An Interview With J. Neil Schulman

by Neal Wilgus

Conducted by mail in August, 1985
Published in
Science Fiction Review
No. 58, Spring, 1986

 


Neal Wilgus: Let me begin by offering congratulations on winning the 1984 Prometheus Award, given by the Libertarian Futurist Society for best libertarian novel. The Prometheus was awarded for your second novel, The Rainbow Cadenza (Simon and Schuster, 1983), but let me start with a few questions about your first novel, Alongside Night (Crown 1979). Night is the story (among other things) of a young man's coming of age -- how autobiographical was it?

J. Neil Schulman: Now that's one question about Alongside Night I wasn't expecting, since I never thought of it as autobiographical at all. Certainly none of the events in the story, considering how far out they are, are conceivably autobiographical. Most people, in fact, think I based Elliot Vreeland and his famous-economist father Martin on my real-life friend David Friedman and his famous-economist father Milton, which is a rumor I do nothing to stifle since I have so much fun watching it annoy David. But maybe there's a touch of autobiographical feeling in a couple of places, since Elliot Vreeland has to deal with the competition of an accomplished father in the same way I had to at that age with my own father, who's a highly-regarded concert violinist. And, I threw in a few odd autobiographical touches here and there. Elliot Vreeland talks pretty much the same coolly scientific way I did at seventeen--comes from reading all the Heinlein juveniles, my favorite of which, Between Planets, I have him reading while he's on the run. Elliot's mother is a painter; so's mine. But Elliot is in much better shape--physically, emotionally, socially--than I was at seventeen. I was really screwed up then. I was extremely fat, severely alienated, and completely frustrated. If it wasn't for the hopeful sense of life I got from reading authors like Robert Heinlein, C.S. Lewis, and J.D. Salinger--and the luck of running into a psychiatrist who was sane, rational, and not in the pay of my enemies--I never would have made it. In a lot of ways, Elliot is who I would've liked to have been at seventeen and--except for the brains-- wasn't.

  Neal Wilgus: Alongside was explicitly libertarian, both in the story of Elliot Vreeland discovering the agorist underground and in the political economic principles he's exposed to. How difficult is it to write a story heavy with such "message" and still be entertaining?

J. Neil Schulman: Damn hard. C.S. Lewis wrote an essay on "Watchful Dragons," his metaphor for the prejudices and preconceptions lurking in a reader, waiting for buttons to be pushed. A writer pushes the wrong button, the Watchful Dragon jumps forward and says, "Oh, that's just "left-wing propaganda" or "Reagan bullshit" or whatever label people stick on ideas so they can get rid of having to think about them. When you're trying to expose people to a new idea, you keep on running into that, because they keep on trying to shove you into some preconceived pigeonhole so they can dismiss you. So what I did in Alongside Night was to let the events of the story show the reader what I was talking about, and try to keep the explanations coming out of my character's mouths the minimum necessary to understand the story. But you can't please everyone. A newspaper in Texas dismissed the book because it was all message and no story, and a now-defunct media magazine dismissed the book saying it was all story and no message. The truth of the matter is that Alongside Night has about the same story-to-message ratio as the average thriller, but people don't notice it in the average thriller because the average thriller is propagandizing the status quo, and since the average reader agrees with the writer's worldview from the word go, the writer's message is invisible. My worldview is different from the average reader's, so even if I give no explanation at all, the simple fact that the events of the story are going differently than the reader's expectations puts the reader on guard to the author's "message." The only lesson I can get out of this is that C.S. Lewis must have been better at calming down the neophobia he was producing in his readers than I've learned to yet.

  Neal Wilgus: In the afterword to Night you ask the musical question "Are we Alongside Night?" That was written during the Jimmy Carter years of double digit inflation and you projected triple digit inflation for the story. Now we have Ronnie Reagan and much lower inflation, but that mushrooming deficit has taken its place. How about an update -- are we again Alongside Night?

J. Neil Schulman: No, I don't think we were within a decade of being "Alongside Night" in 1979 and don't think we are now. I do think we were a little closer to the terminator in 1979 than we are now, but that can also change in a fairly short amount of time-- say the time it takes for the U.S. to get us into an expensive war in Central America. But publishers kept insisting on putting dates on the book cover--Crown, the hardcover publisher, wanted to re-title the novel 1999 and when I wouldn't stand for that subtitled it "A novel of 1999"; Ace, the paperback publisher changed that to 2001 in a mention on the back cover. I never give a date in the book itself--I give months and days, but not year. I did this for a reason: I was describing the preconditions for economic collapse and a libertarian revolution arising out of that. My statement was: this is what it might look like and this is how you might do it. But I never said that it's going to follow a predictable timetable.

  Neal Wilgus: Robert Anton Wilson took you to task in his "Illuminating Discords" column in New Libertarian (April/June 1980) because of a sign in Night which reads "Rooms to Rent. No Dogs or Welfare Parasites." Wilson's point was that the poor are victims of the welfare system, not necessarily the advocates of it, and that it was typical, but unjust, "mammalian behavior" to put them down for it. Did Wilson's argument change your attitude toward the poor?

J. Neil Schulman: First off, let me point out that Bob Wilson endorsed Alongside Night before he took me to task in his column for that fictional sign . And, if you note my letter replying to Bob's comments, in the next issue of New Libertarian if memory serves, what I said was that Bob Wilson, as an author himself, should have known better than to attribute a sign put up by a character as reflecting the opinion of the author. That sign was meant to characterize Emmanuel Ferrer, who--as a character--was denied welfare by New York City after the IRS seized all his property and left him a pauper. With the help of the Revolutionary Agorist Cadre, Ferrer turns an abandoned building into an apartment complex, and I don't think it unreasonable that--under these circumstances--Ferrer would resent those living off government subsidies taken from him by force and then denied him. One sociological point that Murray Rothbard always makes should be made here: libertarian class analysis shows that the State pretty much distributes its loot within class boundaries. It robs from one group of rich people to give to another group of rich people, it robs one sector of the poor to give money to another sector of the poor. It's not a matter of favoring the rich over the poor, or vice versa. We're not talking about mammalian behavior here, Bob Wilson notwithstanding; this is basic libertarian economics. And, by the way, when I was writing Alongside Night I was living at a low enough level to qualify as "poor," myself--I have a friend who, at the time, has an income about equivalent to mine who applied for and got food stamps. I thought it preferable to borrow from family and friends, since I had that option, but if anybody's wondering, I don't think I would have hesitated to apply for welfare if I was unemployed, couldn't find work, and had a family to support. But first I might try sitting on the street, reading my stories aloud, with a hat out.

