Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Greg Bear "The Forge of God"

President Crockerman asked, "Do you believe in God?" Without a moment's hesitation, the Alien replied "We believe in Punishment."

Greg Bear, born in 1951, is a Hugo and Nebula award winning author of some three dozen novels and short story collections. A writer of hard science fiction, he often focuses on biology, especially diseases and microbiology. His Nebula winning Darwin's Radio and its sequel Darwin's Children explore political repression, retroviruses and speciation. Vitals deals with bacteria as communal organisms, as well as devling entertainingly into conspiracy theories. (You will never guess who the KGB has kept alive in a fishtank in the middle of modern Manhattan.) His Hugo winning Blood Music (expanded from a Nebula Winning novella) portrays an apocalyptic transformation of the nature of the self brought on by the escape of genetically enhanced human blood cells down a bathtub drain.

One of his best reviewed books, The Forge of God, deals not with microbiology, but with the Fermi Paradox. If the galaxy is full of alien life, then why aren't they here yet? Why have aliens not yet visited the earth? The answer quickly becomes evident. First, the Jovian moon Europa disappears. Then mountains appear overnight where there was none before in Australia and in Death Valley. Robots promising a golden age emerge from the Australian mountain. In America an enigmatic alien is found near death, apologizing for bearing bad news, and telling the president its simple punitive theology.

Bear is not only a great story teller, he is an artist of literary caliber. His works feature complex interwoven plots with twists that surprise the reader yet fit seamlessly together without resorting to the arbitrary deus ex machina. His characters are well developed, strongly individuated. In Forge of God, the president, a likeable man, is driven to the edge of insanity by the revelation that the world will soon end. His response is religious in form, but Bear does not portray him as some mindless religious stereotype, and, in a touch of sophistication, the populist preacher that Crockerman summons to advise him in fact doubts the appropriateness of a religious response to the physical threat and turns to the president's science advisors to admit that he is out of his league and that the Presdient could perhaps use some more conventional strategic advice.

Whether likening squiggles of toothpaste to little blue tadpoles in the sink or graphically comparing the City of Los Angeles, its citizens transformed into blobs of jelly and sentient fungal growths by a plague, to a vision from a Max Ernst painting, Bear uses vivid concrete images that often approach the poetic in their evocativeness. One can form a detailed mental image of his characters' physical traits and their bearing and gestures. Conflict is well motivated, antagonists act not just out of opposition, but because of an alternate, if mistaken view of the good. Psychology is made apparent through telling thoughts and dialog. Yet facts not known to the characters are not revealed to the reader until they become clear to the protagonists. This maintains a sense of realism and especially of suspense. Is the dying alien in league with the supposed robot benefactors? Is the earth truly at risk? The aliens provoke paranoia in some and disbelief in others. What, we ask, are the plots within the plots?

If you have not read Bear, you can think of him as combining the fast-paced plots of Larry Niven and his knack for contemporary social commentary with the analytic depth and literary quality of Frank Herbert. While I have not been able to get into his The Way, Queen of Angels, or Songs of Earth and Power series, I have thorougly enjoyed all the books of his which I have read past the first few dozen pages. The apocalptic Forge of God, with its epic and very differrent but highly complimentary sequel, Anvil of Stars, is a good place to start.

Read the excellent article on Bear at Wikipedia. Check out his official website. And pick up one of his books, today. The painting above, Into The Forge of God, by Alan Gutierrez depicts the launch of a NASA probe into Jupiters atmosphere and was used on the cover of Bear's novel.

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