How James P. Hogan Saved the World
By Terry Hickman
13 January 2003
James P. Hogan is a large, silver-haired Irishman with an easy-going and kindly manner, a sly sense of humor, and a stubbornly optimistic world view. He may have rescued the world from the Cold War -- at a bargain-basement cost -- but more on that later. Hogan reigned as Author Guest of Honor at WillyCon V in March 2002, and I had a chance to visit with him at various times during the weekend.
His philosophy of GoH'ing manifested itself in his easy availability for the Wayne State College students at WillyCon and adaptability to the unexpected. As he said to one grateful WillyCon organizer, "You people pay my way to get here, and treat me well; it's what I'm here for, to talk to students and be around when people have questions." You have to take him seriously when you see him follow that philosophy even unto the local karaoke bar, to be serenaded by the WillyCon students with some of the worst caterwauling I've ever heard. He earned his Guinness that night!
In his address at the opening ceremonies, Hogan said that science fiction isn't about predicting things that will happen, or how the world will be. Even though SF occasionally turns out to have dealt with technical gadgets or scientific breakthroughs that came later, the real value of science fiction, and of fantasy, is to help us learn about ourselves. A story about nothing but machines would do nothing for anyone -- unless somehow those machine characters illuminate something about human beings. SF can also inspire young people to go into science, to work on some of the problems of humanity to try to solve them and make life on this planet better. It expresses and stimulates our limitless curiosity about the world, ourselves, and the Universe. Science fiction and fantasy, according to Mr. Hogan, can help show us how to be better human beings.
In his "Exploring the State of Humanity" seminar he explained his view of the future: "I get tired of the naysayers and the environmental extremists. We have the ability, right now, to feed, educate, and take care of every human being in the world. We have the knowledge and ability to solve all the material problems that Homo sapiens faces on Earth. The imagined crises with energy and so forth that we hear all about are needless political creations, not something imposed on us by reality."
He also criticizes the mass media for sensationalizing non-problems out of proportion, and their distortions, or appallingly poor comprehension, of science. They appeal to people's insecurities and emotions, he says, and end up making many people feel hopeless.
Hogan is generally regarded as a writer of "hard" SF. He's had fun in several books with the idea of time travel. A plot device that he has made use of several times is the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which an infinite number of alternative universes exist, in the totality of which everything that could happen does happen somewhere. In his fiction, he has explored various ways in which we might get access to these many worlds.
He mentioned Thrice Upon a Time as one of his personal favorites. He said that in that book, he reduced the idea of changing or not changing one's own past to the simplest extreme of modeling it with a lamp and button sending a signal back 30 seconds to turn it on as a means of making the paradoxes clear, and built the story around the peculiar logic that emerged. The book kept me turning the pages to learn the fate of the main character's romance, and his best friend's battle with a deadly disease, both of which were affected by the hero's messing with the time machine in order to save the rest of the world. Without the fascinating context of well-explained science, it might have been an ordinary romance. With that underpinning, it was a compelling science fiction story.
A quick overview of his work seems appropriate here. Hogan writes some short stories, has two collections and numerous credits in magazines, but devotes more time to novels: "I enjoy writing short stories, but I have to make a living, too."
Hogan's humane outlook and faith in intelligent problem-solving permeate his books. Although the cover art on Martian Knightlife looks like a Matt Helm movie poster -- the square-jawed, supercilious-looking hero standing behind a very serious-looking Doberman, and next to a voluptuous henna-maned woman -- Kieran Thane, the jut-jawed hero, really is a good guy. He really does do the right thing, just because it's the right thing to do, and he really does stand up for the underdog. True, he seems to come out ahead in the money department, but that's just gravy. Guinness, his noble dog, is just a dog: highly intelligent, but Guinness doesn't talk, solve crimes, or read minds. He possesses instead a tendency to attract beautiful, dog-loving women, but there's nothing supernatural about that. And June Holland, Thane's girlfriend (at least on Mars), is beautiful, loyal, and very very smart, as well as being simpatico with Thane's ethical standards. The trio assists people in distress and vanquishes the evil-doers mostly using brains and skill, not firepower. There's plenty of action, but it's not mindless.
Hogan denies working any favorite themes, but perusing his books reveals some technologies or scientific concepts he's found fertile: intelligent machines (Two Faces of Tomorrow, Entoverse, Code of the Lifemaker and its sequel The Immortality Option) and multiverses and/or time travel (Thrice Upon a Time, The Proteus Operation, Paths to Otherwhere). His Giants series (Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, Giants' Star, Entoverse) posits an ancient race that left Earth millennia before Homo sapiens appeared, and returns to find us on their "home world," and the tale branches out from that.
