Interview: Greg Bear

[Originally posted in March 2000 at SciFiDimensions.com.] 

Greg Bear is a bit of a prodigy in the science fiction world. He published his first story when he was sixteen, and by the time he was a grown-up he was getting published regularly. He’s had a long succession of immensely popular books that aren’t afraid to “go big” (he blew up the Earth in The Forge of God). Bear’s work has been nominated and honored several times: he won the 1994 Nebula Award for his novel Moving Mars. His latest book, Darwin’s Radio, is available right now.

I spoke to Greg Bear about his vision of Mars, the situation at NASA, and man’s future on the Red Planet.

Q: First of all, congratulations on winning the Nebula award for Moving Mars.  How’s that make you feel? 

Greg Bear: Nebulas are always gratefully accepted! They’re pretty.

Q: I’ve thought that several of your novels would translate well onto the silver screen. Is that a possibility you’re working on?

GB: There’s always something going on in Los Angeles—most of the current crop of successful SF writers have been courted by various producers and directors at one time or another. But it’s remarkably difficult to shepherd a property all the way to the screen. It took ten years for Contact to become a fine movie. Blood Music is under option at MGM, but what once looked like a done deal has pretty much cooled down there. A Beautiful and Talented Oscar Award-Winning star whose name I will not divulge has shown extraordinary enthusiasm for Darwin’s Radio (no, not Robin Williams, who mentioned he was reading it in USA TODAY some weeks ago) but the studios did not agree. So—hope springs eternal in a season that many screenwriters acknowledge has been remarkably dry in Hollywood.

Q: What’s your big project right now? What’s coming up?

GB: I’m working with several partners and New Line Pictures and Trilogy Entertainment to create a television mini-series. We’ll be pitching that to cable networks over the next few months. Details as soon as anything becomes solid—I don’t like to announce screen work in progress, because so often it never results in anything finished!

Q: How did you conduct your research when preparing to write Moving Mars?  I imagine it might be more difficult, given both the romanticism associated with Mars and the public’s familiarity with it (as opposed to some fictitious world). Did you approach your research differently from your other novels?

GB: No. Mars is a real place, and I tend to begin with the real, and find the romance and myth in that. I read books and magazine pieces, particularly the University of Arizona’s MARS omnibus volume—and referred to Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA photographs, and put together some speculations I thought might intrigue the experts, if not convince them. As a result, Mars became a place in my head that a part of me feels I’ve actually visited—and that’s one of the pleasures of writing this kind of novel. I get to do go places I’ll likely never see in real life!

Q: What’s your favorite Mars fiction (aside from your own, of course)?

GB: Ray Bradbury’s and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s versions of Mars set the standard for me. Nobody has created a more mythic Mars than these two. That they don’t square with reality doesn’t detract in the least. Kim Stanley Robinson, I think, has created the most accessible and universally attractive modern version of Mars. By comparison, Moving Mars is as much about Casseia Majumdar and human politics and physics as it is about Mars—so while I invested considerable energy in describing and making Mars real, it spends much of its time in the background. I tend to place people above landscape, and that is not the John Muir way of writing!

Q: What do you think about the recent spate of failures from NASA involving Martian exploration? Do you think NASA’s overall program is the right one? What should they do differently, if anything? 

GB: We’re spoiled by NASA’s chain of successes in the recent past. Space flight is incredibly difficult. Armchair engineers can criticize failure—and probably should—but we really don’t know what happened to the Polar Lander. Stan Robinson’s speculation that it fell through a CO2-corrupted surface has actually been echoed recently in a letter in Science magazine, and that idea occurred to me as well, early on in the alarmingly quiet phase of that mission. Failure teaches, sometimes more than success. Having said that, should NASA re-examine everything in its mission planning? You bet. And they will.

Q: How important do you think it is to put men (and women) on Mars? Do you think it should be primarily for exploration, or should humanity try to establish permanent settlements? 

GB: I don’t know about you, but if it’s a choice between my going to Mars, or a robot with my nametag on it, I’ll choose me every time. The whole point about space is that it’s a new place for us to live and observe and think new thoughts. Robots can’t do that for us. Even Carl Sagan, who was devoted to robotic exploration—more science for the buck, basically—agreed in recent years that manned exploration was vitally important.

Q: In your book Moving Mars you deal with the political ramifications of colonization. How would you set up a Martian colony politically? 

GB: On principles not unlike those used by the early American colonists, but with more religious and ethnic tolerance and more awareness of the nature of the landscape around you. Democracy is essential, but bottom-up control I would advocate for larger and more established nations might need to be adjusted in a situation where life is more like that aboard a ship. In other words, a strong captain system and fairly rigid chain of command is likely to be essential for colonies of under a thousand individuals. Above that, with the settlement more spread out, democracy should kick in, and the captains should modify their roles. Training people for this kind of political flexibility might be as difficult as training them to live in space!

Q: If humans do finally settle Mars, what roles do you think government and private enterprise should play?

GB: Crucial roles. Government is never separate from people—it’s how we get along with each other and allocate resources. A colony without government is like a human body without cellular glue—it’s a pile of disgusting mush. Private enterprise is another and very successful way of gathering, creating, and distributing resources, but as in the answer above, it may not be possible in pure form in small settlements. There are no CEOs and yes-men and stock markets in Antarctica that I’m aware of.

Q: As you know, some scientists have claimed that the Martian meteor found in Antarctica contains strong evidence for ancient microscopic life on Mars. What’s your opinion? 

GB: My opinion means nothing here. The debate is everything in science when the evidence is so slim. That said, we are now discovering bacteria almost as small as the putative bacteria found in the Alan Hills sample. That does not make those samples any more or less convincing; it just makes life on Mars a more interesting possibility. 

Q: What do you have to say to the folks who claim that the “Face” in Cydonia is an ancient artificial structure? Does this theory have any place in legitimate Martian science? 

GB: As a boy, I enjoyed making faces appear in the woodwork on my bedroom door. I did not try to build a scientific career on the theory that aliens were making bedroom doors.  

Q: Where do you think we’ll be, realistically, 50 years from now, with respect to Mars? 

GB: On the surface, trying to figure out what to do next.

Q: Thanks for your time. 

GB: My pleasure!

Greg Bear’s novels are available wherever books are sold. You can visit his website at www.gregbear.com.

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