As a kid, I raised my hand too often in class and looked forward to science projects. I drew pictures of space ships and aliens on my notebooks before rushing home after school to play on my IBM 386. As for many young nerds, school could make for a solitary life. I related to a set of books—the My Teacher Is an Alien series—better than I could with most of my lunch-table peers.
If you are in your mid 20s like me, chances are you've read the series, penned by Bruce Coville, one of the most acclaimed names in children's sci-fi. It's the ongoing story of a young boy named Peter who—kidnapped by an alien disguised as his teacher—visits other planets, travels on space ships and meets a universe of aliens first hand, before having to argue humanity's case against a galactic jury, lest they quarantine or even kill us for our warmongering ways. After rereading the series on a nostalgic rainy weekend, I decided to call up Coville and ask him what was going through his head when he wrote it all. It ends up, he's just as interesting now as I, at age eight, would have imagined him.
The devices Coville dreamed up for Peter's journey were amazing then, and still amazing now. Peter uses a URAT ("Universal Reader and Translator," kind of like a PDA on steroids) to teleport around a ship the size of New Jersey. Meanwhile his crush Susan is caught in a stasis forcefield, and his arch nemesis, Duncan the former dunce, is the smartest person alive following a zap to the brain. Some of the tech was and is farfetched, while much of what was once considered alien (literally) has become commonplace. The first book in the series was published back in 1989, before broadband, 3G wireless and laptops in every home.
Peter Thompson is your stereotypical dork, does well in school, gets picked on and is always reading science fiction. Do you think geeks are perceived differently in society today than around 1990?
Oh yeah. Geekhood is definitely much cooler than it used to be. It's come a long way.
Would Peter get by better today?
Not necessarily. In the kid culture, I don't think that's caught up. When you enter the adult world, you realise, wow, geeks make more than I do. But in the kid world, he's still kind of geeky.
Did you think early in your career that we'd see technology become a mainstream subject?
Yeah, actually I did. As a sci-fi writer you have to be a futurist. I was a very early adopter of a personal computer. And one thing that I try to apply when I'm thinking about things is the curve of technology and the way technology feeds on itself and speeds things up.
Science fiction is not as predictive as we'd like to think it is. Yeah, Jules Verne talked about submarines, but they were around already. What science fiction does well is not predict what the change is going to be, but make it clear that there is going to be change. What the great science fiction writers missed in computers was miniaturisation. You go back to those stories and see where they were talking about the UNIVAC, these room-sized, building- sized computers. They missed miniaturisation and the fact that computers would not be owned by giant corporations, that we'd all have them.
OK, now this is kind of unfair. But I made a small list of technologies that are in the My Teacher series and I thought you could say "yes" or "no" as to whether or not they'll ever exist.
(Laughing nervously)...if I'd known there'd be a pop quiz, I would have reread the books.
Brain-zapping intelligence booster?
Universal language translator?
Maybe...that's the big one...it may be that we're limited to the world as we understand it now but my sense is that we'll find a way around that...Yeah, I think it's gonna happen.
With 20 years of perspective, do you think you'd write the technology differently?
The Earth technology in the series is not much part of the story. It's really about the alien technology. What the series does not include that I would have to do differently now is kids using the internet, going online or using cellphones.
Anything different in terms of alien technology?
I don't think I'd do that much differently. We're moving more rapidly to having something like a URAT ourselves than I thought we would. I have friends in the science-fiction world who say the ebook will never catch on because people love real books and I could never read off the screen. To me that's like saying television will never catch on because who wants to watch a black-and-white picture on a circle that's 12 inches wide.
The URAT was really me trying to envision where that kind of [handheld computing]technology would go, and we're getting there faster than I anticipated.
The URAT itself combines a PDA, networking and a 3D hologram projector...
You know, it's been a while since I've read it. I can't tell you everything the URAT did.
I'm having a real SNL Star Trek moment where William Shatner starts yelling at the Trekkies.
Are there any examples of a scientific announcement or invention that makes you say, "I came up with that!"
(Laughs) I do look at things and say I was talking about that. I don't necessarily say I came up with it. The iPhone is really pushing forward what the URAT is. I look at that and think, yeah, that's what I was talking about 15 or 20 years ago.
Do you think that Jobs ripped you off?
Oh, no no. (laughs) Even if they saw it—which I highly doubt—I would be thrilled if I had any hand in it. Ideas should be exchanged.
A lot of sci-fi shares these mutual visions.
It's sort of an ongoing conversation in the sci-fi field that builds on itself. One thing you have to feel your way around is communication across vast spaces. Even at the speed of light, intergalactic communication would take tens of thousands of years. You either say that's a limitation, and build a story around that. Or you say, I'm going to come up with a fix around this. Science fiction writers have come up with a few ways around this and other writers adapt and pick them up.
Kids have said to me, "you got that from Star Wars" or something. I said, actually, I wrote that book before Star Wars came out.
Do you remember any specific influences of the My Teacher series?
I will tell you where one aspect of the books came from, particularly in My Teacher Fried My Brains. When Duncan has the brain fry and he's able to receive all those messages and read what's going through the air.
That insight came from Buckminster Fuller when I heard him speak, a decade before I wrote the book. He talked about that idea, that there was this massive amount of information flowing through the air at all times. You have your radio on and no matter where you are, you still hear information being broadcast. That idea really sank in. I thought, what would it be like if you actually could receive that without the intervention of the machine?
Aliens... do they exist or not?
I don't think it's possible that they don't exist. I cannot conceive of a universe as large as this one in which we're the only intelligent species.
If aliens do exist, what do you think they think of us?
The might not even know of us. They might be in the same place that we are. If they do know about us, I think what's in the books is what they think of us.
The underlying theme of the My Teacher series seems to be, "Man's brain may be bigger than his heart." We're capable of technological advancements that we're not ethically ready to handle.
I really like how you put that, though I would change it slightly: "Man's brain is bigger than he allows his heart to be."
Has your perspective on this moral changed in 20 years with new technology?
No, actually my perspective has not changed. I would have liked it to have. When you write social commentary, you hope it will become irrelevant. We are no further ahead in world hunger—look at Darfur right now. We are still making the same mistakes. I would like to have had the humiliation of having been proved wrong.
Do you think that good enough technology could solve world problems like global hunger and war? A device that provided unlimited clean water and food? Or is the problem the people themselves?
The "Santa Claus" machine. It would be such a radical change that it's tough to tell what would happen. Human greed remains and the attempt to control that and profit from it—there would be a huge battle as to how that technology is used. And I'm not sure which side would win.
If you've enjoyed the interview so far, head on over to part two. Its focus is more literary, the outtakes of what wasn't quite gadget-focused enough to fit here. But if you're a fan of the series, check it out.