He has attended lots of conventions but spends less time at them these days. "The writing part of writing is a lonely job. Cons are a good way to get out of your office and see people, meet readers, learn new things. . . . There are a few people who I consider really good friends, and the only time we ever get together is at cons, because otherwise we're each hunched over the keyboard in our own little world."
He told a yarn about one BayCon he attended in San Jose, which was his regular annual "family" con when he lived in northern California in the '80s. "I'd been things like the Guest of Honor and other titles where the con pays your way at BayCons for years in a row," he said. "But of course, others have to have their turns too. Well, I got to my room in the hotel, and the BayCon organizers had left a tub filled with ice and some bottles of beer and wine in the bathroom, along with a note saying 'Compliments of the Committee.' It was their way of saying, we can't pay your tab every year, but it's nice to have you back. A nice gesture."
Later on, he was visiting with a group of young men who were fannishly scribbling his every word into their notebooks, when one of the girls from the con staff, age 18 or so, tapped him on the shoulder and asked him tremulously, "Did you get our present okay, in your room?"
Spotting a prime opportunity for a gentle jest, Hogan told her, acting reluctant, "Yes . . . I did."
She looked concerned: "Oh? . . . Was there something wrong?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there was," Hogan told her. "Where was the long-legged kinky redhead?"
"Long-legged kinky . . ." She faltered. "I'm sorry. I don't think I understand."
Sounding as long-suffering as he could, Hogan said, "Look, I was quite specific with John" -- John McLaughlin was the con chairman that year -- "as to the terms under which I would attend your convention. He agreed that two things would be provided in the room on arrival for my personal enjoyment over the weekend: one, a tub full of booze, which I got -- thank you very much; and two, a long-legged kinky redhead. But -- no redhead. Where's the long-legged kinky redhead?"
The girl blanched. "I'm sorry. I don't know anything about it. There must have been some mistake. I'll have to check. . . ."
And she fled.
This exchange impressed his worshipful fans. One of them ventured to say, "This doesn't really happen? . . ."
Hogan assured him, straight-faced, "You don't think we do this just for the money and the prestige, do you? I mean, what else is life really all about?"
Several serious vows to renew one's writerly efforts were no doubt pledged on the spot.
The conversation swam pleasantly along the SF byways until Hogan felt a presence at his elbow, turned, and saw that the earnest young con staffer was back. She drew him aside and said, "I think we can do something." However, she said, it being a family con, the organizers had to exercise some discretion. She would be back in a little while, she told him, when it would be time for him to follow her to where "arrangements" had been made. She turned around and left him there, open-mouthed, wondering "if, in fact, it was I who had been out of touch all these years. I tried to recall all the attractive redheads that I'd seen around the con, wondering which one of them might have volunteered, and found myself scanning the vicinity with rising impatience. Probably nothing was going to happen at all. . . . But then, sure enough, she appeared around a corner of the corridor a few yards away and beckoned with a finger."
He followed her out of the room, trying to look blase to his admiring fans, but wondering what to do if this was real.
And waiting around the corner, he found. . . .
Tall, long-legged, and slender, smiling lasciviously.
And quite possibly very kinky.
He also had a big red mustache and a voice like Johnny Cash. "Hi," he greeted, thrusting out a hand. "My name's Mike. Glad ta meetcha."
"And that," Hogan says, "was how the buggers got me at Baycon."
Did he have a starving writer's sad tale of struggle to tell about his first sale? Hogan laughed: "I had it dead easy. In the mid-1970s, I was traveling around Europe selling real-time scientific and industrial computer control and instrumentation systems for companies that included Honeywell and Digital Equipment Corporation. This was before PCs, when some of the systems could be room-sized. It paid well and had good perks, I was making a nice living."
Then he saw Kubrick's 2001. "I loved it! Mostly. The technical details were wonderful: TWA, the Hilton Hotel on the space station, etc. And I loved the idea of a scientific mystery on the Moon. Then, after all the build-up -- I didn't understand the ending. I mean, what is this, babies in bubbles and old men dropping teacups? So I was complaining about it at work the next day."
"So someone bet me five pounds that I couldn't write something that made more sense, and it ended up as an office bet that I couldn't write a science fiction novel and get it published."
