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Interview with Gary F. Bengier

Gary F. Bengier

Unfettered Journey

We all have many journeys. Gary’s began in a small Midwest town, where he could play unfettered in the woods, finding an early love for nature and learning self-reliance. The space program and the night skies hooked him on astronomy. He can still recall spending nights as a kid trying to find the comet Ikeya–Seki by himself with crude star maps, through a toy telescope in the backyard. After finishing college, the wide world beckoned, and his fascination with science drew him to California to participate in the booming tech industry. Now for the last two decades, he has been staring upward (with his astronomy avocation), wondering what it all is about.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?

A. I love hobbies because you can learn so much by diving into a new field. I have often asked myself, what does it take to double my knowledge about X subject? For those that you know little about, the answer is that it can be easy, and exciting. Perhaps that urge caused me to get a pilot’s license; to learn to sail; to study astrophysics and then to build my own observatory; to climb the Matterhorn.

Q.2 Are we going to read more from you shortly? Any new project you’re working on?

A. I’ve loved the creative aspects of writing an Unfettered Journey. That has been a passion and nearly consuming focus for several years. Now my focus is to get these ideas in front of as many readers as I can. I think the novel raises many questions that are relevant to society, such as issues of social justice, and privacy rights in a rapidly evolving technological world, and questions of how the economic system will and should evolve as AI and robotics automate more and more jobs. Those societal questions are more my immediate focus.

Q.3 What inspired you to write Unfettered Journey?

A. After a career in Silicon Valley I turned to passion projects. I went back to school for nearly a decade, studying physics and philosophy. My philosophy master’s thesis led me deep into the philosophy of mind, to try to understand human consciousness, and what our minds actually are. After nearly another decade of thinking about these questions, I’ve written both a rigorous philosophical book - Unfettered Journey Appendices - and then the more accessible novel, Unfettered Journey. It was the philosophy that started the project.

Q.4 Do you feel that your career in Silicon Valley helped you with your writing? And if so, how?

A. My time in Silicon Valley informed the kind of hard science novel that I wished to write. I had the chance to participate in a broad spectrum of exciting technologies - computer peripherals (hard drives, printers, computer screens), chip design software, bioscience, scientific equipment design, streaming video over the Internet, and the Internet as a marketplace. These gave respect for the hard work to build technology. It makes me somewhat jaded by grandiose promises by many futurists. But it does not cause me to give up trying to realistically guess our future worlds.

Q.5 What, in your view, are the earliest works of science fiction?

A. I’d give credit to Jules Verne, and his book From the Earth to the Moon, written in 1865. I recall reading it as a teenager and still remember trying to figure out how gravity affected the occupants of his spacecraft (essentially a hollow cannon shell). Then I read Einstein’s theory and found how Verne had gotten the science wrong. I’ve always been a hard-science fan. Jules Verne did the best he could, and I credit him for that approach, an example for those who followed.

Q.6 How do you see the future of science fiction literature? Will sci-fi maintain its independence or intertwine with other literary genres?

A. I am hopeful that science fiction embraces realistic, hard science portrayals. Unfortunately, I think many writers, daunted by the technology and its speed of change, give up on realistic portrayals. That is easy to do. For example, any book written before 2007 may have poorly portrayed how much the iPhone has changed daily living, making those stories unrealistic, in barely more than a decade. It is easy to give up and resort to unscientific tropes (faster than light spaceships; ignoring how much the different-sized planet's gravity makes for nonsensical storylines; relying on magical creatures to create story conflict, with little regard for physics or biology). One result is that the broad readership has a poor idea of how the future may unfold. The future will be challenging, and we need to focus on certain real problems and work together to address them.

I do not worry whether science fiction intertwines with other genres. For example, if literary fiction wishes to reach out and claim some speculative fiction for its own, then that shows the importance of the subject material.

Q.7 How do you see the relationship between science fiction and culture? How about the boundaries between science fiction and reality?

A. It’s been said that science fiction is at least as much a reflection of the time when it is written as the imagined future. For example, worries of WWII and Hitler informed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Speculative fiction therefore can do a great service to culture, to point to the issues that need to be addressed.

That is another reason for my interest in hard-science perspectives. Humankind has many challenges in this century. If we as a species are thoughtful and work together, perhaps we can do a better-than-average job to deal with them. If we do not focus on the right problems, and we do not work together, then we shall surely fail.

Q.8 To what extent can science fiction affect or improve the developments in science and technology in human life? Is it right to say that science fiction can change what human life looks like in the future?

A. Absolutely, science fiction can change our future. Here are just a few of the issues that I shine a light on in Unfettered Journey: When machines can do nearly every job, what is the nature of work, and how do we spend our time? What kind of society might we have, and most importantly, how is the wealth produced by our machines divided? How do we manage concerns for individual privacy versus a government’s need for access to personal information for law enforcement? How can a thoughtful, logical person committed to a scientific perspective can think about his place, and his purpose, in the universe? Ore particularly, can we square a scientific perspective with any spiritual system?

Q.9 Is classic science fiction literature different from modern science fiction literature? Have the key aims of the genre changed considerable or not?

