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
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