When you think of the name Alan Dean Foster, you might think of him as the prolific author of multiple science fiction series, or as a media tie-in grand master. But in our house he, along with Frank Herbert, is one of the two writers who re-sparked our interest in science fiction during our college days. I jumped at a chance to interview him about his latest book. He and I had exchanged e-mails in the past, but we had never spoken before. The resulting Saturday morning phone conversation was a delight, as we discussed and his thoughts on the relaunched Star Trek franchise, his new travel book Predators I Have Known, and how his environmental concerns have informed his science fiction.
Go right here for a review of Foster's travel book and memoir Predators I Have Known.
Alan J. Porter: Can you tell me something about Predators I Have Known, perhaps a quick rundown of what the book's about? I believe it's your first nonfiction work, even though I have seen it listed as a novel on a couple of websites.
Alan Dean Foster: It's my first nonfiction book. I've written a lot of nonfiction before, but not an entire book. I've done a lot of traveling, and people have been asking me for years, why don't you write a travel book?
And I thought about it, because I enjoy talking about my travels, but I didn't want to do just another standard travel book. You know, 'Here we are today in The Louvre, and down the hall is the Mona Lisa,' that sort if thing.
So I kept trying to think of an approach, and it occurred to me that everybody loves animal stories, and once I'd settled on that I tried to narrow it down some, and it became a book entirely about encounters and experiences I've had with dangerous animals.
AJP: So is there something about dangerous animals in particular that drew you to them, as opposed to the soft and cuddly kind?
ADF: I like the soft and cuddly kind too, of course. But when I was young I read a lot of stuff by Frank Buck, Bring Em Back Alive, etc., and you are naturally attracted to something that gives you a thrill as well as just a warm feeling.
And I think most people are fascinated in our sophisticated, developed, Western society, by the thought that there might still be something out there in nature that's sufficiently hostile to do us damage. I live in Arizona where this isn't as unusual as it might be in some place like New York, or London.
And people always seem to want the drama more than the cuddly, and frankly it's more exciting when you are reading about a confrontation between two lions than a confrontation between two house cats.
AJP: Predators is set to be published as and enhanced multi-media eBook. Was that part of the plan right from the start, or is this something of an experiment to try out the new world of digital publishing?
ADF: It's kind of interesting the way it happened. Open Road Media bought the book before they realized I had 40 years worth of video that would illustrate the book, and at first they didn't want to do an illustrated book in that sense.
Their model is to shoot a short video of the author, and where they work, and produce a quick visual biography of them to enhance the reading experience, which is something that is obviously ideally suited for a multimedia platform, as opposed to just print.
But I happened to have all of this video sitting around, so they used some of it in the production for the eBook, so for example when you are reading the book on the iPad you can get to see some of the video I've shot over the years of situations that I talk about in the book, which is really a neat thing.
AJP: Are there any plans to do a traditional copy of the book at some point?
ADF: I believe they will do a standard trade paperback as well.
AJP: You mentioned the film crew and the mini-biography. Could you explain a bit more about that?
ADF: The film crew comes out, and they did a long interview with me in my study, took a lot of video in the study, then we went out and walked around Prescott, Arizona where I live, which is fortunate in having some visually dramatic areas, so it made for some nice pictures.
It's all very atmospheric and very nice; strange though to be in that position. I always see myself as if looking at someone else whom is doing those things. It's like surely that's not me they are talking about, that's some other guy. I think a lot of people have that sense of disassociation.
I feel I'm just somebody who lives in Prescott, AZ and turns out an occasional story, and I'm not really this guy that's written all these books about these things they are talking about. It's very flattering. And it never gets old, I still get the same thrill out of that sort of thing that I did when my first book was published, I don't know if that makes me naive or what, but it's just who I am.
AJP: So returning to the predators, was there any that you got to know during your travels that surprised you?
ADF: I don't want to give away the whole book, but you are always surprised. There are things even about carnivorous animals that are well known, because everyone has seen 8,000 hours of National Geographic and Discovery Channel, but there are still things that surprise you.
For example, Lions, they tend to be very lazy, in the day they like to sleep a lot, but you see a lion at night and it's a completely different animal, it's infinitely more alert, and aware, and the other thing is how quick they can move from a standing position.
I often tell the story about three tourists from Twain (this is a true story) in Kruger National Park in South Africa. in the park there are signs all over saying do not get out if your vehicle, stay in your car except at designated spots.
And about twenty years ago, these three gentlemen came upon a pride of sleeping lions. Well, a pride of sleeping lions looks exactly like a pride of sleeping kitty cats, they are all lying around, and their legs are sprawled every which way, so these guys got out of their car and two of them walked over to the pride of lions, and turned around to have their picture taken with the lions by the third guy. I call it the Disneyland syndrome. And the lions promptly woke up and ate the two of them! The only one who got away was the photographer who was standing close to the car. So I knew lions were fast and quick, they have to be, but no matter how often you see it on television, you don't realize how quick they can move from a standing start. If you see one in a sitting position, and suddenly it decides to move, it will shock you with the speed it moves.
