THE HERESY OF HUMANISM

Published by Gregory Benford on October 10th, 2015

 

GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT OF

 

THE VOICES OF WONDER:  CONVERSATIONS ON CLASSIC FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR

by John C. Tibbetts

 

Of all our fictions, there is none so utterly baseless and empty as this          idea that humanity progresses.  The savage’s natural impression is that the world he sees about him was made for him, and that the rest          of the universe is subordinated to him and his world, and that all the spirits and demons and gods occupy themselves exclusively with him and his affairs.  That idea was the basis of every pagan religion, and it is the basis of the Christian religion, simply because it is the foundation of human nature.

Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)

 

“Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!”

Greg Bear

This book, this colloquy of voices, concludes with a conversation between two of the brightest and most respected  writers and scientists in the current science fiction scene, Gregory Benford (1941-) and Greg Bear (1952-).

Gregory Benford is a physicist, educator, and author and is currently a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.  His more than twenty novels, include the classic Timescape (1980) and the “Galactic Center Saga” series (including Great Sky River, 1987).  He has won two Nebula Awards, the John W. Campbell Award, and the Australian Ditmar Award.  In 1995 he received the Lord Foundation Award for contributions to science and to the public comprehension of it.

Greg Bear (1952-) is the author of more than thirty books of science fiction and fantasy, including The Forge of God (1987), Songs of Earth & Power (1994), Darwin’s Radio (1999), Darwin’s Children (2003), and, most recently, Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009).  He has won two Hugo Awards and five Nebulas for his fiction, and he is one of two authors to win a Nebula in every category.  He has been called the “best working writer of hard science fiction” by The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  His major themes include galactic conflict (the Forge of God series), artificial universes (The Way series), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, 1985 and Darwin’s Radio, 1999).  Bear has served on political and scientific action committees and has advised Microsoft Corporation, the U.S. Army, the CIA, Sandia National Laboratories, Callison Architecture, Inc., Homeland Security, and other groups and agencies.

As both poets and scientists, Bear and Benford are willing and able to address in their own researches and in their stories not only many of the themes, traditions, and styles we have identified as the traditional gothic/science fiction mode—space opera, Faustian pacts, forbidden knowledge, paranoia, parallel worlds, etc.—but also those specters of scientific inquiry first raised by Dr. Frankenstein:  the blurring of the lines between art and science, the emerging studies of nanotechnology, cellular intelligence, artificial universes, new mythologies, the vectors of human genetic and cosmic evolution, and, finally, what Bear and Benford call the “heresy of humanism.”  To quote the words of the eponymous Faust in Goethe’s gothic masterpiece, they confront the ever-growing suspicion that Man is only a Fool

“. . . who squints beyond with  blinking eyes

Imagining his like above the skies.”[1]

Undaunted, however, they would echo Richard Holmes’s statement query at the beginning of this book:  Can there be “a new kind of wonder born out of radical doubt”?[2]

What a profusion of topics Bear and Benford tackle in their freewheeling conversation!  They are among many scientist-writers, such as Arthur C. Clark, Poul Anderson, and Carl Sagan, who have inherited a century of rapidly mounting tensions in the troubled relationships among art, science, and religion.  In his remarkable The Education of Henry Adams (1906), social historian Adams was already expressing doubts about what he had been taught was the unity of a God-centered universe.  Recoiling from the shock of Darwinian theory, he faced a “multiverse” of new forces, the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, the watt, ampere, and erg—forces which couldn’t be measured by the yardsticks of his predecessors.  “Man had translated himself into a new universe,” he wrote, “which had no common scale of measurement with the old.  He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his sense, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other.”

As a result, Adams predicted, in a new world of science, society, and philosophy Man must turn away from the Virgin and bow down to the Dynamo.[3]

At the time Adams wrote, Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology had already been introduced at the turn of the century.  Einstein was propounding his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905.  The nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1909.  Niels Bohr’s Quantum Physics was formulated in 1926.  The Manhattan Project developed the destructive potential of atomic physics in the early 1940s.  The double helix in the nucleus of the cell was explored in 1953. And subsequently came the sequencing of the genomes of microbes, the polymerase chain reaction, linkages between living human brains and mechanical appendages, even the development of a giant Google search engine that reaches out to the furthest limits of human knowledge.

Doubts, concerns, outright denials of man’s meaningful purpose and place in the universe—in short, the sense of Wonder—are voiced ever more loudly.  During the recent “evolution wars,” for example, Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague, Niles Eldredge, famously critiqued the Darwinian theory of gradual selection by emphasizing the contingent nature of history, the nonadaptive qualities of organisms—“the directionless arrow in a purposeless cosmos.”  While they do not deny that natural selection creates well-adapted organisms, they do object that it works gradually on preexisting structures.  Rather, it moves in “jumps,” punctuated by brief periods of rapid change (“punctuated equilibrium”).  In other words, not everything in nature can be explained through the adaptationist paradigm.  “If we have lost a degree of grandeur for each step of knowledge gained,” writes Gould, “then we must fear Faust’s bargain:  ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’” (14)

Gould response was succinctly formulated in his famous essay, “Modified Grandeur” (1993).[4] He took as his starting point the final lines from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:  “There is a grandeur in this view of life. . . whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.” Darwin had never implied progress as the necessary feature of organic history, pursued Gould; rather Darwin had alleged that Homo sapiens are a “tiny and unpredictable twig on a richly ramifying tree of life—a happy accident of the last geological moment, unlikely ever to appear again if we could regrow the tree from seed” (20).  But here, argues Gould, in words echoing those of astronomer Herschel and poet Percy Shelley more than a century before, lies grandeur [or, I would say, wonder]:  “We can now step off and back—and see nature as something so vast, so strange (yet comprehensive), and so majestic in pursuing its own ways without human interference, that grandeur becomes the best word of all for expressing our interest, and our respect.”  In a similar pronouncement, Carl Sagan has declared:  “No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.”[5]

Where, then, might we find a Creator?  And what about immortality?  Ever since the late 19th century, many esteemed philosophers, biologists, and physicists have boldly tackled the problem.  A few relatively recent examples will suffice.  In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Williams James objected to the Positivist contention that  unverifiable belief is unscientific, illusory, and antiquated nonsense, by famously pronouncing his extrapolation of “The Science of Religion”:  “Facts, I think, are yet lacking to prove ‘spirit return’. . . .  I consequently leave the matter open.”  But, James continued, “For practical life, at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough.  No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.  The existence of the chance makes the difference . . . between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.”[6]  Professor Kenneth R. Miller, for his part, argues that evolution, genetics, and molecular science do indeed support the existence of a Creator.  “A biologically static world,” writes Miller, “would leave a Creator’s creatures with neither freedom nor the independence required to exercise that freedom.  In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are—free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.”[7]  Again turning to Carl Sagan, he suggests that scientific inquiry in itself is “informed worship.”  If a “god” or anything like the traditional sort exists, he continues, “then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god.  We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves.”  However, if such a god does not exist, “then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time.”[8]

And with this new Age of Wonder come new art forms.  Here is another complex, inexhaustible topic.  Suffice to venture just one speculation before turning to Greg Bear and Gregory Benford:  Freeman Dyson suggests that new art forms will be centered on biology and computers.  “If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology,” continues Dyson, “then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants.  This art form, using the biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born.”[9]

Now, let us see what Greg Bear and Gregory Benford have to say about these and many other topics. . .

 

THE CONVERSATION WITH GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

This conversation between Greg Bear and Gregory Benford transpired at the University of Kansas on July 10, 2004.  The occasion was the 2004 John W. Campbell Conference, at which both men received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  I wish to thank James Gunn and Chris McKitterick of the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction for facilitating our meeting.

 

STORYTELLING AND SPACE OPERA
JOHN C. TIBBETTS:  Maybe the best place to start is to talk about storytelling. What lies behind all the scientific and fantastic extrapolation, all the philosophical and religious riddles—is pure storytelling.

 

GREG BEAR:  Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!

 

JT:  And you’ve got characters we get to know, we care about.
GREG BEAR:  That’s what stories are. Stories are people, people who are doing things, doing interesting things. That’s what it’s all about. And you might have a literature of ideas—but who has ideas? People have ideas. They don’t come out of the void.  People have to act on them and to respond to the consequences.

 

BENFORD: Yes, of course.

 

JT: The scientific background, though, that you guys bring to your stories, do you see this as representative of some new voices in science fiction?

 

BEAR: We’re still young Turks!

 

JT: Young Turks, I like that.  Maybe, it’s hard for us to read pure “space opera” anymore, since we know now that a solid scientific basis can still provide a good rattling story.

 

BEAR: I still write space opera. Anvil of Stars is space opera, it’s just very sophisticated space opera.

 

JT: Was so-called space opera a big influence on you both?

 

BENFORD: Oh, sure, it has been for me. The novel I’m just finishing I hope this week, called The Sunborn [published 2005] is about interplanetary exploration, a thing that’s almost entirely neglected now because we think we understand the solar system. But the bulk of the action occurs out at the orbit of Pluto, which, of course, we actually don’t know much about. And it’s an attempt to envision a different form of life-form that could inhabit the cold and the dark.  But “space opera” is a term I’ve never liked, because opera after all in a sense can be about grand things; the music is grandiose; and most of it is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll!  I think the new resurrection of space opera over the last ten years is in part an unconscious reflex, given that so much earth-bound science fiction concerns a future in which everyone seems to believe things are going to get worse. And it’s hard to be optimistic for many people because of an old human habit—it’s always easier to see the problems than the solutions.

 

JT: It’s easier to dramatize them, too.

 

BENFORD: Right, yeah. It’s always easier to be downbeat in the same way that it’s harder to be funny than it is to be solemn.  The future, I think, doesn’t have to be dark and depressing. I mean, we’ve obviously got problems.  But I think a lot of them can be met. And people who are now looking out at the beginning of this century and saying, “Gosh, things are going to get a lot worse”—the relevant question is, “Yeah, for whom? Because, for many people on this planet, things have always been bad.

 

 

APOCALYPSE AND THE FAMILY OF MAN

JT:  Let’s follow up on this.  Greg, repeatedly you seem to be saying the 20th century has been a disaster, that the 20th century was breeding a kind of contagion.

 

BEAR: I’m afraid I once said that if you study the 20th century long enough, you want to pack a gun!  It’s not a disaster, it’s a challenge. And this is an interesting difference, depending on your perspective. I never regard my books as disaster novels—although sometimes they seem to be.

 

JT:  But in The Forge of God you destroy the Earth!  It’s one of the more sustained and compelling passages of your prose I’ve ever read!  I mean, what were you thinking when you were writing all of this?

 

BEAR: Well, writers are bloody-minded individuals and we have the most fun doing the most horrible things.  I immensely enjoyed Star Wars, the first one, but I realized that you can’t just blow up Alderaan and Princess Leia’s record collection in eight seconds. It’s going to take a while. So as a hard science fiction writer I say, well, what’s that like? And then, as a cinematographer in my brain I’m asking, well, if you’re on the surface of the planet watching this destruction, you can actually survive long enough to see amazing things. Absolutely astonishing things.  It would be almost worthwhile to watch these things happen. And for me that moment comes when our main character, I think it’s Edward, looks up to the east and sees the North Atlantic plate rising up. Or the North American plate rising up. And at that point you know you’re dead. Why? Because as a physicist if it falls back, the release of energy will heat up the landscape around you and you’re just a fragile ball of water, right? But at that point you’ve seen something no one has ever seen in the history of life on earth. And that’s the combined horror and the exaltation. It’s like a deer standing before a forest fire.

 

JT: But is there an exaltation in you as you’re writing it?

 

BEAR: Yes, in the sense of, I’m gonna make people feel extraordinary emotions. I think every artist does that.

 

JT:  By contrast, the apocalypse at the end of Dead Lines is so, well, gentle . . .

 

BEAR: Yeah, well. It’s just about people.

 

JT: Apocalypses come in all shapes and sizes.

 

BEAR: As I get older I’m less interested in blowing up the earth and, you know, just kinda figuring out what being around people means to me.  I mean, I write something like that and they call you a cannibal for the rest of your life!  Think of  apocalypse as more of a metaphor for evolutionary progression, or change.  In Darwin’s Radio I write about sudden bursts in human speciation, the sort of thing Stephen Jay Gould has called  “punctuated equilibrium.”  And we have the stress that results from trying to be the best we can be in spite of all our problems—and that allows us to naturally produce better children, capable of handling those stresses. That’s not a disaster story.  It’s a story that maybe we have gone past the point of our competence.  But is that sad?  That’s what happens with every set of parents and children. If parents don’t want their children to do better and be better, are they very good parents?  So my whole approach in something like Darwin’s Radio is, yes, these kids in the story are slightly more competent than us at living in a world that we made, perhaps; but we don’t know, they’re an experiment. They’re a very young experiment.

 

JT: And an interesting subtlety is that the parents, in the process, are transformed themselves. They now undergo an evolutionary change.

 

BEAR: Isn’t that what happens when you have kids? It’s all a metaphor for the simple act of having kids. Having kids is optimism about the future. They’re different from you, they think somewhat different from you, they are better adapted, we hope, to the world you created.

 

JT: And you end the book with the parents seemingly estranged, now, from each other.

 

BEAR: You see more of that in the sequel, Darwin’s Children. Again, this is because it’s difficult to have children. It’s painful and difficult and involves deep surveillance of emotions and conflicting ideas about how to raise kids. But always there’s the love throughout.  Even when the parents are separated in Darwin’s Children, there’s that continuing sense that this is the only partner you’re ever going to have that makes any sense for you. And later, in Darwin’s Children, they’re working separately. But having kids is hard. It causes arguments, it causes debates, it causes reassessments, changes the marriage. And that’s just part of the natural truth of what it means to have kids.

 

JT: I hadn’t realized that you’re using a theory like “punctuated equilibrium” as a metaphor for child rearing. . . !  Gregory Benford, you also talk about having children in Great Sky River.