      Neal Wilgus: In the afterword to Night you cited Ayn Rand, Robert A. Heinlein, C. S. Lewis and J. D. Salinger as the major influences on you at that time. Want to update that list? Or expound on it?

J. Neil Schulman: I'm in print in a number of places already on how I was influenced by Rand, Heinlein, Lewis, and Salinger, so I'll give them short shrift here by saying that Catcher in the Rye was my main stylistic influence during my early writing, and C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and Robert Heinlein have been the major philosophical and literary influences on my life. With that said, let me add the following non-exhaustive list of other writers I admire. Anthony Burgess is the most inventive English prose stylist I've ever read. I love what he does with language--the sheer musical quality of the language--in A Clockwork Orange. I know that Burgess would say the same thing about James Joyce, but I consider Joyce to be an epic poet rather than a novelist and-- having dismissed him with that categorization--I'll have no further comment on Joyce until I manage to get past the sheer density of his writing to read and understand what he's doing. Among what's usually termed the classics, I enjoy Twain, Dickens, and Poe. I also think Ambrose Bierce's "An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge" is the single best short story I've ever read. Recently I've been reading John Steinbeck for the first time in years, and was pleasantly reminded what a terrific writer he is--I just loved East of Eden, which surprised me by turning out to be a hard-core libertarian novel. Ira Levin's This Perfect Day is, in my opinion, a better anti-utopian novel than either Nineteen- eighty Four or Brave New World--and I consider those two books to be damn near perfect. As a matter of fact, I think you'd have no trouble finding stylistic influence from Brave New World in my novel The Rainbow Cadenza. I think Cordwainer Smith is the best stylist that genre science fiction ever produced, though Philip K. Dick was no slouch here, either. But Philip Dick also ranks as one of the best idea men--with the philosophical depth always to be interesting--in the genre, as well as having characters to rank with any mainstream novel known for character. I think Colin Wilson's Philosopher's Stone, Mind Parasites, and Space Vampires are all excellent novels, full of interesting ideas well stated. Another couple of books I feel this way about are Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man and Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. I thought John Irving's The World According to Garp terrific. My friend Alan Brennert has written a marvelous comic novel called Kindred Spirits which Tor--in its infinite wisdom-- published with "Romance" on the spine. Alan's novel is about as much of a genre romance as Orpheus and Eurydice. Since Alan is currently the Executive Story Consultant for the new Twilight Zone series, let me mention that Harlan Ellison--who my mind turns to because he's also a story consultant to that program-- manages to dramatize in the short story form ideas that other writers need a novel to handle--for example, see his stories "Jefty is Five" and "Shatterday." I've also recently read--and was very impressed by--Robert Silverberg's "Born With the Dead"; I also like his "Gianni" very much. Other writers I particularly admire for their short stories are Poul Anderson, Robert Sheckley, and Theodore Sturgeon. Among libertarian writers, I think Paul Wilson's An Enemy of the State is first rate, as is Neil Smith's Probability Broach. Even though it hasn't been published in English yet--if you read German it's been published in Germany--Victor Koman's The Jehovah Contract is one of the best novels I've ever read. I don't read German, by the way; I read it in English, in manuscript. Bob Wilson and Bob Shea's Illuminatus! is excellent, and one of these days the mainstream literary critics will discover it and lionize Wilson and Shea for their wit and style the way that they have with Kurt Vonnegut. Speaking of Vonnegut, I consider Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle to be masterpieces. You can also put Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 on the list. Let's also not forget C.M. Kornbluth's The Syndic and Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion as examples of the best of libertarian satire. Moving away from libertarians for the moment, I'm also a big fan of Arthur Hailey's novels--Airport, Hotel, and so forth. He doesn't concentrate on elegant style, but I love Hailey's integration of story and background detail. I'm a fan of Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, and got a great kick out of reading their latest collaboration, Footfall. Greg Benford's Timescape is one of my favorites. Clark's Childhood's End. Douglas Adams Hitchhiker books. I hope other authors whom I admire don't feel insulted that I've left them out--I'm running out of space.

  Neal Wilgus: In my interview with L. Neil Smith (Science Fiction Review No. 54), I couldn't resist asking about the importance of being Neil -- and more important, about the striking coincidence that the two of you have such similar looking names, and both began writing libertarian science fiction at about the same time. Has the similarity caused any problems? Do readers unfamiliar with your work tend to confuse the two of you?

J. Neil Schulman: All the time. A reviewer in a Canadian Libertarian Party newsletter took a swipe at J. Neil Schulman, author of The Probability Broach--I was never able to find out who they were really attacking. I was introduced at a speech I was giving as "L. Neil Smith." After the MC had it pointed out to him that I wasn't L. Neil Smith but J. Neil Schulman, he apologized then said that, in any case, he was introducing the author of The Probability Broach. I didn't write that book, which I'm sorry about since I think it's terrific. I decided to use my middle name, Neil, when I was sixteen, along about the time that Neil Armstrong took his stroll on the moon. L. Neil Smith tells me he's always been called Neil--that he wasn't called by his first name--Lester--to avoid confusion with other Lesters in his family tree.

  Neal Wilgus: Since you've revealed what the L. in L. Neil Smith is, would you care to tell us what the J. in your name stands for?

J. Neil Schulman: Joseph.

  Neal Wilgus: Turning now to The Rainbow Cadenza, let's get into its main theme -- Lasegraphy. In your acknowledgements at the end of Cadenza you gave credit to Ivan Dryer as the Father of Lasegraphy and to Dr. Elsa Garmire as the Mother -- along with many others in the field. How did you get interested in the laser art form in the first place?

