#59 = Volume 20, Part 1 = March 1993
An Interview with John Kessel
John Kessel's fiction has earned so many awards lately that it seems unlikely
that he will be able to maintain his relatively obscure position in the SF
community for very much longer. His oeuvre to date consists of two novels— Freedom Beach (1985), written with James Patrick Kelly, and the Nebula nominee
Good News From Outer Space (1989)—and approximately 30 short stories. Many of
these have received critical acclaim, including "Not Responsible! Park and
Lock It!" (1981), "The Pure Product" (1986), "Judgment Call" (1987), "Credibility" (1987), and
"Invaders" (1990). "Buffalo" (1991) was a Hugo
nominee and won the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards for 1992.
Kessel is a professor at North Carolina State University, where he teaches
American literature, creative writing, and science fiction. He earned a B.A.
with a double major in English and Physics at the University of Rochester and
his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, where he studied with James
Gunn. Kessel wrote a column for Orson Scott Card's fanzine Short Form, and, as
of January 1993, will be a regular book reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy and
Science Fiction. Asked to describe himself briefly, Kessel says, "I like cats
and baseball . . . and I've memorized all the albums of Firesign Theatre."
This interview took place on 2 November 1991 in Kessel's office at NCSU. We
spoke chiefly about Good News From Outer Space, which critic F. Brett Cox calls
"one of the finest satirical novels modern SF has produced." Bruce Sterling
describes it as "like silly putty cut with high-tech plastic explosive," and
Gregory Frost as "what you might get if Philip K. Dick had written a frantic,
paranoiac's version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale."
The novel follows the careers and misadventures of two televised-tabloid
journalists—George Eberhart, who has been revived from the dead, and Richard
Shrike, a "Creative Nihilist"—as they observe and manipulate the increasing
lunacy of an America that, according to the televangelist Reverend Jimmy-Don Gilray, is on the verge of the Final Judgment. Discontented Americans brew
biochemical plagues at home and pilgrims proclaiming Armageddon mass to witness
the promised climactic descent of the City of God on the eve of the Millennium.
The news is full of reports of bizarre deaths, pointless violence, space-age
diseases, and other upsetting events. UFO sightings are on the rise.
Each of the characters reacts to these events in his own way. Gilray pronounces
them to be harbingers of the Second Coming of Christ. Richard, insouciant and
amused by the social decay, offers himself as publicist to Gilray and discovers
he enjoys the power the position affords. He takes the reports and sightings as
evidence of the unfailing villainy and stupidity of human beings. George, who
has been acting a little strangely since his resurrection, is convinced that an
invasion of shape-changing Aliens, bent on sabotaging the moral fiber of the
nation, is underway. (As it happens, he's right.) Delano Amasa, a deranged
private detective who tails George on the latter's cross-country quest to find
and confront the Aliens, is a conspiracy paranoiac. Somewhat more stable is
George's wife, Lucy, a lawyer on the lam for arson and collusion with
Kessel ropes together elements of picaresque adventure, romance, social satire,
and tabloid journalism, all at a mad gallop, to portray the irrationality of
human belief systems and the crazy activities underlying the macro-processes of
cultural decline. In one scene, an Alien proposes to Delano Amasa the Theory of
Moral Luck, which applies the findings of quantum physics to morality and
concludes that all events, including human endeavor, are no more than accidents,
a philosophy which the right-wing, hypersuspicious Delano rejects.
I began by asking Kessel about his baccalaureate combining English with Physics.
Ellen Feehan: You're not studying physics any longer. But, then again, there
wasn't a whole lot of it in Good News, except for quantum theory, and even that
was mainly played for laughs.
John Kessel: Right. I wanted to be serious about getting the details of quantum
theory right. You know, knowing what the observer effect is, or the Schröedinger's cat thought experiment and what it meant. The idea of comparing
that with moral luck just occurred to me at the time I was writing it . . .
I heard a visiting scholar give a lecture here on campus about this concept of
Moral Luck. I don't know if he called it Moral Luck, but he set out the idea
that morality is not simply a matter of intention, or of something you can
control. He did not talk about physics at all, but when I sat down to [write]
the chapter, suddenly it just snapped in my head, and I connected up the idea of
quantum physics with the idea of morality, and the thing wrote itself. I wrote
that chapter probably faster than any other chapter in the book. Somehow, it
just wrote itself, when it came to it, with a kind of fury.
You know, Delano I feel a tremendous sympathy for, but I also think she's out of
her gourd. And there's something about her narrow view of morality—she's very
judgmental—that really is distasteful to me. Yeah, I see why she is like that.
