Alan Dean Foster: The BFG Interview

We speak to the longtime prolific science fiction writer about A.I., the Hollywood strikes, and whether or not Ray Bradbury actually is “the greatest sci-fi writer in history”.

Few science fiction writers have had a hand in as many franchises as Alan Dean Foster. With Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison sadly departed, he stands as one of the most prolific writers in the field and is highly popular at conventions. But not all Foster’s experiences in the entertainment business have been pleasant. Having turned out screenplays, stories, and novels since the 1970s, Foster knows well how tough it can be to safeguard intellectual property and protect one’s rights in Hollywood. 

In November 2020, Foster took action against Walt Disney and Co. over some of the very issues driving the strike going on now in the streets of New York and L.A. He sent an open letter to Disney about royalties that the studio owed him for Star Wars and Alien novelizations. Though Disney settled, the loopholes by which studios cheat cash-strapped creatives have grown ever more acute. Just ask anyone on the long lines of protestors outside the offices of Amazon and Netflix.

The strike is also partly about AI, and here is another point of intersection with Foster’s work and ideas. Foster anticipated the transformative impact of automated functions on the industry and our lives. While Ellison envisioned machines deciding we have outlived our usefulness and turning our own weapons against us, Foster foresaw AI’s emergence as a predictive data aggregator that would come to guide, then control, what goes on in the world. In one of his early stories, “Instant With Loud Voices,” AI’s algorithms have come to determine agricultural and fiscal policies. 

As the writers’ and actors’ strike grinds on, Book and Film Globe was grateful for the chance to sit down with a man who spent some of his formative years as a struggling screenwriter in Santa Monica in the 1970s, who has taken on the studios over issues of intellectual property, and who has much to say about the precarious balance between humanity and revolutionary innovations.  

The writers’ and actors’ strike going on now in Hollywood raises urgent issues. The evolution of film distribution has got writers and actors concerned about their rights to “residuals,” i.e., present and future earnings from adaptations and streaming of their creative work. Do you see this as pretty much the crux of your dispute with Disney over Star Wars revenues? 

Alan Dean Foster
Photo courtesy of Alan Dean Foster.

Alan Dean Foster: The great majority of performers who make any kind of reasonable living do so because of their residuals. Yes, my dispute with Disney involved royalties (author’s residuals, if you will). 

But the current issues are much greater. A good example is the use of CGI to allow the producers of the remake of Willy Wonka to cast Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa, thus shutting out all true Little People from casting. If such continues, every one of them will be out of work.  

It’s one thing to use CGI to resurrect a deceased actor to reprise a role, quite another to replace an actor with CGI. This will only get worse as the technology gets better. Actors know this, and it is something they are fighting against.

So you agree with the strikers? Or should we listen to Disney CEO Bob Iger, who says they do not grasp the economic realities of the industry? 

As is usually the case in such conflicts, both sides can make good points. I tend to side with the strikers. Iger is responsible to a board of directors and shareholders. Strikers are responsible to every entity that sends them a bill. There ought to be a workable compromise.  Actors can’t ban new technology outright, and producers can’t replace performers with CGI.  

How can writers and actors today best protect future revenue streams for their work, as movie and TV distribution continues to evolve? 

The originators of a story or performance are entitled to a piece of the action. If a film features a CGI Marilyn Monroe, the heirs to her estate are entitled to royalties. Performers have it harder. The WGA has percentages nailed down pretty tight. It becomes a matter of attribution: who is responsible for what in a film, TV show, play, or game. 

You lived, for a time, by the Santa Monica Pier. Your short story “Surfeit” is about high-tech surfers who try their luck against waves of ferocious power. But I cannot help reading it as a parable about creatives in L.A. who go up against impossible odds in an ever-shifting industry, and run the risk of riding too high on waves that will crash and leave them without any momentum at all. It seems an analogy for creative people in an industry where nothing is certain. 

Well, that’s an interesting analogy. Interestingly, self-propelled surfboards appeared a while after the story did. I never claimed a financial interest in such developments. Hard to patent an idea.

The strike is largely about the role of AI. You are one of a number of authors in the 1970s and 1980s who wrote about AI’s emergence. Reading your story “Instant with Loud Voices,” your vision seems a bit different from Harlan Ellison’s, and perhaps more accurate, at least from our current vantage point. Where Ellison imagined cyborgs that would assimilate human forms and turn our own inventions against us, your story foresees, in the form of the Direct Information Systematic Retrieval and Analysis (DISRA) machine, an AI with far greater data assimilation and predictive power than humans. 

In fact, DISRA’s inventor, Strevelle, says, “It’ll be my legacy, the first computer that doesn’t just approximate the ability of a human brain but equals or surpasses it.”

This seems a lucid foretelling of the reality we grapple with now, as AI assumes ever more human functions. Have other interviewers raised this issue? And, how should those concerned about the survival of the species grapple with the ascendancy of something like DISRA?

 Interestingly, it’s not a question I’m asked. Most interviewers are more concerned with particular novels, or series, or the novelizations. My novel The I Inside features a world-wide computer system, centered inside a mountain in Switzerland, that despite its power issues no directives. Only suggestions. When every suggestion turns out to be right (“plant this grain here … mine for this ore over there … be ready for heavy weather next month …”), people start to trust the system.  

I still see AI as nothing more than a tool. And in the future, perhaps, as a companion. People who see the development of AI as superior to HI and therefore inimical are putting human concerns on a machine. I don’t see AI has inheriting our organic biases.  

