Interview with Ian McDonald

Q: For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the story that is RIVER OF GODS.

A taste, you say? An Indian thali then –a selection of small, intensely flavoured snacks on one plate. . There’s a computer-generated soap opera where all the characters are played by Artificial Intelligences –who also play the actor’s playing the characters, because the gossip-column world outside the soap is as important and the soap itself. There’s an embattled Prime Minister being drawn into a water war with her immediate neighbour to save her career and her government from the threat of a Hindu fundamentalist populist party. There’s a Krishna Cop whose job it is to track down and excommunicate unlicensed ‘aeais’ –Artificial Intelligences. There’s an American scientist gone native down in Kerala who is drawn back into the world to interpret a seemingly impossible astronomical event. There’s a stand-up comedian who inherits a power company, there’s a new third sex –that doesn’t do sex. There’s cricket (and if you haven’t been to India, it’s hard to imagine how important cricket is there: it is to India what soccer is to Brazil: any open space, someone will set up stumps and make a bat from a piece of old wood. We were there for the 2003 final of the cricket World Cup –India versus Australia. I read recently that China has officially decided it is going to adopt cricket, because it reckons it’s a sport at which it can excel. That makes it at a stroke the world’s biggest sport. China/India test matches will be the planet’s biggest sporting fixture. There are street criminals, glittering parties, gods and monsters, scandal, intrigue… Just another couple of months in India –or what remains of India– in 2047.

Q: What made you decide to set the story in India? With its myriad gods, cultures, etc, how much of a challenge was it to get every little detail “right?”

India had never featured in SF. Africa, well covered, China –when the US (and SF is still a largely US-centric genre) thinks of Asia it tends to think China and Japan –East Asia. When did you ever see an India on Star Trek? Or, for that matter, a Brazilian? (Trek has always reflected US internal ethnicity and foreign policy –the bad guys are who the administration wants everyone to be scared off at that time. Klingons were of course the barbarous red horde, the Borg the faceless drone Korean car worker destroying the US economy, the infiltrating, sleeper shapeshifters and the fanatical Jen Hadar, well, ‘jemadar’ is a Hindi word fro a sergeant in the Indian Army…) On our side of the Atlantic we’ve always had a much closer historical and colonial relationship with South Asia and, when the first wave of outsourcing broke, the bright idea was to outsource cyberpunk along with it. Bruce Sterling wrote in the introduction to Mirrorshades about wanting to ‘distil the weak beer of space opera’ into something stronger. I wanted to distil the weak beer of cyberpunk into something stronger –and funkier. At the same time fashion was changing in the UK: for a while it had been cool to be Irish (no, really); then Brit-Asian became the fashionable ethnicity: Talvin Singh won the mercury Music prize, all of a sudden the desi thing was on the horizon, and the proper responses of a science fiction writer to these things is to ask, well, what about?

Research: well, 90% of your research you never use, but you have to do it because you never know what that 10% that lifts a book –I think of it like yeast in bread- and makes the reader think, yes, this is real, he’s seen/experienced this. Any writer will tell you that quite a lot of imagination-stuff can be raised by one true, real-world insight. Research began in 1999, writing in 2003, after I’d been out on the research trip, which took in the usual touristy destinations (and why not?) and a three day trip sailing down the Ganges, camping on sandbars, into Varanasi, which is the only way to arrive, IMHO. Then up into Nepal, which I had initially thought of as an add-on, which spawned the companion story The Little Goddess. In terms of difficulty, there’s a huge amount of material out there to draw from and source; Brazil was much much harder to research. It may be the fifth largest country in the world (you can drop the conterminous states comfortably into Brazil) but there are twelve times as many books on tiny (but fashionable) Cuba. Then again, I like to think I’m that wee bit ahead of the curve, so Brazil should be appearing on the mass popular radars about the same time the books comes out. I’m reading about Turkey now. My projects tend to be long slow and painstaking –I’m a slow writer and a slow reader.

 

Q: Speaking of which, have you received much feedback from Indians pertaining to RIVER OF GODS’ accuracy or lack thereof?

