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An Interview with Mary Doria Russell
[The following is the text of an interview with Mary Doria Russell, a paleoanthropologist and award-winning author of "The Sparrow," "Children of God" and the upcoming "A Thread of Grace." The telephone interview was conducted by AAAS senior writer Edward W. Lempinen on 23 November 2004.]
First, a question that you must get asked quite often: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be a paleoanthropologist and then how and why you made the transition into writing novels.
I fell in love when I was 15 years old. I was one of 25 students accepted for a summer course in anthropology "for high-ability high school students." It was in the summer of 1966 at the Field Museum of Natural History [in Chicago]. It ran six weeks, each week a scientist in one of the branches of anthropology came in to give us a taste of that specialty archeology, linguistics, genetics. We did a small salvage-archeology dig where a housing development was going in and the contractor had found some tools. One of the archeologists brought in a set of stone tools, and there was a scraper from the Neanderthal era. It fit my hand. There was a physical connectionand the knowledge that 50,000 years earlier, some other woman held itthat just never left me. I still get chills… So I went on to become a paleoanthropologist. It's a completely impractical field of study [she laughs], but it seems to have turned out all right for me.
And then, once you'd gotten your Ph.D. and gotten a job, what was the nature of your work?
I did an engineering analysis of the facial skeleton. My dissertation research was a test of a model I had of the brow ridgethe famous Neanderthal brow ridge, which I saw as a developmental structural support for bending moments across the forehead during anterior dental loading. [Laughs.] Don't ask. You'll just get me started… Anyway, that project involved fieldwork in Central Europe and in Australia. And later I developed a statistical and anatomical way to distinguish between butchery cutmarks made prior to cannibalism and the kind of cutmarks made during secondary burial rituals.
During that time I taught gross anatomy at Case Western Reserve University [in Cleveland, Ohio]. People with anatomy degrees won't teach gross anatomy-they're very huffy about it: "if it can be seen with the naked eye, it's been done." [laughs] They're far too busy and important to do anything like gross anatomy. That opens up the job market for paleoanthropologists, and we are very grateful.
How then did you make the transition into writing novels? It seems like such a dramatic change.
Umunemployment? [laughs] The department that I worked for at Case was eliminated. First the administration tried to fire all of the tenured professors and to replace them with part-time clinical instructors, which of course is breaking tenure and therefore illegal. The professors went to court and won the case, so the University closed down the Basic Sciences department, because it's not breaking tenure if you fire everybody at once. I was caught up in that drama.
In the meantime, my husband he's an engineer he'd always told me that I'd be worth my weight in gold as a technical writer, because I can hear in Engineer and write in English. I worked as an independent contractor, writing the manuals for CT and MR scanners and 3-D medical imaging machines. I had used that kind of equipment in my own research. So it was a relatively easy transition to make.
It was from there that I went into writing fiction. And againunemployment! [laughs] There was a big recession at the end of the first of the three Bush administrations [in the early 1990s]. I was working freelance, so I was the first one to be cut from any budget, and my contracts dried up. I had what I thought was an idea for a short story, but it got away from me.
Can you remember the moment when that idea that became "The Sparrow" bloomed into your imagination?
There wasn't any one moment. There were just so many things that kind of coalesced over a period of about six months. Some of it had to do with the fact that 1992 was the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World, and a whole lot of historical revisionism had started up. Native Americans pointed out that first contact with Europeans was a catastrophe for the Indians, which was absolutely true. On the other hand, I felt it was unfair to hold explorers and missionaries and settlers to standards of cultural sensitivity and appreciation for diversity that we only pay lip service to, 500 years later. We look back on the catastrophe without any personal guilt, and like to imagine that we'd have behaved ourselves much better. We wouldn't have robbed, and raped and pillaged. We just inherited the stolen goods. [laughs]
I began to think that somebody ought to put modern peoplewell-educated, well-intentioned, decent peopleinto that same position of radical ignorance faced by those first European explorers. Let's just see how we'll we'd do. But there isn't any place left on this planet where we can be that ignorant, so the story had to be off-planet. It had to be first-contact science fiction.
And so from that coalescing of ideas you've written two really lovely, provocative novels that contemplate the discovery of intelligent life on another planetkind of an old story line
Yes, first-contact science fiction is, as one of my reviewers said, one of the hoariest science fiction themes. But I realized that we are not yetnot even in the 21st centurywe're not finished processing the shock of the 15th century to biblical interpretation. You know, how did all of these animals, which are not mentioned in the Biblehow did they all fit on the Ark? Are these two-legged individuals the Lost Tribes of Israel? Do they have souls, so we can convert them? Or are they just animals that look human, so we don't have to convert them before we enslave them?
