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A Chat with Ben Bova
May 2014
by Catherine Book
I was happy to see Ben again; I interviewed him back in 2005. We met up again at the 2014 Tucson Book Festival.

A lot of things have changed since then so I asked him how much he now uses social media.  Not too much, he replied.  He does have his own website and if anyone writes to him, he’ll write back.  And even though answering back takes time away from writing, Ben personally answers all the email he gets.  I wondered if he thought he might get more involved with other forms of social media like Twitter but he shook his head.  Takes too much time, he told me.  And since he’s such an established writer, his publisher doesn’t require it of him as they might for a new writer.  He did agree that new writers pretty much need to self-promote.

I asked him what he’s currently working on.  He’s working on the next novel in his Grand Tour series, a sequel to New Earth.  Both New Earth, which came out late last year, and its predecessor, Farside, are both doing well.  Ben’s received good feedback from his fans and the sales are good.

So, I asked him what he thought was most important to him:  characters, setting, plot?  Oh, characters, he told me firmly. Characters determine everything. Is there a particular character he liked best?  No, all of them, even the ones who might not do well.  He’s always felt he should be able to write a novel and be able to reverse the antagonist and the protagonist.  The antagonist doesn’t have to be either good or bad, they just do what they think they need to do.  He speculated that it would be fun to write Hamlet from the viewpoint of Claudius.

Can he work on multiple projects at the same time?  He writes one book at a time but the ideas do keep coming and he’s always thinking about them and moving them around in his head.  So when someone asks him “how long does it take to write a book”, what they are really asking is how long it takes to type it.  The typing takes about a year or more, the book idea itself might take years and year.  Is there any project near and dear to his heart that he’d want to do?  No, he said he’s got many stories “on the approach ramp” but only waiting on time, not that he couldn’t do them.

What did he think would be a plausible apocalyptic scenario that would destroy mankind?  He noted it would be very, very difficult to destroy the planet, mankind is easier.  He observed that Putin’s recent activities have risen back up the specter of nuclear war.  But he mostly doubted that would happen.  More likely would be disease or environmental degradation.  He speculated that a pandemic is possible with our over-use of medications; on the other hand he said, we’re learning more and more about biology.  We’re getting better about killing bugs without the use of medications – using their own chemistry against them.

Does he think mankind has learned too much too fast?  No, no such thing as “learning too much.”  Even if we don’t use our knowledge responsibly, I pushed?  Knowledge is always better than ignorance, he asserted.  We’ve moved from primitive creatures to the pinnacle of terrestrial species and we’re the victims of our success with seven billion of us competing for resources.  Our problems are, of course, because there are so many of us.  He imagined that if we could share resources equably everyone would be rich enough to stop having lots of children.  That’s when population will level off.

What trait of the human race would he like to improve upon?  He mused for a moment and then told me they don’t read enough science fiction!  But seriously, he believes we really need to get over our deep-seated xenophobia.  He quoted lines from a song from the musical South Pacific about how we must be taught to hate and fear, over and over again – until we believe.  Once it was a survival trait but we can’t afford it anymore.  Today, that level of intolerance is self-defeating.

Did Ben think our children are adequately educated in science, math and history?  No, he replied – they aren’t even adequately educated in spelling!  How do we do better with those hard sciences that we really need?  Well, he slowly replied (a jocular reply) – he always thought the Roman army had the right idea: decimation -  kill every tenth teacher and the rest will get the idea.  The problem with public education is its parallel to a monopoly.  Since it’s the only school system, there is no incentive to provide ‘good customer service.’  For example:  parent citizens have an opportunity to approve or not approve a school budget.  But…if they don’t approve something, they face the prospect of having their kids at home.   Can it be improved or is it all about money and politics?  No, he thought it was all about unions and seniority.  Every attempt made to improve schools has been drown in a sea of indifference and duplicity.  I wondered if without a better effort to educate our kids, will we ever make it into space?  Oh, yes, he said firmly.  All societies are run by an elite; and while democracies are good because they can have their elite changed from time to time without bloodshed, the number of people in Congress who write our laws are a very small number of the people in this country.  The number of scientists are also a small number of the population but they produce almost all of our advances.  It won’t be NASA since that’s run by the government; it will probably be private industry that saves us.  For a mere $200,000 one can buy passage on a sub-orbital flight next year.  Would he go?  Ben laughed and said not on the first one.  Let ‘em work out the bugs first.

Thank you again, Ben, and keep those novels coming.

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