J.C. McGowan, author of The Big God Network (August 1-14)
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I'm pleased to have been invited to Author Chat, and I look forward to chatting with you about my novel, "The Big God Network." So, if you have questions, please fire away....
In the meantime, here is a brief description of the book, and me:
"J.C. McGowan’s interests in science fiction and world religions come together in his debut novel, “The Big God Network,” which blends the wry humor of Kurt Vonnegut with the cosmic scope of Carl Sagan. The novel explores the clash of culture and religion in cyberspace and post-America; the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and higher powers; and the socio-cultural impact of "virtual life," as he takes us on a wild ride through Bali, Tokyo, California, and exotic virtual worlds. McGowan has also published an acclaimed book about Brazilian music (“The Brazilian Sound,” published in eight editions in five countries) and a history of digital media (Random House’s “Entertainment in the Cyber Zone”). He was born in California and lives in Rio de Janeiro."
I read The Big God Network and really enjoyed it, in part because I'm interested in a lot of the same subject areas you explore so well. How did you become interested in some of the key elements in your book, from cosmology and technology to mysticism and world religions?
Great book...scary book! I'm in sync with your politics, but I also dug your writing style. Who are some of your inspirations vis a vis fiction writers?
Answering Clay's question: I've always been drawn to both mysticism and science, and cosmology and modern physics seem a natural bridge between the two. Whether or not the universe was created, or just is, the fact that we are alive, here and now, living on this blue planet, amidst a hundred billion or so galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars, all of it having emanated from a singularity smaller than a NeoCon's heart, inspires a sense of awe and wonder, which is an important part of the spiritual impulse for many of us. So, I'm interested in exploring all those connections, which in the book are best expressed by the characters Franz and Arwin and the Cosmogaia religion....regarding technology, I'm fascinated by it, including digital technology and computers and virtual reality. I wrote about interactive digital media for Billboard for many years, and was an avid WIRED magazine reader from the beginning. I'm fascinated by the possibilities of VR and other tech, yet wary of the potential for the Net and immersive media to distance us from real life, or simply to overwhelm and control us......in terms of the Global God Thing, I was a mystical, low-key Christian until age 17, when I took a world religions course as a freshman at Duke University with an instructor named Roger Corless. He was a bearded Englishman with a horrible stutter ("B-B-B-B-B-B-B-Buddha!") who opened my eyes to other religions and the wisdom and poetry, especially, of Buddhism and Taoism. Later, Joseph Campbell was also a big influence.
Answering Vince's question: In terms of The Big God Network's style, I was certainly inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Voltaire, and Hunter S. Thompson, which perhaps comes through the most in the virtual church scenes and Franz's New American odyssey. I'm trying to weave a good yarn, yet there's a lot of social and political satire there. At times, I'm also channeling William Gibson for a fast-paced, cyberpunk tone, which I am both embracing and satirizing. That's most evident in the second chapter, in which Franz is immersed in virtual reality. In terms of the more poetic parts of the book, if indeed the reader does find them poetic (!), my inspirations would be writers like Basho, Jack Kerouac, Chief Seattle, Gary Snyder, Arthur Rimbaud....in science fiction, I especially like Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Roadside Picnic), Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick.
I am a huge fan of your work, especially "The Big God Network," which I have read a half-dozen times. I am astounded by your ability, as a writer, to ask important moral questions and to convey your own feelings about these issues without coming across as didactic. On the contrary, the work flows effortlessly, from conversation to conversation, and the characters remain alive and vibrant. Indeed, each character's dialogue mode is distinctively different from that of the next character. Even your writing for female characters is genuine and authentic. What 'tricks' do you use, as an author, as you write, to get into the Zen of the different characters' personalities?
Thanks for answering me--but you’ve only prompted me to ask another one, and probably another, and another . . .
The Big God Network extrapolates our current political and cultural reality some 20 years into the future. The religious right has run amok, and virtual reality and UFO cults are a much more prominent part of the culture. In your opinion, how crazy are things really going to get 20 years from now? Do you think the kind of trouble you write about in the book could come to pass?
Revodude99, thanks so much for the kind words! I'm heartened indeed to hear that the characters seemed alive to you. What tricks did I use? Mostly, I opened a cold bottle of beer and put on some evocative instrumental music (with no distracting lyrics) to put me in the zone, and waited until the characters "spoke for themselves." Most of the main characters "arrived" that way. In the cases of Reverends Jawbone and Legerdemain, I sat up late at night writing down scraps of dialogue from Paul Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) channel, always a great source of Christian-Right lunacy, and riffed off that. So, a little research or observation can give you fresh ideas. But, really, it's all about that bottle of beer, that glass of wine, that cup of tea, and staring at your notes or a blank screen, and being patient until something materializes. If you're really into the story, or the song, or the poem, then something will.