Another example would be sharks. So many people are terrified of sharks because everything they see on television is sharks eating something. But if you are around sharks, even big sharks, unless there is blood or chum in the water, they are just like a pack of dogs. I tell people if you want to see behavior like you see shark behavior on the Discovery Channel, go get 3lbs of raw hamburger, find yourself an alley in your town somewhere with a pack of dogs, and throw the hamburger in the middle of the dogs, and you'll get exactly the same kind of action.
When you see sharks, particularly the first time, I'm kind of used to it now, they just come around like dogs, they take a look at you, they may take a sniff and be curious, and then they go away because you are not their natural prey.
I had one encounter at a place called Henderson Island, which is an extremely remote island in the South Pacific with no people and no other islands near by, no landing strip. Half a dozen other people and I were on a ship, and we had the opportunity to go diving there, and the first thing that happened when we hit the water was that a dozen reef sharks immediately came up to see what was going on.
They had never seen people before, so there reaction was completely different from what you get from for example sharks off shore in the Bahamas or any place else that there's a human presence. I could go on and on about stuff like that.
The other thing that surprised me the most was leeches. They just sit there and suck your blood and you don't feel them.
AJP: Really? I always thought it would sting.
ADF: There is one called the tiger leech which does make a sting when it bites, but if you are not familiar with the sensation, and I wasn't, you think your belt is pinching you or something like that. But other leeches, they just bite and they release a chemical which kills any kind of pain or anything and also an anti-coagulant to make the blood flow, and you are not aware of them until you look and see the blood later coming off your hip or where ever; or the leech on the floor where it's dropped off, and it never does hurt.
Even the tiger leech, once it bites you, that's it, there's no more pain. You can bleed for hours and hours, because of the anti-coagulant that's been injected into the wound, and there is absolutely no pain, it's a very strange sort of condition, you are sitting there bleeding away, your clothes are being stained, and you don't feel a thing. That surprised me. You would think that you would feel something.
AJP: That's creepy.
ADF: It's very creepy. With Dracula you get this huge dramatic scene, the woman is swooning, or somebody is fighting, and you have the indication that something terrible is going on, but with a real vampire, and this is true of vampire bats as well as leeches, you don't feel anything; because obviously if you feel something, you are going to react to the presence of the animal, and the animal is not going to be able to feed.
Nature is wondrously inventive.
AJP: I'd never really thought about it, but the fact that is secretes something that numbs the wound and injects an anti-coagulant makes perfect sense.
ADF: Yes, it's considerably less painful to be bitten by a leech, or seven leeches, than it is to go to the doctor and get a standard vaccination.
AJP: Looking back over my readings of your work over the years, environmental concerns have been pretty much a common theme in your science fiction, even if it's not always been explicitly stated. Do you think that's a fair observation?
ADF: Yes, I do. First I want to mention that OpenRoad, in addition to publishing Predators, is reprinting all of the Spellsinger books, which have been out of print for a while. Getting back to the question, that's a fair observation. I don't believe in preaching at people, or hitting people over the head with something you want to say. I think it's better to tuck the message into a line or two of a book that 100,000 people read rather than writing that message out explicitly and in detail in a small tome that 20 people might read.
The entertainment comes first, and if you can say something and convey your personal opinion on the state of the world, or politics or anything else without being overt about it, then I think you communicate the message a lot more effectively.
AJP: Are there any of your novels, or series, that you would say is more based on environmental issues than others?
ADF: There is no question that the three Mid World stories do that. It's all about the inter-relationship between people and their environment. Of course they are adventurous stories, but at heart those stories are about how everything is tied together in the world. Everything is interconnected, and if you remove one piece then something else is going to die. That idea is also alluded to in a number of other books, too.
AJP: I'm guessing that on your various excursions to the wild and meetings with animals, that some of those have given you inspirations for characters and stories, as well as providing good background for world building?
ADF: Absolutely. You know, I always felt when I started reading science fiction that guys like Asimov and Heinlein and people like that, I always envisioned them scaling mountains, hacking their way through impenetrable jungles, and then when I got to meet them when I was older, I was stunned to find out that their idea of an exotic excursion was pretty much to take a cruise, or go to a science fiction convention, or go to New York and meet their publisher!
I was really crushed, I thought they would be much more like Sir Richard Francis Burton. When people ask me "Who would you be if you could be someone else?" that's who I would have been. And I couldn't understand how they could write these wonderful stories about other worlds and other cultures without experiencing other cultures.
