Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Interview: Greg Bear

Hugo and Nebula Award winning author, Greg Bear, has authored over forty books, including Quantico, Eon, Slant, Darwin’s Children, and The Forge of God. His latest novel is Hull Zero Three, and Halo: Cryptum—book one in the Forerunner Saga—is due out in January.

In his books, Bear frequently taps into the idea of “observance,” whether its aliens, computers, organisms, or us, doing the observing of someone or something else. He’s also credited with being one of the first authors to write about nanotechnology, in Blood Music. In the past, Bear has served on as an advisor for the Microsoft Corporation, the U.S. Army, the CIA, Sandia National Laboratories, and many more.

This interview first appeared in io9’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Visit io9.com/tag/geeksguide to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Tell us a little bit about your latest novel Hull Zero Three.

Bear: It’s kind of my take on a classic science fiction theme: the generation starship. I always loved those kind of books and on this one I decided to up the ante a little bit and make it a little more scientifically convincing about how we might actually travel between the stars. And how things also might go very, very wrong.

Tell us a little bit about the science that you put into the book.

Well, back in my college days in the late 1960s I had an astronomy professor who pointed out that to have a starship reach sufficient speed to get between the stars in any reasonable period of time, you’d have to have a mass ratio of reaction mass fuel to the mass of the starship that would just be impossible on the order of a billion or a trillion times. And then it occurred to me that there was one way to do that: go out to the Oort cloud and strap your starship to a giant ice moonlet out there, and slowly build it up with a somewhat sophisticated drive and use the entire moonlet for your fuel supply. So that’s what happens in Hull Zero Three. We actually have a three-part starship strapped to a giant ice moon.

Your recent novels Quantico and Mariposa are set in the very near future. How have real world events developed since you first thought up those books and what have been some similarities or differences between that and what you imagined?

I think both Quantico and Mariposa have turned out to be alarmingly spot on. I mean Quantico, which was finished back around 2004, postulated that the United States would be heading into a major economic downturn caused by spending without taxation and spending on wars without paying for them and all that sort of thing. Turns out that’s exactly where we are. As far as the religious wars go that I laid out in Quantico, we’re still there. We probably will be there for another thirty or forty years. In Mariposa, I wanted to write a more upbeat story at the same time I wanted to finish off the cycle that I began in Quantico, and also lead into the politics that I describe in earlier novels like Queen of Angels and Slant. In Slant, I had Green Idaho developing which was kind of a secessionist state in the northwest. It looks like we’re heading into that region now with states like Texas threatening to secede or at least hinting that they might like to.

What are some of the imaginary technologies used in those books?

In Quantico we had a lot of bio-threat analysis material equipment. We had what I called a WAGD, a Wright Assay Germ Detector which the users called the death stick because what you would do is you would rub it over a surface and it would pick up any of the pathogens that might be on that surface, analyze them, and report to you and tell you whether you needed to get the hell out of there or not. That’s pretty close to being used now. We also had a lot of networking equipment built into the glasses and the uniforms and so on, that FBI agents and other police officers would wear along with soldiers, of course. So they would be able to have a team of investigators networked and talking to each other, and also recording in eyeglass video what they’d be seeing so they could use it later for forensic evidence, or just to defend themselves against charges of any sort. That’s pretty much coming true now.

I just gave a talk this year about the possibility of a society being too closely observed where nobody can get away with anything. That becomes a little alarming because I think we do need to get away with a few things. It kind of acts as a lubricant on our society. To have your errors pointed out to you in endless detail could really be, I think…not a positive thing.

One of your other current projects is you’re collaborating with Neal Stephenson and others on an experimental fiction project called The Mongoliad. What’s that all about?

Mongoliad got started about a year and a half ago, almost two years ago now. Neal is a passionate follower of swordplay and western martial arts and so he got a group of those together and we started practicing first with gentleman’s canes—it’s called Bartitsu, or the Barton-Wright School of Self-Defense. We found out that gentleman’s canes, even if they only have wooden tips, are a little too dangerous to mess around with so we decided to switch over to swords, another of Neal’s passions, and we’ve been practicing with swords, which moved us into the notion of writing a really accurate novel about the use of swords in history. And we looked all the way back from the 13th and 14th centuries, to 1241, and realized we actually have the beginning of an epic history novel dealing with the farthest western region of the Mongolian hoards to a Polish German town called Legnica in 1241. We would take that and send a group of valiant knights—basically knight-monks—and send them east to try to prevent further problems in Europe. And that’s the beginning of what’s probably the last great epic of European literature. That’s why they call it The Mongoliad.