"That was how Inherit the Stars came to be written. But now what to do with it? I knew nothing at all about the publishing world. Well, in a big tech company there's always at least one science fiction enthusiast who knows all the books and writers, can reel off the right publishers, and so on. I asked around: who was ours? And kept getting the same name back: one of the large-system support specialists, Ashley Grayson, then in Massachusetts, USA. So I called him from England, and we found we were both due to attend the same sales meeting later that year in Cape Cod. So we got together there and I left the manuscript with him. I forgot about it almost immediately after I got back."
Six weeks later he got a letter "from this company I'd never heard of -- Ballantine Books, from a lady I'd never heard of, Judy-Lynn del Rey. She offered me a contract for the book. So, yes, I had that first book easy." Hogan grins. "And I collected fifty pounds around my office, too, on top of the advance."
The book was published in 1977. He started hearing from readers: "Science fiction readers, but some others too: Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, other science professionals. That was encouraging."
Later that year, he moved to the United States. By late 1979, he'd written a total of five books, three of them published. "I decided, this is fun, I think I'll become a science fiction writer." There was another bet at the office whether he'd do that. Obviously, they lost that one, too.
"I had some criteria for quitting the 'real job': One: I'll have five books sold. Two: Each sales spike is higher than the previous one. And three: I've enough cash saved to survive on for one year."
I asked what advice would he offer to aspiring SF writers?
"Don't take much notice of a lot of advice." Then, answered seriously: "If the goal is simply to be published, I'd almost say, 'forget it.' If the writing is just a chore you have to do to get published in order to live some mythical lifestyle that you imagine writers lead, that's the wrong question -- and totally unrealistic."
On the other hand: "If you feel, 'This is something I have to write, the important thing is getting the work done,' even if your house is on fire or you're given three months to live -- and it's 'Oh my God I've got to get this book written!' -- that's a more realistic depiction of what it means to have the compulsion to write. If you get well rewarded as well, then of course that's fine too; but it's not the deciding issue. But there's no generic answer. Typically, submit your work to an agent or publisher." He doesn't seem to think it makes much difference which. "There is no rigid rule. But any good agent knows their income five years later will depend on finding good new names now, so they devote some time to looking for good new writers. An agent cannot only work with new writers, so sometimes they reject a submission simply for that reason. It's not necessarily because it's the worst thing they've ever seen."
How can a writer give his or her manuscript the best chance of a sale?
"Simple courtesy. And make your work look professional. First impressions are a big factor.
"Most of an editor's reading is done on their own time, so you're asking for a piece of their personal life. If you want to be more certain of a positive reception, you might sound them out first. Call them on the phone if you're comfortable with that. Otherwise, just send a cover letter, a précis of the book, along with two or three sample chapters, preferably including the first.
"Be polite, but not groveling in your letter. Certainly not threatening, or demanding -- as happens, believe it or not. Don't tell the editor that your 'mother and brother and friends think it's a great book plus it'd be a great movie starring. . . .' It is customary to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope along for return.
"Do your homework; send it to the right publisher. Give 'em a few weeks, then if you can't stand the suspense, it'd be okay to give them a follow-up phone call. Again, keep it businesslike, polite and positive."
A reading of Amazon.com critiques of Hogan's books confirms that beholders' eyes vary even in the presumably narrow membership of "hard science" aficionados. He's been praised as the best hard SF writer since (fill in the blank), a right-wing dogmatic, and a Libertarian fruitcake. Some long-time readers see him only getting better; others claim he's becoming more formulaic with every book.
None of this seems to bother Hogan. He keeps writing books, and exhorting con-goers to look at mankind's problems as challenges to science and stimulants for the best the human mind can aspire to.
He's got reason to believe SF can change the world. Years after the 1982 publication of Voyage from Yesteryear, he learned that it had enjoyed a burgeoning readership in the former Iron Curtain nations, starting in Poland.
"What they liked there, apparently, was the updated 'Gandhiesque' formula on how to bring down an oppressive regime when it's got all the guns. And a couple of years later, they were all doing it!"
The Polish publishers were honest, and kept his royalties in an account there. When he finally got to Poland for a European SF con after the Wall came down, he found out that intervening economic system vagaries had been whittling away at that little Polish nest egg.
So, he says, "after the U.S. had spent trillions on its B-52s, Trident submarines, NSA, CIA, and the rest -- all of it ineffective -- my tab for toppling the Soviet Empire: $8.43."
Copyright © 2003 Terry Hickman
Terry Hickman's from the government and she's here to help you. Happiest in the swamp, she writes science fiction, horror, and interviews. She enjoys noisy and poetic music. See the horrifying details at 3 outside the skinny, her home of astounding facts, disgusting lies, and pictures of naked celebrities. (Did we mention the lies?)