Elizabeth Bear's latest novel is titled Machine, but the term could easily refer to its author. Her literary output is astonishing: 32 novels in 15 years, not to mention a rich assortment of short stories and essays. How does she do it?

"I don't have kids," she laughs. "That helps."

Her work spans the gamut between fantasy, alternate history, and hard science fiction. Her most recent novel is a follow-up to 2019's Ancestral Night, the first in the White Space series of sci-fi novels set in a far distant future. Machine is set in the White Space universe – the characters and events of Ancestral Night are mentioned but only in passing, and the books each work as stand-alone reads – but where the previous work centred on a space salvage operation that stumbles on an ancient artifact, Bear's newest book revolves around what she describes as "ambulance drivers in space".

The central character of Machine is Dr. Brooklynn Jens, a medical doctor working at Core General, an enormous hospital floating in space. Jens is assigned to a medical vessel which is basically a space ambulance. Her ship answers a distress call from what turns out to be an ancient 'generation ship' containing thousands of centuries-old humans in cryo-freeze being looked after by an AI that has developed the machine equivalent of mental illness over the intervening centuries. The rescue attempt also reveals a complex plot from within the medical establishment's own ranks, threatening the very stability of the Synarche, which is how the broad intergalactic society that encompasses hundreds of worlds and species is referred to.

Machine even involves the uncontrolled spread of a novel virus. The timing to the rise of COVID-19 was coincidental -- the bulk of the writing was done in 2018-2019, with Bear's intent being to explore the politics around health care.

"It was completely accidental," Bear remarks, of publishing a virus story in the middle of a pandemic. "Let the record show that she laughed awkwardly."

Bear says she was inspired to go in this direction by Northern Irish author James White's Sector General stories (published in short story and novel format between 1957 and 1992), which also involved "hospital drama in space with lots of aliens." The space hospital is realistically portrayed: Bear worked at a hospital when she was in her twenties, and her mother was also a lifelong hospital employee, so she drew from both experiences. But more broadly, she says there's an important and often neglected place in the literature for "charming, pacifist, positive future stories…that are not just about war."

"It seems to me as if a lot of science fiction in general -- and space opera in particular -- tends to focus on the military, on battles, on overthrowing the evil empire. I really wasn't interested in writing those kinds of stories. I was interested in writing much more personal stories, stories about people navigating a future universe where it's a broadly positive future."

Of course, one person's utopia is another person's dystopia.

"I get about 50-50 reader response from people who think it's a utopia and people who think it's a dystopia, so I'm splitting the difference just about right," she laughs.

The Government of the Future

Bear's idealistic, positive future would be a Tea Party Republican's worst nightmare. Everyone receives a universal basic income in exchange for a limited degree of mandatory public service (AI's help keep track of the 'balance sheets') but there's also plenty of opportunity – albeit more regulated--for ambitious people seeking further personal enrichment. There's no military or police, but there is a 'Judiciary' that serves the function of dealing with "mal-adaptive behaviour". The crude notion of criminal punishment is long gone, and 'mal-adapted' wrongdoers are aided through a sort of restorative justice 'right-minding'. All of this sounds like it might come out of George Orwell's 1984, but consent is a foundational principle in this future, and Bear does a remarkable job of constructing these notions as common-sense alternatives to the barbaric social and political practices of our present.

One of her interests as a science fiction writer lies in imagining not only futuristic technologies and alien races, but also the forms of governance that will inevitably evolve and change over time. Too few science fiction writers apply themselves to imagining new forms of governance, she observes, and it's an area that she is particularly interested in exploring in the White Space series. Elements of the Synarche's complex governance structure have been gradually elucidated in Ancestral Night and Machine.

"To use a turn of phrase from my grandfather's day, it has griped me for years that we have all of these vast sprawling space opera societies and they all seem to be either empires, republics, or mercantile companies in the eighteenth century model," she explains. "Government is a technology. So what I did was I talked to a whole bunch of people and read a whole bunch about decision-making protocols. I started thinking about how you would use those decision-making protocols to run a government.

"The Synarche is gamified. There are people who are running-the-government nerds who run a whole bunch of simulations because they think it's fun. That's one important input into the way the system gets run. Then there are AI decision-making engines that do politics wonkery. There are systems whose job it is to come up with the worst possible outcome of anything. There's distributed decision-making, where you take a consensus of a whole bunch of different people and sort of take the average.

