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Looking into the Future with









By Alex von Thorn


I caught Greg Bear, the author guest of honour at the Millennium Philcon, at a meet-the-pros reception on August 30, 2001 in the convention centre. When I asked where we could do an interview, he said "No time like the present!" Which meant that we sat in the midst of a hundred people with drinks and conversations; while we spoke, people about four feet away were almost shouting at each other in a much less interesting (yet more pretentious) discussion. Later in the interview, a musician began warming up on an electronic keyboard about six feet away. All of this activity seemed to energize the author.

What are the most important elements of your writing, and what ideas pull your work together?

I think the way we do science and the way we learn about the world now, the way we propel ourselves forward leaps and bounds...you have to criticize that. You have to go in and look at it closely; you have to put people in situations they've never experienced before. That's what science fiction does well. If we're going to see where we're going, then we have to look ahead before we get there. Science fiction is almost a way of making sure we don't stumble as often as we would without it. That's what looking into the future is for me. My notion is, take a story, take an idea that's compelling, put real people in the middle of it, and let them react. That's how my books get written. Sometimes what I start off with trying to do is not what I end up with, because I've found out that real people won't do that. And I find that fascinating to do. It's very difficult, it breaks my brain sometimes, but I think it's essential.

You're described as a "master of hard science fiction." Do you find this label to be limiting?

I write all sorts of stuff, but right now, that's fine by me. That's the area I would most describe myself as. I use the term "convincing science fiction." If I can convince an expert that the field I'm writing about is real in the near future, then I feel that I've succeeded. So if I've taken his work or her work forward a few steps, and they are convinced that it's real for them, then I think I've succeeded. That's what hard science fiction has always done. In a sense, it's written for everybody because you can bring yourself into the subject and the story, but what we're aiming at is our target audience that is the working scientist. When you're peering over the shoulder of the working scientist, in a sense you're reading science fiction.

In a letter, you wrote once that "There's a certain requirement in fiction to startle and even shock." Is this an underlying technique in your writing?

A.E. Van Vogt used to say, "Every hundred words, you have a new idea." My feeling is, it doesn't have to be every hundred words, but it should be at least two or three times a novel. You should definitely go around a corner and put people in situations that they have never experienced before. To make [the reader] feel like a person whose life they will never live is what fiction is all about. Science fiction does that in spades by taking us into a future we may not live long enough to see. That's when we startle and shock. The thing is that if you're living in that world, you may not be startled and shocked by what you see. The reader's reaction may be very different from the characters.

As a member of the National Citizens Advisory Council on Space Policy, you take credit for helping to end the Cold War. What contribution did you make to the organization?

Not the major contribution; that was done by the rocket scientists and the politicians and the generals who were there. What I did was to help make their words clear. A few science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, myself, and Gregory Benford—Poul Anderson was there for a while—all of these people helped to clarify the language so that the common people could read it, like politicians. That was very interesting and very important to do. I felt more that I was like the secretary or an amanuensis rather than a primary mover and shaker. But to have contributed in any way, I think, is significant because I believe this had a substantial amount to do with Gorbachev folding his cards and ending the game.

You served as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1980s. How do you think SFWA has done in the 10 years since you were in charge?

It's an incredibly difficult publishing field now. What I predicted when I was president has come true: Publishing has become much more compressed, much more high-speed, much more demanding. There's no slack any more. Unfortunately a lot of publishers have proven themselves to be completely incompetent, and so writers get caught in the crunch; careers end more quickly. What I was saying back in the 1980s was, there's no privilege in writing literature. It's all vaudeville. They can pull you off the stage with that shepherd's crook at any moment, and there may be no right or wrong involved. Maybe you were very good, but you get pulled off anyway. I think that's really being demonstrated now. SFWA's position now is to still offer support, encouragement and information, and I think they do a damned good job.

One of your recent novels is in the Star Wars universe. How did you like writing in this established setting? Are we going to see other works by you in this universe or in other established licensed worlds?

I did Foundation with the Asimov estate's permission. And I found that doing the Star Wars book was very close, because George Lucas got a lot of his material from some well-known science fiction writers. I was a Star Wars fan from very early on, from 1977. I loved the movies, thought they were great fun, and found that to be given the chance to write almost the beginning of the key story when Darth Vader starts to go bad was something I couldn't turn down. No one will be able to do that again, not even George Lucas. So if the next film shows Darth Vader starting to turn bad, I got there first. It was great fun. I found it very good to work with the people of the Lucas publishing division, and just had a good time all around.

Also I borrowed from my own books; I borrowed the code that's taken from my book Legacy. And moving the planet is taken from the book Moving Mars. So if they're going to rip it off, you might as well do it yourself.

You acted as a scientific advisor for the show Earth 2 [1994–95]. What ideas did you introduce to the show?

On Earth 2, I helped with the pilot, and thereafter we parted ways. There were a lot of very good screenwriters and producers involved in Earth 2, and what I did was kind of steer them in the direction that I thought would give the show a little more originality and a sense of focus. They were very open to that. At the point where I started acting like another executive producer, they said, "Well, we've got Steven Spielberg, and we've got everyone else, so we probably don't need you right now," so I probably overstepped a bit. It was great fun working on it. The people there did a great job on that pilot show and managed to create a show that people still want to see more of today.

Your father-in-law was the late Poul Anderson, a grand master of the art of science fiction. Can you talk about the influence he's had on your writing and on your life?

In the early 1970s I think I read The Broken Sword and Tau Zero back to back, and I saw the full range of science fiction and high fantasy. I saw that one man could do both superbly well, it was extremely impressive. I've been reading Poul since I was 13. To suddenly have him as my father-in-law, and accessible much of the time, was just amazing. Mostly we didn't talk a lot about writing; we talked about everything else. It was just a sheer joy to sit down with Poul and Karen and yakk about stuff, catch up on science and go off on crazy new ideas. I'd always throw my ideas out to Poul and we'd argue them, and his brother John would come into it, we'd all argue; Karen would throw in some material. I'd have Karen read my books and do the copy editing on them at an early stage, and she did a great job on that. The sad thing is, I have to go back and replay those conversations with Poul, as there's not much new going to be coming out. We got a few books left to be published, things like that, but it's just hard for me not to imagine that he's going to show up, you know, sitting next to us right now to throw in some comment or other. He was a good friend.


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