Mitch Benn is a comedian, musician and science fiction author. Much of his work has a scientific or rational approach. A regular touring comedian, Mitch is also a frequent contributor to The Now Show on BBC Radio 4 and many other programmes.
All kinds of things from science fiction have become science fact
On becoming interested in science
I don’t have a scientific background, academically I was a linguist, that’s what I did at university, I did languages, modern European languages…did Spanish and French at Edinburgh University, so I’m qualified to do nothing in just about any European country. But I’m quite a…I don’t know if one can be a passionate skeptic – the two words seem to be slightly mutually exclusive – but I’m sort of pro-reason and anti-woo. Not anti-superstition, superstition is fine, it’s when people start proclaiming it as fact and trying to enforce its observance and calling it something other than superstition, that’s when it becomes very damaging, so I’m very pro-reason. And I think in today’s climate the forces of unreason are in certain parts of the world adamant, and very well-armed, and in other parts of the world very influential and very well-funded. I think it’s very important to bang the drum for reason as loudly and as prominently as possible so, yeah, I’m sort of pro-science as opposed to being a scientific person myself.
On the influence of science on material
I think it influences my music and comedy, I think that influences everything I do. One can’t help, really, but if…world view is an appalling word but, you know, I have one, and it’s a fairly coherent one, so, you know, most of what I do is in some way preceding from that. Although weirdly I’ve got no problem with…oddly enough my own books, the one that’s out and the one that’s coming out, are science fiction rather than fantasy, but, you know, I’ve got no problem with fantasy. The weird thing is, oddly enough, with one exception, all of the fantasy authors I know are actually very skeptical. It’s sort of weird, I’ve had conversations with people where people have felt the need to apologise in my presence for not believing in UFOs and I’m like, yeah, I don’t either, I just write books about them but they’re fictitious stories, you know what I mean? The weird thing is, sci-fi authors and fantasy authors tend to be actually fairly rational and skeptical. I can only think of one, and again it’s all about how one defines rational, because he’s a very rational person but he’s actually quite devoutly religious, and I only know one sort of devoutly religious sci-fi author, so there you go.
Terra is my first sci-fi novel that came out in July 2013, the sequel, Terra’s World, comes out in July 2014. I’m interested in the recurring story motifs that go all the way back, you know, certainly the idea of prophecy stories. Time travel stories are basically a modern iteration these days of prophecy stories, particularly your time travel stories where somebody’s trying to change the future, like your Terminators or something, they’re basically prophecy stories. Somebody with knowledge of the future tries to avert the future and generally bringing it about, because that’s the way -the kind of double-edged way – the prophecies work. And I was thinking in particular of the lost child, the child lost or abandoned or in some way transplanted to some kind of suitably alien and, in my case literally alien environment, and then grows up in this, you know, distant environment with hilarious and/or rip snorting consequences. This obviously goes all the way back at least as far as Moses, and somebody with a better classical education than I could probably tell you what was being plagiarised for the Moses story, and it turns up all the way through popular literature, one thinks of, you know, Tarzan and Mowgli – which is basically the same idea that there’s a kid’s book and a not kids book – Superman, Will Ferrell’s Elf and The Graveyard Book by my good friend Neil Gaiman, who’s been helping me in getting my literary career started and wrote a fantastic cover blurb for the book – how we’re going to beat that for book two I’ve no idea – but he wrote The Graveyard Book, which is almost kind of a fantasy spin on The Jungle Book, you know, human baby lost in the jungle raised by the beasts, human baby lost in the graveyard, raised by the ghosts, and I remember thinking about all of these stories and thought, what is that as a science fiction book, and I thought, human baby abducted by UFO and adopted by aliens, grows up on another planet, that’s lovely.
Why has nobody written that? You know, a quick Google and it doesn’t look like anybody has written that: I’m writing that. So I just started writing it apropros nothing in particular for about a year and a half, just tinkering away, and I wrote quite a lot of it on my phone…I’ve got a little wp app on my phone, and just, you know, on a bus or something. And then I got this weird incident about two and a half years ago or something now, it was in summer 2011, and my oldest Greta was just about to turn six at the time, so I had to renew her baby passport, cause a baby passport only lasts five years, and there’s a way of renewing passports where it costs an extra 30 quid but you go in in the morning and by the afternoon it’s ready; if you can take the day off and you’ve got the 30 quid it’s worth it because you’re holding the thing at the end of the day. So I did this, and put in all the money and information at about 11, and got a bit of paper back saying come and pick this up at 3.30. Now, where I live, it takes me about an hour and a half to get home from central London so I thought, right, I’m not going home, what am I going to do? So I get on Twitter, fire up the phone, cause at the time I had a fairly decent Twitter following – I’ve got about twice as many now, which is good – and I said, guys, stuck in town for four hours, thoughts please on what I’m going to do with myself and I start getting, you know, random people saying go and have lunch at this place, go and see this exhibition and just out of the blue, get one from Gollancz publishing saying, come and talk to us about writing a book. Right, you’re probably joking, but I’ve Googled you and you’re in St Martin’s Lane and I’ll be there in 20 minutes. And I just went around to Orion House.
It was very cheeky of me, really, I went up to the front desk and I said, I don’t know who I’m here to see but if you find out who does Gollancz’s Twitter feed and tell them Mitch Benn’s turned up, we’ll see what happens. And Simon Spanton, who’s my editor now, who’s the Deputy Commissioner for Gollancz, said, I know you’re off the radio and I know you’re into science fiction – cause that’s the kind of running joke about me on the radio show, is that I’m the big…John’s tiny, Marcus is posh and angry and I never shut up about Dr Who, that’s kind of the running gag about me. He said, I know you’re into this stuff, and I know you write things, just wondering if you’d ever thought about…and I said, well, it’s funny you should say so because here’s the first couple of chapters and the ending of this kid-friendly science fiction novel. So I started work on that in earnest, finished that at the end of 2011. It came out this summer, sequel’s done and dusted and being copy edited right now and I’ve got to start work on book three, which at the moment is a crazed jumble of ideas in my head but will coalesce in due course. I like being able to refer to myself as a science fiction author, that’s an immense kick, I wont lie, that’s very nice, that’s a good feeling.
On science fiction to science fact
All kinds of things from science fiction have become science fact, look at this thing [his mobile phone] for God’s sake. You know, living in the future as we currently do is a crashing disappointment, there are no jet packs, there are no flying cars, there is no teleportation, we’re not yet living on the moon, but we probably will be quite soon because if we don’t, the Chinese will be. But then you go, wait a minute, science fiction absolutely informs science fact, just right down to the fact that the thing that really, really pushed forward the home video game industry at the end of the seventies was Star Wars. So many of the earliest things were trying to emulate bits of Star Wars, whether it’s the dog fight from the end of the Deathstar or the assault on the Deathstar, so many things were trying to recapture the thrill of those moments, you know, Star Wars definitely propelled the video game industry which is one of the things that brought computers into people’s homes and then on the back of that you then have the Mac and PC revolution and now computers are absolutely woven into the fabric of everyday life….people are pointing out that they have iPads in Next Gen in 1987. OK, we’ve now found an interview with Steve Jobs in which he describes the iPad in 1983 but you see, you know, they walk round the bridges of the Enterprise with iPads. Absolutely, science fiction drives scientific innovation, so much of what we do is striving towards creating the things that the science fiction writers have thought up! It’s almost like science fiction creates a demand which science and technology then fulfill.