Interview: Steven Barnes
By Greg Beatty
29 July 2002
Steven Barnes has been publishing speculative fiction for over twenty years. A number of his early works were written collaboratively, some with Larry Niven, and some with Niven and Jerry Pournelle. However, beginning with Streetlethal in 1983, Barnes has written a string of books in which he has blended a lifetime of martial arts practice, independent inquiry, and philosophical and political issues into novels that are often original and always exciting. Recent books have tackled ever more ambitious topics, without relinquishing his early emphasis on action and adventure; Lion's Blood (2002) has been praised by Octavia Butler as "the best book Steve Barnes has ever written," and by National Book Award winner Charles Johnson as "an epic, daring alternative universe novel." In addition to his fiction, Barnes has written a number of teleplays, including episodes of Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and has published a wide range of non-fiction, primarily about the martial arts.
Barnes is one of the few African-Americans currently writing science fiction. The only time I met Steve in person was at a reading in Seattle for Dark Matter, where he shared a panel with Octavia Butler, Nisi Shawl, and his wife Tananarive Due. There, and in our conversation, his enthusiasm continually emerged, communicating a profound sense that Barnes is a man who loves what he does.
This interview was conducted by phone.
Greg Beatty: Let's start with the fundamental question. Why do you write?
Steven Barnes: I love thinking about life. Writing gives me a chance to explore the most exciting ideas about life that occur to me. I want to write about all the richness of existence.
GB: Well yes, but to cut to a specific element of your work, lots of writers want to write about life, without including as much violence, especially interpersonal violence, in their work as you do. It is possible.
SB: Yes, it certainly is. <laughs> But fiction is conflict. Conflict is the essence of fiction. It only seems natural to focus on conflict in fiction, and physical conflict is one of the easiest ways to dramatize the deeper conflicts that we all have to deal with.
But there's more than that. Life and death are two halves of a greater whole, two halves of a process. You can't really understand one without understanding another. And as for the martial arts, they've fascinated me most of my life.
GB: How did you get involved in the martial arts?
SB: By repeatedly getting the shit beat out of me as a kid. <laughs> Eventually, I reached a point where I said "I've had enough. This is killing me inside." I keep practicing because of what I've found in the martial arts.
<Pauses briefly> There were an amazing number of pressures trying to shape me when I was a child. There are for everyone -- we've all got pressures. But to grow up Black in America at this point in history is to be placed under a particular and intense set of pressures attempting to shape who we are. It's been an interesting experience, and not necessarily one I'd recommend. <laughs>
I feel we all develop a shell or a spine to help us deal with these pressures. Martial arts helped me develop a spine, something that supported me from within. Blacks in America are outnumbered 10 to 1. When I was growing up where I did, in South Central Los Angeles, there was a war going on. There were no referees, and I was on the losing side of the conflict. I was being told I was nothing, in a thousand ways, every day. I had to look inside myself and find answers to the questions "Who am I? What am I?"
There were no paths for me at that time, so I had to create my own path. Martial arts was part of that path.
GB: You sound like you're very aware of just how much you went through, but anyone who reads your work will be struck by the absence of bitterness in your work.
SB: Bitterness -- any negative emotions, such as hatred or rage -- are useful only if you're doing something with them. If I were in a situation where I were going to kill someone, I'd let myself hate. But if I'm going to live, it only makes sense to forgive. The physical threat of negative emotions -- stress, certain forms of cancer, all kinds of autoimmune disease -- is immense. It's better to move past them if you can, and forgive those who hurt you.
Because the people who hurt me, they did it unconsciously. They were looking for answers about how to survive in the world. Now, the answers they found were not to my benefit, and I disagree with them, but it's a waste of my energy to be bitter.
I filtered my emotions to an incredible degree growing up. I had to, to survive. I'm beginning to feel more directly. I can now let myself have access to these emotions, and honestly feel them. That wasn't possible when I was growing up. I remember my mother telling me that if I let people know how smart I was, they'd kill me.
But I don't see those people as evil. I see them as having taken another path to the divine.
GB: If these people aren't evil, what are they? And what about the villains in your work?
SB: I think of them as ill. Not evil, but ill. Some of them may be so ill, so incurably ill that to protect society, we may need to execute them, but still, ill.
GB: Is there anything you would call evil? Evil is a label we apply. How would I apply it?
SB: Evil is anything that adds to entropy. Anything that causes things to break down. Damaging children. Interrupting caring. Interfering with the process of life. That's evil.
GB: You've collaborated on several books, writing some with Larry Niven (the Dream Park books, and several others, most recently Saturn's Race), and some with Niven and Pournelle (The Legacy of Heorot and its sequel Beowulf's Children). What was the collaborative process like?
SB: It was like going to school. It was stressful, very stressful at times. I had some pretty profound differences with both Larry and Jerry politically, and there were some conversations about The Bell Curve I could have done without. In a way, it was sort of like going incognito into the enemy camp, and at the same time, it was a tremendous learning opportunity. I like Jerry and I love Larry, and I had these two tremendous writers who I respected tremendously for their minds, and for their accomplishments, even if we disagreed politically. If I could sit there and let them tear up my manuscript, if I could keep my ego intact, there was no limit to what I could learn from them.