J. Neil Schulman: My first exposure to the laser as an artform was in 1974, when I attended a performance of Laserium at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I sensed from the first performance I saw--and still think--that this has the potential of being an art form with the impact of music itself--that it is, in effect, music which reaches us through the eyes instead of the ears. I also thought immediately that for this to happen, the artists will have to compose by eye alone, rather than choreographing their visual compositions to aural music. The reason for this is that any art form has to be internally thematic--it can't be dependant on an outside art form for its own form and power. For commercial reasons, this isn't practical to do yet, but I think it will happen someday, and after the art form has developed an identity of its own in silence, then I think it will be mature enough to "marry" aural music again. I show this happening in Rainbow Cadenza, with the division between classical lasegraphy performed in silence and roga, which is performed with musical accompaniment. By the way, since there is some confusion about it, both "lasegraphy" and "roga" are terms I invented. Before I came up with these terms, there just wasn't any generic term to describe the laser projection art form, since Laserium is a trademark referring to the productions of Laser Images, Inc., of which Ivan Dryer is currently the Chairman, and Elsa Garmire was one of the original founders. There are, by the way, many other outfits doing laser concerts around the world-- it's just that Laserium was the first commercially successful one and--in my opinion--the best. Anyway, the first thing I wanted to do when I saw Laserium was to go to work for the company as a performer, but I found out that you need a background both as a musical instrumentalist and in electronics, since the laser performers go on the road and have to be able to fix the electronic instrument as well as play it. I didn't have the electronics background necessary, so I've had to content myself for the moment with theorizing about the medium, and discussing my theories with the actual technicians, composers and performers. I've gotten some good reactions to my theories, but none of them are ready to give up performing with music yet.

  Neal Wilgus: Lasegraphy as a new art form that is beginning to evolve is one thing -- writing a novel around the idea of how it might actually evolve is another. When -- and how -- did you first begin to think of writing a novel on the idea?

J. Neil Schulman: I thought about writing about the future of the art form from the beginning. But the trouble was that Ivan Dryer was very secretive about the patents on the laser projection system they'd developed, and I couldn't find out how it was done. So I was held up for quite a while in writing about it. Then I remembered something Heinlein had written in his short story "We Also Walk Dogs." In Heinlein's story, a company needs to have an anti- gravity device, and there's only one physicist who might be able to come up with the theoretical breakthrough to deliver it to them. The only trouble is that he's not interested in the problem. So one of the company's executives remembers Mark Twain's thought that if you really need something from someone, find out what they want more than anything else, get ahold of it, and offer to trade. This executive finds out that the good physicist is an admirer of a particular priceless Chinese vase called The Flower of Forgetfulness, gets it, and offers to trade. It works--the physicist gets his priceless vase and the executive gets anti-gravity. So I looked into what Ivan Dryer wanted, and it turned out to be publicity for his company. I immediately phoned Omni, got an on-the-spot assignment to do an article on Laserium, and called Ivan Dryer. He gave me the run of his outfit for a week, and Omni paid me to do the research for my novel. Unfortunately, the editor who bought the piece got fired and Omni never ran the article, but I imagine that the publicity Rainbow Cadenza has created for Laserium has compensated Ivan for his time and trouble.

  Neal Wilgus: Your fictional lasegraphy rather closely parallels the development and history of classical music. How much were you influenced by your father as a musical model and/or your mother as an artistic model (no pun intended)?

Neal Wilgus: I was influenced a lot by my parents' musical and artistic backgrounds. When my character Wolfgang Jaeger rants and raves against atonal music, this reflects theories I developed based on conversations I had with my father. As a matter of fact, I discussed theories of music with my father quite a bit when I was trying to come up with a general theoretical background for lasegraphy. The visual component comes not only from discussing art with my mother, but also from my having done a lot of art photography when I was in my teens--this reflects influence from both my parents, since I learned photography from my father and used it to do experimental photography at the artists' workshop where my mother was studying painting at the time. Let me take this opportunity to brag about something few people have noticed in Rainbow Cadenza: that in order to project the future of an art form that--before I came to it--had no theory of why it worked, I had to come up with a "Unified Field Theory" of Music and Art. What I finally decided is that music and art is, in essence, a tension dialectic akin to the sexual reproduction drive--it was this observation that made writing a book about art, on the one hand, and sexual behavior, on the other hand, a thematic whole. In all art, tension is created then released, by thesis, counter- thesis, synthesis. In music, this is accomplished with dissonnance resolving to consonance, through tension created by tonic, dominant, and subdominant, and minor scale to major scale. Martha Graham's theory of modern dance relies on contraction and release. In drama and literature, there is "doubt of intent" leading to "resolution of intent." Even painting and sculpture-- which are static media--draw the eye in such a way to create tensions then release it--the human eye itself provides the necessary movement dialectic. You might even consider that, genetically, the human reproductive drive operates under these artistic rules, with the genetic code of one parent as thesis, the genetic code of the other parent as counter-thesis, and the child's unique genetic code as synthesis. If I can steal a label from Nathaniel Branden's theory of psychology, I could easily refer to this dialectic theory as the Biocentric Theory of Art. There have been bits and pieces of this idea thoughout all art and musical history, but I never saw anybody put it together before as a unified, all encompassing theory, and I never saw anybody else apply that theory immediately to a brand-new art form to see if the theory works.

  Neal Wilgus: The Rainbow Cadenza also features a second major theme that gives the novel a satirical dimension that was missing inAlongside Night. I'm referring, of course, to the Peace Corps, in which young women of the future insure world peace by serving as state sponsored prostitutes, paralleling the present military in ludicrous detail. Would you like to defend, identify, or explain this idea?

