning of being almost a love-letter to classic Hollywood. That got me to thinking about the feedback loop that existed between the real Mafia in the old days and the Big Screen version of them back in the day. You had real life Gangsters emulating Edward G. Robinson, and then the actors started emulating the ever-more iconic Gangsters who were emulating them in the first place.

Do you feel there’s a situation like that in SF today? Where literary SF tries to emulate the movies, and the movies try to emulate literary SF? Does that get problematic for an author?

Varley:
I don’t read much SF, so I really don’t know about that. In the movies, gangstas are still either imitating movie bad guys, or the other way around, I’m not sure. That silly business of holding your pistol sideways, apparently to spoil your aim, the way they dress, and so on. The really silly thing is middle-class teenage white boys imitating ghetto kids with the gigantic, baggy pants so the piece they are carrying is not so obvious. As if they were actually carrying. I’d like to watch when these kids are 50 and take a look at pictures of themselves in these stupid outfits. "What was I thinking?" Pictures of me from the ‘70s look pretty silly, but not as bad as these kids.

3.0:
There’s a mini-renaissance going on with Science fiction on TV these days: Lost, the new Battlestar Galactica, the new Doctor Who, Terminator, the Stargate franchise, do you keep up with any of that? Are there any shows you follow?

Varley:
Not a one. I’ve heard that some of them are good, but I really know nothing about any of those shows. I watch very little regular television, though I spend a lot of time in front of the set. I watch DVDs of movies almost exclusively.

3.0:
What would you *like* to see happen in SF film and television, if you had your druthers?

Varley:
My stuff, of course. Golden age SF by Heinlein, Sturgeon, Silverberg, Ellison. Character-driven stories rather than plot-driven stories. Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s tales would make a great television series, and a couple people have taken a stab at them, but nothing has come of it.

3.0:
I’m curious: Are you familiar with the "Fan Film" subculture that’s cropped up in the last decade? People using the new technology of digital cameras and computers to make their own short SF films. Most of them are in copyright-nightmare land, openly infringing on other people’s properties - Star Trek and Star Wars are the favorites - but there are some people making their own original stuff, too. There’s not a lot of jewels coming out of this democratization of video production, but it seems like that’s coming. Do you follow that at all, or have any thoughts on it?

Varley:
I am vaguely aware of it, and as far as the infringing stuff, I think it’s bizarre, and basically, it sucks. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to use somebody else’s characters to make a story or a film. I’d sooner use somebody else’s toothbrush. This stuff goes way back to the pre-computer, pre-digital-camera days to something truly bizarre: Kirk-Spock homosexual pornography. Oddly, it was mostly written by women. Captain Kirk sucking on Spock’s logical Vulcan cock is not something I’ll ever understand.

However, this business of people making their own movies cheaply is exciting, and not just for SF. Sturgeon’s Law applies, naturally, so 90% of it will be crap, but I’m sure some of it will be good. I recently went to a screening of the 5 short animated films nominated for Academy Awards and saw some amazing stuff that would have cost millions to produce only a few years ago. The technology is now available to the people, and I think that’s a good thing. Seen some dynamite stuff on YouTube, too, among the 90% crap.

3.0:
The "New Technology" thing has always been an interesting aspect of your writing to me. I like that you very clearly point out that Technology Changes Morality in so many of your stories. That seems self-evident to me, but it’s very rarely touched on by anyone aside from yourself. Larry Niven does it sometimes. Lem did it occasionally, I guess. But mostly it seems to be your bag. Why do you think it is that other authors - and society in general - tends to overlook that things like Birth Control and VCRs and internet connections change the societal concept of right and wrong?

Varley:
Maybe it’s all too obvious, like a fish’s experience of water. When you’re living it, change comes in stages that creep up on you. Arthur C. Clarke said the first step of technological change is, it can’t be done. Step two is, it can be done, but it’s not worth it, or there’s no use for it. Step three is, I thought it was a good idea all along. I think there’s a fourth stage, when you forget things were ever different than they are now, and can’t remember what it was like. I find it hard to remember just what I did to fill up the day before I had a personal computer, which now takes up so much of my time.

As for why few authors explore the way technology changes morality, I think most writers in this genre are more concerned with coming up with the idea itself, and with plot. SF has never been a hotbed of character-driven stories. Some of our most renowned authors (I won’t name names) cannot write a believable character at all.

3.0:
I’ve noticed that when religion crops up in your stories, it tends to be more like a political party or a philosophical club more than a classical religion. For instance, the folks who were trying to paint one of Saturn’s rings in one of your stories to attract the attention of aliens they hoped would save them. This is an interesting development, particularly since so many people are unwilling to discuss religion in Science Fiction at all. What’s the story behind that perspective?

Varley:
I am vehemently anti-religion. That is, organized religion. I despise them all. I try to despise them equally, but lately Islam has shot to the top of my hate list, for obvious reasons. I don’t give a shit what they do in their own squalid little dictatorships, but they seem to want to export "Submission" to the whole world, and they are willing to kill the likes of Salman Rushdie and those Danish cartoonists for insulting Islam. They are basically living somewhere around the 8th Century, and I often wish I had a time machine to send them back there. (Yes, I know there are moderates. So why don’t they do something about the zealots?) So when I mention religion at all in my stories, the practitioners are usually doing something nutty. About as nutty as praying five times a day facing Mecca, saying a rosary, handling deadly snakes, or speaking in tongues.

