Great voices of science fiction

In these interviews, recorded between 1987 and 2001, past masters of the genre discuss why they write SF, the future and how 'this thing called the internet' might change the world

Douglas Adams


Where did the idea for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy come from?

DA: Various different places. The actual title came when I was hitchhiking round Europe in 1971. I was lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck – I've now told the story so often, I can only remember the story and I can't remember the event any more, so I have to take my own word for it that it's true – I was lying drunk in this field in Innsbruck and I had with me a copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe. And it occurred to me as I stared up at the night sky that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. I think this is largely because I thought that Innsbruck was dull.

But had you been keen on science fiction before, was it your thing?

DA: Yes and no. I've started most science fiction books but only got to about page 10, I'm afraid, usually.

So Hitchhiker's got rather more to do with Monty Python than it has Asimov?

DA: In a way I think so, yes. Python was a huge, huge influence on me. Python sketches would create a new world, with a new set of rules. That really was the line I was taking. Let's start out with a world that has certain rules and just see where that goes in the long run. Something that starts out as a silly idea actually has to have consequences in the real world.

Did the names of the characters mean anything – Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod?

DA: They were just made up. I used to be a great fan of doing crosswords. When you're fiddling around with anagrams, you get wonderful jumbles of syllables that become interesting.

It was one of the most perfect radio creations, wasn't it? Because it leaves an awful lot to the imagination, although you're leading the listener there.

DA: Absolutely. To be honest, the reason I did it on radio to begin with was because at that point I was too junior to do television. But that was the best thing that could possibly have happened to me, because I discovered what a wonderful, extraordinary medium radio is.

Let's talk about computers, how many have you got?

DA: I haven't counted them recently I'm afraid.

An awful lot?

DA: A lot, yes.

What do you imagine the computer is going to do for us in the 21st century – how much more?

Well I think one of the major effects it has had is in changing the whole way in which we do science. Ever since Newton we've done science by taking things apart to see how they work. What the computer enables us to do is to put things together to see how they work, we're now synthesised rather than analysed. I find one of the most enthralling aspects of computers is limitless communication. I mean, I now use a great deal of the internet, 20 million different computers in the world are all connected together via this thing called the internet and it means you can exchange ideas, letters, programs, music, anything you like, just from your computer keyboard.

But when you begin to talk about the machine almost replacing the human brain, then one begins to think is the human brain outdated? Is that what you're saying?

This phrase "virtual reality" needs to be explained, because in fact we all live in virtual reality. We think that the world is a solid, vivid place, full of shape and colour and solid objects like this table and this microphone and so on, but we actually create that in our heads out of the bits of information that hit the back of our eyeballs, or hit our eardrums, or hit our tongues, or whatever. It's very raw data, and we have wonderful pattern-matching systems inside our head that we use to synthesise the world, which we then move and walk through. But there are all sorts of things we don't see, we don't hear, patterns we fail to respond to, things that get filtered out because they were not appropriate to cavemen. What the computer in virtual reality enables us to do is to recalibrate ourselves so that we can start seeing those pieces of information that are invisible to us but have become important for us to understand.

Isaac Asimov


Time magazine described you as an incurable explainaholic. Is that the most important part of your work, understanding things and passing that understanding on to other people?

IA: Yes, it is. Everything I write is intended to enlighten, even my science fiction. That doesn't mean, you understand, that it does enlighten, but that's its intention.

Obviously you've got a way of explaining things. Is that something that just came naturally to you, or do you have to work at it?

IA: Apparently, it came naturally, because I followed the great principle of trying to explain something sufficiently simply so that I could understand it. My feeling was that if I could, anyone could.

How many books have you written now?

IA: It bothers me a lot, because I've become really freakish. My total number of published books right now is 444. And a few more on the stocks I suppose. A couple of dozen.

Science fiction is probably the thing for which you're most famous, and among your science fiction writings the Foundation series is perhaps one of the favourites. Could you very briefly sketch the background to that?

IA: Back in the 1940s I decided to write a series of historical stories of the future, a tale of the fall of the galactic empire and the interregnum that came before the rise of the second galactic empire, and I'll tell you frankly, I got the idea from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So I wrote story after story for about eight years, then got tired and quit. They put them together into three books, Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation in the early 50s, and I felt that was it. I went on to other work. But little by little the pressure has built enormously and Doubleday, my publisher, insisted I write another one. So, in 1981, I wrote another Foundation novel, the fourth, and it was a huge success – and after that I was sunk because Doubleday insisted I keep on going.