She's a furiously frustrated person who really wants everything to stand at a
kind of moral attention, like what's-his-name in The Great Gatsby and . . .
[laughs]. No, I don't think she's at all like Nick in The Great Gatsby.
Actually, I think she's much more—well, you know, I got her name, Amasa Delano,
from Benito Cereno, who is this naïve, liberal-minded racist, who really doesn't
think that an American whose intentions are good could possibly be wrong. He
thinks that intentions are equivalent to morality.
And Delano is someone who feels that morality is a very simple thing. That it's
a matter of: you do the right thing/you do the wrong thing. Her idea of what's
the right thing and the wrong thing is very different from mine, but the point
is, she sees it as all very simple, and the problem is that people won't live up
to this very simple standard.
EF: Except that it's not a passive simplicity. She says that the only purpose of
polite discourse is to create an environment where we can kill America's
JK: Well, she would say that that's moral. I think that the substance of her
morality is very scary to me. She's in some ways a contradictory character,
like so many of us are. She's a woman who believes that if your heart is pure,
then your actions are moral.
EF: Assuming that purity and goodness can always be identified.
JK: I think she thinks that it's not such a hard thing to know. And I think it's
a very hard thing to know. I think that people deceive themselves all the time
about this. And I also think that even if your intentions are good, it's not
simply your intentions. It's also your actions; you may perform immoral acts for
what you think are good reasons. This is the Oliver North theory of
morality—Oliver North thinks that anything is justified in the service of the
good that he intends to perform for America, and I find that to be totally
repugnant. Delano is a kind of crazed Oliver North, in a way. I don't buy it. I
think what happens to her is cruel; I suppose as the author I'm visiting rather
severe punishment on her, because I do feel sorry for her. She's a vulnerable
person; in fact, she's a physically small woman who's had—I allude to certain
things that might have happened to her in the past. I don't know her whole
history, but I know that she's been abused. And she's angry.
EF: But she does invent her own kind of superpowers. She's friends with the
president. She's got a gun, and she's not afraid to use it.
JK: Exactly. Well, I think that guy who walked into that restaurant in Texas [in
October 1991] and killed 33 people felt that the only reason he was there with
that automatic weapon was that he'd been pushed beyond endurance by these
people, and he was not going to stand it any more. I don't know what was going
on in his mind, but that's my fantasy of what he was thinking. So Delano is that
sort of person. In fact, the book is full of people who feel that their being
pushed beyond endurance justifies their actions. I can certainly sympathize
with that, because we're all pushed very hard, but I think that way madness
lies. My one person who is pushed beyond endurance in the book who refuses to do
that is Lucy.
EF: Lucy goes through a lot, but she becomes stronger. You demand a lot from the
reader, too; obviously you're looking for audience participation in a way that
some other writers are not. I was thinking about metonymy and metaphor . . . In
Good News, you have crucifixes sharing wall space with Elvis portraits, this
kind of thing, and their physical contiguity suggests . . . well . . . whatever
it suggests. Belief systems. Now, think about the opening of LeGuin's The
Dispossessed. She's talking about a wall, but it's more than just a wall, it's a
metaphorical barrier between people. And LeGuin is someone who knows what is
right; she's got her sense of morality and she's not afraid to tell us. But the
thing about metaphor is that it posits a relationship of, I guess, identity.
JK: Well, does metaphor posit identity? I tend to like symbolism in stories, but
I don't like one-to-one identity. I've been thinking a lot about allegory. I
used to think I hated allegory. You know, like Pilgrim's Progress or "The
Celestial Railroad," Hawthorne's story. Because I felt like it distorted human
reality. It flattened out meaning too much; meaning was too one-dimensional.
There was an identity between the symbol and the meaning. But I don't think
that that's necessarily true for all allegory. You can write a kind of allegory
which is much fuzzier than that—maybe a quantum allegory—that has a number of
possible meanings. This is not a new idea. But I like that. So that if you see
Elvis's picture on the wall, yes, it calls up certain associations. But I hope
that it doesn't just mean one thing. I like the idea, in any symbol, that there
can be a range of meanings. Certainly there are certain distinct associations
you want, but I hope it doesn't flatten the meaning out. This way, allegory can
open you up to another layer of meaning, but it doesn't necessarily destroy the
sense of reality of what you have.
