Greg Bear has a reputation as one of the leading extant American science fiction writers, with a career spanning over thirty years. His fiction has won Nebula awards in each length category - no mean feat - and he's also received Hugos and several other awards for his writing, which is typified by hard-edged and deeply imaginative extrapolations of unusual circumstances. His most recent book, City at the End of Time, has just been released by Gollancz. True to its title, it describes the fate of a city's diverse occupants, seeking to forestall the end of the Universe. In early September, I asked Greg Bear about City, about what came before it, and about future directions.
You seemed to crop up on the scene at around the same time as another hard SF writer, Gregory Benford. I'm curious: did the two of you make a pact, so that you stayed as Greg and he stayed as Gregory, by way of product differentiation?
Ah, no, he sometimes goes as Greg, and I appear as Gregory only on legal documents. I refer to myself as Greg2, and him as Greg1.
Around the same time, of course, our buddy David Brin also came onto the scene. And there's Kim Stanley Robinson around that time as well. David Brin's first name is actually Glen, so he is another GB.
It gets a bit crowded in there sometimes, I guess.
It does, exactly. A popular pair of initials.
I'd always had the impression that Blood Music, the novelette and then the novel, was pretty much your debut, but in fact there was quite a long series of short stories before that.
And novels. I'd had five novels and a short story collection published by then.
How important was Blood Music to you, as a turning point in your writing career?
It was very important. The short story gathered a couple of awards, then the novel, the extended version, published two years later, also got nominated, so it was significant. But that same year Eon was published, and that book, which I'd been working on since the early 80s, really did push my career, certainly in England, and then in the United States.
Your latest novel, City at the End of Time, has I think one of the broadest temporal sweeps of any book I've seen, stretching from the present day (or a bit before) up to the end of the Universe, itself, about a hundred trillion years into the future. What inspired you to write it?
Well, I was just going back, and thinking of the scope of writers like Olaf Stapledon, and his billion-year histories of the Universe, and histories of mankind, in Last and First Men, and Star Maker. Thinking of cosmology and physics and how science is trying to describe the entire Universe, what if we've sort of got it wrong? What if we're still primitive in our thinking? That led me to conclude that you could write an interesting story about a Universe that goes on and on and on, and how reality might have to be changed by that circumstance.
You seem to have moved around quite a lot, stylistically, as a writer during your career: various of your books could, I'd say, be categorised as cyberpunk, space opera, fantasy, horror even. And your novels tend to be either standalones or to fit within short sequences. Is this an indication, perhaps, that the worldbuilding is really what drives your interest in writing?
Yes, but the stories themselves are what determines the style. Of course, the level of technology is going to vary from work to work. When I write a book like The Infinity Concerto, which became Songs of Earth and Power when it was combined with the sequel, The Serpent Mage, that's definitely fantasy. When we come to a book like Dead Lines, which has ghosts in it, is that science fiction, or is it horror? A little bit of both, actually. I borrowed some of the ideas and mood of James Blish and Richard Matheson. I like all different kinds of stories, I like all of these genres. I think I am most famous for being a hard science fiction writer, a writer of books like Darwin's Radio, but when we get to a book like City at the End of Time, again, is it a fantasy, is it a horror novel? It's actually a science fiction novel. It's just stretched to the nth degree.
And with its origins somewhat disguised, I guess, in terms of science fiction?
No, I think the origins are quite upfront. I use several quotes right at the beginning, about deep time, that's what we're talking about here. The one I don't quote, of course, is Sir Arthur C. Clarke's law, 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. I think that gives me a lot of leeway.
I get the impression from your books that there's often a lot of direct scientific content, but it tends to be submerged beneath the story and the characterisation so as not to be obtrusive. How do you research your stories?
I'm researching all the time, I subscribe to the science magazines and try to talk to scientists whenever possible. I try to keep up on ideas and advances.
It's really hard to say when I'm researching or when I'm just reading for pleasure, it's so much a part of my everyday thought, and what I read is going to shape the story no matter what I'm writing.
As a writer, you've done a fair bit of dabbling in other peoples' universes. Star Wars, Star Trek, Larry Niven's Known Space and Asimov's Foundation series. Have you ever given any thought to opening up one of your own fictional universes to collaboration?
I think I keep my own universes pretty much intact, I just haven't really collaborated with other people. I won't say never, but it hasn't happened yet.
There's a lot of invention in your stories, not all of it pleasant by intention. People dissolving, getting crushed by cascading rocks as the Earth implodes, getting turned into antimatter . It seems like your books quite often have a high body count, but the deaths tend not to be mundane. What would you say would be the most gruesome fate you've ever designed for one of your characters?
I think I'm following in the tradition of Beowulf and The Odyssey. If you go into fantastic places, and extraordinary dangers, then you can expect unusual demises. I don't know which would be the most unusual.
The thing about Blood Music, where everyone dissolves, is that very few people actually die. They're maintained, and carried on, into a rather blissful existence, so I don't include dissolving in my list of horrible demises. It's not like The Blob.
No. It would look pretty horrific from outside, however.
Yeah. But from inside, as we know, from looking at some of the faces of our victims--oops, our characters--as they go under, it's not like that .
What can we next expect to see from you? What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on a follow-on to Quantico, set about two years after that book. And then after that, it's kind of open, I'm waiting to see what happens with City and with the other projects we've got going here.
How would you follow up something like City at the End of Time? I'm curious, where can you go once the Universe has ended?
Every Universe has to come to an end. It's what's going on in between that you can fill in, I think there's a lot of places where you can take bits and pieces and then expand them. That said, I don't really have any plans to do that at this point.
What do you hope people take away from your stories?
Entertainment, mostly. Thoughtful entertainment that I hope gives them the feeling that they've just read something unlike anything they've read before.
I'm not writing to confirm people's prejudices, I'm here to tweak them. To afflict the comfortable! A worthy goal for science fiction, I think.
Thanks very much for your answers, Greg.