The thing that comes out of the Foundation series is this science – I suppose you can call it a science – of "psychohistory". Can you explain that?

IA: I got that idea from the kinetic theory of gases, which I was studying when I first started the Foundation series. You can't tell what an individual molecule is going to do, but if you deal with trillions and quadrillions and quintillions, you can tell very accurately what they're going to do on average. I thought maybe you could do that with human beings too. You could tell what huge masses of human beings would do, provided they didn't know what the predictions were so they couldn't distort their own behaviour, and provided you had a large enough number, and I felt that with the galactic empire you'd have a large enough number. I don't really believe it's going to work, but it made a good background for the stories, and I was always able to use my "psychohistory" to show how things became inevitable, economically or sociologically and so on. It made for interesting historical novels.

I think a few people will be disappointed to hear that you don't really believe that "psychohistory" will work. Is it just that there aren't enough people on Earth?

IA: Not only are there not enough people, but actually their behaviour is far too complicated. They're not like individual molecules. Molecules have limited modes of behaviour and human beings are far less limited, so that human history is more chaotic. In fact, so chaotic that it probably can never be predicted, and in my later Foundation novels I dragged this in. But of course when I first started I didn't know anything about this new theory of chaos.

Do you think that we're going to overcome the problems of overpopulation and the environment?

IA: That's hard to say, but if we do – let's say we do – we're going to develop a space-centred civilisation. We're going to expand throughout the solar system. We're going to have a kind of computerised world in which the concept of work will change, the concept of education will change. Things will be so completely different that it will seem to us that with the beginning of the 21st‑century humanity ceased being children and became adults.

Arthur C Clarke


What was the first branch of science to interest you?

ACC: Originally, I think, palaeontology. I collected fossils and had a small collection. I had a mammoth's tooth.

What was your first job when you left school?

ACC: I went straight into the civil service, into the exchequer and audit department, and came to London and worked first in Whitehall, at the old Board of Education, and then went to the Post Office, and then the war began and we were evacuated. I was then with the Ministry of Food. We were evacuated to North Wales and then I went from there into the air force.

In 1945, while still in uniform, you wrote a piece about communication satellites.

ACC: Yes, this was the paper which started the com sat business. I wrote it early in 1945 and it was published in Wireless World in October, just after the war had ended, and it laid down the principles which now determine the world's communication system, the idea that you'd have satellites poised at such a height above the earth that they remained stationery in the sky and so-called synchronous, or geostationary, orbit.

Did anybody take your idea up and get excited about it?

ACC: A few people got excited about it. I know that the Americans did first and I have reason to believe that this was one of the stimuli which started the American satellite programme off.

What happened to you when you left the Royal Air Force?

ACC: I decided not to go back to the civil service, but to take a degree, and I went to Kings College London, and I took my degree in physics and pure and applied maths and some postgraduate work in astronomy. I then became a science editor and worked with the Institute of Electrical Engineers as editor of Science Abstracts, the chief scientific abstracting journal.

Who were the pioneers of science fiction – HG Wells of course.

ACC: And Jules Verne, and in this country particularly Olaf Stapledon, who wrote a magnificent history of the future called Last and First Men, which I discovered soon after it was published in 1930. This book, the history of the next 2,000m years, had more influence on me than anything else I'd ever read. It opened my mind to the possibilities of time and space, and directly influenced many of my early books.

With scientific progress moving so fast, it must be a job keeping in advance of the real thing.

ACC: It's almost impossible. Many of the things that I've described have become history – not in the way that I said, because I wrote a book in 1948 about the first landing on the moon, which I put in 1978. I thought it was ridiculous putting it only 30 years in the future, but in fact my deadline was beaten.

You commentated for American television on some of the Apollo missions, including the moon landing.

ACC: Yes, I was actually at Cape Kennedy for the launch of several of the missions, including the historic Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon, and I was with Walter Cronkite during the commentary and that of course was an unforgettable experience. I've met about half of the American astronauts and quite a few of the Russian cosmonauts.

Your most celebrated work of course is 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of the film. How did that project start?

