2010 Snapshot Interview: Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is an Australian writer, philosopher, and literary critic. His qualifications include First Class Honours degrees in both Arts and Law, a Master of Bioethics degree, as well as separate PhDs in English Literature and Philosophy. His most recent book ‘50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists’ was co-edited with philosophy professor Udo Schuklenk and published by Wiley Blackwell. His website is: http://www.russellblackford.com and he can be found blogging at: http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/

1. ‘50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists’ is a collection of essays by prominent writers, philosophers, and others who reject belief in religious dogma. It contains essays by a number of sf writers, including Sean Williams, Greg Egan, Jack Dann, Gregory Benford, Damien Broderick and Joe Haldeman. Did you specifically approach science fiction (as compared to mainstream) writers when putting together the collection? What did you aim to achieve with the book?

To take the second question first, Udo and I are outspoken critics of organised religion, and not even big fans of the less organised kinds. We're painfully conscious that religion is not only persisting but often exercising serious influence on the political decision-making process. Worse, at least from my viewpoint, many religious organisations, leaders, and thinkers defend the right of legislators to enact laws that enforce specifically religious moralities. While these leaders, etc., may say they defend a separation of church and state, I often have to laugh at this. Many of them interpret "separation of church and state" as a requirement that the state refrain from interfering with the organisation and operations of the religious sects — but that the latter remain free to lobby the state to impose a Christian (or Islamic, or whatever) moral agenda, even on non-believers. As long as we have religious leaders, and indeed legislators, who think this way, it's natural, inevitable, and entirely desirable that non-believers question just what intellectual and moral authority the religious organisations, leaders, holy books, etc., actually have. Where do they get this authority that they claim? If it's from a god, how does anyone know what this god really thinks or whether it even exists? It's worth scrutinising the amazing claims of religion from every angle — philosophical, historical, psychological, or whatever.

Udo and I invited a large number of high-profile people to contribute essays for a book designed to do just that. Obviously, with a project like this, many of the people who get asked are too busy at the time. We must have written to over 150 people from a wide range of backgrounds, and we've ended up with "only" 50 essays. But the quality of the contributors is very high, with people of the calibre of Peter Singer, Susan Blackmore, AC Grayling, Michael Shermer, and on and on. One of the pleasing things is how many of the science fiction writers whom we approached were enthusiastic about the project and prepared to put aside time. That partly reflects my many friendships in the international science fiction community, but it also shows the strong commitment to science-based rationalism among science fiction authors — not all of them, of course, but very many. Judging by numerous conversations I've had since 50 Voices of Disbelief was published, we could find many more sf writers who'd want to contribute if we ever did another such book.

2. Along with Jenny Blackford, you ran the Academic streams of both Aussiecon 2 and Aussiecon 3. Why do you think it’s important for conventions to include academic streams, as well as more general interest panels? Why do you think academic discussion of speculative fiction is important at all?

It's hard to draw a line between "general interest" and "academic interest". I suppose the question could be expanded to ask why it's important to engage in relatively rigorous study of any area of human culture. The answer must relate to the intrinsic fascination of the subject matter and to the contribution such study makes to our understanding of ourselves. So, yes, I think that rigorous intellectual study of a cultural phenomenon such as science fiction is important. At the same time, I want it to remain in contact with the profession of sf writing and the culture of fandom.

The kind of academic writing about science fiction that I can't stand is by authors who don't actually display any love for the genre, may even show distaste, and seem to be dissecting it for some ulterior purpose. Their work may sometimes have a point, but it's not for me. I'm sure that the 2010 academic track won't be like that.

3. You wrote an essay ‘Science & the Sea of Faith’ for the recently released anthology ‘THE TANGLED BANK: Love, Wonder, & Evolution’. What do you discuss in your essay and what attracted you to the project? Do you have any more writing (fiction or non-fiction) planned for publication this year?

There's a tension between the picture of the world emerging from science and the various pictures of the world provided by the traditional religions. It's become fashionable to play this down, or to shut up about it, but I think it's a genuine tension. Indeed, I don't think it can be resolved.

In particular, evolutionary theory cannot be reconciled with any worldview that involves a loving god or some kind of human exceptionalism. It's not just fundamentalist religion that ought to have a problem with evolution; it's most of the more "moderate" kinds of religion as well, much as it's almost politically taboo to say so (we need the help of those moderates, so it's often said, in our battles against the fundies). And yet, the core claims of contemporary evolutionary theory are almost certainly true. So where does this get us?

Given the arguments about science and religion that I've been immersed in for the past two or three years, it seemed worthwhile to write an essay that puts together some of my thinking about this. The argument segues into large issues to do with the nature of morality and the goals of politics.

Unfortunately, I haven't been writing fiction, which requires, for me, getting into a completely different mental zone. I'm not sure what it would take for me to get back in the zone again (perhaps interest from a big publisher … or even from a not-so-big one with an interesting vision …). At the moment I'm trying to write a philosophical book about freedom of religion, following on from 50 Voices of Disbelief. We'll see what comes of that. I'm also editing The Journal of Evolution and Technology, gradually putting together an issue relating Nietzsche to modern-day transhumanist thought. I have a couple of largish essays on science fiction coming out fairly soon in Asia if all goes well — one is about Australian sf and the other about sf and technology — and who knows what else will happen as the year goes on? I'm currently busy on a whole raft of projects.

4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year? What have you enjoyed reading?

We've seen fine new work from Greg Egan, Margo Lanagan and others. All the long stories in X6, edited by Keith Stevenson, deserve consideration.

Lanagan is currently on a roll, as is Damien Broderick — an Australian writer who is not necessarily at the forefront of people's minds, locally, since he shifted to Texas a few years ago. He has recently had a lot of success with his short fiction. In particular, "This Wind Blowing, and this Tide" (Asimov's) has earned him a couple of spots in Year's Best anthologies.

Damien also edited a book in which I have a vested interest, since it contains almost 30,000 words of critical material written by me, first published in the late 1980s. This is Chained to the Alien: The Best of Australian Science Fiction Review (Borgo Press), which would doubtless be eligible for Best Related Book. Hugos or not, I hope it attracts an audience.

5. Will you be at Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to about it?

I'll be there for sure. There's a lot to look forward to, but above all meeting up with dear friends in Melbourne … and with friends and colleagues from all over the world.

This interview was conducted as part of the 2010 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We'll be blogging interviews from Monday 15 February to Sunday 22 February and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. You can read interviews at:


If you're involved in the Scene and have something to plug, then send us an email at snapshot2010@gmail.com and we'll see what we can do!