Focus: Interview & Review
SFRevu Interview: L.E. Modesitt / The Forever Hero / Gravity Dreams
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| SFRevu Interview: L.E. Modesitt
Though I just discovered L.E.Modessit, Jr. last year with Ghost of the Revelator, he has a substantial body of work out. Tor has published the trio of stories that make up The Forever Hero as a single volume, GotR is out as a paperback, and his latest book, Gravity Dreams, hit the shelves in July. The author turns out to be as acomplished and productive as any SF hero, his own included, and responded to our request for an interview with alacrity.
SFR) How is Gravity Dreams being received?
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.) Initial indications are that sales are relatively strong. It made the Locus bestseller list for June, and the publisher says that the initial orders were good. As for reviews, they run from so-so to very good. It's clear that some reviewers don't have much patience for a science fiction novel with characterization and deeper philosophical insights. One was fascinated with my "hyperspace," but couldn't be bothered to understand "passion" as the basis of the advance of civilization -- typical of the fascination that some have with gadgets over what makes civilization run. The gimmick freaks forget history. The Chinese had most of the technology that western Europe used to conquer the world anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years before Europe did. If technology alone ruled, then the world language would be Chinese, and would have been for more than a 1000 years. Gravity Dreams is about cultures, and about how hard it is for any culture to change, and what the pressures are, and the associated costs. The fact that I've taken this on and that sales are good is encouraging.
SFR) The central character in Gravity Dreams is a Dzin master. Is Dzin a descendent of Zen? How did this aspect of the story come about?
LEM) As you suggested, I postulated Dzin as a follow-on offshoot of Zen, and you can track that from some of the adapted sayings which begin the chapters. As for how I decided on Dzin, that's hard to pin down exactly, but it came to me that a post-technology culture, such as the one in which Tyndel is raised, would have to develop and institutionalize a rationale which accepts and exalts stability and personal insight. Dzin is a two-edged blade, but one edge is always sheathed in Dorcha.
SFR) Gravity Dreams begins much like The Forever Hero, with an outcast hunted by townsfolk. Both characters start out on Earth and are taken into a galactic culture where they transcend their beginnings. The two men are very different though. In TFH, the protagonist is superior to everyone he meets and full of fight. In Gravity Dreams he is just the opposite - mild mannered and reluctant to accept the gifts of nanotech.
Are they just two different books, with different themes, or has your point of view changed? Have your views changed overall during your writing career?
LEM) I'd have to say that both statements are true. The books postulate different cultures. For Gerswin [The Forever Hero] even to survive requires immense physical and mental gifts, because, in essence, he has to transcend a wilderness/barbarian culture before he gets indoctrinated in the ways of the Empire. Tyndel, on the other hand, comes from a mature and highly regimented civilization where that sort of behavior is socialized out very early and where anyone who won't socialize won't get the kind of training Tyndel does. So the characters have to be very different because of their backgrounds.
I do think that as time has passed, I've come to understand even more the subtleties of culture and socialization, and the books probably reflect that. What hasn't changed is my belief that only the passionate and the uncommon can change the elements and course of events. Sometimes, often, they fail, but seldom do those without passion and uncommon talents do more than act as caretakers and reflections of the mob.
SFR) Ghost of the Revelator, which follows Of Tangible Ghosts, was one of my favorite books from last year. Will we be returning to the world of espionage, opera and ectoplasm? Will Llysette's success prove her husband's undoing?
LEM) I don't know. My editor has a standing request for another book about Johan and Llysette, and I would like to write another... but I won't until I have the right issues/setting/etc... Llysette's success is certainly going to make Johan's life more interesting and challenging. That I can guarantee.
SFR) There seems to be a lot of Space Opera in your writing, although Ghost of the Revelator has a great sense of classic Spy stories. What sort of books did you read growing up? Do you remember the first SF you read?
LEM) I read everything from the Oz books to the Hardy Boys and the original Tom Swift books, Nancy Drew, then graduated to SF and mysteries, and then to poetry. The first SF book that I remember reading was Van Vogt's Slan. I actually didn't read much Space Opera. I only read one of the Doc Smith Lensmen books, and not until much later.
SFR) How old were you when your first book was published? How did you break into print?
LEM) My first book was published when I was 39, and that was The Fires of Paratime [later reissued in its full form as The Timegod]. I'd actually broken into print almost ten years earlier with a story in Analog, entitled "The Great American Economy." After that first story sale, I sold several more stories, on and off, to various magazines while working full-time on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
SFR) Have any of your titles been optioned? Would you like to see any turned into movies? Which ones?
LEM) James Cameron's outfit expressed some interest in The Ecolitan Enigma, but it never got to the option stage, and several independent film-makers have inquired about Adiamante. I'd be happy to see any turned into movies, but I'd probably wince at the results if they were.
SFR) Do you have a favorite SF movie?
