Did you know that the Greek philosopher Socrates is buried in the Bronx? Yep. His tombstone reads “Socrates 470BC-2042AD.”
You get used to reading verbal bombshells like that when you read Paul Levinson’s science fiction works. In them traveling through time is as possible as traveling through space. Like traveling through space, it requires some planning, but it’s fully possible. What Levinson does is to work out in novel form what that would be like. So characters say things like, “I was here, in Carthage, three months from now.” In the world that Levinson has created, people don’t bring people back from the dead after a knife attack, say, they “re-set” them.
And who is Paul Levinson that he writes such weird stuff? Well, he’s professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York, and the world’s leading proponent of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, about whom he has written a great deal. In April of 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education named him one of Twitter’s top ten “high fliers.” His science fiction short stories and novels have won numerous awards. His novel The Silk Road won the Locus Award for the best first novel of 1999. And did I mention that he’s a rock musician?
In short, Paul Levinson is as close as we have in America today to the ideal of a Renaissance man, a prolific scholar with impeccable academic credentials who is not only in touch with the popular culture of today, but also creates a good deal of it. So naturally, I thought that the readers of The Morton Report would want to know his thoughts about his new science fiction novel, Unburning Alexandria, about popular culture, and other related topics.
Paul, I want to talk about Unburning Alexandria in a minute, but I’d like to begin by asking you about your early interest in science fiction. How did it begin?
It began when I was in junior high—seventh grade. That was when I began haunting the school library. I found all kinds of great science fiction. A consequence was that one day I came into my home room and the teacher said, “The school librarian wants to talk to you. Mrs. Dayson says that there’s a problem with your reading habits. All you seem to be doing is reading science fiction. It will be injurious to your psychological health. You can’t take any more sci-fi novels out of the library."
That motivated me to go to the public library and read everything on the shelf.
I’m the kind of person who, when I love something, I switch from being a consumer to being a producer. The more I read, the more I wanted to write. I was half-beginning to write stories on my head.
I started writing my first novel in the late '70s, when I was working on my dissertation. And I quickly discovered that sci-fi was more fun than it seemed. Finally, at the end of the '80s, I started writing sci-fi novels.
Did you ever reveal to Mrs. Dayson the influence she had on your career?
I did try to track her down, but I couldn’t find her. I dedicated one of my novels to her.
You write important scholarly works and also science fiction. How do you decide which one you’re going to write on any given day?
First of all I should tell you that critics of my scholarly work say that it reads like sci-fi. And critics of my novels say that there’s too much scholarship. I take those criticisms as compliments. I think that good scholarly writing should be as good as sci-fi.
If I want to put some sex in, then it will be sci-fi. If not, it’s then scholarly writing.
You created a forensic detective named Phil D’Amato. Who is Phil, and what does he do?
My daughter Molly, now 26, read a first draft of The Silk Code. She thought it was the best thing she’d ever read. And she also said, “Daddy, he’s just like you.” What you write best about is what you know. And you know yourself.
Phil’s formal job is NYPD forensic detective. He appeared in three short stories, and also three novels. He takes a trip to Lancaster, PA, and realizes that the Amish use technology in a sophisticated way. These people are actually connected to an ancient people. Part of that has to do with my suspicion that Neanderthals actually survived into the modern world. DNA mapping suggests that they survived.
The general point is that the prehistoric world had a lot more knowledge that we know. All that we know is what was recorded. Who knows what the Chinese knew?
The Consciousness Plague will soon appear as an e-book. The culprit is a new kind of antibiotic. D’Amato investigates what seems like a separate murder case, and begins losing his memory. In another novel squirrels and little animals are able to spy on us.
Your characters don’t just do time travel because it’s a cool thing to do; they do time travel in order to undo some of the great wrongs of the past. After all, the comment is made in Unburning Alexandria that “Nothing was irrevocable when it came to time travel.” Is this that a fair characterization?
Absolutely. Unless you’re some kind of evil person who wants to do damage. The pot of gold for any time travel is to undo some wrong. Is it personal? Or do you want to do something that saves a public part of history? If I go back in time and prevent my grandparents from making love, how did I come to exist in the first place? You created an alternative universe the moment you do this.
It becomes more complicated when you think of Stephen Hawking’s point that the universe would act to protect itself from time travel. There all kind of ways you can go with that. In my novels it is difficult to change things, even once you get there. The universe will throw obstacles in your way.
Still, these magical chairs are like airplanes; they are “notoriously imprecise in their arrival times.”
Two things. One is, I could either spend a lot of time buttressing the scientific plausibility, or I could just mention it. Maybe because I’m not a hard scientist, I’m more interested in the application. In the story they are constructed by an engineer.
I deliberately made the arrival time imprecise to throw a monkey wrench into their characters. It’s plausible that you might not arrive when you want to.
The heroine of both Saving Socrates and Unburning Alexandria is Sierra Waters. What can you tell us about her?
Sierra — the first time the lead character is a woman. If I’m going to be writing about a woman, I can’t write about me. That was a very good challenge, to write a woman’s outlook on these situations. People have told me—women—that I caught how a woman would behave in these situations. I put some of my wife Tina and my daughter Molly into Sierra.
The bad guy, if you can call him that, in Unburning Alexandria is Heron, who has written something called Chronica. What is Chronica?
The real Heron is a not just a character who appears in a time travel novel. He invented all kinds of amazing things. He worked on some of the persistent vision devices that would later develop into motion pictures. Because most of his work didn’t survive, we don’t know when he lived. But someone who has a life like that, and was so much ahead of his time, he has time travel written all over him.
Chronica—if Heron invented the time travel chairs, then one thinks that he would have written down how he invented them, such as the pneumatic tube. If so, then people who wanted to use it to do bad things would want to get it, and he would oppose that. Heron repeatedly says that all that he’s trying to do is to preserve history. The world is the way it is, for better or worse, but it’s unpredictable what the preservation of the library would do.
He’s an unsympathetic character, but not a textbook villain.
I think we can all understand why it might be important to save Socrates from drinking the hemlock that the court in Athens forced upon him, but what was so important about the library in Alexandria that it deserves saving?
Estimates for the Alexandria library go as high as 750,000 texts. How many of those were unique copies? It’s accepted that we only have about a third or maybe two-fifths of Aristotle’s work survived. We know other works existed. That right there gives an example of what existed. There’s also a controversy about who damaged the library. Was it Julius Caesar? However, people who don’t want to blame Theophilius or the Caliph Omar use Caesar as a scapegoat.
We do know that the library continued as a center long after him. He didn’t injure the library. About 400AD the Christian Theophilius did a lot of damage. Civilization was in decline. Things were falling apart. He burned a lot, and a few hundred years later Caliph Omar burned what was left.
Let’s say that there’s some author who wrote a great treatise on who knows what. And it was burned. That’s the kind of thing that haunts me.
At the end of Unburning Alexandria, Sierra Waters and Max have landed in 1895, and they have to figure out a way to get back to the 21st century. May we see the influence of the movie Back to the Future here?
It was such a path-breaking movie. Certainly the best time-travel trilogy. The physical process of time travel is not that much of a problem They shouldn’t have that much of a problem getting back. But I left them there because I didn’t want to make it too easy for them.
So have you started work on the sequel? Do you have a name for it?
Nothing more than “the third Sierra Waters novel.” What I can tell you is that the story isn’t finished. I teach at a Jesuit institution and I find Catholic history very interesting. Some of the time travel in an early short story will very likely appear in the third Sierra Waters novel.
Well, Paul, congratulations on an intriguing novel. We look forward to the further adventures of Sierra and Max.