The general opinion is ‘not bad for a firangi’ (foreigner), together with a mild head-slap of ‘why didn’t we think of this?’ That latter one is a more general response I’ve had from other writers as well: basically, Of course, it’s so bloody obvious. There was one extended argument I linked into from my blog of the ‘who does this westerner think he is to try to write about my culture?’ (this, of course without having bothered to read the book) that centred on the whole argument of western/Indian developed/developing world power structures and (I simplify grossly here) exploitation. Of course, I can stand up and wave my hand and say, hey, I’m the one living in the British Empire’s last colony, not you, but that doesn’t fit the script. It’s pretty much the standard Western-liberal-guilt argument, but it has made me think about what I write –for some time now I’ve been shifting my fiction away from the Western and the developed world and into the developing world. After all, the future comes to Kenya or Kolkata as surely as it comes to Kansas. But when I sold the movie rights, the producer (who works a lot with Bollywood) hinted, wryly, that I’d so extensively settled the terrain that it would be quite a long time before anyone else tackled it. Well, Alan Dean Foster has published Sagramanda (also from the mighty Pyr) a techno-thriller set in near-future India. I discovered at Worldcon that Alan and I were in India at he same time: he was driving up from Mumbai as I was setting off down the Ganges; so it was clearly something that was in the air at the time. There will be more stories from the RoG world –I’m wrangling with the opening of one now — but I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was disenfranchising or discouraging India SF&F writers. It’s a big country.

Q: Many readers seem to have a hard time adapting to the unconventional structure of RIVER OF GODS? What made you decide to use such disparate POV characters to tell the story?

There are stories you can tell in books that you can’t in any other format. Because of their length and the amount of time it takes to read them, books can work much more with memory than more time-based media like film and television. The underlying narrative structures are the same, but one of the virtues of the novel is that it operate on a vast scale. In RoG, Bharat is much a character as any of the humans –as indeed is Town and Country, the CGI soap opera… and I wanted to find a way to show it. I remembered the old Indian story of the blind men and the elephant –each feels a different part, and imagines that an elephant is like a tree trunk, like a snake, like a whale. I wanted multiple perspectives on the future India, because this would show its breadth and depth, where following a single POV narrator would mean vast amounts of info-dumping or a flatly-lit world that didn’t convince, live and breathe. Worldbuilding is one of the virtues of SF, so I wanted to use it to create India 2047. The heart of the story is a huge conspiracy, and conspiracies only succeed if its very hard for any one person to see it all. Each character has an angle on the story, but not al of it, it’s only when they start to come together that it all begins to make sense to us, the readers, if not to the characters themselves. There are several characters at the end of the book who never get to see the bigger picture, but completely satisfy their own stories.

Q: Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?

I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to writing because I plan everything out in advance. Writing is hard enough without having to think up what happens next when you’re staring at a flashing cursor. I sell a book on a long and pretty detailed outline, then can run up to two or three hundred pages of notes and backgrounding. I do character bibles: about a dozen pages on each character before I start to write the book, then fill in the little details. Of course all characters surprise you –it was halfway through Brasyl that I realised that Edson’s girlfriend Fia had a bad temper and could be a real snappy cow. It’s one of the givens of writing that no plot should ever hinge on characters being stupid (your average computer-generated teen slasher movie) but characters can do stupid things because of their internal flaws, fears or limitations. As long as there is conflict –inner conflict–there is drama. In RoG a lot of plots revolve around character’s weaknesses –and are redeemed to some measure by their strengths. In particular, Shaheen Badoor Khan, the advisor to Prime Minister Sajida Rana and the only Muslim in the Hindu government of Bharat, grew beyond the limits of his plot. I ended up liking and respecting him a lot, he seemed to retain a strange integrity and dignity.

 

Q: You’re seen as one of the major players in the new European onslaught on speculative fiction, despite being a published author for almost two decades. What do you see as the reason behind the recent domination of the fields of science fiction and fantasy by authors from the U.K.?

The UK realised some time ago that tomorrow doesn’t belong to it. That’s a great challenge to any SF writer –that his or her cultural POV may not be the prevailing one. I think it helped spawn the great Brit space-opera boom –if the future isn’t going to look like us, then it’s not going to look like anyone –but it might look like everyone. For me, it was looking outside the West –to Africa for my take on First Contact, to India for Khyberpunk, to Brazil for Dickian reality-bending. In a sense it’s taking the tropes of SF and asking, what can a non-Western culture do with them? There are a lot of great writers over here –a lot of us (alas) are the same age and emerged in the Thatcher era, when, for a moment, SF and Fantasy felt slightly subversive. Charlie Stross is the wunderkind of the past five years, but he’s been writing since God was a boy: the Eighties Interzones at least.

Q: I’ve read that you’ve changed your U.K. publisher. Care to shed any light on who the new publisher might be? Will we still get a cover as pretty as that for RIVER OF GODS for BRASYL?