J. Neil Schulman: Rainbow Cadenza started out by asking the question if parents who were willing to have their sons drafted to go to war to have their asses shot off would be willing--if the same utilitarian rationale was given--to have their daughters drafted to have their asses banged. If my previous sentence shocks and revolts you, then you'll know how shocking and revolting I find the draft for any purpose. It was not necessary--when I came up with that metaphor--for me to convince myself that this is a possibility in the real world--as you say, it can be taken as satire. However, I'm not at all convinced that given the right circumstances this couldn't really happen. Certainly sexual slavery is quite common throughout history--is quite common throughout much of the world today--and I have little problem accepting the possibility that if the state can nationalize boys to fight, that they couldn't nationalize girls to fuck. As for the future history I give as a rationalization for the Peace Corps in Rainbow Cadenza--that there are by that time seven men for every woman--I'd like to point out that until last year this was already happening in the People's Republic of China, where there are still entire villages with a 6-1 or 7-1 ratio of boys to girls under age six or seven. This happened because of the Chinese government's birth control policy, which until last year- when the Chinese government finally wised up--limited a family to one child. This policy was enforced by the death penalty, as the execution of a doctor who reversed a woman's sterilization demonstrated. Since a Chinese family could only legally have one child, the economic reality was that a boy will grow up to work on his parents' farm, while a girl will grow up to marry and work on someone else's farm. So for the half-dozen years this policy was enforced the Chinese were "exposing" their female infants-- that's a polite way of saying they murdered them at birth. Under the new policy, if the first child is a female, the Chinese government says it's okay to have a second child, so a family can try for a boy. But it is easy to imagine that if the Chinese government had not changed their birth control policy that in fifteen or twenty years we would have lived to see a world where the Chinese "solved" the problem of having many more young men than young women by drafting what few women they had left into a "Peace Corps" of their own. Alternatively, the young Chinese men might simply have invaded wherever they could and stolen the women outright. Perhaps the second would have led to the first. Considering that tried-and-true technology now exists for pre- conception sex-selection, considering the many other situations that can lead to a serious sexual imbalance, considering a Middle East and Far East that still respects males more than females--I am no longer willing to bet that in Rainbow Cadenza I was writing satire.

  Neal Wilgus: Joan Darris, Cadenza's protagonist, must deal with her budding Lasegraphy talent, family problems with her older sister/mother clone, and with her induction into the Peace Corps all at the same time. Surely this must also have some autobiographical roots, allowing for the fictionalizing and extrapolation involved. Was this one closer to home than Alongside Night?

J. Neil Schulman: Neal, you really toss the word "autobiographical" around loosely--so loosely that I'm not sure what you mean. Considering that the main character of Rainbow Cadenza is female (I'm not), born rich (I wasn't), has a jealous older sister who's a twin of her mother (I don't), spends five years living in an O'Neill colony (I haven't), is drafted (I wasn't), and spends her life studying, composing, and performing an art form that hasn't gotten out of its infancy yet, I wonder just what you think is autobiographical. You want to know everything that's autobiographical in Rainbow Cadenza? The incident where five- year-old Joan Darris is sent to the principal's office because she refuses to write on account of her sweaty hands is autobiographical. That's it. Everything else is made up out of whole cloth. Certainly I chose themes that are important to me and my life. Certainly feelings and ideas which are expressed by characters in the books are real--though I have to be careful when I say that because characters in the book say and feel things which are the diametric opposite of my own thoughts and feelings. Even Wolfgang Jaeger--through whom I expressed my own artistic angst--departs from my own feelings when he is too narrow to understand Joan's appreciation of popular culture. However, I'll let you off the hook by admitting that you correctly perceived that Rainbow Cadenza is a more personal statement for me regarding my feelings on art, music, philosophy, and religion than my first novel was.

  Neal Wilgus: I understand Rainbow Cadenza will become a mass-market paperback from Avon in the Spring of 1986 -- at the same time that the laser concert "Laserium Presents The Rainbow Cadenza" is released in this country and England. This sounds like a multi- media first. Are you excited about it?

J. Neil Schulman: Thanks for the plug. Yes, I'm excited about it. I worked for a long time to arrange for a simultaneous release and co- promotion of a Laserium show based on Rainbow Cadenza and the publication of the American paperback--New English Library came out with a British trade paperback edition in December, 1984. It would make me very happy if everyone who enjoys Laserium would pick up a copy of the paperback and see what I project for the future of that art form, and I equally hope that everyone who likes my novel goes to a Laserium show and sees how exciting that art form is when performed live. I do the best I can in words to give the impression of seeing a performance, but the map is not the territory, and you can't really know what I'm talking about until you see it. The show is supposed to be opening in Spring, 1986 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and London--perhaps other cities later. Anyone interested in seeing it--or getting group discounts--should write to Laser Images, Inc., 6907 Hayvenhurst Avenue, Van Nuys, California 91406. Tell them I sent you.

  Neal Wilgus: I understand you're now doing a couple of scripts for the revived Twilight Zone series on CBS TV. How did this come about? How soon will your stories be aired?

J. Neil Schulman: As of today, I've completed one script for The Twilight Zone entitled "Profile in Silver," and I'm currently writing a second script titled "Colorblind." Neither has gone into production yet so I can't say when they'll be on, but it could be as early as Fall, 1985, so keep your eyes peeled. Keep your eyes peeled anyway--I've read half a dozen of the Twilight Zone scripts, and seen two of the episodes, and it's going to be some of the best stuff to hit the tube in the history of the medium.

  Neal Wilgus: What are you doing next in the way of novels?