EF: Satires are generally metaphorical—the upside-down world that stands for
what is wrong in ours, and there's a lot of satire in Good News. But on the
other hand, the whole thrust of the book is: is there an underlying pattern
beneath events? So you're playing with a kind of contradiction there: are we
supposed to believe in metaphors or not? Do the Aliens represent all that is
ambiguous and mysterious in the universe? Or are they just some bad guys who
are, quite literally— [gesture meaning "screwing up events"]?
JK: [laughs] Right, right, and it's a human characteristic, for me anyway: human
beings create networks of meaning. You have a person walk into a room. A certain
kind of person walking into a room who sees a stuffed teddy bear, a piece of
crystal, a bumper sticker for Jesse Helms, and a baseball pennant for the New
York Yankees, will, from those objects, create a theory of what this means
[laughs]. You know, what someone meant by putting these objects in this place.
And you might say, that's insane, but it's very human, and it's not always
[laughs]. Who's to say what's wrong? It guess I think that much of the time it
is wrong, but on the other hand, much of what we create as human beings arises
out of that impulse to create patterns. You think about somebody who studies
physics: he creates a pattern. Special relativity is a pattern of theory based
on certain observations, and it seems to work. I think the problem is that, once
human beings create these patterns, they clutch them to their bosoms with
tremendous force, and anything that doesn't quite fit somehow has to be pushed
out by cognitive dissonance, or be completely eliminated, or you have a war
between the theories. That's one of the things I wanted to deal with. And my
Aliens are there in the book. I guess I'm a little bit coy—I'm very coy—about
what they really intend. But I do think they intend something. I have various
theories presented by my characters. Now, some of my characters are much more
into this pattern-making than others. I didn't want to make it seem that
everyone was like this, but some of them are. People like George and the
Reverend are really into knowing what the Meaning is.
EF: George says at one point, "All our stories explain things."
JK: Well, it's true, if you read the Weekly World News, I think you're going to
find that lots of things are explained by the stories. Of course, the
explanation changes every week, but there it is; what gives the stories their
insidious appeal is that they're so wacky, but they do explain things. It's not
just George that likes [pattern-making], and George of course excels, when he
gets hooked up with the Hemisphere Confidential Report [a televised tabloid],
because he has this ability really to understand, to see patterns. It gets a
little out of hand, is all.
I think of people like Richard and Lucy as being rather different from George in
that they don't really demand to have the pattern that explains everything.
Although Richard sort of gets sucked into it, they both see things as too
confused or fucked up to make that kind of sense. Which is a saving grace, the
fact that they can't do that. Richard doesn't seem like a particularly positive
figure, but [laughs] . . . he's probably my favorite character in the book.
It's hard not to like Richard. I don't know where he came from. I don't know if
any novelist could tell you for sure, but I would say that most of my characters
are some part observation but a large part some projection of some aspect of my
own personality. So there's a Richard in me, I suppose. Along with a George and
a Lucy and a Reverend.
EF: One of the fun things about Good News is that you include all of the media.
So many novelists act as though their characters live in a cultural vacuum, but
you have this multisensory resonance in Good News. The different media, of
course, all create different fictions. Do you think that American society is
busy creating too much fiction, or is this a survival value: do we need
fictions? Obviously, some people do.
JK: All cultures that I'm familiar with have had their own stories. Stories are
a very basic human need. To have stories of some sort. Explanations. Myths. I
think that we're not unlike any other culture in that regard. I sometimes worry
[laughs] about the quality of those stories we espouse or get interested in.
EF: Do you watch TV?
JK: A lot. Too much probably. I watch all different kinds of television. When I
was doing the book, I watched a lot of religious television. But I watch some
network television, and I love old films.
EF: That's right—It's a Wonderful Life [is shown in Good News to a huge crowd of
JK: It's a particularly interesting movie because it's got this huge mystique
about it now, and yet I think the fact that the movie is so incredibly popular
bespeaks a certain failing in the audience [laughs]. I think it's a pretty good
movie, but there's a kind of turn to fantasy in it that really disturbs me. Not
the existence of fantasy, but the fact that this guy's life, which is
harrowed—it really goes from bad to worse—till the point where he's about to
commit suicide, is saved by this angel, who persuades him that nothing bad
really ever happened to him, and he's had a wonderful life. And then suddenly,
in the last scene, everyone in town is throwing ten-dollar bills into a basket
to save him from the bank examiner and being indicted. Somehow I feel that this
doesn't happen in the real world [laughs]. I think that there's a kind of
I saw a recent clip—it was about Frank Capra, who just died, of course—which
contained a quote from Capra which I had never read. I wish I had the source of
it, but Capra was saying, "I made It's a Wonderful Life to show that everyone's
life is valuable. To show even the drunk in the gutter, that if he looked at his
life properly, he would say that he's had a wonderful life." And I'm thinking, "What horseshit!" This is total bullshit. This is the American myth, okay?
