A: Yes, well. Simply, a mostly fair adoption of a very good and seminal book: Make Room! Make Room! (He said humbly.) The first book, fiction or nonfiction, to deal with the problem of overpopulation. The producer, Richard Fleischer, and Chuck Heston wanted to do it as an overpopulation book. MGM didn’t think the topic was important enough. They only bought it because it was about cannibalism.
Q: Not that there’s anything wrong with cannibalism! Has history borne out the concerns you raised in Make Room! Make Room!?
A: I was correct right down the line, because all of my predictions on population and overconsumption were taken from specialist studies. The powers fighting birth control are still fighting, and killing, in the name of saving life. Birth rates are falling in the West, not because of morality, but because of selfishness. Instead of a new baby, people prefer a bigger TV and better holidays. This started first in Germany, and now many countries have hit zero population growth or lower. Selfishness also means that we are almost totally indifferent to zooming Third World population growth, followed by land destruction and famine. The little wars only exacerbate the existing situation. When plagues start reaching us from Africa we might take some notice.
Q: Many of your novels and novel series feature alternate worlds or histories: Tunnel Through the Deep, The Hammer and the Cross, the Eden books… You re not just jumping on the alternate history bandwagon with Stars Stripes Forever. What is it about the form that appeals to you as a science fiction writer?
A: I didn’t know there was a bandwagon! As you say, I’ve been there before. I am a great fan of Alternate History (AH) and have always written it. It’s important to remember that AH is the only kind of SF that H. G. Wells did not write. He invented the rest: time travel, invasion from space, et cetera. But not AH. Therefore, this is a field of human endeavor that has not been staked out. The rules are to be invented as you go along. There is not much good, or even bad, AH around because to do it well it requires a lot of work. And all writers are naturally lazy. AH requires months, years of research. You have to like it to do it. My interest in the Civil War goes back to the ’40s. My library is quite large. Rebel in Time came out of this, while I was still shaping Stars Stripes. It has really been cooking for thirty years or more.
Q: In Stars Stripes Forever you postulate a Machiavellian attack by Britain against America in the midst of the Civil War. Can you tell us a little about the history, and the alternate history, that went into the book?
A: Some years back I did my sums and realized that not only was the Civil War the first modern war, but the combined forces of North and South would make up a modern army that could engage all of the other armies of the world at one time. And win. This knowledge stewed along there until the time was right. Serendipity. I had the background material and rudiments of the plot. When I dug into the material I had and put things together — there was the story. I’m glad I waited this long because I am hitting at the right time. With the end of Communism, the U.S. has lost a goal… which was just “anti.” We have to rethink the future. By going into the past I have produced one possible answer.
Q: Rethinking the future by going into the past — a phrase combining the science fiction writer with the historian! As opposed to rethinking the past by going into the future, which one could say is the raison d’etre of much SF, from Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy onward.
A: I have said that AH is the newest and best thing on the SF horizon. When Doc Smith’s galactic wars were new, along with Isaac’s Foundation, they were good fun indeed. But that was fifty years ago. Attempting to revive them now is a mug’s game. The life is gone from the corpse, and no matter how many volts you pump into it, it is still a corpse. SF became popular — and great — because it had no limits and was set to explore anything. That challenge is still there and is what is important. Not retreading tried ideas.
Q: Even a historical novelist such as Patrick O’Brian, whose books are justifiably renowned for their scrupulous fidelity to historical fact, confesses to having “taken great liberties… within a context of general historical accuracy.” How does this apply to writers of alternate history such as yourself?
A: Great liberties? No. An AH writer cannot take liberties with fact; at least, not up to the point where the story begins — the twist that changes history. Only then can history be bent and mutated. But always dealing with the real past and projecting changes into a possible, and new, future.
Q: Exactly. It seems to me that AH in its “pure” form (if such a beast exists!) consists of taking the cards dealt by history, reshuffling them, and dealing them out again, then playing the hand through without introducing a wild card. Postulating as a history-altering event a British attack on a war-torn USA and CSA is a different order of “alternate” entirely from having a killer asteroid strike during the Battle of Gettysburg.
A: I beg to differ with your poker analogy. The cards are not reshuffled in AH. There must be truth, solid truth, up to the nexus where change begins. In the case of Stars Stripes, Prince Albert’s death occurs just a few weeks earlier in time. Then we watch the ripples spread out from this change: how, one after another, events are altered, small changes growing into larger ones until there is a new history that is just as realistic as the one in the history books. This is directly opposed to the killer asteroid you mentioned. That is the easy way out. Showy perhaps, but very easy to write. The slow slog of slightly altered history and the widening of events from that tiny change is the way I much prefer to go.
Q: You currently live in Ireland. Do you consider yourself to be an expatriate writer?
A: I left America in 1956 because I needed time and space to write my first novel. Mexico was cheap and fun: I could write and enjoy a different society. It is not that I left the States for any reason; I went to another country for a lot of reasons. I went to England, then Italy, then Denmark (seven years), then Ireland because there was a great joy in seeing new languages, cultures, what might be called inspiration. I am still an American writer, as S S proves.
Q: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
A: I’ve just finished The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus, the tenth and last Rat book. And I have delivered the final manuscript of Stars Stripes in Peril. This, and the last in the trilogy, Stars Stripes Triumphant, should see me well into the next millennium.
Q: Going back to Soylent Green, are there any plans for other movies based on your books?
A: The Rat books have been under option for twelve years. And every year we expect to do it. Closer to cinematic reality is The Technicolor Time Machine. Mel Gibson optioned it awhile back. A screenplay has been done by Marshall Brickman, who had written a number of Woody Allen films. Allen has agreed to play the second lead. If all goes well, production should start this fall.
Q: Woody Allen and Mel Gibson? Alvy Singer meets Mad Max? Now that’s what I call alternate history!
A: It should be great fun. If you remember the novel, the second lead was a con man film producer, guilt-ridden, stumbling into an unknown future. Perfect for Woody Allen. And Mel will be your perfect Viking. He told me that he hates Vikings. Perfect role for him since he projects self-hatred so well in some of his roles.