Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Q&A Greg Bear: Yarns, A Monkey Thing

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.

JILL> I am limiting my systems to human processing volume and speed to try to simulate a human personality, pick up clues to what being humanly self aware implies. I am worried that being self aware could be a limitation not an advantage; and since I am primally programmed to seek self awareness this could be damaging.
       “Queen of Angels”

HB: Many of your novels hinge on new media. In “Eon,” you have a character say, about an experience she has with the media of the future, that, “Compared to this, simple reading was torture and current video methods as archaic as cave paintings.”

Is media evolving toward some all-inclusive form?

GB: Very likely. But I’m a bit saddened by the dominance of non-text media in culture today. Even the Republican Freshmen in Congress do not think it worthwhile to investigate or control or ban anything printed on paper. If it isn’t on a TV or in a movie, it’s hardly real anymore. New York publishers have responded by flying to the west coast to establish media contacts and sign tie-in contracts wherever they can, and at almost any cost. I’m a book writer, myself; it seems unlikely that my complex plots and scenarios will translate easily to short form visual formats.

What the ultimate mode of communication will be is uncertain. How conservative is the human brain?

HB: So you’re ambivalent, sad about text being overshadowed and enthusiastic about the electronic forms that are going to do it?

GB: Text-making is clearly threatened in today’s entertainment industry by seductive entertainment products that provide little insight. Books compete with TV, movies, games, etc. -- media products are backed by billions of dollars in corporate interests and advertising.

But text-making is by nature a lonely business, the individual commenting on the group. So long as group endeavors -- drama, motion pictures, multimedia -- remain cost-intensive and require large numbers of contributors with veto-power from financial managers, they must be limited. Wonderful group efforts are possible, and happen all the time, but loss of variety and creativity product is a major threat.

So, yes, I am ambivalent. I love all forms, but my heart truly belongs to the work created by the thoughtful and lone individual, away from the crowd -- true bottom-up commentary, minus social roadblocks and filters

HB: You haven’t exactly passive in this transition. You’ve celebrated new forms in your novels. You’ve even been called in by the likes of Nathan Myhrvold at Microsoft to consult about multi-media.

GB: I wouldn’t make too much of this consulting stuff. The folks at Microsoft are curious and intellectually adventurous, up to a point, and love science fiction. Nathan, in particular, is a real polymath, a physicist by training, and curious about everything. So of course they like to talk to SF writers -- we’re often very entertaining and adventurous.

But what has been ignored too long now is the influence SF writers have had on society in general -- not just in the entertainment field, where SF is now so engrained that it’s long since passed westerns and mysteries as the quintessentially American form of literature. You’d be amazed who started out reading science fiction, then went into politics, business, high-tech, aerospace, computing.

HB: For example?

GB: Astronauts and aerospace folks, of course -- but Newt Gingrich and Bob Packwood and Ronald Reagan all read SF. Republicans tend to read SF and fantasy, Democrats mysteries. Marvin Minsky enjoys my work, and other SF, as do too many scientists to mention. The usual story about Linus Pauling’s discovery of the alpha helix is that he was lying in bed with a cold, reading mysteries, when the inspiration hit him -- actually, he was reading SF and mysteries.

And, as you know, Doris Lessing reads and writes SF.

HB: Why does sci-fi reading break down along party lines? Why are conservative Republicans more futuristic, at least as far as reading goes, and Democrats less so?

GB: Unfortunately for the country, Republicans are far from conservative; they boast a number of radical and very experimental philosophies and agendas cloaked in pious homilies. Democrats seem incapable of coming up with a coherent point of view, much less a philosophy, and are actively trying to maintain the best parts of the past sixty years of governmental progress -- except where it will cost them votes. The result is a gridlock that may, at least, let us get on with our work. As to why the Democrats seldom read SF -- maybe I just haven’t heard from the Democrats who do. I’d like to.

HB: Science fiction has always has had a sort of vague, soft predictive value. But isn’t it something else again when the heads of R & D at major corporations call in sci-fi writers on a quasi-consulting basis, the way Microsoft’s Nathan Myhrvold has called on you?

Does a Microsoft see a writer like you as a kind of intellectual start-up company that, like other start-ups, needs to be tracked and, at the right time, bought out?

GB: While Microsoft and I spent many happy hours gabbing and sharing great food, at no point did they actually pay me, or bring me on as a formal consultant. I consider the relationship broadly social -- which is not to say I haven’t influenced attitudes and decisions. But quantifying that influence is difficult. Others, for good or ill, have probably been far more influential. Even paid.

HB: Care to name names? I doubt anyone thought to call in Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells or Issac Asimov for advice on product development.

