Chicon 2000

Author Guest of Honor: Ben Bova

Rev. 07-Mar-2000
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Ben Bova started writing fiction in the late 1940s and has been at it ever since, even while pursuing careers in journalism, aerospace, education and publishing. Author of more than eighty futuristic novels and nonfiction books, Bova became involved in the U.S. space program two years before the creation of NASA [www]. He was editor of Analog and Omni [www] magazines, and is President Emeritus of the National Space Society [www] and a past president of Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America [www].

Ben Bova is publisher of a new webzine, GalaxyOnline [www].

He has worked with Woody Allen, George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry on film and television projects, and has been a regular science guest on "CBS Morning News." He lectures on topics ranging from the craft of writing fiction to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He is now working on a doctorate in education.

In his various writings, Bova has predicted the Space Race of the 1960s, solar power satellites, electronic books, the discovery of organic chemicals in interstellar space, virtual reality, video games, the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), sex in zero gravity, and the advent of international peacekeeping forces. His novels combine romance, adventure, and the highest degree of scientific accuracy to explore the impact of future technological developments on individual human beings and on society.

An Interview with the Author Guest of Honor

by Jeremy Bloom

Ben Bova's new non-fiction book explores one of the most exciting scientific arenas that just a few years ago was the exclusive domain of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Immortality. In it, the multiple-award winning author, editor, scientist and Chicon 2K GOH takes a look at the breakthroughs in medical science that may soon allow people to recover fully from even major illness and injuries, neverage, and with luck avoid death completely. Bova believes some of us alive today may never have to die, and considering how the ranks of SF's grand masters have been thinning, that's a very good thing. I asked if he considers that he himself may have a shot at being among that elite group.

Bova: I think I may be on the cusp. If the research goes fast enough, I could hang in there and get to do it.

J.B.: In 66 years of life, you've seen some major changes in the world, from the development of RADAR and nuclear weapons in WWII to the cold war and the space race, and now the advent of tiny computers, biotech, nanotech, and the Y2K problem. What would you say was the most significant change?

Bova: The biggest was the advent of nuclear power. It obviously changed world politics. Atomic bombs ended WWII and saved millions of American and Japanese lives. And then the atomic bomb fostered a stalemate in the cold war for nearly half a century. That probably prevented WWIII. With nuclear weapons, both East and West feared going to war directly. When you stop to think that WWII ostensibly began over control of the city of Danzig, and WWI began over the assassination of an Archduke who wasn't even in the line of succession.... The US and USSR both had wonderful excuses to go to war. But they steered clear. Nuclear weapons prevented global catastrophe - but it was a real tightrope path.

J.B.: And we went into other forms of rivalry, like the space race.

Bova: The space race was really a front. What happened was this: In the 1950s the USSR was developing long-range ballistic missiles. The US was not, thanks to our wonderful scientific advisors from MIT who said that making long-range missiles was impossible.The scientists in the Soviet Union said the same thing to Stalin, and Stalin said "I don't care. Build them." So the Soviet engineers went out and built rockets that worked. Then American intelligence woke up to the fact that the Russians were flying missiles over 5,000 mile test-ranges. So then there was a secret crash program. During the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Krushchev had sent telegrams to every capital in Europe, saying, "Don't intervene; we have rockets that can reach your cities." A year later, Krushchev decided to use space as a means of advertising - to a disbelieving world - that the Russians really had those rockets. Sputnik was an advertisement that said "We have missiles that can drop a hydrogen bomb down your chimney." The US was desperate to show that we could do the same thing, and in our inefficient capitalist way we made a bumbling start, and then finally under Kennedy we got some direction - to go to the Moon.

J.B.: And you started with the space program in the pre-NASA days.

Bova: I never worked directly with NASA. Early on, I worked with what was then the Glen. L. Martin Company, subsequently Martin-Marietta and now Lockheed-Martin. In 1956, Martin was building the launcher for what was supposed to be the world's first artificial satellite, the Vanguard. It turned out to be the third, after Sputnik and Explorer I. We finally launched on St. Patrick's Day, 1958. I'm sitting here beside a scale model of that incredibly flimsy rocket.

