Interview: Nick Sagan

[Note: This interview first appeared in Science Fiction Weekly in 2006.]

Nick Sagan is the son of astronomer Carl Sagan and artist/writer Linda Salzman.  He was born in Boston, MA in 1970, and grew up in Ithaca, NY and Los Angeles, CA. Prior to becoming a novelist, he worked for several years in Hollywood, writing scripts for a variety of projects, including several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager.  His novels include Idlewild (2003), Edenborn (2004), and Everfree (2006).  You can visit his website at

Science Fiction Weekly interviewed Sagan via e-mail in April 2006.

At age six, a recording of you saying “Hello from the children of planet Earth,” was placed aboard NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, which has in the years since left our solar system.  How does it feel to be among the voices on Voyager’s “Golden Record”?

It’s a wonderful thrill, and I’m honored to have played a small part in such an ambitious and noble endeavor.  My parents sat me down in front of a microphone and asked me to say something for potential extraterrestrials to hear.  I’m sure I didn’t understand the full significance at the time, but I remember feeling a palpable excitement about the optimism of the Golden Record, reaching out into the unknown, searching for intelligent life and proof we’re not alone.  Looking back, it all seems so surreal.

There’s pride and gratitude, but also a wistful quality to how I feel.  That recording of my voice is on the most distant human-made object in the universe.  Every day it flies farther and farther away from home.  It’s as if my childhood is somehow on Voyager, my innocence.  I was six years old when we recorded it.  My parents separated when I turned seven.

And I suppose there’s an existential feeling as well.  Everyone wants some kind of immortality.  Through pure accident of my birth, my voice will live on long after I’m dead.  The world could blow up tomorrow—Voyager will continue on.

That’s wildly strange and cool.  Still, if I’m going to be remembered for any single thing after I’m dead, I’d much rather it be for the stories I tell as an adult, and not what I said as a child.

What was it like growing up with such a world-renowned icon as a father?

When a kid has a question about the universe, many fathers shrug, or tell him to look it up and stop being a nuisance.  That was never my dad.  The man had a fantastic breadth and depth of knowledge, and a love of teaching.  He was the best teacher I could have asked for.  If you’ve seen Cosmos, you have a pretty good sense of him.  Just add loving, caring, proud-of-my-son-and-want-him-to-do-well to the mix—that was my dad while I was growing up.

But the “world-renowned” part—well, from my point of view, that wasn’t always such a great thing.  We couldn’t go out in public without fans coming up to shake his hand, ask for autographs, etc.  That got in the way, and between my parents’ divorce and how busy his workload was, I already wasn’t spending as much time with him as I would have liked.  You wind up sharing your family time with the world—with celebrity, that’s the nature of the beast.  You also struggle with questions of identity.  You’re not just you.  You’re so-and-so’s son.  You have to live up to that.  Everyone you meet will presume things about you that may not be true.  If you want to be appreciated for who you are, you have to continually prove yourself.  That can get wearing after a while.  And I remember being very suspicious of the people who wanted to befriend me.  “Is this because of me, or does it have something to do with the last name?”

Still, as crosses to bear go, these are minor ones—many of my friends had more difficult paths to adulthood.  What’s more, the negatives are offset by the pride I feel for being his son.  Carl Sagan inspired millions to learn about science and skepticism, and opened their minds to the wonders of the universe.  Many scientists today became scientists purely because of him.  The impact of what he did continues to this day.  And I was lucky enough to know the private man behind the public figure.  Not a day goes by that I don’t wish he were still here.

The way Idlewild deals with virtual reality invites comparisons to The Matrix.  But where The Matrix’s use of virtual reality doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense (they’re being used as batteries?), the virtual reality depicted in Idlewild actually seems plausible.

In an essay on the writing of his novel Starplex, Robert J. Sawyer said it was his attempt at “Star Trek done right.” Was Idlewild your attempt at “The Matrix done right”?

Guilty.  But before anyone takes that the wrong way, let me qualify it.

First, by no means was this the genesis of Idlewild.  It wasn’t like I saw The Matrix, said, “I can do better than that,” and wrote Idlewild as a reaction.  In fact, the original germ for my story came to me before I’d ever seen The Matrix.  But once I did see it, I knew I had to differentiate the virtual reality in my book, and take care not to fall into the same patterns.