It's very convenient to think that. Then we don't have to worry about the poor
wino in the gutter, and he doesn't have to worry about himself, and we basically
can say that all things are for the best in this best of all possible worlds. I
think that that is a total lie, and for someone to espouse that in a film, and
to have it be so incredibly popular, means that people really need to, want to
EF: It's the White House agenda—
JK: It's the Ronald Reagan, the Thousand Points of Light version of pop culture,
and I don't buy it for a minute. That's what I object to in that movie, and I
put it in at that point in the book simply to crystallize a lot of things that
are going on. The audience is a bunch of people who are waiting for the end of
the world, who are starving to death, who have participated in mob violence and
are exhibiting all the signs of hysteria, who are watching this movie and just
loving every minute of it. I think that in some ways that's what's going on in
America right now, and [Chapter 30 is] an exaggerated image of it.
EF: You surprised me there when Richard Shrike is really getting into the movie
and Lucy is saying, "Wait a minute!" Because one would expect, if these were
characters and not real people—
JK: It would have been the other way around. Yeah, well, Richard is attracted by
EF: "Creative Nihilism."
JK: I guess I really haven't answered your initial question, do we seek too much
of this? I think we're prone to fantasies.
EF: I think about advertising as well. I mean, all the different types of
fictions that exist, all the different kinds of explanations and all the
different reasons to accept or reject explanations.
JK: I suppose we're all—living in this media culture—imprinted with the stuff.
We may be very cynical about the ads we see, but at some level we're
caught—we're all using deodorant, and driving the right car, and seeking to wear
the right clothes. We're all caught up in it, no matter how cynical we may
profess to be about it.
EF: And there is a difference between fiction in a novel and the fictions of,
say, television. Most people, I think, understand that somebody wrote a novel,
but with a lot of advertising and a lot of TV, especially if you don't look at
credits, there's a feeling that it's as though this just came out of the void.
It already existed. It has no history. Here it is, and it's monumental. And, of
course, it makes it that much more compelling.
JK: Right. It's almost as if a voice from the sky is speaking to you. Certainly
the media were in my mind when I wrote the book. Poor George is assaulted by all
these images. Messages from the television.
EF: [laughs] You say that he's "running reality tests."
JK: You know, when I was writing the book, I was well into it, and my wife's
brother told me about this Australian movie—Bliss. It's got a very similar
premise to the beginning of the book, and I just was floored by it, and I didn't
want to see the movie because I thought it would preempt my story. I did end up
seeing it, and I liked it a lot, but it was quite different.
The initial situation is where this successful upper-middle-class guy has a
heart attack and undergoes a death experience, then comes back to life, is
resuscitated, and he's convinced that he's in hell. And everything's the same!
He's with his wife and his children, his family and his fancy house! He's got
his mistress and his wife has got her affairs and all that, but he's convinced
he's in hell, and goes around trying to find proof that he's in hell. That
appealed to me a lot. But the movie goes in a very different direction after
EF: That's one of the sort of reversals [that Good News is full of]: the tabloid
journalist who doesn't need to look outside his own life for the stories he's
going to do . . . Richard says to the Reverend at one point, "What I like about
you is that even Charles Manson likes you." Manson has become almost an icon;
he's almost an underground cult anti-hero—
JK: He performed one of the most mediatropic acts of our age. He became a myth
just like that. When I got into my Richard state of mind, I just sort of knew
that that would be appropriate. I always thought that the Reverend was not
going to just be like Jimmy Swaggart, or Heaven forbid, Jerry Falwell. Their
appeal is primarily to people who are already converted to the fundamentalist
viewpoint on the world. It seems to me that the Reverend has a kind of edgy
lunacy to him that would appeal to people who are already like Richard, on the
verge of opting out of everything.
And the Reverend: when you read about Millennial movements throughout history,
the charismatic leaders of these movements tended to sweep people whom you would
never expect to be caught up into their orbit. I wouldn't be surprised if Manson
became a strict Christian. Of a certain sort—a Christian with UFO connections!
Still, this is entirely in keeping with his appeal. And the other thing, I
wanted to have real people in the book, although I don't have a lot of them. So
to have Charles Manson appear in this context struck me as an apposite
connection. A writer often pulls in things that just seem right at the time. And
then, of course, in the revising process, some of it gets lost, and other things
get put back in. I don't remember when exactly it came to me to bring in Charles
Manson at that point, but he presented himself for the purpose [laughs]. I felt
that that was exactly the right person. I suppose that if I were writing it in
another mood, I might have said Shirley MacLaine, which calls up another set of
associations . . . Shirley is probably a fan of the Reverend too, I'm sure!
