Interview with Jim Baen, August 1999
Interviewer: Jeremy Bloom
I could give a lengthy biographical introduction to Jim Baen, Chiconís Editor Guest of honor. But itís so much more fun to let him tell the stories himself....
Jeremy Bloom: To begin at the beginning, what got you into SF in the first place?
Jim Baen: The very first SF story I read was at the age of nine: Firehunter, by Jim Kjelgaard (although I didnít realize it was SF then). Almost as a tip of the hat, one of the first collaborative things I did was ask David Drake to write a sort of parallel novel and publish them as a double. It was what happened to the tribe that deserted Hawk and his girlfriend. Nothing good, let me tell you.
I first read a totally Science Fiction story at the age of 11. It was Against the Fall of Night by Arthur Clarke, and it really knocked me over. That got me into reading the stuff, and I was fairly intense about SF from the age of 11 until my late twenties, as a reader. After a misspent youth, if you will, I decided to go into publishing.
J.B.: But your first job wasnít actually SF at all, was it?
Baen: No, it was with the Complaint Department at Ace Books. They really needed somebody halfway smart in there.
Baen: [laughs] Yeah. And I qualified.
I took it on condition that if I held that job for a year I would get to move up to editorial assistant. After the year an editorial spot opened, and they really didnít want to give it to me - I had become valuable. They wanted to promote me to Number 2 in the complaint department. I told them ďno,Ē and then I told them ďHell, no.Ē
Finally I became the Number 2 gothics editor. I forget who was the Number 1, but she knew a lot about gothics while I knew nothing at all. And we both worked under Evelyn Grippo, who was the one who bought the H. Beam Piper literary estate for the price of a funeral.
My first acquisition was actually the first pick I made out of the slushpile: Whispering Island, by Nel McFather. ďA dream of tropic delight becomes a maelstrom of terror on Whispering Island.Ē That was my first blurb, although they changed ďmaelstrom;Ē it was too intellectual.
J.B.: So you learned the ropes of editing -
Baen: What I really lusted for there was the Science Fiction Editorís job, but there was no way Pat LoBrutto was going anywhere. When Judy Del Rey left Galaxy as managing editor, under Fred Pohl, I interviewed for that job. As far as I was concerned, that was like interviewing to be senator. I was still blinded by the glamour of publishing in those days... But I got the job.
J.B.: And you ended up as editor of Galaxy. What brought you back to publishing?
Baen: In 1978 I was offered the job of editor at Ace SF, which was a step up. After a couple of years Tom Doherty and I had turned Ace into a power that was beginning to rival Del Rey. But they were ďinteresting times,Ē since Ace had gone bankrupt and been bought, and the holding company, Grosset and Dunlap, proceeded to get into trouble - over building their own warehouse - and sold off everything. So we left.
It was very pleasing to me to hear a few years later that the only profitable element when Berkeley acquired the G&D empire, was Ace SF. And it not only lasted, and still is there, but Berkeley folded its own SF imprint in favor of Ace.
I gloat. Hear me gloat.
J.B.: And then came Tor, with Tom Doherty, and now your own Baen Books. Youíve worked with some superlative authors, including Niven and Pournelle, Timothy Zahn, Lois McMaster Bujold and David Drake. Would you say there is a ďBaen writer,Ē in the way that one could say there were ďJohn W. Campbell writersĒ?
Baen: There are a couple of common denominators. Baen writers are interested in the story. And in the SF aspect of it. We never will be guilty of writing and publishing SF because SF is what we can write that can sell. There may be some connection with marketability, but SF is what they want to be writing, by God.
There are some in the SF field who may be guilty of writing something that has as little to do with SF as it can and still pass muster with the genre retailers. I will name no names, but they know who they are. We [laughs again] are the higher and purer kind. Of course, they think weíre a bunch of Neanderthals, and thatís okay. Itís also what makes horse races. I donít have much interest in writing for the sake of putting words together prettily. We arenít big on literary tricks and capers. Words are a tool.
Iím not trying to denigrate those who wish to write ďart,Ē if you will. Thatís a worthy, if solitary pastime, and sometimes you can get somebody to appreciate what youíve done, but theyíre a relatively rare breed, and unless you are extremely good you will count your audience in the hundreds, not thousands.
When the ďNew WaveĒ came along - if I wanted to read literary experimentation, Iíd read the real thing, like The Dubliners.
J.B.: Are you a James Joyce fan?
Baen: (laughs) No, Iím not. That one was Judy Lynn Del Rey. She had a Ph.D. in it.
J.B.: Which hat do you enjoy most: writer, editor or publisher?
Baen: Publisher. As publisher I have absolute control over acquisitions. Thatís the heart and soul. Not the diddling with manuscripts. If you have an author you need to diddle with too much - unless itís a new writer youíre trying to bring up -- then you have to ask, what are you doing with him?
Editors acquire manuscripts. I like to think of myself as someone who acquires authors. And likes to keep them. Which, to a degree, I have.