Speaking of the religious rift in America, if the Christian Right and fundamentalists continue to grow in numbers, then we will head down the road to serious fragmentation and a civil war. Half of Americans don't believe in evolution. Half of them think the Earth was created a few thousands years ago. Half believe the Bible is literally true. When faith supplants science, rather than complementing it, we have a less rational society. And when there is no separation of church and state, then we become like Iran or something even worse than the U.S. during the George W. Bush years.
As I wrote in the book, "Those who believed in the separation of church and state did not wish to live in a militaristic Jesusland run by a Christian Taliban, and fundamentalist Christians did not want to be governed by godless socialists who believed that man evolved from monkeys."
There is a huge cultural divide in the United States, which perhaps has grown too big (300 million people) to govern effectively anyway. I think if Obama wins the presidency, he could bring a good part of the country closer together, for a time. But current trends, if projected into the future, are ominous.
In terms of UFO cults and such, yes, there are always many new cults that spring up during times of great cultural change or crisis, as many anthropologists have observed.
And virtual reality: yes that will certainly become a bigger part of our lives as VR becomes realistic and inexpensive. Just look at how addictive video games are now, and imagine a total immersion into a realistic environment.
JC, here's another one. In The Big God Network, you mention groups such as netopians, technutopians and technopagans. Do you feel there's a fair share of technology worship going on right now (maybe in the US and Japan particularly)? Or do you see that as more of a future trend, when the sci-tech will be quite a bit more advanced?
On a related note, do you predict that tech will turn out to be our salvation, or is it far more demonic and insidious in nature?
Think of the cult of the iPhone, the Apple technology evangelist, the techno-fetishism so evident in Wired magazine and their writers' naive worship of new technology. Think of cyberpunk culture's referring to our physical bodies as "meat" and the world we inhabit as "meatspace." Cyberpunk is one area where you see extreme techno-fetishism. I try to take the piss out of that in quite a few areas in BGN.
Good or evil? Hmmm....I think VR and the Net are anti-Zen, taking us out of the Now. Immersion in cyberspace is like an astral projection or day dreaming or a sleeping dream. Lucid dreaming, perhaps. It can be wonderful, but of course you've also got your existence in the non-digital world. As for other types of technology, let's hope they can save Gaia, the living planet, from what fossil-fuel and other polluting technologies have wrought.
Are there any cyberpunk authors that you like? Or any science-fiction writers in general who write about cyberspace?
Hi, Chris. Loved Big God Network, and like many others, I have a lot of personal interest in cyberspace and virtual reality.
In the book, there are both positive views of this tech (the cyberspace experienced by Franz and Takeshi, for example) and negative (e.g., Matthew’s experiences in the Rainbow). I would guess that you are not neutral on the subject. Do you see virtual reality as positive or negative?
Allison, I like much of William Gibson's work, though he's mostly working out of cyberspace these days. I think he set the standard for cyberpunk writing, and then kept growing and becoming more poetic.
I'm not cyberspace-neutral, but I am CMX (cyber mixed thoughts). BGN goes into this quite a bit, and reflects a lot of my views. It's complicated. Of course, immersion in cyberspace offers fantastic possibilities in terms of new experiences and interaction at a distance, once the tech gets up to speed and offers a realistic immersive environment without nausea or other nasty side effects. You can safely hike up a Martian volcano, walk on the ocean floor, participate in a rave on the other side of the world, or a scientific seminar. And, you can, ahem, get down with Sally Simkin and other Tantric friends in the Yabyum Palace. But VR will overwhelm many people. It will be so tempting to stay in that simulated world. It will be addictive. And some governments and religions and corporations will use it as a serious mind-control tool.
Hey, nice work skewering the religious right (they deserve it, in my opinion). Did you do any research on fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity as preparation for writing the book?
In your profile, I read that you’re an American living in Rio, which prompts my question.
How “wired” are Brazilians compared to Americans? Is the high-tech industry big down south? I’m sure Rio and Sao Paulo are big internet places, but how about the more remote areas of Brazil? Have the internet and smart phones changed the way people live their lives, like in the USA?
Dr. Basiado, thanks so much. They indeed deserve it! Yes, quite a lot of research on fundamentalism, evangelism and pentecostalism, which are the core of the Christian Right (although clearly, not all evangelicals and pentecostalists are right-wingers).
During the writing of the book I read quite a bit about the history of those religious movements, which often overlap. And I spent many late nights watching Paul Crouch's TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) channel. The later it got, the weirder it got, usually. Talking about glossolalia (talking in tongues when possessed by the Holy Spirit), snake-handling, miracles, fundraising for new satellites, and of course fervent support for Bush and far-right causes, including the Iraq War. It was a great source of dialogue, settings, and warped ideas. Theirs is not a Christianity that has much to do with Christ, in my opinion.
I must hasten to add I respect evangelicals who are tolerant of the beliefs and lifestyles of others. The ones I am satirizing are those in the camp of Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Paul Crouch, John Hagee and James Dobson. Intolerant, hate-mongering lunatics.
