AI, aliens and rock ’n’ roll – Bourne se­ries au­thor Eric Van Lust­bader gets can­did with Fri­day.

Best­selling au­thor Eric Van Lust­bader, re­cently in the UAE for the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, tells Anand Raj OK why we need to be wor­ried about ex­trater­res­trial be­ings and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence – and how meet­ing a stu­dent here has been on

Friday - - Contents -

This is em­bar­rass­ing,’ says Eric Van Lust­bader, pinch­ing his brow try­ing hard to rec­ol­lect. ‘It’s, it’s… oh my gosh, I can’t seem to re­mem­ber the ti­tle of my book that’s out next month.’

We are seated in the lobby of the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Dubai Fes­ti­val City, the venue of the re­cently con­cluded Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, where the 70-year-old au­thor was part of four lit­er­ary ses­sions, when Eric ad­mits that he has been writ­ing so much ‘that the ti­tle has just slipped my mind’. (The novel, in­ci­den­tally, is The Fallen and will be out in May.)

But then you can’t re­ally fault him. Since 1977 when he wrote his first novel The Sun­set War­rior, which be­came a best­seller, the pro­lific au­thor has been churn­ing out roughly a book ev­ery year. His 44th work, Any Minute Now, which was out last year, was termed by Pub­lisher’s Weekly as a novel that ‘skil­fully blends su­per­nat­u­ral hor­ror with a grip­ping mil­i­tary thriller’.

‘I en­joy writ­ing,’ says the ge­nial au­thor. ‘Some­times I may get an idea for a scene or a se­quence at six in the morn­ing and I have to get up and write it down.’ More of­ten though, he says he gets in­spired when he’s in wa­ter – swim­ming, in the shower or in the bath.

A for­mer school­teacher who dab­bled for a few years in the mu­sic busi­ness – he was an ex­ec­u­tive for Elek­tra Records and CBS Records – Eric be­came a reg­u­lar writer for Cash Box mag­a­zine, a mu­sic trade jour­nal, be­fore de­cid­ing to pen a thriller af­ter he met a friend in 1973 ‘who said he was writ­ing nov­els and I thought if he can do it, so can I’.

The Sun­set War­rior trig­gered an avalanche of best­sellers in­clud­ing the Ninja se­ries star­ring Ni­cholas Lin­n­ear, and the Pearl Saga tril­ogy, among oth­ers, be­fore he was in­vited in 2004 to con­tinue on Robert Lud­lum’s Bourne se­ries fol­low­ing Robert’s death in 2001. The Bourne se­ries, too, went on to be­come hugely pop­u­lar, in­clud­ing the most re­cent The Bourne Enigma, the 10th in the se­ries, which was out last year.

Spoiler alert: While Ja­son Bourne, the pro­tag­o­nist that Robert Lud­lum cre­ated, was a mar­ried man with two chil­dren, Eric made a few tac­ti­cal changes to the char­ac­ter early in the new se­ries; he had Ja­son’s wife Marie killed in a ski ac­ci­dent and the kids handed over to Marie’s par­ents. That left his char­ac­ter free to, erm, ‘meet women char­ac­ters and have some kind of re­la­tion­ship’.

But be­fore that, the pro­lific Eric, who is mar­ried to au­thor and pub­lisher Vic­to­ria Lust­bader, be­gan The Pearl Saga tril­ogy in 2001. It’s the story of the clash be­tween two cul­tures – a pas­toral race called Kun­dalan and the tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced space-far­ing V’ornn.

‘My real rea­son for writ­ing the book about aliens was be­cause I’m a deeply spir­i­tual per­son and I found that the amount of tech­no­log­i­cal in­for­ma­tion com­ing in 24/7 via smart­phones and the in­ter­net was start­ing to im­pinge on my spir­i­tual side. I didn’t like it,’ says Eric, who is a prac­ti­tioner of Reiki, the Ja­panese tech­nique of holis­tic heal­ing.

The idyl­lic world in the Pearl Saga se­ries is one pop­u­lated by Kun­dalan, a species that is spir­i­tual in na­ture and in touch with their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings. Into their calm world ar­rives the mil­i­taris­tic alien race, the V’ornn, which con­quers Kun­dala.

So, in the back­drop of new find­ings that there could be more earth-like plan­ets in the uni­verse, does Eric, like physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing, think that at­tempt­ing to con­tact ex­trater­res­trial be­ings may not be the best idea?

