PW: Your Nebula Award—winning Darwin's Radio (1999) and Darwin's Children postulate the sudden evolution of a new form of humanity. Can you explain how this occurs?
Greg Bear: In Darwin's Radio, an ancient retrovirus becomes infectious and transfers genes that trigger a new kind of birth—a speciation event. For centuries and possibly thousands of years, the human gene pool has been accumulating subtle changes and trying them out piecemeal on the human population. But after this "proof of concept" phase, the modifications are expressed all at once, and the result is hundreds of thousands of New Children. Some call them virus children, a pejorative.
PW: To what extent has the work of Stephen Jay Gould (and his theory that evolutionary changes can occur with great suddenness, i.e., punctuated equilibrium) influenced these novels?
GB: The work of Gould and Niles Eldredge helped kick my thinking into high gear. Punctuated equilibrium implies a kind of long-term storage of mutations, genetic changes; either that, or rapid expression of newly created genetic combinations. What mechanisms could allow these genes to accumulate and what could trigger their expression? In fact, bacteria use a system of viral transfer of genes to mutate their populations on a large scale. What if humans were capable of doing the same thing? Such an event has not happened in human history. We would not understand what was occurring; it could scare the hell out of us.
PW: The New Children in your novel not only speak as we do, but use at least three other forms of communication that humans don't have. Could you describe them?
GB: In addition to our form of speech, the New Children have a specialized tongue modification that allows them to voice two streams of language at once. They have glands behind their ears that can produce scents both communicative of mood and capable of subtle and not-so-subtle persuasion. (To humans, this sometimes smells like chocolate.) Also, they have more control of iris and pupil expression, and their cheeks and in some cases chin and brows are equipped with melanophores—freckles that they can control. Their facial muscles are more highly developed. In short, they are high-bandwidth communications wizards. Their brains are not necessarily larger or more complicated than ours, however.
PW: Many SF novels about the evolution or genetic engineering of new forms of humanity assume that the old and the new will inevitably come into conflict. Do you agree?
GB: Human conflict is prevalent even when we all share a remarkably uniform genotype. We fight over skin color, so it seems natural that more definite differences would generate conflict. Still, these New Children remain our offspring—the operant word is children. The conflict becomes not just potentially genocidal but biblical—do we sacrifice our own children just because we fear they will replace us?
PW: From Blood Music (1985) to your most recent novels, you've shown an ongoing interest in what might be called apocalyptic futures. Why do such things interest you?
GB: Big changes generate big emotions, and big emotions make for exciting and compelling stories. When everything is on the line, we strip ourselves to our bare essentials and examine our lives—and possibly our deaths—with an incredible clarity we never get when we lock ourselves into drawing rooms and garden parties.
PW: What's next?
GB: The next novel is a bit of a breather from biology and genetics—it's a high-tech ghost story involving the telecom industry. I'm having a ball writing it—changes of pace are good for me. That said, Stella Nova is coming back to continue her story—and she's bringing along her son, a second generation New Child. I'll need a couple of years to do the research and find out what sort of biological and political developments will benefit from my gadfly point-of-view.