Robert Balmanno is one of the most interesting people I know. The author of the science fiction novels September Snow and Runes of Iona, Balmanno uses his books to comment on the issues of class and environmental degradation. His use of science fiction as a vehicle for social commentary is in the tradition of H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut.
Bob Balmanno and I have been coworkers for over 17 years. During the late 1990s, I was the secretary of the local SEIU part-timers union and witnessed the hard work that Bob did in defending the part-time workers’ rights. Balmanno earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara and did his post graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, and the University of London. He was also a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa.
Bob, you have deep connections in Santa Clara Valley. You watched as this valley transformed from a center of agriculture to the hub of high technology. How has this affected your perspective on things?
I was born in San Jose, California, in 1951, and I grew up in Sunnyvale, California. During some of my teenage years, during the summer, I picked fruit- cherries and apricots, and worked in one of the largest fruit canneries in the area. My life has been lived sort of counter-intuitively to the thrust of the evolution of “Silicon Valley”. The high technology is- so to speak- in the air we breathe and in the water drink. But I have kept myself largely separate from it. Many of my friends call me a “semi-Luddite” because I often do not embrace the newest changes in technology, and that’s putting it mildly. I write on a computer but I use it only for word processing. I have never owned a cell phone and I avoid e-mail. I walk 6 to 9 miles daily, avoiding driving whenever I can walk. Much of technology has made our lives easier, some of it has enhanced the freedom of the individual, but some of it has resulted in the curtailment of freedom. Some technology in the hands of corporations has limited our sense of privacy and has shrunk the space of the public domain.
From several conversations that I’ve had with you, you seem to be strongly influenced by a more activist strand of Catholicism. You lived through Vatican II. Would you describe how this time has influenced your political views? Did this influence your conception of the Gaia religion in your books?
The roots of my world-view come from my childhood experiences of Catholicism- at home and at school, and although I place the highest respect on my Catholic heritage, my world-view is of a more secular radical nature today. Roman Catholicism has had a long history of arguably 2,000 years. Lots of changes. Lots of ups and downs. Lots to be proud of, lots to be deeply ashamed about. The planned 4 part narrative of my novels will chronicle 2,500 years of history- in speculative fashion- of the GAIA Epoch- beginning in 2051 A.D. A “made-up” religion in the near future Book One and Book Two, and more distant future Book Three and Book Four- in some ways mirroring- in some ways not mirroring- the history of Christianity. In my own life, I think I’ve evolved from being a good Catholic to being a mediocre existentialist (I think it’s a lot harder being a good existentialist than it is being a good Catholic). But still a seeker, always a quester.
Consider, over 2,000 years, in history, it could be argued there isn’t just one form of Christianity, rather there are many forms of Christianity. Likewise, in my series of 4 novels, although there is supposed to be just “the Gaia Religion”- or Gaia spirituality or Gaia philosophy, there are actually different permutations of the Gaia religion.
How has your political science degree influenced the world of Gaia that you created in “September Snow” and “Runes of Iona”?
I studied Political Science at U.C. Santa Barbara and Politics and Philosophy at University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1970s and in the mid-1970s, at University of London, King’s College. Forty years ago? I guess a lot of my studies would be labeled “history” now. My greatest interest in speculative form was (and is) what form would Fascism take if it took over in the United States? It would definitely have a twisted religious fundamentalist component. Also taking technology to heights of control. There would be no goose-stepping or Hitler salutes or Aryan race. No, American fascism would be hidden under deep, deep layers of “Faith”, “Family”, and “Freedom”. Lots of the use of the word “freedom”. But the field of Political Science is too schematic and one-dimensional to deal with that. Literature in the broadest sense is better suited as an idiom to deal with the human condition, and broader questions of the human spirit.
When I read your two books, I learned a lot of facts about climate change. What led you to focus your books on the environment? What research did you do?
The climate change components of my first 2 novels came from my research in the field of environmental studies 20 years ago, in the early 1990s (I began the first draft of “September Snow” in 1993). If anything, the science since then, has provided a stronger picture of the near certainty of there being human-caused climate change. However, I think it’s important that there is pluralism and multiple points of view in the field of science. Scepticism is healthy in the field of science. Having said that, in the 2012, the evidence is, if anything, stronger that the negative effects of global warming and climate change will happen sooner rather than later. In a few thousand years, the earth will shake it off, and continue on its healthy way. But for humans, the next 100 to 150 years is going to be a horrible bumpy ride, billions will die. There may be new evidence in the next 10 to 20 years that will alter that projection but I doubt it. In 1990, the projection of an ice-free summer in the Arctic Ocean was 75 years into the future. Now it’s 20 to 30 years into the future.
Your books deal with the revolt of a group against an oppressive political and economic system ruled by a small elite class. These two books touch upon many of the same issues that the Occupy Wall Street protests are touching upon. As you write your third book, has the Occupy Wall Street protests given you any ideas?
I think the Occupy Wall Street Protest has been the most wonderful thing to happen on the political landscape in over 30 years. Man! It has made me hopeful! For the first time in 75 years, since the great labor upsurge in 1936, 1937, and 1938, for about one or two months, the hegemony of our largest corporate institutions were definitely frightened by this “beast” of uncontrollable, unco-optible “anarchy”. They’ve been able to assimilate everything, up until now. But it’s too early to tell. What will be the next step? I don’t know. From the point of view of substance, as compared to “style” or “fashion” or “packaging”, this is a 1000 times more interesting than anything on television or the internet. Already the Occupy Wall Street Protests has shifted the political dialogue, shifted the way we think about politics. But it’s too early to tell. What exciting times we live in! My third novel “Embers of the Earth” that’s place in the “Dark Ages”- 500 years in the future- after the environment shuts down. Book three is like 523 A.D.- the year they officially started using the Christian calender.
