June sees the publication by the estimable See Sharp Press of the second, updated and expanded edition of my 2007 book Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science. The new version is over 75,000 words longer than the old; in other words, the expansion alone is longer than many full-length books. You can understand, then, why I feel about this as if it were a brand-new new offering, not just a revision. And I have a typical case of Profound Post-Book Exhaustion to reinforce me in that view . . .
To mark the occasion Chaz Bufe, Publisher and Chief Enforcement Officer at See Sharp, has conducted an interview with me. You can find it on the See Sharp blog, Sharp and Pointed, but with Chaz’s kind permission I’m crossposting it here.
Notes ‘n’ Babble
The book itself can be found in all the usual places. For online sales, try
- Amazon (which, last time I looked, seemed partially to have it confused with the old edition)
- Barnes & Noble
If you’re a potential reviewer of the book, leave a comment below mentioning the venue you have in mind for your review. Review copies of the printed book are in extremely short supply (essentially, See Sharp has already sent out the full quota but if you’re Nature or the New York Times . . .); I have permission to distribute a reasonable number of copies of the ebook (specify preferred format).
Interview with two-time Hugo winner John Grant
Your new book, Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (revised & expanded) deals at length with corporate and Trump administration misuse of science. What sets it apart from being just another anti-Trump book?
I confess it was the election of Trump and in particular his appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA that made me decide it was time for a new edition of the book. I reckoned it would need to be quite a lot bigger than the original edition, although I didn’t realize it was going to approach double the size!
What I realized, even before I started writing, was that Trump and Pruitt, and the genuinely horrific corruption and denigration of science in US politics, were just the end-products of a process that was much bigger: the abuse of science by major corporations or spheres of industry in the quest for profits.
For example, to any sane person, inaction on climate change is beyond the bounds of comprehendible stupidity – even if there were some doubt about the science, the only intelligent thing to do is to err on the side of caution. (By way of analogy, if someone tells you the brakes on your car are dodgy, you get them checked: you don’t just carry on belting down the freeway on the basis that they might be okay.) But the fossil-fuels industries aren’t really concerned about the longer-term dangers: they see it as their duty to their shareholders to maximize short-term profits. So they’ve lied to the public about the science.
Trump and Pruitt – and James Inhofe and Lamar Smith and Smoky Joe Barton and all the rest of them – are just the public face of this problem, not the root of it. The lies they regurgitate about climate science have been put into their mouths by their paymasters.
Climate science is just the most obvious example of this process. Remember when sugar was supposed to be harmless? Remember when it was surely nothing to do with aerosol sprays that the hole in the ozone layer was expanding? Remember when we were told there was no reason to believe smoking was harmful to the health? Remember when tetraethyl lead in gasoline was harmless? Asbestos?
All of these lies – and there are plenty more where they came from – were put out by industry, by the corporations. Yes, they were being spread by those industries’ shills in the House, the Senate and even the White House (and let’s not forget George W. Bush’s completely bogus claim that “the science is still out” on climate change), but the shills were the symptoms rather than the sickness.
So I realized almost at the outset that the balance of the new book (which is how I think of it, rather than as a new edition) would need to be shifted such that it focused far more than its predecessor on this corporate corruption of both science and the public understanding of science. That involved the introduction of a near-book-length new chapter on the topic, not to mention a considerable expansion of my coverage of the parallel, industry-funded abuse of science in 21st-century US politics, of which the Trump administration is just the latest excrescence.
Trump-bashing would have been easy (and, to be honest, fun), for the very simple reason that Trump and his minions are so obviously corrupt, so obviously vile and so obviously moronic. But I wanted to look at the root of the problem we collectively confront, and that meant looking beyond its public faces.
Of course, there’s an even bigger context – the economic system in which corporate corruption flourishes – but that would have been a very different book, and one that I don’t have the expertise to write.
You worked as an editor before you began writing books. Where did you work, what were your jobs, and has that background been of help to you as a working writer?
I had a number of senior editor/editorial director jobs in the UK before finally being made redundant from one of them in Exeter – a couple hundred miles from London, which is where at the time all the good publishing jobs were. So I decided to become a freelance editor and do a bit of writing on the side. That didn’t quite work out how I’d anticipated, because after about a year both of my departments, so to speak, suddenly took off simultaneously. Since I didn’t have the guts to forsake one in favor of the other, I had a very tiring twenty years or so, during which I had in effect two full-time jobs.
