The Opener of the Way
An Interview with Greg Bear
by Nick Gevers
Greg Bear is unquestionably one of the leading figures in contemporary
SF. In twenty novels and two collections, he has fused informed
and inspired scientific speculation with visionary inquiry into
the biological, social, and psychological roots and potentials
of the human species; and while writing tales that apparently
fit the parameters of this or that subgenre, he has consistently
transcended any such limits. In thus expanding the SF envelope,
his profound grasp of evolutionary and exotic detail and his talent
for sympathetic characterization have been invaluable. And there
is often present in his work a sense of cosmic depth, an apocalyptic
poetry or rhetoric of transformation that points inexorably to
what we must become
Bear's early novels are exercises in high imaginative aspiration
that, despite some technical limitations, very definitely prefigure
the achievements of his mature works. Hegira (1979), Beyond
Heaven's River (1980), and Strength of Stones (1981)
are entries in a space operatic future history that ranges in
focus from mere centuries hence to the end of time itself. Psychlone
(1979) ventures into technological horror; The Infinity
Concerto (1984) and The Serpent Mage (1986), later
combined as Songs of Earth and Power, are striking fantasies
that conclude Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and discuss the
mechanics of world creation; Corona (1984) is one of the
more impressive Star Trek novels. These books, most of them since
revised in varying degrees, form the record of a promising genre
journeyman; but the Master was not long in emerging.
Two novels mark this transition: Blood Music (1985), a
potent exploration of how the very small might assimilate the
very large, and Eon (1985), which introduces humans of
the near future to the tunnel their descendants have driven to
infinity. This epic of the "Way" continues still more
apocalyptically in Eternity (1988). Meanwhile, The Forge
of God (1987) brings home with savage irony the lethal dangers
of Earth's galactic neighbourhood; its sequel, Anvil of Stars
(1992), narrates claustrophobically a belated vengeance by
the remnant of humanity.
In the 1990s, Bear built with remarkable versatility on this foundation.
He brings acute sociological insights to his contrasting portraits
of cosmopolitan Earth (in Queen of Angels (1990) and Slant
(1997)) and of frontier life on the Moon (in Heads (1990))
and on Mars (in Moving Mars (1993)), the interactions of
which cultures are revelatory and devastating. Legacy (1995)
is a planetary romance of forceful grimness set against the same
general background as Eon; Dinosaur Summer (1998)
is something of a holiday excursion by comparison, telling nostalgically
of the adventures of a boy and his father among dinosaurs; and
Foundation and Chaos (1998) recontextualizes the events
of the introductory episode of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.
Darwin's Radio (1999) returns to the near future, setting
out a vision of evolution having its painful way with the human
race, and of the human race's equally painful response.
Bear's memorable short stories and novellas are collected in Tangents
(1989) and The Venging (1992). Occasional newer pieces,
such as "Judgment Engine" (1995) and "The Way of
All Ghosts" (1999), show no decline in Bear's skill at shorter
When I interviewed Greg Bear by e-mail in January and February
of 2000, I sought an understanding both of the energetic creativity
behind his compelling oeuvre and of the complex revisionist irony
underpinning so much of it. He was genially forthcoming.
Bear's early novels are exercises in high imaginative aspiration that, despite some technical limitations, very definitely prefigure the achievements of his mature works. Hegira (1979), Beyond Heaven's River (1980), and Strength of Stones (1981) are entries in a space operatic future history that ranges in focus from mere centuries hence to the end of time itself. Psychlone (1979) ventures into technological horror; The Infinity Concerto (1984) and The Serpent Mage (1986), later combined as Songs of Earth and Power, are striking fantasies that conclude Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and discuss the mechanics of world creation; Corona (1984) is one of the more impressive Star Trek novels. These books, most of them since revised in varying degrees, form the record of a promising genre journeyman; but the Master was not long in emerging.
Two novels mark this transition: Blood Music (1985), a potent exploration of how the very small might assimilate the very large, and Eon (1985), which introduces humans of the near future to the tunnel their descendants have driven to infinity. This epic of the "Way" continues still more apocalyptically in Eternity (1988). Meanwhile, The Forge of God (1987) brings home with savage irony the lethal dangers of Earth's galactic neighbourhood; its sequel, Anvil of Stars (1992), narrates claustrophobically a belated vengeance by the remnant of humanity.