EF: Probably. She's a bit more tapioca, though.
JK: She doesn't have the nasty side that old Charlie does. Charles, of course,
is a reader of science fiction, too, so I suppose if he reads my book, I may
have to watch my mail!
EF: Yeah, what was it, Stranger in a Strange Land?
JK: That's what they say, he was heavily into that. I don't know. I've heard
disputes against that as well. Some say, no, that's a vile slander of Heinlein's
reputation. It seems totally appropriate to me that Manson would like Stranger
in a Strange Land.
EF: Bioterrorism. One of your feminist terrorists in Harlem says, "Ethics is
for people with full bellies." In one of the interviews you did before, you
said that you think that biogenetic vengeance cooked up in a basement lab is
something that we ought to be . . . You said that biotechnology is something to
worry about. Do you think it's going to reach the point of—
JK: When people can do this in their bathtubs? I don't know, frankly. I'm not
very good at predicting the future in that sense. I do think that biotechnology
has the potential to become much more widespread. You don't need to have an
investment of billions of dollars in order to fool around with gene splicing, as
I understand it. I'm no expert on this, but from what I've read and heard and
talked to other people about, my impression is that you can do this with much
more modest resources. We worry about Iraq building a nuclear bomb, and the
resources they need to do that are immense. I think that they could much more
easily screw around with flu germs for a lot less money and with a lot less
effort. Of course, it's hard to control those things.
So that was the science-fiction rationale for that. That business about "Ethics
is for people with full bellies"—I think that there is a tendency, when you're
in a desperate circumstance, [to hold] this idea that your circumstances justify
your actions. Luz and Concepcion, I like them, but I guess I'm not sure how I
feel about their project.
EF: I think that the reader likes them more than Lucy likes them.
JK: I agree. That's what I intended. Lucy comes round to liking them more. But
Lucy is a white middle-class girl. Oh, she came up from lower-middle-class
circumstances, she's basically bought into the idea that—
EF: White, male, corporate—
JK: Yeah, to go by the rules. She's been stressed because she can see, now that
she's in the heart of the system, that it doesn't always go by the rules. It's a
pretty crummy system. But she still has a commitment to law, so she's not ready
to throw it over. Although she's attracted by that [terrorism]. She comes to see
more and more how some people feel that that's their only alternative.
EF: One of the great metaphors of the book: she's imprisoned and raped, but she
JK: I've had some criticism about that, because she gets away rather easily. The
guy acts like a dunderhead, he really does. It's really convenient for him to
offer her this opportunity [to escape], but it was the best I could do under
the circumstances [laughs].
Any novelist—especially if you're doing something that's pretty ornately
plotted, which is what I was trying for here—writes himself into sticky
situations—my friend Kim Stanley Robinson calls it "thin ice" [laughs]. What
you need to do is skate rather quickly over that thin ice and look very graceful
in the process, so no one notices that you're in danger of breaking through.
That's what I was hoping to do here. I don't know how it came off, but good
enough for my purposes, anyway.
You know, Lucy's a character I had to work hard on, in the end, after I'd gone
through a couple of drafts, because she really wasn't there in the first version
of the book. Bruce and Nancy Sterling, and Jim Kelly, and Sue [Hall, Kessel's
wife] gave me good advice. I had to think a lot more about her. I had her
theoretically there—her actions—but I didn't really have her emotionally
there, and I had to really put myself in her situation and think a lot more
about her to make that come through. I ended up liking her a lot.
EF: She does seem to be the only center of sanity.
JK: That was something I quite consciously wanted to do. Certainly the book
needed one! There are so many wackos in there of various sorts that if there
weren't someone who had some sensibilities that you could at least hold onto,
whose instincts were at least somewhat trustworthy, then you'd lose the force of
There are some books like that, that are a lot of fun to read, but somehow they
don't have as much import. Whereas others do— [Don DeLillo's] White Noise, which
is a book I admire a great deal. I don't know if he'd say that Jack Gladney is a
center of sanity, exactly, but you have a feeling in that book that there is an
implied way of life that's more sane than the way these people are living. And
the sadness of it is that no one seems able to live it [laughs]. This is one
reason I really like that book, it's full of all that. It's a companion novel to
Good News From Outer Space! It's wonderful. I don't pretend that my book is as
good as DeLillo's, but I really admire so many of the things that he did in
there; with the media—it's hilariously funny. Extravagant and silly in certain
places, but also moving.