J.B.: You have been mostly successful at that.
Baen: Itís a bigger picture, and it allows for both a more profitable and healthier relationship with authors. My relationships with the authors affect every part of my decision-making process on books. Iím not just thinking about the current book Iím working on, but the one five books down the road.
Iím always scheming to raise authorial profiles, because I have gathered a group of writers - or they have gathered about me - who like working with Baen, who like the freedom and the personal interaction.
This is not to say Iím some kind of wonderful guy. But Iím not a corporation, Iím a person. And even a halfway decent person can be distinguished from a corporation.
J.B.: How so?
Baen: Any editor you work with is just as likely to be at another house in two years. So they have a disincentive to keeping faith with the writers, or thinking beyond the next dollar. Whereas in our case, the goal is way down the road with many books in between, each of which is a step on the staircase to heaven. Most people like being treated as people, which is why some of my relationships with authors are decades long, and some have been virtually exclusive for that long. Even if the person treating them as a person isnít particularly socially adept.
J.B.: Are you accusing yourself of social ineptitude?
Baen: Iím socially adept when I work at it.
J.B.: And when you donít?
Baen: [laughs] Along with Larry Niven, I am not the person people would think of when they name ďMister Tact.Ē And this may be why I have a group of writers I work with - we become friends, and then I donít have to worry about being socially adept.
J.B.: How about your own writing? Has your editorial career interfered with what might have been a full career as a writer?
Baen: I donít think the writing avenue was ever really open. I can write comedy copy, but I donít have whatever it is that makes for the freeflowing disgorgement of thousands and hundreds of thousands of words. Itís not because I canít put sentences together. But I suffer from some sort of permanent creative block, a ďwriterís block,Ē if it applies to those who have never written.
J.B.: You have done some -
Baen: Sort of. The closest I came to writing hunks of a novel was The Taking of Satcom Station, but the real author was Barney Cohen and it was his novel to which I gave a very heavy edit, and my name went on it. The tech in it is completely mine, and the momentum-sharing cable-linked space habitats are purely mine. [Twinned or multiple living environments linked by cables and spun for ďgravity,Ē like two dancers that link arms and whirl around a common center.]
They were devised for a funny purpose. Barney wanted a chase scene up a stairwell in orbit. In my habitat modules you could take a stair flight up the levels and have a gunfight that way.
I also think itís a sound way to develop space infrastructure. You can have virtually coriolis-free gravity that way. And I will say here and now that all this fufraw over space-sickness in zero-gravity environments [which NASA is spending billions to research] will be regarded as ludicrous when we start getting serious about stuff. Itís plain as the nose on your face that we will use momentum to simulate gravity, because we need gravity. Itís not rocket science - there are any number of carnival rides that use the principle.
J.B.: But not the current space station.
Baen: Itís a political space station. They called it Space Station Freedom, and then they kept cutting off pieces, so that now itís either Space Station Fred, or maybe just F.
J.B.: Youíve used that line before.
Baen: I stole it, too. I think itís Pournelleís.
J.B.: Youíve been a big booster of space. Do you think that Science Fiction, as a genre, has helped shape the space program?
Baen: I think it very definitely shaped the birth of the space program, and is still an influence although not as great. Itís now a political football. Not to say anything bad about [NASA Director] Dan Golden, who has done a great job.
J.B.: Within his constraints...
Baen: I just think that the space program reminds me of a government agency.
J.B.: But surely itís better than no space program?
Baen: Well, itís all right. But what a pity... I canít think of a stage where they didnít make the wrong choice. Way back in the beginning, the X Program was on the verge of going into orbit with the X-series, maybe by X-18. The X-15 was still breaking records up to the day they told it to stop breaking records, because it was showing up Spam in a Can.
J.B.: And for those who donít know that reference...
Baen: The Mercury program. The choice was a piloted vehicle that could go up and return, vs. basically a missile that goes up and comes down. The astronauts werenít really pilots, they were payload.
By 1970 the X Program would have had experimental planes in orbit capable of return, but it was military [not NASA] and successful, so NASA killed it. We still arenít back to where we would have been in 1970.
Then with Apollo we had two ways we could have gone. And for the sake of gaining a year, or two, we gave up an entire space infrastructure we could have had at no extra cost. We could have Space Station Freedom in 1967 or 1968. Instead we saved a year or two, and got nothing.
J.B.: Youíre not a big fan of the Space Shuttle program either.
Baen: The flying toilet bowl? When the shuttle became the designated next goal of NASA, the powers that were at the time wanted to make that decision irrevocable and static. So they went around looking for anything that could be either an alternative or an upgrade, and killed it. And they made it as expensive as possible to make changes to any other launching system.
One mode of competition that was real obvious was the [the Apollo Programís] Saturn launcher. So after all the money they had spent on that, they drove a stake through its heart. Even ordered all the blueprints destroyed, so that you would have to start from scratch to ever do a heavy lift launcher again. There were other heavy lifters on the drawing board at that time that also disappeared. Thereís a rumor that one engineer kept a set of plans, rather than shred them as he had been told. He kept them in his garage, against the day they might be needed. This is still just a rumor, but I heard it from someone who had reason to know.
