David Gerrold is an award-winning science fiction writer who got his break selling the script for the classic "Star Trek" episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” The episode opened doors for Gerrold to write and work on many iterations of "Star Trek" through the years, as well as turn potential scripts into "Trek" books. He has a non-Trek series, "The War Against the Chtorr," the latest volume of which is being serialized through his Patreon account before publication.
He is one of the featured guests at MisCon 33 and will hold a Q&A on Friday, May 24, from 3-5 p.m. as well as take part in multiple writing panels throughout the weekend. A full schedule of events can be found at miscon.org/schedule. Gerrold talked with the Missoulian in advance of his visit and the interview has been condensed and edited for space.
Have you been out to Montana before?
Oh, yeah, several times. The first time was for a solar eclipse in 1978 and that was in February, so it was kind of cold. My car broke down, I had a car repair, so I was stuck in Missoula for two days because they had to ship out and get the part. And the second time — I forget the year — there was a convention where me and Sam Delaney were the guests of honor and it was a great time. And I think this will be the third time. There may have been a couple other visits, I do a lot of traveling, so I may have passed through. But I’ve been to Missoula before, it’s a nice little town.
But never to MisCon specifically — what do you like about attending these smaller conventions?
What I like about the smaller conventions is I get to meet more people. The large conventions are, kind of, they’re very crowded and there’s so much going on that I feel like I’m just a prisoner of the crowd. But (at) a smaller convention I get to meet everybody and actually find out what they like, what they’re reacting to, I find out who they are and I actually make new friends at the smaller conventions.
You do a lot of your work through Patreon. What do you like about interacting with fans and readers that way?
Patreon is a remarkable shift in the relationship between writers and readers, because before we did not have the advantage of the direct connection. I’ve subscribed to several Patreon pages myself, so the people on the pages who are sharing, I get to have a much more personal relationship with them. And not only that, I don’t have a publisher in the way, telling me all kinds of stuff and editing — I’m getting the raw data from the writer or the artist or the singer.
I think that is the relationship. For $3 a month, or $7 a month, you become a patron of the arts. If there’s some writers you really like, you can support that writer, whether they’re serializing a book, or they’re sharing a short story, or they’re just writing some essays.
And those kinds of things aren’t easily available anywhere else. So for me, Patreon is an opportunity to — I hate to use the word “monetize” my connection to the readers. But what’s really happening is that the readers are supporting me in all the other stuff that I like to do besides just writing a book or a story. The readers get to have this direct relationship with me and I get to pay some bills. So I think it’s a fair trade.
So much of your work over the years, from TV to movies to books, has centered around the "Star Trek" world. What captures your imagination about that universe and has kept you intrigued for the last few decades?
My love for "Star Trek" is that it is a great place to play. You can tell so many different kinds of stories, you can tell a suspense story like “The Immunity Syndrome,” you can tell a love story, you can tell a silly story like Tribbles or “A Piece of the Action.” You can do drama, you can do character. You can do any kind of a story. And not only that, you get to go anywhere in the universe, you get to explore all the possibilities.
You get to comment and moralize and preach and send messages and discuss ideas without having to get into the messy details of, this is 1967 we want to talk about the Vietnam War. Well, that meant that we wanted to talk about war as a drain on the economy without getting into the messy details of the political aspect of it.
Or we could do a story about the misuse of drugs, or we could do a story about mutually assured destruction and go straight to the philosophical core of the idea without having to ground it in contemporary details.
What science fiction is best at, is we get to discuss ideas and we discuss the morality and the ethics. This is where "Star Trek" inspires me: Ultimately it’s about who are we, what is our place in the universe and what does it mean to be a human being? And almost every "Star Trek" episode addressed some small part of that larger question.
Is that why you think "Star Trek" has had such staying power through the years, through so many different iterations and franchises?
I think your question answers itself, it’s an obvious yes. I like the original "Star Trek" series because we had, whatever issues I might have had with Rodenberry, and they were considerable, Gene had a great vision of a world that works for all of us, with nobody and nothing left out.
He had this great vision that the way things are is not the way things have to be. I like that "Star Trek." Too many of the people that have come in later on have come in with the idea that they’re going to “fix” "Star Trek" and what we get is, “Let’s go out and find a villain to kick the crap out of.”
I don’t think that’s Gene’s vision. Gene’s vision is not about, let’s go get into a fight, it’s about, let’s avoid a fight and see if we can make a friend.
The perfect episode for that is “The Devil in the Dark,” where we have a choice between killing or healing and we choose to heal. And I think that is the critical part of the very best of "Star Trek."
Your first "Star Trek" episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” has become one of the most well-known episodes of the original series. Is that surprising to you?
I wish I had a tape recorder, because not 20 minutes after it finished airing the first night, one of my friends from college was telling me how much he loved the episode, what a great writer I was, how terrific it was. And I had to stop him and say, “Stop. It’s only one episode of one TV series. In 20 years nobody’s going to remember it.”
So to say I’m surprised is an understatement. I’ve been surprised for nearly 50 years that people love that episode so much. I’ve been absolutely amazed that people consider it one of the best episodes of "Star Trek." I’m very gratified, because I set out to write the very best episode I could, but I knew it was good, I didn’t realize it was this good.
What’s one of the weirdest references you’ve seen to Tribbles?
Oh, my God, there’s too many to list.
It’s been a question on "Jeopardy" twice that I’m aware of. It’s been a bumper sticker on a car in a "Simpsons" episode, “I brake for Tribbles.” It’s been referenced in an episode of "Night Court."
But I think my favorite is the one that caught me totally by surprise: an episode of "L.A. Law" in 1986. Arnie the divorce lawyer has had a really bad day. Roxanne, his secretary who’s secretly in love with him, says, "Come over to my place, I will make you hot chocolate and we’ll sit and we’ll watch, I have all the tapes of all the episodes of 'Star Trek.'"