LEM) Portrait of Jenny -- although it's older, it's far better in my opinion than most of the ones that followed, probably because it deals with love and characters more than with gadgets and gimmicks.
SFR) What's good and bad about SF in other media?
LEM) There are several problems with translating SF into other media. First, most people in the other media don't understand SF. Second, one of SF's strengths is that it uses differences in cultures and technology to pose problems that people have trouble considering in non-SF venues. Translating the subtleties of entire imaginary cultures is difficult, especially since many writers leave those subtleties to the reader's imagination, but once you go to visual media you have to depict all of the culture. So what happens is that all too often the result is caricature, often very bad caricature. Just look at the movie Starship Troopers. In the book, Heinlein raises a number of basic philosophical points about culture. None of those made the cut. He also postulates some changes in warfare, including the powered suits. Those didn't make the cut either.
SFR) It seems like a lot of novels about how our technological civilization failed have come out recently. Souls in the Great Machine, Down in the Darkness, and Gravity Dreams all share the vision that our current civilization will fail, through anger or arrogance. Even Kim Stanley Robinson's masterpiece of terraforming, Red, Blue and Green Mars comes to a bad ending when the biosphere crashes. Isn't there any hopeful SF anymore?
LEM) I beg to differ. All of my SF has strong elements of hope. Given cultures rise and then fall, but humankind has progressed. Even in Gravity Dreams, while the precursor cultures have great difficulties, and there is great upheaval, out of the upheavals come two different and viable cultures.
SFR) Is the explosion of growth of Tie-In fiction good, bad, or unrelated to the future of SF? What is the future of SF?
LEM) There will always be the equivalent of Tie-In fiction. Right now, it tends to dominate, more in SF than in fantasy, but if you look at sales, as I recall, fantasy sells more overall. I foresee that Tie-In fiction will ebb, because, after a time, people will want something different. A few readers will turn to "better" SF. Then there will be another set of tie-ins, which will ebb in turn, and some of those readers will begin to read more substantive work, and so it goes.
SFR) One of Robert Heinlein's edicts is that a person build a house, write a book, run for an office, raise a child and a number of other things that escape me. Often the protagonists of stories are unreasonably talented as well, like the central character in The Forever Hero. Usually I can dismiss such comments as wishful thinking, but you've already been a Navy pilot, a poet, a parent, an author, and economic analyst, an environmental regulation consultant, a realtor, and a lifeguard.
What haven't you done that you'd like to do?
LEM) At the moment, I honestly can't think of a specific occupation. I've tried enough [including a number that aren't in my bio, such as licensed municipal water treatment plant operator] that I'm quite happy writing. I still like to learn about as many things as I can and will certainly keep doing so.
| The Forever Hero by L.E. Modesitt,
Trade Paperback - 752 pages (July 1999) Tor Books; ISBN: 0312868383
Review by Ernest Lilley
An omnibus collection of: Dawn of a Distant Earth (1987), The Silent Warrior (1987), and In Endless Twilight (1988)
"So what is this man, an immortal genius with the talents of a dozen Corpus Corps and the soul of a Devil?" "That might overstate the case, Your Majesty. Then again, it might not." - The Forever Hero, p. 692
"Since the political leaders follow the people, and the people follow the true believers, that means they need some new true believers to follow." - The Forever Hero, p. 557
The ultimate individual faces off against the Final Empire, with the fate of the Earth in the balance. To resurrect a world, one man will change the face of the galaxy.
Cliché? Well, let's say that L.E. Modesitt's ecological epic draws deeply on SF's myths and archetypes while mixing in a dose of the author's own eco-consciousness.
Old Earth is uninhabitable, ravaged by tornadoes and winds so powerful that stones rain from the sky onto the ruined land. Pollutants clog the streams and only a few humans hang on in "shambletowns." The wilds are left to the coyotes, rats, and devilkids feral children who live where no others could. The Empire decides to terraform the first planet of man at the whim of an emperor who has no idea of the contents of the Pandora's box he is about to open.
The Forever Hero is born a devilkid. The process of ruthless natural selection and harsh environmental challenge give him just enough strength, speed, and intelligence to survive on Old Earth. When he is plucked from that ruin and given a home in the Galactic Empire, he finds that he has more of everything than normal humans do. He's faster, stronger, smarter, tougher than they are. And just to make the story last longer he's immortal, too.
Little wonder that he's a loner.
Befriended by the survey vessel's crew, he gets enough polish to survive at the Empire's Academy, and a name, Gerswin, which derives from the haunting compositions he whistles and a shortage of consonants in the far future. At the Academy he establishes himself as a brilliant loner, breaks all the records in the Academy Ironman, and is seduced by a young woman of high birth. Though he has a number of liaisons in his long life, at most they evoke only an echo of his love for this one woman.
Soon, and for the remainder of the first book, he's back on Earth as part of the reclamation effort, testing himself against the planets wildness and learning the folly of the Empires approach. By the second book, he's away again, developing the biotechnology needed to do a real terraformation and serving as base commander to a nearly abandoned repair depot. By the third book, he's turning the mechanically-dependent Empire on its ear with his seditious biotechnology and trying to return home to the Earth he has remade.
