"At that time I hadn't heard of CJD. The virus
was entirely fictional but the syndrome the retarded girl suffered from
was real enough."
I was curious about the characters Herzog had created - not just Healey,
who can be seen as the model scientist, the 'good guy', but also his colleague
Wallon and his boss, Herman Herrmann. In a way Healey could easily be
another Linus Pauling who, though cherishing his high IQ, was essentially
Wallon, however, though with a similar IQ, can be seen as the maverick
type, with a tendency to arrogance and whose flawed personality actually
led to the accident that nearly brought civilization to its knees. Herrmann,
with the highest IQ of all, was also the most arrogant and might have
been based on someone like Teller or Oppenheimer. I asked Herzog whether
the arrogant scientist could become a danger to society.
"Well, positions of power are often occupied by people with high
IQs, but I'm not sure whether research scientists should be immediately
responsible to the public who pay their salaries. They should value independence.
But it's true that a powerful and arrogant scientist can be dangerous.
In IQ83 Herrmann's flaw leads to his downfall. And certainly some of the
academics I'm friends with simply don't listen to other viewpoints. They
have closed minds and it's so important that highly intelligent people
also have a creative imagination. Luckily, most do."
So far, I hadn't tackled Herzog on what I believed to be the moral thrust
of his novel, which was that an elite of highly intelligent scientists
and technologists had developed Western society to a point where the sudden
loss of that expertise could bring society to the edge of destruction.
This was neither a criticism of
scientific progress or the values of Western civilization, but perhaps
it did ask us to reconsider our own attitudes towards the inexorable march
of intellect, as it were. But Herzog seemed unwilling to endorse my view.
Perhaps novelists, unlike thesis writers and TV pundits, don't want to
be seen as preachers. Or perhaps there was another message?
"Read it as you want - I don't preach. I suppose my inner self speaks
for me. But I do feel that the U.S. might veer towards democratic fascism
- rule by the stupid, led by the unscrupulous. After all, the Government
tries to use the 'stupid sickness' for its own ends. If I had a message
to deliver that would be it. One hundred and fifty years ago de Tocqueville
warned us against this possibility in his Democracy in America. And now
such an outcome seems more likely than ever.
"I explore this issue in my latest novel, The Face of Things
to Come, which begins with a quote from the recently published Vision
of Politics in which Alan Ryan talks about the 'soft despotism' feared
by de Tocqueville in which 'manipulative elites use a mixture of economic
blandishments and military adventures to distract and stupify a mass public'.
In Ryan's eyes 'anti-democracy' was a distinct possibility. Totalitarian
governments frighten me and I feel that worries about terrorism may jeopardize
civil rights. In my book the threat is from electronic fascism in the
shape of surveillance, but for dramatic reasons I made the danger far
more grim than we have any reason to expect."
And recently completed books? What could he reveal ?
"I've just written a crime thriller called The Third State
and Icetopia, which is about a failed military experiment.
"Body Parts is a collection of 32 short stories built around a central
theme. And in The Town that Moved to Mexico a shallow earthquake
slides a town full of bigots south of the border. The Mexicans then label
them illegal immigrants! It's a neat reversal."
Finally, in view of the present world crisis and the threat of war with
Iraq, did Herzog believe that we had become more stupid in the past 25
years ? It certainly looked that way.
"In my opinion we haven't got smarter since 1978. We are still in
thrall to pop culture, which I find boring because it offers no challenges
to the intellect.
"And here in the U.S. mass hysteria seems more likely now than ever
before. Our stores have run out of duct tape.
"The government has alarmed people too much. If we all catch smallpox
I shall be proved wrong. But people should certainly think for themselves,
and that includes the Arabs."