A Conversation with Greg Bear, author of Dead Lines
Del Rey:Your new novel, Dead Lines, breaks new ground for you, in that it is more of straight-ahead horror novel than anything you’ve written before. Tell us more about the story.
Greg Bear:Here’s a bit of a dust-jacket-style synopsis to whet the appetite:
“Old-time nudie director Peter Russell lost a daughter to a serial killer. His marriage was the next casualty. Now he gets by as Mr. Fixit for a film millionaire with a young wife on a big Malibu estate infamous for old Hollywood scandals. The millionaire invests in a new kind of personal communication, using Trans technology–‘a cell phone, but not.’ The problem with Trans is that not only can you talk to friends and family, but to those in very faraway places indeed.
The dear departed.
That wasn’t part of the design spec.
The manager of Trans gives Peter’s career a second chance–to direct retro commercials as part of a promotional campaign. But Peter is having severe misgivings.
The Trans accesses forbidden channels, bandwidth the engineers believe was hitherto unused. But now there are phantoms everywhere there is Trans. Peter is haunted by wraiths, ghosts of the living–and unearthly parasites seeking refuge. He is also harried almost to death by his murdered daughter, who holds clues not just to her killer, but to the nature of life after death, the long and difficult passage that is now apparently blocked by Trans...
Thousands of the new devices are being handed out every day. Trans is a hit. It’s the lure of free talk, anywhere on Earth. And only Peter Russell is in a position to know just what’s happening.
Ghosts can kill.
The gates to Heaven and to Hell have slammed shut. The dead are here to stay.”
DR:After so much success as a science fiction writer, why turn to horror?
GB:I’ve never limited myself to any single genre. And I’ve always loved ghost stories. Readers may remember Psychlone, my science fiction ghost story from 1979--that’s been in print for over twenty years now. Besides, I’ll make the argument that Dead Lines is science fiction--if you allow one speculative given, that information mechanics applies to our conscious selves, and perhaps to our soul. Expanding the definition of reality in a consistent way is what science fiction is about--and what triggers Peter’s experiences is a new type of technology, after all. The discovery of a new realm.
DR:How does writing horror differ from writing sf? Is it a matter of emphasis, perspective?
GB:I’ve been accused of writing horror in such novels as Blood Music. Horror is a variety of fear, and fear is our typical reaction to extreme and abrupt change, death being the prime example. In Blood Music, we fear being transformed into something other... and whether or not we die seems, at first, irrelevant to our fear. But in the end, the transformation turns out to be perversely desirable. We haven’t lost our souls--we’ve finally gained access to a new kind of heaven.
But we always come back to the fear of death and dying. What if anything lies beyond? Enough people have seen ghostly phenomenon (including me) that there may be some fire underneath all that anecdotal smoke. If there is, how do we explain it? A scientific approach yields some interesting effects, which I argue makes Dead Lines even more terrifying in its way than most ghost stories. There’s a kind of discovery going on in the novel that is at once exhilarating and chilling. We’re actually seeing deeply into the invisible world--and at the same time, we’re finding out what really lies in store for us. It is not comforting--it is not what we think we need--but in the end, it may be redeeming. What we find along the way, however, is almost pure terror.
DR:Tell us about your hero, Peter Russell.
GB:Peter is based in part on my friend William Rotsler. Artist, cartoonist, filmmaker, and writer, Rotsler was one of the most fascinating and informative people I’ve met. He took pictures (and movies) of naked ladies, yet women loved him--he was just a big, well-spoken, witty Teddy bear of a guy, with immense charm and intelligence. And what he knew about life that I would never know would fill volumes. I’ve laced some of Bill’s anecdotes and attitudes into Peter Russell, and made him a little younger--roughly the age that Bill appeared to be when I last saw him, about ten years ago. Bill was actually a good deal older than that.
I’ve watched a lot of Bill’s movies in the last year, and they are almost universally terrible--but great fun. Bill also appears in some of the sixties nudie films, and it’s great to see him again--like a ghost. That brings up the comparison between what we see on film, and ghosts in (so to speak) real life.
Peter’s dead friend Phil is a mix of several people in Bill’s life, and my own--with a touch perhaps of Philip K. Dick, just for spice.
DR:Aren’t we in fact running out of available bandwidth, as the novel states? What will happen then to all these wonderful devices we’re growing so attached to?
GB:The demand for instant access to large amounts of information is definitely heating up the airwaves. A new device that would offer access to infinite bandwidth--like Arpad Kreisler’s Trans--would open a new gold rush. I’ve tried to paint these fellows as a little brilliant and a little inept--but Kreisler is a true explorer and discoverer, not a villain. (Some astute readers may notice that Kreisler has merely tapped into the kind of physics I’ve explored in earlier novels, including Anvil of Stars and Moving Mars. Does the phrase “forbidden channels” ring a bell? An Alexander Graham Bell, perhaps? Or a John Bell...)
DR:In your last few books, beginning with Darwin’s Radio and continuing through Vitals, and now Dead Lines, you seem to be moving away from traditional hard science fiction and space opera. Do you feel that those genres are less relevant now?
