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The Constraints of Story: A Chat with David Brin

What makes a great science fiction story? Is it the science? Is it the inventive technology? David Brin would probably say it’s using the concept of the story and working within its constraints to examine what the world would be like if that technology was available.

An award-winning author best known for shining light on technology, society, and science’s effects on our civilization, Brin is possibly best known as the author of the novel The Postman, famously adapted as a feature film starring Kevin Costner. Beyond that, he’s produced a host of stellar sci-fi to enjoy, including short fiction like the Best of David Brin collection, standalone novels like The Ancient Ones, Colony High and Existence, series like the popular Uplift novels, and non-fiction that includes Vivid Tomorrows, delving into the intersection between science fiction and Hollywood.

Intrigued by Discovery

Over the years, Brin has won the Hugo, Locus, Campbell and Nebula awards for his intriguing, idea-driven storytelling. Like many sci-fi writers, the world of possibilities that science offers drew him in.

“I was taken to see Sputnik fly overhead in late 1957, when I was very young,” he says. “Ever since then, I have been astonished to live in a civilization in which people are doing what they never did before. I don’t mean going into space; I don’t mean all the technology. I mean creating millions of skilled people whose job it is to find out what is actually true, not what people say is true.”

Intrigued by his experience of science in action from a young age, Brin decided to pursue science. He studied at CalTech and earned his Ph.D in astronomy, but as he himself points out, the work of becoming a scientist is difficult. “I had a hobby that was what I was born to do—writing—and it became my biggest success.”

Sci-Fi: A Genre about the Possibility of Change

Though Brin is strongly rooted in scientific knowledge — which he still uses to this day consulting for groups like NASA’s Innovative & Advanced Concepts program (NIAC), known for investing in tech and developments that are just this side of sci-fi — he recognizes that what makes his stories work isn’t so much a commitment to hard science as it is to telling good stories that resonate.

“Only about one in ten science fiction authors are scientifically trained,” he notes. “And yet, some of the best hard sci-fi is written by former English majors who couldn’t parse a differential equation if their life depended on it. But they are smart, and they ask questions, and they know there are nearby universities filled with people who will consult for pizza and beer. Some of the greatest hard SF writers were not scientifically trained, but can relate the notion in words.”

The reason for this, he’ll tell you, is understanding what sci-fi really is.

“Science is not the central notion of science fiction,” he says. “It’s the possibility of change, the possibility that things might be different than they are. If you poll science fiction writers on what they grew up reading, it wasn’t so much sicence as it was history. “What science fiction does is it extrapolates the great story, the great drama of history, forward in time, or in parallel. It should have been called speculative history.”

Using World-Building to Drive the Story

To make a great story, Brin says, you have to commit deeply to the constraints created by the world-building you’ve established. “You say, which parts of the net of real science am I gping to drop? If you have hyper-drive (warp drive), you’ve already dropped a big part of the net in order to tell a story.”

Case in point? His popular, entertaining, sci-fi mystery Kiln People, in which a brash investigator sends his clones into trouble in order to locate a missing (and perhaps dead) scientist before the man’s brilliant artificial intelligence discovery falls into the wrong hands.

“In Kiln People, I created a premise that there’s a new technology in which you can buy full-size clay human figures, just like the terra cotta soldiers, and with a machine imprint your memories, your motives, your soul into the clay like God did with Adam. You bake it in your home.”

As a mystery, Kiln People uses genre constraints such as the ticking clock to drive the plot forward. “In this case, the ditto of the detective has to make it home with at least the skull intact so the memories can be downloaded, and there’s only an hour left before he dissolves.”

But the biggest constraint on the story wasn’t science, or genre. It was people, and how they might react to the technology in the story: What would you do if you could make clones of yourself?

“I described the story to (sci-fi author) Gregpry Benford,” Brin says. “And he said, ‘If I stepped out of the kiln, I would turn to my maker and say, “Up yours, boss, I’m going to the beach.”’ My jaw dropped. What would be the point of that?

“But then I realized I’m really goal-oriented, so if I got off the platform (cloned), I’d say, ‘My doing this allows my other me to do that.’ I know other people who, the minute they saw another them, would destroy it.

“So in addition to being filled with a wreteched amount of puns, and a murder mystery plot, I found that Kiln People was a rumination on human personality, and so I was able to have the plot driven by all the different ways that people would react to having this technology.”

Where to Find More David Brin

David and his wife, Cheryl, have plenty of writing you can check out. Here are a few recommendations:

VIVID TOMORROWS: a look at science fiction and Hollywood

The Out of Time (or “Yanked!”) series: Only teens can teleport through time and space! Dollops of fun, adventure & optimism for young adults. 

The Melody of Memory by Cheryl Brin: three sample chapters

Best of David Brin short stories… “my best stuff!”