It's something I always wanted to do, and did as soon as I could. The first time was in 1973 and I started traveling, sometimes I'll get a whole book out of a trip, something like Into The Out Of, which is based on a month and a half that my wife and I spent driving around Tanzania and Kenya. I actually thought I'd get something entirely different out of that trip, and the things that I saw and experienced, the people that I met, utterly changed what I had mentally prepared myself for and I ended up writing an entirely different book.
At other times I'll get just certain characters out of people that I've met, or I might combine portions of several different trips in a book, like Interlopers, which goes from Peru, to Germany, to Australia; and all of those things will come together in one book. I don't really know how I'm going to use the experiences from the trios, but they all invariably show up in one way or another in the books and stories.
AJP: If you don't mind, I'd like to change topics entirely. The last time we exchanged e-mails, you very kindly did an interview for me when I was working on my book about the history of Star Trek in comics. What was your opinion of the recent Star Trek reboot for which you wrote the novelization?
ADF: I was very pleasantly surprised, I didn't think it was a good idea, and I didn't see how they were going to do it, and I wasn't alone in that opinion, and when I saw it for the first time, I thought to myself, well, they brought it off. It wasn't perfect, there was no way it was going to be perfect. But I thought they took a very appropriate route to go and I enjoyed the film very much. There were scientific lapses in it, and such, but that didn't bother the general audience, obviously.
The main feeling I had coming out of the screening of it that I saw was, this film is going to be a big success not because it successfully reinvents Star Trek, and not because it follows the old tropes of the show, and not just because a lot of Star Trek fans will go see it anyway; this film is going to be a big success because it's a good movie, and people who know nothing about Star Trek, or science fiction for that matter, can go in and enjoy this movie as a movie.
The Human Blend
AJP: On to more recent works, can you tell me a bit about your latest novel, The Human Blend, which I believe is the start of a new trilogy.
ADF: The Human Blend is set in a near future where global warming has raised sea-levels, but that's background material. The main thrust of the book is, at least the first book, is.
I really wanted to do something on the future of cosmetic surgery, to make it simple, what happens if instead of just getting a face lift or your ears tucked back, or a hair transplant, you can do essentially anything you want to the body? And do it at a reasonable price, what if that sort of bodily modification becomes as cheap as getting your hair colored, what would people do?
I think the first thing that I think that people would do is say I'd like to look like Clark Gable, or Marilyn Monroe, that immediately brings you up to the position you have when you have three women at a party with the same dress. If you have lots of Clark Gables and Marilyn Monroes walking around, then suddenly it's not such a special deal any more. so what's the next step after that?
Maybe you have a football player who'd like to be a little bit bigger, a quarterback with an arm that can throw a little bit further, or if he's a goal keeper for Manchester Untied, maybe he'd like to have six foot long arms? If that becomes possible, then very quickly sports as we know it becomes obsolete.
what if you were an opera singer and you could have your vocal cords modified so you could sing all five octaves, where do you go with that that makes it worthwhile to do? What special attributes do you want to have that would make you distinctive, or different, or better at your job, let's say something simple like if you were a fireman, what if you could have your skin modified so that it was fireproof?
There are so many different things that people don't necessarily think about beyond the movie-star looks idea. And then you would have people like those people today who say 'I'm bald and I'm not getting a hair transplant, because this is the way I am.' You would have a lot of people who wouldn't get any of these changes, So you have these two groups, the ones who had the changes, who I called melds, and the ones who didn't have anything done, who I called naturals.
And that raises more questions, would they get along, would you have problems in society?
There are a lot of different aspects to this sort of bodily modification which we may be getting to even quicker than I thought in my story. There was an article I read the other day about giving a robot the ability to smell, and in the same magazine, prosthetic skin where you can actually feel something, a completely artificial skin for a prosthetic hand, and this is all going to become common, and when it becomes common it becomes cheap.
It's going to be an interesting planet a couple of hundred years from now, not through just mechanical advances, but through biological modification as well. They'll go into the body and be able to change things around physically. You should be able to grow any organ you want , and we are getting close to that, the star fish can do it, so we should be able to. There were so many things that I had fun with, hence the title The Human Blend, and basically because it's not a tract on bio-modification, it's a story. its the story of a thief named Whisper, and something he steals which everyone seems to want, but he has no clue what it is because he's not real bright, and the doctor he goes to for help who is a natural and they have to form a -- well, I'm not going into details. Read the book!
AJP: Going back to Predators, most of the readers of this interview will be science fiction readers familiar with your SF work, what's your pitch for why they should download Predators I Have Known to their Kindles and iPads?
ADF: Aside from the fact that I think it's a very good book, people who have read my science fiction will find without searching for it, bits and pieces of Predators where they will get a little light that will come on hopefully, and say, "Oh wait a minute, this is very much like what I read in this book, or that's where he got the idea for that."
Having said that, it's not a giant footnote to my science fiction and fantasy, but it's related because you can see the inspiration. The real life leading to the fiction.