SF Academy 06 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

As I’ve discussed here previously, I believe some science fiction writers are more about the “big idea,” the concept that would be just as interesting in summary as in story form, and others are more about story and character, narration and philosophy, that is to say, the writing. My favorite science fiction writers are good at both, and one of my overall favorites is Greg Bear. His work can be uneven (avoid Dead Lines for example, which can’t decide whether it’s a ghost story of a muddled, supernatural-tinged attempt at sci-fi), but when it’s good, it’s really good. My favorites of his books include Blood Music (which seems to be out of print in the US, which is strange), and Moving Mars (which won Bear his first Nebula for Best Novel). I’ve been working my way gradually through his bibliography.

Darwin’s Radio came out in 1999 and won Bear the Nebula award. The book develops at a modest pace, with the discovery of mummified human remains which may suggest something unusual about human evolution. Coincidental to the very old remains being found, a virus that infects these mummies also begins to manifest itself among modern humans.

Bear’s strength is believable characters (especially scientists) and relationships that seem real, and run the gamut from love affairs to career betrayals. He’s also one of the few SF authors that attempts to write fairly explicit sex scenes in style that’s serious and unexaggerated.

By the end, Darwin’s Radio ends up being about a strange genetic trick that combines qualities of a pathogenic virus, and a mechanism for triggering a new stage in human evolution. The great majority of the book, though, is spent on political wrangling, and the formation and breaking-up of alliances between major characters including scientists, archologists, and political functionaries at the Centers for Disease Control.

The scientific ideas under exploration here are fascinating, but the book is much more about the struggle to understand, and scientific detective work thwarted by the need to compromise, all aspects of the process. The ending builds slowly but once crucial events occur the conclusion happens too quickly. Given that Bear wrote a sequel,
Darwin’s Children, I had to wonder whether he said to himself “Shit, this one’s getting way too long… better chop it off here, and finish it up in a sequel.” Then I looked up the sequel’s publication date and saw that it came 5 years later, so maybe not.

Maybe I’m the only one, but by the time the epilogue arrived, I thought we were just getting to the meat of the action. I’d recommend this one, but with reservations, and I wonder how I’ll feel after I read the sequel, which was not as well-reviewed as this book.

Overall, not dissatisfying exactly, but imperfect. At times, Greg Bear writes science fiction as well as anyone alive, and I’ll continue taking a chance on his books so long as there are more like this Blood Music or this one (successful, or almost), and not too many like Dead Lines.

Now Working, March 2010

I often mention my own writing in general terms here, but I’d like to start talking about more specifics. Not so much because I think a lot of people out there (or ANY people out there) are following my work at this point, but because I believe spelling out goals and processes helps clarify them for myself.

Also once I’m an established bestseller, it’ll be a fun larf for people to scroll back to these earliest blog posts and think, “Gee whiz, remember how it was then?”

OK, this is really more about that first reason than that second reason. Quick breakdown, then, of what I’m working on lately. I just finished a short story (when I say “finished” I mean revisions totally complete, not “I wrote a first draft”) about a murderer imprisoned in a strange penal colony, which happens to be on the moon. Plagued by nightmares, he volunteers for a strange experiment related to dreams, which he hopes will cure his nightmares, though that’s not the experiment’s aim.

I’ve spent most of my time this week brainstorming an idea for a novel, not that I intend to actually write the novel any time soon. I’ll keep focusing on short stories the next six months at least. But enough rough ideas for this novel had accumulated that I wanted to coalesce them into a short synopsis, set of outlines/plans, and character lists. It’s set in a near-future Seattle, drastically changed not only from today’s Seattle, but the rest of the world too. It delves into body modification, experimental biotech, brain implants, pleasure games, various forms of addiction, AI tools for trading financial instruments, and more. I’ll probably work on this here and there through the summer, try to hammer out a clear synopsis of 20-30 pages, make sure the interlocking relationships are worked out, then set it aside to gel.

I’m in middle revision stages of the most “space opera” thing I’ve written. It takes place in a transit station at the outer edge of the solar system, where humanity is trying to extend outward by building a series of jumping-off points. It involves a nifty transportation technology I can’t wait to explore further (in other related stories), as well as other cool, strange details I had fun inventing but don’t want to give away here. This was was a lot of fun, with a sort of retro science fiction feel. It’s also the longest short story I’ve written, about 10k words, and I’m trying to decide whether to just go with it, or lose a lot of great stuff by paring it down to under 7500 or so. This one’s fun, sexy, strange, full of wonder, adventure and even a little action. Hell, it’s got ray guns and spaceships! I’d love to write more like this in the future, get away from the too-internalized, slower-paced, “literary” trap I often get stuck in.

I’m also doing final revisions on a long-ish story set 50 or so years in the future, following an apparently wealthy guy from resort to resort around the world, starting in fun, still flashy, future Las Vegas. But this fella’s not an ordinary rich guy, seems to find an unusual amount of trouble, and worries a lot about people following him. I tried to create an enjoyable ride, watching him bounce around while learning who he really is and why he lives like this. I hope to have this one finished and sent out by the end of April.

I have four stories in circulation at various magazines, including the first one I mentioned. My goal is to finish at least one new story per month, and start enough new ones to keep the assembly line fed with raw material. I tend to do many revisions, somewhere between ten and twenty drafts, so in the past that’s meant keeping at least eight or ten stories working at any given time, in different stages. Right now I’m trying to make each revision go a little deeper in to the story, and do fewer “rounds” of revision. In other words I’d rather do seven really intensive revisions than twenty that are mostly surface-level.

Currently I have a list of about thirty “seeds” for stories — brief ideas, partial outlines, or full synopses — and I seem to add to this list of rough stuff faster than I withdraw from it. Often, though, I’ll end up combining two or even three separate ideas into one more complex idea: “Hey, maybe the ‘mind-controlled babysitter on a laser-rifle killing-spree’ story can be combined with the ‘silicon-based aliens from Mercury attack Earth’ story?!” Listen, man, don’t steal that idea!

Recently I set aside all my pre-SF stories, of which six had been completed, and decided not to spread my attention too thin by trying to find markets for those, at least for now. To keep things clearer for myself, I’m working on SF only at this point, setting aside all other work whether finished, in progress, or just planned.

So, quick recap: I’m trying to finish roughly one new story per month, start approximately that many new ones, keep adding raw idea stuff to the list of upcoming story plans, and spending a little time on the side planning the Seattle novel. I have four short stories finished and circulating among short fiction markets. That’s where things stand, and I’ll try to post updates whenever anything changes in an interesting way, like if I get published, switch to writing porn, or whatever.