Tech Flesh 2: An Interview with Greg Bear
CTheory: First, we would like to begin with a general question about
science fiction, and your position as an SF writer. How would you characterize
your work in relation to the actual sciences of genetics and biotech? What do
you see as the role of SF in relation to the sciences?
Greg Bear: Science fiction has always functioned as an interface
between scientists and the interested lay public. A fair number of scientists
write SF, in part to relax, in part to publicly explain ideas near and dear to
them and also perhaps to play with ideas their colleagues wouldn't appreciate
seeing in formal journals. Many, many more scientists enjoy reading it (if they
have time, after the journals, to read anything!). But SF also opens up the
playing field to artists and writers who can explore scientific issues in ways
scientific journals don't or won't. Social modeling of the implications of
scientific discoveries is necessary to both science and society — whether it be
positive or negative or balanced!
I love talking with scientists and researching their work. Since I don't have
to go after grants, or deal with academic institutions, I'm also free to explore
notions and possibilities that could get working scientists in real trouble.
That brings along both responsibility — I try to get all the facts right — and a
sense of humility, when I realize how difficult it is to work in science today.
Scientists do much of the modern world's heavy lifting.
CTheory: Your SF novels Blood Music and Darwin's
Radio both deal with the ways in which genetics and biotech transform
the human condition. But they also seem to be very different versions of what
that transformation entails. What was the driving force behind these two books?
Is there a connection for you between them?
Greg Bear: Blood Music followed hard on the dawning of my
realization that DNA is a self-organizing cybernetic system — a kind of neural
network. The implications of that were staggering — and at the time, working off
my debt to visionary science fiction, I wanted to carry the idea quickly to its
ultimate conclusion — which came to resemble the worst nightmares of the early
pioneers of nanotechnology. It's a parable of the consequences of knowledge and
evolution — of what happens when biological systems acquire supreme control over
their environment. Some view it as a scary horror novel — others as a tale of
religious transcendence. To me, it's both — change is both scary and
Darwin's Radio follows on from biological speculations I made in two
novels, Legacy and Moving Mars. I had postulated different kinds
of biological systems on other planets, particularly in Legacy, which
takes place on a planet aptly named Lamarckia, where the "masters" of ecosystems
called ecoi survey their environment before making decisions as to what sort of
new life-forms to put out in the "marketplace." With some chagrin, as I did more
research in the late nineties, it became clear to me that, first, bacteria
functioned as social organisms, with multicellular aspects and extraordinary
abilities to cooperate, and then, that all elements in ecosystems probably did
much the same thing, in many different ways. The final "revelation" took me back
to Blood Music, with the growing conviction that every element in nature
was also a web of competition and cooperation, the whole and the parts being
much more aware of the environment, and able to react to it, than current theory
allowed. DNA was once again "smart," and part of a layered series of natural
"minds," able to make educated decisions and take risks. This was a bombshell to
me — and I knew that it would be to working biologists, as well. So I drew back
from the more extreme SF elements of Blood Music and wrote a contemporary
tale of human speciation, with a lot of informed debate about modern biology,
biotechnology, and the implications of what we're learning as we unravel the
genome. (I was so excited by what I had learned about bacteria, however, that I
slipped a scientist giving a speech on the topic into my near-future crime
novel, Slant, published a few years before Darwin's Radio.)
CTheory: In Darwin's Radio, we see the social and political
consequences of radical evolutionary change, from mass media hysteria to the
intricacies of governmental organizations such as the CDC. Do you think we're
prepared as a society for the changes which genetics and biotech have to offer?
Greg Bear: Society is remarkably flexible, but the way it absorbs
change is interesting — more than just debate, there must be challenge,
competition, argument, even fighting. People of good will can disagree violently
at times — and then, as more facts come in, as society is given a chance to
absorb the new material and viewpoints and adapt to them, people change sides,
stability is reached, and a new way of thinking is put into place that
transforms our views of our world. It's a biological process!
CTheory: Darwin's Radio also contains some interesting
discussion about biological evolution and its relationship to sociobiology —
that social phenomena are driven by and can be explained by biology. What is
your own view of sociobiological thinking? Was it important for you that the
SHEVA virus was "naturally occurring" and not a product of genetic engineering?