In the 1990s, Bear built with remarkable versatility on this foundation. He brings acute sociological insights to his contrasting portraits of cosmopolitan Earth (in Queen of Angels (1990) and Slant (1997)) and of frontier life on the Moon (in Heads (1990)) and on Mars (in Moving Mars (1993)), the interactions of which cultures are revelatory and devastating. Legacy (1995) is a planetary romance of forceful grimness set against the same general background as Eon; Dinosaur Summer (1998) is something of a holiday excursion by comparison, telling nostalgically of the adventures of a boy and his father among dinosaurs; and Foundation and Chaos (1998) recontextualizes the events of the introductory episode of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Darwin's Radio (1999) returns to the near future, setting out a vision of evolution having its painful way with the human race, and of the human race's equally painful response.
Bear's memorable short stories and novellas are collected in Tangents (1989) and The Venging (1992). Occasional newer pieces, such as "Judgment Engine" (1995) and "The Way of All Ghosts" (1999), show no decline in Bear's skill at shorter lengths.
When I interviewed Greg Bear by e-mail in January and February of 2000, I sought an understanding both of the energetic creativity behind his compelling oeuvre and of the complex revisionist irony underpinning so much of it. He was genially forthcoming.
NG: Two facts about your creative background stand out: the very early publication of your first SF story (when you were in your mid-teens) and your initial vocation as an artist or illustrator. When did you decide to become an SF writer, and why did you choose this over visual art?
GB: I actually started writing stories before doing any serious artwork, at around age eight. And eventually it became clear to me that while there were other artists much better than I was, I could still get along quite well as a writer. Eventually, around 1980, the artwork stopped and the writing took over completely!
NG: Different schools of SF have claimed you as their own, both the cyberpunks and the more orthodox Hard SF tendency (you are Poul Anderson's son-in-law, after all). Where do you place yourself within the SF continuum?
GB: The cyberpunks enlisted me chiefly because of Bruce Sterling, who had a larger vision than the marketplace did; I think of myself as working in a large and grand SF tradition of writing convincingly about the future, but I'm also a writer of Fantasy and even occasionally of supernatural Horror.
NG: Elements of literary homage are evident in your work: to Joseph Conrad, for example, and, recently, to William Hope Hodgson (in "The Way of All Ghosts"). What particular literary, and other, influences have shaped your SF?
GB: Almost too many to list! I've read and absorbed authors as diverse as Nikos Kazantzakis, James Joyce, Richard McKenna, Robert Graves, Olaf Stapledon, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and the list goes on for miles! They all have something to teach me, still.
NG: In the 1980s and early 1990s, you spent some time rewriting your early works--novels such as Strength of Stones, various of the stories collected in Tangents and The Venging. Why did you feel this was necessary? And how extensive were the revisions?
GB: The works most severely revised are Hegira and The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage. Hegira was a first published novel and showed some weaknesses, which I partly corrected by revising the ending. The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage I did a thorough copy-edit of for the new Tor edition in one volume, cleaning up the prose style and correcting some textual errors. Strength of Stones and the others were only lightly revised, if at all, more copy-editing. John Clute suggested in his Encyclopedia that revisions to Psychlone and Beyond Heaven's River made them smoother reads than they once were, but in fact the changes must have been principally in John!
NG: Still with regard to your early SF: you constructed a future history of very ambitious scale, including Beyond Heaven's River, Strength of Stones, Hegira, and major stories like "Hardfought" and "Scattershot". To me, these remain very attractive works, mixing Stapledonian perspective with an atmosphere of what I'm tempted to call technological elegy. How did you achieve this far-future sheen?
GB: Through youthful arrogance and the example of writers such as Stapledon and Heinlein and Niven. Every writer of SF at the time seemed to be trying a future history of one sort or another. It was a great exercise--and lots of fun, as well.
NG: Also in your early future history, you developed the character of Anna Sigrid Nestor, across the full length of a formidable interstellar career. How do you feel about her now?