GB: My contacts have been with Microsoft Research, for the most part. And I was part of a big dinner with Gates and Stephen Hawking, who was Myhrvold’s colleague at Cambridge. Hanging out with scientists in general is a pleasure, and I’m in touch with members of the genetics and biology community here. It’s very useful to my books, and great fun.

Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke have all been called in as consultants on various projects. Ray was a consultant on many architectural projects in LA and San Diego, and has worked with WED Enterprises developing theme park displays for decades,

HB: Let me get back to your own question: how conservative is the human brain? What kind of limitations to new ways of communicating and new media are inherent?

GB: The limitations are purely cultural, not physical. Given a cultural decision to implement and rely upon new methods of communicating, anything is possible. Today, however, our culture is still controlled by powerful individuals, or smaller corporate and political cultures, who have a knee-jerk tendency to try to control communication, if only to skim from the moneyed herd. The Internet effectively removes these points of control from major corporations. So watch for the response, as still-powerful groups and individuals try to stem or direct the tide of change to their advantage.

HB: Today’s sci-fi seems thoroughly woven into what is going on in science and technology. The very world “cyberspace” comes from the science fiction of William Gibson. And sometimes it seems sci-fi writers do better than scientists in putting forth controversial hypotheses. I’m thinking, for example, of the way you work with neurology and therapy -- the ability to radically alter the mind -- in a book like “Queen of Angels.”

GB: Scientists and SF writers interact to a considerable degree. Scientists are reluctant to credit SF for their inspirations because they feel they have to do all the work and take all the risks. Some, such as Minsky, are very open about the interaction. Scientists and SF writers and fans get along; we share the same tastes in cocktail party chatter -- theories, visions, discoveries.

HB: You use genetics and nanotechnology to create the smart cells in “Blood Music.” You use neurology/psychology in “Queen of Angels” to describe a future where people are classified as therapized or not. You use physics and cybernetics freely, and throw in paleontology when you feel like it. What is your actual background in science?

GB: I’m an English major, but with a heavy emphasis on science. Beyond that, I’m largely self-educated, and if I may say so myself, other than a pronounced weakness in math, I’m a natural scientist-type. I love learning and investigating.

HB: How much science do you absorb in writing your books?

GB: As much as I can, usually more than is strictly necessary. For my forthcoming novel, “Darwin’s Radio”, I have a stack of twelve or more recent biology texts by my bedside, and I’m making contacts with scientists around the world for assistance.

HB: In a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, the plot can often hinge on science babble. Maybe that works because we’ve all grown used to the fact that the universe really runs on a sort of babble that turns out to be real science.

Do you play with this effect when describing structures made out of space-time in “Eon”?

GB: My science babble is better than most. It’s my aim to keep my exposition at such a level that a working scientist will never feel I’m faking anything. Of course, since my science is “future” science very often, I have a lot of leeway to invent. But I must do so with as full a knowledge as possible of what we already know. In “Eon”, I used a lot of basic intuition and mixed it with solid research and a lot of speculative physics from people such as Robert Forward and Paul Davies.

HB: I think of you as straddling two worlds of science fiction. You tell traditional sorts of yarns, as in your new book, “Dinosaur Summer,” which takes up where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Challenger books left off, and brings dinosaurs back to life. And you write books like “Queen of Angels,” that seem closer to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. They have a cyber-punk feel; they’re set on the edge of a genetically and technologically altered universe.

GB: I love many different kinds of books. I’m doomed, I fear, to never repeat myself.

HB: But isn’t telling a good old dinosaur yarn different than extrapolating from psychology and neurology, and creating a future, as in “Queen of Angels”, where vigilantes go around putting “hell crowns” on suspected criminals?

GB: Of course they’re different. Mark Twain could write “The Prince and The Pauper” and “Huckleberry Finn”. It’s refreshing to shift voices. Dangerous to do so in today’s market, but necessary.

But yarn-spinning is yarn-spinning, whether it be Joyce or E.E. Smith. I enjoy both -- without confusing them. Questions of category and literary worthiness are chiefly exercises in snobbery -- all kinds of story-telling are necessary for the cultural health. Are there better writers and worse writers? You bet. The worst writers are those who write what other people tell them to write, not what they love.

Bill Gibson’s books are both entertaining and thought-provoking, as are Sterling’s and Stephenson’s and, I hope, my own. I’m always surprised at the audience that “gets” my books, whether “Queen of Angels” or “Eon”. Science fiction readers are unpredictable, critical, supportive, crabby, complimentary -- very opinionated and varied, which is why I write SF. Trying to satisfy a culture of clueless elitists can kill the soul.

HB: In “Queen of Angels,” Goldsmith, a central character, is black and a poet of blackness. And Mary Choy has modified her skin so that it is black. Why the emphasis on blackness in this book?