GB:In fact, Darwin’s Radio is one of the hardest science fiction novels I’ve written. It actually does describe the present revolution in biology with a fair degree of accuracy, from the perspective of 1997-1998, when it was written. Vitals is a political thriller that also incorporates a lot of biological speculation. For too long now, physics and astronomy have defined what we mean by hard sciences, and hard science fiction has reflected that culture. But biology is the hottest of today’s sciences--and I’m only doing my job, as a science fiction writer, by exploring those angles.
The contemporary Earthly aspect of these books may confuse some readers--but I should point out that H.G. Wells, in many of his novels, sticks close to the present day, and never gets far from home.
Is Dead Lines science fiction? I think so. Is it mainstream? Not in the sense of it being a secular, de-spirited novel of modern angst and manners. It’s about believable people living through incredible experiences. That’s the kind of fiction I’ve always written.
As for Peter experiencing what some would call the supernatural--I say the experiences are natural--just unexplored, or only lightly explored, before now.
DR:Where do you see your interests as a writer leading you in the future?
GB:I’m working on a near future novel about law enforcement on an international scale. That’s another challenge--getting the attitudes and details of the criminalistics right, but with new tech and new techniques, as well as some very old politics.
DR:Perhaps it’s only because of the prevalence of death and mortality in Dead Lines, as I suppose is almost inevitable in a horror novel, but I had the impression that this was a very personal book for you.
GB:With the exception of the ties to my friend William Rotsler and a few others, there’s very little in the novel that is directly personal, other than some of my experiences around Los Angeles in the film community--I’ve always hung about on the periphery of filmmaking. All sorts of filmmaking. I do utilize the passion I feel as a parent to heighten the emotion and truth of Peter’s scenes with his daughters. But Peter’s life is very unlike my own.
DR:Your novel Darwin’s Children featured a strong metaphysical, some might even say religious, aspect, and you’ve carried that trend even further in Dead Lines. Why? Do you feel that horror gives you more of a chance to explore this theme than science fiction?
GB:Often science fiction--reflecting scientific culture--seems to preclude exploring the spiritual. There’s a real difficulty here. Science cannot tackle these subjects directly--they are simply irreproducible. You can’t pin them down; you must simply observe and record. That makes them more like astrophysics or geology--controversial, often denied, but still part of the sciences. The study of the paranormal has long suffered both from charlatans and from overwhelming and sometimes irrational skepticism. Besides, the phenomena--if they are real, and that is still a question difficult to decide--are transitory. They happen quickly, and more often than not we have no idea what we’ve just seen. One of the ideas I bring up in Dead Lines is that we may be witnessing so-called supernatural phenomena a lot of the time--but it seems too real. What if ghosts look just as solid, in bright daylight, as living people? Could you check out the reality of everyone you see on the street?
Meteors used to be denied, and ball lightning is still controversial--but as we learn more, these difficult phenomena fit into a larger scheme of things. All it takes to transform ghosts into science is a new discovery--a new way of seeing things. Will we ever get there? I hope so. “As someone due soon to pass on to the next world, I should like to know if there is one...”
I might point out that Sir Arthur Clarke has had a significant influence on my views of such phenomena, as well as mystical experience. No one would accuse Sir Arthur of being a mystic, but he’s expressed the belief that ghosts may be much more than just aberrant psychology. And in novels like 2001 and Childhood’s End, he’s discussed angelic intervention--intelligent and directed evolution, if you will--in secular terms. So I tip my hat to Sir Arthur.
I also tip my hat, once again, to James Blish, another hard science fiction writer who has tackled these topics, and to Richard Matheson and Bruce Joel Rubin, who have incorporated scientific ideas into explorations of the afterlife. Take a look at Blish’s After Such Knowledge trilogy, Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House, and Rubin’s stories and screenplays for Brainstorm and Jacob’s Ladder. Most of these works assume an eventual rational explanation or scientific basis for religious and supernatural phenomenon--though Blish does so with a very dry wit.
DR:Are we seeing a resurgence of the horror genre?
GB:I have no idea whether there’s a resurgence on now. A fair number of writers--including King, Koontz, and Straub--still seem to be doing quite well writing what they want to write. What King and Koontz write seems to veer unpredictably between science fiction and horror and suspense. I enjoy that kind of freedom as well, just on a smaller scale of readership. And I’d hate to be tied down by some extreme success! So let’s hope I don’t have to write ghost stories until they nail down the lid... like some cursed soul, doomed to endlessly repeat my past sins (cue organ music...).
DR:I keep expecting to hear that Blood Music or Darwin’s Radio or one of your other books is going to be made into a movie. Has there been any interest from Hollywood?
GB:Blood Music has been optioned many times, but is currently not under option. There’s been a lot of interest in Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children as well, and there may be some news soon on that front. But the biggest deal so far is Warner Brothers’ option on The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars. Those two novels are under active development...and I do mean active. Screenwriters are being interviewed for the next draft of what is already a very promising screenplay. These projects take time, sometimes years, but I’m optimistic that this film--or films--will indeed get made.
DR:You mentioned seeing ghosts. Can you describe what you’ve seen?
GB:Sorry, but I must now steal away. Describing what I have seen would require a roaring fire, throwing silhouettes into shadowy corners--a snifter of brandy held over a guttering candle--snow drifting silently outside a mullioned window... leading to hours of gloomy contemplation while lurking in a crypt beside a... but wait, what is that? Can you see it, as well? Then I am not mad... NOT MAD, I tell you!
But enough. I reveal too much already.
From the Hardcover edition.