If you’re still on the fence about whether to back Observatory Press on Kickstarter, here’s something to push you over the edge: an interview with Benjamin Breen, author of the afterword to our edition of The Star Rover by Jack London. Ben’s ideas and work on the history of drugs really grabbed us, and made him an ideal match for London’s psychedelic journey of the imagination.
You are an accomplished essayist. What is it about the essay format that appeals to you?
I like essays because they’re inherently experimental and exploratory (Montaigne’s original Essais were just that — ‘attempts’). Montaigne and the writers he influenced, like Shakespeare and Robert Burton, appeal to me because they seem very attuned to the contradictions and uncertainties of what it is to be a human being. Writing essays informed by that original, 16th century spirit of the word strikes me as particularly useful in my own field of history, because so much of being an historian is like being a detective, trying to reconstruct a narrative that keeps changing as you tell it.
What inspires you in your creative work?
I tend to be very drawn to visual sources from the past, particularly images of ordinary people, so things like Vermeer’s paintings or the Fayum mummy portraits from Hellenistic Egypt are hugely evocative for me.
What are the main themes that you like to explore in your writing?
I’m currently consumed in writing my (nearly-complete) dissertation which I intend to publish as a book called The Invention of Drugs. So my main focus right now is the deep history of the concept of drugs and of our relationship to both legal and illegal drugs (everything from opium to tea). At a larger level, I’m fascinated by the different forms that globalisation has taken in human history and in the present, and by the role of accidents and mistakes in human lives.
Are you a science fiction fan? If so, what’s your favourite science fiction book or film?
Science fiction and fantasy books were the earliest genre I was drawn to and I still read them when I have time (more historical fiction these days though, like Nichola Griffith’s Hild which I’m really enjoying). I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it because they don’t have much respect in the sci-fi community, but Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and Sphere made a big impact on me as a 10-year-old reader. David Brin’s Uplift books have stuck with me because I love the concept of highly-intelligent dolphins as interstellar pilots, as has Snowcrash with its prescient vision of futuristic, California-libertarian fast-food sprawl. But my favorite would be Dune by Frank Herbert, which probably played a direct role in my becoming an historian of spices, drugs, and globalisation.
Aliens or robots?
I hope for aliens but expect robots.
You time travel 100 years into the future. What's it like?
For many, perhaps most, people on earth it isn’t that different from the present. That’s the trap that we fall into when predicting the future — chances are, ordinary people will still be driving beat-up Honda Civics in fifty years, even if the Elon Musks of the world are achieving the Singularity in interstellar orbit. For a smaller proportion of humanity, the divide between virtual/fictional and real worlds will have become so permeable that many people will choose to live in what we would now think of as virtual environments (for instance as a brain-computer interface that perceives the world via the sensors on a thousand micro-drones or as a character in whatever MMORPGs will have turned into by then). AI, if it exists by then, will be friendly but creepy, and expensive enough that it’ll be available to only a small proportion of humanity (despite what some in Silicon Valley like to predict, I suspect that technology will contribute to income inequality rather than alleviate it). People will still be religious, but there’ll be more newcomer religions like Scientology.
If you were an emoji, which one would you be? Nick would be ‘Information Desk Person’ and Ella would be ‘Nail Polish’.
‘Cityscape at Dusk’ has always felt evocative to me.
But I am also a fan of ‘Crystal Ball’.
What are you working on at the moment?
An article about the history of the New Age movement for Aeon and my dissertation ‘Tropical Transplantations,’ which you can read about here: benjaminpbreen.com/dissertation