It started with a letter that Stanley Kubrick wrote to me, soon after Dr Strangelove had been released, saying that "I've been interested in doing the proverbial good science fiction movie and do you have any ideas on this subject?" And I did have one or two ideas, and we got into correspondence and it so happened that I was coming to New York to work for Time Life on a book about space. I met Stanley and I moonlighted, or moonlit, with Stanley while I was working at Time Life. When that job finished, I went over full-time with Stanley and 2001 the novel was written actually in New York.

JG Ballard


As I wrote Empire of the Sun I could see the way in which the landscapes of Shanghai had permeated all my previous novels in disguised form, and it always struck me as odd that I should have waited 40 years to write about my wartime experiences. But I realise now that I probably was writing about them all the time, and that one of the reasons I chose to write science fiction at the beginning was that it offered me a way in which I could remake the landscapes of the England I knew in the 1960s and 1970s, in the way that the surrealists worked, to make them resemble unconsciously the landscapes of wartime Shanghai. I could flood London and the drowned world, I could reshape the everyday reality of Britain, western Europe and the United States.

You talk about science fiction and the way in which it gave you a form. How consciously did you look for it? Did you read it as a child in Shanghai, for example?

JGB: I had a very mixed kind of childhood reading. I read the childhood classics like Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, Chums Annual. At the same time I read an enormous number of American comics because Shanghai was an American zone of influence. It was Coca-Cola, it was American cars, commercial radio stations pumping out Superman serials every hour of the day and night. So it was a very mixed sort of cultural diet, rather similar to that which, say, a 10-year-old has in England today.

Were you writing as a child?

JGB: I started writing in a rather curious way. At the school I attended, the clergyman who ran the cathedral school in Shanghai would give lines to the boys as a punishment. They expected you to copy out say 20 or 30 pages from one of the school texts. But I found that rather than laboriously copying out something from a novel by Charles Dickens, it was easier if I made it up myself. I remember handing in this bundle of paper to the master, who after glancing through it overnight called me to the front of the class the next day and said: "Ballard, the next time you pick a book to copy from, don't pick some piece of total rubbish." He didn't realise that this piece of mock GA Henty – Adventure on the Spanish Main – was my own entire invention. That set me off, and probably all my writing has been done within the same seditious framework. No, I was writing through my teens at school.

There have, of course, been a whole tradition of English writers who've used science fiction forms – George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, also HG Wells at the beginning of the century. Do you see yourself as related to that tradition of writing?

JGB: I'd like to think so. I read Wells as a child. It's impossible to write science fiction without being aware of the shadow cast by Wells. What those novelists show is that one must think of science fiction as something not limited by the narrow definition it's been given by Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars and so on, and by the American writers of commercial SF in the 1950s and 60s. The scientific romance has long been part of English fiction, going back two or three centuries. Very few of the great British writers of the past have not at some point written something very close to science fiction. I think of science fiction as being part of the great river of imaginative fiction that has flowed through English literature, probably for 400 or 500 years, well predating modern science.

You are the first writer I know of to have prophesied Ronald Reagan as president. Do you feel that's a genuine function of science fiction?

JGB: I think science fiction always has had a predictive role, and many of its prophecies have come true. I don't think now, oddly enough, that the predictive function is the main task of SF – in the sense of the nuts and bolts of our lives. I don't think it's the job of the science fiction writer any more to predict a new kind of air travel or a new kind of washing machine. I don't think it's on the level of technological change that science fiction has its greatest value. I think it's the psychological realm where SF is most valuable in its predictive functions, because what it does is to put the emotion into the future. It looks at our conscious and half-conscious responses to all sorts of trends that are flowing out of the future towards us. I think in its anticipation of this strange mental environments of the world of tomorrow that it has its greatest value now.

Throughout your work there is an emphasis on psychological metamorphosis, on the way in which human beings change, first of all in relation to natural or manmade disasters and then in the work in the 1970s in relation to image society. How far do you think you're describing real psychological metamorphosis and how far is this a sort of metaphor?

JGB: It's used metaphorically. Crash is a metaphor for what I see as the dehumanising elements that are present in the world in which we live. We're distanced by the nature of the society we inhabit from a normal human reaction. We're crossing some complex flyover in our cars, we perhaps see an accident on a lower level – people clustered around a fallen victim. We feel a moment's pity, but we're swept on by this elaborately signalled highway landscape. We have no time to stop and express our normal human feelings. And Crash is an extreme metaphor of the dangers that I see lying ahead of us.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr


Your first novel, Player Piano, is set in the future although it seemed very much like your present, but what it did do was to tag you as a science fiction writer. Brian Aldiss said of your relationship to science fiction that you sped right out of the field as soon as you had the price for the gasoline, but that's not entirely true, because you do keep returning to it. What is the attraction of science fiction as a place to visit, if not a place to live, for you?