Arnie says to her, "Do you have the one with the Tribbles?" I fell out of my chair laughing and amazed because I had never expected to see Tribbles referenced in any other TV show. And that was when I knew that "Star Trek" and Tribbles had become iconic cultural landmarks.
It was startling as hell, but it was really gratifying, too.
Would you want a Tribble as a pet?
I actually do — I have a very fluffy little dog, who, if we don’t get him groomed regularly, we can’t see any part of him. I would rather have a dog than a Tribble, because a dog is interactive. A dog will play with you. All a Tribble does is purr, like a cat and cats rarely play with you. I’ve had cats, some cats will play. But I’m a dog person.
Around a year ago, a 1999 column of yours resurfaced and went viral. In it, you predicted a device called the PITA, which accurately predicted smartphones. What did you think of that?
I forgot I had written that.
The internet was just starting to become a phenomenon and I had a flip phone and on my desk was a Sony Walkman music player, I had a this and a that, I had a remote for the TV. I’m looking at all the boxes scattered around and I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be great if they were all tucked into one machine?
I started speculating that the phone of the future is going to have all these extra functions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, the first call I ever got on my cellphone was the wrong number.
A couple of years (after the first call) I was in Philadelphia and I get a call from my mom asking if I’ll come for dinner. Well, I’m in Philadelphia. And I realized that the cellphone had erased our geography. It was not only a leash, but it collapsed all time and space.
So I put all these experiences into that column. Because the cellphone is a leash, it’s also a pain in the ass. Anybody anywhere in the world can press a button and ring a bell in your pocket or on your desk or on your bedside. Essentially you have lost privacy.
I called this the Personal Information Telecommunication Agent, the PITA, which also stands for Pain In The Ass.
I thought I was being a little funny, but I also knew at the time that this was where we were heading. I turned it into a magazine that had asked me for an article and they published and I got paid and I forgot about it.
Then all of a sudden somebody rediscovered it and realized that I’d nailed it like 99%. I missed a couple of things, but I really nailed it.
I don’t predict the future, I’m a science fiction writer, and you can quote me on that one. But it was one of the few times that any science fiction writer got a very accurate prediction of the future. Murray Leinster predicted the internet and Robert A. Heinlein predicted the cellphone and there have been a few other predictions. Arthur C. Clarke predicted communication satellites.
I’m in some very good company there.
Part of science fiction writing is imagining future technologies; what is the role of sci-fi writers in predicting tech?
I think there’s a common thing among what we call the hard science writers to not only imagine the technology, we imagine how it’s going to be used, what its side effects are going to be, what it’s going to do to our culture.
Heinlein predicted online buying in the late '30s in a novel that he never published. He predicted the internet almost accurately, what he didn’t predict was the effect it would have on brick and mortar stores. Bookstores got hit first and record stores and video stores, clothing stores.
It goes back to, if you were predicting the future in 1900 you could predict the automobile, but could you predict drive-through restaurants like McDonald’s? Could you predict traffic jams, could you predict the damage we’ve done to the environment with CO2 and pollution?
Some writers kind of hinted and guessed at it, but nobody ever took it to the logical extreme of, when you’ve got, I don’t know how many millions of cars on the road in America.
It goes back to a quote, “No pebble ever takes responsibility for the whole avalanche.” But once I heard that quote I started thinking differently about what I’m going to write.
Are there technologies now that either inspire or scare you as a sci-fi writer?
Oh, my God, yes. There’s all kinds of ways that we can capture CO2 out of the atmosphere. And one of the best ideas is just put CO2 traps in every air conditioner in the world. Another one is, there are various plants that grab a lot of CO2 and I just saw an article about an algae that grabs CO2 out of the air and turns it into biomass that can be used as fuel, so that’s really cool. I’m looking at stuff like that.
There’s all kinds of new battery technologies and all kinds of great stuff that weren’t possible until we had information technology that we have from computers. So we finally have the tools to fix the problems we have.
On the other hand, the things that scare me are the things that are out of control that can be misused and abused. The computer makes it possible, it’s called the deepfake, to duplicate a person’s look and voice and create a video of that person saying things that are totally wrong.
You can create a video of Barack Obama saying all kinds of things or you can create a video of Donald Trump saying “I quit, I resign!” You could create a porn video by putting a famous actress’ face on somebody’s body and that’s been done. That’s very scary, because the end result — and we’re seeing it in social media already — is we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and fake anymore.
This goes back to something someone told me a long, long time ago who had been in the CIA. He said, you cannot build a safe that cannot be broken into. The question is, can you make it so hard to break into that safe that it’s not cost-effective to try?
And that’s the same thing with computer security. You cannot build computer security that cannot be hacked somehow. The question is, can you build security so tight, so secure, that it is not cost-effective to break into it?
I don’t know that there’s an answer to that question and it is something that we really need to find. We really need to address that, we need to think about that a lot.
Anything you would like to add, David?
Let me give you this: In one respect, writers are the most useless people on the planet. We don’t build houses, we don’t repair cars, we don’t fix plumbing. We sit alone in a room, we talk to ourselves and if we hear anything good we type it up. And if we’re really, really good somebody pays for the privilege of publishing it.
On the other side of that, the good writers, the great writers, are the custodians of our culture. They pass down the lessons from generation to generation. They are the ones who create the dreams, the ambitions, the inspiration. It was the dreams of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein and many other authors that we should go to the moon.
In that regard, science fiction writers are the Research & Development division of the human race. And there aren’t that many of us on the planet. It’s kind of a privilege to be a science fiction writer: you get to go anywhere in time and space, both the possible and the impossible. We’re literary time lords and I’m grateful I get to have this job.