Friday, July 13, 2012

Talking novels and talking sandwiches with science fiction author David Weisman

1.) David, why did you write your novel Absorption?

Well, one of the reasons is a secret. But I've always loved science fiction, especially science fiction with complex and well rounded characters who are also easy to care about, and capable of surprising you. I also love stuff which is easy to read but leaves huge and oddly shaped thoughts fighting for space in your brain, and which may even change you a tiny bit more than you realize. So I wanted to add to the amount of the science fiction that I enjoy reading in the world. Also, I'm an introvert. On some days I enjoy the act of writing alomst as much as I enjoy playing mindless computer games, and I feel better afterwards, like I've actually accomplished something. In fact, some days the act of not having written makes me feel badly, as if I've wasted a day, unless I've done something else worthwhile during that day.

2.) If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Keep rewriting and sending your work to writer's workshops. Sometimes superficial mistakes cover up deeper ones, and until you learn to write well enough so that people understand what you're trying to say, they can't tell you how little it interests them. If your idea is interesting and you've expressed it through characters you care about, you can probably find an audience and a way to communicate with them - eventually. Even if you suspect most of the people in your current writer's workshop will not be part of that audience, let them help you clear the first layer of detritus off your masterpiece.

3.) What writing projects do you have planned for the future? What are they about?

My next book is about the Singularity, from a different point of view. Will the Singularity be a benevolent genius, or just a mind which might be slightly smarter than the most intelligent human alive, with all the foibles that implies? And why does everyone assume that it doesn't matter who builds the Singularity and what they try to teach it?

Ultimately though, a good novel is about people. This one starts with a scientist who gave up his American citizenship because the State Department felt his research had military implications. China was the only country with both the money and the will to finance the construction of an artificial intelligence using the carbon crystals he had invented. During the past twenty years he has come to think of the A.I. as a son, even though the Chinese told him it wasn't working yet. Then one day he discovers they have been training it for many years, and it does not think of him as a father at all, and has plans that will harm the United States. He can no longer be apolitical, and will be held prisoner if he refuses to help.

4.) When do you think it is okay for a writer to break the rules?

I think it's OK to break one of the many rules of writing if you understand the reasons for the rule, and can express to yourself clearly what you hope to accomplish by breaking it, and why you couldn't do that some other way. It's very easy to fall in love with your own writing, or to convince yourself something is fine because you are too lazy to change it, or even because you don't like being criticized. If one of those is your most important reasons for breaking a rule, you are better off cultivating some mindless conformity.

5.) Why should anyone read your book?

It is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It cures cancer. It will change your life. It only costs three bucks. I heard a story about a man who had the opportunity to buy my book and didn't. The next day he cleaned underneath the cushions of his couch and didn't find as much change as he expected. There was a woman who passed up the opportunity to buy with one click when she had the chance, and the next day it took her nearly fifteen minutes to find her keys, and she was late for work. If her boss had noticed, she might have been in trouble. Also, there's a story of someone's dog that was sleeping in front of a laptop that was showing the Amazon page for my book. The dog made no effort to buy my book, and left when it heard someone opening a can of dog food. The next day the entire town was destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Also, it is easy and fun to read, but may eventually leave some funny ideas in your brain.

6.) You are sitting down to lunch when you pick up your sandwich and suddenly, miraculously, it starts talking to you. It begs you not to eat it, but this is your all-time favorite sandwich. What do you do?

In real life, my first thoughts would be of ventriloquists and hidden microphones. Am I on Candid Camera? Nah, couldn't be, the show went off the air. Although the possibility that it is being filmed again without my knowing it is still more likely than a talking sandwich. My having hallucinations is more likely than a talking sandwich. Yet based on the phrasing of the question, I'm going to assume all of those have been ruled out beyond any possible doubt.

I'm going to get something else to eat first of all. I mean, this is a discovery that could revolutionize our understanding of science. How could a sandwich talk? It has no brain, and even if was some sort of exotic brain sandwich, the brain would already have been cooked. It would be a shame if a growling stomach led to the premature destruction of this amazing object, which could revolutionize our understanding of the world.

Now, my greatest fear will be the "Horton Hears A Who" scenario. I mean, nobody has ever heard of a talking sandwich retaining the ability for more than fifteen or twenty minutes in real life. Any rational scientist will decide that any films or recordings I make are fakes. I mean, there is no guarantee that the medication prescribed for me will be pleasant, if the doctors get me. So I'm going to talk to the sandwich, and try to determine how likely it is to retain this ability until I get it before reliable witnesses. Think how the conceptions of consciousness (assuming the sandwich talks coherently) as well as physics and biology will change, if I can demonstrate to the world the existance of a talking sandwich.

Yet somehow the possibility seems silly. If this were a story I would find myself forced into the 'Horton' scenario, perhaps pleading to the world on behalf of an army of sandwiches that only I can hear. Unlike Horton's microscopic people, perhaps they will also beg us to keep making more sandwiches, to prevent their species from becoming extinct. So at least they are motivated to communicate with us, and surely the rights of intelligent sandwiches must take precedence over the rights of the unspeaking animals that provide raw materials for their children? Right?

Or perhaps this is the world's only talking sandwich, and it has no hope of having its lifespan extended by science. All that remains is for me to learn what I can of the universe by discussing life with this unique being. Perhaps I can even pass some insight on to the rest of humanity, if I say nothing about from where it comes.

For more on David Weisman
David's blog: Breaking In Before Breaking Down
David's Amazon page


Charles Gramlich said...

I like that comment about "huge thoughts floating around." I think that's part of what I mean when I talk about a story having resonance, a meaning that you can't quite put your finger on but which is bigger than that story by itself.

Good interview.

David said...

Thanks, it feels great to know someone is out there listening.

?wazithinkin said...

Great interview, David! I am thanking my lucky stars that I bought and read your book! :) I am going to check out your blog, also!

Anonymous said...

"Oddly shaped thoughts fighting for space in your brain." Well said, David. I always have my mind half way into the book I'm reading as I go through the day to day. Especially if it's good.


Noah Mullette-Gillman said...


In light of your encounter with talking sandwiches, can you share you thoughts with us on China's "One-sandwich-per-family" policy?