Those kinds of questions lead to the Enlightenment, and to the observations of Darwin, and there are places in Ohio where folks don't appreciate that new way of looking at the world. We're still dealing with the shocks Europe got during the Age of Discovery. So it seemed to me that any discovery of life off this planet would have, if anything, a more revolutionary impact on how religion is understood, and how religions interpret life.
Let me ask a question that will set some context: Do you personally believe that there's intelligent life in the universe other than on earth? And do you want there to be?
Well, it's hardly my choice, is it? I quoted Bertrand Russell in one of the first two books, saying that, "mere consideration of scale would seem to indicate that we are not the sole purpose of creation." The universe is a big place. There are lots of solar systems circling lots of stars in lots of galaxies. It seems statistically unlikely that the conditions for lifeand the development of increasingly adaptive and opportunistic species like our ownwould happen only once. Biologists are finding out that it's not that hard for DNA to happen. So the discovery of life off-Earth wouldn't surprise me a bit.
Would I be pleased? I think it would be exciting. [Pause]. I don't know how people would take itI think it would be very threatening to a lot of people. For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, life elsewhere would probably be as threatening or at least as challenging as the unbiblical discoveries of the 15th century.
In first picking up "The Sparrow," I came with my own set of expectations that turned out to be wrongthe chief among them being that you were going to posit the discovery of life on another planet and then consider the impact here on Earth. And yet, you surprised me: You focused on how our discovery affected the beings on the other planet, Rakhat. Why did you go that route? Was it intentional?
First of all, I've got to tell you that neither of these books was intentional. I thought was writing a short story850 pages later, I had these two novels. I went where the story pulled me.
When I was finished with "The Sparrow," I spent a month where my main character Emilio [Sandoz] was, inside his head, and that was not a good place to be. I needed bring him to some sort of resolution. Like the Father General [Vincent Giuliani, in the novels], I decided that Emilio really needed to go back to Rakhat and face the demons.
What I was not prepared for was, I gave Emilio every opportunity to volunteer [laughs] and the character literally said to me, "Not if you went down on your knees and begged me." Which I quote in the book. And so, like the Father General, I was forced to make him an offer he could not refuse. He went back because he had no choice.
Also, at the end of the first book, I knew why Supaari had done what he did. And I knew more about the Reshtar than belonged in the first book. "The Sparrow" tells the story from the point of view of the humans who went to that unknown world, like the early European explorers and missionaries did. To change the focus and see things from Supaari's point of view, to explain the culture that produced the Reshtar, I had to show what happened on Rakhat. Even though they hadn't come looking for us, the fact that we found them was revolutionary.
The mission to Rakhat was led by a couple of Jesuits, and the crew consisted of priests, linguists, a homespun family doctor and
Hey! She was a Ph.D. in anthropology! [laughs] And a medical doctor! She wasn't your average family practitioner.
And her can-do husband
A life-long engineer with 40 years of varied technical experience. There was also a combat pilot, who also happened to be a priest. Emilio a gifted linguist, but a priest as well. Yeah, it was admittedly a quirky group.
But the underlying premise of first contact science fiction is that we could find and visit another planet with an intelligent species living in an ecosystem compatible with our own biology. To make that kind of story work, writers either have to lie about the physics or lie about the biology. I am trained in biology, so I lied about the propulsion systems.
Arthur C. Clarke is trained in technological science, so he lied about putting humans "in stasis." Near-lightspeed-travel and stasis are both scientific nonsense, but you have to pick one of them if you're going to write this kind of story. That's the fiction in science fiction.
My premise for writing "The Sparrow" was: This is impossible, unless God wants it to happen. See? My deus ex machine was God, if you understand, of course, that I am the god of the novel. There's a lot of weird cognitive dissonance as you're writing these things.
So when my character Emilio hears the music Jimmy Quinn has discovered, he is drawn along by the romantic notion that this quirky collection of people have come together for a reason. That's what allows me put this interesting crew together: It's God's will.
Let me back up a bit. Clearly, putting this crew together enabled you to examine the theological questions that you didthe human questions, the questions of God and faith. How is the story different if a fairly conventional NASA crew goes to Rakhat?