Second, I enjoyed the heck out of The Matrix (the first movie, at least).  Wire fu, gunplay, black threads and some thought-provoking ideas—I’m a fan of all these things.  The Wachowskis are talented filmmakers, and calling Idlewild a stab at “The Matrix done right” might suggest that I have disdain for them, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

That said, you’re absolutely right that The Matrix doesn’t make much sense.  Human beings are the best fuel source the machines can find?  Absurd.  Punching a computer program in a simulated world actually hurts that program in a meaningful way?  Even more absurd.  And if we “die” in the simulation, the psychic shock of that fictional death will somehow kill us in the real world?  That’s Freddy Krueger territory.  Entertaining, but I don’t believe it.  And if I don’t believe what I’m seeing, it only has power to reach me so far.  There’s a certain point past which it just can’t penetrate.

Stephen Baxter called Idlewild, “the essential read for The Matrix generation,” and Neil Gaiman likened it to “Amber meets The Matrix.”  Both are huge compliments in my book.  But I don’t claim to have done The Matrix right—I’ve just written about virtual reality in a way that meshes with my sensibilities.  I’m very happy that it seems to resonate strongly with other people as well.

You killed off most of the human race with a virus called “Black Ep.”  Explain for us how that virus works and whether or not such a thing is frighteningly plausible.

Deadly pandemics are, unfortunately, all too plausible.  The influenza of 1918-1919 claimed 70 million lives, making it an even larger cause of death than World War I.  With viruses mutating so quickly (and sometimes into more virulent forms), it’s not hard to imagine a 21st century plague that wipes out many millions more.

But billions?  How does a pandemic become a “world-killer?”  You’d think that quarantines and modern medicine would keep the lucky, paranoid and health-obsessed among us from falling prey.  Were HIV to mutate into an airborne strain, many would die, but some would isolate themselves, fleeing into self-contained, airtight environments if need be.  Surely, there’s no way to wipe out everyone, right?  As tragic as these sorts of catastrophe would be, isn’t the human race bound to survive?  Not necessarily.

Imagine a slow-acting microorganism that can incubate harmlessly in a body for years.  (Mad cow disease, for example, can remain hidden for decades—then it bores holes in the brain.)  Because we don’t realize we have it, we unknowingly spread it.  Years later, when it turns virulent, we discover that we have a pandemic on our hands.  We spring into action, but by then everyone’s already contracted it.  Or consider your DNA.  We may have mapped the human genome, but 98.5% of it is so-called “junk DNA” that serves no apparent purpose.  It’s just a mess of random-seeming data, evolutionary artifacts that have been encoded for who-knows-how-many generations.  While this part of the code isn’t hurting us now, a deadly pathogen could be buried within all that data, dormant but waiting for something to trigger it.  Another microorganism or even an environmental factor.  We’ve been tampering with the environment for years without truly understanding the consequences of what we’ve been doing.

I’ll happily admit that Black Ep and other SF-based world-killer plagues are less likely to pop up here in the real world—the next pandemic we encounter has a better chance of killing a fraction of us instead of all of us.  Hopefully, just a small fraction.  Even so, the potential for total extinction of the human race exists—an alarming possibility.

In Everfree, the character Sloane describes the people who spend all their time in the IVR (Immersive Virtual Reality) as “idiots…[who are] too scared to face the world.”  Are those people really so different than those of us who immerse ourselves in entertainment–spending much of our time watching TV or movies, playing video games, or reading novels?

No, they’re not so different at all.  I’d say we’re on the way to becoming IVR addicts—all that separates us is the level of technology.

Too much of anything is a bad thing, and while escapes into fantasy can be gratifying, they can also be self-destructive, a siren call.  You can see this with players of massively multiplayer online games.  Most players can enjoy them responsibly, but some alienate their spouses, neglect their families, lose their jobs and homes, and sometimes their health and even their lives because they prefer a simulation of reality to the one they’ve got.  Here’s a blog dedicated to tracking the phenomenon.  Now maybe your ideal alternate reality doesn’t involve killing orcs, amassing gold and leveling up.  It doesn’t have to—something appeals to your sense of wonder, and whether it’s your favorite film, book, chat room or what-have-you, if you were to discover that someone had fashioned a virtual simulation of it, you’d stand a fair chance of getting hooked.  What if that simulation could be perceived with all five senses?  What if the technology made it feel as “real” as what you’re experiencing right now?  And what it served as a refuge from all your real world problems?  Hello, electronic opiate.

You may be familiar with the 1950s tests where experimenters used electrodes to send small shocks to the pleasure centers of lab animals’ brains.  The subjects had a choice of pushing one of two levers: one released a food pellet, and one triggered a pleasurable shock.  Very few food pellets were ever released—the euphoric feeling was what they craved, again and again and again, even when starving.  Given the right stimuli, that could be us.