J. Neil Schulman: To be honest, I'm not doing anything in the way of novels at the moment. Part of the reason for this is my general disillusionment with the state of the publishing industry today, and the trouble I've had with both of my novels. This may explain my interest in writing for TV and film at the moment: film and TV people are ultimately no more destructive of a writer's creative energies than book editors, and TV and film pay writers much, much better. Shall I give some examples? Alongside Night was published twice, once in hardcover by Crown, once in paperback by Ace. In hardcover, the marketing people wanted to change the title to 1999, and threatened to ignore the book unless I agreed to the title change. When I asked why this was so important I was told by the marketing director: "Numbers in titles help sell books." This asshole actually believed that it was the number in the title of Orwell's classic that made it sell so well. Anyway, considering that the moronic Space: 1999 was still on the air in reruns, I refused. They were true to their word and ignored the sales potential of a book with advance endorsements from Anthony Burgess, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, and Dr. Thomas Szasz, as well as early rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. To make matters worse, the book was "orphaned" before publication--that means that the editors who bought it were no longer at the company when the book was published. Consequently, nobody at the company cared about the book at the point of publication. The result was lack of distribution--distribution so bad that when the book was advertised in the Los Angeles Times Book Review by B. Dalton as a Christmas special, the B. Dalton chain had no copies of the book to sell. The same thing happened later when I appeared nationally on Ruff House with Howard Ruff--I actually got letters forwarded to me from people who saw me on the show but couldn't find the book in any bookstores. Consequently, sales figures were lousy and Crown failed to get an offer on paperback rights. I waited for them to revert rights to me, then had three offers immediately. I took the one from Susan Allison at Ace. Susan did an excellent job of packaging the paperback as an Ace lead title, but then the entire company was orphaned out from under me: Ace was sold to Berkley Books a month before publication. Out of a first printing of well over 100,000 paperback copies, only around 35,000 copies of Alongside Night were marked as sold. Since these were disappointing figures, Berkley reverted the rights to me. What Berkley failed to take into account was that in the last days of Ace, the Ace sales representatives were selling their books under the counter at huge discounts, figuring this was the only way they could get any money out of Ace. Their fears were justified: Berkley fired the entire 150 person Ace sales force. Also, wholesalers--worried that they might never get paid by the defunct company--were stripping books for credit before they even distributed them. Thus, again, my book never had a chance to reach the mass-market of readers who might have wanted it. Rainbow Cadenza also had its publishing company destroyed before publication: it was under contract to the Wyndham Books division of Simon & Schuster, which had paid me a substantial advance on the book. After the book was given final acceptance, Simon & Schuster dissolved the entire company, and sixty Wyndham books scheduled for publication were handed over to editors in-house at Simon & Schuster who had neither the time or interest to do anything useful with them. Simon & Schuster published Rainbow Cadenza with a cover displaying a title so small that it can't be read without a magnifying glass and no advertising--not one dime. Not even when it got rave advance reviews in Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and Bestsellers. Not even when--through a publicist I hired with my own money--Laserium had agreed to do the Rainbow Cadenza Laserium show in 1983 with a major co-promotion and advertising budget, and rock star Sammy Hagar had agreed to provide original rock music for the show. Simon & Schuster would not even answer the letters from my publicist, from my agent, from Laserium, or from Sammy Hagar's manager. So, instead of receiving the sort of publicity that makes bestsellers for free, Simon & Schuster ignored the book. Consequently, the book sold around three thousand copies in hardcover, and Simon & Schuster sold the British rights to New English Library, who came out with a good-looking trade paperback edition--and then proceeded to publish it without a dime of advertising. To continue: I wrote a one-hundred-page treatment for a third novel to be titled All the King's Horses. This is a comedy of what happens when the Princess of Wales comes to the U.S. on a goodwill tour with her eight-year-old oldest son who's heir to the throne of Britain, and while they're here the Princess decides to file for divorce and child custody. My treatment was written in the form of a movie treatment, because I'd already sold the movie rights to Herb Jaffe's Vista Films. Herb has made such pictures as Time After Time, Demon Seed, and The Wind and the Lion. Vista also has a successful feature out this summer (1985) called Fright Night. My agent sent my already-sold-to-the-movies treatment out to New York publishers with copies of my two previous books. We got universally rejected by publishers who said, "It'll make a good movie but can this screenwriter Schulman write a novel?" Other editors said, "Schulman's two previous books are science fiction--how can we know whether he can write a real novel?" Another editor said, "Satire doesn't sell." Am I missing something here? Are publishers really in the business of selling books, are do they really like losing money? At the time we submitted, Princess Di was on the cover of every magazine in the world. She still is. Is there a conspiracy to suppress my work, or are publishers really that stupid? Perhaps there's hope in the sale of Rainbow Cadenza to John Douglas at Avon. This gentleman has demonstrated excellent taste by the only criteria I care about: he wants to buy my work. Perhaps Avon will be smart enough to give him the sort of budget given to science fiction at Bantam, Berkley, and Tor. As for the editors who don't want to buy my work--to paraphrase Colonel Davy Crockett--"They can go to Hell--I'm going to Hollywood."

  Neal Wilgus: Gad--what a horror story! But it's not that unusual, alas, and it raises an interesting point. Libertarians like to blame all our ills on the State, but what you're describing is good ole private enterprise in action. The bureaucrats here are capitalists, not socialistic statists, but they do just as much damage. This leads me to Wilgus' Law: All systems are goo. Do you agree that our problems are often inherent in organized human behavior and/or the human psyche, and not just the fairly superficial "guv'ment"?