"Obviously to run a government that way requires a vast amount of computational power--far beyond what we have available in 2020. But I hope that in presenting the idea that there are different ways to run a government that are not fascism, monarchy, direct democracy or representative democracy--there are other ways you could do this! Maybe people will start thinking about how to use our current technological levels to build better governments."

She pauses to also acknowledge Malka Older's creative efforts to rethink politics and governance in Infomocracy and her Centenal Cycle books.

"There's several of us trying to reinvent the wheel," she says.

Mental Health Matters

In the Synarche, public services like health care are provided for everyone, and medical innovations that have caused controversy in our own century – mood adjustment drugs, personal prostheses and surgical adjustments – are commonplace. Most characters give barely a second thought about allowing AI's to regulate their body chemistry as needed, providing extra stimulation when necessary, or helping them to relax or go to sleep. There's a common sense understanding that artificial stimulants and chemicals can only do so much – the body does need regular rest and oughtn't become entirely reliant on stimulants – but the taboo around using such drugs is long gone. They're seen as simply another tool that can be useful in daily life, so long as one makes sure the tool is not misused. One of Bear's aims in Machine is to engage with our shifting understanding of mental health treatment, and the context of health care more broadly.

"We've come a long way in our understanding of mental illness and maladaptive behaviour in the last 30 or 40 years," she reflects. "Over the course of my lifetime I've seen a revolution in neuroscience, and I feel that we are at the cusp of the kind of revolution in neuroscience and mental health technology that we were at in terms of physical health in the 1960s. Take heart attack survival rates--if you look at the difference between 1960 and 2020, it's enormous. Cancer survival rates. We've come such an incredibly long way, and we're starting to understand similar things about the brain and emotions.

"When you look at the difference between the psychiatric medications that were available in the 1920s--which were basically tranquilizers, and very heavy-duty go-through-life-in-a-haze kind of barbiturate --and the anti-anxiety medications we have available now, the treatments we have now for what used to be a crippling disorder are so much better. The number of people who are healthier and happier and more functional and getting through life with relative contentment instead of gritted teeth and clawed fingernails, even for things as simple as social anxiety.

"Obviously, there are people who have intractable depression or intractable anxiety, but our cultural attitude toward taking a pill to make your brain stop misbehaving has really changed.That's simply because the technology is so much better. So the scary idea that 'Oh I can't possibly take an antidepressant because it will destroy my creativity and turn me into a different person' is on the way out. Tthat's an incredibly positive thing, because depression sucks and depression kills people. Depression has killed people I love.

"So I am very positive about technologies that are supportive of mental health. Presenting the idea that we can take charge of and regulate our emotions and our reactivity and trauma response and so many of these other things that cause us to behave in maladaptive manners, and make ourselves happier and more productive [is important]. I don't mean more productive in a capitalist 90-hour-a-week grind kind of way, I mean productive in a sense of being able to accomplish more of what we want to in our lives and be proactive and have more agency, rather than fighting our demons.

"That's the thing in the book that I am most positive about. Imagine if the survivors of World War One had access to modern psychiatric medicine--the number of lives that would have been saved, the number of people that would have suffered so much less. That's the single thing I am most positive about technology-wise right now. That and green energy."

As Dr. Jens comments in Machine, explaining 'right-minding' to a horrified human from the generation ship, the use of chemicals and other interventions is not about suppressing the individual, but rather about giving them a greater agency in their own lives:

"Right-minding, appropriately used, makes me more myself. Not somebody else. Me, but less reactive. Less…whatever I was programmed to be and more what I choose to be."

Lack of Realistic Diversity Is Toxic

One of the delightful aspects of Bear's work is that it's progressive and inclusive. Her characters identify along a broad range of genders (many of them opting for non-binary forms of gender neutrality). The main characters in both Ancestral Night and Machine have been queer women. In the latter book's backstory, Dr. Jens left her former wife and child because she preferred the professional excitement of an intergalactic career over co-parenting. She's also a character with disabilities, who suffers from chronic pain and the need to use an exo-suit and drugs for many of her daily tasks.

"One thing about the kind of pain I have is that it is so amorphous – so unlocalized – that it's hard to describe and easy to ignore. You don't even necessarily notice that it hurts, when it hurts. You just notice that you're crabby and out of sorts and everything seems harder than it should.

"Not being able to describe it also tends to make other people take it less seriously. Like family members, and sometimes doctors, too." - Dr. Jens, reflecting on her chronic pain in Machine.