J.B.: I understand you took some of your engineering colleagues to your first Worldcon?

Bova: That was 1957, I believe, in NYC. I dragged the two top engineers from the Vanguard project to talk to the assembled SF community about REALLY going into space, which was what we were doing. And unfortunately, the first thing we saw was Forrest J. Ackerman with a giant poster for Famous Monsters of Hollywood. And they turned tail, and I had to literally grab them by their coattails to keep them from running out. They ended up on the panel with Arthur Clark and Willy Ley, and really loved it. But science fiction has many faces, and one of those faces nearly queered the deal.

J.B.: It is a big tent.

Bova: With many holes in it.

J.B.: You were also involved in promoting defenses against those rockets.

Bova: Yes. For many years I worked with a research lab that did pioneering work on re-entry physics, and then went

on to invent high-powered lasers that ultimately broke the back of the cold war by providing the possibility of a defense against ballistic missiles.

J.B.: ...another thing you had predicted in a story.

Bova: Yeah, in my Novel Millennium, in 1976. In 1966, I arranged the first top-secret briefing in the Pentagon, to tell our military that lasers of virtually any power could be built. Our lab did the basic work, understanding the physics. From then on it was just engineering.

J.B.: But there has always been that corollary of the missile gap: what you might call "the engineering gap". The time it takes between the knowledge, and the ability to put it into practice.

Bova: I would call it a political gap. Because it's the political decisions that tell the engineers what to do.

J.B.: Like the difference between Truman's and Stalin's orders to their engineers.

Bova: Exactly.

J.B.: And on the subject of immortality, there's a major political gap.

Bova: When I was writing "Immortality", I saw that all through history, whenever there was a major medical breakthrough, it was first met with cries of disbelief, and then cries of "We've never done that before, so it must be wrong." Organ transplants, as late as the 1960s, were met by cries of "They're playing God. This person's heart is giving out, he's supposed to die." Even lightning rods. Churchmen strongly believed that lightning was god's way of showing displeasure, and putting up a lightning rod was a satanic way to avoid God's wrath. Churches in New England were among the last places to put up lightning rods, and for a while the ONLY buildings being hit by lightning were the churches! All those nice tall steeples, with no lightning rods.... So the churchmen had to change their opinion about why lightning struck. Cotton Mather, that fierce Puritan preacher, inoculated his son against smallpox, and was roundly castigated by the other preachers for trying to avoid the wrath of God. To try to avert the wrath of God was wrong - someone even threw a bomb into Cotton Mather's house. Every time you take an aspirin, you're playing God. Every time you put a Bandaid over a cut to avoid infection, you're preventing the natural course, and playing God.

J.B.: Are you a believer?

Bova: No.

J.B.: You were raised Catholic.

Bova: That's why I'm not a believer.

J.B.: You and the Pope have major areas of disagreement.

Bova: The Pope hasn't said anything about immortality. But he did come out against cloning. And somebody in the Vatican even said that clones wouldn't have souls - either the result of lunacy, or watching too many bad science fiction movies. How can anybody say whether a creature has a soul or not?

J.B.: Do you see this as being an issue that will possibly lead to violence?

Bova: Possibly. The issue is real right now, in that some of the research requires human fetal tissue, and there's a government ban. So that research is being supported privately - which means the corporations that support it will have the rights to the results.

J.B.: So the government is missing the boat?

Bova: Worse, they will end up having to sue the companies to break their monopolies, spending money on lawyers instead of on research.

J.B.: In your novel Moonwar, you write about a similar problem when nanotech has become feasible, and is the subject of witch hunts.

Bova: There are real fears about nanotech, and I share them. You could make some very nasty bugs that would be truly weapons of mass destruction. But I don't think banning it is the answer.

J.B.: And the technology to do that doesn't exist yet...