J. Neil Schulman: Neal, if you're going to ask technical questions about libertarian theory, then I have to give technical--and wordy-- answers. So please bear with me--I will say why I think the publishing industry is so fucked up, and what I think can be done about it. To start off with, libertarian economics doesn't say that just because someone works for a private enterprise that they're good and wise, and just because someone works for a public enterprise that they're venal and stupid. What libertarian economics says is that there are two fundamental ways of getting what you want from other people. One way is without a person's consent. This is the way of the robber and the way of the ruler--the only difference between them is that the ruler creates the illusion of his or her victim's consent through flim- flams about "social contracts" and "democratic institutions." The other fundamental way is with a person's consent. This is the way of the merchant. With that said, let's get to specifics. We're living in a social system that's a complicated mixture of freely chosen arrangements and forced arrangements, and the institution that's the best example of that is the modern corporation. A corporation is a joint-stock company that operates partly through free trade and partly through coercion. The company operates under the rules of free trade insofar that no one can be forced to buy its product, and no one can be forced to work for it. However, there are all sorts of cases where the government steps in either to grant special privileges to a company, or to restrict it--in both cases the government ends up in control, and the company becomes a remote unit of government. Privileges, first. First of all, the government grants--to those persons calling themselves a corporation--the privilege of creating an imaginary person, and having this imaginary person be the only one answerable for the actions of the actual persons who run the company. This allows people to operate huge organizations beyond what they can see directly, without worrying about the personal consequences. Second, the government grants members of the corporation the privilege of having their own personal property be exempt from any claim made against the corporation--this is called "limited liability." In effect, the government grants people calling themselves a corporation immunity against being personally sued for any damaging results of their personal actions. And, because of this grant of immunity, money that would have been spent on insuring liabilities can be used instead for new investments--for one corporation to buy out another corporation, for example. This removes much of the market pressure that would keep the size of a company down--it raises the practical "economy of scale" of a company--and allows corporate organizations to grow to the size and complexity of bureaucratic government. And once a company has the privileged immunities of a government, and is large enough to sustain a bureaucracy like a government, then it tends to act more like a government than like a private company. And this is precisely how we see corporate people acting--like bureaucrats. They avoid risks, they cover their asses, they suck up to their superiors while plotting to take their jobs, and they are concerned with making a product worthwhile or profitable only to that small extent that it will grant them increased power in the corporate structure. Now I also mentioned that the government puts restrictions on corporations--as I said, this doesn't have anything to do with the public good, but only because it's another way of putting the government bureaucrats in the company's driver's seat. One of the restrictions placed on corporations by government is the set of anti-trust laws. Having first removed the market pressures that would keep the size of a company down, the government then steps in and arbitrarily tells the corporations how large they can be. And this is precisely what happened several decades ago with the publishing industry. It used to be that a publisher would publish books, and sell its books in its own bookstores. By doing this a publisher could control how long it could keep its books on the bookstore shelf, how long it would take for a particular book to find its readership, and how much time it would take to establish the career of one of its authors. It was expected, in those days, that once a publisher found a talented writer, the publisher would develop the author, book by book, over a long period of time. So what largely determined which books got displayed in bookstores were the judgments of the editors who read the books and decided if they were any good or not. Then the government stepped in with anti-trust, and forced publishing companies to sell their bookstores, claiming this was somehow restrictive of free trade. Now, since publishers could no longer control the distribution and sales end of their product, they had to publish books that not only would appeal to the general public, but to that much smaller group of buyers for bookstores. So everything in publishing shifted towards publishing the sort of books that bookstores would buy and display. Now, unlike editors at a publishing house, bookstore buyers don't have time to read the books they sell--they have to rely on short pitches by a publisher's sales representative. A buyer hears a short synopsis and sees a mock-up cover. Any book which can't interest a bookstore buyer in a sentence or two won't be ordered or prominently displayed--and there goes the whole ball of wax when it comes to literature. Literature is, by its nature, subtle and complex--it can't be explained in a sentence or two. So the books that get ordered are those that can fall into tried-and- true categories--that can be sold without having to explain anything. Bookstores are--literally--judging books by their covers, and the sales record of a book has little to do anymore with what's inside. With paperbacks the situation is even more disruptive, since they're distributed the same way as magazines. Put them on the shelf for a month, then rip off the covers of the unsold ones for credit and put out next month's batch. It used to be that bookstores would shelve books according to publisher. Then--because covers became more important than the writing-- bookstores started shelving them according to category--shelve mysteries together, romances together, science fiction together. And because bookshelves became round holes, any books which were square pegs became virtually unpublishable--and there goes literature again. Bookstores were only interested in buying books that would obviously go onto one of these shelves. So books started being published not because they were original, or worthwhile, or insightful, but because they were like every other book on that shelf. This was the death of literature--the death of books primarily as a medium of enlightenment--and the beginning of publishing as primarily a medium of junk entertainment. Just as you can sell a lot more Big Macs than you can sell Veal Cordon Bleu, you can sell a lot more Sword and Sorcery epics than novels that have nothing else going for them than original ideas, unusual characters, and elegant prose. Now add into that conglomerates like MCA owning publishing companies, publishers having to organize advertising and publicity for a book without being able to control distribution, and the cut- throat corporate game of musical chairs whereby editors are rarely at a company long enough to see a book through from purchase to publication--and you have a formidable obstacle to the publication of worthwhile books. So don't tell me that the publishing industry is free enterprise. The market has been completely distorted by government intervention. The government, by its anti-trust action against publishers, in effect performed a lobotomy on the publishing industry. In my darker moments I even suspect that the murder of original literature was the purpose of the anti-trust action in the first place--original literature tends to make people think and question, and thinking, questioning people are what government bureaucrats are most afraid of. Since I've been descriptive of the ills of the publishing industry, I'll be prescriptive also. I don't see the rebirth of literature happening until someone figures out how, in a big way, to get control over both ends of publishing at the same time--production and distribution. This will have to bypass the entire structure of book publishing and distribution as it exists today. Perhaps, when home computers and telephone bulletin boards become as common as TV sets, authors will simply license their works to whoever wants to buy them, cutting out all the middle men. In that case, the job of the agent, editor, and reviewer might all be done by the same person--someone whose reputation for taste people trust--and a "publisher" will be someone who agrees to advertise someone's novel for a percentage of the licensing fees. However, I suspect that the current FBI attacks on computer bulletin boards are precisely because the bureaucrats are afraid that this might actually happen.

  Neal Wilgus: In a review of Cadenza in New Libertarian Jan Bogstad says that the book was marketed as a mainstream novel. Sounds like that was by default, rather than by design. But it raises the question of publishing genre vs. mainstream. Which would you prefer for your own books?

