Science Fiction Studies

#59 = Volume 20, Part 1 = March 1993

Ellen Feehan

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 revolutionists.

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 enemies.

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 wrong [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 people].

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 falsification.

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 believe that.

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 lunacy [laughs].

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 that.

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 breaks free.

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 the satire.

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 searching—

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 that!

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 Delano.

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 borrow money.

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 like that.

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.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home