I don't know. Somebody else would have to write that story. I wanted to work with characters who were so engaging and charming to me, I would go up to my office every single day for years and spend time with them.
You know, there are writers who will tell you that they just hate a character and I don't understand it. It's so hard to write novelsit takes so much discipline to sit down and make this prose happen every day. I don't know how writers can spend time with characters they don't like. The trick, for me anyway, is to make villains who are just as engaging and charming as the good guys so I can enjoy their company as well.
I might be casting the question in a way that's not quite right. I'm trying to figure out, from your point of viewI'm not trying to get at your motivation, or your interest in composing the crew as you didbut because they were who they were, they had a particular kind of experience. If it had been people with a military and science background, and that was their training and worldview, and that is why they went, would their experience on Rakhat have been different?
I know you're trying to ask a question so that you can pull an answer out of me, but I can't say! Look: any group of eight characters, if the characters are worth reading about, would've had their own reactions to events, and there would be a different dynamic in the group psychology. I wrote about a group of characters who either interested me, or who got written out of the story! I can't give you a better answer than that.
Again, I have to emphasize that I didn't plan either of these novels. You know, Columbus thought he was going to Japan. I thought I was trying a short story. Every morning I would get up and say, 'Ok, what happens next?' And the characters would pull me along.
I'll give you an example. I'm writing along, and here's Emilio and he's out brooding on the beach, all by himself, and everyone leaves him alone. While I was writing about that, the Duchess of YorkFergie, remember?she was getting photographed from, like, 10 miles away while some gentleman sucked on her toes, and this photo was published all over the international media. And I started wondering, "Damn, how does Emilio get to sit out there on the beach, brooding and not being bothered? This is a guy who has got to be the biggest news story ever! Why aren't papparazi screaming at him and pushing cameras up his nose every time he sets foot outside the compound?"
And that question sat in the back of my head until I was like halfway done with the book. I knew I had to find a plausible answer for it, or I'd end up with 2/3rds of a novel sitting taking up disk space. Then one day, I realized that I've got a Father General named Giuliani in Naples, [laughs] which is the most corrupt city in Italy. And the solution comes to me: you know, the British royal family can't threaten to break your legs [laughs] if you don't get the hell out of there with your cameras. But the Mafia can do that. The capo di tutti capi can have a few heads busted, you know? So if the Father General makes a couple of phone calls to a few second cousins, suddenly, Emilio's not going to be bothered by the press out on his isolated Neapolitan beach…
It's not that I started out and said, "Oh, I will have an Italian-American father general [of the Society of Jesus] and he will be connected to the Naples Mafia. All of this just happened organically as I was writing. Which is one of the reasons it took 60 drafts
Six-zero, yes. It did not come naturally.
I want to shift the conversation away from your books a little bit. When you appear at AAAS on December 2, you're going to be talking about the impact on usearthlingsin the event that life is discovered on another planet. And I want to know, first: Do you think that that discovery inevitable? But if it happens, what kind of response do you expect, especially in religious cultures and on our concept of God?
For some people, it's just going to be very, very cool. For some sects of Christianity, it's going to be majorly difficult to fit into their religious worldview. Not for all, but for some.
For example, Mormons posit that God has created many worlds with many sentient species. I had no idea this was true until I did a book tour event in a women's bookstore in Salt Lake Citytalk about an embattled minority! Anyway, to my amazement, Mormons were fine with "The Sparrow" because they believed God had created many worlds, and here was science fiction that took that idea and ran with it.
BuddhistsI doubt that they would be terrible distressed by the discovery of life elsewhere. I do not know about MuslimsI just don't know. I don't think it will be a problem for Jews either. In our theological evolution, we've gone from the God of this mountain to the God of All the Way to Babylonia, to the God of Any Place a Jew Prays to the God of the New World and Everything. All our prayers begin, 'Blessed art Thou, o Lord, Ruler of the universe…" So for Jews, the attitude is, just because God made a covenant with us doesn't mean He can't make different deals with other people, you know? The notion of a universal God is now embedded in Jewish theology.
The real crunch, I think, comes for Christians. Christianity is the most species-specific of world religions, because of the core belief in divine incarnation [the belief that Jesus is the human embodiment of God]. So was there also a little green Jesus who was sacrificed on some sort of alien cross for the salvation of little green men? If not, why not? And if so, what does that say, what does that mean about our interest in incarnation?
George Coyne is the pope's astronomer, a Jesuit priest who runs the Vatican observatory. And George Coyne says that he believes that Jesus is a singular event, and he expects to be on the front lines if an when that view of the world is challenged by the discovery alien life.