This assumes an advanced AI is capable of independent thought and decision-making, and is not subject to human programming.

But the fear is that AI is heading toward autonomous thought that might make us irrelevant. In your interview on the vlog Myouterspace, about twelve years ago, you said: “Everything you do in science fiction is an extrapolation from what you know…. This is one of the big problems with writing science fiction anymore. The pace of technological change has increased so rapidly that to stay ahead of the curve, you really have to project yourself carefully into the future.” Were you talking about AI specifically?

No, not specifically. It’s extremely difficult to foresee the near future. I’m mindful of the head of IBM who, when asked in 1946, what he thought the world-wide market for computers might be, answered “six.” I doubt the inventors of the laser saw it as a device for enhancing personal entertainment, or that the folks who developed the cell phone foresaw how it would change small farming in Africa. 

I tell students to imagine themselves a couple of hundred years ago, in 1823, trying to explain a cell phone or an Apple watch to even the most intelligent people. An impossible task—just like trying to predict what technology will be like and be used for in 2223. That includes AI.

Besides Ellison and yourself, can you think of another sci-fi writer who really captured the predicament in which we find ourselves today, with AI ascendant and a total lack of consensus about how to respond to this existential threat? 

I don’t know about lack of consensus, but Murray Leinster’s 1946 short story, “A Logic Named Joe,” predicts not only the home computer but the internet and the development of a kind of AI. The AI in the story (if such it can be called) presents a real problem that the protagonist has to solve. It’s a good example of how AI can create problems without being overtly hostile … i.e., just by doing its job.

 Your vivid story “Village of the Chosen” is about a reporter’s adventures in Mogadishu, Somalia. Some of us knew that you are a voyager, with time spent in places as diverse as New Guinea and South Africa, but had no idea you were this well traveled! Have you actually been to Somalia? 

 No, but I had a good friend who worked there, and filled me in on some details. The closest I have been is central Kenya.

Some observers feel that the horror and fantasy fields have grown too politicized, as people spend their time squabbling over whose likeness the World Fantasy Award should confer. What are your thoughts on the state of the sci-fi field today? Do partisanship and tribalism pose a threat to the future of this field? 

The more the field grows, the more it will ingest external conflicts and arguments. It’s all grist for the mill. Out of chaos grows not confusion, but greater diversity of opinion and—storytelling. 

As for the future of science fiction, its audience is larger than ever and continuing to grow. If there is a problem, it lies in the inability of editors to perform their traditional functions, as everything seems dictated by sales figures, with very little regard to what groups of readers might actually want. That is what makes the specialty publishers so important. Tribalism may be an issue for fandom, but not for the readership at large.   

Regarding another writer who has come up in your critical writings—H.P. Lovecraft—do you happen to have any thoughts on the controversies over his legacy and whether we should continue to name an award after him

Lovecraft was, unsurprisingly, a very strange fellow. Wrote anti-semitic stuff but had a happy marriage to a Jewish gal. A product of his bizarre upbringing by two maiden aunts. That said, we can listen to and enjoy Wagner while still dealing with his personal positions. We should be able to do the same with Lovecraft.

You have said that Eric Frank Russell is your favorite writer in the science fiction genre. Does that assessment hold true today? Why does Russell matter and what does Russell have to say to us in 2023? 

Still my favorite, yes. The only science fiction writer who could make me both laugh and cry. Russell was a bit unique in that he was a British writer working in a very American idiom.  He was the first science fiction writer who showed me that it is the survival of the species that matters, and not petty tribal nonsense.  

Small note: In his series of novelettes collected under the title Men, Martians, and Machines—stories from the 1940’s—the ship’s doctor is black. This is not emphasized: just mentioned in passing. A radical notion for its time. Russell also got me interested early on in ecology and its importance to survival.

I take it you disagree with comedian Rachel Bloom’s assessment that Ray Bradbury is “the greatest sci-fi writer in history”? 

I loved Ray. Great guy. But I think even he would disagree with that evaluation.  Certainly such a title should go to Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, or all three together. They formed the template for modern science fiction. I’d add Herbert, but can’t on the basis of one book. 

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

3 thoughts on “Alan Dean Foster: The BFG Interview

  • August 10, 2023 at 4:28 am

    Re Foster’s comments about AI and CGI: You can’t stop technology. If there’s a threat it’s partly self made by the actors and writers themselves. It’s always different when it’s your job on the line.

    • August 10, 2023 at 5:44 pm

      Hollywood in general and Disney in particular has spent decades making content that might as well have been AI-generated, because instead of adapting original screenplays they start out with a brand they want the movie to be based on and expect the writers to work around both that and whatever other arbitrary constraints the producers come up with. Such writing is naturally robotic.

      It’s also naturally terrible and a major factor to Hollywood’s decline. The writers should have taken a stand sooner. Much of the damage is already done and may well be irreversible. But if they lose this fight, the situation’s only going to get that much worse that much more quickly. This executive obsession with bizarre gimmicks is what’s killing Hollywood’s profitability, not the fact that they need to pay their workers.

  • August 10, 2023 at 11:28 pm

    Good point, sir. My biggest problem with so many movies is that they appear to have been written on autopilot in strict accordance with tired old commercial imperatives. It seems even the more interesting and stylish ones — M3gan comes to mind — always have to climax in a big noisy slugfest.


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