GB: Your wife, Tananarive Due, is developing quite a reputation of her own. Do the two of you have any plans for collaborating.
SB: Yes. Probably a supernatural thriller first, then a historical novel.
GB: Well, the mention of history brings us to one of your most recent novels, Lion's Blood. Besides being a great read, Lion's Blood seems quite brave. To envision Black Americans as the slave holders in an alternative America seems morally and emotionally explosive. Where did the idea come from, and what challenges did you face in creating the world?
SB: It came from a number of sources. Like many people, I've asked myself, why did things turn out the way they did? And what would have been different, what would it have taken for the European civilizations and the civilizations of Sub-Saharan Africa to have met under different conditions?
I was also responding to a very long legacy in science fiction, in which there were no advanced civilizations originating in Africa at any point in history. I have never read a science fiction story in which a consumer product was produced in Africa. And there were these wonderful, amazing authors who were giving us images of white characters who could speak multiple languages and solve equations in their heads. And then there were menial black characters. There were hundreds of black menials in Golden Age stories. There's anecdotal evidence as well, about [John W.] Campbell and others in the field, who believed that the sub-Saharan African was inferior.
Then, once I had the idea to write an alternative history answering this, it took several years of research and planning. I couldn't just speed Africa up, I had to slow Europe down. I had to play fair by the rules of alternative history, and use tropes that readers were familiar with to do so. I had to address readers, especially white readers, via their subconscious. That's where we get Socrates and Alexander in the book, giving readers a way in. And I wanted to lead them in, giving them sympathetic, human characters, but shutting down any thought that this couldn't happen. The only way they could reach that conclusion is if they openly admitted seeing the sub-Saharan African as inferior, and that's not acceptable to say any longer, even to think. That was a challenge, because science fiction is very conservative in many ways.
GB: Why do you think science fiction is conservative?
SB: Because science fiction is the myth of our time, the myth of technological civilization. Myths are inherently conservative. They tell a people where they stand in the eyes of God. Myth tells them that they are descended directly from God, and that all other people came after them. Overwhelmingly, the mythological tropes employed by science fiction are the myths of a largely Christian northern European society.
Modern science fiction does the same things as the ancient myths. It tells us who we are, and what we should be. Now, one of the key drawbacks to stories like this is that they are very binary. They see the world in positives and negatives. Good/evil. Us/them. Race is a part of this. When races and cultures clashed, it became mythologically appropriate that blacks were slaves. The myths were that Blacks were happy there.
GB: All of your works contain not just vivid characters, but heroes of one sort or another. However, the heroes in your earliest novels (Streetlethal and The Kundalini Equation) seem to be involved primarily in their own personal struggles, while later heroes (the later Aubry Knight in Firedance, the entire clan in Blood Brothers, any hero in Lion's Blood or Charisma) are involved in heroic struggles on a much deeper level. They are bound to a family, a people, and often, a mythical or ethical structure. How has this change come about?
SB: I had long been aware of the myths of the hero's journey. Beowulf, Gilgamesh. Eventually I came to realize that these were not just frosting, they were meat and potatoes. That these stories were essential to the maturation process. And I set out to create such modern myths for those who didn't have them. When I was growing up, I found a way to find such myths in Tarzan, in Conan. Even though they were insulting, and contained some tremendously damaging images, I found a way to reach past them, and connect. But not everyone can do this, and I wanted to find a way to give them that.
The hero is the path to balanced power. I believe that we were given opportunities. We are given everything we need to learn what we need, to do what we are here to do. But to learn these things, we must engage with our heart, with our minds, and with our bodies. All are important, and we must work towards all of them, in balance.
If we do, we'll find ourselves face to face with every lie we ever told ourselves about why we can't have what we want. But we'll also gain two things. First, we'll gain tremendous compassion, by gaining this self-awareness. And second, we can become as obsessive as we want without tearing ourselves apart, because we'll have created a balance. We'll reach an ineffable place, beyond leaders, and beyond teachers.
GB: Likewise, your early novels include African-American characters, but race is not a primary concern in the first books. In later books, however, race is a major and explicit concern. How did this shift occur, and how does it relate to the thematic shifts in the nature of hero you create?
SB: I started publishing fairly young, and I was naïve. I figured that I had a lot of time, and I'd make it on my own talent. Then I woke up and looked around and said, "I'm all alone. I'm the only one. I'm the only Black man writing science fiction." And I knew I had to do more. I couldn't just create good characters, and ignore race. Other people cared about race too much. I had to create solid Black characters and make them central to my books, and do so without shutting out the open-minded, open-hearted white readers who make up so much of my readership. I had to find a way to make my black characters accessible to everyone, and to assure white readers they weren't going to get bashed if they read my work.