3.0:
Do you feel religion is a taboo in SF? In TV for instance, really there was no serious discussion of religion on any show until Babylon 5 came along, and then it offended the hell out of both sides. I had atheist friends who refused to watch the show because it was promoting belief in the supernatural (Which it never really did, but they thought it was), and I had religious friends who refused to watch it because they felt it was trivializing God and Religion.

Varley:
I don’t think it’s taboo. If enough people wanted to read it, somebody would write it. That idiot series of Left Behind books sounds like SF to me, but only Rapture people read that shit. (And those books sell so well it frightens me. There are a lot of Rapture people.) Most SF readers, I believe, are science-oriented. They don’t call it "spiritual fiction," after all. Religion and science don’t mix well, as science likes to observe and draw conclusions—to learn, in other words—and religion cares only about learning the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, etc. They don’t need to learn about this world, because they already know. A good way to describe a wasted life, as far as I’m concerned. Religious people already know things, with no more proof than some words in an old book. In short, they’re crazy.

I’m not referring to spirituality, by the way. You can believe, as I do, that there are things going on in the universe that are going to remain forever unknown to us, without having a priest or imam or rabbi or televangelist spoon-feed you spirituality. I don’t think we know shit about what consciousness really is, for instance. It could even be a "soul." I am agnostic about the whole business.

3.0:
I really loved your "Thunder" trilogy, particularly all the various Easter eggs you dropped for classic SF literature. There were some parts in the books that seemed positively giddy when reading them. Was that a fun experience for you, writing those?

Varley:
The most fun I’ve had with my clothes on in years. I grew up reading the juveniles by Heinlein, Andre Norton, and others. Obviously those books were inspired by them. There are, I believe, 7 Heinlein titles mentioned in the last chapter of Rolling Thunder. There are also a lot of references to Florida authors like John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiassen in Red Thunder.

3.0:
Is it a conceptual trilogy? Is it done, or will the brothers Broussard be turning up again?

Varley:
The fourth and last volume will be called Dark Lightning.

3.0:
Oh, right, you already said that. Sorry. Are you still working on Irontown Blues? I apologize in advance for asking you that, but there are some things one is just expected to ask of you.

Varley:
Irontown Blues is third in line, after the novel I’m writing now, and volume four of the Thunder and Lightning series.

3.0:
Is there anything you can tell us about what you’re working on now, without violating any confidences or contracts or anything? What can we look forward to from you in the future?

Varley:
All I can say is that it’s a post-apocalypse novel, and not very SF.

3.0:
Ok, well thank you very much for your time! We’re very happy to have you on the site, and all the best to you in the future!

Tags: 

Comments

Hrmm.

Church's picture

Half very interesting interview, half subject-concerned-about-legal-obligations.

Color me dense...

sysadmin 2.0's picture

I'm not quite sure what you mean by that.
(No offense, there are some days that I just don't "get it"..)

Intelectual Property

Republibot 3.0's picture

If you're a writer, I imagine you'd have some respect for other people's characters, and expect other writers to have some for your own. The idea of playing with someone else's stock character could seem dauntingly intimate, in addition to hackneyed.

Varley says he'd rather use someone else's toothbrush, but I myself was comparing it to borrowing someone else's underwear - you just don't want to do it.

I think the 'legal obligatons' arose from that consideration.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Infringment is just another word for 'get off of my lawn'

Church's picture

"I can’t imagine why anyone would want to use somebody else’s characters to make a story or a film."

Putting aside, say, the Thieves Guild, Berserker, Known Space, and ten or twenty other series... many, if not most, genre authors like to revisit at least their own worlds. The reason is simple: you don't have to spend a lot of time introducing the place and characters.

An author who can't bring himself to acknowledge that fact is either disingenuous or so steeped in the current copyright quagmire that his fingers should be pruning.

He wasn't saying that

Republibot 3.0's picture

Varley wasn't saying he had a problem revisiting his own characters and settings - he's done it a lot: his 8 Worlds series is sprawling and interconnected, and his "Thunder and Lighting" and "Gaia" trilogy are obviously picking up where the previosu book in that series left off.

He was saying he didn't understand the drive to use *other* people's characters. He's never felt compelled to write a Captain Kirk story, for instance (And he once told me they offered him a Trek move in the 80s, but he turned it down), or a Known Space story or what have you.

I'm not sure I agree. While I've never written any fanfic, I've been tempted to do so.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

<raises hand guiltily>

sysadmin 2.0's picture

"While I've never written any fanfic, I've been tempted to do so."

I have. But I've never written slashfic or a Mary Sue story.

rb2

Varying Degrees Of Ripping People Off

Republibot 3.0's picture

Well, I think there are different levels of fanfic. ("Fanficery?" "Fanfickery?")

