David Gerrold has been writing professionally for half a century. He created the tribbles for Star Trek and the Sleestaks for Land of the Lost. His most famous novel, of the more than 50 he has authored, is The Man Who Folded Himself. His semi-autobiographical tale of his son’s adoption, The Martian Child, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. He is a living speculative fiction legend that is known for having created some of the most popular and redefining scripts, books, and short stories in the genre. His latest novel is Hella and he recently took the time to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Hella?
There was a TV series (one season) called Terra Nova. It was about using time travel to colonize the Earth during the dinosaur era. Parts of it were very well done, but I was frustrated that there wasn’t more emphasis on the mechanics of setting up a new civilization in such an environment. I’d always wanted to see where the Dingillian family ended up; the Jumping Off The Planet trilogy, so I started to do some serious world-building. A blue-white star, a planet in a more elliptical orbit with a greater tilt of its access, larger but with less iron in its core so it has lighter gravity, and so on. That gave me some great weather. Add an oxygen-rich atmosphere and you get gigantism. Assume parallel evolution and you get a Jurassic-like ecology. But the real fun was portraying this whole thing from the point of view of a young person with a neuro-divergent set of perceptions. Some people had a problem with that, but I think that as a species we’re beginning to recognize the value of neurodiversity.
Are Kyle, Jeremy, Jamie, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
No. But some of the behaviors portrayed, both good and bad, are derived from situations I’ve observed or experienced.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I had a first draft that sat on my computer for a couple of years. It wasn’t bad, but it needed a polish. And the ending was unsatisfying. I offered it to Betsy Wollheim at DAW. I really admire her. She understands the genre better than most because she grew up in it. Her dad, Donald A. Wollheim, was one of the most underrated movers and shakers in the field. She suggested that I rethink the ending and I came up with a much stronger resolution, one that was a much better payoff. So I have to give her the credit for making Hella a better book.
You clearly did a lot of research to make the animals that live on Hella seem like scientific possibilities (rather than fantasy creations). How long did it take you to do the necessary research? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about animals living at this scale?
I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs all my life. I have a whole shelf of books about dinosaurs and two more shelves of video-documentaries about dinosaur evolution and behavior. The physics of large animals is worth a whole study in itself. It’s a problem of mass and volume, the amount of food an animal needs to eat to sustain itself, and the limits of oxygen and gravity on how big a creature can get—so that was why Hella had to be designed the way it was.
I’m also a big fan of the David Attenborough nature documentaries and the interrelationships they portray, so I used African elephants, lions, and water buffalo, as a starting point. Elephants expand water holes, so other creatures benefit. Huge herds refresh the grasslands with their urine and their droppings. They also churn the earth so it’s easier for seeds to germinate. The herds are keystone species. The hunting behavior of lions and wild dogs and other predators was also part of that thinking.
Dinosaurs and “super-sized”, Godzilla, Cloverfield, etc, creatures have been a staple of speculative fiction and movies for decades. Do you have a favorite dinosaur or kaiju novel, television series, or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)
My love of great monsters started with King Kong and Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. My favorite remains the original 1933 King Kong because it was so ambitious. Nobody had ever attempted anything like that before. It still holds up today as an essential masterpiece of filmmaking. I do love the newsreel like quality of the original 1956 Gojira (Godzilla). Least favorite? Probably The Giant Claw, which was just shabby.
Do you have an idea or theory regarding why audiences find stories about dinosaurs and kaiju so compelling?
I think part of it is the sense of awe and wonder, but more than that I have to believe that monsters represent some primordial emotion. There’s a fundamental existential dread at work. We start out afraid of the monster in the closet, or the one under the bed, or the boogie man outside the bedroom window. Later, we learn that there are much bigger monsters in the world. And the bigger we get, the bigger our monsters become. What we learn from our make-believe monsters and dragons is that monsters and dragons can be defeated. Nevertheless, there’s a point in adult-hood that we start to wonder if there are monsters too big for us to beat. That’s what kaiju represent.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
A laptop, two kindles, a stack of videos, and an unfinished copy of The Perfect Thief. Out of print and impossible to find.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
No. My parents said I could read anything I could understand. My dad used to borrow books from my shelf.
What is a book you've faked reading?
No. But there were a few I never finished.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Quite a few of the Ace doubles had great covers. They promised marvelous adventures within, so I was always willing to take the chance.
Is there a book that changed your life?
It would have to be Rocket Ship Galileo. I discovered that in the Van Nuys Public Library when I was nine years old and that started a life-long love of science fiction.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
That’s a great question. Probably To Kill A Mockingbird .
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that has impacted you?
My son and I saw the Van Gogh exhibit when it came to L.A. We were both overwhelmed by Crows Over Wheatfield and bought a large print of it. More recently, Camille Saint-Saens Third Symphony, the Organ Symphony, conducted by Marin Alsop, is a personal favorite that moves me every time. The Lion King, as a Broadway musical was also a stunning experience.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Can’t think of any that haven’t been asked. I have a long history of doing seminars and workshops that require a lot of self-awareness, all part of the search for authenticity. I think it’s made me kind of shameless. I’ll answer anything that’s asked. And at this point, I think most of it has been. But there is a question that I do ponder from time to time. “How are you regarded in science fiction?” I expect I am probably best known for that script of that TV series, but I would like to be known for writing works that are versatile and ambitious as well as entertaining.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on Hella II, the next book in the Chtorr series, and an autobiographical fantasy called Footnote*.