Greg Bear obituary

US science fiction writer whose novels combined a wide-ranging view of future technical developments with political speculation

The American science fiction writer Greg Bear, who has died aged 71 following heart surgery, was, as he put it “all over the map” as far as interests and subjects were concerned: genetics, starships, politics, artificial constructs and combat in space were among the themes explored in his 35 novels. The work he did to research them with thinkers and institutions made them remarkably prescient, not only scientifically – he is attributed with the first descriptions of nanotechnology – but also politically.

His near-future technothrillers Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009), for instance, deal with domestic terrorism, a conflict between federal government and states that threaten to secede, and the rise of a populist president who manipulates the supreme court to his own ends. He developed big ideas, conceptually and physically, into exciting and compelling stories, able to evoke a sense of wonder while possessing a depth of characterisation not often found in novels about cutting-edge science.

A founding member of the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (ASFA) in 1976, he served on Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy in the 1980s and 90s, and was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America (1988-90).

Cover of Quantico by Greg Bear

Born in San Diego, California, Greg was the only son of Wilma (nee Merriman) and Dale Franklin Bear, a meteorologist in the US Navy, stationed in Japan, the Philippines and Alaska. In between, the family were posted to Texas and Rhode Island, Dale serving on aircraft carriers during the Vietnam war before retiring as a lt commander.

From Horace Mann junior high and Pershing middle schools Greg went on to study advanced English at Crawford high school. Already a science fiction fan – a Star Trek enthusiast from the first broadcast – he was soon writing and drawing comics. Through a film club at the school, he met future writers David Clark, John Pound, Scott Shaw and Roger Freedman, and in 1969 the five participated in the early planning for the following year’s Golden State Comic Book Convention. This would evolve into San Diego Comic-Con, now the biggest annual comics and entertainment convention in the US.

Bear continued to draw and paint, providing illustrations to Bjo Trimble and Dorothy Jones Heydt’s self-published Star Trek Concordance (1969) and cover paintings to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy (the latter illustrating one of his own stories). He has had his paintings exhibited at the Ray Bradbury Museum.

After gaining his BA in English from San Diego State College (now University), Bear worked as a lecturer for tourists at the San Diego Air and Space museum in Balboa Park. He later narrated shows at the Reuben H Fleet Space Theater, which opened in 1973, and worked in secondhand bookshops.

He had sold his first story, Destroyer (1967), to Robert AW Lowndes’ Famous Science Fiction when he was 15. He completed his first novel, a fantasy entitled The Infinity Concerto, at 19, but in the following decade published only a handful of short stories. At the end of the 70s he returned to novels, selling Hegira (1979), Psychlone (1979), Beyond Heaven’s River (1980) and Strength of Stones (1981) in quick succession. The Infinity Concerto was published, much revised, in 1984, followed by a sequel, The Serpent Mage (1986), and the two were later combined as Songs of Earth and Power (1994).

Blood Music by Greg Bear, book cover

Bear truly found his feet with two stories in 1983: Hardfought, about a far future interstellar war between an ancient race of gas giant-dwelling aliens and humans almost as incomprehensible, and Blood Music, two years later expanded into a novel, in which a scientist creates computerised blood cells, which infect and assimilate humanity into a group mind. Tangents (1986) was an account of a boy who can see the inhabitants of four-dimensional space.

This remarkable run of outstanding work continued with Eon (1985) – to which Bear added a sequel, Eternity (1988), and prequel, Legacy (1995) – concerning the discovery and exploration of a hollowed-out asteroid that contains seven vast chambers; one, The Way, is a corridor that seems to stretch to infinite length, along which exist warring alien races and humanity’s distant descendants.

Bear began constructing a loose future history with Queen of Angels (1990), commencing in 2047 in a socially stratified US and involving psychology, artificial intelligences and a murder plot. Its sequels, Slant (1997) and Heads (1990) explore further the mental and political repercussions of medical and social changes, while in Moving Mars (1993), a scientist from the planet makes a breakthrough that shifts the balance of power with Earth. Darwin’s Radio (1999) and its sequel Darwin’s Children (2003) tell of the spread of a disease that causes miscarriages, soon discovered to be an awakening of non-coding DNA that results in genetically enhanced children – the next step in human evolution.

Bear’s other novels showed his range: The Forge of God (1987) and its sequel, Anvil of Stars (1993), had an alien race plotting the destruction of Earth and the handful of survivors tracking down those responsible; Vitals (2002) and Dead Lines (2004) were techno-thrillers of immortality and phantoms respectively; City at the End of Time (2008) was set in the far distant future; Hull Zero Three (2010) was a mystery set on a rundown generational starship; and War Dogs (2014), Killing Titan (2015) and Take Back the Sky (2016) formed a military SF trilogy.

Bear’s admiration for Star Trek resulted in an original novel Corona (1984). Later franchise novels included Star Wars: Rogue Planet (2000); one volume of a second trilogy continuing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Foundation and Chaos (1998); and the Forerunner Saga trilogy establishing the origins of the Halo computer games universe: Cryptum (2011), Primordium (2012) and Silentium (2013). Bear was also one of a group of writers and others interested in swordplay and western martial arts who created The Mongoliad cycle (2010-12), distributed as apps developed by Neal Stephenson’s Subutai Corporation for smartphones.

His shorter works can be found in the three volumes of The Complete Short Fiction of Greg Bear (2016). His last novel, The Unfinished Land (2021), was a fantasy set in Elizabethan times in which a Spanish galleon drifts into the realm of Tir Na Nog, the otherworld of Irish myth, and shortly before his death he was working on a memoir.

His marriage to Christina Nielson in 1975 ended in divorce six years later. In 1983 he married Astrid Anderson, daughter of the SF writer Poul Anderson. She survives him, along with their daughters Chloe and Alexandra.

• Gregory Dale Bear, author, born 20 August 1951; died 19 November 2022


Steve Holland

The GuardianTramp

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