"Some of it was me processing my own trauma, for lack of a better word, in that I have a certain amount of chronic pain," Bear replies, when asked about her inspiration for the character. "But it's also very important to me to show people who have challenges in their life, and have stories that are not just about overcoming those challenges.

"It seems to me that fictional people have a lot less to contend with in general than real people do. Just take a random sample of fifteen real people and fifteen protagonists, and you're going to find a lot fewer chronic illnesses, you're going to find a lot fewer marginalized identities, and that lack of realistic diversity is toxic. People need to see people who are not nineteen-year-old strapping farm boys having adventures and accomplishing things."

She points to Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane (1985) as an inspiration in that regard: the fantasy novel centers around middle-aged former adventurers who now have to deal with childcare, family expenses and upkeep on their crumbling tower.

"Now they're sort of being summoned back to fight one last dragon…like, seriously? It's one thing to take off on a cross-country road trip when you're eighteen, it's entirely another when you're fifty-two. The thing was, those additional complications add so much richness to that narrative, and make those characters so much more memorable. So it's both socially relevant and artistically relevant."

Unfortunately, there's no shortage of sci-fi and fantasy writers who fail to think big and incorporate credible diversity into their work. Bear appreciates White's Sector General books for this fact – even though he started writing them in the 1950s, he was flexible enough to reflect changing ideas in his work, incorporating feminism for example as it became more mainstream.

"Considering the number of writers of similar vintage who never seem to have gotten beyond the world as it was in their twenties and thirties, I admire that," she says.

Bear points to Canadian literary critic John Clute's concept of "The Real Year", which he introduced in a January 1991 article for The New York Review of Science Fiction.

"There's the year that the book is purportedly set in, and then there's the year that it actually feels like when you're reading it. There are so many older science fiction books, many of which I still read and re-read, that may be set 500 years in the future, but they really feel like 1954."

We discuss our complex relationship with the books we loved in childhood, and which became troubling as we grew up and developed a more advanced awareness of racism, sexual politics, gender, and so forth. Bear introduces me to another term with which I was not familiar--"the Suck Fairy"--coined by Welsh-Canadian sci-fi/fantasy author Jo Walton in an online commentary in 2010.

"The Suck Fairy is an artefact of re-reading," wrote Walton. "The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading–well, it sucks. You can say that you have changed, you can hit your forehead dramatically and ask yourself how you could possibly have missed the suckiness the first time–or you can say that the Suck Fairy has been through while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck…it's a useful way of remembering what's good while not dismissing the newly visible bad. Without the Suck Fairy, it's all too easy for the present suck to wipe out the good memories…She's wonderful shorthand for a whole complicated process."

Queer Influences, Gender Diversity

Bear is attentive to gender diversity in her work, incorporating not only female-identified protagonists but also gender fluid and non-binary characters. Given the fuss that contemporary politicians still make against efforts to render public discourse more inclusive in that respect, Bear's efforts are especially useful in revealing how easy and natural the incorporation of non-binary pronouns and ideas can be. (See "Can a Bill Have a Gender? Feminine Wording Exposes a Rift", by Christopher F. Schuetze, The New York Times, 15 October 2020.)

"The first author who I ever consciously was aware of putting a non-gendered character into their books was Vonda McIntyre in Dreamsnake [1978]. Vonda did it by just never using pronouns for that character. I didn't realize it until the third or fourth time I reread the book! I went like, 'Wait a minute. Oh!'

"And then I started thinking about that. I have friends who identify as non-binary, I have trans friends, and it's just common politeness. It's like using somebody's preferred form of their name. I mean obviously everybody makes mistakes, sometimes you don't know what a person's pronouns are. I've been trying to default to neutral pronouns until I know what the preferred ones are, which also offends some people, but you got to pick a hill to die on, I guess. Again, it's a thing that just reflects the world as it is, rather than reflecting the world through a series of stereotypes that we've been told to expect as normal.

"I grew up in a queer family, steeped in the queer culture of the 1980s which was very gendered and not particularly trans-friendly, so I guess I started interrogating a lot of that at an earlier age than a lot of my peers. The first time I was consciously aware of having a friend who was trans was in my mid-twenties, I had a friend who transitioned. The thing happened that I think happens to everyone when a friend comes out to them--they realize that it's not a big deal. I mean you can be a horrible bigot and make it a big deal, but that person is still your friend, or your relative, or your child, or your parent, or whatever it is that they are.