Bova: No. But wait ten years. Technology just keeps on going. Banning is one of the first things people think of. "I don't like it, so let's pass a law." But that won't stop it. The world doesn't work that way. In my novels, I use the Moon as a far away place to show that even when you ban it, technology can be developed elsewhere, where the law doesn't apply. As far as I know, there is still a law on the books in Boston, banning people from holding hands on a public street.

J.B.: Sounds like a good idea. That stuff might lead to dancing.... What other predictions have you seen come to fruition?

Bova: One of the things that I predicted in a couple of early stories was the idea of virtual reality - the idea that with computers and electronics, you could create a real-seeming hallucination. That was "The Next Logical Step." It appeared in Analog in May, 1962.

J.B.: When computers were the size of hotel rooms.

Bova: Yeah.

J.B.: Could you have foreseen a palmtop computer?

Bova: Sure, I wrote about that. I foresaw small portable computers - to the point that you could actually have a direct implant as an extension of your brain.

J.B.: ... Which would make crashes much more frustrating. Would you want a Microsoft product in your head?

Bova: Sure.

J.B.: You would trust Bill Gates that far?

Bova: Why not. Who else you gonna trust?

J.B.: You've also written about the prospect of space tourism. Do you see that coming in your lifetime?

Bova: Well, if the work I see coming to fruition in "Immortality" comes soon enough, my lifetime may be long enough to get to Alpha Centauri.

J.B.: Did John Glenn's return to space encourage you?

Bova: I don't think I needed encouragement - I'd love to go. I do think it was a wonderful piece of public relations for NASA. And it showed you don't have to be a tough young jet jockey - you can be an actor or a journalist, or an old jet jockey.

J.B.: In a way, science fiction has been providing good PR for NASA for years. Can you point to any one SF book or film that has made a real difference?

Bova: The impact on the world has been very subtle. I think SF has influenced a lot of kids to get into science, and then they have changed the world. But I don't see any direct effect from any one book or film - with one exception, perhaps. In the 1950s George Pal made a film with Robert Heinlein called "Destination Moon." That hit with the impact of Star Wars at the time, with people lining up around the block. That film, I think, prepared the general public for the idea that going to the Moon was practical. Everything they did was wrong, as far as the actual technology that NASA ended up using, but it showed that the technology was doable, it wasn't fantasy. And I think that prepared the way for Kennedy, and for the public acceptance of his decision.

J.B.: Do you think if friendly aliens ever show up on our doorstep, films like ET will have helped to create a public acceptance?

Bova: No, I doubt it. I don't think those aliens will be anything like ET.

J.B.: ...even so, in the way that Pal's rocket's were all wrong, but still helped the psychological preparation? That we're not alone?

Bova: I see what you mean. I don't know... those films are so fantastic, so out of touch with reality. ET was really about an alien truck driver who didn't understand what was really going on. Watching a truck driver stumble across a landscape isn't Science Fiction. An SF novel would have begun at the point where Spielberg ended the movie - what happens when he gets inside the spacecraft, THAT is science fiction.

J.B.: I understand you may have some interesting things happening on the media side of SF yourself...

Bova: The novel Mars is in development with Columbia-Tri Star. Whether anything comes of that... There are also people looking at developing a TV series based on Orion, and also a series based on Sam Gunn. That would be fun - sort of a "Maverick" in space. But of course, nothing may come of any of this. I cannot predict what Hollywood will do..

J.B.: What are you travel/convention plans over the next year?

Bova: I'm not really that big a convention-goer. I write. Going to a Worldcon takes up a lot of writing time. I do go to local conventions here in Florida, where I can drive up on Friday and come home on Saturday. And if I'm invited as guest of honor I'm too embarrassed to say no. [He'll be GOH at Millenicon in Cincinnati March 19-20, and ConVersion in Calgary July 23-25]. I'll be in London for the British release of Return to Mars in mid-June. And I intend to go to Australia, largely because I love Australia. I'll probably show up at Chicago. [laughs].

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