GB: Anna was the first of my strong female characters, a tradition I've carried on through Casseia Majumdar in Moving Mars and most recently exemplified by Kaye Lang in Darwin's Radio. I've had quite a string of strong, realistically portrayed females in my novels and stories over the years--specialize in them, in fact--so many that I might be called a feminist writer (though the feminist contingent in SF have pretty much ignored me, along with most other male writers--perhaps revealing a peculiarly tribal philosophy). But I've never neglected male characters, either.
NG: Another early undertaking was Songs of Earth and Power, originally published as The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage. This is your sole full-length venture into Fantasy, and is unusually rigorous for that genre. Were you attempting an overhaul of the techniques of Fantasy here, a revision of its creative standards?
GB: No revision intended--I was just writing Fantasy on my own terms, with my own take on how fantasy worlds could be made to work. Tolkien was fairly rigorous, after all (despite not telling us where the coffee comes from in Middle Earth). I also had the examples of Jorge Luis Borges and Joseph Campbell and Jung and Graves to contribute to the mix--and the books still bring me fan mail today, to my gratification. But it was obvious even then that my take on Fantasy didn't necessarily appeal to those who favored Quest novels. The Fantasy genre has largely gone in quite a different direction than my favorites, writers like George D. McDonald and Mervyn Peake.
NG: Also early on, you contributed one novel, Corona, to the Star Trek canon. More recently, you've produced other "sharecrop" texts, such as Foundation and Chaos, and you're due to publish a Star Wars novel soon. How do you answer critics who charge such works with less than full effort and originality?
GB: The critics generally haven't read the books. I love many aspects of popular culture--I was a Star Trek fan from the age of 15--and sometimes consider it a privilege to play with worlds created by other writers. Working with Isaac's Foundation universe was the greatest privilege of all, I think, much like a long dinner-table discussion with the Good Doctor himself. And this prepared me to work in the Star Wars universe, which I've also enjoyed for decades. George Lucas and I are both sons of Isaac to a great extent!
NG: Blood Music was your breakthrough novel, and remains an SF classic with its acute portrayal of a curiously benign biological apocalypse. The book's attitude, suggesting as it does that the noocytes' takeover is not such a bad thing, is more reminiscent of the approach of British writers like Clarke and Ballard than of the American disaster formula. Is Blood Music's confidence in the virtues of radical transcendence something you share?
GB: I actually let the books develop organically, rather than saddling them with a prior, overarching theme. But perversely, I do like to set up contradictory emotions within my readers--horror mixed with transcendence among them. Change is the universal in our lives, and the truth is, change is neither good or bad--it is just different. Some suffer, others benefit, and some both suffer and benefit!
NG: And then there was the first of your BIG SF novels: Eon. It's a complex work, mixing near-future space exploration with far-future vistas of a city travelling an infinite Way complete with gateways to a myriad alternate worlds. Why, in writing Eon and its sequel, Eternity, did you juxtapose such radically different elements as the Cold War turning hot on the one hand, and the exotically evolved civilization of the Hexamon Nexus on the other?
GB: The Hexamon culture derives from the historical consequences of the Death on Earth centuries before--nuclear holocaust. To have them come back in time, and to an alternate Earth, and find it in just such a crisis drives the whole plot of the novel. It's becoming increasingly easy to forget, now, how much the Cold War influenced us all, and Eon was written in part from what I learned while working with Jerry Pournelle and many others to advise the Reagan Administration on space policy and what later became known as the Star Wars defense system. (Interestingly, I began writing Eon in 1981, two years before joining Jerry's group--but learned much while consulting with them and with other groups and companies.)
The connection with Jerry's group led to me being labelled--especially in England--as a political conservative, but I maintain to this day that I am a social liberal!
NG: The long-lived Hellenic culture that features at points in Eon and Eternity is your major sally into alternate history, apart from the very different and more marginally allohistorical world of Dinosaur Summer. Why did you choose this particular "What If?" scenario?
GB: Since researching an abortive novel written in the 1970s on taking Leonardo da Vinci back to the Aegean in the first century BC, I had a lot of Hellenistic material stuffed into my subconscious that was begging to be used. Besides, my mother-in-law, Karen Anderson, had an extensive knowledge of Greek culture and language, and had helped me with the language in the conclusion of Eon. All the pieces seemed to be in place to expand the idea and work on a continuing Hellenistically-derived history [in Eternity].