When I came to the US in 1999 it was in fact as an editor – I was running the Paper Tiger imprint of fantasy art books on a freelance basis. Since then my focus has shifted almost exclusively to writing. Which is why I’m broke.
The editing background has been both a help and a hindrance to the writing moi. It’s a help in that, by the time I’m ready to hand in my text, it’s in an edited form with which I’m happy – i.e., it’s in the form it would have if someone else had written it and I’d then edited it. But this very fact is a hindrance in that I then find it extremely annoying when people tinker with my text! Often they’re right, of course, but often they’re unwittingly undermining what I’m trying to do.
You’ve written a lot about science. Why? What attracts you to the topic?
I had the misfortune at school of being equally apt at English and the sciences. (Lousy at languages, though, to my enduring regret.) I was therefore jammed into a sciences track, because science university places were a lot easier to get at the time than English Lit ones, and of course the school wanted to boost its university-entrance success rate as much as it could. I went along with this – took the course of least resistance – until I found myself at university reading sciences when what I really wanted to do was study English!
So I left – about three nanoseconds before they booted me out – and started getting the English qualifications I hadn’t gotten at school with a view to finding myself a university place in the different discipline. By the time I actually did so, I had a promising career in publishing and so, after much thought, abandoned my academic aspirations.
Because of my scientific background, meager though it was, people kept wanting me to work on science-based books – most of the other editors of my generation and the generation before it had even less scientific nous than I did! So I fell back in love with science through mixing with scientists – i.e., with “my” authors – and I thereby learned far more about science than I had when I’d been formally studying it. While I’m certainly not a scientist, I tend to think in scientific terms and, knowing at least something about a very wide range of the sciences, rather than a lot about a little, I feel well qualified to write the kinds of books that I do.
You’ve written many books in many different areas. Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction, and if so why?
Although probably about 80 percent of my output is nonfiction, I actually prefer writing fiction. The trouble is that, of course, just about no one can make a living writing fiction. I thus tend to regard my fiction writing as an indulgence, something to be fitted in when time permits – which is silly of me, because some of my relatively few short stories have been very well received, been shortlisted for awards, made it into “Best of” anthologies, etc. It’s a habit of mind I really should work to change.
I’ve also ghostwritten quite a lot of fiction. There’s nothing more spiritually rewarding than witnessing someone else basking in the rave reviews they’ve received for something that . . . you get the picture.
Which is easier for you?
Fiction. No question about it.
What do you love most about being a writer?
Terry Pratchett once described writing as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” and much of the time I’d go along with that. It can also be extraordinarily hard work, of course. Writing about a scientific subject for lay readers can be very demanding indeed – first I have to understand it well enough to write about it, then I have to shape my own understanding into a form that’s comprehensible to others. I’ve also done quite a lot of work as an encyclopedist (grand-sounding word, eh?) – most recently for my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir – and that sort of work is extremely demanding too. By the end of the day I’m pretty tired – but even that exhaustion is part of the joy of a writer’s life: it’s rewarding in its way.
What do you hate most about it?
There’s no security and the pay’s lousy.
You’ve collaborated with other writers over the years. What was your best experience doing that?
They’ve all been pretty good, to be honest – I’m sure there was the occasional squabble along the way, but for the most part the collaborations have represented great friendships.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had working with a publisher?
I’ve worked with some excellent editors in my time but also, like I’m sure every other writer, I’ve had my share of mediocre and sometimes downright dreadful ones – you know, the Dunning–Kruger combo of incompetence and arrogance.
The worst I’ve had recently was with an editor who thought she knew a great deal more about the book’s subject than she actually did, and as a consequence introduced all sorts of factual errors. On the first go-round I just ’umbly corrected these, with a brief explanation as to why. On the second go-round, discovering that she’d ignored quite a lot of my amendments, I became a tad firmer. Next I knew, she was complaining to my agent that I “didn’t seem to respect” her.
Actually, by that stage I for very obvious reasons didn’t, but I thought I’d kept it well concealed . . .
What’s the best aspect of being an independent writer?
The fact that a significant part of the job is just thinking.
Science fiction often gets a rap as trash, pure escapism, junk not to be taken seriously, by “literary” fiction mavens. What’s your reply to that?