I’ve returned to Gollancz. (So there’s a chance the endlessly-delayed but plotted-out conclusion to the Chaga trilogy may eventually happen).

Q: Speaking of BRASYL, what’s the progress report on your new novel?

Done, dusted, copyedited. have a look here and here.

Great cover by the mighty Stephan Martiniere. Due out in May. It’s definitely not RoG2: that was one thing I wanted above all to avoid, but I think you’ll find it as rich, deep, dazzling and strange. India is in yer face. The culture slaps you the moment you step out of the airport (in fact, as the plane was touching down). Brazil creeps up on you, shakes its ass, gets you to buy it a drink and the next morning you wake up with your passport gone, your wallet lifted and one kidney replaces with a row of sutures. Peter Robb’s magisterial ‘A Death in Brazil’ carries the line ‘Brazil is one of the world’s greatest and strangest countries’, and it’s only a year after being there that the full understanding of that arrives. It is like nowhere else –certainly not in South America, in the same way that India is like nowhere else. And it’s history is more or less completely unknown in the rest of the West.

Q: PYR is earning loads of acclaim and new readers in the US. How do you feel about the eclectic and expansive output, other than RIVER OF GODS, of this new publisher? Do you have any favorites from their catalog?

David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake. So fresh and good I shamelessly stole an idea from it: the whole premise of a future corporate thriller. I remember Lou Anders pitching this one at the Pyr panel at Worldcon in Glasgow and thinking, of course! It’s so bloody obvious! That’s a genius idea. It sent me back to an old novel by James Clavell called ‘Noble House’ about corporate intrigue in an old Anglo-Chinese trading company (it got made into a pretty dire TV miniseries), so that’s in the mix at the back of my head. Buy Infoquake, read it (I think The Steg already has). Give him the Philip K Dick award.

 

Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

What, just one strength? No, hubris aside (and this is a very hubristic question). Much as I deride ‘The Method’, I think I’m a bit of a ‘Method-Writer’, in that I immerse myself pretty completely in what I’m writing. This sounds pretty damn pretentious, but I’ve not just come out writing a book set in Brazil, I’ve come out of thinking Brazilian. Maybe its because I grew up in a society with a very very keen sense of social nuance (there are thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling what another person’s religion is in Northern Ireland and in the not so distant past, that literally could be a matter of life and death) that I have or a feel for those unspoken social rules in other societies. I like to immerse readers in a complete experience, so they come out with a gasp, saying, ‘whoa, that was intense.’ Intense, yeah. I’m the Christian Bale of SF.

Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write RIVER OF GODS in the first place?

It’s well known that I was at a lunch with my agent John Richard Parker and my then-editor John Jarrold (truly a legend) and over the umpteenth bottle of wine, we were talking about Kipling, and, against contemporary convention, that Kim is a great novel of India; and I mentioned it would be great to try to write the science fictional equivalent of Kim. I could never be accused of excess of modesty, and other ideas were falling together at the same time as I said above. This was 1999, and it seemed a blindingly obvious thing to do –as far as I knew, no one else has tried anything on this scale, that was as much about India as set in India– so I started to lay out the building blocks. Because it was such a huge concept it drove me back to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which impressed me when I read it as a teenager as one of the first SF futures that felt lived in. It felt wide and deep and complex and his multi-media technique seemed to be a clever and effective way of getting that wide-screen epic style I was looking for. As it happened, I used a slightly different method, of multiple POV characters, but Brunner was in the mix.

Q: Were there any perceived conventions of the scifi genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write RIVER OF GODS? How about with BRASYL?

I think I do that to a certain extent in everything I write. It makes it fun to read and fun to write. It’s a game, and there’s a game at the heart of every SF story: what if? One of SF’s great virtues is it’s self-awareness and internal dialogue, it’s not a very big field, everyone is two handshakes away from anyone else and it contemplates and talks about itself constantly. Every book, either knowingly or unknowingly, is part of that discourse, maybe I’m just a bit more knowing about it. There’s a lot more SF around now, but in a sense it’s harder now than ever; there’s a very strong ‘noveltarian’ strain in the genre, which values new ideas and conceits and scientific speculations. Fair enough, science has expanded many times beyond what was known in the so-called ‘Golden Age’, and even then, major ideas like quantum theory weren’t being used much. For me the big values have always been the sense of wonder and the sense of the strange. I’m somewhere I haven’t been before. It’s unfamiliar, a little uncomfortable but I can live here.

Q: Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo Award? Why, exactly?