The Empire ultimately fails to appreciate being turned on its ear, and by the end, it is out for his blood.
Alone, traveling in his restored scoutship and using a secret identity, Gerswin goes from planet to planet, planting the seeds of biosphere renewal and revolution. Gerswin's lone fight against the tyranny of the Empire has a flavor not unlike Doc Smith's Lensman hero, Kimball Kinnison, and his campaign against the evil Boskone. He also reminds me of Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry, though instead of working to prevent the long night that would come after the fall of the Empire, Gerswin looks beyond it to replace the very need for an Empire with the tools for freedom and independence. There's more than a bit of Lazarus Long in him as well, but more on that later.
Whatever name he takes -- Gerswin, The Captain, MacGregor, Corson -- Modesitt's grand hero is the quintessence of the Science Fiction Hero. Loner and leader, committed to the preservation of what he holds dear, and doomed to be denied it. Revered by men, desired by women, alone in a crowd: the hero's destiny.
I've always said that if you follow a story long enough, it ends in the death of the main character. If the character is an immortal, this becomes problematic, but not necessarily untrue. The Forever Hero tests the limits of my theory, adding the caveat that an immortal can outlive the ability to store and process information.
Kim Stanley Robinson has the same problem in his Martian Rainbow-ology (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Robinson suggests that the problem can be addressed by selecting and reinforcing a subset of memories, though perhaps that's a stopgap measure. Also, Robinsons series shows us a whole culture interested in making immortality tolerable, whereas The Forever Hero is but one man and not loved by the Empire.
One of the technologies that The Forever Hero develops is the meatplant, which provides tasty steaks without the ecological ravages and high cost of actual animals. It's tied in with the notion that a government needs to control agriculture to control the people. I was amused that this aroused my memories of another immortal, Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long (Methuselah's Children, 1958) and the steak plants created by the telepathic, gene-tinkering aliens he encountered. Allow me to make a brief plug for Methuselah's Children: whether you've read it or not, it's worth going back to. Looking for the passage I remembered I zipped through all 160 pages and found a lot of forward-looking thinking in it.
Ultimately, The Forever Hero isn't as polished as later Modesitt, but you can certainly see the growth of some of his major themes regarding government, appropriate technology and the ecosphere -- while enjoying some first rate-Space Opera.
| Gravity Dreams by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Hardcover - 400 pages (July 1999) Tor Books; ISBN: 031286826X
Review by Lucy Cohen Schmeidler
If you ignore the jacket explanation of when and where this novel takes place, there is an immediate discrepancy between the high tech, futuristic cover painting by Stephen Youll, and the opening chapter, which reads like pure fantasy adventure: The first person narrator, a mild-mannered follower and teacher of Dzin philosophy, is running for his life from soldiers of the community he has lived within and supported all his life, who are after him because they believe he has become a "demon," and his greatly augmented strength and endurance seem to support this idea.
So is this book science fiction or fantasy, keeping in mind that Modesitt writes both? The obvious answer is science fantasy, a work that addresses fantasy themes such as how does one cope with a society that declares one outlaw for nothing one has intentionally done, and what it means to be a hero, but uses the tropes and images of science fiction to create the setting within which the ideas will be explored. This is very much in keeping with such earlier Modesitt works as The Forever Hero trilogy, recently reissued in a single volume, and his Paratime books.
It is most certainly not Hard SF. The nanites in Gravity Dreams, which can impart specific knowledge through a sprayable mist are great as a vision of a future in which there are almost no theoretical limits to technology, even though the actual science involved seems highly improbable. And indeed, if the high tech world is only a metaphor for the upper edge of human aspiration, why should it have to make sense? The two people on the book's jacket have normal enough human heads but their bodies look almost like an artist's rendering of not-quite-real pressure suits, like a carnival cutout where only the head is truly that of the person being photographed.
And this is an effective way to read the first part of the book, in which there are alternating chapters from the "present," in which our hero, Tyndel, is trying to come to terms with his new abilities and to find a place in the "demons'" society, now that the culture of his birth will no longer have anything to do with him, and chapters showing glimpses into his past, revealing the person he had thought himself to be, within his original cultural context.
It works also in the second part, in which Tyndel trains to be a needle pilot, and finds a comfortable place for himself in his new, high tech world. And when I took breaks from reading this section, I felt rather drained, as if I had shared the hero's mental and emotional workouts. Not the physical ones, unfortunately.
But in the last part, Modesitt pulls in some new ideas, which are also explored by some other contemporary SF writers: what sorts of higher intelligence might possibly exist in the universe, and what would be our relationship to them if they had any reason to notice us? Unfortunately, while Modesitt handles these ideas as well as most and distinctly better than some, this book may be overlooked because the author in not known as a developer of cutting edge themes.