NG: The Jarts, the aliens who invade the Way, are engaged in the self-imposed mission of preserving--rendering perpetually static, like specimens in bottles--the worlds and societies they encounter. Is their behaviour meant by you to have some real justification, at least in cosmological terms?
GB: On their terms, what they are doing is valid. They believe they are gathering up information necessary to create and supplement the Final Mind at the end of time. That something like the Final Mind actually exists, and is gathering up records of intelligence and life throughout time, may or may not justify the Jarts' actions, which seem a bit extreme and obsessive to me! (Frank Tipler later wrote a book on the preservation of information by a kind of final mind or civilization at the "end of time," but Eternity's concept derives from my internal argument with the conclusion of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld novels, which, it seemed to me, missed a grand cosmological conception.)
NG: And: why did you destroy the Way so thoroughly in Eternity?
GB: Not a good career move, overall, but typical of my propensity for two-volume trilogies! I've tried to figure out that move many times since then, and believe in part it was an attempt to tie off the theme of Eon without going into endless sequels and having that guide my career ever after. As it turned out, I wrote prequels instead... But Eon still remains my bestselling novel (in paperback, at least).
NG: It's been commented that your major disaster novel, The Forge of God, like Blood Music defies the conventions of American can-do SF: the destruction of the Earth cannot be averted, only a few survive. Was this revisionism conscious?
GB: I have mixed opinions on that one. The Poseidon sinks, after all, and much of Los Angeles is destroyed in Earthquake, and there are endless disaster novels and movies in which only a few survive. What distinguishes Forge of God is that the disaster is imminent throughout the length of the novel--raising hopes perhaps that it can be averted. To show otherwise might be considered audacious, but the book is among my very best-selling novels, so the audience was up for the experience, apparently.
NG: How adequate, or meaningful, could the revenge of the human race portrayed in Anvil of Stars (Forge's sequel) ever be?
GB: The whole point of Anvil of Stars was that revenge in some ways is biological, and may contribute to a balance, but is never wholly satisfying or fulfilling. Justice is not an absolute, neither is it always sweet and clean. It can also destroy. I take up this theme again in Queen of Angels, where I equate the need for retribution to Western concepts of self-awareness.
NG: You commenced a particularly intriguing "Binary Millennium" future history with Queen of Angels, continuing it with a direct sequel, Slant, as well as the further-removed novella Heads and the novel Moving Mars. How did you intend the unusual stylistic mix of Queen of Angels and Slant, and how did you conceive it?
GB: Both novels, again, dictated their styles through their subject matter. Queen of Angels scared me while I was writing it, it was so complex, but I was surprised to find the novel well received among many fans. Slant has a simpler style, a more direct story line, and different origins for the story. Both are complementary as well as supplementary.
NG: It's seemed to me that two distinct political visions are presented in this series, each treated sympathetically in its own right, yet each irreconcilable with the other: the therapied, in some ways posthuman, cosmopolitan culture of Earth in Queen of Angels, and the more extroverted and robust libertarian society of Mars in Moving Mars. In writing these books, were you setting two utopias at odds, testing each in opposition to the other?
GB: I don't really believe in Utopias. Organic societies, on the other hand, fascinate me--how societies rise out of psychology and culture. Mars in Moving Mars is a kind of take on the modern United States and especially on Libertarian rugged individualists--but without either agreeing or disagreeing, entirely, just setting the history in motion and watching the models run themselves to a conclusion. Of course, this is rather disingenuous, since I'm going to throw in my own opinions ultimately to skew the models, and plot and character development may also direct outcomes...but that's the general idea. Overall, I believe in participatory democracy--what Kevin Kelly might call Bottom-Up organization--but with each individual trying to get a large view of their world and voting accordingly, sometimes for self-interest, sometimes for the benefit of the group. I do not believe in anarchy or socialism, of course; no individual or group is sane enough or reliable enough to be given complete control without severe restraints.
Nowadays, my view of politics is very ecological--that all forces require adjustment and balance, and that a sick political system emphasizes either the individual over the group, or the group over the individual.