EF: Very much so. We can see in that book what to look for in life by what is
absent from the book. The first thing we're shown is all of the station wagons,
right? The school and the people in their pullover sweaters; and then we go to
Jack with the Hitler studies and the fear of death and the drugs, the Dylarama
and the Airborne Toxic Event. It's the same thing in Good News: people are
JK: For some way to live.
EF: And we know what they need by what they don't have, or what they think
they're looking for. Again, one of the reasons Lucy is so likeable is that she's
not full of unswerving conviction. She asks questions and she accepts that,
sometimes, she's just not going to get an answer. And since we the reader want
to go along with her, we're forced to accept the same thing.
JK: Finding that way of living—I think it's difficult for a novelist nowadays to
write without irony about a way of life that's fulfilling or satisfying. I think
that in America today it's not easy to see that way of life without being
grossly sentimental or blocking out certain realities. It's a paradox. I suppose
if we knew it, we'd all be living it. But I do think it's necessary to try to
imagine that. It's extremely difficult.
EF: And is the epilogue moving that way? You know, digging potatoes and—
JK: Well, that was my nod in that direction. I can't really say that I presented
anything that's very thorough or convincing. But I did want to suggest that
maybe there is something here.
EF: The emphasis is on process rather than conclusion.
JK: I didn't want to have it be some kind of simple-minded return to the past. I
wanted to have technology and change be something that had to be part of it. Not
that this is some kind of utopia, where everything works out and no one ever
dies and there aren't problems, but—maybe it's a matter of attitude. I did know
I wanted that chapter very badly at the end of the book, and that was a
difficult chapter to write as well. I wrote it many times.
EF: The cloning of Richard?
JK: Or at least a genetic remanipulation of people to give them Richard-like
characteristics. That was my nod at Elvis impersonators. Here we have Elvis,
who's just simply a pop singer—a pretty good one, okay, but now we have people
who imitate him and make a living at it. A whole cult that's built up around
Elvis. Imagine if Jesus were to come again, or someone like Jesus, today. You'd
have Jesus impersonators for sure.
EF: It's ironic, of course, that it's Richard and not the Reverend [who has a
cult grow up around him].
JK: Right, [Richard] who is simply playing "the Game!" Although Richard has
moments where he is out of control, where he is not in control of the Game, in
other words. That's his talent.
EF: Speaking of DeLillo, one of his characters says in Players that the world is
not getting smaller, now that we've mapped it all; it's getting bigger, because
of telecommunications and all of the electronic information [systems]. It's
getting scarier: "there's no one who can explain it all to us."
JK: Well, it's pretty complicated. I guess I can see that. It's smaller in the
sense that you have contact with things you never would have had contact with
before. But on the other hand it is much more complex. There are so many
different stimuli impinging on you, so many different problems. You think about
that. Someone living an agrarian life in 1830 had problems, to be sure, but they
were all pretty stable; the ones he's going to have next year are the ones he
knows now and the ones his father had, and they are confined in the space in
which he works. But today, who knows, we suddenly find out something that's
happening in Indonesia [laughs] which could affect our lives here. At least it
seems that way. Sometimes I wonder about this. It's all coming at us over the
media. I mean, look at it, my life here in Raleigh, my family and my work—it is
sort of the same thing all the time . . .
But when it comes right down to it, the fact that Oliver North is down in the
basement of the White House doing awful things is something that the media is
impinging on me, that causes me to invest my consciousness in it, but that in
fact doesn't immediately affect me. I'm not saying that this is a reason to
ignore it. But I am saying that DeLillo is right, that the world's gotten larger
in the sense that we are connected to these things, and we're being asked to at
least pay them our attention in ways that would never have happened in the past.
And I suppose that makes our lives a lot more difficult in some ways.
EF: And of course the percentage of people who bother to go vote keeps dropping—
JK: Yeah, but see, once you tell me that fact, I have to worry about
EF: It's Bell's Theorem—every molecule is related to every other. Well. Do you
see conspiracies out there? I should have asked this when we were talking about
JK: Oh, well, I don't know what you mean by conspiracy.
EF: On any level really. Advertising, or the CIA, or—
JK: I think that there are some things you might legitimately call conspiracy in
the traditional sense. I think that for instance the CIA has done certain really
awful things. I'm not too sure about how Kennedy was killed, that sort of thing.