"What I realized at that point was that we as a culture were incredibly hung up on gender and enforcing gender stereotypes on people. This would have been in the mid-'90s, when everything was frickin' pink and blue. In the '70s and '80s, when I was a kid, stuff was much less gendered. Everybody played with the same Legos and the same Lincoln Logs. There were some girl toys and some boy toys, but mostly there were just toys. By the time my friends were having kids, it was all either girl toys or boy toys. So that extreme gendering of things--it's a natural reaction to push back against that.

"The real strength of my generation of science fiction writers, and the current generation of science fiction writers…is that we are much more diverse. And much more global. A lot of that is technology, obviously. I can text a friend in Paris, France and have an hour-long conversation with them for free and only pay for it by putting up with advertising, you know? So those connections are much stronger. That diversity of voices is incredibly, incredibly useful and is creating a much broader and more heterogeneous field than we previously had."

She cites a few of her favourites in this regard from other authors: Katherine Addison's Angel of the Crows (2020), C.L. Polk's The Midnight Bargain (2020), and the works of Aliette de Bodard, Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley.

"Honestly, right now I would say that having queer characters in your work is actually a marketing plus. There seems to be a big boom in the readership. I don't know if a whole bunch of people have just found all the gay science fiction and gone 'Wait a minute, there's a lot of good gay science fiction!', or if it's a generational thing, but many of the books I've read recently that have had gay characters in them have been marketed as quote unquote 'big gay science fiction'.

"Queers in space is a subgenre that's here to stay. Who knew that was going to be the next big trend when we were looking for a successor to cyberpunk?" she laughs.

The Long Hard Road to the Future

One of the attractive things about science fiction is it allows us a temporary distraction from a fraught, troubled present. It offers the vision of a future which–even if not always utopian and positive–humanity has at least survived to make it to. There's a key implication in that: no matter how messed up things are, we're going to make it.

But even the most inveterate consumer of sci-fi is forced at some point to open their eyes and acknowledge the harsh reality of our present. Coming to terms with reality while aspiring toward speculative futures forces us to grapple with a question that can be by turns difficult, challenging, exciting, overwhelming: how do we get from here to there? Will we get from here to there?

In Bear's White Space series, humanity teeters on the edge of an extinction event referred to as the Eschaton, before applying themselves to rectifying the mistakes of our present.

"I feel kind of bad about it," admits Bear, "because the only way I could contemplate a humanity that managed to grow up–that started taking adult responsibility and collective action--was to build a near extinction level massive ecological collapse into the back story. Which is why we have these generation ships floating around in space. Basically, a whole bunch of rich people decided 'We're going to leave Earth,' and all the people they left behind went 'Well, we don't have that option, I guess we better figure out something more sustainable.'

"They take action for the wellbeing of disadvantaged human beings, and making sure that everybody has a place to sleep and enough to eat, and limiting consumption of irreplaceable resources. Doing things that we sort of know that we have to do now, that we've known that we have to do since the '60s and '70s, but that there hasn't been any public will to accomplish.

"Sadly, I don't know if we will get ourselves together enough to do that until we are in a massive crisis. I mean we're in a massive crisis right now [COVID-19]--hundreds of thousands of people are dying--and we're having a hard time getting past interpersonal politics and outright selfishness and denial in order to deal with this problem that has a relatively simple set of mitigations. But rather than take that personal responsibility, it seems like we'd rather lie to ourselves about it, at least collectively.

"I don't know what has to happen. It's sort of like when you're looking at that friend of yours who gets into disastrous relationship after disastrous relationship and you're like: 'The common element of your bad relationships is you, my dear friend.' The common element in all of our ecological disasters is us."

There is also, of course, the socio-political crisis inflamed by the past four years of Donald Trump's presidency. Reflecting on the tumult of Trump's presidency and the recent US election, Bear admits that cognitively bridging that gap between the futures she constructs and the present-day reality in which she lives, can be difficult. One thing that helps, she finds, is the way literature and sci-fi in particular remind us to "take the long view".

"It's a struggle. Knowing some history helps. There's a little bit of comfort in taking the long view. This is not the United States' first flirtation with fascism. But it is probably our most inept one, which gives me a little bit of strength. I am concerned about white supremacist terrorism, about court packing, about the sheer amount of money that wealthy libertarians have poured into defanging every protection that the government has--basically pushing the government in as libertarian and anti-protection a direction as possible. I'm a fan of it being illegal to put antifreeze in children's cough syrup, you know…I actually think that a certain amount of government regulation is a good thing.

