A future of hope? Choice must be made in author’s new novel set in 2050


By Kathy Day

Even though David Brin identifies himself as a science fiction writer, he declares the genre has been misnamed.

It should be called “speculative history,” the local author and futurist said before a book signing for his newest work, “Existence,” last week at Mysterious Galaxy Books in Kearny Mesa. “These are stories about the effects of change on individuals, peoples and generations.”

He circles around a lot of topics in his interviews, from the state of science education — we’re not as bad off as everyone thinks, he posits — to what “artsy types” think of science fiction — they “despise it.”

Be certain, though, that his interest in science fiction began with a love of history and he’s quite willing to talk about either or both.

While he says only 10 percent of science fiction writers are scientists — and he’s one — all science fiction writers devour history.

As a man who holds an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Cal Tech, a master’s in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in space physics from UCSD, he brings a unique understanding of science and technology to his craft. Adding adventure and imagination, he has written more than a dozen novels of his own, collaborated with other authors on more, and published graphic novels, young adult novels and nonfiction as well as short fiction. One book, “The Postman” was made into a film starring Kevin Costner in 1997.

Writing was his “passionate hobby,” he said, noting that he figured he would publish a novel every five or six years while teaching and doing research. But, he added, “civilization had other plans for me ... I had success at storytelling and that became the tail that wagged the dog.”

A third generation writer, Brin has won awards from Hugo International Science Fiction, the American Library Association and Nebula. (His daughter seems to be continuing the family tradition as she is now a journalism major who has designs on following in his footsteps. Brin and his wife, Cheryl, who he followed to Paris when she was doing her post-doctoral degree, also have two sons.)

More recently, with UCSD’s Sheldon Brown, Brin helped formulate the proposal for the newly launched Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination and will be involved as the new center at UCSD moves forward. While his role hasn’t been determined, he joked that he will be “a grand old fart adviser.”

Brown was UCSD’s director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts until he was named to head the Clarke Center which aims “to develop, catalyze, and be a global resource for research, teaching, and value-added initiatives inspired by the singularly imaginative, multi-disciplinary legacy of Sir Arthur Clarke.”

Using all of the resources of the university — and with the support of all of its deans — the focus will be on collaborations around the world in technology, education, engineering, health, science, industry, environment, entertainment and the arts.

Brin, who blogs regularly, calls himself the go-to guy on extraterrestrial life and says he’s “best known as a ‘futurist’” who comments plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society. He’s been featured at TEDxDelMar, addressing the question “Is Outer Space Still Part of the Dream,” has spoken to NASA scientists and, on July 14, he’ll be part of a panel at Comic-Con on “Traveling the Spacetime Continuum” and signing his recent work, “Existence.”

His first new novel in nine years, “Existence” is set in 2050. His website, which includes an illustrated trailer to the work with stunning art by Patrick Farley, teases readers: “Billions of planets may be ripe for life, even intelligence. So where is Everybody? Do civilizations make the same fatal mistakes over and over? Might we be the first to cross the minefield, evading every trap to learn the secret of Existence?”

He calls himself a hopeful person. “Only by studying history can you overcome cynicism and realize how amazing this trip has been,” he said. “Think about it. Our ancestors struggled hard. The best of them dreamed we’d be better off than they were. … At this rate our grandchildren may be amazing but we’ve somehow got to get across the danger zone of the next 20 years.”

That’s part of the message he’s trying to convey in “Existence” and why he picked the time frame for the novel.

In it, he said, “the prospects are neither all gloomy nor all sunny.”

Adding, “We’ve been very smart between now and 2050 at keeping disasters barely contained … then something new arrives that forces us to finally make up our minds about whether to deliberately choose a future of hope.”

With his wife on hand at last week’s book signing, the audience of more than 50 fans who seemed more like friends than fans was ready to hear some details as Brin basked in their attention.

“It’s nice to be back,” he said.