On the other hand, I think mostly what happens is that, if you want to talk
about conspiracy, there's more like sets of beliefs that people hold in common
that enforce behavior that is counter-productive. That's not necessarily a
conspiracy, but it can act like one. So that people will be reacting to things
that aren't there [laughs]. Or they'll be creating a reality based on beliefs.
Belief systems, in other words, create conspiracies. Or, I wouldn't call them
conspiracies exactly, but they create realities that are networks.
EF: Prejudices, and so on.
JK: Right, prejudices . . . so that reality can be based on fantasy; something
which is really simply a kind of mass delusion can be seen to be as real as this
filing cabinet. For instance, there was a cover article in Business Week, just
before the Iran-Contra story broke, about Ronald Reagan's management style, and
how it was tremendously efficient, and how his laissez-faire thing was sweeping
through business and government, because this guy really knew how to run a
government. And two months later we find out the guy doesn't even know what's
going on in the next room. Now, many of us realized from day one that the guy
didn't know what was going on in the next room. But there was this perception
that Reagan had it, okay? And if that perception is held by enough people, and
is reinforced by the media enough—which it does get—if enough people believe in
a stupid thing, then it becomes a stupid fact. As real as this filing cabinet.
And they will order their lives so as to react in response to this delusion.
EF: How about the crop circles, for example?
JK: [laughs] Okay, right! And some of these may be originated by people
consciously plotting out some nefarious plan or purpose . . . But I don't tend
to ascribe to conspiracy what can more easily be ascribed to incompetence
[laughs]. If there are Aliens out there planning everything, I have a feeling
that what they're planning is not what we might imagine they're planning.
EF: John Sladek suggests that if they come, it will only be because they want to
JK: Right. I wrote a story, I don't know if you've seen it, called "Invaders,"
where they come and all they want is cocaine. They're not out to do anything in
particular; all they want to do is score some cocaine. That's more amusing and
perhaps more real to me than the idea of a vast conspiracy. There are a lot of
people out there whose belief systems I cannot abide; they strike me as being
insane and yet they're respected and powerful. Of course, they'd probably say
the same thing about me.
EF: Besides the obvious in-jokes [in Good News], such as playing with the
Triangle Commission [of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill], local politics and so
on, or the room back here [the student lounge in the Tompkins Building of North
Carolina State University] where all the homeless sleep, do you have
science-fiction in-jokes? I kept thinking that Good News can kind of be read as
a response to Clarke's Childhood's End. Do you have games that other writers
will pick up on?
JK: Other books that I'm playing off of? I may have some in there that I can't
remember, but I certainly didn't have Clarke in mind, with his aliens. I did
want to play with the idea of the shape-changing aliens, which have appeared
many times, in many kinds of science fiction.
EF: You often seem to be laughing at a lot of the conventions.
JK: Right, well, frankly I'm not a writer who comes up with ideas that have
never been done before in science fiction. If I have a virtue, it's a matter of
doing these old things in a new way, or adding another wrinkle on an old thing.
My initial inspiration for that aspect of the book was the idea of Melville's
The Confidence Man, where you have essentially the disguise-changing person who
bilks various people throughout the book and keeps coming back in a different
guise every couple of chapters. I thought, geez, this is a natural, for
shape-changing aliens could do this easily, they'd have a better time at it than
the confidence man in Melville's book. That was my cross-fertilization there,
to take the image of Melville's confidence man, whose goal seems to be to
destroy the other characters' confidence in anything, in religion, in God, in
love, in politics, in all these institutions and beliefs. Melville's confidence
man doesn't even seem interested in money. Money seems to be beside the point.
EF: It's control.
JK: Yeah, it's mind-games. That's what I wanted to have. My Aliens would run
mind-games on various characters. I felt that I'd seen many shape-changing
aliens in science fiction, but I'd never seen them used to that effect. And you
might say, well, why would aliens do such a stupid thing? But I gave at least a
possible reason at the end there.
EF: You offer us a few different theories to think about.
JK: I think the last [theory] is the most convincing, the one that George is
given, but then the Alien leaves the room before he can ever really pursue it.
EF: That was such a moving scene, when George tells the Alien to fuck off. But
he still gets the Big Answer anyway.
JK: Thank you. I intended that to be George's crucial moment, there. When he
finally gets something right.
EF: So, rather than looking at other SF, I should have been looking at Melville.