Good question! Brazilians are quite wired. In fact, some recent studies claim that they spend more time online per week than do Americans and the Japanese. I think this is mostly because they are extremely social as a culture, and they are really into the social networking sites. They are the top users of Orkut, for example. You also see lots of them on MySpace. The big cities, where most of the population resides, are extremely wired. The rich and middle-class have their own PCs at home and the poor go to "LAN houses" (i.e., internet cafes or parlors). I don't have the numbers in front of me, but the number of people with some form of computer access increased greatly in the last couple of years. Rio's mayoral candidate Fernando Gabeira wants to have wireless access all over the city, which of course would be another boost. As for the Brazilian outlands, in the vast reaches of the interior, I think probably they're not so wired. Yet....The way things are going, the Yanomami and Xingu will probably be googling in a few years.
Cell phones have transformed Brazilian communications. The old phone systems were horrible--unreliable and absurdly expensive. Cell phones changed everything, and everyone is using them, from rich to poor. They are ubiquitous, so much so that people yakking on cell phones is an even bigger irritant here than it is in the U.S.
In your book you have characters who believe in UFOs, and others who don't. What is your own opinion on the subject?
"The Big God Network" started with a short story that was a satire of cyberpunk fiction and UFO culture, set in the near future against a backdrop of a divided United States. The West Coast has become part of liberal Pacifica and the Heartland has turned into a fundamentalist New America. This was long before the 2000 election and the "red state / blue state" talk. The story morphed into a novel that warned of the growing sway of the Christian right and incorporated them into new virtual realms. Set amidst all of this was the story's otherworldly main plot, which involved the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the protagonist's own spiritual journey. I finished the first draft, called "Virtual Spirit," and set it on the shelf for many years before completing the new version in 2007.
I just accidentally deleted my UFO reply (or did the "editors in black" do that?).
OK, here goes: Are they here, or aren't they here? If they are, are they really from off-planet? I've heard accounts of sightings from highly reliable people, and read a lot about Roswell and other events, for example. My mind is open.
The psychologist Carl Jung identified the sighting of UFOs as a religious phenomenon, many decades ago. I'm as fascinated with this whole culture of UFO abduction as I am with whether otherworldly craft have visited. There are tens of thousands of abductees all over the world. And so many people strongly believe that governments, of the U.S. and elsewhere, are hiding vital information from them. Covering up divine revelations, so to speak. In the book, Baba Ed is the leader of an extremely wealthy group called Offworld, which worships the stars and UFOs and believes that life came from space. Baba Ed is desperately seeking to contact ETs, and has bankrolled a new technology, "the Channel," to achieve interactive long-range communication.
I find cosmology and SETI highly fascinating, so I enjoyed reading about those kinds of topics in The Big God Network. I'm also a believer in UFOs, partly because I know so many people who have personally seen them (although I haven't).
Because of high "ship traffic," I think we may be more likely to see (scientifically valid) physical evidence of visitation before the search for ET intelligence produces any results. Any comments?
While we're at it, do you hold any particular position on cosmology? Are you a Big Banger, steady stater, dark matter proponent, or something else? (Not that this has much to do with the book. Just curious.)
Earlier in this chat, people have asked you about your influences, and which science fiction authors you like.
My question is about satire. You do it quite well in your book, but it seems to be more of a lost art than other genres of writing. In my opinion, there's more good satirical work being done in films (say black comedies) these days than in fiction books.
Are there any writers in the satire genre you enjoy reading, or who have influenced your own work? Speaking for myself, I'm fond of some real old-timers (Swift, Rabelais and Twain come to mind), as well as some more contemporary screenwriters (e.g., Paddy Chayefsky, "Network," David Mamet, "Wag the Dog.") Hey, thanks for the chat!
If our planet's "high technology" phase has lasted about a hundred years so far, what would we make of a civilization that had been working on its technology for a million years? There may be no physical evidence that would be obtainable by us. Or it could be that the physical evidence gets hidden by governments as fast as ordinary folks discover it.....regarding cosmology, I'm really not qualified to debate the merits of the different theories, so I refer you to Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Martin Rees, Brian Greene, John Gribbin and people like that. But thanks so much for asking!
Thank you for the chat....I like those old-timers too, and let's not forget Voltaire and Petronius. In our time, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson are two favorites. And in satirical screenwriting, I always liked Chayefsky, Mamet, Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, Terry Southern, the Monty Python members, to name a few. There are lots I'm forgetting...
I just finished the final edit of the 3rd edition of a book on Brazilian music that I co-authored and which should appear in December. It's called "The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil" and is published by Temple University Press. I'm also blogging for the Huffington Post about politics, environmental issues and other subjects (including Brazil-related topics, as I lived in Rio de Janeiro). And I'm working on different ideas for science-fiction stories and novels. I'm also turning "The Big God Network" into a screenplay.
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