 

BENFORD: Oh, right, yeah.

 

JT: Because the relationship between the protagonist and his son is so critical to that book. Now, I’ve not read the two sequels, if sequel is the word.

 

BENFORD: Well, there’s actually three–

 

BEAR: There’s three. Three, altogether. .

 

JT: But again the father-son thing emerges as the real theme, seemingly.

 

BENFORD:  You’re referring to Killeen and his son, Toby.  They and their clan are on the run.  Their planet is threatened with destruction by the cyborg forces.  Well, fathers and sons is one of the great themes of literature, isn’t it? Agamemnon had some things to say about that! Actually, Great Sky River is part of a whole six-book sequence called the Galactic Center series that started back in 1977 with In the Ocean of Night. And it’s really about the skills of us hominids holding things together in the face of imminent annihilation.  They must enter into the scale of understanding that we’re part of an entire galactic order, and that things have been going on a long time before we came on stage—that we’re coming in not in Act One but maybe Act Seventeen of a really long drama.  You have to go back to your basics, and that means that you have to have cultural continuity.  Fathers have to tell sons what it really means to be a man, and how you act in the face of huge difficulties, difficulties that you may not, in fact, be able to surmount.  In Great Sky River human beings are not this “winner” society that we’re used to, they are rats in the wall of a system in which they face intelligences that are not human—in fact they’re machines—that are far, far superior in many ways, and utterly malign.  That’s straight out of Lovecraft, you know?  I wanted to turn on its head the assumption of the centrality of being human, which is so pervasive in human society—you know, “the measure of all things is man.” Well, I call it in my most recent novel Beyond Infinity, the “heresy of humanism.”  It is a heresy to think that humans are central to the larger grand scale of creation, and it will cost you to believe that.

 

BEAR: Arrogance always costs you.  In Blood Music I make it pretty clear that our need to see humanity as the center of the biological universe is as egotistical as the notion we once held that the Earth is the center of the galaxy!  Astronomers from Galileo to Herschel and Hubble and beyond were always telling us that!

 

EVOLUTION AND GALACTIC ECOLOGY

JT:  Something called “galactic ecology” is a concern for both of you.  In particular, Greg, this seems to be one of the messages coming out of The Forge of God.

 

BEAR: Well, I read Benford in my youth!

 

BENFORD: Ha!

 

BEAR: And it seems like this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. What Greg is espousing has to be the attitude of the 21st century. And in Forge of God, you really are looking at that large-scale ecology of the galaxy.

 

JT: I had not run into the term “galactic ecology” before. Could you give me a quick explanation?

 

BEAR: There’s always been this question, Why aren’t the Aliens here yet? You know, here we are sending out signals, but we don’t hear any signals coming back.  And my one answer that came back to me loud and clear was, Well, you’re birds cheeping in the forest from the nest, and there are snakes out there, and they’re going to crawl up the tree and eat you if you keep chirping your little heart out!  And that seemed like a good story idea, a traditional science fiction story idea of disastrous encounters.  That’s the old gothic theme, and you see it a lot in writers from Mary Shelley to Lovecraft—man’s hubris, you know, risking disaster by courting unknown monsters.  I mean, why are you announcing your presence when you’re weak? And if you think there’s no life out there, then, okay, we’re safe. But if there is life out there, then you have to run with what you know about life, which is that life has both predators and partners.  The real metaphor of life is how things change, how they communicate with each other and how they change. And that’s evolution. And we’ve had many fits and starts in trying to reach this understanding. We’ve tried to isolate ourselves as angelic intelligences, apart from biology, except for those damned urges, which just can’t be overcome.  And then we get all this persiflage about good and evil and cruelty and all that stuff. It’s all part of a natural system.  There may indeed be teleological and intelligently directed evolution, but we don’t need to blame it on God.  In its own way, DNA itself may be goal-seeking and problem-solving.  The fact is, we’re in pain, so we object to it. That’s perfectly natural. But if you’re going to talk about the large scale stuff, you have to overcome your sense of pain long enough to realize. . .  why? What’s the process here? If there is no process, there’s certainly a development, and if there’s development going on, where is it headed? If it’s not headed any place you would particularly like to call progressive, then why is it not fitting your particular desires and needs? Why is the universe not catering to us? This is the scientific principle:  the universe does not cater to you.

 

JT:  But you just said it might be in the DNA itself.

 

BEAR: In Darwin’s Children I have it both ways. I say, look, we don’t understand jack about what’s going on here, but it’s obvious that there can be intelligent design from within your own genome, spread around a neural network of different species, different animals, different ecosystems. That is the first time this has ever been, I believe, cogently expressed in that form—that this is internal creativity, it’s obviously operating within the genome.  Now the genome is a self-directing system reacting to changes, responding to the outside environment in very significant ways. So given that, yeah, we’re looking at a universe that has both internal design; and then the big question from outside, is that all there is? Is that all there is? And science at that point kind of stops off and says, well, it’s all we can measure.

 

JT: I hear a song by Peggy Lee in my head!

 

BEAR: Yeah. “Is that all there is, my friend?” But seriously, it’s really a huge question, because that’s a question of where science and faith collide. And what is faith? What is imagination?  What is poetry and music?  I tried to talk about their importance to our sense of humanity in my Songs of Earth & Power.  They get so many people who are in pain through a hard day or a hard month or a hard year. Why? Because they just know there’s something better out there. And as a biological thing, that makes things like faith essential to survival. Is it an illusion? That’s a big question. If it’s an illusion, it’s still essential to survival, so you can’t just pierce the illusion willy-nilly. But what if there is something going on? What if you’re receiving these messages from a thing outside of process? And you’re a scientist, and your whole upbringing is that this is impossible.

 

ART AND SCIENCE

JT:   Science and faith. . . You also mentioned Art?

 

BEAR:  Yes, in Songs of Earth & Power [1994] I talk about music and poetry.  Mahler and Mozart both show up at the end!

 

JT:  You’re not kidding!  There they are—characters in your story!  The sheer audacity of it took my breath away!  They’re not dead, exactly, and not—

 

BEAR:  They’ve been, well, delayed, you could say.  Consider:  Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony.  I asked myself. . . Why???  Because when you reach the Tenth  Symphony, like Mahler, you’ve acquired a level of wisdom that creates a song of power. And in my book the elves—I call them the Sidhe—don’t want humans to achieve that. There’s forces that will come in to thwart that.  I mean, it’s a very paranoid vision, the whole gothic thing.  Think of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem:  The man in gray shows up.  Who was the man in gray? Salieri?  A mysterious patron?  A “Person from Porlock.?”  Well, I do have a Person from Porlock in my book!  Remember him?—he’s the person who “interrupted” Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” . . .  and maybe he’s the person who blocked the finish of Mozart’s Requiem.  There are so many instances in poetry and music and literature like this that are really interesting, because man is kept from achieving a higher being.  And you could take six or seven of those instances and string them into a story; and I did. I’m not sure if Borges actually wrote an essay on the mystery of interruption, but he could have.

 

JT:  Seems like he did on everything else!

 

BEAR: Yeah. And that’s why I think that these two novels [The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage] are kind of extended combinations of George MacDonald and Jorge Luis Borges and, you know, half a dozen other fantasy writers.

 

JT: George MacDonald. Yes.  Lilith absolutely blew my mind.

 

BEAR: It’s great, isn’t it? Christian surrealism!

 

JT:  I mean, it’s a leap of imagination that just left me—

 

BEAR: Yeah.

 

JT:  —stunned.

 

BEAR:  I mean, where do all of our imaginations begin?  Is it that reality is menacing, supportive, or a combination of the two? And our deepest fears come from trying to be a kid and get along in a world you don’t understand. And when you’re a baby there are lots of things you see that you don’t know whether they’re real or not. You have no context—

 

JT:  So where does Art with a capital “A” come in?  And the Artist?  Gregory Benford, you talk about an awful creature called the “Mantis” in Great Sky River.  It is an “artist”. . . sort of, but a very perverse one.  It does bridge the gap between mechanical apparatus and organic life.  Is that the height of the artistic frontier, like the Mantis claims?

 

BENFORD: Yes, well, we don’t think of ourselves as malleable material?—as suitable material for the artworks of higher and more powerful being.  But of course, the deer whose antlers are on the wall don’t think that either!  I thought a way to show the true position of humans on this scale was to show that “cosmic artists” would treat them as mere material, and that these others would regard the complexities of human society and our way of perceiving the world as just grist for their mill.  Toward the end of Great Sky River, a human stumbles upon this gallery that the Mantis—

 

JT:  —horrific stuff.

 

BENFORD:  —has made up. And he’s taken human beings, their bodies, and made them into festooned works, without any consideration of the point of view of the humans at all. And so all these grotesque things are created by another intelligence for aesthetic purposes that appear to us to be horrific.

 

BEAR: Satanic, at the very least.

 

BENFORD: Yes, satanic.

 

JT:  While reading that, I kept thinking of the hideous reconstructions from human bones into chairs and tables you see in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Well—

 

JT: Which is another kind of corrupt or perverted art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Actually, I haven’t seen that movie. But it sounds like the same thing.

 

BEAR: Hannibal Lecter’s cuisine applied to furniture!

 

BENFORD: And you think of the Nazis who made lamp shades out of human flesh. Anything that reduces humans to the status of object is inherently insulting and horrific. And yet that attitude we have is part of the defensive posture of a species that has been winning for so long in the evolutionary lottery that maybe we’ve forgotten that we may not be the lords of creation.

 

JT: Well, what about maybe some more benign examples of art-making?

 

BENFORD: Yes. Artists in the future would regard our preconceptions or our perceptions of the world as suitable material.  They would create effects that appear to be illusions, exploiting our habits of breaking down information to produce things that are not real, but which we perceive as being real because they, in a sense, have subverted our visual processing power.  You perceive it two ways, like an ambigram.

 

BEAR: Like the faces in the vase.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BENFORD: That shows that there’s an ambiguity in the way we interpret visual information. You can make up images that you can see two ways. Well, what about three-dimensional objects you can see two ways? And that are moving, so it makes you see things that don’t exist. But your own processing power is doing the work of creating the illusion. That’s an art form that I think will come about.

 

JT: Do other science fiction writers write about the arts very much?

 

BEAR: Well, William Rotsler has a novel, Patron of the Arts, where he envisioned an artistic form called the “sensatron.”  Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book about a kind of cosmic orchestra [A Memory of Whiteness]. And Roger Zelazny wrote a lot about music, religion, art work….

 

BENFORD: Science is an art form?

 

BEAR: Yeah. It’s a way of artificially putting  things into context that you didn’t understand before.

 

BENFORD: Well, that’s true.

 

JT: What about aesthetics?

 

BEAR: Aesthetics is a class-based judgment system. For most of the people on this planet, art is amusement, which is something they don’t want to strongly define. It diverts them from their everyday lives. Aesthetics comes in when you have a higher class or educated class that then wants to isolate their attitudes from those of the lower classes. Then you use more high-falutin’ words with Greek contexts, or Roman contexts. Everything else is just—as far as I’m concerned—playing to the groundlings.  We just don’t know it.

 

BENFORD: Hmm. The idea that science is an art work. . . . But art never answers to the necessity of empirical verification.

 

BEAR: Until now.  It’s a constraint upon your behavior. Every art form is an assumption of a philosophy or an attitude that constrains your freedom of motion to do art. So we’re all very amused that chimpanzees can paint but we don’t know what their context is, so they don’t sell for a lot of money.  Okay? But a scientist has a constraint that it has to be outside of just his or her personal relationship with the universe. Other people have to be able to see it and do it over again.

 

BENFORD: And check it.

 

BEAR: And check it. And that’s an art form of the highest caliber. Because it’s a participative art form. It doesn’t just say that only one person can do it, the great genius is the only person who can do this experiment. That might be true of Michelangelo’s David, but it’s not true of Einstein’s relativity or general relativity. We can do that experiment over and over and over again and get similar results. So that’s a real work of art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. But, the trick of course, is that art—science as art—is always provisional. It’s always a partial vision.

 

BEAR: Well, now, that’s an interesting distinction. Art can be a completed vision within the culture. But we still read about great scientific things of the past as completed visions that we have now gone beyond. And I think artists do the same thing.

 

JT: Well, if I understand you guys correctly, then somebody like Rudolf Arnheim talks about art as what he insists should be only a “partial illusion.” In its incompleteness lies its beauty, its importance as art.

 

BENFORD: Sure. The Sistine Chapel is probably the ultimate of what you can do in that direction, and the evidence is that nobody has even attempted anything like that in a very long time. You can say that of Baroque music. How come people aren’t writing Baroque music now? I think it’s because they feel that in some sense it’s exhausted, or it’s complete. I’ve always wondered about that. Remember, Prokofiev when he wrote a classical symphony, he actually couldn’t do it totally in earnest. That is, it’s got funny parts.

 

JT: It still has his harmonic vocabulary.

 

BENFORD: Yes, right.

 

BEAR: He’s got a wider range of emotions he can deal with. He’s not constrained by the church, or by the upper classes who are his patrons.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: Not so much constrained. He still is, and a lot of composers always have been, but it’s not as bad as Haydn or Bach.

 

BENFORD: Well, was it Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as comedy? But art can do the same thing. You start to make, in a sense, make fun, or make fun with, the modes and mannerisms of the past.

 

BEAR: Which I think scientists do in a subtle way, too. It’s less “ha ha” funny than, “You really goofed up your experiment, here’s how you do it better!” And it’s a constant sense of criticism of improvement far more disciplined than any art form I know of.

 

JT: But mistakes in art can be very important. Mistakes in a scientific procedure can be disastrous.

 

BEAR: But you learn from them.

 

BENFORD: Yes….

 

JT: But we don’t treasure the mistakes. I mean, John Marin’s watercolors are precious because the globs of water dripped down across the surface and he kept them there. He didn’t correct them, you know.

