M. Alan Kazlev - Interview
Image from Orion's Arm Contributors

An interview with M. Alan Kazlev, founding member of the Orion's Arm project.

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the start of the Orion's Arm project, some of the current senior members interviewed Australian Alan Kazlev about the early days of the website.

Steve Bowers: I'd like to ask you about your involvement with the Orion's Arm Project. This isn't the only major internet project you have been involved in; could you tell us about the others?

M. Alan Kazlev: Yeah, I've always had this thing about gigantic encyclopaedic type approaches! I'm also involved in Palaeos.com (the history of Life on Earth) which I really need to get back to, even to just do a bit of revision. I've got some great ideas for the project, but it's just a matter of finding time for it. Essentially it was just me & this other guy, Toby White; Toby's no longer involved. I'd love it to be a sort of Earth History nonfiction version of OA, the "greatest story ever told" so to speak. But that means getting the interest happening, and the palaeo community is much smaller than the SF community. There is an associated blog, Palaeos org, which is going well. Anyway we'll see what happens.

I wanted Kheper.net to be a collaborative project too, but couldn't get the interest. So it was just my thing. Currently I'm involved in a project along similar lines, called Single Eye Movement, perhaps it should be called Gnostic Eye Movement! Anyway this is organised by others, so I'm a lot happier; the less work I have to do the better!

Steve Bowers: What inspired you to start a space opera project?

M. Alan Kazlev: well I saw what was offering at the time, watching Star Trek on TV, that sort of stuff, and it occurred to me that so many of the stories were really cheesy; there is this big dumbing-down effect with anything produced by major studios, because the people who run the place aren't fans of the genre. For them it's just about making money. So I thought, imagine how cool something would be if it was created entirely by fans (or geeks, or whatever).

I only picked space opera because all the big fan franchise universes I liked were space opera. In hindsight, OA didn't become space opera, because space opera is all about a (usually stupid, but sometimes halfway decent) epic human drama (that what makes it opera). We had the world building, but not the story. It's very hard for me to write stories unfortunately, it always feels silly. But in hindsight it's a shame.

Steve Bowers: Tell us about the days before setting up the Yahoo group.

M. Alan Kazlev: At the time I was still involved with the Trekkies, I had some good friends there, who I met on IRC, it was really great fun, even write an academic essay about it, which was well received (IRC on AustNet - an example of a virtual community ). I was hoping they'd come over with me to OA, but only a few did; it was a totally different world to Star Trek, I guess much more demanding too.

I had met Donna on a different internet chat forum, called ICQ (which I never use any more). Donna & I were talking about writing a space opera type story (I don't remember if we even used the word space opera, but it never happened. I guess I wasn't ready to write epic fiction at that time. You need to be ready. Good fiction is a lot harder than worldbuilding. George Lucas was only successful because he got everything from the great mythographer Joseph Campbell. Asimov's Foundation seems to be based on Gibbon's story of the Roman Empire. I really do admire those guys like Aleister Reynolds and Iain M Banks and, in the realm of fantasy, J.R.R Tolkien and China Mieville, who are able to reach a good balance of epic worldbuilding and human story.

Steve Bowers: How did Anders Sandberg get involved, and how did his input change the direction of the Project?

M. Alan Kazlev: I was looking for good transhumanist worldbuilding ideas, and every time I looked for really good stuff, it seemed like the really good stuff was always scenarios Anders had written. For some time I felt really intimidated about writing to him & asking him to join, you know, the Wayne's World "we're not worthy" thing ;-) But in the end I did, he was reluctant at first but soon got enthusiastic; in the early days he was the one who basically created the whole OA universe, with small inputs and additions from myself & others. I'd never seen anyone so prolific or talented; he would churn out an empire a day, or write an incredible scenario during his coffee break

Steve Bowers: Were you already interested in Transhumanism before started Orion's Arm?

M. Alan Kazlev: Oh yeah. It was my main inspiration! At the time I used to think about the possibilities inherent in nanotech, & it just blew my mind. Now I'm a bit more sceptical about it. I can certainly imagine wet nano (bio nano), because that's what life is anyway, just bionano. But drexlerian assemblers seem to me too much like "magic" in the colloquial (not in the esoteric) sense. I know he's answered all the objections, and did ages ago, but it seems to me too much like Santa Claus, the TANSTAAFL sense of getting something for nothing.

So I'm still into the Singularity, transhumanism, AI, gengineering, buckyfibres, etc, but a bit more low key about it than I used to be.