A. The answer relates heavily to my concern with the move away from hard science in sci-fi. Many of the classic science fiction writers tried to rely on real science, as understood in their time. Now so much of the genre turn toward fantasy. While these can be enjoyable stories, and fun for their purposes, I think they lose out in any power to influence the human conversation about our real future.

Q.10 What do you think are the main reasons for the popularity of science fiction? To what extent has the film industry helped in popularizing the genre?

A. It is a human need to tell stories. We tell stories about our past, and about our hopes and fears. We tell stories to give guidance to the next generations. Speculative fiction can do much to inform our stories about our future, and how we will manage it.

The film industry loves a good story. The tremendous progress in special effects and animation software over the past two decades has given Hollywood new tools to bring our imaginations to the screen. That reminds me of the story from the early days of film when in 1895 the Lumière brothers produced the silent film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which, likely an apocryphal story, caused audiences to flee. Modern computer graphics create similar excitement.

Because these writers paint our possible futures direct from the imagination, it is not surprising to see the love fest between speculative fiction and Hollywood.

Q.11 For long, humans have been looking for immortality at all costs. Do you think this will lead to our eventual dehumanization?

A. I take a hard science view about life-extension bioscience. Some futurists (for example, Ray Kurzwell, who claims the singularity is near), think that very soon humans can find immortality. And there is some hope, given that biology may not strictly enforce senescence. For example, Turritopsis dohrnii is a jellyfish described having characteristics of immortality. Despite these few examples and proponents, more mainstream scientific views suggest that evolution has crafted life to have an expiration date. In Unfettered Journey, I suggest that in the year 2161, the average person might live beyond age 121. My conversations with bioscientists, however, suggest that is likely very optimistic. Unless the extraordinarily complex interaction of human genes can be teased apart and reengineered (safely), human life extension to beyond a century (on average) will be a slow process.

Therefore, I think that questions of dehumanization of humankind are speculative fantasies, unlikely to become important questions for centuries. In Unfettered Journey, I portray the near future with some futuristic technologies (for medical and communication enhancement), but these just are a ‘normal’ part of human life. The same social issues that focus our attention today will still be foremost.

Q.12 Science fiction has a long history. Which era do you consider the most effective period in the whole history of the genre?

A. I would consider the first golden age to be between the 1940s-1960s, centered around writers such as Isaac Asimov with this Three Laws of Robotics and the Foundation series. Herbert wrote his classic Dune then too. But let’s not ignore more contemporary writers such as Iain M. Banks. Science fiction continues to produce great ideas.

Q.13 In many science fiction stories, the existence of God is denied. Could we call science fiction as an atheist literary genre?

A. Science fiction has often tried to follow science. Science has defended logical inquiry and the scientific method. Sometimes organized religions have ignored these. Creationism has been seen as a more insidious concern, using the guise of science to advance unscientific ideas (denying the weight of evidence for natural selection). Perhaps because of these battles, science has stood for evidence-based answers. Science fiction writers stand with science. I recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, a black comedy that among other themes lambasts the hold of religion in human society. (He wrote the novel in 1959, when organized religions had a greater influence on American culture.) Frank Herbert’s classic Dune invokes some zen themes, in a spiritual melting pot. So science fiction has not been non-spiritual.

I take a different approach in the Unfettered Journey. Among other related themes, I ask the question, can we square a scientific perspective with any spiritual system?

Q.14 Ray Bradbury considers sci-fi as “the important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas and the history of our civilization birthing itself”. Do you agree with him, as many sci-fi stories do, indeed, depict disaster?

A. If done well, science fiction performs the critical role of pointing out the path that humankind is heading, shouting warnings, and pointing to better paths. No other field of literature holds this role so centrally.

Q.15 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?

A. My writing process is fairly conventional. There’s no hard-drinking and late-night frenzied composition. But I found that sometimes my characters would wake me up at night. Then I would scribble a short email to myself on my cell phone before getting back to sleep, to add that insight to the page the next morning.

Q.16 How do you select the name of your characters?

A. My novel Unfettered Journey is many-layered, and one layer is as an allegory. (Easter egg: that informs many names.) Some of the names of characters changed during the writing, sometimes more than once, and the characters became richer on the page, and then the original name didn’t fit.

Q.17 What do you want readers to take away from your book?

A. We all have an unfettered journey. We have a limited time on this earth, and we should think deeply about how we spend it. Unfettered Journey has many-layered themes. It is a love and adventure story. It traces struggle and resilience in an imperfect world. Its themes are the future that we are creating, right now; the continuing fight for social justice; and deep philosophical questions about consciousness and free will. I hope that my readers will be willing to think deeply about their own lives and find something to take away from the novel to help them find their own special purpose.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?

A. That has always been Lincoln. I’ve studied the American Civil War extensively and find the conflict to be such a monumental struggle on many levels. Perhaps only someone with Lincoln’s intellect could have found a way through the difficulties to hold the United States together.

Q.19 What is your favorite book and why?

A. There are entirely too many that have deeply influenced me to chose one. I’m a big fan of William Faulkner and love his Yoknapatawpha County and the rich characters that populate it. His universal themes make him a giant among American writers.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?

A. I mentioned that I love learning new things and learning the craft of writing has been the latest. After many different journeys, this is one of my most creative. I love this community of writers and readers and our shared love of books and good literature.

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