 

BENFORD: But it’s true that you learn from “mistakes.” The classic example I would venture is that, when Einstein added a constant to his general field equations to make the solution for the universe to be static, he didn’t realize that it was static but if you tipped it a little bit it was unstable, it would either contract or expand. He regarded that as a huge error. However, we now know the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and one way of looking at that is to say that that constant is real and is now driving the expansion. So it’s a mistake. It starts to fix a problem, then it looks like it’s wrong, and now it’s back again in a different guise.

 

BEAR: And in twenty years it might be wrong again. ‘Cause the whole Big Bang thing is starting to look a little gnarly, you know, we’re starting to get some ideas that maybe this isn’t what we should be looking at, because it’s getting really complicated. So it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of people who are educating their children, basically, to carry on with the mission, and to criticize them down the road. Very few artists do this. But scientists do.

 

BENFORD: That’s true. It’s the quality of self-criticism that makes science become the standard for believability in our society. After all, now since everybody has Adobe Photoshop, you can’t even believe what you see.

 

BEAR: And with your illusions we couldn’t even believe what we see in real life, so.

 

BENFORD: Seeing is no longer believing and it’s going to take a long time for our culture to quite realize that.

 

BEAR: What I found interesting was that, for many scientists, sometimes seeing was still not believing, even under a scientific context. You know, because it doesn’t fit in to the past experience. So, you have spiritual experiences, they are explained in non-spiritual ways by the hardcore scientists. Rather than saying, I do not know, a spiritual experience is relegated to being pure psychology. That is, of meaningless value because it refers to something outside of the context of science that we know today.

 

JT: I’m thinking, too, of Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker, who will bring about a spiritual condition, but under the most bland, inane, uninflected kind of camera work, viewing angle, and performance.

 

BEAR: Right. Isn’t that how it happens in real life? You know, it doesn’t come with glorious Max Steiner music in the background and you’re on the cliffs of France staring down at the water and suddenly God touches you. Usually happens when you’re in the bathtub, or driving a car, or, you know, doing something else. So, epiphany is as rude as any other thing in reality.

 

JT:  You take music into other directions, Greg.  You mentioned earlier Songs of Earth &  Power, where you write about composers whose music has profound effects, both in this world and in other worlds.

 

BEAR:  Yes, I talk about music as a kind of magical incantation, like Arno Waltiri’s “Infinity Concerto.”  Performing it can risk apocalypse.  Music as a bridge that melds worlds.  I’m afraid that combination of music and magic has confused some readers, though.

 

JT:  But didn’t the German Romantics, from Wackenroder to Schumann say the same thing?  But you don’t stop there.  There’s your story, “Tangents,” which is rather like a cross between Henry Kuttner and Albert Einstein!

 

BEAR:  There was this keyboard hookup whose music called forth 4th dimensional creatures—

 

JT:  I thought immediately of Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—

 

BEAR:  —And it was fun to think what the hypersphere of the 4th dimension would look like if it intruded into our 3-dimensional space!  But you didn’t mention Blood Music.  My character can hear a kind of “internal music,” of the operations inside his blood.    Which is rhythm.  It’s coordinated rhythm.  It’s a communication that is everywhere; it completely absorbs us, consumes us. We can’t arise out of it. So when we’re talking to each other, we don’t perceive the language we’re using. And when, you know, genes are talking to each other, what’s the context there? How many layers of translation did they go through? When particles are talking to each other, in my crackpot theory of physics, which I borrow from four or five other physicists, what are particles talking to each other about? And on what level is it constrained? So I’m just very interested in all the connectedness and the talking going on in the universe.

 

JT: Like in your most recent book, Dead Lines [2004].  All kinds of “talking” going on there!  You have these wireless phones that open gateways to fiendish creatures.

 

BEAR:  The reviews called it a ghost story, a fantasy. I think it’s a science fiction novel. It’s just that science is not thought to cross over into that particular thing because it’s constrained from it by cultural prejudices. But the other thing is, it’s very tough to replicate ghosts. Can’t do it. It used to be very, very tough to replicate lightning. Now we can do it. What if there’s a technological change such that you could start to study these phenomena?

 

JT: These technological  changes are Pandora’s boxes

 

BEAR: They really could be, yeah.

 

JT: There’s always this cautionary element you see in the gothic tradition.  It keeps popping up. Even in the most modern kind of science fiction we still go back to the old days when Scientists Should Not Venture into the Forbidden Zones. That is such a deeply-rooted fear that we have, still.

 

BENFORD: Well, particularly I think it’s an expression of a deeply puritanical impulse in Western society, particularly in the United States. And it has huge costs and policy implications. Here, let me give you an example. We’re all worried about the “greenhouse” problem. But we think only in terms of using state power to stop people from burning fossil fuels. We don’t think about all the other terms in the equation, the terms of the temperature of the earth. For example, could we build buildings with white roofs or generate more cloud cover to reflect more sunlight? Or, how about pulling carbon out of the air, which agriculture does every year, and then keeping it out of the air? Because, after all, the bulk of everything in a farm is waste product, and you let it lie in the fields and it rots and returns to the air. It’s a big fraction of the carbon that cycles in and out every year. We don’t think about grabbing that and, say, sequestering it somewhere. I’ve written a couple of papers for Climate Change, an academic journal about this. The puritan impulse is to focus on our own evil. Bad people! Don’t burn fuels! Instead of saying, hey, there are other things here that we could be doing and we don’t have to stop guys from burning coal in China. So there’s a cost to these preconceptions.

 

JT: It also—it’s so healthy, too—God knows I’m going to quote Derrida—but to de-center our convictions, our monomanias, about these things—consider their oppositions, consider the gradations, consider how there are others that can happen, that can work.

 

BENFORD: Well, it’s natural to the species to divide problems into twos. I mean, our way of suggesting alternatives is to say “on the other hand”. We have two hands so we think there are two points on an issue. Not so. Nature does not know this, right, and therefore in the greenhouse problem, there’s three, four different things that we could do. But we don’t even suggest or study them being done, because everybody’s fixated on essentially a moral issue. Bad species. Shouldn’t burn all that coal.

 

BEAR: Oh, it’s Biblical. It’s very Biblical. The whole notion of good and evil and the dichotomy between being the stewards of the earth and, you know, being the exploiters of the earth. It’s a dichotomy. But as Gregory says, not a real dichotomy. There are many solutions. All of which cause great controversy in a society that doesn’t understand how science works to start with. They’re afraid of science.  There are two reasons for this. One, I think because of World War I. But two, we just have people who are not numeric thinkers. They don’t get along with numbers very easily. Like people who can’t read very well. They have a hard time getting into books. Okay, so our society is through the way we teach and the way we discuss these issues, and the way science relies almost entirely on mathematics, it’s very hard for some people to get. Probably well over half don’t get that kind of thinking. And it scares them. So that breaks down. It’s a biological, epistemological breakdown into—what would you call the biology of education? That’s not epistemology. What would biology of education be?

 

BENFORD: I don’t know if there’s a term for the biology—

 

BEAR: But to that extent we need to improve the way we teach people, and perhaps change the way we use language to get ideas across. And that’s a long-term prospect.

 

BENFORD: The great thing about reading is, it’s the best way to get into somebody else’s mind. And it’s unfortunate—

 

BEAR: It’s better and more intimate than making love.

 

BENFORD: But it’s still verbal. And the news of a couple of days ago, the study done by the U.S. census, shows that reading is declining in all age groups just about the same amount in the United States, and has fallen about ten percent in the last fifteen years, is very bad news for the long-term stewardship of this society.

 

BEAR: Well, again, I think it’s part of that long-term problem that text has been difficult for many people to access. And movies and other things are starting to eat our lunch. But they’re eating our lunch at a much more diverse table, because there are far fewer films than there are books. Far fewer television shows, they’re far more expensive to make. So the media–even games, comic books, all these things are much more expensive to do.

 

JT: And each new technology engenders a new kind of nostalgia for what came before. Your character in Dead Lines loves LP records–

 

BEAR:  Well, yeah, but so do I.

 

JT:  —for example.

 

BEAR: I’m getting old that way.

 

JT: You even overtly praise the sound quality of an LP.

 

BEAR: Well, that’s actually—even Hollywood recognizes that, if you go back to, what is it? The Rock. Nicolas Cage gets this copy of a Beatles album, and he pays a hundred and fifty bucks for it, and his friends sits there and asks him, Well, why? And he says, Well, it sounds better. So even Hollywood knows that.

 

JT: Well, High Fidelity, too, gives that a heavy working-over. John Cusack.

 

BEAR: That’s about to change, though. Actually, SACD sounds better than LPs. So.

 

BENFORD: But, we’re entering an age in which all of our information is digital but our pleasures are analog. And you’re never going to get away from that analog.

 

JT: I’m not sure if I understood that.

 

BENFORD: Well, all the things that you do with your body are analog, not digital.

 

JT: I guess I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

 

BENFORD: But everybody’s in love with the digital because it’s new.

 

BEAR: It’s more compact, easier to carry, easy to record, easy to duplicate. There’s no interference from quantum effects, ’cause you just isolate that out.

 

BENFORD: And the way we transmit our genetic info is obviously digital in the sense that DNA has got a fore-coded information system. But the way we think is furiously analogic. Synapses run, and the chemical involvement—Anyone who’s had five martinis knows that your thinking changes for analog reasons, not digital.

 

BEAR: Is it pure anal– It’s not a sine wave. It’s not analog in the sense of a sine wave. It really is some sort of….

 

BENFORD: But thinking is not digital.

 

BEAR: No. No, not at all.

 

BENFORD: And therefore the whole analogy of our thinking to computers is fundamentally false. I mean, we’re actually—even if you wanted to use the analogy, we are self-programming computers. Because we can do things that change the memory. I mean, it’s often said that a memory is never the same the next time, because by accessing it, you alter it. That’s not true of computer files.

 

BEAR: Although, actually, in hard drives apparently it’s getting more and more true that there’s a mathematical algorithm that reconstructs from a very faulty record a perfect replica of what was put in there on your computer hard drive. Because you have to do that, because you’re in such small spaces now that quantum effects are causing corruption to the data.  So you have these mathematical algorithms that quite literally save your butt when you’re storing information.

 

 

 

WRITING AND TEACHING

JT: It must be great to be a student in one of your classes. Are both you guys still teaching?

 

BEAR: He is.

 

BENFORD: Well, I am. I’m a professor at U.C. Irvine.

 

JT: So you haven’t gone to full-time writing?

 

BENFORD: No, I never will. I mean, I’ve always thought it was too dangerous to be a full-time writer. Based on the experience of many of my friends, at least, who fall to alcoholism, bad work habits, drugs, a rather more interesting sex life. . . . But, then, I’ll defer to Greg Bear for that!

 

BEAR: Perversions he doesn’t approve of, so.

 

JT: Or as yet undreamt of.

 

BEAR: Well, those illusions, there we go back to those illusions again. What if your Mantis starts doing sexual experiments?

 

BENFORD: Well, the Mantis does do sexual experiments.

 

JT:  Hmmm.  Now, Greg, how about you—are you teaching at all?

 

BEAR: No, just lecturing off and on. No, teaching is hard work. And also I find that, with teaching, you have to remember how you use your own hundred set of caterpillar legs. And then you think about it, and then you stumble and fall in the ditch the next time you try to dance. So this is a metaphor for saying that, if you teach writing, which is probably what I’d only be qualified to teach, you’ll get in trouble with your own writing. ‘Cause you’re going back over basics all the time. You can glide into that space where, you know, you don’t even think about it.

 

JT: So there’s too much self-consciousness—?

 

BEAR: Imagine a sports figure teaching how to play baseball, or do ping-pong. Or imagine a great ballerina teaching ballet. They usually don’t until after they’ve retired. There’s a reason for that. You’re going over the basics again and again and again. And basics are what you want to forget about when you’re at the top of your form.

 

BENFORD: I would never teach writing precisely because I enjoy the fact that I can do it without thinking about it. That I do it intuitively, and that’s why it’s recreation, and it’s always been easy for me to, say, write novels because it was relaxing. If it became a full-time job I think it would be horrific.

 

BEAR: But how about in science? Does teaching science impede your ability to do theoretical science?

 

BENFORD: You know, I don’t find that it does. I teach plasma physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and it’s pleasant to reexamine the basics. Every once in a while in teaching a course, I’ve gotten an idea for something I could do just because I was forced to revisit the basics and think about them again. Trying to explain something to someone can clarify it to yourself.

 

BEAR: Why isn’t that true about doing writing, then?

 

BENFORD: It’s not true for me because writing is very intuitive for me. It’s like— Suppose someone wanted to say, Tell me how to make love. Well, I might be able to show you, but tell?

 

BEAR: See, he is the Mantis!

 

JT: Well, then you how do you keep close to the scientific community? Do you still maintain a contact there?

 

BEAR: All the time. It’s fun to talk about science.  The thing about scientists is they don’t have a lot of people who are willing to talk to them on a serious and listening level. You know, where you listen to what they’re saying and come back with interesting questions. So science fiction writers kind of often do that. And that makes them great conversation victims for scientists. But we’re willing victims, because we get our story ideas from a lot of those discourses. The other thing about talking to scientists is, science has a personality and a culture, and just as you would have to interview police detectives to understand about, you know, writing mysteries and so on, talking to scientists, you get the feeling of the rhythm of their speech, how they use words, and how they interact with each other that’s essential to creating the characters of the story.

 

BENFORD: Oh, to be sure.

 

 

 

THE SCIENTIST AS HERO

JT:  Gregory Benford, So many of these topics and ideas can be found in your novel, Timescape.  In the first place, it seems to me as a layperson to say a lot about the life of a scientist, particularly the physicist, and the pressures under which scientists operate—all about getting along and getting the grants and the tenure, and all of that kind of thing.

 

BENFORD: Right. I realized somewhere in the late ‘70s that this enormously influential culture had no one writing novels about science and scientists.

 

BEAR: Well, C.P. Snow, in something like The New Men..