New York Times bestseller. No disrespect at all to the Hugo’s –I’m lucky enough to have been nominated twice now, and it is true, the honour’s in being nominated. But to hit the New York times list is to haul in those readers outside fandom, the casual fantasy and SF readers, the ones who have Harry Potter or George R. R. Martin, or the Time Traveller’s Wife. I’m with Gollancz editor Simon Spanton when he talks about the ‘lapsed Catholic’ audience on this, those who once read SF but dropped away, because it wasn’t doing it for the, because they want more than juvenile lots and characters, because they want worlds and people and situations they can believe in, because media SF has so successfully colonised the low and fertile floodplain that it’s all people think of when they hear the words Science Fiction. This was a brief blog-bubble between myself, Paul McAuley, Lou Anders, Charlie Stross and Paul Cornell as a counterblast to the ‘back-to-basics’ movement advocating a return to Golden Age style space adventure. My position on this is well known: of course there’s always going to be a need for space-fic –what the general public think of and call ‘sci-fi’, and it may draw readers in at the bottom end, but it sure won’t hold them. ‘Mediaesque’ sci-fi may, in that sense, ‘save’ science-fiction, but it sure will lobotomise it. And there are a lot of general readers out there who will buy and enjoy science-fiction if they can convince themselves it’s not that geeky stuff…

 

Q: Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

Everything is a genre these days, which of course means that everyone then fights turf wars. Literary Sharks and Jets. In SF there is, and always has been, a degree of cross-over, usually from literary-genre writers moving into sf-genre: Margaret ‘Squids in Spaaaaace!’ Atwood, Kashuo Ishiguro; it’s obvious to any SF reader that David ‘Cloud Atlas’ Mitchell grew up an SF reader. Iain (m) Banks gets a lot of this ‘why are you still writing that icky sci-fi stuff?’ He’s at the stage where he can just look at them, but I think the problem, deep down, is that it’s seen as a childish genre. Of course, if an SF breakout books succeeds, then, in the great lines of Kingsley Amis (a great friend of SF in the 1960s, as Brian Aldiss will testify)

SF’s no good
They bellow till we’re deaf.
But his looks good!
Well, then it’s not SF.

Whenever RoG came out in the UK, it came out as a mainstream title, it got stacked at the front of the shop as such as lot of people bought it as such. They enjoyed it as well. There are a lot of people out there who think the SF they see on TV, and the written SF which emulates it, is fun but for kids really. But give them something adult, give them something that doesn’t have a spaceship full of windows on the cover, ands they’ll buy it. Of course, publishing is all about niche marketing these days, and I know that the US Pyr edition, which is card-carrying hand-on-heart SF, is aimed at that specific market, and that’s good, because I’ve been out of print in the US for ten years, and I need to build and rebuild a readership.

Q: What authors make you shake your head in admiration? If you could recommend just one book to the world, what would it be?

One book, divided into twenty volumes. I am evangelical about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Captain and surgeon-spy in His Majesty’s Napoleonic-era navy? What’s not to love? Think of it a one six thousand page novel divided into twenty volumes. It builds completely it’s own world, and, though the action is great, and the series contained the one piece of writing that made me go ‘fuck me!’ in amazement when I read it, it’s the little scenes of shipboard life, the dinners, the music, the social order that stops everyone killing everyone else on this tiny wooden village out in the blue water, that are the real joy. And they’re funny as well. Also, because I’m researching Turkey at the moment, I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of Istanbul –which maybe dwells a little heavily on the nostalgic and melancholic. William Dalrymple always astounds: the depth of his research and scholarship –and he does that thing as a travel writer that the vastly over-rated Bill Bryson doesn’t: he talks to people.

Q: You have gained a lot of new fans with the release of RIVER OF GODS? What can you tell them about your earlier projects?

Much of the backlist is loooong out of print, but there are some I can look back on without a wince, with something approaching affection. King of Morning Queen of Day still surprises me when I flick through it–there are whole chunks I don;t remember writing. It’s a pre-Buffy fantasy (remember that). Desolation Road still stands, and there’s it’s companion (not sequel) Ares Express, which may be seeing a US publication. The Chaga Saga: Evolution’s Shore, Kirinya and the novella Tendeleo’s Story I like still.

Q: How would you like to be remembered as an author? What is the legacy you’ll be leaving behind?

Oh God, am I that old?

Many thanks again for accepting to do this interview with us. We wish you continued success with your career and best of luck with the upcoming release of BRASYL.

 

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