Interview with Ben Bova, February 1999
Interviewer: Jeremy Bloom
Ben Bovaís new non-fiction book explores one of the most exciting scientific arenas that just a few years ago was the exclusive domain of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Immortality. In it, the multiple-award winning author, editor, scientist and Chicon 2K GOH takes a look at the breakthroughs in medical science that may soon allow people to recover fully from even major illness and injuries, neverage, and with luck avoid death completely. Bova believes some of us alive today may never have to die, and considering how the ranks of SFís grand masters have been thinning, thatís a very good thing. I asked if he considers that he himself may have a shot at being among that elite group.
Bova: I think I may be on the cusp. If the research goes fast enough, I could hang in there and get to do it.
J.B.: In 66 years of life, youíve seen some major changes in the world, from the development of RADAR and nuclear weapons in WWII to the cold war and the space race, and now the advent of tiny computers, biotech, nanotech, and the Y2K problem. What would you say was the most significant change?
Bova: The biggest was the advent of nuclear power. It obviously changed world politics. Atomic bombs ended WWII and saved millions of American and Japanese lives. And then the atomic bomb fostered a stalemate in the cold war for nearly half a century. That probably prevented WWIII. With nuclear weapons, both East and West feared going to war directly. When you stop to think that WWII ostensibly began over control of the city of Danzig, and WWI began over the assassination of an Archduke who wasnít even in the line of succession.... The US and USSR both had wonderful excuses to go to war. But they steered clear. Nuclear weapons prevented global catastrophe - but it was a real tightrope path.
J.B.: And we went into other forms of rivalry, like the space race.
Bova: The space race was really a front. What happened was this: In the 1950s the USSR was developing long-range ballistic missiles. The US was not, thanks to our wonderful scientific advisors from MIT who said that making long-range missiles was impossible.The scientists in the Soviet Union said the same thing to Stalin, and Stalin said ďI donít care. Build them.Ē So the Soviet engineers went out and built rockets that worked. Then American intelligence woke up to the fact that the Russians were flying missiles over 5,000 mile test-ranges. So then there was a secret crash program. During the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Krushchev had sent telegrams to every capital in Europe, saying, ďDonít intervene; we have rockets that can reach your cities.Ē A year later, Krushchev decided to use space as a means of advertising - to a disbelieving world - that the Russians really had those rockets. Sputnik was an advertisement that said ďWe have missiles that can drop a hydrogen bomb down your chimney.Ē The US was desperate to show that we could do the same thing, and in our inefficient capitalist way we made a bumbling start, and then finally under Kennedy we got some direction - to go to the Moon.
J.B.: And you started with the space program in the pre-NASA days.
Bova: I never worked directly with NASA. Early on, I worked with what was then the Glen. L. Martin Company, subsequently Martin-Marietta and now Lockheed-Martin. In 1956, Martin was building the launcher for what was supposed to be the worldís first artificial satellite, the Vanguard. It turned out to be the third, after Sputnik and Explorer I. We finally launched on St. Patrickís Day, 1958. Iím sitting here beside a scale model of that incredibly flimsy rocket.
J.B.: I understand you took some of your engineering colleagues to your first Worldcon?
Bova: That was 1957, I believe, in NYC. I dragged the two top engineers from the Vanguard project to talk to the assembled SF community about REALLY going into space, which was what we were doing. And unfortunately, the first thing we saw was Forrest J. Ackerman with a giant poster for Famous Monsters of Hollywood. And they turned tail, and I had to literally grab them by their coattails to keep them from running out. They ended up on the panel with Arthur Clark and Willy Ley, and really loved it. But science fiction has many faces, and one of those faces nearly queered the deal.
J.B.: It is a big tent.
Bova: With many holes in it.
J.B.: You were also involved in promoting defenses against those rockets.
Bova: Yes. For many years I worked with a research lab that did pioneering work on re-entry physics, and then went on to invent high-powered lasers that ultimately broke the back of the cold war by providing the possibility of a defense against ballistic missiles.
J.B.: ...another thing you had predicted in a story.
Bova: Yeah, in my Novel Millennium, in 1976. In 1966, I arranged the first top-secret briefing in the Pentagon, to tell our military that lasers of virtually any power could be built. Our lab did the basic work, understanding the physics. From then on it was just engineering.
J.B.: But there has always been that corollary of the missile gap: what you might call ďthe engineering gapĒ. The time it takes between the knowledge, and the ability to put it into practice.
Bova: I would call it a political gap. Because itís the political decisions that tell the engineers what to do.
J.B.: Like the difference between Trumanís and Stalinís orders to their engineers.
J.B.: And on the subject of immortality, thereís a major political gap.
Bova: When I was writing Immortality, I saw that all through history, whenever there was a major medical breakthrough, it was first met with cries of disbelief, and then cries of ďWeíve never done that before, so it must be wrong.Ē Organ transplants, as late as the 1960s, were met by cries of ďTheyíre playing God. This personís heart is giving out, heís supposed to die.Ē Even lightning rods. Churchmen strongly believed that lightning was godís way of showing displeasure, and putting up a lightning rod was a satanic way to avoid Godís wrath. Churches in New England were among the last places to put up lightning rods, and for a while the ONLY buildings being hit by lightning were the churches! All those nice tall steeples, with no lightning rods.... So the churchmen had to change their opinion about why lightning struck. Cotton Mather, that fierce Puritan preacher, inoculated his son against smallpox, and was roundly castigated by the other preachers for trying to avoid the wrath of God. To try to avert the wrath of God was wrong - someone even threw a bomb into Cotton Matherís house. Every time you take an aspirin, youíre playing God. Every time you put a Bandaid over a cut to avoid infection, youíre preventing the natural course, and playing God.