 

BENFORD: Right, but who had by the time he started writing novels actually stopped being a scientist. But yes. There are fewer, fewer examples. And I thought, wow, what a rich ground. And the most exciting thing to me in science is discovery. And discovery of the new is the cutting edge of science fiction, in my opinion. You cannot do that which you cannot first imagine. And that’s true of scientists, too. So scientists have to have imagination. They are not just bookkeepers.

 

JT: Icarus flew long before we had airplanes.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: The difference between Snow and Benford is that, in Snow’s books, nothing significant is discovered. It’s all about  the process of the characters involved. It’s a social priority. There’s not really a deep novel about discovery. Timescape is all about something really cool being discovered. And that’s kind of difference between the literary attitude that man is the measure of all things—and therefore we shall write about man—and the science fiction novel which says that while man’s interesting, the universe is terrific!  So what is man going to measure and discover?

 

BENFORD: Right. The interesting thing is that interface between us and the strange. ‘The universe is fundamentally alien and we just keep trying to domesticate it. But there’s always an alien boundary.

 

JT:  There’s time-travel paradoxes aplenty here.  It’s like Chris Marker’s La Jetee, where someone from the future reaches back into the past to alert people to take steps to prevent the disaster threatening the future.  So, we have two time periods, the world of 1963 and of 1998, interacting.  But then, we shift to 1974 and to yet another future time period!  Wow!  I gather that the scientist, Markham, is your kinda guy?

 

BENFORD: Oh yeah. Well, Markham, by no accident, has exactly my biography. And he has my first name. I appear in the novel actually, under two different guises; the other is the California scientist, Gordon Bernstein.  Markham is in 1998 and Gordon is in 1963. You see, it’s all a form of disguised autobiography.  What happens in the last chapter, or I intended to happen, is that Bernstein, in a sense, is in a quantum-mechanical state.  Time is a loop, where cause-and-effect mean nothing.  He sort of is stuck in between, and he becomes aware of how contingent his present is.  And so he goes in and out of states.  I attempted to convey what it would be like if you were subject to a quantum-mechanical state and you flipped between one and the other—

JT:  But here, the switch is between ON and OFF?

BENFORD: Yeah, it’s in between.  But I wanted to evoke just the sensation of feeling that time, or the timescape, was variable, that it rippled and moved, instead of time as this solid object that we think of.  So that’s the aesthetic intention in the last five, six pages of the novel.  It’s the attempt to see time as pliable and to see what it would feel like if it were pliable.

JT: And there’s this wonderful sort of elegiac quality to those final scenes in the dying world of England, when we see Peterson going back to his home, which is now a fortress. But it—and I mean this as an absolute compliment—it kind of reminded me of R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s one of the great end-of-the-world scenes I’ve ever seen, not because it’s a graphic description of cataclysm, but the quiet despair of how the characters are approaching their end

BENFORD: The Hopkins Manuscript? I’ll have to read it.  My intention in Timescape was to say that Peterson is a guy who is an alpha-male, who treats people like objects, and he’s very good at women, and he’s, you know, upper class and all this, and he’s planning for the collapse all along, and he gets into his redoubt and then realizes that he’s still contingent—dependent upon the people in the community and they don’t owe him. And then there’s this feeling of dread that he’s in a corner, and he can’t get out, and he thought he was so smart, but he’d forgotten that you have to not treat people like objects.

JT:  Greg Bear, where are you in your books?

 

BEAR: I’m God. So I’m in all of my books!  No, I just borrow stuff from my various, you know, subconscious processes and they become different characters, [modeled] somewhat after people in the real world. Mostly I model on their realities, their biographies, but their internal processes I have to think of in my own terms.

 

 

SOME GOTHIC GHOSTS:  A DIGRESSION

JT:  Greg, while I’m at it, I just wanted to go back to Dead Lines.  Based upon the things of yours I’ve read, it does seem to be a departure.  You’ve called it “science fiction,” but it is a ghost story, too, isn’t it?  I mean, you have these wireless phones that open gateways to ghosts and fiends.

 

BEAR:  Well, it’s a real gothic story, in the sense that you blur the lines between life and death, don’t you?  In the story, the world is running out of bandwidth, and there’s a new source of forbidden information channels that reach into the regions of the Dead and release all kinds of dreadful things.

 

JT:  Your Dedication certainly proclaims your love for those great “ghosters” like M.R. James, Le Fanu, H. P. Lovecraft, and Peter Straub.  And I’m glad to see you mention Shirley Jackson.

 

BEAR:  They all write ghost stories.  But Jackson has this female’s perspective on ghosts.  There’s some pretty horrific stuff in The Haunting of Hill House. The ghosts are obviously there to scare the piss out of you, but they’re taking pleasure in it.

 

JT:  She loves to play us for suckers.

 

BEAR: She does, but nevertheless there’s evil in the house. It’s not as if she’s only saying this house could be your own psychology staring at you.

 

JT:  Even when she’s not dealing in ghosts but disturbed personalities she’s still terrifying.  I’m thinking of the one about the multiple personalities, The Bird’s Nest.  That may be one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read, although I’m not quite sure why.

 

BEAR: Well, it’s just that all the character’s personalities are in a sense so isolated from each other.  Most of her main female characters in her stories are very, very disturbed emotionally. They have no connection to themselves. They’re searching for a home.  And sometimes it results in damage to the self, like in Hill House.  And in other cases it’s damage to others that we see in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Bird’s Nest. And then you think of the kind of extended garden party horrors of The Sundial, and after the end of the world. She was a very hard-minded and yet elegant writer.

 

JT: Who thought she was a witch.

 

BEAR: Who may have thought she was a witch. Probably her parents and her children thought she was a witch, too.  There are other writers I admire.  You mentioned M.R. James, who wrote about things that may or may not be ghosts, but they’re definitely not of our universe! And Lovecraft takes that same idea. They borrow those ideas from people like Arthur Machen and from William Hope Hodgson. Now, I love all of those writers. I just think they’re very interesting spiritual writers. But it’s a skewed spirituality, sort of a dire spirituality.  What I want to do is use a scientific theory to give you experiences you’ve never had before, but in a familiar way, and what is that but the ghost story? But it’s ghosts like you’ve never seen them before, in contexts that you’ve never really experience, but there’s enough of an underpinning and a mythos to what you’re seeing that it almost makes sense, and that’s what provides the scare.  You can tie this into experiences you or someone in your family may actually have had. You can say, Oh, I see that. ‘Cause I borrowed it not just from ghost stories but from people who have actually seen ghosts. Which you gotta do when you’re refreshing the medium.  And the main point of the book is to scare the pants off you, because that’s a lovely experience. And then you can turn the last page, and you can close it, and you can go to sleep.  That’s a very cozy feeling—

 

JT: —and eventually go to sleep.

 

BEAR:  Right.  Eventually go to sleep. Some people have complained about Dead Lines that way.  But that’s the kind of ghost story I love. For me, the ghost stories don’t scare me so much as they are almost a spiritual experience.  You’re getting access to what could be a view of reality beyond what you could possibly know now, and to me, how is that different from reading Olaf Stapledon? You know. And science fiction in its extreme metaphysical forms does that to you. It exalts you. And a good ghost story can do that, too.

 

JT:   What are some of your top ten ghostly tales, and why. It’s so much fun to talk about ghost stories with people that know what they’re talking about.

 

BEAR: Well, I like both movies and ghost stories.

 

JT: Let’s start with the British master, William Hope Hodgson.  Lovecraft loved his work.

 

BEAR: Hodgson? Well, brilliant in many different ways. Some of his stories are a little disappointing because his psychic sleuth, Carnacki, sometimes finds out there’s no supernatural element involved in his investigations.  But sometimes they are, like in “The Hog” and “The Whistling Room.”  So at least he wasn’t constantly delivering the message that there’s nothing scary going on here.

 

JT: But what’s going on with Carnacki’s scientific apparatus?  Seems like he’s a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, experimenting with all kinds of electrical devices. . . he even seems to be anticipating television.

 

BEAR: Well, there is a lot of that. That’s actually out of the science of the turn of the century.  Hodgson is part a science fiction writer, part a fantasy writer, part a horror writer, so it’s one third here, another third there, and another. . . . But his The Night Land is a brilliant novel, scary as hell; but really oddly written, very tough to get into. Some of the visions in The Night Land I actually incorporated into a novella set in the Eon universe called The Way of All Ghosts, and dedicated it to Hodgson. But I might go back to The Night Land again. His The House on the Borderland has got to be one of the great visionary novels of all time. And it’s just, it’s compellingly readable.  And then you go to M.R.  James and you get, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” and nine or ten others that are just sheer masterpieces of terror.  And, forgive me here, you get an H.P. Lovecraft, who launched into a method of using circumlocuitous prose to create a sensation of disorientation that really is scary. I mean, it’s not this, it’s not that, it’s the old Hindu Neti neti, you know, undescribable.  Like At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  I didn’t put Edgar Allan Poe in that list, which I find interesting. Poe, of course, is the precursor to both mysteries and science fiction and all that stuff.  But he didn’t  write that many ghost stories.  Resurrected corpses don’t exactly qualify as ghosts to me.!

 

JT:  Now, how about Walter De la Mare?

 

BEAR:  I haven’t read a lot of his stories. They’re a little on the soft side for me. I want the really intellectual thrills and his stories tend to be more traditional stories. Kind of like Marjorie Bowen, kind of like Henry James, yeah. And they’re sometimes gentler. There’s a kind of a gentleness about De la Mare’s ghosts stories. Except for The Return, I think you were quoting, which can be a little scary. So I haven’t put him in there because he hasn’t influenced me that much. The names I put on that list were those who really have shaped the way my novel comes out, because they’ve influenced me directly.

 

 

FINALE:  DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?

 

JT:  Obviously, living and dying are complicated elements in your stories.  The divisions between them seem to, well, get blurred, as you say.  In Darwin’s Radio, a new generation in effect is born twice.  And in Dead Lines people die twice.

 

BEAR: Right.

 

JT: What’s going on?

 

BEAR: I’ve long believed that coming into this world and going out of this world are the two hardest things you’ll ever do. You get your ticket stamped going in, you get your ticket stamped going out. It’s just miserable. It’s traumatic, it’s miserable. And the question is at that point, why is there faith, why is there a need for faith? Because of these two truths. So the people say there must have been something before and there must be something after. Interestingly enough, we don’t talk about what comes before.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate, even in a science fiction story to say, What if there is something beyond our ken?  But the interesting thing about the reaction to Dead Lines is, I think, that it’s got great reviews and it’s been called a fantasy novel. I don’t regard it as a fantasy novel. It’s a discovery of a new realm in a way that’s very frightening. And structurally that’s no different for me than what happens in Blood Music, which describes microscopic medical machines, where DNA is treated as a computational system.  Which also, I think, would be very frightening. People hate two things. They hate biological transformation which is equated with disease. Okay, something changes, then it must go wrong. Or ageing. And then they hate the notion of other kinds of change that lead to death, which is the ultimate change. But what if that’s not the end of the changes? And in Dead Lines I want to give you the impression that death is a process that has rules and is very, very moving and confusing and also strips away from you the things that you no longer need.  I borrowed this from Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay for a movie called Jacob’s Ladder. (There’ll be some spoilers if you print this!)  Jacob’s Ladder is a marvelous story about the supernatural, kind of a version of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where a man who was in Vietnam is going through the process of having all of his earthly persiflage stripped away from him. For him, the perspective is that he’s seeing demons. But in the end of the story it’s not that they’re demons. It’s that they’re there to strip away what you don’t need in the process of dying.  There’s a little bit of this sort of thing in Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which is one of the more interesting time travel stories, ’cause it’s an organic vision of time.

 

JT: Which is gobbling up the universe.

 

BEAR: Gobbling up and changing, and it’s unpredictable. It’s not mathematically linear and predictable. I kinda like that. It’s also a very scary story. And so what I’m saying is, What if ghosts are dead skin left behind? Then are there spiritual mites that chew that up and get it out of the way? And that’s a very natural process, and, again, most of my stories involve the ecology of natural processes.

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE:  Here we come to an end—or is it a new beginning?  We recall the adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac that began this book.  He had sailed to the Moon and beyond, ultimately to the sun.  Even his death, moreover, mere mortality, failed to slow him down.  Witness his epitaph:

All weary with the earth too soon

I took my flight into the skies,

Beholding there the sun and moon

Where now the Gods confront my eyes.

Like de Bergerac, Bear and Benford, along with the other figures in this book, have embarked on their own imaginative odysseys.  Occasionally they come back to gather around the cosmic campfire to share with us their adventures—with advantages.  All of them found in all the riddles and mysteries of Man and the Cosmos, as Bear reminds us, “conflicts that made for great stories. . . .”

In conclusion, as we continue our own forays into the wondrous, we would do well to bear in mind what the celebrated gothic fantasist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote so long ago—

“It is said that the miraculous has vanished from the earth, but I do not                            believe it.  The miracles are still there, for even if we are no longer willing                   to call by that name the most wonderful aspects of our daily life, because                            we have managed to deduce from a succession of events a law of cyclic                            recurrence; nevertheless, there often passes through that cycle a                                     phenomenon which puts all our wisdom to shame, and which, in our                            stupid obstinacy, we refuse to believe because we are unable to                                     comprehend it.”[10]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


            [1] Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act V/

 

            [2] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (New York:  Vintage Press, 2010), 459.

 

            [3] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), 381-382.

 

            [4] Stephen Jay Gould, “Modified Grandeur,” Natural History, Vol. 14, No. 20 (March 1993), 14-20.

 

            [5] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1996), 35.

            [6] William

THE HERESY OF HUMANISM

 

GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT OF

 

THE VOICES OF WONDER:  CONVERSATIONS ON CLASSIC FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR

by John C. Tibbetts

 

Of all our fictions, there is none so utterly baseless and empty as this          idea that humanity progresses.  The savage’s natural impression is that the world he sees about him was made for him, and that the rest          of the universe is subordinated to him and his world, and that all the spirits and demons and gods occupy themselves exclusively with him and his affairs.  That idea was the basis of every pagan religion, and it is the basis of the Christian religion, simply because it is the foundation of human nature.

Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)

 

“Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!”

Greg Bear

This book, this colloquy of voices, concludes with a conversation between two of the brightest and most respected  writers and scientists in the current science fiction scene, Gregory Benford (1941-) and Greg Bear (1952-).

Gregory Benford is a physicist, educator, and author and is currently a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.  His more than twenty novels, include the classic Timescape (1980) and the “Galactic Center Saga” series (including Great Sky River, 1987).  He has won two Nebula Awards, the John W. Campbell Award, and the Australian Ditmar Award.  In 1995 he received the Lord Foundation Award for contributions to science and to the public comprehension of it.

Greg Bear (1952-) is the author of more than thirty books of science fiction and fantasy, including The Forge of God (1987), Songs of Earth & Power (1994), Darwin’s Radio (1999), Darwin’s Children (2003), and, most recently, Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009).  He has won two Hugo Awards and five Nebulas for his fiction, and he is one of two authors to win a Nebula in every category.  He has been called the “best working writer of hard science fiction” by The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  His major themes include galactic conflict (the Forge of God series), artificial universes (The Way series), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, 1985 and Darwin’s Radio, 1999).  Bear has served on political and scientific action committees and has advised Microsoft Corporation, the U.S. Army, the CIA, Sandia National Laboratories, Callison Architecture, Inc., Homeland Security, and other groups and agencies.

As both poets and scientists, Bear and Benford are willing and able to address in their own researches and in their stories not only many of the themes, traditions, and styles we have identified as the traditional gothic/science fiction mode—space opera, Faustian pacts, forbidden knowledge, paranoia, parallel worlds, etc.—but also those specters of scientific inquiry first raised by Dr. Frankenstein:  the blurring of the lines between art and science, the emerging studies of nanotechnology, cellular intelligence, artificial universes, new mythologies, the vectors of human genetic and cosmic evolution, and, finally, what Bear and Benford call the “heresy of humanism.”  To quote the words of the eponymous Faust in Goethe’s gothic masterpiece, they confront the ever-growing suspicion that Man is only a Fool

“. . . who squints beyond with  blinking eyes

Imagining his like above the skies.”[1]

Undaunted, however, they would echo Richard Holmes’s statement query at the beginning of this book:  Can there be “a new kind of wonder born out of radical doubt”?[2]

What a profusion of topics Bear and Benford tackle in their freewheeling conversation!  They are among many scientist-writers, such as Arthur C. Clark, Poul Anderson, and Carl Sagan, who have inherited a century of rapidly mounting tensions in the troubled relationships among art, science, and religion.  In his remarkable The Education of Henry Adams (1906), social historian Adams was already expressing doubts about what he had been taught was the unity of a God-centered universe.  Recoiling from the shock of Darwinian theory, he faced a “multiverse” of new forces, the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, the watt, ampere, and erg—forces which couldn’t be measured by the yardsticks of his predecessors.  “Man had translated himself into a new universe,” he wrote, “which had no common scale of measurement with the old.  He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his sense, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other.”

As a result, Adams predicted, in a new world of science, society, and philosophy Man must turn away from the Virgin and bow down to the Dynamo.[3]

At the time Adams wrote, Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology had already been introduced at the turn of the century.  Einstein was propounding his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905.  The nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1909.  Niels Bohr’s Quantum Physics was formulated in 1926.  The Manhattan Project developed the destructive potential of atomic physics in the early 1940s.  The double helix in the nucleus of the cell was explored in 1953. And subsequently came the sequencing of the genomes of microbes, the polymerase chain reaction, linkages between living human brains and mechanical appendages, even the development of a giant Google search engine that reaches out to the furthest limits of human knowledge.

Doubts, concerns, outright denials of man’s meaningful purpose and place in the universe—in short, the sense of Wonder—are voiced ever more loudly.  During the recent “evolution wars,” for example, Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague, Niles Eldredge, famously critiqued the Darwinian theory of gradual selection by emphasizing the contingent nature of history, the nonadaptive qualities of organisms—“the directionless arrow in a purposeless cosmos.”  While they do not deny that natural selection creates well-adapted organisms, they do object that it works gradually on preexisting structures.  Rather, it moves in “jumps,” punctuated by brief periods of rapid change (“punctuated equilibrium”).  In other words, not everything in nature can be explained through the adaptationist paradigm.  “If we have lost a degree of grandeur for each step of knowledge gained,” writes Gould, “then we must fear Faust’s bargain:  ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’” (14)

Gould response was succinctly formulated in his famous essay, “Modified Grandeur” (1993).[4] He took as his starting point the final lines from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:  “There is a grandeur in this view of life. . . whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.” Darwin had never implied progress as the necessary feature of organic history, pursued Gould; rather Darwin had alleged that Homo sapiens are a “tiny and unpredictable twig on a richly ramifying tree of life—a happy accident of the last geological moment, unlikely ever to appear again if we could regrow the tree from seed” (20).  But here, argues Gould, in words echoing those of astronomer Herschel and poet Percy Shelley more than a century before, lies grandeur [or, I would say, wonder]:  “We can now step off and back—and see nature as something so vast, so strange (yet comprehensive), and so majestic in pursuing its own ways without human interference, that grandeur becomes the best word of all for expressing our interest, and our respect.”  In a similar pronouncement, Carl Sagan has declared:  “No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.”[5]

Where, then, might we find a Creator?  And what about immortality?  Ever since the late 19th century, many esteemed philosophers, biologists, and physicists have boldly tackled the problem.  A few relatively recent examples will suffice.  In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Williams James objected to the Positivist contention that  unverifiable belief is unscientific, illusory, and antiquated nonsense, by famously pronouncing his extrapolation of “The Science of Religion”:  “Facts, I think, are yet lacking to prove ‘spirit return’. . . .  I consequently leave the matter open.”  But, James continued, “For practical life, at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough.  No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.  The existence of the chance makes the difference . . . between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.”[6]  Professor Kenneth R. Miller, for his part, argues that evolution, genetics, and molecular science do indeed support the existence of a Creator.  “A biologically static world,” writes Miller, “would leave a Creator’s creatures with neither freedom nor the independence required to exercise that freedom.  In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are—free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.”[7]  Again turning to Carl Sagan, he suggests that scientific inquiry in itself is “informed worship.”  If a “god” or anything like the traditional sort exists, he continues, “then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god.  We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves.”  However, if such a god does not exist, “then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time.”[8]

And with this new Age of Wonder come new art forms.  Here is another complex, inexhaustible topic.  Suffice to venture just one speculation before turning to Greg Bear and Gregory Benford:  Freeman Dyson suggests that new art forms will be centered on biology and computers.  “If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology,” continues Dyson, “then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants.  This art form, using the biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born.”[9]

Now, let us see what Greg Bear and Gregory Benford have to say about these and many other topics. . .

 

THE CONVERSATION WITH GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

This conversation between Greg Bear and Gregory Benford transpired at the University of Kansas on July 10, 2004.  The occasion was the 2004 John W. Campbell Conference, at which both men received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  I wish to thank James Gunn and Chris McKitterick of the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction for facilitating our meeting.

 

STORYTELLING AND SPACE OPERA
JOHN C. TIBBETTS:  Maybe the best place to start is to talk about storytelling. What lies behind all the scientific and fantastic extrapolation, all the philosophical and religious riddles—is pure storytelling.

 

GREG BEAR:  Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!

 

JT:  And you’ve got characters we get to know, we care about.
GREG BEAR:  That’s what stories are. Stories are people, people who are doing things, doing interesting things. That’s what it’s all about. And you might have a literature of ideas—but who has ideas? People have ideas. They don’t come out of the void.  People have to act on them and to respond to the consequences.

 

BENFORD: Yes, of course.

 

JT: The scientific background, though, that you guys bring to your stories, do you see this as representative of some new voices in science fiction?

 

BEAR: We’re still young Turks!

 

JT: Young Turks, I like that.  Maybe, it’s hard for us to read pure “space opera” anymore, since we know now that a solid scientific basis can still provide a good rattling story.

 

BEAR: I still write space opera. Anvil of Stars is space opera, it’s just very sophisticated space opera.

 

JT: Was so-called space opera a big influence on you both?

 

BENFORD: Oh, sure, it has been for me. The novel I’m just finishing I hope this week, called The Sunborn [published 2005] is about interplanetary exploration, a thing that’s almost entirely neglected now because we think we understand the solar system. But the bulk of the action occurs out at the orbit of Pluto, which, of course, we actually don’t know much about. And it’s an attempt to envision a different form of life-form that could inhabit the cold and the dark.  But “space opera” is a term I’ve never liked, because opera after all in a sense can be about grand things; the music is grandiose; and most of it is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll!  I think the new resurrection of space opera over the last ten years is in part an unconscious reflex, given that so much earth-bound science fiction concerns a future in which everyone seems to believe things are going to get worse. And it’s hard to be optimistic for many people because of an old human habit—it’s always easier to see the problems than the solutions.

 

JT: It’s easier to dramatize them, too.

 

BENFORD: Right, yeah. It’s always easier to be downbeat in the same way that it’s harder to be funny than it is to be solemn.  The future, I think, doesn’t have to be dark and depressing. I mean, we’ve obviously got problems.  But I think a lot of them can be met. And people who are now looking out at the beginning of this century and saying, “Gosh, things are going to get a lot worse”—the relevant question is, “Yeah, for whom? Because, for many people on this planet, things have always been bad.

 

 

APOCALYPSE AND THE FAMILY OF MAN

JT:  Let’s follow up on this.  Greg, repeatedly you seem to be saying the 20th century has been a disaster, that the 20th century was breeding a kind of contagion.

 

BEAR: I’m afraid I once said that if you study the 20th century long enough, you want to pack a gun!  It’s not a disaster, it’s a challenge. And this is an interesting difference, depending on your perspective. I never regard my books as disaster novels—although sometimes they seem to be.

 

JT:  But in The Forge of God you destroy the Earth!  It’s one of the more sustained and compelling passages of your prose I’ve ever read!  I mean, what were you thinking when you were writing all of this?

 

BEAR: Well, writers are bloody-minded individuals and we have the most fun doing the most horrible things.  I immensely enjoyed Star Wars, the first one, but I realized that you can’t just blow up Alderaan and Princess Leia’s record collection in eight seconds. It’s going to take a while. So as a hard science fiction writer I say, well, what’s that like? And then, as a cinematographer in my brain I’m asking, well, if you’re on the surface of the planet watching this destruction, you can actually survive long enough to see amazing things. Absolutely astonishing things.  It would be almost worthwhile to watch these things happen. And for me that moment comes when our main character, I think it’s Edward, looks up to the east and sees the North Atlantic plate rising up. Or the North American plate rising up. And at that point you know you’re dead. Why? Because as a physicist if it falls back, the release of energy will heat up the landscape around you and you’re just a fragile ball of water, right? But at that point you’ve seen something no one has ever seen in the history of life on earth. And that’s the combined horror and the exaltation. It’s like a deer standing before a forest fire.

 

JT: But is there an exaltation in you as you’re writing it?

 

BEAR: Yes, in the sense of, I’m gonna make people feel extraordinary emotions. I think every artist does that.

 

JT:  By contrast, the apocalypse at the end of Dead Lines is so, well, gentle . . .

 

BEAR: Yeah, well. It’s just about people.

 

JT: Apocalypses come in all shapes and sizes.

 

BEAR: As I get older I’m less interested in blowing up the earth and, you know, just kinda figuring out what being around people means to me.  I mean, I write something like that and they call you a cannibal for the rest of your life!  Think of  apocalypse as more of a metaphor for evolutionary progression, or change.  In Darwin’s Radio I write about sudden bursts in human speciation, the sort of thing Stephen Jay Gould has called  “punctuated equilibrium.”  And we have the stress that results from trying to be the best we can be in spite of all our problems—and that allows us to naturally produce better children, capable of handling those stresses. That’s not a disaster story.  It’s a story that maybe we have gone past the point of our competence.  But is that sad?  That’s what happens with every set of parents and children. If parents don’t want their children to do better and be better, are they very good parents?  So my whole approach in something like Darwin’s Radio is, yes, these kids in the story are slightly more competent than us at living in a world that we made, perhaps; but we don’t know, they’re an experiment. They’re a very young experiment.

 

JT: And an interesting subtlety is that the parents, in the process, are transformed themselves. They now undergo an evolutionary change.

 

BEAR: Isn’t that what happens when you have kids? It’s all a metaphor for the simple act of having kids. Having kids is optimism about the future. They’re different from you, they think somewhat different from you, they are better adapted, we hope, to the world you created.

 

JT: And you end the book with the parents seemingly estranged, now, from each other.

 

BEAR: You see more of that in the sequel, Darwin’s Children. Again, this is because it’s difficult to have children. It’s painful and difficult and involves deep surveillance of emotions and conflicting ideas about how to raise kids. But always there’s the love throughout.  Even when the parents are separated in Darwin’s Children, there’s that continuing sense that this is the only partner you’re ever going to have that makes any sense for you. And later, in Darwin’s Children, they’re working separately. But having kids is hard. It causes arguments, it causes debates, it causes reassessments, changes the marriage. And that’s just part of the natural truth of what it means to have kids.

 

JT: I hadn’t realized that you’re using a theory like “punctuated equilibrium” as a metaphor for child rearing. . . !  Gregory Benford, you also talk about having children in Great Sky River.

 

BENFORD: Oh, right, yeah.

 

JT: Because the relationship between the protagonist and his son is so critical to that book. Now, I’ve not read the two sequels, if sequel is the word.

 

BENFORD: Well, there’s actually three–

 

BEAR: There’s three. Three, altogether. .

 

JT: But again the father-son thing emerges as the real theme, seemingly.

