Neal Asher is one of the rising stars in SF writing. His complex technological space opera has become known for putting galactic combat and mega-weapons alongside some of the most aggressive alien species around.
Hobbit caught up with him as his latest book, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, was released in the UK.
Mark: Hello Neal! Welcome to SFFWorld – Many thanks for agreeing to this interview.
Background first. You were born and brought up in Billericay (Essex – near London). How did a Billericay boy end up writing SF?
Neal: I blame my parents. They both liked SF (the old yellow-spined Victor Gollancz books), but I was heading in that direction anyway what with a teacher reading The Hobbit to a class I was in. I remember my mother asking me, on my first trip to the library, what I might like to read. When I mentioned that particular book she directed me to the relevant shelf and I went in at the deep end with The Two Towers. They also passed on to me books like ones from E C Tubb’s Dumarest saga, C S Lewis’ Narnia books and many others besides. One of my brothers loaned me stuff like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter on Mars books. From there on I was hooked. After an overdose on E C Tubb books, I wrote a short SF story in class and received about the first compliment ever from a teacher for my work. So I carried on writing. In my teenage years, however, writing was only one of my many interests (I also liked art, electronics, biology, chemistry) but in my late teens I made the surprisingly adult decision to choose just one interest to concentrate on rather than be a ‘Jack of all trades’ I chose writing.
Mark: Influences have been mentioned on yourself such as Arthur C Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt. I can see links there, (Voyage of the Space Beagle!) but are there any that you think are there?
Neal: As you can imagine, I’ve been asked this question before. In the acknowledgements to The Skinner I thanked all those excellent people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny. Tracking down specific influences is rather difficult. I love Zelazny’s writing style and in my Polity books I’ve run with the AIs-in-charge idea of Iain M Banks. I’ll just have to say they’ve all influenced me and I’m scrabbling to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. But like all writers I hope I am now heading in my own direction; developing my own style, putting my own spin on old tropes and creating, intermittently, something new.
Mark: I’d agree with that. For those who don’t know, can you describe your style of SF in, say, ten words?
Neal: Action-packed, full of weird biology, advanced technology, and complex plot. Um, more than ten words.
Mark: Think we can let that go. (grins) What is the attraction for you in terms of being able to write SF?
Neal: I started off writing fantasy, but drifted in to writing SF because it more closely matched my other interests in technology and biology. Being paid for it is a huge bonus. Of course if the aim had been money I wouldn’t have chosen SF, but aga-sagas or thrillers.
Mark: I must admit, the thought of you writing aga-sagas is quite amusing! I have noticed that your reading list is very long and varied, and includes a lot of Fantasy. Would you consider writing Fantasy more or do you feel the way forward for you is SF?
Neal: I just couldn’t write aga-sagas I’d end up hanging myself from a light-fitting. As to the fantasy, well, at present I’ve been taken on by Macmillan for the SF and of course they are raising my profile in that area. Changing to something else would result in an immediate step down in sales, as I believe has happened to other writers who switch genres e.g. Donaldson when he wrote the ‘Gap’ books, and many SF writers when they suffer an attack of literature. However, I do have the four fantasy books in my files that I really learnt my trade on (Staff of Sorrows, Assassin out of Twilight, The Yellow Tower & Creatures of the Staff), and I would like to return to them at some time. The problem is getting the time.
Mark: Where does your interest in alien lifeforms (and especially marine lifeforms) come from? Do you have a scientific background or is it down to plain old research? It must be fun making them up?
Neal: The knowledge of biology I’ve acquired over the years is the result of plain old research and an overriding interest in living organisms and how they operate. Being provided with a microscope at an early age also helped as did my mother’s interest in mycology – traipsing around the countryside gathering and identifying fungi at the age of five is sure to have an effect. My interest in marine life stems from long childhood holidays spent fishing and bait gathering, childhood summers playing around a stream across the road from our house and there finding some fascinating potential aliens. It is an interest that has never gone away. It’s worth mentioning the profound effect on me, about twenty years ago, of reading a veterinary book on helminthology. That led to many of the ideas I play with, concerning parasites, you’ll find in The Skinner, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, The Parasiteand many of my short stories.
Mark: Your work also has a reputation for things that are big weapons, battles and big spaceships, for example. Is this a ‘boy’s own’ type of wish fulfilment? What do you think it is about ‘big stuff’ like that that readers (and writers!) find attractive?
Neal: I’m writing the kind of stuff I enjoy reading, the stuff that provides that ‘sensawunda’ kick that got me into SF in the first place. I’m not interested in taking the dismal ‘literati’ route because my paramount aim is to entertain and not astound people with my brilliance. And the first person I entertain is myself.
Mark: That is a very good point that you write for yourself. It must however be difficult to do that as well as write with a reader in mind. Do you consciously think about readers when writing?
