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The Sci-Fi Explorations of Alan Dean Foster

If science fiction is about the wonders of discovering and exploring worlds, then Alan Dean Foster is a perfect fit for the genre. Having traveled extensively across our own blue planet, Foster has used his quest for discovery and love for grounded science to create sci-fi novels of his own imagining, such as the popular PIP AND FLINX series, as well as novels for STAR TREK, ALIEN, TERMINATOR and other created universes. He recently wrote the sci-fi novelization for THE FORCE AWAKENS, hearkening back to one of his earliest novelizations — the book version of the original STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE.

Recursor chatted with Foster about the sci-fi genre, what he loves about creating new worlds for readers to explore, writing in other people’s created universes, and more.

RECURSOR: You have traveled a lot. How has it influenced your writing?

FOSTER: All I ever wanted to do was travel. It’s one of the reasons I started writing science fiction. Being limited to one world, I figured I’d be able to see a fair portion of it if I put my mind to it. And it wasn’t enough! I needed other worlds to travel around and see, so I started writing science fiction and inventing the places I’d like to visit.

What is the key to writing in science fiction, in your view?

Whether you’re building worlds or creating characters, the key to me is maintaining internal logic. I really have problems with stories where you have a star drive on one page, and on another page somebody’s puttering along in a rocket. You have to maintain the internal logic. Everything has to relate to each other.

That’s why we see so much bad science fiction, especially cinematic science fiction. It’s because the people involved in those projects don’t care about maintaining the internal logic. So you have people walking around in space without space suits, and invisible defensive barriers surrounding a planet comprised of a ring of satellites, with nobody realizing that you can just go over or under the satellites.

As somebody who takes pride in the science part of science fiction, that bothers me. So I try to keep that out of my books and stories, and I try to maintain the internal logic.

How do you get the science right?

I’m not a trained scientist, yet I do take pride in trying to maintain the science in my stories as much as possible. Even if it’s not my story, if it’s something I’m collaborating on, like a novelization, if there’s something about the science that bothers me, I’ll do my best to fix it and bring it in line with existing knowledge as closely as possible.

THE FORCE AWAKENS is a good example.There’s a weapon that the First Order has on a planet called Starkiller Base. And I know we’re talking STAR WARS, but from a scientific viewpoint, I thought maybe that weapon could use a little tweaking to bring it more in line with the laws of physics as we know them. So I did it. It didn’t hurt the enjoyment of the book. And there were people who picked up on it and enjoyed it.

When I was working on the novelization of THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, there was a point of science that troubled me. I called Greg Benford, who’s not only a science fiction writer but is a trained scientist, and I asked him, “Do you think this is possible? Or would this happen?” And he answered me, and I put that in the book. I used that piece of knowledge that I didn’t have (before I talked with him).

So, even if you’re not trained, particularly these days, there’s no excuse for bad science in science fiction.

What projects are you working on right now?

The new Pip and Flinx novel, STRANGE MUSIC, came out in November 2017. I just finished going over the final proofs for an original science fiction novel called RELIC, about the last human being in the galaxy, which will be published this year. The January/February issue of ANALOG has a story of mine.

If people would like to sample my writing style for free, they can check out my column in 5enses. It’s a monthly column on arts and science. It’s fun stuff.I get to do pretty much anything I want.

Who were your biggest influences as a writer?

My biggest influence when I was very young was MOBY DICK, which I didn’t read in its entirety until decades later. A condensed version of it got me interested not only in reading and writing but in travel and the works of Carl Barks, which were seminal for me. Carl Barks was the creator and illustrator of the great DONALD DUCK and UNCLE SCROOGE comic books. He was a fine writer and terrific illustrator.

Within the field of science fiction, my favorite three writers are Robert Sheckley, who I consider the greatest writer of short stories in the genre; Murray Leinster, who was a wonderful, pure storyteller; and Eric Frank Russell, who was the only one who could make me both laugh and cry.

Are there science fiction films that you feel handle the genre well?

There’s an earlier film called DARK CITY, which is a terrific piece of science fiction. And more recently, ARRIVAL certainly. If you like science fiction, it’s a terrific film. And it’s a very, very rare example of an important science fiction film based on a science fiction story written by a science fiction writer, Ted Chiang. MOON is another example (of good sci-fi in film).

The key to all of these films is respect for the genre. There’s no wink-wink to the audience. You have to take it seriously and play it straight, and then you can end up with real science fiction on screen. It can be done.

What do you think about the future of print science fiction,, given the changes in the publishing industry?

The death of print has been announced several times over now in the last few decades, and yet it seems to keep humming along just fine. The advent of audiobooks and ebooks seems to have complemented print rather than destroyed it. People still like the feel of a book. They’ll buy the ebook, and if they like it enough, they’ll buy a print book to put on the shelf as part of their personal library. And there are people who will go the other way — they’ll buy the hard cover or paperback, and then they’ll want to read it again, so they’ll buy the ebook, put it on their reader, and take it with them on a trip or to work or to someplace else.

As far as the novel format itself, storytelling has been around since the Epic of Gilgamesh. Only the delivery mechanism has changed. I think there will always be a market for somebody who sits around the fire and tells a story in return for food and shelter or however it ends up working out.

Alan Dean Foster has written more than 120 books to date, including the novel versions of many films, including Star Wars, the first three Alien films, Alien Nation, The Chronicles of Riddick, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, and both Transformers films. His novel Shadowkeep was the first ever book adaptation of an original computer game. His novel Cyber Way won the Southwest Book Award for Fiction in 1990, the first work of science-fiction ever to do so. He is the recipient of the Faust, the IAMTW Lifetime achievement award and is a life member of Science Fiction Writers of America. To learn more about him, visit his website.