 

BENFORD:  You’re referring to Killeen and his son, Toby.  They and their clan are on the run.  Their planet is threatened with destruction by the cyborg forces.  Well, fathers and sons is one of the great themes of literature, isn’t it? Agamemnon had some things to say about that! Actually, Great Sky River is part of a whole six-book sequence called the Galactic Center series that started back in 1977 with In the Ocean of Night. And it’s really about the skills of us hominids holding things together in the face of imminent annihilation.  They must enter into the scale of understanding that we’re part of an entire galactic order, and that things have been going on a long time before we came on stage—that we’re coming in not in Act One but maybe Act Seventeen of a really long drama.  You have to go back to your basics, and that means that you have to have cultural continuity.  Fathers have to tell sons what it really means to be a man, and how you act in the face of huge difficulties, difficulties that you may not, in fact, be able to surmount.  In Great Sky River human beings are not this “winner” society that we’re used to, they are rats in the wall of a system in which they face intelligences that are not human—in fact they’re machines—that are far, far superior in many ways, and utterly malign.  That’s straight out of Lovecraft, you know?  I wanted to turn on its head the assumption of the centrality of being human, which is so pervasive in human society—you know, “the measure of all things is man.” Well, I call it in my most recent novel Beyond Infinity, the “heresy of humanism.”  It is a heresy to think that humans are central to the larger grand scale of creation, and it will cost you to believe that.

 

BEAR: Arrogance always costs you.  In Blood Music I make it pretty clear that our need to see humanity as the center of the biological universe is as egotistical as the notion we once held that the Earth is the center of the galaxy!  Astronomers from Galileo to Herschel and Hubble and beyond were always telling us that!

 

EVOLUTION AND GALACTIC ECOLOGY

JT:  Something called “galactic ecology” is a concern for both of you.  In particular, Greg, this seems to be one of the messages coming out of The Forge of God.

 

BEAR: Well, I read Benford in my youth!

 

BENFORD: Ha!

 

BEAR: And it seems like this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. What Greg is espousing has to be the attitude of the 21st century. And in Forge of God, you really are looking at that large-scale ecology of the galaxy.

 

JT: I had not run into the term “galactic ecology” before. Could you give me a quick explanation?

 

BEAR: There’s always been this question, Why aren’t the Aliens here yet? You know, here we are sending out signals, but we don’t hear any signals coming back.  And my one answer that came back to me loud and clear was, Well, you’re birds cheeping in the forest from the nest, and there are snakes out there, and they’re going to crawl up the tree and eat you if you keep chirping your little heart out!  And that seemed like a good story idea, a traditional science fiction story idea of disastrous encounters.  That’s the old gothic theme, and you see it a lot in writers from Mary Shelley to Lovecraft—man’s hubris, you know, risking disaster by courting unknown monsters.  I mean, why are you announcing your presence when you’re weak? And if you think there’s no life out there, then, okay, we’re safe. But if there is life out there, then you have to run with what you know about life, which is that life has both predators and partners.  The real metaphor of life is how things change, how they communicate with each other and how they change. And that’s evolution. And we’ve had many fits and starts in trying to reach this understanding. We’ve tried to isolate ourselves as angelic intelligences, apart from biology, except for those damned urges, which just can’t be overcome.  And then we get all this persiflage about good and evil and cruelty and all that stuff. It’s all part of a natural system.  There may indeed be teleological and intelligently directed evolution, but we don’t need to blame it on God.  In its own way, DNA itself may be goal-seeking and problem-solving.  The fact is, we’re in pain, so we object to it. That’s perfectly natural. But if you’re going to talk about the large scale stuff, you have to overcome your sense of pain long enough to realize. . .  why? What’s the process here? If there is no process, there’s certainly a development, and if there’s development going on, where is it headed? If it’s not headed any place you would particularly like to call progressive, then why is it not fitting your particular desires and needs? Why is the universe not catering to us? This is the scientific principle:  the universe does not cater to you.

 

JT:  But you just said it might be in the DNA itself.

 

BEAR: In Darwin’s Children I have it both ways. I say, look, we don’t understand jack about what’s going on here, but it’s obvious that there can be intelligent design from within your own genome, spread around a neural network of different species, different animals, different ecosystems. That is the first time this has ever been, I believe, cogently expressed in that form—that this is internal creativity, it’s obviously operating within the genome.  Now the genome is a self-directing system reacting to changes, responding to the outside environment in very significant ways. So given that, yeah, we’re looking at a universe that has both internal design; and then the big question from outside, is that all there is? Is that all there is? And science at that point kind of stops off and says, well, it’s all we can measure.

 

JT: I hear a song by Peggy Lee in my head!

 

BEAR: Yeah. “Is that all there is, my friend?” But seriously, it’s really a huge question, because that’s a question of where science and faith collide. And what is faith? What is imagination?  What is poetry and music?  I tried to talk about their importance to our sense of humanity in my Songs of Earth & Power.  They get so many people who are in pain through a hard day or a hard month or a hard year. Why? Because they just know there’s something better out there. And as a biological thing, that makes things like faith essential to survival. Is it an illusion? That’s a big question. If it’s an illusion, it’s still essential to survival, so you can’t just pierce the illusion willy-nilly. But what if there is something going on? What if you’re receiving these messages from a thing outside of process? And you’re a scientist, and your whole upbringing is that this is impossible.

 

ART AND SCIENCE

JT:   Science and faith. . . You also mentioned Art?

 

BEAR:  Yes, in Songs of Earth & Power [1994] I talk about music and poetry.  Mahler and Mozart both show up at the end!

 

JT:  You’re not kidding!  There they are—characters in your story!  The sheer audacity of it took my breath away!  They’re not dead, exactly, and not—

 

BEAR:  They’ve been, well, delayed, you could say.  Consider:  Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony.  I asked myself. . . Why???  Because when you reach the Tenth  Symphony, like Mahler, you’ve acquired a level of wisdom that creates a song of power. And in my book the elves—I call them the Sidhe—don’t want humans to achieve that. There’s forces that will come in to thwart that.  I mean, it’s a very paranoid vision, the whole gothic thing.  Think of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem:  The man in gray shows up.  Who was the man in gray? Salieri?  A mysterious patron?  A “Person from Porlock.?”  Well, I do have a Person from Porlock in my book!  Remember him?—he’s the person who “interrupted” Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” . . .  and maybe he’s the person who blocked the finish of Mozart’s Requiem.  There are so many instances in poetry and music and literature like this that are really interesting, because man is kept from achieving a higher being.  And you could take six or seven of those instances and string them into a story; and I did. I’m not sure if Borges actually wrote an essay on the mystery of interruption, but he could have.

 

JT:  Seems like he did on everything else!

 

BEAR: Yeah. And that’s why I think that these two novels [The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage] are kind of extended combinations of George MacDonald and Jorge Luis Borges and, you know, half a dozen other fantasy writers.

 

JT: George MacDonald. Yes.  Lilith absolutely blew my mind.

 

BEAR: It’s great, isn’t it? Christian surrealism!

 

JT:  I mean, it’s a leap of imagination that just left me—

 

BEAR: Yeah.

 

JT:  —stunned.

 

BEAR:  I mean, where do all of our imaginations begin?  Is it that reality is menacing, supportive, or a combination of the two? And our deepest fears come from trying to be a kid and get along in a world you don’t understand. And when you’re a baby there are lots of things you see that you don’t know whether they’re real or not. You have no context—

 

JT:  So where does Art with a capital “A” come in?  And the Artist?  Gregory Benford, you talk about an awful creature called the “Mantis” in Great Sky River.  It is an “artist”. . . sort of, but a very perverse one.  It does bridge the gap between mechanical apparatus and organic life.  Is that the height of the artistic frontier, like the Mantis claims?

 

BENFORD: Yes, well, we don’t think of ourselves as malleable material?—as suitable material for the artworks of higher and more powerful being.  But of course, the deer whose antlers are on the wall don’t think that either!  I thought a way to show the true position of humans on this scale was to show that “cosmic artists” would treat them as mere material, and that these others would regard the complexities of human society and our way of perceiving the world as just grist for their mill.  Toward the end of Great Sky River, a human stumbles upon this gallery that the Mantis—

 

JT:  —horrific stuff.

 

BENFORD:  —has made up. And he’s taken human beings, their bodies, and made them into festooned works, without any consideration of the point of view of the humans at all. And so all these grotesque things are created by another intelligence for aesthetic purposes that appear to us to be horrific.

 

BEAR: Satanic, at the very least.

 

BENFORD: Yes, satanic.

 

JT:  While reading that, I kept thinking of the hideous reconstructions from human bones into chairs and tables you see in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Well—

 

JT: Which is another kind of corrupt or perverted art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Actually, I haven’t seen that movie. But it sounds like the same thing.

 

BEAR: Hannibal Lecter’s cuisine applied to furniture!

 

BENFORD: And you think of the Nazis who made lamp shades out of human flesh. Anything that reduces humans to the status of object is inherently insulting and horrific. And yet that attitude we have is part of the defensive posture of a species that has been winning for so long in the evolutionary lottery that maybe we’ve forgotten that we may not be the lords of creation.

 

JT: Well, what about maybe some more benign examples of art-making?

 

BENFORD: Yes. Artists in the future would regard our preconceptions or our perceptions of the world as suitable material.  They would create effects that appear to be illusions, exploiting our habits of breaking down information to produce things that are not real, but which we perceive as being real because they, in a sense, have subverted our visual processing power.  You perceive it two ways, like an ambigram.

 

BEAR: Like the faces in the vase.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BENFORD: That shows that there’s an ambiguity in the way we interpret visual information. You can make up images that you can see two ways. Well, what about three-dimensional objects you can see two ways? And that are moving, so it makes you see things that don’t exist. But your own processing power is doing the work of creating the illusion. That’s an art form that I think will come about.

 

JT: Do other science fiction writers write about the arts very much?

 

BEAR: Well, William Rotsler has a novel, Patron of the Arts, where he envisioned an artistic form called the “sensatron.”  Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book about a kind of cosmic orchestra [A Memory of Whiteness]. And Roger Zelazny wrote a lot about music, religion, art work….

 

BENFORD: Science is an art form?

 

BEAR: Yeah. It’s a way of artificially putting  things into context that you didn’t understand before.

 

BENFORD: Well, that’s true.

 

JT: What about aesthetics?

 

BEAR: Aesthetics is a class-based judgment system. For most of the people on this planet, art is amusement, which is something they don’t want to strongly define. It diverts them from their everyday lives. Aesthetics comes in when you have a higher class or educated class that then wants to isolate their attitudes from those of the lower classes. Then you use more high-falutin’ words with Greek contexts, or Roman contexts. Everything else is just—as far as I’m concerned—playing to the groundlings.  We just don’t know it.

 

BENFORD: Hmm. The idea that science is an art work. . . . But art never answers to the necessity of empirical verification.

 

BEAR: Until now.  It’s a constraint upon your behavior. Every art form is an assumption of a philosophy or an attitude that constrains your freedom of motion to do art. So we’re all very amused that chimpanzees can paint but we don’t know what their context is, so they don’t sell for a lot of money.  Okay? But a scientist has a constraint that it has to be outside of just his or her personal relationship with the universe. Other people have to be able to see it and do it over again.

 

BENFORD: And check it.

 

BEAR: And check it. And that’s an art form of the highest caliber. Because it’s a participative art form. It doesn’t just say that only one person can do it, the great genius is the only person who can do this experiment. That might be true of Michelangelo’s David, but it’s not true of Einstein’s relativity or general relativity. We can do that experiment over and over and over again and get similar results. So that’s a real work of art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. But, the trick of course, is that art—science as art—is always provisional. It’s always a partial vision.

 

BEAR: Well, now, that’s an interesting distinction. Art can be a completed vision within the culture. But we still read about great scientific things of the past as completed visions that we have now gone beyond. And I think artists do the same thing.

 

JT: Well, if I understand you guys correctly, then somebody like Rudolf Arnheim talks about art as what he insists should be only a “partial illusion.” In its incompleteness lies its beauty, its importance as art.

 

BENFORD: Sure. The Sistine Chapel is probably the ultimate of what you can do in that direction, and the evidence is that nobody has even attempted anything like that in a very long time. You can say that of Baroque music. How come people aren’t writing Baroque music now? I think it’s because they feel that in some sense it’s exhausted, or it’s complete. I’ve always wondered about that. Remember, Prokofiev when he wrote a classical symphony, he actually couldn’t do it totally in earnest. That is, it’s got funny parts.

 

JT: It still has his harmonic vocabulary.

 

BENFORD: Yes, right.

 

BEAR: He’s got a wider range of emotions he can deal with. He’s not constrained by the church, or by the upper classes who are his patrons.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: Not so much constrained. He still is, and a lot of composers always have been, but it’s not as bad as Haydn or Bach.

 

BENFORD: Well, was it Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as comedy? But art can do the same thing. You start to make, in a sense, make fun, or make fun with, the modes and mannerisms of the past.

 

BEAR: Which I think scientists do in a subtle way, too. It’s less “ha ha” funny than, “You really goofed up your experiment, here’s how you do it better!” And it’s a constant sense of criticism of improvement far more disciplined than any art form I know of.

 

JT: But mistakes in art can be very important. Mistakes in a scientific procedure can be disastrous.

 

BEAR: But you learn from them.

 

BENFORD: Yes….

 

JT: But we don’t treasure the mistakes. I mean, John Marin’s watercolors are precious because the globs of water dripped down across the surface and he kept them there. He didn’t correct them, you know.

 

BENFORD: But it’s true that you learn from “mistakes.” The classic example I would venture is that, when Einstein added a constant to his general field equations to make the solution for the universe to be static, he didn’t realize that it was static but if you tipped it a little bit it was unstable, it would either contract or expand. He regarded that as a huge error. However, we now know the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and one way of looking at that is to say that that constant is real and is now driving the expansion. So it’s a mistake. It starts to fix a problem, then it looks like it’s wrong, and now it’s back again in a different guise.