JK: Some say I've made my entire career from ripping off Melville, and there's
some truth to that. He's been a big influence on me. I think that I could have
chosen worse. I think I've said this elsewhere, but Melville, to me, is sort of
a proto-science-fiction writer anyway. He writes about cosmic ideas; he's not
interested in the mundane surfaces of everyday life. This is why he was disliked
by someone like Henry James. I don't know if Henry James ever read him, but
James certainly was aware of him. Melville was ignored, I think, by the realists
because he wasn't any kind of realist. His stories are improbable, the plots are
silly, there are hardly any women characters. He's interested more in the cosmic
meaning of the whale rather than sharply observed social reality. He'll tell you
a lot about how a whale really lives, but the interest of the book lies
elsewhere—it's not just about whales.
EF: It's almost like Olaf Stapledon.
JK: Right. I have the feeling that if Melville were in the twentieth century he
would have written science fiction. I wrote a story about that one time, called
"Herman Melville, Space Opera Virtuoso."
EF: Works in progress. You told me you're on another novel now. Are you dealing
with the same kind of topics?
JK: Not at all, no. With Good News, I spent five years writing the stupid thing,
and I immersed myself in that way of thinking so much and for so long, I wanted
to do something different. This thing I'm working on now is hardly far enough
along to have any assurance of completion. I don't know when I'm going to finish
it. I tend, when I work on something, to reach a certain critical point of
progress where I know at that point, okay, this is definitely going to get done.
I haven't reached that point on this novel. It's called, tentatively, Corrupting
Mr. Nice. It's a comedy and a love story, and it's nowhere near as political or
outward-directed as Good News. It's more about the characters. I've always been
a lover of screwball comedy or romantic comedy, the kind of films that were made
in the 30's and 40's. I'm a real fan of Preston Sturges because there's a kind
of satirical edge or social comment implicit in his comedies. Most of these
comedies don't have much in the way of social comment in them, but his do. I
My story is a time-travel story about a dunderheaded younger son of a wealthy
family in the future, who has studied paleontology. His father doesn't know
what to do with him. The father would like him to go into business, but he's no
good. In some ways it's an archaic premise. At any rate, time travel has been
invented; it's possible to visit the past. His father bankrolls a research
station in the Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs rule. He sends his son back
there to study dinosaurs. The story takes place when he's travelling back to the
future with a specimen of dinosaur which is very rare, worth billions of
dollars. Time travel is so set up that you can only travel in discrete leaps of
a certain amount of time.
EF: The Pauli exclusion principle.
JK: Whatever, yeah. He gets hung up in this time stop in Zero A.D. or
thereabouts, first-century A.D., in a hotel there. Time tourism is very popular
in the historical periods, where people can go back and visit ancient Rome, or
revolutionary France, or the Elizabethan age—
EF: [laughs] You don't sweat the grandfather paradox at all—
JK: No, in fact I actually make a lot of fun of the grandfather paradox,
because in the future they basically treat the past the way we treat the Third
World, as a place to be exploited and used. Sterling and Lew Shiner used this
idea in a story once ["Mozart in Mirrorshades"]. My time travellers don't care
at all about changing the past, because they haven't discovered any effect. You
can go back, for instance, and shoot Julius Caesar, or kidnap Jesus, and when
you go back to the present nothing has changed. Once they discover this, they
develop a theory that there are billions of time-tracks that are contiguous.
When you go back and shoot Julius Caesar, you come back to the present [and find
that] you only shot Julius Caesar in one of the billion time-tracks, and that
time-track has split itself off into another area, but you come back to your own
future, which is not connected to that. So everything's fine. You can go back
and do anything you want. You can pump oil out of the past, or steal the Mona
Lisa and bring it to the present. So this is the background premise here. It's
kind of fun to play these games. It goes against all the science-fiction
paradigms where you have the Time Patrol preventing people from stepping on
butterflies and stuff like that. Here they're very exploitive.
There is a kind of political point being made there. In my future there are
[people whom] you could call the equivalent of the Sierra Club, who want to
protect the past. But they have about as much effect as the Sierra Club does
here. They keep lobbying people, saying, "No, don't build that hotel in the
middle of the Parthenon!" [laughs]. But no one listens because there's money to
be made. But that's in the background.
The novel is a love story between my dunderheaded hero with the dinosaur and
this young woman and her father, who are con artists, who make their living
ripping off tourists in the past. They have various scams they run. I've been
doing some research on con games, it's kind of fun. Various games: the badger
game, and the wire. There are certain classic cons. They do a modified badger
game with a historical riff. They also do things like sell pieces of the True
Cross and things like that. Anyway, it becomes a complex love story.
EF: That's pretty much all the formal questions. Thanks a lot.
JK: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.
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