Greg Bear: We can be awfully self-important when we try to assess our
impact on nature — and with good reason, because we're having a remarkable
impact in a short period of time. But we're still subject to natural systems and
their rules, and we're still open to surprise. I'm not an ideologue when it
comes to how society is driven by biology — except that I believe human society
is firmly rooted in biology, and that biology, top to bottom, has a lot of
interesting resemblances to social systems.
I once convinced a sociologist working for a government think-tank that DNA
was a social system, but she balked at my description of social systems as
biological! I suspect that many sociobiologists will strongly disagree with my
observation that genes are social — that while genes are often selfish, more
often they must get along with hundreds of other genes to get any useful work
done. That means that most genes are more like a Union laborer than a Hanta
virus or a ravenous tiger.
Perhaps the simplest expression is that the tension of cooperation and
competition found in society is the hallmark of every layer in living nature.
CTheory: As a non-scientist and an SF writer, which areas of genetics
and biotech research intrigue you the most? What do you see as some of the most
promising aspects of genetics and biotech? What are some of its pitfalls?
Greg Bear: All aspects of genetics and biotech are intimately related
for me. What you learn in one discipline has almost immediate applications in
another — if you have the right conceptual tools. What causes me irritation now
is watching brilliant biologists, doing exceptional work, trying to interpret
their findings based on theories that seem to me totally inadequate to the task
at hand. I have had the dizzying experience, several times, of reading about
groundbreaking biology experiments, guessing at the outcome of the experiments
before the paper has revealed them, and then watching the working scientists
backpedal, express their dismay, or hide their real thoughts on what the
experiment has revealed — all the while expressing surprise that the experiments
turned out as they did. I'm not psychic; I'm just using a different set of
conceptual tools, as yet crudely shaped, unrefined, in some cases poorly
conceived, but, I think, very promising nevertheless.
CTheory: Blood Music takes the reader on an incredible,
intensive extrapolation from Virgil Ulam's biotech lab to an entire city
composed of "wet" cells, individually and collectively communicating a unique
form of consciousness — what Virgil hears as the "music in the blood." Do you
see this novel as an apocalyptic novel, a novel of transcendence, a cautionary
dystopia, or something else? Is there some fascination with the "nonhuman" at
Greg Bear: We are not who we think we are. The mind is the brain and
body working together and reacting to the environment; the brain by itself
cannot explain mind. In Western culture in particular, our inheritance from the
Greeks and the Enlightenment is a kind of fiction about the role of Self and
mind that people in other parts of the world — Japan or India, for example —
find puzzling. The human mind is made up of elements that, if analyzed
objectively, turn out to be remarkably "unhuman" in the Western conception. In
other words, we are made of layers of different sorts of biologically based
minds, strongly interconnected, but performing different tasks at different
times in our lives, using shared resources. The conscious mind — which is still
consistently regarded as the true and reliable Self in our culture — reacts
after the fact to what these other minds do. Consciousness is a social
interface, mandated by our nature as social animals. The conscious self is very
useful, sometimes serving as a critical judge, after the fact, of our emotions
and actions, but it's not the one in charge much of the time. (Marvin Minsky's
Society of Mind is a key text in this debate, as well as Julian Jaynes
and William James, Jung, and Freud, all of whom had different approaches to the
same fascinating problem.)
In Blood Music, we are simply forced to meet all of our aspects in a
democratic debate that includes the voices of the body, and most of us get voted
out of office.
CTheory: Finally, if you could clone anyone in the world (but not
yourself), or if you could hybridize any two people in the world (but not
yourself as one of them), who would it be?
Greg Bear: Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat with the
extraordinary social conscience, and Barbara McClintock, who first understood
the ecological nature of the genome. (Tomorrow, a different set of names!)
Greg Bear is the author of Darwin's Radio, Blood
Music, Queen of Angels, and Slant. His next novel is entitled
Eugene Thacker is an Assistant Professor in the department of Literature,
Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech. His writes on new media and
biotechnology, and is a part of the art group Fakeshop.
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