 

BEAR: And in twenty years it might be wrong again. ‘Cause the whole Big Bang thing is starting to look a little gnarly, you know, we’re starting to get some ideas that maybe this isn’t what we should be looking at, because it’s getting really complicated. So it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of people who are educating their children, basically, to carry on with the mission, and to criticize them down the road. Very few artists do this. But scientists do.

 

BENFORD: That’s true. It’s the quality of self-criticism that makes science become the standard for believability in our society. After all, now since everybody has Adobe Photoshop, you can’t even believe what you see.

 

BEAR: And with your illusions we couldn’t even believe what we see in real life, so.

 

BENFORD: Seeing is no longer believing and it’s going to take a long time for our culture to quite realize that.

 

BEAR: What I found interesting was that, for many scientists, sometimes seeing was still not believing, even under a scientific context. You know, because it doesn’t fit in to the past experience. So, you have spiritual experiences, they are explained in non-spiritual ways by the hardcore scientists. Rather than saying, I do not know, a spiritual experience is relegated to being pure psychology. That is, of meaningless value because it refers to something outside of the context of science that we know today.

 

JT: I’m thinking, too, of Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker, who will bring about a spiritual condition, but under the most bland, inane, uninflected kind of camera work, viewing angle, and performance.

 

BEAR: Right. Isn’t that how it happens in real life? You know, it doesn’t come with glorious Max Steiner music in the background and you’re on the cliffs of France staring down at the water and suddenly God touches you. Usually happens when you’re in the bathtub, or driving a car, or, you know, doing something else. So, epiphany is as rude as any other thing in reality.

 

JT:  You take music into other directions, Greg.  You mentioned earlier Songs of Earth &  Power, where you write about composers whose music has profound effects, both in this world and in other worlds.

 

BEAR:  Yes, I talk about music as a kind of magical incantation, like Arno Waltiri’s “Infinity Concerto.”  Performing it can risk apocalypse.  Music as a bridge that melds worlds.  I’m afraid that combination of music and magic has confused some readers, though.

 

JT:  But didn’t the German Romantics, from Wackenroder to Schumann say the same thing?  But you don’t stop there.  There’s your story, “Tangents,” which is rather like a cross between Henry Kuttner and Albert Einstein!

 

BEAR:  There was this keyboard hookup whose music called forth 4th dimensional creatures—

 

JT:  I thought immediately of Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—

 

BEAR:  —And it was fun to think what the hypersphere of the 4th dimension would look like if it intruded into our 3-dimensional space!  But you didn’t mention Blood Music.  My character can hear a kind of “internal music,” of the operations inside his blood.    Which is rhythm.  It’s coordinated rhythm.  It’s a communication that is everywhere; it completely absorbs us, consumes us. We can’t arise out of it. So when we’re talking to each other, we don’t perceive the language we’re using. And when, you know, genes are talking to each other, what’s the context there? How many layers of translation did they go through? When particles are talking to each other, in my crackpot theory of physics, which I borrow from four or five other physicists, what are particles talking to each other about? And on what level is it constrained? So I’m just very interested in all the connectedness and the talking going on in the universe.

 

JT: Like in your most recent book, Dead Lines [2004].  All kinds of “talking” going on there!  You have these wireless phones that open gateways to fiendish creatures.

 

BEAR:  The reviews called it a ghost story, a fantasy. I think it’s a science fiction novel. It’s just that science is not thought to cross over into that particular thing because it’s constrained from it by cultural prejudices. But the other thing is, it’s very tough to replicate ghosts. Can’t do it. It used to be very, very tough to replicate lightning. Now we can do it. What if there’s a technological change such that you could start to study these phenomena?

 

JT: These technological  changes are Pandora’s boxes

 

BEAR: They really could be, yeah.

 

JT: There’s always this cautionary element you see in the gothic tradition.  It keeps popping up. Even in the most modern kind of science fiction we still go back to the old days when Scientists Should Not Venture into the Forbidden Zones. That is such a deeply-rooted fear that we have, still.

 

BENFORD: Well, particularly I think it’s an expression of a deeply puritanical impulse in Western society, particularly in the United States. And it has huge costs and policy implications. Here, let me give you an example. We’re all worried about the “greenhouse” problem. But we think only in terms of using state power to stop people from burning fossil fuels. We don’t think about all the other terms in the equation, the terms of the temperature of the earth. For example, could we build buildings with white roofs or generate more cloud cover to reflect more sunlight? Or, how about pulling carbon out of the air, which agriculture does every year, and then keeping it out of the air? Because, after all, the bulk of everything in a farm is waste product, and you let it lie in the fields and it rots and returns to the air. It’s a big fraction of the carbon that cycles in and out every year. We don’t think about grabbing that and, say, sequestering it somewhere. I’ve written a couple of papers for Climate Change, an academic journal about this. The puritan impulse is to focus on our own evil. Bad people! Don’t burn fuels! Instead of saying, hey, there are other things here that we could be doing and we don’t have to stop guys from burning coal in China. So there’s a cost to these preconceptions.

 

JT: It also—it’s so healthy, too—God knows I’m going to quote Derrida—but to de-center our convictions, our monomanias, about these things—consider their oppositions, consider the gradations, consider how there are others that can happen, that can work.

 

BENFORD: Well, it’s natural to the species to divide problems into twos. I mean, our way of suggesting alternatives is to say “on the other hand”. We have two hands so we think there are two points on an issue. Not so. Nature does not know this, right, and therefore in the greenhouse problem, there’s three, four different things that we could do. But we don’t even suggest or study them being done, because everybody’s fixated on essentially a moral issue. Bad species. Shouldn’t burn all that coal.

 

BEAR: Oh, it’s Biblical. It’s very Biblical. The whole notion of good and evil and the dichotomy between being the stewards of the earth and, you know, being the exploiters of the earth. It’s a dichotomy. But as Gregory says, not a real dichotomy. There are many solutions. All of which cause great controversy in a society that doesn’t understand how science works to start with. They’re afraid of science.  There are two reasons for this. One, I think because of World War I. But two, we just have people who are not numeric thinkers. They don’t get along with numbers very easily. Like people who can’t read very well. They have a hard time getting into books. Okay, so our society is through the way we teach and the way we discuss these issues, and the way science relies almost entirely on mathematics, it’s very hard for some people to get. Probably well over half don’t get that kind of thinking. And it scares them. So that breaks down. It’s a biological, epistemological breakdown into—what would you call the biology of education? That’s not epistemology. What would biology of education be?

 

BENFORD: I don’t know if there’s a term for the biology—

 

BEAR: But to that extent we need to improve the way we teach people, and perhaps change the way we use language to get ideas across. And that’s a long-term prospect.

 

BENFORD: The great thing about reading is, it’s the best way to get into somebody else’s mind. And it’s unfortunate—

 

BEAR: It’s better and more intimate than making love.

 

BENFORD: But it’s still verbal. And the news of a couple of days ago, the study done by the U.S. census, shows that reading is declining in all age groups just about the same amount in the United States, and has fallen about ten percent in the last fifteen years, is very bad news for the long-term stewardship of this society.

 

BEAR: Well, again, I think it’s part of that long-term problem that text has been difficult for many people to access. And movies and other things are starting to eat our lunch. But they’re eating our lunch at a much more diverse table, because there are far fewer films than there are books. Far fewer television shows, they’re far more expensive to make. So the media–even games, comic books, all these things are much more expensive to do.

 

JT: And each new technology engenders a new kind of nostalgia for what came before. Your character in Dead Lines loves LP records–

 

BEAR:  Well, yeah, but so do I.

 

JT:  —for example.

 

BEAR: I’m getting old that way.

 

JT: You even overtly praise the sound quality of an LP.

 

BEAR: Well, that’s actually—even Hollywood recognizes that, if you go back to, what is it? The Rock. Nicolas Cage gets this copy of a Beatles album, and he pays a hundred and fifty bucks for it, and his friends sits there and asks him, Well, why? And he says, Well, it sounds better. So even Hollywood knows that.

 

JT: Well, High Fidelity, too, gives that a heavy working-over. John Cusack.

 

BEAR: That’s about to change, though. Actually, SACD sounds better than LPs. So.

 

BENFORD: But, we’re entering an age in which all of our information is digital but our pleasures are analog. And you’re never going to get away from that analog.

 

JT: I’m not sure if I understood that.

 

BENFORD: Well, all the things that you do with your body are analog, not digital.

 

JT: I guess I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

 

BENFORD: But everybody’s in love with the digital because it’s new.

 

BEAR: It’s more compact, easier to carry, easy to record, easy to duplicate. There’s no interference from quantum effects, ’cause you just isolate that out.

 

BENFORD: And the way we transmit our genetic info is obviously digital in the sense that DNA has got a fore-coded information system. But the way we think is furiously analogic. Synapses run, and the chemical involvement—Anyone who’s had five martinis knows that your thinking changes for analog reasons, not digital.

 

BEAR: Is it pure anal– It’s not a sine wave. It’s not analog in the sense of a sine wave. It really is some sort of….

 

BENFORD: But thinking is not digital.

 

BEAR: No. No, not at all.

 

BENFORD: And therefore the whole analogy of our thinking to computers is fundamentally false. I mean, we’re actually—even if you wanted to use the analogy, we are self-programming computers. Because we can do things that change the memory. I mean, it’s often said that a memory is never the same the next time, because by accessing it, you alter it. That’s not true of computer files.

 

BEAR: Although, actually, in hard drives apparently it’s getting more and more true that there’s a mathematical algorithm that reconstructs from a very faulty record a perfect replica of what was put in there on your computer hard drive. Because you have to do that, because you’re in such small spaces now that quantum effects are causing corruption to the data.  So you have these mathematical algorithms that quite literally save your butt when you’re storing information.

 

 

 

WRITING AND TEACHING

JT: It must be great to be a student in one of your classes. Are both you guys still teaching?

 

BEAR: He is.

 

BENFORD: Well, I am. I’m a professor at U.C. Irvine.

 

JT: So you haven’t gone to full-time writing?

 

BENFORD: No, I never will. I mean, I’ve always thought it was too dangerous to be a full-time writer. Based on the experience of many of my friends, at least, who fall to alcoholism, bad work habits, drugs, a rather more interesting sex life. . . . But, then, I’ll defer to Greg Bear for that!

 

BEAR: Perversions he doesn’t approve of, so.

 

JT: Or as yet undreamt of.

 

BEAR: Well, those illusions, there we go back to those illusions again. What if your Mantis starts doing sexual experiments?

 

BENFORD: Well, the Mantis does do sexual experiments.

 

JT:  Hmmm.  Now, Greg, how about you—are you teaching at all?

 

BEAR: No, just lecturing off and on. No, teaching is hard work. And also I find that, with teaching, you have to remember how you use your own hundred set of caterpillar legs. And then you think about it, and then you stumble and fall in the ditch the next time you try to dance. So this is a metaphor for saying that, if you teach writing, which is probably what I’d only be qualified to teach, you’ll get in trouble with your own writing. ‘Cause you’re going back over basics all the time. You can glide into that space where, you know, you don’t even think about it.

 

JT: So there’s too much self-consciousness—?

 

BEAR: Imagine a sports figure teaching how to play baseball, or do ping-pong. Or imagine a great ballerina teaching ballet. They usually don’t until after they’ve retired. There’s a reason for that. You’re going over the basics again and again and again. And basics are what you want to forget about when you’re at the top of your form.

 

BENFORD: I would never teach writing precisely because I enjoy the fact that I can do it without thinking about it. That I do it intuitively, and that’s why it’s recreation, and it’s always been easy for me to, say, write novels because it was relaxing. If it became a full-time job I think it would be horrific.

 

BEAR: But how about in science? Does teaching science impede your ability to do theoretical science?

 

BENFORD: You know, I don’t find that it does. I teach plasma physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and it’s pleasant to reexamine the basics. Every once in a while in teaching a course, I’ve gotten an idea for something I could do just because I was forced to revisit the basics and think about them again. Trying to explain something to someone can clarify it to yourself.

 

BEAR: Why isn’t that true about doing writing, then?

 

BENFORD: It’s not true for me because writing is very intuitive for me. It’s like— Suppose someone wanted to say, Tell me how to make love. Well, I might be able to show you, but tell?

 

BEAR: See, he is the Mantis!

 

JT: Well, then you how do you keep close to the scientific community? Do you still maintain a contact there?

 

BEAR: All the time. It’s fun to talk about science.  The thing about scientists is they don’t have a lot of people who are willing to talk to them on a serious and listening level. You know, where you listen to what they’re saying and come back with interesting questions. So science fiction writers kind of often do that. And that makes them great conversation victims for scientists. But we’re willing victims, because we get our story ideas from a lot of those discourses. The other thing about talking to scientists is, science has a personality and a culture, and just as you would have to interview police detectives to understand about, you know, writing mysteries and so on, talking to scientists, you get the feeling of the rhythm of their speech, how they use words, and how they interact with each other that’s essential to creating the characters of the story.

 

BENFORD: Oh, to be sure.

 

 

 

THE SCIENTIST AS HERO

JT:  Gregory Benford, So many of these topics and ideas can be found in your novel, Timescape.  In the first place, it seems to me as a layperson to say a lot about the life of a scientist, particularly the physicist, and the pressures under which scientists operate—all about getting along and getting the grants and the tenure, and all of that kind of thing.

 

BENFORD: Right. I realized somewhere in the late ‘70s that this enormously influential culture had no one writing novels about science and scientists.

 

BEAR: Well, C.P. Snow, in something like The New Men..

 

BENFORD: Right, but who had by the time he started writing novels actually stopped being a scientist. But yes. There are fewer, fewer examples. And I thought, wow, what a rich ground. And the most exciting thing to me in science is discovery. And discovery of the new is the cutting edge of science fiction, in my opinion. You cannot do that which you cannot first imagine. And that’s true of scientists, too. So scientists have to have imagination. They are not just bookkeepers.