This is what Sloane’s reacting against, and because she’s a self-centered, belligerent character, she presents the criticism in self-centered, belligerent terms.  I’m more sympathetic because I’ve fallen into this trap before.  Heck, I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if I hadn’t retreated into fantasy many times.  It’s only dangerous when you can’t find your way back out.

Incidentally, many years ago, I remember showing my dad a computer game for the Apple II.  Baseball simulator.  Primitive by today’s standards, but you could match some of the greatest teams of all time against each other—say, Babe Ruth’s 1927 Yankees against Jackie Robinson’s 1955 Dodgers.  He played an inning, told me how much he liked it, and asked me to never show it to him again.  “I can see myself spending far too much time with this,” he said.

The book seems to say that humans are genetically predisposed toward violence.  Is our only chance at world peace to do something as drastic as in the novel, or is it achievable by some other means?

Without a drastic change to human nature, I think it’s reasonable to doubt that world peace will ever be anything more than a pipedream.  Thousands of years of recorded human history, and look at where we are today.  Look at what we are.  Genetically, we’re not so far from chimpanzees.  Are chimps capable of cooperation, compassion, tolerance and compromise?  Yes, but they’re far more likely to form tyrannical hierarchies, and then persecute, rape and kill chimps from other groups.  That’s deeply ingrained primate behavior.  It goes back millions of years.  A few thousand years of human culture and philosophy has a hard time standing up to “might makes right.”  In the animal kingdom, might typically prevails, and our genes know this.  They tell us to fight or flee, lead or obey, exploit or be exploited.  We can talk about egalitarian utopias all we like, but the aggression lurks within us just the same.

Evolution has a way of recalibrating, so I can imagine a scenario where, without any manmade interference, our genes eventually “catch up” to our loftiest ideals.  But how many millions of years will that take?  And how long do we have?  Technology ups the stakes.  A hundred years ago, if you wanted to kill a certain person or tribe, you had no chance of wiping out the entire human race.  Now we have enough nuclear arms to annihilate our population many times over.  Proliferation is out of control, weapons are unaccounted for, and many nuclear have-nots are actively pursuing the technology to make their own bombs.  We are developing newer, deadlier technologies all the time.  Mapping the human genome is sure to lead to amazing medical breakthroughs, but consider the flipside: the potential to make horrifying biological agents is greater than ever before.  How many weapons have we humans created that we haven’t later tested and used?

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture.  We’re an incredibly resourceful species, capable of solving all manner of problems.  It can be done.  But can it be done without drastic steps?  Or without terrible consequence?  I don’t have confidence in that.  There are reasons to be hopeful, but I see more reasons for concern.

Halloween, one of the primary characters in your trilogy,  professes a love for both Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.  Who are your literary favorites and/or inspirations?

Not surprisingly, you’ll find Poe and Lovecraft on my list of favorites as well.  Fear is a good thing, and they got my blood pumping, especially during my teen years when I read them obsessively.  Michael Moorcock, too.  I remember reading a lot of horror and dark fantasy during that time.

Looking earlier in my life, Susan Cooper’s masterful The Dark Is Rising sequence served as a major inspiration.  For me, that series was the first to raise the possibility that everyday reality might be more than it seems.  I’d read stories about good battling evil in faraway fantasylands like Narnia, Oz, Middle Earth or Barsoom, but here the struggle was on Earth, and the stakes were nothing less than the future of mankind.

Also, Stanley Kiesel’s wonderfully subversive The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids had a profound influence on me.  That book woke me up to the possibility that authorities aren’t always right, nor do they always have a child’s best interest at heart.  Orwellian satire before I discovered Orwell.

Today there’s a long list of influences: Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, Iain Banks, Roger Zelazny, Mike Resnick, Jack Womack, Stephen Baxter, Vladimir Nabokov, William Hjortsberg, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler.

From graphic novels: Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, David Lapham, Chris Ware.

Television: Jimmy McGovern, Shawn Ryan, Rod Serling, David Chase, Joss Whedon.

Movies: Ernest Lehman, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, Christopher Nolan.

I‘m probably forgetting lots of people.  There’s always a long list of books to read and shows to watch.  Right now, I’m reading John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades and having a great time with it.  John’s a clever, skillful storyteller and man, is he prolific.

Before turning your hand to novels, you worked in Hollywood for many years writing screenplays and teleplays.  How did you first get your start in Hollywood?