J.B.: Many of your authors write SF with a military edge to it. SF seems to fall into two camps: ďThere will be warĒ vs. ďThere wonít be war.Ē How do you answer those who say that any technologically advanced race that contacts us will be so advanced that they will have long past given up such primitive nonsense as warfare?
Baen: [laughs] I think it will depend on the race. And the real answer is, nobody knows.
I donít think you can argue from general principles to an absolute conclusion, any more than we can argue whether life exists on other planets. No matter how many positive statements of how ďthere must be aliens races because of the vast number of planets and stars and suns in the universe,Ē the bottom line there is Fermiís paradox: ďIf they gotta be there, why arenít they here?Ē
Maybe they arenít there. We could be, rather than the poor schlubs on an undistinguished third planet, on the cutting edge of the life force in this reality. Itís a heady possibility, that the universe is urging itself from pure energy to matter to living matter toward aware matter. Weíre not very bright yet. Weíre an intermediate step. It wasnít but an eyeblink ago that your typical hominid was a chimp-headed clown-footed midget named Lucy. Given where we came from, I think weíre doing pretty well.
And our children will do better, and I believe our 20th power children will have speciated. The way the tiny little mammals that ran under the feet of the dinosaurs went on to fill the world after the last great extinction event, I believe Homo Sapiens will become the mother of species to the new universe. Itís entirely reasonable to assume that as we begin the great trek outward, humans will begin a set of transformations. You can see one version of that in Larry Nivenís Ringworld, or Wellsí Time Machine with the Eloi and Morlocks.
J.B.: Somehow, I doubt that I would get onto these kind of subjects talking with the average editor outside the genre...
Baen: I like to think you could talk to some of the editors IN the genre and not get onto these kind of sub-jects.
You can only be interested in so many things in this life, and these are the sorts of things that interest me, as opposed to I suppose whatever it is that interest most editors.
J.B.: What else has interested you lately?
Baen: I very much enjoy shocking people with the true provenance of the human species, which must have gone through an aquatic phase.
J.B.: As opposed to the now-discredited idea that humans arose in an savanna environment?
Baen: Right. Lucy and Ramidus, two early human forebears, were both adapted to a semi-aquatic environment in my opinion, and the opinion of others. Thatís why you have body fat adhering to your integument rather than to the torso; itís also why you have a diverís reflex, and why you stand up, along with much else.
J.B.: But scientists can be slow to admit they were wrong - like the anthropologists that belittled the idea that humans had entered North America before the Clovis Culture of 11,000 years ago, and for years refused to acknowledge any dating of sites from earlier than that, but now they have finally given in to the weight of evidence.
Baen: I think of them as ďthe rice bowl crowd,Ē because they have to go begging for grants to fill up their bowls. They canít afford to look stupid if they actually admitted missing something that, once you see it, is obviously true.
I will exclude Professor Tobias of South Africa, who did explode the savanna theory of human provenance. He has admitted there is nothing in the record that would exclude an aquatic phase.
Another idea Iím focusing on: How much money do you think we would focus on building a time machine with one purpose: to go back in time to preserve a whole tribe of the first men?
I say we should spend that money on the chimps. They are the first men. Everything we need to know about our primitive selves is right there.
We can know, for instance, that anything that a chimp can do was within the powers of the first humans, and it turns out to be quite a lot. We donít have to wonder whether some australopithecine was up to something specific, if the chimps are already there. And we can learn a lot about pre-human social interaction.
They are a cadet species; humans and chimps belong together in a proper diagramming of the relationship of species. We twain are one: they just took the wrong road about a week ago in evolutionary time.
In terms of evolutionary choices, you might say they took the NASA route. They specieated into a small environment, and got stuck. Our ancestors, on the other hand, were just chimps that got handed the keys to the kingdom.
But the chimps, and also the bonobos, the so-called pygmy chimps, are in danger of extinction. To keep them going would take, really, just a pittance. While I am personally somewhat conservative and somewhat libertarian in my political leanings, I do think that chimpanzees and bonobos should have the same respect and rights as any primitives.
Iím beginning to feel quite strongly about it. Itís a very hard-bitten, down-to-earth caring. Itís caring for our own. You look at them and you look in your own eyes.
J.B.: In many regards you come off as being very cynical, yet in other regards you seem to have an enormous respect for the possibilities open to the human race, government screwups in the space program aside.
Baen: We have become so technologically powerful that it takes
more and more work for governments to screw things up. Although somehow they manage....
Life has, despite arguments to the contrary, evidenced a progression from single celled animals to wonderful us, and thereís really no reason to suppose that this is some magic moment when a billion-year trend is going to flat-line out.
Far more likely is the perspective that Vernor Vinge has, with his idea of social singularity - that we are at the knee of an asymptotic curve that before very long will point almost straight upward. The skyís the limit, really.