Neal: Ah, but the point is that they are one and the same. If I’m getting bored with what I’m producing, then so’s the reader. Yes, I do think of the reader and I go back to a dictum from John Braine, who said that a good book should have conflict on every page. My problem is I’ve always believed ‘conflict’ should involve big Arnie-type guns and exploding spaceships.
Mark: Whilst entertaining yourself and others, you seem to have developed into an area of writing that reflects your interests, as any good writer should. You have a background in engineering. Would you say that this has helped create a love of science / technology, reflected in your work?
Neal: The love of science/technology came long before the engineering, as I’ve detailed above. Add to that microscope other childhood toys like Meccano, a chemistry set, a fish tank and you get the general idea. Engineering was just something I went into because that’s where my brothers went.
Mark: I would argue that it seems to have created an interest in robots and artificial intelligence, for example.
Neal: An interest in robots and artificial intelligence arose more from my reading than anything else. However, I’ll grant that understanding the nuts and bolts of our technology enables me to more clearly visualize how it would work in the future. For example, in many of my books you’ll find robot factories and the like, this arises from my work with CNC machine tools, including programming them.
Mark: Your engineering background could also be said to be reflected in your writing in that they are densely plotted and complex multi-layered books which clearly take a lot of planning and preparation. Would you agree with that?
Neal: Ahem, no. I do very little planning at all. I know some writers produce outlines and saturate their vicinity with post-it notes, but I don’t. I just write and throughout that process come up with new ideas and create plot strands that I eventually draw together. But having a practical turn of mind due to my years spent in engineering, I treat all the elements of a story in the same way as the components of a machine: bolting them together, making them fit, making the machine work. Sometimes, to that final end, it is necessary to throw components away, design and build new ones, spray in a bit of Easy-start.
Mark: That is a surprise to me! Could we also say that you are a writer who feels that writing ‘to plan’, so to speak, would make your work less exciting?
Neal: Going back to what I was saying earlier about the writer being a reader too: if I know what’s going to happen I’m less excited about what I’m writing. When Macmillan took me on The Line of Polity consisted of a full synopsis and about 30,000 words of the book itself. I threw away the synopsis and about 28,000 of the words.
Mark: Most of your books, whether Spatterjay or otherwise, link together through The Polity. There is a clearly realised background there, with a Heinlein-esque Future History, of events and things that have happened outside the context of your books. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of setting most of your book with this common setting?
Neal: An advantage of setting stories in the Polity is that so much that can happen there, a disadvantage is that the more I write about the Polity the more limitations I impose on myself. For example, in Gridlinked I invented this gun called an APW (anti-photon weapon). It is pseudo-science and I would like to be rid of it, basing weapons on more up-to-date real science. But I’m stuck with it. Also, in the serialized books there’s an increasing amount of back-story to include. Another danger of creating such a future history is that readers often object when you step out of it.
Mark: That’s another good point. Has that happened to you?
Neal: Well, the reaction to Cowl wasn’t enthusiastic in many areas I think a lot of fans were disappointed it wasn’t another Polity book. The publisher was quite unsure about it too. On the whole, people don’t like change. For example, Bruce Willis playing a transvestite nightclub singer would be as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.
Mark: Your latest book, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, is a return to Spatterjay, a predominantly ocean-based planet first encountered in your book The Skinner. Why return to Spatterjay? What did you feel you wanted to develop further that you didn’t cover in The Skinner?
Neal: I didn’t feel I wanted to develop anything further. Those writers who come out with, “Well, I felt the need to develop this aspect further and explore the ramifications of da-de-dah,” take themselves too bloody seriously and are in danger of disappearing up their own backsides. Yes, I have explored some things and developed some things, but that wasn’t the principle aim. My aim was to write a book both entertaining to myself and my readers, and sell a shitload of copies.
Mark: One of the interesting themes that I have noticed in both The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech is that of the importance of life. This is not only shown in the sheer number and variety of lifeforms therein, but also the way that many of the characters wish to extend it, be resurrected or deal with the consequences of near-immortality. You seem to be very interested in this aspect of society. Have I got that right?
Neal: My interest in life, in biology, I’ve already touched on, but I’ve always been fascinated with immortality and transformation. But these are SF staples and often the product of what if? When you talk to people about immortality the reply is often that they would not want to live forever, but I suspect they are thinking in terms of eternal old age rather than youth. But given that it is possible to live forever, what other problems might there be? Boredom is one, hence Erlin’s ennui and the suicidal impulses of those passing their 200th year. A little bit about transformation comes in when you think about the possible ways of continuing life memcording, life in a different body, in a virtuality and all the existential angst surrounding them.
Mark: Would you say that your interest in unusual lifeforms is related to an environmental concern?
Neal: If by environmental concern you mean, oh my god, global warming or The Silent Spring, then no, it doesn’t. All of that rubbish has more to do with politics than biology and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.