NG: Slant challenges Earth's media-oversaturated, pop-culture drenched social order, rendering it as dystopian in some respects, yet simultaneously dismissing an elitist conspiracy to overthrow it. What conclusion should be drawn from this? Are further sequels possible, to carry the argument still further?
GB: History itself will see this one through to some sort of answer. We're in a very strange age now, combining visionaries with robber barons, future-thinkers with pirates, all disguising themselves in various ways to appeal to a critical audience made up of the fearfully clueless. The theme will not go away soon, nor will it be resolved to anybody's satisfaction soon!
NG: Legacy, and "The Way of All Ghosts", return to the universe of Eon at an earlier stage of its history, the first setting out the disillusionment of Olmy, and the second his metaphysical replenishment. Are you considering further work set in this milieu, the continuation of Olmy's biography?
GB: Probably, but no specific stories come to mind yet.
NG: Dinosaur Summer is a sequel to Conan Doyle's The Lost World, but set much later in time and with a much more plausible palaeontological thesis. What was your purpose in this augmented sequelization?
GB: My purpose was to have fun, play with new dinosaurs, and write a thoroughgoing, non-cynical adventure novel with a masculine, father-and-son theme. In other words, to repay folks like the creators of King Kong and Ray Harryhausen for the wonder and stimuli they had given me as a youngster.
NG: In writing the "Second Foundation Trilogy" with Gregory Benford and David Brin, what was your creative and critical purpose vis-à-vis the existing Asimov canon?
GB: I felt my writing style could easily supplement Isaac's, and that I could enter the minds of Isaac's characters and carry on his grand debate on fate, history, humanity, and mathematics. It was a terrific experience, and working with Janet Asimov, David Brin, and Gregory Benford made it even better. A class act every step of the way.
NG: In the Asimov project, how did you and your fellow authors liaise (noting, for example, your furtherance of Benford's resurrections of Voltaire and Jeanne D'Arc)?
GB: Gregory finished his book and handed it to me in manuscript, and I shoe-horned his ideas into my own, and then handed my manuscript on to David for the same process. There was a little adjustment here and there to make the novels continuous, but in many ways, each novel is an independent examination of Isaac's universe.
NG: Darwin's Radio recalls Blood Music in some respects. What, for you, is the ongoing "attraction" of biological apocalypses (taking into account also the scenario of Legacy)?
GB: One of my main concerns is change and evolution in living things, including the human mind. With Darwin's Radio, I've begun to lay down a capstone to a long-running developmental theory of biology begun decades ago. In a way, I've never quite believed the Modern Synthesis of Darwinian evolution (Darwin himself might have had his doubts, as well, since this synthesis was created long after his death). I think we are now on the cusp of an explanation of how life works that is much more interesting and powerful, and I'm thrilled to even attempt to be a part of the debate.
NG: Darwin's Radio is a near-future thriller, and its sequel, Darwin's Children, will presumably continue in like vein. How have you treated (and reinterpreted) basic thriller materials?
GB: A thriller is a novel with major historical and political elements. I don't see Darwin's Radio primarily as a thriller--though I'm happy to have it marketed that way. It's a novel about scientists, and what they do and how they perceive the world is certainly thrilling. Nature itself, in this case, provides the thrills, and how we react moves the story along.
NG: That numerical curiosity, that arises again with the "Darwin" books: why do your books always seem to come in twos, the original and one sequel?
GB: Something else really cool always comes along to distract me before I get around to volume three. Considering that, I've been remarkably fortunate in having any career at all!
NG: Future prospects: is a new short story collection possible, including such works as "The Way of All Ghosts" and "Judgment Engine"?
GB: I hope so! But I haven't proposed a complete short fiction collection to my publishers. Soon, perhaps.
NG: And in conclusion: how confident are you of the future prosperity of SF as a literary genre?
GB: As an isolated genre, SF is on its way out--it's blending into the mainstream in ways I could not have anticipated back in 1968, when I attended my first convention. SF writers, concepts, are now a major part of world culture, accessible to billions, and those of us who grew up in the middle of an enclosed SF culture have to realize what George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, Michael Crichton, and a number of others have long since realized--that SF is in a sense the dreaming ground of the 21st century.
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© Nick Gevers 27 May 2000