Excerpts from the interview:
I like alienation. Part of what I like about science fiction is reading a text and going, 'Wow! This will be different!' But science fiction shows a tension between the literature of alienation, where you're really cracking somebody's head open, and the literature of familiarity. In a way it's reassuring to see Horatio Hornblower in space, or people from now in space. The people in the great old science fiction that I love, from the Foundation books or Time Enough for Love to The Dispossessed and Dune and The Forever War, are far more similar to us than Jane Austen's characters are, in terms of their values. And that seems weird to me. We are very much shaped by the technological and cultural niche we live in; we're not going to retain the same values and anxieties and taboos and preoccupations as the world changes wildly around us.
In the New Wave, people started thinking about this issue of alienation seriously. Delany got it right in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. He tried to get into the heads of people who were very different. Bester attempted to imagine that kind of fundamental shift of mores in The Demolished Man -- he was predicting the Sexual Revolution but getting it wrong. I imagine him, writing in the '50s, sort of extrapolating from Kinsey, with a sense that promiscuity was on the rise and was going to change society, and trying to imagine what that world would be like. But the women in the book are still kind of in the '40s style, and in their sexual freedom there's a sense that they're 'ruined' or 'fallen,' even if they embrace that ruin. The real effect of lowering the sanctions against sex outside of marriage, by my generation anyway, was to create a social norm that says recreational sex is healthy and chargeless and nondescript, something we should do more often, like jogging. How could Bester have predicted that?
My parents always encouraged me to write (they have poems I wrote when I was three!), and as far as I know I always loved science fiction and fantasy. Somebody said the earliest thing we all read is Dr. Seuss, so we always begin with fantasy and science fiction. Certainly by the time I was eight or ten I was voraciously devouring it, reading Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and also the classic children's fantasy like Le Guin's Earthsea and things by Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper.... That's the foundation. In high school, when I was still reading voraciously but beginning to be more sophisticated about my taste, I imprinted on two things which I think you can see in my stories. I was reading what was broadly called New Wave five or ten years after it was written, and it influenced me more than the Cyberpunk that was being written at the time. Le Guin, Delany, Russ, Varley -- all that remaking of science fiction. The other big thing which influenced my work was people like Barthelme, Calvino, Borges, and Lem -- the heirs of Kafka who were active at that time -- and some of the European philosophers. Delany and others in the New Wave were certainly very engaged with them. In Delany's Tales of Nevèrÿon, the beginning of each chapter is a quote from Derrida or Foucault, somebody from this European philosophical tradition that is talking about the limits of logic and the absurdity of the world (that's an oversimplification).
I keep drawing on both my college majors, computer science and religious studies, in my writing. I always had a natural tendency toward religiosity. I grew up reading the Hebrew Bible a lot, and it formed many of my worldviews. The thing is, it's not logical. It was written in the age of the epics -- the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey -- where the world is mysterious and there is no requirement that God be an arithmetic expression of all virtues. Later, Aristotle and the Athenians come in saying God has to be the maximum of good, and the maximum of this and that, trying to give explanations for all the anthropomorphism, the capriciousness of God, that you see in religious texts, on the basis that God is this infinitely nice, infinitely orderly Being with a Plan. The God of the medieval philosophers is predictable, and can be reduced to a formula. 'It follows that God would not do that.' But God's really weird! In the actual Bible, God does things, then regrets them. And that's interesting. God can be pissed at some people and love other people. There's a capriciousness to God, and that makes sense to me as a model. The universe does seem capricious.
I am a religious postmodernist. I think religion is a communal human labor to create an emotional context for the crazy, inscrutable nature of the world. It's all metaphor; but as a postmodernist, when I say that, I'm not wimpily saying 'Well, it's not really true, but it's nice to think that way.' I mean it's a powerful metaphor, one of the tools we can use to get at the world -- always provisionally, always temporarily. Like art, and science. In my religious worldview -- and I think this is really very Jewish -- I think any time you think you know what God is or can proclaim with certainty what God wants, you're guilty of idolatry.