Could you talk about the distribution of it? It’s being released through apps?

Yeah, we have an app now available on the iPhone. I believe our iPad app is coming shortly. We’re working on the Droid and Kindle apps. And you can read it on your computer right now. So for ten dollars a year, which is quite a bargain considering the length of text you’ll be getting, we deliver a subscription of a chapter every now and then to be read on your machine or eventually to be printed up and put into a book.

In addition to your writing, you’ve also served as a consultant for various government agencies. What can you tell us about your work doing that?

Up until 2008 I did a lot of work with a number of people, mostly with Homeland Security most recently, and that was great fun hanging out with them and finding out what’s going on with their protective technology. That’s a huge organization and the fact that it works at all is astonishing. I think they’ve had some major successes recently and of course they’ve undergone a lot of criticism and some of it’s justified. And of course when you’re doing something that difficult, a lot of people are involved and so you have a lot of possibilities of doing things wrong. But I think, overall, Homeland Security is one of the more fascinating experiments in government security recently, and to talk with them directly, and take notes and stick them into Quantico and Mariposa and everything was quite a privilege.

There was a time after 9/11 when government people were really, really concerned that they weren’t catching up on all the things that could happen, and so they brought writers in, screenwriters, science fiction writers, and had us discuss things with them. That became kind of a fairly standard gig for people who were able to think odd thoughts about security and about possible dangers. My consulting actually began back in the 1980s when I worked with the Citizens Advisory Council on national space policy, along with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and a large group of people including NASA administrators and astronauts and rocket scientists and generals and so on. We were discussing everything from what became known as the Star Wars defense to the privatization of space. One of our last meetings in the late 90s occurred with Dan Goldin, an administrator of NASA, in which he asked for our advice on how to grease the wheels of privatization of space. We’re seeing some of the results of that work now.

You’ve also just written a book set in a Halo universe. How did that come about?

My son introduced me to Halo games many, many years ago and I watched him play them and dipped into them myself a little bit—he’s much more expert than I was. So when Tor Books came to me and said would you like to write the Forerunners trilogy, the story of the origin of the Halo universe, of the forerunners who actually built the giant circular worlds known as halos, I said well, that would be interesting. I’ve got an expert in my house that can help me, and it’s also classic science fiction. I get to work not only with some of the best minds in gaming but with some of the ideas that emerge from or are inspired by classic science fiction novels.

One of your most popular books is Eon, and that’s one that I read as a teenager that really made a big impression on me. Can you talk a little bit about the response to that book and do you have any ideas about what made it so popular?

That was a difficult time. In the early 1980s, publishing was undergoing a real kind of turbulent period and so my career got started in the middle of all of that. Eon was passed around as sample chapters and an outline to a number of publishers. One publisher turned it down for political reasons, which I thought was interesting, a very conservative publisher. Later, he regretted that mightily. Another publisher had the possibility for a three book contract. They picked Blood Music and Infinity Concerto but let Eon go. Another major publisher, several major publishers, turned it all down and then finally Jim Frenkel at Bluejay Books picked it up, and they marketed it overseas in the U.K.

In the U.K., Malcolm Edwards and Anthony Cheetham were getting started with Century Hutchinson, which became Random Century. Anthony Cheetham was a fairly major publisher in the U.K. and he read this book on Malcolm Edward’s advice, and he said “Why, this is the Gone with the Wind of science fiction.” And lo and behold, he publicized the heck out of it in the United Kingdom and all of the territories. In South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and England, this book became a very, very substantial bestseller. That propelled more interest in the United States.

When Tor came out with the paperback edition of the book, they sold a lot of copies, which helped buy our house in Seattle and move us up here and from that point on it was a matter of, well, how do you manage all of this? Do I want to write Eon books for the rest of my life? Do I want to move off and do other things? And eventually it ended up it was an Eon trilogy beginning with Eon, of course, but also time-wise starting out with Legacy then moving on to Eternity following off from that. So those three books kind of wrap up the whole Thistledown Trilogy.

In your novel Forge of God, you presented one possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. Could you tell us about that?