There’s also the corollary whereby, whenever Margaret Atwood or Martin Amis or whoever writes a piece of science fiction, the mavens trot out all sorts of spurious reasons as to why “it’s not really science fiction”!
All of the genres – crime. sf/fantasy, romance, etc. – tend to get this sort of treatment from the stupider members of the literary establishment. I think the attitude stems from the fact that the genres flourished in the pulp era when, simply because the magazine editors had collectively so many pages to fill every month, a lot of the stuff that appeared was junk . . . er, I mean “rough-hewn.” Also, if we’re honest, not every single genre novel that appears today is a masterpiece.
But the mavens’ position is untenable. J.G. Ballard, who became a literary darling, was part of the spectrum of UK genre fiction; there’s no clear qualitative or intellectual distinction between his sf and his “mainstream” fiction: they have the same preoccupations and concerns. Turning to crime fiction, if you look at someone like Raymond Chandler – now regarded as “literature” – he was part of a continuum that, while it contained plenty of bad writers, also contained some who were arguably better than he was. The list of such examples could go on and on.
Other than literary fiction’s being easier to write (no need to create coherent alternate realities), what differences do you see in writing the two types?
I’m not sure that literary fiction actually is easier to write. If I want to put a piece of fiction in a real setting I have to do a lot of research. If I want to set a story on the planet Fablundia, I can just make shit up!
Where I do think literary fiction is easier to write is in terms of storytelling. A crime novel (or an sf/fantasy novel, etc.) stands or falls according to the strength of its storytelling and its plot. Too many of the mainstream novels that I read score very weakly in these two disciplines. They may have other goodnesses to offer, but clearly their publishers and readers have relatively low standards when it comes to those elements that are traditionally regarded as essential to a good novel.
What’s the best experience you’ve ever had at a sci-fi con?
That would be telling. The second-best was probably discovering that I was on a panel with Hal Clement. Giving a live presentation with David Langford of Thog’s Masterclass at a World SF Convention in Glasgow was pretty good too.
What’s the worst?
Finding myself on a panel with . . .
Would you advise aspiring writers, especially sci-fi writers, to submit mss. to publishers or go it alone as self-publishers? Why?
It depends on what the writer wants to achieve. If you simply want your book to exist, then self-publishing can be the way to go.
And there are other instances where it can be the best option. For example, back in the day I had a friend who wrote a book on pirate radio stations, only to be told by publisher after publisher that there was no market for it. So he raised the money to publish it himself (a far more expensive business in those days) and to buy an ad in New Musical Express, and the next thing he knew he was ordering a reprint several times the size of his first run. He ended up founding a publishing house on the basis of that book’s success.
I also recall, back in the days when I worked at one publisher, the author who was himself responsible for at least 90 percent of the sales of his book. It was a book that appealed to horse-racing punters. As he was one himself, he’d simply go to meets with his SUV stuffed with copies of his book, and flog ’em. He sold literally thousands that way. We all thought he was nuts to have gotten a publisher involved – he’d have made far more money if he’d self-published.
But for every case like that – and for every Fifty Shades of Grey or The Martian – you have a zillion self-publishing ventures that go nowhere.
It’s not hard to see why. Although the publishing experience can be infuriating and on occasion dismal for the author, the fact that a book has been published by a known imprint gives the potential purchaser some measure of reassurance as to its quality: the chances are pretty high that the book will be, at the very least, okay. By contrast, if you buy a self-published book, the chances are high that it’ll be lousy. Since most people these days buy their books online, so you can’t browse through the book before buying, the fact that a book’s self-published can be a big disincentive to risking your hard-earned ten bucks or twenty bucks on it.
What are your next writing projects?
I’m just about to start writing a book on fake news for a YA publisher – we’re all pretty excited about this. Further down the line there’s a publisher who wants me to write a book on the worlds that science-fiction writers have created – I can’t really say more about that project at this stage – and the same publisher is talking about an expanded edition of the Hugo-nominated book Dragonhenge, which I wrote but, far more importantly, Bob Eggleton illustrated.
I also want to write a book on femmes fatales, but my agent hasn’t placed it yet. And then, still at development stage, there’s the book on beer art, the book on Edgar Wallace movies, the book on SETI, the book that’s provisionally called The Young Scientist’s Bathroom Book, the book on crap movies . . . I’m keeping my Noirish site ticking over,of course, and I have a few short stories that are asking to be written.
I stay busy.