J.B.: Are you a believer?
J.B.: You were raised Catholic.
Bova: Thatís why Iím not a believer.
J.B.: You and the Pope have major areas of disagreement.
Bova: The Pope hasnít said anything about immortality. But he did come out against cloning. And somebody in the Vatican even said that clones wouldnít have souls - either the result of lunacy, or watching too many bad science fiction movies. How can anybody say whether a creature has a soul or not?
J.B.: Do you see this as being an issue that will possibly lead to violence?
Bova: Possibly. The issue is real right now, in that some of the research requires human fetal tissue, and thereís a government ban. So that research is being supported privately - which means the corporations that support it will have the rights to the results.
J.B.: So the government is missing the boat?
Bova: Worse, they will end up having to sue the companies to break their monopolies, spending money on lawyers instead of on research.
J.B.: In your novel Moonwar, you write about a similar problem when nanotech has become feasible, and is the subject of witch hunts.
Bova: There are real fears about nanotech, and I share them. You could make some very nasty bugs that would be truly weapons of mass destruction. But I donít think banning it is the answer.
J.B.: And the technology to do that doesnít exist yet...
Bova: No. But wait ten years. Technology just keeps on going. Banning is one of the first things people think of. ďI donít like it, so letís pass a law.Ē But that wonít stop it. The world doesnít work that way. In my novels, I use the Moon as a far away place to show that even when you ban it, technology can be developed elsewhere, where the law doesnít apply. As far as I know, there is still a law on the books in Boston, banning people from holding hands on a public street.
J.B.: Sounds like a good idea. That stuff might lead to dancing.... What other predictions have you seen come to fruition?
Bova: One of the things that I predicted in a couple of early stories was the idea of virtual reality - the idea that with computers and electronics, you could create a real-seeming hallucination. That was ďThe Next Logical Step.Ē It appeared in Analog in May 1962.
J.B.: When computers were the size of hotel rooms.
J.B.: Could you have foreseen a palmtop computer?
Bova: Sure, I wrote about that. I foresaw small portable computers - to the point that you could actually have a direct implant as an extension of your brain.
J.B.: ... Which would make crashes much more frustrating. Would you want a Microsoft product in your head?
J.B.: You would trust Bill Gates that far?
Bova: Why not. Who else you gonna trust?
J.B.: Youíve also written about the prospect of space tourism. Do you see that coming in your lifetime?
Bova: Well, if the work I see coming to fruition in Immortality comes soon enough, my lifetime may be long enough to get to Alpha Centauri.
J.B.: Did John Glennís return to space encourage you?
Bova: I donít think I needed encouragement - Iíd love to go. I do think it was a wonderful piece of public relations for NASA. And it showed you donít have to be a tough young jet jockey - you can be an actor or a journalist, or an old jet jockey.
J.B.: In a way, science fiction has been providing good PR for NASA for years. Can you point to any one SF book or film that has made a real difference?
Bova: The impact on the world has been very subtle. I think SF has influenced a lot of kids to get into science, and then they have changed the world. But I donít see any direct effect from any one book or film - with one exception, perhaps. In the 1950s George Pal made a film with Robert Heinlein called Destination Moon. That hit with the impact of Star Wars at the time, with people lining up around the block. That film, I think, prepared the general public for the idea that going to the Moon was practical. Everything they did was wrong, as far as the actual technology that NASA ended up using, but it showed that the technology was doable, it wasnít fantasy. And I think that prepared the way for Kennedy, and for the public acceptance of his decision.
J.B.: Do you think if friendly aliens ever show up on our doorstep, films like ET will have helped to create a public acceptance?
Bova: No, I doubt it. I donít think those aliens will be anything like ET.
J.B.: ...even so, in the way that Palís rocketís were all wrong, but still helped the psychological preparation? That weíre not alone?
Bova: I see what you mean. I donít know... those films are so fantastic, so out of touch with reality. ET was really about an alien truck driver who didnít understand what was really going on. Watching a truck driver stumble across a landscape isnít Science Fiction. An SF novel would have begun at the point where Spielberg ended the movie - what happens when he gets inside the spacecraft, THAT is science fiction.
J.B.: I understand you may have some interesting things happening on the media side of SF yourself...
Bova: The novel Mars is in development with Columbia-Tri Star. Whether anything comes of that... There are also people looking at developing a TV series based on Orion, and also a series based on Sam Gunn. That would be fun - sort of a Maverick in space. But of course, nothing may come of any of this. I cannot predict what Hollywood will do..
J.B.: What are you travel/convention plans over the next year?
Bova: Iím not really that big a convention-goer. I write. Going to a Worldcon takes up a lot of writing time. I do go to local conventions here in Florida, where I can drive up on Friday and come home on Saturday. And if Iím invited as guest of honor Iím too embarrassed to say no. [Heíll be GOH at Millenicon in Cincinnati March 19-20, and ConVersion in Calgary July 23-25]. Iíll be in London for the British release of Return to Mars in mid-June. And I intend to go to Australia, largely because I love Australia. Iíll probably show up at Chicago. [laughs].