J. Neil Schulman: The marketing of Rainbow Cadenza as mainstream, rather than as science fiction, was both by default and by design--my design. The current fracturing of the fiction market, as I've just described it, left me with two unsatisfactory choices, but one of them less unsatisfactory than the other. In writing Rainbow Cadenza I tried to make it a good novel. That means I thought it was important that it had all the things that make a novel worthwhile: new ideas, fully-drawn characters, interesting plot, psychological insight, philosophical questions, and so forth. I'll leave it to my readers how well they think I've succeeded in this, but that's what I was trying to do. But the idea of genre means that only one of these things is supposed to be focused on. If you want to focus on plot, you write a mystery--it gets shelved with the mysteries alongside Agatha Christie. You write a book that takes place in the future--it's science fiction, and you're on a shelf with Larry Niven. You write a book that focuses on characters and their psychology--it's a mainstream novel, and you're on a shelf with Phillip Roth. You write a novel that treats philsophical issues, it gets shelved it the religious or metaphysical section alongside Carlos Castaneda and C.S. Lewis. But I don't see any point in writing a novel unless I can try to do all these things. So, by default, I decided that my book had to be labelled mainstream, even though this would cut me off from mystery readers who like a good plot, and science fiction readers who like reading about the future, and readers who like playing around with philosophy. My main consideration was that the only books that get taken seriously by the critics and academics whose influence is felt in the publishing industry--the people who decide if an author's work is "important"--won't take seriously anything except hardcover books marketed as mainstream. And if an author gets labelled as a "genre" writer, that author can kiss goodbye the possibility of being taken seriously. Now, a lot of my fellow authors will say, "Screw the critics and the academics--all I care about is sales figures." And there's a certain appeal in that attitude--sales figures imply that people are reading you. However, I'm in this business not only to make money but also because I want to generate interest in certain ideas I hold important--and, frankly, even science fiction readers--who tend to like reading about far-out societies--are very conservative when it comes to new ideas. There are also an awful lot of science fiction readers who think of ideas purely as games--they don't think they have any application back in the real world. So I don't want to restrict myself to any particular genre. Too many people with whom I feel I can communicate through my books--people who are interested in things and ideas I'm writing about--won't go to a shelf marked science fiction, and won't read a book labelled science fiction. In this case, the science fiction label on the spine of a book is one more "Watchful Dragon" that I'm trying to get by. Let me also make clear that I despise the tendency of bookstores and publishers only to market books that fit into safe, pat formulas. And I despise the writers who are so hungry to get into print that they'll suppress whatever originality comes out of their souls and imitate any hack who sold well last year. This is organized murder--in the case of writers it's suicide--against anything even slightly original--anything that crosses genre boundaries. Somebody should tell these people--and I guess it's going to be me--that all their precious genres were original once, and that next year's genre is last year's original work. Before there were shelves of mysteries, Poe had to invent the detective story. Before time travel became a staple on science fiction shelves, Mark Twain had to write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Before historical romances took up entire sections, Margaret Mitchell had to write Gone With the Wind. Suppose Rainbow Cadenza were to become a best seller and someday entire sections of bookstores had to be filled with books about women getting drafted into public whorehouses? It would serve them right.

  Neal Wilgus: One other idea in The Rainbow Cadenza that we haven't touched on is the Touchables. This is the outcaste class that is subject to rape and murder by full citizens and organized hunts by the idle rich and police. This seems more far fetched than lasegraphy or the Peace Corps to me. Do you think such regression to the bad old days is very likely?

J. Neil Schulman: The idea of Touchables came about for a number of different reasons, within the context I created in Rainbow Cadenza. First, let me say precisely what Touchables are within the Earth society of 2167 that I show. Touchables simply are people who have been convicted of a felony serious enough to warrant a life sentence. But instead of locking felons up in prisons for life, the government allows them to remain free, under the following conditions: Touchables are not allowed to own property, or to work in a profession. Touchables must wear red cloaks-- identifying them as Touchables--whenever they are in public. A male who has been convicted of rape--in addition to being declared Touchable--has his penis surgically removed. And, between dusk and dawn, it is legal to rape any Touchable so long as you have a license from the government for hunting them. I refine this a bit in the story--by describing a universal identification system involving brainprints and radio scanning systems, so you can scan someone and see if they're a Touchable or not--but that's the essence of it. So, to start off with, you can't talk about Touchables being another caste or class unless you're willing to speak the same way about convicted felons serving life sentences in prison today. Now, I came up with this idea of a society dealing with its felons this way for a number of reasons. The first was that inasmuch as there would be a strong natural tendency for women in that society to evade the draft or desert the Peace Corps, there had to an equally strong counter-pressure. So they make draft evasion and desertion a life-sentence felony, and instead of allowing a woman to go to prison--where she might manage to avoid being raped--the government in effect says to a woman, "If you won't be raped voluntarily for three years--where it can be monitored and kept free of additional violence--you will be fair game for any sort of rape every night, for the rest of your life." Also, under this system, felons no longer are supported by tax revenues, and the "public" which is supposed to have been damaged by them gets the benefits of reparation by using them as sex objects-- remember, this is a very sexually frustrated society I'm portraying. This is what economists today call "efficient justice." But two of the most important things I wanted to show through this system is that once people grant the premise that a government has the right to decide on laws, then they've given away all their rights to the government--no matter what a constitution says--because the people in the government can now decide to "withdraw the protection of the law" from anyone who breaks one of their laws. You'll note that this is what the government does today to anyone who serves more than a year-and- a-day in prison--they have their U.S. citizenship revoked, and all their "civil liberties" go with it--for example, the right to associate with whomever they like, to bear arms, and so forth ... not that these rights are respected much anyway. But perhaps most important is that the government finds it necessary to remove the distinction between someone who commits an offense against the State and someone who commits an offense against another person--both are labelled "criminals" or "felons," and people are taught to make no distinction between a tax evader and a murderer. So in my story, the government declares both rapists and potential rape victims as criminals--Touchables--and tries to blind people to the fact that these people are, in fact, opposites. Now, you ask me whether this is far-fetched, and ask whether "a reversion to the bad old days" is all that likely? As I write this, a man named Paul Jacob is in solitary confinement in a federal prison in Dallas. He was convicted of refusing to register for the draft, and sentenced to five years--though theoretically he'll be out sooner than that if they don't find an additional excuse to keep him in ... like refusing the involuntary servitude--pardon me, "community service"--they've sentenced him to for part of the five years. I suggest you tell Paul Jacob that the fictional situation in my novel is more unlikely or worse than what we have today. But I recommend you tell him by telephone--Paul's got a wife and a new baby that the government is keeping him away from, and in his place I'd lose my temper if someone told me that.

Neal Wilgus: At about the time we're doing this interview (August 1985) syndicated columnist William Safire did a piece entitled "Let's legalize everything" in which he mockingly calls for a National Courtesans Corps, similar to your Peace Corps, to help pay the deficit. This was an attack on "sanctioned" gambling and was done tongue in cheek, of course, but Safire ends by invoking the "eradication of the evil of taxation." Would you legalize everything and eradicate taxation if you were elected?