‘Who am I to say that Stephen Hawk­ing is wrong?’ asks Eric. ‘He’s one of the most bril­liant minds of the times. But he’s not the only one who’s said that and I think it’s prob­a­bly in­evitable.’

The au­thor then makes an omi­nous warn­ing: ‘The fact that it [aliens con­tact­ing us] hasn’t hap­pened is ac­tu­ally a bad thing be­cause it means that which­ever races that were out there have been wiped out; that doesn’t bode well for us be­cause the same fate could be await­ing us.’

Eric ini­tially had a five-book se­ries in mind when he be­gan the Pearl Saga se­ries but had to cut that short to a tril­ogy when he landed the Ja­son Bourne se­ries. ‘In the fi­nal book [of the Pearl Saga ], there was to be an even more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced but bru­tal race that ar­rives from an­other planet and the only way to stop them [from colonis­ing Kun­dala] is for V’ornn’s tech­nol­ogy to merge with Kun­dalan magic,’ says Eric.

Clearly a man who is not very

happy with our over-re­liance on tech­nol­ogy, the best­selling au­thor ad­mits that he is un­com­fort­able with some tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances as well.

‘Hav­ing ro­bots do too much for you leads to a lack of in­spi­ra­tion and a lack of want­ing to do things your­self,’ he says. ‘If ev­ery­thing is done for you, what’s the point of liv­ing?

‘The hu­man con­di­tion is based on striv­ing to bet­ter your­self. But if you have [ma­chines] around you that does things for you, the pur­pose of liv­ing it­self is lost.’

The Ninja au­thor pauses for a mo­ment be­fore ask­ing: ‘Have you heard of the term sin­gu­lar­ity? It is the mo­ment when ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence [AI] be­comes smarter than the hu­man race. That’s what Hawk­ing is con­cerned about.

‘We need to stop AI be­fore it gets to that point which could trig­ger un­fath­omable changes to civil­i­sa­tion. It’s re­ally very dan­ger­ous.’

Is he wor­ried that mo­ment could be close by? ‘Yes,’ he says, with­out bat­ting an eye­lid. ‘Wor­ried and con­cerned.’

‘You see, there have been films like Ter­mi­na­tor and plenty of sci-fi nov­els, which have por­trayed the rise and rise of AI. But the fi­nales of all such movies and books have turned out bad for the hu­man race. And you know sci-fi writ­ers have a very, very good record of be­ing in­cred­i­bly right about the fu­ture. In­cred­i­bly. So I wouldn’t dis­miss the stuff as sci-fi fan­tasy. I do worry about it.’

Eric didn’t start off his writ­ing ca­reer de­scrib­ing fu­tur­is­tic sce­nar­ios. ‘As soon as I could read and write I be­gan writ­ing po­etry, then short sto­ries,’ he says.

Later, when he was bit­ten by the mu­sic bug, he be­gan writ­ing re­views for the mu­sic jour­nal Cash Box. But even at that time - the 70s and 80s - he had a pen­chant for peek­ing into the fu­ture and soon proved he had an im­pec­ca­ble suc­cess rate with pre­dic­tions.

He was the first Amer­i­can writer to pre­dict El­ton John’s suc­cess. Then – as if to prove this wasn’t just a fluke – he topped it by pre­dict­ing the suc­cess of bands and per­form­ers such as San­tana, The Who, Roxy Mu­sic and David Bowie.

‘When El­ton came to the US on a gig and read about [my pre­dic­tion] he wanted to meet me,’ says Eric. It was a meet­ing that would have far-reach­ing con­se­quences. El­ton and his lyri­cist Bernie Taupin struck the right chord with Eric, and the au­thor be­came a reg­u­lar on their tours, fre­quently go­ing back­stage with the per­form­ers and writ­ing about their gigs.

‘Spend­ing time with El­ton and later his friend John Len­non, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the time when they came to­gether for show at Madi­son Park and where they per­formed What­ever Gets You Through The Night, was such a de­light. I was back­stage watch­ing when they were per­form­ing.

‘John was such a gen­tle­man – no ego, in­cred­i­bly in­sight­ful and in­tel­li­gent about sub­jects like art, his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture. That pe­riod that I spent with them was not only one of the high­lights of my 10-yearca­reer in mu­sic but one of the high­lights of my life it­self.’