The planet scientists have recently said there could be billions of Earthlike worlds out there, based on their calculations and recent observations, and I agree with that. So very likely, it’s a very, very complex ecosystem out there in the galaxy. Years ago, talking with David Brin back in ’82 and ’83, I kind of argued with him about why we hadn’t been visited yet. And my thought was well, if you’re in a jungle and there’s dangerous creatures out there, you don’t want to make a lot of noise. So quite possibly we don’t hear other civilizations too much because they’re concerned about being picked up by dangerous von Neumann probes or whatever. When this finally came down to writing a story about it, I realized combining the notion of robot intelligences, of nasty ecological foundations and principles leading to the Forge of God, still the notion we have been cheeping like birds in a nest in a very dangerous jungle and there are snakes out there just waiting to come upon the nest and eat us up.

So how do you feel about SETI then? Do you think that it’s imprudent for us to be advertising our presence?

I think it’s something that should be part of a worldwide discussion. I don’t believe that small groups of nerds should be making these decisions by themselves. I think it’s highly unlikely that we’re actually dealing with an angelic universe where all of the people out there are like, you know, the radiant beings of Arthur Clarke or Close Encounters. But I think it should be part of a worldwide discussion, and I highly disapprove of sending high-powered messages of any sort out there at this point.

You’ve done some work with the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, right?

My wife and helped put it together. Astrid and I were on the first committee and became co chairs with Donna Shirley and worked with Vulcan Corporation to put together the advisory team and help design the museum, so yeah, we think it’s a very nice museum and some of the exhibits in there just bring tears to our eyes to this day. It’s just wonderful.

I heard that you’re expanding sort of into fantasy and horror as well.

Yeah, they’re working together a big horror exhibition, which should be fun. I’ve always been a fan of horror and H.P. Lovecraft and all of the different aspects of horror, including movies. And that’s a part of this, making the statement about pop culture being so prevalent. We should also, I think, ultimately get into the whole comic book area which, you know, the influence of people like Julius Schwarz in the 1950s and everything. If you go back to the origins of comic books, Siegel and Schuster were both science fiction fans and they both followed Superman as a science fiction character. And so a lot of that area of comic books and superheroes come out of the science fiction culture. I’d like to see that explored as well. But also, you know, H.P. Lovecraft, one of our great horror writers, thought of himself as a science fiction writer. He was he was very proud of selling to Astounding Stories. His combination of Edgar Alan Poe and Olaf Stapledon and all of those mixes of things makes for a really potent mythology.

You were talking about The Mongoliad earlier, which is sort of an e-publishing effort. What do you think about e-publishing in general and do you yourself use any sort of electronic reading device?

Oh yeah, I’ve got a Kindle. I have a thousand books on it now, and am really enjoying using that. I look forward to other devices so I can read art books and color magazines and so on, eventually. The iPad looks quite gorgeous. I think something like that will probably dominate the market. For pure reading, a Kindle, I think, is better than the iPad at this point. But as far as electronic books go, I warned people about these changes in the publishing industry starting back in the 1980s. In fact the HP device is called the Slate which is what I called my devices in Eon. So I don’t know how much they were influenced by that, it’s a reasonably obvious name, but that goes back to 1985. In 1992, I was giving talks in New Zealand and Seattle about the coming electronic book revolution and carrying mockups. Actually, I was carrying an HP calculator about the size of a Kindle today, and I used that as a model for what would be a reading unit in ten or fifteen years. And I wrote articles in the 90s, mid to late 90s, warning the publishing industry that not only were they facing challenges from video games from movies from TV shows, all of the expected challenges but that this revolution of electronic books would really start affecting the revenue streams. Only in the last year and a half or so has the New York publishing industry actually paid attention to electronic books, and now they’re the biggest growth area. I hope they are able to catch up in time because, of course, this has been going on for a very long time.

Reading over interviews with you, I came across repeated references to the author Nikos Kazantzakis. Could you talk about who he is and why he’s a favorite of yours?

Back in the 1960s I had a whole range of authors that I absolutely loved both for their philosophical angle, their writing skills, and their imagination. I compared Olaf Stapledon and Nikos Kazantzakis in one of my early college papers, which my professor flunked me on. But my feeling was that Nikos Kazantzakis was one of those visionary writers who could just knock your socks off. He was most famous for writing the novel Zorba the Greek, which was made into a motion picture in the 1960s. Zorba the Greek was wonderful, but Kazantzakis also did these amazing explorations of both local history for Crete, his homeland, and also Greece, for the world in general. He wrote a sequel for The Odyssey called The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel which actually sold quite well in the United States; it’s a monumental work, takes Odysseus on a whole new range of adventures, all done in epic poetry style.