Mark: No, what I was thinking was that (as you’ve mentioned it above) you have an interest in biology and there is a ‘sense-of-wunda’ created through the places you write about this (to me) suggested that you have an understanding and an appreciation of nature / the environment. No politics intended!
Neal: Then yes. I appreciate and have a huge interest in the workings of ecologies, organisms, life-cycles but then there isn’t much that doesn’t interest me far beyond its utility in daily life. Of course that’s the great thing about writing SF: taking an interest in almost anything is valid.
Mark: Moving a little away from your own work, it has been mentioned on the SFFWorld boards, and no doubt many other places, that there seems to be a resurgence of British SF at the moment. Your name is mentioned alongside names such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Charlie Stross, Richard Morgan.. would you personally agree with that? Do you feel part of this new British Wave or is it a convenient labelling and nothing more?
Neal: They are some good names to be mentioned alongside, but whether this is the New British Wave or Space Opera I’ll leave to history to judge. The implication is that there is a new style, a new way of thinking and writing, but I don’t think that is so. The SF now is just a seamless development on top what went before, incorporating current technological progress and the creative facilities of the writers concerned. A few British writers have hit the big time all at about the same time, does that constitute a wave?
Mark: I guess it’s a point of perspective. The original New Wave, as I understand it, was a body of work which was radically different in style and content to that being produced in the US in the 1960′s. If I’ve got it right, you feel that these writers are just a number who happen to be well thought of at this moment in time. It’s an evolution, rather than something totally different?
Neal: Yes. Look at those names you mentioned and I bet you can think of writers of similar stuff who have been around for a while, Vernor Vinge and Greg Bear to name but two.
Mark: Thinking further in that vein, if we accept that SF is looking fairly healthy at the moment, have you any thoughts as to the future? What do you think SF needs to do to maintain this apparent momentum?
Neal: The funeral rites for science fiction are read out with boring regularity, but it just refuses to climb into the coffin. I think it will remain with us so long as there’s a future. The death of books has equally been predicted, and books stubbornly refuse to die. To maintain this ‘apparent momentum’ we just need writers to keep producing books people want to read, simplistic I know, but that’s the only answer to give. Maybe the paper book will eventually disappear. Science fiction will continue in some form perpetually.
Mark: Or does it need to? I have heard it argued that as SF ideas become more mainstream, perhaps we shouldn’t maintain the pace, instead looking at it’s evolution into the mainstream. In the future, could you see your books alongside mainstream techno-thrillers, for example? (Would you want to?)
Neal: I would say that our technology is catching up with some elements of older science fiction, so yeah, policemen now carry stun guns, the military use EM warfare and there are jets about that are effectively invisible and fly ridiculously fast. It’s this sort of stuff we are seeing in the mainstream (except of course when when an SF book is packaged as ‘not SF’ just for sales purposes). But SF is always leaping ahead. Most gets discarded as reality catches up and the SF becomes dated, but while there’s a now there’ll always be a future to speculate about. And while we develop technology now, there’ll always be future technology too. I don’t think we are seeing SF evolve (or devolve) into the mainstream, I think technological advances have just shifted the point at which most people lose their ability to suspend disbelief. For example, fifty years ago the idea of a laser weapon was contemptuously referred to as ‘science fiction’. Admittedly there will still be people around who think like that (usually the kind delight in the fact that they cannot rewire a three-pin plug), but most people either guess such things are now possible, or know they are a reality.
Mark: As for your future writing, I know that you have some more material after Sable Keech coming up in 2006. Care to explain further?
Neal: I’ve just finished a load of editorial work on Polity Agent, which has now been passed on to the copy editor. That book will be appearing in nine months from now and is the next in the Cormac sequence after Brass Man. Presently I’m working on Hilldiggers, which is set in the Polity universe, but stands alone.
Mark: I am particularly intrigued by the fact that one of your next books is provisionally called Prador Moon. As the Prador are an element of the Spatterjay books, will that mean that the book is connected to them or is it a much wider concept? I must admit I am interested to see how such a carnivorous and downright alien species conducts itself in galactic politics!
Neal: All but one of the books I’ve produced for Macmillan are set in the ‘Polity Universe’ my own future chronology. Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, Brass Man and Polity Agent all concern Agent Cormac (and much else besides) while The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech are set about six hundred years later. In all these books there are references to the Prador/Human war. When Jason William’s at Night Shade’s Books approached me and said he would rather like something from me, I checked back through the chronology I’ve been steadily building and chose to tell the story of the beginning of that war. How do the Prador conduct themselves in galactic politics? Atrociously!
Mark: I’ll look forward to that one. Thank you again, Neal, for your time.
Neal has his own Forum in the Discussion Boards at SFFWorld.
Neal’s own website can be found at: http://freespace.virgin.net/n.asher/
A microsite for The Voyage of the Sable Keech can also be found at: http://www.panmacmillan.com/sablekeech/
Copyright Hobbit, February 2006