What was your experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer like?
I worked in agriculture, training Borgu bulls in a pilot project to pull carts and plow fields, on a remote plateau in Benin, West Africa, where the practices of voodo- “vodomn”- originated. I lived alone on this plateau and I was the first outsider to live there, no missionaries or anthropologists before me. It was a difficult and extremely painful experience. Several attempts were made on my life. I acquired some “very strange” parasites that lived in my lower intestines for longer than a “quarter of a century”, after I came back home! My goodness. It was also a profoundly great learning experience. They say you receive more than what you give, when you work in the Peace Corps. I’m sure that is true. I still have horrible and terrifying nightmares. But how much that has to do with my being a writer, and the importance I place on the imagination, as compared to the experiences themselves, is stsill a debatable point. Earlier, I wrote a novel about my experiences. The success of my 2 published novels does not guarantee, but improves the chances of it getting published. The title is “Strike the Match”.
As the leader of the local SEIU union, you must look with dismay at the efforts to greatly reduce the collective bargaining rights in places like Wisconscin. What is your perspectie on these attacks on labor rights?
Of course it’s deplorable. If there had been huge corporations and robber barons in the America of 1789, when they drew up the Bill of Rights, one of the most marvelous documents to have ever been created by humans in human history- I’m sure they would have included “collective bargaining rights” to protect simple common working folk as well as the rest of the rights. But perhaps this will also toughen us up. Give us something to fight back at. Look at what Chuck Reed is trying to do to the employees of the city of San Jose? Hitler destroyed in less than eight years what it took the independent trade union movement in Germany 150 years to create. Be careful. It’s a slippery slope. On the other hand, look at how much we take for granted? Wisconsin has given us the gift of telling us that we can’t take anything for granted. Jean-Paul Sartre said that he never felt freer “than when he was fighting against the German Nazi occupation of his country France, between the late 1940s and 1945. We live in times of great opportunity. And in times of great danger. Do they not go hand in hand?
How has this writing experience been for you? What are your plans in the future?
Well, I started writing my first short story when I was 25 years old. I started writing my first novel when I was 27 years old. I am now 60 years old. Over a period of 34 years, I have written 8 novels (manuscripts). Only the last two have been published. you asked me before what was it like being gorn in Santa Clara Valley before it became “Silicon Valley” and then living here for 34 years as a writer? More than twenty of those years I lived in tiny converted garages- one in the barrio in East San Jose, twice in Sunnyvale- and one in Mountain View- the worst! Because by doing so I could live in a state of extreme frugality and therefore dedicate extra time to writing.
Writing novels is the heart and soul of my life. I have made many sacrifices so I could take on the life of a writer. I consciously decided many years ago to be independent, to not rely on any institutions, religious, civic, or academic, so I could maintain absolute independence of thought. Spinoza, the great philosopher, turned down an apointment to hold the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Hamburg, because he presumed that part of his oath included some sort of allegiance to the German prince of that principate. Forgive me my grandiose comparison, but I felt it was imperative that I was not to be beholden to anyone. In the beginning, I worked in steel plants for months, sometimes for a year, saved up my money so I could then write for a stretch. Worked on a commercial fishing boat for a while. Worked for the U.S. census bureau. Worked as a political organizer in connection with the United Farmworkers Movement- that’s where I learned skills about union organizing- couldn’t put that on a job resume and expect to get a job. In fact, putting on my resume that I was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of London King’s College at the age of 24 was also the kiss of death when applying for a job in Silicon Valley, low tech or high tech.
That’s the way it was.
My first novel in my 4 book series September Snow, published by Regent Press in Berkeley, California, 2006, has now sold almost 6,000 copies and has received some excellent reviews. Runes of Iona, my second novel, was published by regent Press in 2010, is doing great and has renewed interest in my first novel. I am now working on “Embers of the Earth”, my third installment in the 4 book series. I wish I was younger. At 60 years old, I’m slowing down. But I’m committed to completing it. Book Four, “Anger’s Touchstone”, will be next after “Embers”.
The 4 books will completely stand on their own, but combined, will also form a complete whole in the futuristic dystopian science fiction field. My closest comparisons are George Orwell’s “1984”, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and Asimov’s “Foundation” series. Also Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale”, has been a great inspiration.
“Embers of the Earth”, 500 years later, deal with primitive peoples struggling in a new Dark Age where an individual is called upon to write the foundation document of the new religion and the epoch based on Gaia.
“Anger’s Touchstone”, 2,500 years later- Year One of Gaia beginning in 2051 A.D.- begins with two philosopher/historians who at the end of their careers discover that two different sets of documents that had been carefully hidden in 2063 A.D. and 2116 A.D.- buried- have been recently dug up. There is a wealth of knowledge provided by these documents- much of which conflicts with “the established story” of what occurred during this “lost” century- the later half of our 21st century and the first half of the 22nd century.
As long as I have my health and my stamina, hang on, the books are coming. I have now acquired a significant readership in Scotland, Germany, India, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia, and a wonderful, wonderful, group in Austin, Texas. It’s exciting to see what will happen next.
See me at my website at robertbalmanno.com
Two youtube videos with Robert Balmanno
Here are more interviews that I’ve done for Everyday Citizen