Anyway, before OA, I'd watch stuff like Terminator II, brilliant movie as sheer entertainment fantasy, Big Arnie was perfectly cast, but the whole AI-phobic, evil Skynet thing seemed to me, and still seems, so stupid, this whole 'machines are evil & want to wipe out humanity' thing. So I wanted to create an alternative, on in which AIs that nurtured humanity and other sentient beings, along the lines of this poem: All watched over by Machines of Loving Grace.

I still love that poem; it is how I would love the future to turn out.

But OA itself began to be a bit too nice, I guess, because of this idealistic vision. John B was really good in that way by making the setting a bit darker, and hence more interesting, from a worldbuilding perspective.

Steve Bowers: Contributions from Aaron Hamilton, John M Dollan and the Ad Astra project added to the depth of material in the early days. How did they get involved?

M. Alan Kazlev: I think John just joined the Yahoo group. iirc I wrote to Aaron because I loved his Hamiltonian Institute of Exopaleontology website; I also wrote Richard Baker of Ad Astra. I had the idea of OA as a borg-like thing that could assimilate all these other scenarios, to create a super-scenario that is even richer and more diverse. It's not co-incidental therefore that I've also been attracted to philosophers like Ken Wilber who try to do the same thing with all of human knowledge, put it together in one big mash-up.

Steve Bowers: The project expanded to cover eight thousand years of history within a year or less. You must have put a lot of work into the project at that time. What was that like?

M. Alan Kazlev: Well, it was able to do that partly because it incorporated all these other settings, and partly because there were people like Anders involved. And if I had more time I could have written more original stuff, because I did have some original ideas, but a huge amount of work went into just reading and managing the list, converting stuff to html, etc. I put in 8 to 14 hour days, 6 or sometimes 7 days a week. The mail list was the worst, it chewed up a huge amount of time!

That was ten years ago, I could never do it now, don't have the energy any more, getting old maybe, or lazy, or want to explore other things

Stephen Inniss: In which ways does the current project differ from your original conception?

M. Alan Kazlev: It's not just that, it's that if I had to start the project again it would be very different to what it was, because I'm a different person now with different ideas.

But yeah, it does differ quite a lot; I find it more intellectual, more formalised. I wanted there to be a lot of mystery in it, a lot of stuff left unexplained. If you explain everything it loses its magic. The power in writers like H.P.Lovecraft is that he never really explained what the Old Ones were like. he just dropped hints. Or occasionally when he did describe them, those were the weakest parts of his story! If something isn't explained, there is a space for the imagination, and every reader or participator can put what is meaningful & profound and numinous to them in that space. It's like Zen paintings, which just consist of a few brush strokes. They're mostly just empty canvas. But in that emptiness there is more meaning than any amount of detail can put in!

Here I am referring of course to the AI Gods; I envisaged them as vast, inscrutable, capricious yet ultimately benevolent, their intentions, thought processes, and technology utterly beyond human comprehension, like a paleolithic animist faced with large scale forces of nature. Modosophonts (love that term!) live on them, like fleas on an elephant, are used by them, like farmers growing a field of wheat, but don't know how, or why.... I guess that was my idea of how they should be, like the other side of Singularity, utterly unpredictable in every way...

then cross that with the capriciousness of Homeric gods, and the numinosity of Jungian archetypes...

& the transapients their equally inscrutable messengers, like medieval archangels, or, more frightening, godlings in the making.

Maybe that sort of ideal could never have been achieved, how can one write about things like that? But that's how I imagined it.

Stephen Inniss: Of the project goals that haven't yet been achieved, which ones do you find the most attractive?

M. Alan Kazlev: Well, I think that OA would be absolutely amazing as a MMORPG; that would be just awesome. Because that's where explaining things and filling out detail is great! I really hope that side of the project happens one day.

Of course Giulio Prisco almost got this happening, but at the time I was in another headspace. Maybe if I had been more involved we'd've presented a better case & something could have happened. I find it hard to go back to projects I am no longer creatively involved in. My inspiration moves on. But it would be great if one day there could be an OA MMORPG. Maybe also pen & paper role-playing, a GURPS wordbook or some such.

Stephen Inniss: Of the project goals that haven't been achieved, which (if any) seem to you to be less important than they did at the start?

M. Alan Kazlev: At one time I really liked the idea of miniatures along the lines of Games Workshop, with rules and models and stuff. But now I don't see how it could work, because transapient entities would be too powerful and unbalance the game.

Cheers guys :-)

See also:

Orion's Arm: The Early Years