J. Neil Schulman: So maybe someone has read Rainbow Cadenza after all, if it's gotten to the point where national columnists are joking about a National Courtesan Corps. And, of course, it would have to be the sort of blue-nose statist like William Safire who rips off someone else's idea to propagandize against freedom. You ask, would I legalize everything and eradicate taxation if I were elected? How's that again? There are so many untested assumptions in that question I hardly know where to begin. To begin with, the entire concept of "legal" and "illegal" only exists in the context of laws passed by a State, and since I advocate the abolition of all States, I'm obviously in favor of removing the context for your question in the first place. Your question is like asking a Hindu whether he's a Protestant or a Catholic--the question doesn't allow for an answer. The same for being "elected" to an office that would eradicate taxation. I suppose the only office that I could be elected to that would help eradicate taxation would be the chairman of the board of a private company that offers defense services to tax-resisters-- and inasmuch as I'm not aware of such a company, much less own stock in it, I can hardly run for the board of directors of it. Let's put this whole thing in a context I can relate to. Do I believe anyone has the right to interfere with another person, so long as that person is minding his or her own business? Hell, no! Do I think a human being needs permission from society to exercise that freedom? Again--hell, no! Do I think the government has the right to restrict private gambling, private prostitution, private ownership of guns or liquor--or to maintain a state monopoly of gambling, prostitution, guns, liquor, or anything else? Not only do I answer that, "Hell, no!" but my life is devoted to shooting exclamation points into the gut of people like William Safire who aren't happy so long as anyone is free to have a good time.

  Neal Wilgus: In your Prometheus Award acceptance speech you said that you wrote Cadenza to destroy an idea by reducing it to absurdity. Isn't this somewhat absurd itself, in that every absurd idea known to man has been reduced by experts but they still manage to thrive? Besides, the idea you are attacking--the rights of the individual being sacrificed for the greatest good of the greatest number--is defensible, under some circumstances, even to anarcho- libertarians. Even if government is abolished, we'll still need to decide who has the rightaway in traffic, for instance. Some individual rights are going to have to be voluntarily sacrificed to the common good, sometimes, somehow. The key questions are, what rights and who decides, don't you agree?

  J. Neil Schulman: Neal, the absurdity of the "greatest good for the greatest number" is the thought that there is such a thing as "good" in any other context than the life of an individual human being. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, before one can ask if something is good, one first has to ask, "Good to whom, and for what?" Once the question is asked, then it becomes obvious that every individual has his or her own good, and there is no logical way to go from this premise to the idea that the good of one person--or a group of such persons--can be deduced as being a greater good than that of another person or group of persons. And once one does this, one is left with nothing but a battleground whereby people are placing the good of one person or group at odds with that of another person or group, and all that will happen is that the strongest or most persuasive will win. It is for that reason that I attack the concept of "the greatest good for the greatest number" as the single greatest threat to individual rights and individual liberty. Perhaps, by making the analogy between drafting men to go to war and drafting women to be public sex slaves, I do open up the possibility that politicians who justify the first can manage to justify the second. Frankly, I think they could anyway. But, I am writing to the sensibilities of people who don't think it's okay to draft women to be public sex slaves. I'm saying to them, "If you do not object to the military draft as a violation of individual rights, then you have deprived yourself of the means to object to the sexual draft." What Rainbow Cadenza makes graphically clear is that so long as "the greatest good for the greatest number" is used as a basis for organizing human institutions, then--since the phrase has no objective meaning--there is no evil that cannot be justified in its name. And, in fact, the rulers of every repressive government--communist, fascist, Nazi, democratic, republican, military dictatorship--all claim to act in the best overall interests of the people, or the folk, or the will of the blood, or the common good. It is this idea that must be defeated, for by the nature of reality they cannot act in the interest of anyone but themselves, no matter how noble they think they are being. Neal, I do not think that the rights of the individual being sacrificed for the greatest good of the greatest number is logically or consistently defensible by any anarcho-libertarian. Fundamental human rights are never on the auction block. Perhaps we need to make a clear distinction here between right(1) in the context of "unalienable right to life" and right(2) in the sense of "right-of-way." Rights(2) in this context merely mean concessions, privileges, or trading arrangements that free human beings make with one another. If someone told me--in an anarcho- libertarian society--that I had to give up my rights(1) in order to use their road, I would never voluntarily set foot on their road--I'd use travel routes which merely wanted my money or my trade. And if anybody came onto my property with demands for the sacrifice of any of my rights(1), I'd give them the only answer they deserved: "Over your dead body."

Neal Wilgus: Finally, let me ask your opinion of the Libertarian Futurist Society, which gives the Prometheus Award. Do you think it will have much impact as far as encouraging the development of a libertarian outlook on a broader scale?

J. Neil Schulman: I think there is a great need for the propagation of libertarian ideas, and certainly I would not have chosen fiction as a medium for propagating such ideas if I did not think it worthwhile. So I am happy that there exists an organization such as the Libertarian Futurist Society that formally shares my values enough to have given me their Prometheus Award for this. One of the drawbacks with trying to propagate your values to people who don't share them is that the people who don't share them are unlikely to give you an award for doing this. Because of this, I doubt I'll have a shot at the Hugo or the Nebula for a while, no matter how well my books start selling. So I'm happy that there was someone out there who thought well enough of what I'm doing to give me an award to put up on the wall of my office, which I can look at on those days when I wonder whether it's worthwhile going on. As far as the award having an impact, if the LFS gets a track record of giving the Prometheus to books that are good as literature, as well as being libertarian, then the LFS will be serving the interests both of libertarians and book-lovers in general, and the Prometheus can become important. But it certainly wouldn't hurt if someone like Alfred Nobel left his fortune to the LFS, so that the Prometheus Award could be worth a few hundred thousand dollars each time. If that happened, I wouldn't be surprised to see anarchist novels being written by Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, and Jerry Pournelle. And if the Prometheus Award got that rich, I might even write another libertarian novel, myself. Any takers?

  Neal Wilgus: Thank you, Mr. Schulman.

##
Copyright 1986, 2000 J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.


Return to Interviews with J. Neil Schulman.

Return to The World According to J. Neil Schulman.