April 15, 2024


Science It Works

Lynnwood’s Greg Bear, stalwart of modern science fiction, starts writing his life story

It is a sign of a blessed life when a writer has been so prolific and successful over his career that he can’t remember how many novels he’s published.

Such is the case with Greg Bear, who just released his … 30-somethingth? … novel, the fantasy epic “The Unfinished Land.”

“I’m not positive,” Bear said. “I actually kind of lost track 10 or 11 titles ago. I think this was at least 36 or 37.”

And perhaps his last.

The 69-year-old Lynnwood-based author and first-class raconteur still has a lot to say. He’s published four novels since aortic dissection surgery left him with a titanium heart valve six years ago and has plans for more. But he’s just not sure he wants to deal with the business of fiction publishing anymore after having a hard time finding a buyer for “The Unfinished Land,” eventually published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint John Joseph Adams Books.

“If I had written it and no one wanted to publish it, what would I do right at that point?” Bear said. “I considered just retiring. And I think I’m still making that decision at this point.”

“The Unfinished Land” by Greg Bear (John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“The Unfinished Land” by Greg Bear (John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

If this is truly the end of Bear’s fiction career, it’s no time for mourning. Bear has had one of science fiction’s most celebrated runs, selling millions of books that have been translated into 19 languages. He sold his first story to Famous Science Fiction magazine at the age of 15 for $10. Since then, he’s been a key player at important moments in the history of modern science fiction, and a touchstone connecting giants of yore like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury with today’s crowd of notable authors. And he has inspired many with his examination of important ideas and concerns over the decades that are now front-page headlines in our seemingly unraveling world.

Bear was also one of the founders of San Diego Comic-Con, a past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a Clarion West fellowship instructor with Octavia Butler and a winner of five Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards, the top honors in the science fiction and fantasy worlds. Any of these things alone would top a resume.

So instead of fiction, Bear is at the moment putting the finishing touches on a sprawling memoir that will link the two golden ages of speculative fiction.

“This is my history of science fiction, as I knew it,” Bear said. “We saw a lot over the years and met a lot of people. It’s name-dropping, but I’ve been to a Seder with Isaac Asimov. I’ve had dinner with everyone from Robert Heinlein to Jerry Pournelle. It was just amazing. But, unfortunately, many of them are not with us anymore.”

Bear’s love of science fiction started in a childhood marked by periodic upheaval as his father moved around with the U.S. Navy. He’d lived in Japan and the Philippines as a child. Some of his earliest memories are of haunting the library at the Kodiak, Alaska, naval base, where the future beckoned in the form of novels by people like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Poul Anderson, his future father-in-law.

He was already sending out submissions to sci fi magazines by this time.

“That was always what I wanted to do,” Bear said. “I was actually sending stories off and cartoons and other things when I was in Kodiak. My mother would send them off for me. And we got them nicely rejected because I was very young at that point.”

His family soon moved to a new base in San Diego — and the timing couldn’t have been better for the young writer. He had access to fan conventions where sci fi writers and comic book authors and artists were happy to talk to their admirers.

You could just walk up to someone like Bradbury and strike up a conversation, which is exactly what Bear and his future friend David Clark did in 1967 following a speech given by the author of “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles.”

“He said, ‘Don’t be cool, be passionate. Take whatever you love and embrace it and go for it. And don’t be reserved about it,’” Clark said. “At the end of that, both Greg and I are a couple of the kids that jumped out of the audience and ran up to the side of the stage with our books to be autographed. And then while talking to Bradbury and getting our books signed, that’s where [Bear] and I actually met. And that was the beginning of our friendship.”

That lifelong friendship has been witness to a lot of great things, especially after Bear and Clark decided to join the organizing crew for the first San Diego Comic-Con (then known as the Golden State Comic-Con), which was founded by a mixture of six comic store owners and young fans who wanted to re-create conventions from other towns.

Their first guests? Bradbury and Jack Kirby, the visionary comics creator behind a lot of today’s most notable heroes. Bradbury even waived his fee.

“We had Ray Bradbury and Jack Kirby, and that was all we needed as kids,” Bear said.

Bear (and Clark, after a tour in Vietnam) would continue to make friends in the book and comics world for years until Bear finally published his first novel, “Hegira,” in 1979. Soon, book after book began to appear as Bear leaned on his military background to reinvent and reinvigorate sci fi.

“He’s had a heck of a career,” Clark said. “He’s got a wonderful backlist. He’s written a number of things that are really kind of important science fiction books. He’s one of the leading exemplars of hard science fiction. Maybe you’re aware of the Killer B’s.”

Bear, Greg Benford and David Brin were the new breed of sci fi writers in the 1980s and ’90s, bringing science to the forefront of science fiction. They even teamed in the 1990s to write a series of prequels to Asimov’s towering “Foundation” series.

Bear wasn’t limited to a particular kind of science fiction and moved about freely in his career. There was “Blood Music,” a book about biotechnology and artificial intelligence that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing said they found inspiring. “Darwin’s Radio,” a novel about a retrovirus that changes the course of human evolution, sounds pretty prescient given our current situation. And “Eon” tells the story of a terraformed asteroid sent back from the future.

“The Unfinished Land” is also something a bit different: a fantasy novel that has little to do with science or the future. Set in the Age of Discovery, it’s the story of the hapless English apprentice Reynard, who finds himself on a fantastical adventure after surviving an attack by the Spanish Armada.

“Well, this may sound kind of strange, but I’m not sure I wrote this book,” Bear said. “I actually started thinking of a book like this one in the 1980s and started wondering, ‘OK, what would it be like if you told the actual secret of the Muse. You know, where do these ideas come from? What do you do with them? How does civilization respond?’

“And so for years I cogitated on this. And then a couple of years ago, I sat down and wrote this book. I think this was payback from my Muse, because I can’t imagine writing some of the stuff that’s in the book.”

And if this is it for Bear’s fiction career, he can be content. Maybe not happy about it, but content nonetheless. He’s had quite the run, after all.

“If you’re channeling the Muse and you’re happy with the result, do you want to try it again?” Bear asked. “How many chances can you take on all the books? And I’ve taken a lot of chances over the years.”

new local fiction

‘The Unfinished Land’

Greg Bear, John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 387 pp., $26