I'm not understanding thatwhen he says that Jesus is a singular event, what does that mean?
I don't have the quote in front of me, but as I recall, the idea is, There's only one God, and He gave His only begotten Son to redeem mankind. Jesus wasn't sacrificed on the cross to redeem gorillas or dolphins, even if they are sentient. And that's a worldview that's going to take it a hit.
If we find incontrovertible evidence of sentient life elsewhere, theologians could say, "Well, George was mistaken. God does have other children." Which is why my second book was called Chilren of God. Or they could stick with George's formulation of the issue and get into a rear-guard action against scientific facts, as the church has often fought. Or you could table the issue and say, "We can't know about the incarnation on that planet, and we can't answer this question until we are in contact with these individuals." But the ability to say, "We don't know yet" is not a strong suit in an institution that promulgates dogma.
On the other hand, George Coyne isn't the pope. He is one thoughtful Catholic priest with a Ph.D. in astronomy and he has an opinion about this. I could name you three or four other Jesuits who are friends of mine, who are anthropologists, who would greet the concept of aliens as my fictional Jesuits do. They'd say say, "These must be God's children as we are, so let's be humble enough shut up and listen and see what God had to say to them."
Now that I think about it, the Church doesn't say anything about God's only begotten daughter, so maybe that's a way to finesse the problem. Maybe there could be an only begotten Shzzbar who was sacrificed on the lateir to save the Blxtib.
You touched on this a moment ago, but I'd like you to talk a little bit more about itif the time comes that there is the discovery of life on another planet, will the impact on earth be different if we do the discovering rather than if we are the discovered?
I'm not sure I could have a meaningful opinion about that. I mean, 'Did you ask him to the prom, or did he ask you?' [laughs] I don't know how that would effect a relationship, but I suspect it would have an effect.
When you appear at AAAS on December 2, you're going to talk to some degree about what other theologians and thinkers have had to say about this topic? Well, how would you characterize them? I mean, are they optimistic? Are they
I haven't made a big study of this, you understand. I am not a sociologist of religion or anything. Somebody asked a science fiction author to speak at the Dec. 2 meeting, and I'll do my best.
But from what I've found, the emphasis among Christian theologians seems to be, "How shall we interpret the incarnation if it turns out that we are not alone?" I think that this is worth considering. Even if we don't have to find intelligent life, if we find a single bacterium anywhere, we're into the thick of it. That's proof of concept. And if you believe in the inerrancy of your interpretation of Genesis, well, then that's going to be a problem.
I think theologians could say, "Ah, well, the Bible is inerrant, but our interpretation is not thus blessed. We need to adjust a few attitudes here." But many people reduce theology to something that will fit on a bumper sticker. "God said it, I believe it, and that's the end of the discussion." I don't know how they'd handle it. Denial, I suppose. There are people who don't think we were on the Moon. So it's possible that they'll find a way to just not deal with the reality of it by saying, "The scientists just made this up to shake our faith." Listen to Art Bell's callers. [Laughs.] Everything's a conspiracy at one o'clock in the morning.
This question may seem a digression, but still, I feel that it's hovering at the periphery of our conversation: How do you explain the apparent rise of religiosity in American culture right now?
I can't answer that question personally, but I can refer you to a remarkably prescient analysis of American history by William Strauss and Neil Howe, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." It was published in 1991, which means they were doing the analysis in 1989 or so. I reread it every so often, to see how the model is holding up, because I am a Popperian logical positivist, Strauss and Howe have a model of how America works that has generated testable hypotheses, which they published in 1989. A lot of those predictions have played out accurately, which tends to support the model.
They say that every fourth generation, America has a Great Awakening. America is swept with religious fervor. The generations that trigger these awakenings see tolerance of error as anathema. The world is black and white. Do it my way, or you'll go to hell. That wouldn't be so bad, if people were allowed to go to hell quietly on their own terms. Instead, the religious among us feel compelled to share their faith, to insist on their faith, to legislate their faith, and make opinions and habits illegal. Compromise and tolerance of error becomes a sin for such people. In the 1840s, it was not enough to oppose slavery, or to refuse to have slaves personally. It became sin to tolerate slavery, and we should be ready to fight and die to eliminate slavery anywhere in America. In fact, if I were to tolerate slavery, I personally would go to hell, so my eternal soul depends on the end of slavery. Swap slavery with abortion, and you see the parallel to the present day. The cycle has happened twice since that generation fought the civil war.