Incredible luck.  I’m an undergrad in UCLA Film School, and I show a script I’ve written to Richard Walter, head of the screenwriting program.  He calls me in to his office, and I’m expecting him to give notes, but no, he loves the script and asks if I’d mind if he shows it to an agent.  I don’t mind at all.  The very next day, that agent calls me to set up a meeting.  Two days later I’m signed.  We go out with the script and suddenly I’m taking meetings all over town.  A production company options my script.  This company also happens to own the rights to a science fiction classic: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  Would I be interested in adapting it?  I jump at the chance.  Though the project doesn’t get off the ground (and, sadly, still hasn’t), my Ender’s Game script really gets my career going.  I’m off and running, adapting other SF novels, and along the way my agent suggests I pitch to Jeri Taylor at Star Trek: TNG.  That pitch becomes a story sale, “Attached.”  Off the strength of the Ender’s Game script, Jeri asks me to write the teleplay as well.

It’s kind of funny that you would end up writing for Star Trek, considering that Star Trek made use of the Voyager probe in the storyline of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then later, of course, had a spin-off series called Voyager.  Did your affiliation with the probe ever come up during any of your interactions with the cast and crew?

Amazingly, no.

Since you’ve written scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, might you write a Star Trek novel someday?  Or do you plan to stick with original stuff for the time being?

No plans for a Star Trek novel at this time, but perhaps somewhere down the road.  I’m a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s mythology.  The Trek universe is a great setting, and certainly there were Next Generation and Voyager episodes I wanted to write that never reached production.  Ideas that were too weird, too dark, too sweeping, or too expensive to produce on the small screen might work better as novels.  Eventually, I ought to look through my old TV pitches, but it’s the original stuff that’s calling to me right now.

Do you have any plans to return to Hollywood?  Has there been any interest in your novels as potential film projects?

Yes, and yes.  Producers have come knocking, but we’ve yet to make a deal.  I’ve worked out a treatment, and we’ll be pitching that sometime in the next few months.  Between now and then, I’m finishing up a new screenplay—something original and totally unrelated to the trilogy.  Since writing Idlewild, I’ve tried to balance the novel writing with the scriptwriting, but I think the trilogy has taken the lion’s share of my focus during the past four years.  The new script will restore the balance a bit, and I’ve been enjoying stretching my screenwriter muscles again.  It’s science fiction, but more comedic than any other script I’ve written.  It’s making me laugh, and that’s a good sign.

You’ve also done some work in videogames and other media.

I’ve been privileged to write in a variety of formats: screenplays, teleplays, novels, short stories, videogames, public service announcements, etc.  Each requires a slightly different skill set.  Because games are interactive, there’s challenge in trying to think like the gamer, anticipating the many ways in which he’ll try to pursue his objectives, and then scripting moments that meet or confound those expectations.  That’s fun.

Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands is the best known of my game projects; it’s the darkest of that series, and I’m happy with how it turned out.  The original Zork text adventure was a favorite of mine back in the day, so it was a treat to work on one of its descendants.

Currently, a software development studio is commissioning concept art for a story I’ve worked out; they’re sending me amazing renders of soldiers in futuristic body armor.  It’s a very cool project, and I hope we can find funding for it.

I’ve also contributed to alternate reality games over the years, most recently with OurColony for the Xbox 360.

Games that don’t outwardly appear to be games, fake websites that look real, media that blurs the (already blurry) line between scripted and real world events—this appeals to my sense of whimsy.

Idlewild and Edenborn have been translated into Portuguese, and you traveled to Portugal in November of last year for the Fórum Fantástico.  Do you have a large following there?  And what did you think of your travels?  Have you done much other traveling?

I’m still stunned by the trip to Portugal.  There’s a strange feeling of coming full circle.  In 2003 I was an unpublished novelist, and [in 2005] one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, was reading Idlewild in Portugal.  That alone was amazing.  But in 2005 for my books to be translated into Portuguese and me flown out there to take interviews with the Lisbon media and speak with Portuguese fans?  If you’d told me that back when I was writing Idlewild, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Everyone in Portugal treated me with such kindness and hospitality.  I can’t possibly say enough about what a great time I had.  Lisbon is a beautiful city, and I immediately fell in love with the monuments to exploration, the fado music, the coffee and the beer.  I’m very grateful to my publishers, Editorial Presença, and to Rogério Ribeiro, who organized the convention.  I’d love to go back sometime soon, hopefully with a better command of Portuguese.

I’d never been to Portugal before, though I did wind up traveling quite a lot as a kid.  Cruise lines wanted my father to lecture on the water, so they struck a deal where in exchange for those lectures, he and his family could travel free.  So I spent my school vacations going to Central America, or the Netherlands, or the South Pacific.  Traveling gave me an appreciation for other cultures, and a sense of globalism and commonality.  Looking back on those trips, I believe they nourished my optimism—something I treasure very much, despite how cynical I can sometimes be.