F'rinstance, there's a difference between "Wanting to play in someone else's garden" and simply wanting to continue the adventures of classic characters. In the first case, you want to - let's say - tell stories exploring Larry Niven's Known Space universe; in the latter case you want to actually *write* your own Beowulf Schaefer stories set in Known space. There's a difference there.

Or to put it in a fan-film perspective: Telling original stories involving original characters set in the Trekiverse is kind of like Starship Exeter http://www.starshipexeter.com/ while telling new stories involving the established characters of the trekiverse is yet another, sort of like the Phase II peopel are doing http://www.startreknewvoyages.com/

And then telling stories where a thinly-veiled version of the author turns up and saves the day, and all the established characters fall in to his/her orbit is yet another, and the lowest circle of fanfic hell is unquestionably shipping and slash.

Sad.

Conversely, I don't think coming up with your own idea for an episode, and then writing it up as a pitch for the producers counts as fanfic.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

I'm not talking about the script

sysadmin 2.0's picture

The DS9 script I wrote wasn't fanfic; it was an actual unsolicited submission. A complete script... not a pitch.

(I wonder if I still have it. We might run it as original fiction; except it isn't... )

I'm referring to the infamous grade-school epic where the original crew of the Enterprise encountered the Space:1999 folk.

Didn't figure you were

Republibot 3.0's picture

I specifically stated spec scripts are exempt. That's a legitimate attempt to fill a need and do business n' stuff. It's not just writing stories about making Kaylee and Inara kiss.

The TOS/1999 crossover you wrote definitely counts as fanfic, but you were what, like ten when you did that? I used to work my own name in to Hardy Boys books when I was that age - we all do horribly embarasing stuff like that when we're young. I think you're off the hook, there.

It's not like you've done anything like that since, right?

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

I feel absolved...

sysadmin 2.0's picture

No, I've not done anything like that- unless you call our Brisco County/Wild Wild West mashup/blueskying fanfic....

Yeah, Absolution can be absolutely absolving at times

Republibot 3.0's picture

Oh, no, I don't count those. Firstly, nothing ever got written down, secondly the point was not to make Brisco and Jim West kiss or anything like that, and thirdly, it was a mind experiment to see how a couple dead franchises could be relaunched while retaining the continuity of both.

It was pretty gay, though, in retrospect. Not in a Torchwood kind of way, I mean just in the embarasingly silly sense of the word.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Distinction without difference

Church's picture

"He [Varley] was saying he didn't understand the drive to use *other* people's characters. "

Yes, his lack of imagination was what I was put off by. Maybe he should read "Le Morte d'Arthur" or "The Wind Done Gone." Too taxing? He could watch a Disney film festival.

Building upon the works of others is the basis for creativity. Sure, it can be done poorly, but it can also be done sublimely. Get the government-granted monopolies out of the way and let's cull the best of them.

I wouldn't accuse him of a lack of imagination

Republibot 3.0's picture

I've read most of his books, he deserved those awards he won. Also, consider that most of his short fiction was written away back in the 70s, when he was just blowing the doors off of his competition in that department.

But, yes, it is entirely possible to write good stuff that launches from other people's work. I disagee with him there to an extent, but not entirely. Take a look at the Bond books that Ian Flemming wrote, then compare them to the endless John Gardner novels - crap. Yeah, it's updated for the 'modern era' but still: crap.

On the other hand, look at the Oz books - Baum died after writing like 18 or 19 of 'em, and Ruth Plumelly Thompson took over, and wrote like 20 or 22, and her books were (Generally) better than Baum's originals. Then after she died, other people started writing 'em, and those are pretty much terrible. And of course by then the copyright was lost, so anyone who wanted to could wright an Oz story, so suddenly you had a spate of hardcore Oz pornography coming out, and even that weird Heinlein hommage to Oz in "The Number of the Beast." If Bob couldn't really do it justice - and he legitimately loved those books as a kid - I'm thinking the spark of inspiration has been lost.

So it's a mixed bag. For every "Star Trek: The New Voyages/Phase II" you get, there are a hundred "Turkish Star Trek" episodes, you know?

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Sturgeon's Law

Church's picture

"So it's a mixed bag. For every "Star Trek: The New Voyages/Phase II" you get, there are a hundred "Turkish Star Trek" episodes, you know?"

The same is true for 'original' fiction. Ninety-some-odd percent of *everything* is crap.

(Check out Starship Exeter. Most faithful recreation of TOS-era Trek, IMHO.)

Yeah, I like Exeter too!

Republibot 3.0's picture

Actually, I've been trying to get in touch w/ the Exeter people for quite a while now. I've sent 'em 2 emails in the last month asking 'em for interviews, but haven't heard back.

I even went so far to post here http://www.starshippolaris.com/forums/showthread.php?t=18282&page=11 to troll for people who might be able to put us in contact with them.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

I did not receive email from

I did not receive email from you. I will just look into other post or if you can send me, I’ll be grateful for that. We just get back from my and will get in touch here very soon.

(Man, this must be spam, too. It makes no sense at all! Deleted link. R4.)