 

JT: Icarus flew long before we had airplanes.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: The difference between Snow and Benford is that, in Snow’s books, nothing significant is discovered. It’s all about  the process of the characters involved. It’s a social priority. There’s not really a deep novel about discovery. Timescape is all about something really cool being discovered. And that’s kind of difference between the literary attitude that man is the measure of all things—and therefore we shall write about man—and the science fiction novel which says that while man’s interesting, the universe is terrific!  So what is man going to measure and discover?

 

BENFORD: Right. The interesting thing is that interface between us and the strange. ‘The universe is fundamentally alien and we just keep trying to domesticate it. But there’s always an alien boundary.

 

JT:  There’s time-travel paradoxes aplenty here.  It’s like Chris Marker’s La Jetee, where someone from the future reaches back into the past to alert people to take steps to prevent the disaster threatening the future.  So, we have two time periods, the world of 1963 and of 1998, interacting.  But then, we shift to 1974 and to yet another future time period!  Wow!  I gather that the scientist, Markham, is your kinda guy?

 

BENFORD: Oh yeah. Well, Markham, by no accident, has exactly my biography. And he has my first name. I appear in the novel actually, under two different guises; the other is the California scientist, Gordon Bernstein.  Markham is in 1998 and Gordon is in 1963. You see, it’s all a form of disguised autobiography.  What happens in the last chapter, or I intended to happen, is that Bernstein, in a sense, is in a quantum-mechanical state.  Time is a loop, where cause-and-effect mean nothing.  He sort of is stuck in between, and he becomes aware of how contingent his present is.  And so he goes in and out of states.  I attempted to convey what it would be like if you were subject to a quantum-mechanical state and you flipped between one and the other—

JT:  But here, the switch is between ON and OFF?

BENFORD: Yeah, it’s in between.  But I wanted to evoke just the sensation of feeling that time, or the timescape, was variable, that it rippled and moved, instead of time as this solid object that we think of.  So that’s the aesthetic intention in the last five, six pages of the novel.  It’s the attempt to see time as pliable and to see what it would feel like if it were pliable.

JT: And there’s this wonderful sort of elegiac quality to those final scenes in the dying world of England, when we see Peterson going back to his home, which is now a fortress. But it—and I mean this as an absolute compliment—it kind of reminded me of R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s one of the great end-of-the-world scenes I’ve ever seen, not because it’s a graphic description of cataclysm, but the quiet despair of how the characters are approaching their end

BENFORD: The Hopkins Manuscript? I’ll have to read it.  My intention in Timescape was to say that Peterson is a guy who is an alpha-male, who treats people like objects, and he’s very good at women, and he’s, you know, upper class and all this, and he’s planning for the collapse all along, and he gets into his redoubt and then realizes that he’s still contingent—dependent upon the people in the community and they don’t owe him. And then there’s this feeling of dread that he’s in a corner, and he can’t get out, and he thought he was so smart, but he’d forgotten that you have to not treat people like objects.

JT:  Greg Bear, where are you in your books?

 

BEAR: I’m God. So I’m in all of my books!  No, I just borrow stuff from my various, you know, subconscious processes and they become different characters, [modeled] somewhat after people in the real world. Mostly I model on their realities, their biographies, but their internal processes I have to think of in my own terms.

 

 

SOME GOTHIC GHOSTS:  A DIGRESSION

JT:  Greg, while I’m at it, I just wanted to go back to Dead Lines.  Based upon the things of yours I’ve read, it does seem to be a departure.  You’ve called it “science fiction,” but it is a ghost story, too, isn’t it?  I mean, you have these wireless phones that open gateways to ghosts and fiends.

 

BEAR:  Well, it’s a real gothic story, in the sense that you blur the lines between life and death, don’t you?  In the story, the world is running out of bandwidth, and there’s a new source of forbidden information channels that reach into the regions of the Dead and release all kinds of dreadful things.

 

JT:  Your Dedication certainly proclaims your love for those great “ghosters” like M.R. James, Le Fanu, H. P. Lovecraft, and Peter Straub.  And I’m glad to see you mention Shirley Jackson.

 

BEAR:  They all write ghost stories.  But Jackson has this female’s perspective on ghosts.  There’s some pretty horrific stuff in The Haunting of Hill House. The ghosts are obviously there to scare the piss out of you, but they’re taking pleasure in it.

 

JT:  She loves to play us for suckers.

 

BEAR: She does, but nevertheless there’s evil in the house. It’s not as if she’s only saying this house could be your own psychology staring at you.

 

JT:  Even when she’s not dealing in ghosts but disturbed personalities she’s still terrifying.  I’m thinking of the one about the multiple personalities, The Bird’s Nest.  That may be one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read, although I’m not quite sure why.

 

BEAR: Well, it’s just that all the character’s personalities are in a sense so isolated from each other.  Most of her main female characters in her stories are very, very disturbed emotionally. They have no connection to themselves. They’re searching for a home.  And sometimes it results in damage to the self, like in Hill House.  And in other cases it’s damage to others that we see in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Bird’s Nest. And then you think of the kind of extended garden party horrors of The Sundial, and after the end of the world. She was a very hard-minded and yet elegant writer.

 

JT: Who thought she was a witch.

 

BEAR: Who may have thought she was a witch. Probably her parents and her children thought she was a witch, too.  There are other writers I admire.  You mentioned M.R. James, who wrote about things that may or may not be ghosts, but they’re definitely not of our universe! And Lovecraft takes that same idea. They borrow those ideas from people like Arthur Machen and from William Hope Hodgson. Now, I love all of those writers. I just think they’re very interesting spiritual writers. But it’s a skewed spirituality, sort of a dire spirituality.  What I want to do is use a scientific theory to give you experiences you’ve never had before, but in a familiar way, and what is that but the ghost story? But it’s ghosts like you’ve never seen them before, in contexts that you’ve never really experience, but there’s enough of an underpinning and a mythos to what you’re seeing that it almost makes sense, and that’s what provides the scare.  You can tie this into experiences you or someone in your family may actually have had. You can say, Oh, I see that. ‘Cause I borrowed it not just from ghost stories but from people who have actually seen ghosts. Which you gotta do when you’re refreshing the medium.  And the main point of the book is to scare the pants off you, because that’s a lovely experience. And then you can turn the last page, and you can close it, and you can go to sleep.  That’s a very cozy feeling—

 

JT: —and eventually go to sleep.

 

BEAR:  Right.  Eventually go to sleep. Some people have complained about Dead Lines that way.  But that’s the kind of ghost story I love. For me, the ghost stories don’t scare me so much as they are almost a spiritual experience.  You’re getting access to what could be a view of reality beyond what you could possibly know now, and to me, how is that different from reading Olaf Stapledon? You know. And science fiction in its extreme metaphysical forms does that to you. It exalts you. And a good ghost story can do that, too.

 

JT:   What are some of your top ten ghostly tales, and why. It’s so much fun to talk about ghost stories with people that know what they’re talking about.

 

BEAR: Well, I like both movies and ghost stories.

 

JT: Let’s start with the British master, William Hope Hodgson.  Lovecraft loved his work.

 

BEAR: Hodgson? Well, brilliant in many different ways. Some of his stories are a little disappointing because his psychic sleuth, Carnacki, sometimes finds out there’s no supernatural element involved in his investigations.  But sometimes they are, like in “The Hog” and “The Whistling Room.”  So at least he wasn’t constantly delivering the message that there’s nothing scary going on here.

 

JT: But what’s going on with Carnacki’s scientific apparatus?  Seems like he’s a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, experimenting with all kinds of electrical devices. . . he even seems to be anticipating television.

 

BEAR: Well, there is a lot of that. That’s actually out of the science of the turn of the century.  Hodgson is part a science fiction writer, part a fantasy writer, part a horror writer, so it’s one third here, another third there, and another. . . . But his The Night Land is a brilliant novel, scary as hell; but really oddly written, very tough to get into. Some of the visions in The Night Land I actually incorporated into a novella set in the Eon universe called The Way of All Ghosts, and dedicated it to Hodgson. But I might go back to The Night Land again. His The House on the Borderland has got to be one of the great visionary novels of all time. And it’s just, it’s compellingly readable.  And then you go to M.R.  James and you get, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” and nine or ten others that are just sheer masterpieces of terror.  And, forgive me here, you get an H.P. Lovecraft, who launched into a method of using circumlocuitous prose to create a sensation of disorientation that really is scary. I mean, it’s not this, it’s not that, it’s the old Hindu Neti neti, you know, undescribable.  Like At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  I didn’t put Edgar Allan Poe in that list, which I find interesting. Poe, of course, is the precursor to both mysteries and science fiction and all that stuff.  But he didn’t  write that many ghost stories.  Resurrected corpses don’t exactly qualify as ghosts to me.!

 

JT:  Now, how about Walter De la Mare?

 

BEAR:  I haven’t read a lot of his stories. They’re a little on the soft side for me. I want the really intellectual thrills and his stories tend to be more traditional stories. Kind of like Marjorie Bowen, kind of like Henry James, yeah. And they’re sometimes gentler. There’s a kind of a gentleness about De la Mare’s ghosts stories. Except for The Return, I think you were quoting, which can be a little scary. So I haven’t put him in there because he hasn’t influenced me that much. The names I put on that list were those who really have shaped the way my novel comes out, because they’ve influenced me directly.

 

 

FINALE:  DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?

 

JT:  Obviously, living and dying are complicated elements in your stories.  The divisions between them seem to, well, get blurred, as you say.  In Darwin’s Radio, a new generation in effect is born twice.  And in Dead Lines people die twice.

 

BEAR: Right.

 

JT: What’s going on?

 

BEAR: I’ve long believed that coming into this world and going out of this world are the two hardest things you’ll ever do. You get your ticket stamped going in, you get your ticket stamped going out. It’s just miserable. It’s traumatic, it’s miserable. And the question is at that point, why is there faith, why is there a need for faith? Because of these two truths. So the people say there must have been something before and there must be something after. Interestingly enough, we don’t talk about what comes before.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate, even in a science fiction story to say, What if there is something beyond our ken?  But the interesting thing about the reaction to Dead Lines is, I think, that it’s got great reviews and it’s been called a fantasy novel. I don’t regard it as a fantasy novel. It’s a discovery of a new realm in a way that’s very frightening. And structurally that’s no different for me than what happens in Blood Music, which describes microscopic medical machines, where DNA is treated as a computational system.  Which also, I think, would be very frightening. People hate two things. They hate biological transformation which is equated with disease. Okay, something changes, then it must go wrong. Or ageing. And then they hate the notion of other kinds of change that lead to death, which is the ultimate change. But what if that’s not the end of the changes? And in Dead Lines I want to give you the impression that death is a process that has rules and is very, very moving and confusing and also strips away from you the things that you no longer need.  I borrowed this from Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay for a movie called Jacob’s Ladder. (There’ll be some spoilers if you print this!)  Jacob’s Ladder is a marvelous story about the supernatural, kind of a version of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where a man who was in Vietnam is going through the process of having all of his earthly persiflage stripped away from him. For him, the perspective is that he’s seeing demons. But in the end of the story it’s not that they’re demons. It’s that they’re there to strip away what you don’t need in the process of dying.  There’s a little bit of this sort of thing in Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which is one of the more interesting time travel stories, ’cause it’s an organic vision of time.

 

JT: Which is gobbling up the universe.

 

BEAR: Gobbling up and changing, and it’s unpredictable. It’s not mathematically linear and predictable. I kinda like that. It’s also a very scary story. And so what I’m saying is, What if ghosts are dead skin left behind? Then are there spiritual mites that chew that up and get it out of the way? And that’s a very natural process, and, again, most of my stories involve the ecology of natural processes.

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE:  Here we come to an end—or is it a new beginning?  We recall the adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac that began this book.  He had sailed to the Moon and beyond, ultimately to the sun.  Even his death, moreover, mere mortality, failed to slow him down.  Witness his epitaph:

All weary with the earth too soon

I took my flight into the skies,

Beholding there the sun and moon

Where now the Gods confront my eyes.

Like de Bergerac, Bear and Benford, along with the other figures in this book, have embarked on their own imaginative odysseys.  Occasionally they come back to gather around the cosmic campfire to share with us their adventures—with advantages.  All of them found in all the riddles and mysteries of Man and the Cosmos, as Bear reminds us, “conflicts that made for great stories. . . .”

In conclusion, as we continue our own forays into the wondrous, we would do well to bear in mind what the celebrated gothic fantasist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote so long ago—

“It is said that the miraculous has vanished from the earth, but I do not                            believe it.  The miracles are still there, for even if we are no longer willing                   to call by that name the most wonderful aspects of our daily life, because                            we have managed to deduce from a succession of events a law of cyclic                            recurrence; nevertheless, there often passes through that cycle a                                     phenomenon which puts all our wisdom to shame, and which, in our                            stupid obstinacy, we refuse to believe because we are unable to                                     comprehend it.”[10]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


            [1] Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act V/

 

            [2] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (New York:  Vintage Press, 2010), 459.

 

            [3] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), 381-382.

 

            [4] Stephen Jay Gould, “Modified Grandeur,” Natural History, Vol. 14, No. 20 (March 1993), 14-20.

 

            [5] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1996), 35.

            [6] William Jaames, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Barnes & Noble reprint (New York:  Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 449-450.

 

            [7] Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2005), 291.

 

            [8] Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience (New York:  Penguin Press, 2006), 31.

 

            [9]Freeman Dyson, “When Science & Poetry Were Friends,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 13 (Auagust 13, 2009), 8.

            [10] E.T.A. Hoffmann, trans. Ronald Tayler, The Devil’s Elixirs (London:  John Calder, 1963), 249.

Jaames, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Barnes & Noble reprint (New York:  Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 449-450.

 

            [7] Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2005), 291.

 

            [8] Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience (New York:  Penguin Press, 2006), 31.

 

            [9]Freeman Dyson, “When Science & Poetry Were Friends,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 13 (Auagust 13, 2009), 8.

            [10] E.T.A. Hoffmann, trans. Ronald Tayler, The Devil’s Elixirs (London:  John Calder, 1963), 249.



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