Here's a quote for you: 'I know the heart of America, I speak for the soul of America, I know that all hearts cry out like mine: that America is born to exemplify to the world the revelations of Scripture.' Sounds like George W. Bush, doesn't it? But that was the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who'd just been reelected on the slogan "He kept us out of war." Two months later, he declared that God wanted him to lead America into World War I to make the world safe for democracy, which was also God's desire for the world.
Strauss and Howe demonstrate a four-generation cycle that's been repeated since the 1500s in America, and they are especially interested in the generation that is just reaching maturity right now: the Millennials, they call them. The last time America had a generation like this, they were the kids who fought WWII, the "greatest generation." They are typically the best educated, most confident, hardest working kids in decades. They grow up with a sense of "we can fix this." They are serious and they think about things, and they're just a fabulous group of people, they really are. My own son Dan is 19, and from the day his class of kindergartners started school, we've been hearing teachers tell us, "Your kids are just amazing. They're so nice to each other, and so cooperative, and they're so different from what we've come to expect!" That's the praise you get when you come after a Lost generation, like the Xers.
Baby Boomers are deadlocked in our idealism. We know the way, the truth and the light, and we'll continue to spit and snarl at each other until the Millennials come into political power. In the next 10 years we'll see the first of themand they will be tired of all the useless wrangling and will actually do something.
But before that happens? Strauss and Howe predict that the Millennials will have to fight a hellish war started by a Boomer in the presidency. I hope the model fails, but so far, there's been a horrific full-scale war every time we've had this configuration of generations.
In considering the issues contained in "The Sparrow" and "Children of God," what reaction have you gotten from religious people? And what kind of reaction have you gotten from science types?
It has been just gratifying across the spectrum. The books are used in seminaries and college courses. And though I regret becoming homework for students, I think partially the reason the books stayed still in print that I don't slight either side. My model of human behavior is that we have two hemispheres in our brain, and we can use both of them. Even if you have a stroke destroys your ability to speak or understand spoken language, you retain the ability to sing and to pray. And so my theory is that health, we don't have to choose between hemispheres of our brain.
I am a fully functioning scientist at the same time that I am a reasonably observant Jew. I don't find that to be in conflict and neither have a lot of other scientists. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that you're not allowed to assume your conclusions. Everything's an argument! We are instructed by the sages to find 70 meanings in every character of the Torah! [laughs] Argument and intellectual combat is part of our religion! You're not allowed to study Torah by yourself. You have to have at least one study partner, because otherwise you might think you have the only possible interpretation of scripture, and you won't have a partner to say, 'Wrong! And here's why!' That kind of worldview is not necessarily in conflict with natural science.
Tell me a little bit about your new book, "A Thread of Grace." Is it a complete departure from your Rakhat books? Do you see any overlap?
It's less of a departure than the fourth one that I've just begun, which is just really different in every respect.
In the first two, I was dealing with theology. In the third one, I was working through ethics. My characters are born into these religions, and then thrown into the extreme tests of World War II. And they must decide how to act on the ethical precepts they've inherited. So, in many ways, those three books have to do with the comparisons and contrasts between Christianity and Judaism and the ways in which the experience has been mediated through those lenses. There's a great deal of overlap, but one of the things about understanding common ground is that you're also very clear on things that are not shared.
The fourth book is called "Dreamers of the Day," which is a line from a poem by T.E. LawrenceLawrence of Arabia? The novel is about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, which Fromkin called "the peace to end all peace." After the first world war, a bunch of Brits and Frenchmen got together in Cairo to divvy up the Middle East and its oil. When they invented Iraq, they deliberately included this impossible grouping of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Why? So that no group would ever be powerful enough to impede the flow of oil to Britain. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
There won't be much in the way of religious context in this novel. The characters see their problems as political and economic, and their religious blindspots are part of the point of the book.
Do you think you'll ever return to Rakhat, figuratively speaking? Is there any pressure from readers or publishers to have you go back?
Typically science fiction readers like a nice chronicle and I do sometimes get emailed pleas to do a third novel on Rakhat, but I feel no need to revisit any of those characters or issues. When I finished "Children of God," I thought, "Okay. That's done. I got Emilio back to earth, and as far as I'm concerned, from now on, he can eat pasta, and watch his grandkids grow up, and get fat, and have a nice life. I'm done jerking that poor man around."
Edward W. Lempinen
30 November 2004