But it also isn't about me, or conscious decisions I make. It's not about me. It's never been about me, and the older I get, the more I trust my essence. I make conscious decisions less and less often.
I feel like I was set on this path. I was given the opportunity to be a writer. I was given certain opportunities, some of which were burdens, very painful burdens, but I'd be doing a disservice to Blacks, and to all Americans, to turn away from addressing these questions. Like many people, I want to tell the truth about what it means to be human, to be spirit in this flesh, to help us dwell a little closer to existence.
But that spiritual reality is always in tension with the historical reality. The myth of America -- and I do not use the term "myth" in a pejorative fashion -- is the myth of liberty. The myth that if you're willing to work, and to lay down your blood upon the land to defend it, you can be part of it. That promise is still echoing, and I'm trying to provide the strong shoulders, the shoulders that can bear the burden and not break, for future generations to stand upon. Just as I stand on the shoulders of those who went before me.
GB: Well, then, why in Charisma did you choose to give Alexander Marcus such a dark side?
SB: Why not? <laughs> Several of my recent books -- Iron Shadows, Charisma, Lion's Blood -- approach the same topic from different directions. I keep coming back to the same thing, the same elements of self-directed human evolution.
For a number of years I had been thinking about using the Neurolinguistic Programming approach to modeling the thought patterns of another person. It is hyper-efficient, but seemed to carry the danger that someone would pick up the negative behaviors of the person along with the positives they were trying to copy. I thought about doing another novel in the Aubrey Knight universe, but ultimately I determined the idea would fit better in a more mimetic universe, and that led to Charisma.
GB: Charisma's Alexander Marcus is a powerful figure. Did you have any historical models in mind for him?
SB: I originally thought of him as a cross between Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, but added dollops of entrepreneurial energy as I went.
GB: I love the character of Aubry Knight, and I've welcomed each of the three books he's been in. However, in Firedance he reached a new level of maturity, and perhaps a natural stopping point. Do you have plans for any more books featuring Aubry?
SB: I tend to doubt it. These books haven't had the sort of sales figures I'd like that would allow me to move my career forward.
GB: How about Lion's Blood? The world of Lion's Blood is extremely rich. Do you plan further works in this alternative America?
SB: Yes. My next book that's coming out is Zulu Heart, which isn't a sequel, but is set in the universe of Lion's Blood. After that, I'm going to decide what my next project is by the public response.
I've spent twenty years pounding on the front door, and I feel like I've made very little impact. If I'm the only voice in the field, I need to re-evaluate what I'm doing. I've got to flow like water and find the openings. I'm lucky to have editors who believe in me, and my current situation is both inspiring and humbling. I'm trying to create something that never existed. And all I can do is the best I can do.
GB: What sort of impact would you like to make?
SB: Oh wow. Well, first, I'd like to inspire young black writers. Right now, I'm the only black male writer writing science fiction today. There's Chip Delany, but he stopped writing science fiction twenty years ago. I'm it, and that can't be. There are a number of women of color in the field. Octavia Butler, of course, does wonderful, phenomenal work.
Second, my work with Lifewriting, in which one writes as if you, the writer, were going through the journey that your characters are experiencing. I keep coming back to that, approaching it from different angles. I think I'm getting closer.
I'd like to see my sales high enough to see an impact. I don't have to sell like Stephen King, but I'd like to have, say, one tenth the sales of King. In a couple of years I'll be moving back to California, back to Hollywood. There are so few films with positive imagery of black men. I'd like to contribute to providing healthy images for young black men. I'd like to add my voice to that dialogue.
One of the insidious dangers of Hollywood movies, especially extremely powerful movies such as Gone With the Wind, is that they portray Blacks without inwardness. Nothing could be more poisonous. If you ask yourself for one moment, would the Black characters in Gone With the Wind enjoy what they're doing, the movie falls apart. I want to provide alternatives to that world.
GB: I'd like to touch on a technical point. In several works you've either had a major figure dead throughout the book (Blood Brothers, Charisma, The Kundalini Equation), or off-stage through most of it (Swarma in Firedance). Why does this appeal to you so?
SB: That's interesting. I hadn't thought about that, not as a conscious pattern until you asked. I don't know.
GB: Well, I wouldn't want to push anyone into the Freudian camp.
SB: <laughs, then becomes serious again> No, maybe it's that we all have to deal with history. All of us are shaped by those historical figures who went before us, who aren't on stage anymore, but who are still influencing us.
GB: Well then, let's close with this. Who inspires or influences you as a writer?
SB: [Harlan] Ellison. [Robert] Heinlein, especially his sense of the untapped potential of the human race. [Arthur C.] Clarke. Clarke communicates a sense that the universe is a spiritual place that was very precious to me. [Edgar Rice] Burroughs. [Robert E.] Howard. Mickey Spillane. [Leslie] Charteris. <laughs> Basically, I love adventure. That's all I've ever had the urge to be. To be the best adventure writer I can be. That's all I want to be.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
Visit Steven Barnes's Web site.