If there have been lu­mi­nar­ies in his mu­sic ca­reer, there have been sev­eral

‘Have you heard of the term SIN­GU­LAR­ITY? It is the mo­ment when ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence be­comes SMARTER than the hu­man race. We need to stop AI be­fore it gets to that point, which could trig­ger UN­FATH­OMABLE changes to civil­i­sa­tion.’

men­tors in his lit­er­ary ca­reer, too. ‘Robert Lud­lum was one,’ says Eric, lean­ing back in his chair and look­ing wist­ful. ‘I also learnt a great deal from [Bri­tish nov­el­ist] Elle­ston Trevor. John Le Carré was an­other; not all of his books are great but the ones that are are sen­sa­tional.

‘Vic­tor Hugo too. One of my favourite books is Les Misérables. It af­fected me deeply.’

An­other novel that Eric ad­mits touched him deeply is Moby-Dick. ‘It’s a favourite. There are large parts that are just ut­terly bor­ing like the sec­tion where [Her­man] Melville de­scribes the dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of whales. But the book has themes of spir­i­tu­al­ity, phi­los­o­phy and ob­ses­sion.

‘It’s about how re­venge is re­ally so use­less. Ahab does get his re­venge but is killed by it; he throws his har­poon at Moby Dick but the cord gets caught around his an­kle and he is yanked off the boat and gets pinned quite lit­er­ally to the whale.

‘As the an­i­mal is dy­ing and rolling around in the sea you see Ahab for a mo­ment when he emerges from the wa­ter on the back of the whale then dis­ap­pears when the whale rolls around, then you see him again…

‘It’s such a for­mi­da­ble im­age. Ahab is con­sumed by his re­venge, which de­stroys ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one in its path. I think that’s a very pow­er­ful im­age.’

So, has Eric ex­pe­ri­enced a pow­er­ful, mov­ing mo­ment? ‘Oh, there have been too many,’ he says, a gen­tle smile play­ing on his lips. ‘But, and I’m not be­ing self-ef­fac­ing here, one of the peaks of my ca­reer is be­ing at this lit­er­ary fes­ti­val. It gave me an op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with chil­dren, which is a very im­por­tant part of my life.’

The best­selling au­thor then leans for­ward ex­cit­edly. ‘There was this ab­so­lutely amaz­ing heart-warm­ing in­ci­dent that hap­pened the other day.’

Eric was in­vited to ad­dress stu­dents at Kings’ School in Dubai.

‘At the end of the ses­sion, the school’s li­brar­ian in­tro­duced me to one stu­dent, say­ing she was one of their best stu­dents and a lovely writer.

‘The 15-year-old girl very shyly told me that she wrote po­etry, so I asked her if I could read one of her works.

‘For a mo­ment I thought that she was go­ing to pass out. She just couldn’t be­lieve that I’d asked to read her po­etry.’

The girl ap­pre­hen­sively handed Eric her iPad which had her poem on it.

‘You must un­der­stand that when 15-year-old girls write po­etry it could be very per­sonal, com­ing straight from the heart.

‘Well, this poem is about a girl who is not very pretty, is over­weight, not very pop­u­lar… and how she feels iso­lated. And I’m feel­ing sad­der and sad­der as I’m read­ing it be­cause it is ob­vi­ously about her­self. But the last cou­ple of lines are just amaz­ing, some­thing along the lines of ‘But I know that there are a mil­lion steps ahead of me and with each step I will get stronger and braver…’

So moved was Eric that he nearly broke down. ‘The poem was just won­der­ful and I said ‘This is ter­rific, you need to keep it up and keep writ­ing’. And the girl hear­ing my words was elated.

‘Later, when she went away, I told the li­brar­ian I hoped I had changed her day.’

‘The li­brar­ian told me, ‘No sir, you didn’t just change her day, you changed her life. Get­ting a re­ally strong af­fir­ma­tion, a gen­uine af­fir­ma­tion from an adult who they ad­mire, can change a life’.

‘That’s what a pow­er­ful mo­ment is all about. If I had helped make a pos­i­tive change in just that one girl’s life, then I think my whole trip to the UAE was worth it,’ he says.

Eric’s up­com­ing novel

Hang­ing out with El­ton John and John Len­non has been one of the high­lights of Eric’s life

‘Some of John Le Carré’s books are very good,’ says Eric

Fol­low­ing Robert Lud­lum’s death, Eric was in­vited to con­tinue the Bourne se­ries

Two of the books that had a huge im­pact on Eric’s life and ca­reer

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