Thursday, June 10, 2010

Question Everything - an interview with Barry B. Longyear

A life enhancing interview with author Barry B. Longyear

I was recently re-reading a wonderful book 'The Enemy Papers' by author Barry B. Longyear, one of my favourite science fiction writers, and I came across this quote:

"Instead believe this: question everything, accept the wholeness of no truth nor the absolute rightness of any Path. Make this your creed... for in this creed stands your right to freedom."

Now, this is a life enhancing creed I've lived all my adult life, passionately and assiduously, and I truly believe it is important and life enhancing.  So, Barry's words struck such a major chord, that I was immediately motivated to interview and ask him to share his thoughts on happiness, freedom and questioning everything...

About Barry B. Longyear

Barry B. Longyear is the first writer to win the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer all in the same year. In addition to his acclaimed Enemy Mine Series, his works include the Circus World and Infinity Hold series, SF & fantasy novels, recovery and writing instruction works, and numerous short stories. Barry's multiple award winning novella 'Enemy Mine' was also made into a movie and is well worth a watch.

Writing is obviously a life enhancing activity for Barry.  According to his online bio, "My reason for writing these days is the ride. I love it. Once a story grabs me, I am literally transported elsewhere, and the eyes I get to look through, and the scenes I get to see, are always captivating and are frequently sustaining."

And I can attest that reading Barry's books is equally captivating and grabbing and for me life enhancing as they provide more than just entertainment.  Barry's writing explores important values and ideas.  For example his Infinity Hold series is about justice and morality:

"They found a planet no one wanted and upon it created an unsupervised gravity well for unwanted human debris: political activists, terrorists, the criminally insane, and the insanely criminal. It was a dump in the middle of a lethal desert with no support facilities, authority, control, or law... What does a society of rejects and criminals dropped into a crucible of horror and desperation come up with as a legal system?" As the wikipedia entry on Barry says: "The Infinity Hold series... is more a work of sociology than science fiction."

What I can also definitely say, is that reading a Barry B. Longyear book provides a fascinating ride through idea space.  And personally, I find that incredibly life enhancing :-)

So without further ado, here's Barry, with his take on Happiness, Freedom and Questioning Everything.

"My goal, often reflected in my writing, is to maximize happiness. Being alive is usually, but not always, an aid to that. Freedom is nearly always an aid to that."
 Barry B. Longyear

Q. How do you define freedom? What is freedom for you? Why do you think its life enhancing and important?

How do I define "freedom?"  Freedom is choice. To increase an individual's freedom that person's choices must be increased. As far as political freedom goes, I support the libertarian concept of freedom to be, do, and act anywhere and in any manner up to but not including restricting the choices of others. Freedom is happiness enhancing simply because doing what I want to do makes me happier than having that taken away from me by force.  For that reason, freedom is important to me personally. For things I value, such as the USA, creativity, prosperity, intelligence, information, and many other things, freedom works better than any of the statist/interventionist schemes that have been devised.

Q. Your books often involve scenarios that presuppose or are based on the ideas of 'freedom from' and 'freedom to', for example in 'Enemy Mine' the two principle characters need to gain freedom from their societal prejudices and stereotypes in order to create the freedom to work, live and survive together. What motivates you to explore these concepts?

When I write stories, I do not  "explore concepts." Stories (mine, at any rate) are not about ideas, gimmicks, hardware, trends, or scientific discoveries. Stories are about people. Everything else is  what the people in the story are experiencing. In the case of the two main characters in "Enemy Mine," to survive they needed to work together, and to do that, they needed to change. In other words, they needed to grow up. In the context you put it in your question, they needed to let go of self-imposed limitations to increase the number of their choices. In other words, they needed to grow up.

Q. Why do you think it's important and life enhancing to 'question everything' and how do you support yourself to do that in your own life? What advice do you have to help people achieve that in their own lives?

The closer we are to truth, the better chance we have of understanding and utilizing reality and what's in it. Questioning dogmas of all kinds has brought us everything from the light bulb to string theory and made it possible to support billions of persons on this planet, as well as the ability to wipe out all of them. Unquestioning obedience to dogmas brought us the Inquisition, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, every benighted idiot who believes that blowing up a bus full of school children is something God wants, and has crippled most of the world's economies.

As for my own life, I am a recovering alcoholic and prescription drug addict, clean and sober for the past 28 years. I have described what was necessary for me to question and then change in my novel Saint Mary Blue.

Advice is dangerous to give; there is always the danger that someone might actually take it. The following is from a speech I never gave:
. . . Unaware that I was doing so, I've been guided by what in school I thought was an old-fashioned cornball slogan: "Truth, Duty, Honor."+

Truth. That's an important value I picked up at SMA (Staunton Military Academy).  Truth. "the property of being in accord with fact or reality." Truth isn't what we hope is real. Truth isn't what we want to be real. Truth is not what we feel is real. Truth is what is in fact real.

Duty. This is the value that keeps me up some nights and then helps me sleep once I've done my best to do what I know needs to be done. Dictionary definitions of "duty" are filled with words such as "obligation" and "conduct," but don't seem to carry the weight of the word as I learned it at SMA. "Duty" is doing what "Truth" has shown needs to be done, whether those changes involve the world, my country, my fellow humans, or myself.

Honor, as I learned it here, is the quality of doing one's duty by the light of truth.

Q. Who are your role models for 'life-enhancing'? Are there any exemplars that live enhanced lives that you look to for inspiration in your own life?

The only "life enhancing" role model I ever had was a famous jogger who dropped dead during a run. Role models for raising my freedom and pursuit-of-happiness index, however, are too many to list. They include soldiers, sailors, airmen, scientists, politicians, civil rights leaders, men and women of business, writers, actors, philosophers, artists, and anyone who overcame insurmountable obstacles to achieve worthwhile goals. At the top of my personal list are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Q. What books do you feel have inspired you the most or have enhanced your life by either the writing of them, or reading them?

Of books by others, there are simply too many list. I thought to list authors, but that would be rather extensive, as well. Of my own works, certain of them were meaningful to me in that I was either working out necessary personal issues, world problems, or both. In particular I would include The Enemy Papers, Infinity Hold\3, The God Box, Saint Mary Blue, Yesterday's Tomorrow, and especially Sea of Glass.

Barry B. Longyear

The Enemy Papers

Infinity Hold³

Manifest Destiny



  1. Interesting reading, thanks Grant!

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