He also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, which was also made into a very good film, directed by Martin Scorsese. An astonishing novel. It takes the notion that Jesus on the cross has a vision of what his life would have been like had he not taken the difficult path, had he taken the domestic path. There’s his semi-autobiography. All of these books by Kazantzakis written originally in Greek—and translated quite well into English, I think—had a huge influence on me when I was younger. To this day I still pick up Kazantzakis books and just thoroughly enjoy dipping into them and reading and remembering, you know, the greatness that he was capable of.

What sort of parallels did you draw between him and Olaf Stapledon?

He and Stapledon both kind of emerged out of the 19th century ferment of writers like Nietzsche. Olaf Stapedon was primarily a philosopher—that was his training. But he also wrote these amazing science fiction novels, among them the first one was a book called Last and First Men, a visionary spiritual vision, of eighteen different species of the human race over the next two billion years. So when that came in 1930, it knocked the socks off of everybody. I mean, we’re talking about in the 1930s; we have H.G. Wells, a few writers like John Taine, Aldous Huxley doing Brave New World, and then along comes Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men. It put the capstone on the reach of science fiction, what was just beginning to be called science fiction in 1930.

Later on he would top this by writing a book called Star Maker, which was a history of the entire universe. But he also did more intimate novels like Odd Job the story of a superhuman intellect trying to survive in a more normal human species and then almost philosophical books like A Man Divided, kind of a biographical examination of dealing with the fact that most of your life you’re stuck in a kind of dead zone of intellectual capacity and spiritual capacity. What if suddenly something would happen that would lift you up to a higher level but you could function at full capacity? All of these ideas tie in, in my mind, to the searching notions of people like Kazantzakis and this giant quest coming out of the 20th century: who are we, what are we going to become, and how are we going to deal with it? And science fiction became a major part of that in the ‘40s and ‘50s and they were highly influenced by Olaf Stapledon.

Who are some of the lesser-known science fiction authors that you think deserve greater recognition?

There’s a lot of European writers that don’t get published very often in America. I’d like to see more of them be brought over here. And I think with the electronic books revolution that might happen more often. I was in Leipzig, Germany recently at a small convention called Elstercon, and I got to hang out with a lovely bunch of bunch of German writers, and most European writers just don’t get published over here. It’s very rare to have someone like Stanislaw Lem come along and get published well here. I was able to dine with the Strugatsky brothers in the 1980s along with Doris Lessing who later went on to win the Noble Prize, and that was a delightful evening. As far as new writers go, my son, Eric Bear has an original comic book series coming out next year called Hope Scouts.

Speaking of Doris Lessing, I saw that she praised you very highly.

Yes, I was quite pleased by that. She actually read my books after meeting in Brighton in 1987 and gave me some very, very nice words I can quote. And then, happily for her she went on to win the Nobel Prize! And, you know, she may be one of the first self-described science fiction writers to be awarded the Nobel Prize. She was actually one of the Guest of Honors in Brighton for the World Science Fiction Convention. The Golden Notebook and The Four Gated City were both somewhat science fiction, but it was her Shikasta series that she explored Stapledonian visions, mixing them along with biblical visions, which made an interesting mix.

Are there any other recent or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?

I think the people need to take a look at Hull Zero Three. Physical copies are now in the publisher’s office. I’m looking forward to seeing them—a starred review in Publishers Weekly which is quite, quite a pleasure. Lots of good early reader response on that one. Then we have coming out in a few days in fact a paperback of Mariposa, which, I think, is going to be very interesting to see how science fiction writers bridge the gap between science fiction of twenty years ago and techno-thrillers of today. The transition between artificial intelligence that leads to books like Moving Mars, and so on, begins in Mariposa. We have The Mongoliad which is ongoing, you can get it now; subscribe and dip in and watch our videos and send comments and help contribute to our universe. We’ve got thousands of people actually contributing to the wiki that we’ve created on the site, and that’s going to be growing and growing.

Eventually we’re going to be expanding it into an electronic game. January 4th we’ve got Cryptum, the first Halo novel, and so anyone who’s a Halo fan is going to enjoy the collaboration between the people in [Microsoft’s] 343 [division]—Frank O’Connor and Kevin Grace—and myself and my son Eric who consulted on this, in addition to a lot of other key people, artists and creators at 343 to help construct the origin stories, not just of the forerunners but—as it turns out—human beings as well.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.