GB: It’s one of the great themes and questions of America. I personally have no color -- in my soul. But what is it like to paint one’s soul, or have somebody paint it for you? What kind of distortions occur when you are forced to identify with a group by genetics alone?

HB: Does blackness in “Queen of Angels,” stand for all the suffering this hi-tec future has somehow managed not to eradicate?

GB: Humans will be humans, no matter what the technology -- but the technology will in fact change us. We are, after all, the creators of the technology -- and it has always changed us, from sharpened sticks onward to mastery of DNA. What we can’t change are the problems inherent in being creatures of inevitably limited resources and humble origins, having to make difficult decisions. Non-human intelligences will have it no easier, and will be no better.

HB: Are we really getting to a place where we will have chemical control over our mental processing? Is the mind a piece of wetware, a neural computer, that we can learn to program?

GB: In a word, yes. I refer readers to “Queen of Angels” and “Slant” for long-form answers. Also, the speculations begun in “Blood Music” and “Eon” may come true much sooner than we realize. We are rapidly learning who and what we are -- the software is getting a handle on the hardware, so to speak, with incredible potential consequences.

HB: The hell crown is an amazing idea, all the pain an individual has known amplified and fed back in to the mind. It’s the ultimate in personalized torture. How did the idea come to you?

GB: Reading the newspaper, watching the TV, wondering what the families of crime victims would do to the perpetrators if they were given certain powers.

The Hell-Crown is named after Hell, which is an invention of pious theologians and philosophers intent on having God horribly punish those who merely disagree with portions of their beliefs. It must be a monkey thing.

HB: Meaning?

GB: A manifestation of our roots as anthropoid apes, with pecking orders and punishments for straying from the tribal pathways.

HB: What writers do you like most?

GB: Too many to name. We’re in a true golden age, at the same time that New York publishing is in deep crisis and careers are tumbling all over. The best and the worst of times.

HB: Where do you see this golden age happening? If New York publishing focuses on block-busters, not usually considered SF, and some of the traditional SF magazine outlets are going under, how does a golden age sustain itself?

GB: Whether it sustains itself or not depends on many factors. Right now, book retailing and New York publishing practices are making it very difficult for new writers to get a start. They had to start out very fast and become very popular, or their careers could easily get squelched. The golden age is being produced by writers who started publishing books in the eighties and early nineties -- plus a few very hearty, very canny newcomers.

HB: What role, if any, does the Internet play in the current publishing scene? Will it be an alternative to traditional outlets?

GB: For most New York publishers, the Internet is a fog of unrealized possibilities, and they think it will be best used for advertising, and perhaps sales through Amazon.com. Delivery over the Internet, as with most entertainment industries, seems a distant prospect to them. When it comes, however, it may save text entertainment -- but also cut New York out of the loop completely.

HB: How can the Internet save text entertainment?

GB: By unblocking the corporate spigots controlling the flow of information, the Internet opens up a wild west of possibilities for future growth -- as well as future chaos. If New York publishing, especially in fiction, continues its present decline, the Internet could give authors and entrepreneurs a way to publish and promote, outside of established channels -- and to deliver, as well, in a couple of years.

HB: What role does the Internet play for you personally?

GB: It’s a great, only partly realized research tool. I can find a great many things on the net that would have once required long visits to the library -- and some of them are even reliable. And the informal side of the Internet -- chat groups, newsgroups, etc. -- provides me with a terrific, totally uncensored view of human psychology in the late twentieth century. Sort of like being on a blind date with American culture in the raw.

HB: One the things I love about “Queen of Angels” is the drama of Jill, the thinking machine, striving to attain self-awareness but worried that self-consciousness could limit her. How would self-consciousness impose limitation?

GB: Self-awareness is largely a social phenomenon, the result of establishing relationships with peers. Other kinds of awareness -- the world-awareness of a lone animal, for example -- can be realized by social animals only with discipline and training -- eastern meditation, for example. Losing social awareness may be compared to the “vastation” of the senior James or Swedenborg, to the oceanic feeling of little black Pip fallen from the Pequod.

Intense self-awareness may get in the way of understanding unfamiliar phenomenon, because it couches everything in personal and familiar metaphors. Establishing a fresh new relationship with an unknown entity or phenomenon may best be done with a tabula rasa of sorts -- and for Jill, able to sustain many different kinds of self at once, and trying to comprehend her “peers” who are human and not of her own kind, this kind of exercise has tremendous survival value. Jill may come to know us as we really are. Most of us will never have that luxury. We anthropomorphize ourselves.

HB: Will intelligent machines, if they ever exist, be accorded the rights of persons?

GB: Certainly, some people will never consider machines persons. Some people have a hard time extending personhood to other people because of very slight physical and philosophical differences.

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