KV: Well I actually live there, I just decline to say I'm from there, because there are social consequences. We have the mainstream, and this is some little backwater. Science fiction writers customarily have written very fast and have not cared much about literary niceties or have not usually spent much time on drawing characters.

How did the science fiction element come to be in Slaughterhouse-Five?

KV: It's essentially an irrational act, as is skiing, and if you have to think about it, forget about it. You have to be lucky, and you have to be intuitive. And in order to be lucky you need a lot of time. Most people don't have it. That's why it's so tough to be a storywriter at night or on weekends, you need a continuous concentration. So I don't know why I did it, but it seemed like a good idea. I've tried all kinds of things which the world had never seen – you know, [I thought] this is not a good idea and threw it in the wastebasket. And on Slaughterhouse-Five again and again and again I said, "So it goes". If I'd decide that was a bad idea, as many critics did, nobody ever would have seen it. I just would have crossed them out, you know, without asking anybody about it.

Most of your novels, such as Hocus Pocus, seem to offer a kind of ironic commentary on America, or at least what America's become. Somewhere in you there seems to be a civics teacher.

KV: I hope so. One thing I put in Hocus Pocus [was] about the Alamo, which is one of our great monuments. This is when a bunch of white men, Yankees, went down there and took property and were part of Mexico and operating under the Mexican government. Then they – our guys, the white guys – revolted and became an independent country, and after they became independent their first great battle was lost at the Alamo, which is this great monument to freedom. Well, the reason they stopped being part of Mexico was that Mexico said it's against the law in our country to have slaves. All you're ever told is that Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, the inventor of the Bowie knife, and all these other guys, fought to the death. It's never said what the hell they fought to the death for. It was for the right to own slaves!

But how seriously should we take literature? You've said on the one hand that it's harmless, but you've also said that literature is like the canary in the coalmine. It keels over first as a warning.

KV: The primitive Baptists and the lunatic right are right to be afraid of books with regard to children. If you think of yourself as a child, there's a period where you have no immunity to ideas. You develop that immunity later on. So I say that literature is a slow-acting poison, because a person will become infected when he or she is unable to defend himself against this infection. But then it's 20 more years before this person has any power in adult society. I was infected by the essentially socialist writers of the 1930s, Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair and so forth, and so that's what I am. It's in my bones. If it had been a disease, it would be a mortal disease. I have tried to infect young people with humanity – an unwillingness, a great reluctance to kill.

It seems to me there's another horror in the books, and that is the America that you portray is an America without any sense of a real culture or real community. It's a fragmented world.

KV: It is. America's a very lonely society, because it's so mobile and because it's a nation of immigrants who don't have extended families, so there are all these people that, no matter what their trouble is, can only call the police department or the fire department. There's nobody else to ask for help.

But if America is fragmented, so is your prose style. How come you chop it all up into sections instead of letting it flow?

KV: Because I'm a teacher and I want people to pay attention. I don't want them to turn on the automatic pilot. If you deliver a classroom lecture, if you're a silver-tongued orator on any subject, and famous for this in the university, and other people come to listen, they'll listen to your voice. They're there for the music and not for the content. In order to make students pay attention to content you have to suddenly bang on the desk with your fist or get up and write on the blackboard, and if you're lucky the chalk will squeak, and the people will wake up and pay attention. It's a teaching problem.

Of course, reviewers get old and realise this is all they've done all their lives. They have read book after book after book and they do want to turn on the automatic pilot and just go through this thing as fast as possible. It's a gruesome job they have now, and so if I put in these impediments intended for book enjoyers, then for them it's a terrible inconvenience as they've got to get on to another book right away. But I do this in order to make people pay attention. The big question is: "Am I worth paying attention to or not?" – and that's for God to say. I don't know.

Excerpted from Science Fiction Writers (BBC/British Library, £10.20), which also includes interviews with Brian Aldiss, Doris Lessing, Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. To order a copy for £8.16 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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