"There's been a real concerted move since the Reagan era, from a lot of rich libertarians and corporations, to get the American people to distrust the government as much as possible. A propaganda effort, frankly. What we're seeing now is in some ways a direct result of that.

"On the other hand, some of my country-people are beginning to realize that sometimes you do need a central organizing force, for example when you have a massive global pandemic and everything is in short supply including health care workers. Sometimes I hope that the current situation has become bad enough that a lot of people who don't usually pay attention to stuff that doesn't directly affect them are learning that national and local politics do in fact directly affect them.

"Maybe people are seeing that there is a direct existential threat to them and their loved ones, and that 'Throw grandma off the back of the sled' is only an attractive proposition as long as it's not your grandma."

"I don't know what has to happen. It's sort of like when you're looking at that friend of yours who gets into disastrous relationship after disastrous relationship and you're like: 'The common element of your bad relationships is you, my dear friend.' The common element in all of our ecological disasters is us."

There is also, of course, the socio-political crisis inflamed by the past four years of Donald Trump's presidency. Reflecting on the tumult of Trump's presidency and the recent US election, Bear admits that cognitively bridging that gap between the futures she constructs and the present-day reality in which she lives, can be difficult. One thing that helps, she finds, is the way literature and sci-fi in particular remind us to "take the long view".

"It's a struggle. Knowing some history helps. There's a little bit of comfort in taking the long view. This is not the United States' first flirtation with fascism. But it is probably our most inept one, which gives me a little bit of strength. I am concerned about white supremacist terrorism, about court packing, about the sheer amount of money that wealthy libertarians have poured into defanging every protection that the government has--basically pushing the government in as libertarian and anti-protection a direction as possible. I'm a fan of it being illegal to put antifreeze in children's cough syrup, you know…I actually think that a certain amount of government regulation is a good thing.

"There's been a real concerted move since the Reagan era, from a lot of rich libertarians and corporations, to get the American people to distrust the government as much as possible. A propaganda effort, frankly. What we're seeing now is in some ways a direct result of that.

"On the other hand, some of my country-people are beginning to realize that sometimes you do need a central organizing force, for example when you have a massive global pandemic and everything is in short supply including health care workers. Sometimes I hope that the current situation has become bad enough that a lot of people who don't usually pay attention to stuff that doesn't directly affect them are learning that national and local politics do in fact directly affect them.

"Maybe people are seeing that there is a direct existential threat to them and their loved ones, and that 'Throw grandma off the back of the sled' is only an attractive proposition as long as it's not your grandma."

In the White Space universe, government does sometimes make mistakes, and there are occasional instances of 'maladaptive' behaviour. But the contrast of a society in which people broadly trust and respect the role and integrity of governing institutions is palpable. By eschewing 'conflict with government' as a plot device, Bear is able to focus her attention on a rich range of other social phenomena and narrative threads.

It's elements like this that make her books so satisfyingly hopeful. Where other sci-fi writers often depict the outcome of ecological disaster as being reversion to some sort of high-tech militarized feudalism, or an everyone-for-themselves state of anarchy, in Bear's universe crisis becomes the catalyst to humanity coming together to create a sustainable future.

If humanity is to achieve at least one of the futures that Bear and other science fiction authors write about, we will need not just to mitigate the crises of the present, but also to imagine the creative innovations that can shape the future. In this regard, science fiction has double duty: not only imagining the future, but inspiring the present. We ought to be thankful for the important role that sci-fi plays in enriching the creative side of our social fabric. Bear notes that there's no shortage of scientists and engineers who entered their fields because they were inspired by science fiction growing up.

"Nobody decides to do a difficult, complicated job that requires great expense, years of schooling and writing grant proposals because they think it's boring and dumb," Bear says. "So making the future seem neat might be [science fiction writers'] biggest contribution to society."

If that is so, few authors have contributed as prodigiously as Bear. She's currently negotiating with publishers for a prospective third White Space novel to publish in 2022. Meanwhile, she's working to complete the third book in her Lotus Kingdoms fantasy trilogy, and dealing with the practical and psychological stresses of living through a global pandemic.

"The dark cyberpunk dystopia of 2020 was supposed to have much less comfortable pants," she quips. "We got the pyjama dystopia, not the zippered leather pants dystopia. It's not quite the darkest timeline. Maybe the second darkest timeline."

WordPress Themes