Elizabeth Bear published her first novel in 2005, and it won her the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She’s seen publishing change since then and appreciates the difference. “The difference writing now is that suddenly a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing all along is seen as marketable, rather than as something that might actually like limit my sales potential—like having a lot of queer characters and characters of color,” she says. “I grew up in a queer, multiracial family, so it was sort of baked in.”
Over the past 15 years, Bear, who lives in Massachusetts, has published 20-odd solo novels, dozens of novellas and short stories, and a trilogy cowritten with Sarah Monette (who also writes as Katherine Addison). She’s won two Hugo Awards for her fiction, making her one of only a handful of authors to combine the John W. Campbell Award with later Hugo Awards for fiction. And she hasn’t limited herself to any one (or two or three) corners of the science fiction and fantasy genre but ranges widely in her topics and in her approach. It’s because she’s easily bored, she says. “Short attention span.”
This might well be true, but I suspect there’s a strong element of self-deprecation there. Bear’s novels include an enormously well-researched Shakespearian duology, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth; a trilogy that I’ve heard described as techno-magic Norse eco-punk; several epic fantasies based on the cultures of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent; and science fiction novels that, for all their tremendously entertaining qualities, are also really thoughtful about the interactions between human societies and the possibilities of technology.
Bear’s next novel is Ancestral Night (Saga, Mar.), another thoughtful and deeply entertaining work of space opera. Salvage operator Halmey Dz, with her business partners Connla Kurucz and Singer, makes a living by piloting a ship into the scars in space-time left by unsuccessful White Transitions (a faster-than-light propulsive technology) and searching for lost human and alien vessels. On one of these jobs, Halmey makes a shocking discovery. What ensues is a complicated and thrilling adventure in which she confronts physical and emotional perils and comes face-to-face with some of her society’s imperfections.
Bear says she has always been fond “of stories where some sort of small, simple task or workaday routine iterates and becomes bigger and unpacks into a much more complicated story, and a much bigger problem, than at first we expect it to—mostly because it’s fun to chase those large consequences of small things.” Space opera, she adds, is uniquely suited for this kind of thing. She’s refreshingly unpretentious about how Ancestral Night came to exist. No one was paying her to write big space operas anymore, she told her former editor at Gollancz (Simon Spanton, who’s since moved to Elliott and Thompson). His response, she recalls, was, “Well, what if we paid you to?”
Bear sent him a proposal. “And, long story short,” she says, “Gollancz bought the world rights and then sublicensed the U.S. rights to Saga.”
There were delays in writing Ancestral Night, though. Bear had an enormous amount of personal upheaval after she signed the contract, including moving, getting married to fellow writer Scott Lynch, and “a bunch of other things.” But she’s not too unhappy about the delay, as she feels the book turned out all the better for the wait. “Because the political situation in the U.S. shifted drastically in that time,” she says. “And I decided that I wanted to talk a lot about politics.”
Ancestral Night is an intensely political book, yet the universe of Ancestral Night doesn’t seem to have a class of people that could be called politicians. I put this to Bear, and she chuckles. That, she tells me, is one of the ways in which it’s political.
A few years ago, Bear did a project for Microsoft—“I can’t give specifics because there were NDAs involved and so forth”—and one of the things she ended up talking to the company about was distributed government, and ways in which government could be made to work better and be more democratic. (Her voice becomes even more animated when she’s speaking about this, her New Englander accents resonant with enthusiasm.) “Our modern democracies in all their various forms are really reliant on 17th-century political theories at this point,” if not some older ones, she notes. “And we know a lot more now about how groups of people function. And how people function in crisis, and about how to get effective decision making. And it turns out that top-down hierarchical structures aren’t the best way to get stuff done efficiently, and it turns out that they aren’t the best way to get stuff done in a crisis. You wind up with fog-of-war situations, and no amount of modern communications technology can actually account for that.”
Bear points to Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books, which explore how human tendencies to hierarchy don’t blend well with weapons of mass destruction and government on a planetary scale, and says that her current work is in conversation with that. “What if at some future point, human beings look at themselves and say, ‘We really understand very well at this point how human brains work. What if we just turned off all this hierarchy stuff and figured out effective ways to govern ourselves?’ ”
Because Bear’s writing space opera, she included aliens who have different ways of governing themselves, too. She says she asked herself, what if a bunch of sentient beings got together and built a government that was actually designed to make life as good as possible for as many people as possible, while ensuring as much personal freedom as possible? A government that had structures built into it to encourage entrepreneurship and ownership of ideas but that wasn’t built on a neoliberal capitalist model? “So I tried to build a government of the future,” she says with a chuckle.
Ancestral Night was a novel that started out, as Bear puts it, “worldbuilding forward.” Among the things she was interested in exploring was the future possibilities of neuroscience for “tuning” one’s brain for well-being. It’s something that fascinates her, and she believes that developments in neuroscience are going to lead to enormous quality-of-life improvements in the next hundred years or so—“assuming that we don’t all die in the coming plague or bake to death in a catastrophically warming planet.”
Bear wanted to talk about ways in which political structures, and our brains, are maladapted to current and future situations. “And I also wanted an adventure-y romp with a lot of high-speed chases through space and a giant praying mantis,” she says. “I love that praying mantis so much. I totally tried to pitch my editor that the book cover should be a 1960s pulp-style cover of the giant praying mantis standing on like a disc in space with a space-suited babe draped over each raptorial forearm—which is a scene that actually happens in the book, I will have you know!”
But for Bear, in her work, the plot is where the technology breaks. “I don’t think science fiction is the literature of ideas,” she says. “I think it’s the literature of testing ideas to destruction. Like, take the idea, put it in a hydraulic press, subject it to as much pressure as you can, and see what interesting things happen when it shatters.”
Liz Bourke’s first book, Sleeping with Monsters, was shortlisted for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Related Work.