Q: The advance praise for Black Man/Thirteen has generated quite a buzz among SFF fans. Without giving anything away, what can you tell your readers about this new novel?
Black Man is set in the aftermath of a century of ill-advised and poorly regulated genetic experimentation, where an otherwise fairly successful global (and extra-global) community is struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the human damage done over the previous hundred years. I suppose you could draw a parallel with the way in which we now struggle with the human consequences of previous centuries of colonialism. Carl Marsalis, the black man of the title is one of a series of engineered humans, in his case engineered for combat, who have been modified not so much in any physical aspect as in the way they think and feel. It’s a specialism based on designed aptitude, and the book aims to show, among other things, that the aptitudes required or desired by our society are often very frightening things. In tone, Black Man is quite similar to my Kovacs novels, in that it’s a fairly high velocity crime-and-conspiracy thriller with a noirish lack of obvious good or bad guys – but the book addresses issues that the Kovacs series could only ever really meet obliquely because of the sleeving technology. Simply put, in the Kovacs universe physicality and death are problems that can be sidestepped. In the world of Black Man, as in our own, they aren’t. You have to meet them head on.
Q: The title change from Black Man to Thirteen for the US market suggests that the USA is still very sensitive to any fiction – even from the SF&F corner of the market – that addresses racial and political issues about the state of the country. How do you feel about the book being changed in this way?
To be honest, I’m not too fussed. Thirteen is a pretty solid thematic summary of the book in its own way, and Black Man wasn’t in any case the original title I had in mind – though I do think it’s very powerful in a way that Thirteen maybe isn’t. In more general terms, I think it’s a shame Del Rey have to worry that the title of a book alone will spark an instant negative response, rather than trust that people will read the book and then judge – but then again, they’re at the sharp end, culturally, and I’m not, so it seems reasonable to be guided by their sense of things. In Europe, the titles of my books are very rarely a direct translation of the original English, and I don’t get upset about that, so it seems a little churlish to start throwing fits about this. The content of Black Man hasn’t changed from one edition to the other, and obviously that’s what really counts.
Q: I was lucky enough to hear you do a reading from Black Man/Thirteen a couple of summers ago in New York City. Has time blurred my memory, or is the finished product completely different than that previous incarnation? And if so, how did the tale change in the telling?
No, the reading I gave was taken from the chapter introducing us to the character of Sevgi Ertekin, and it’s substantially the same in the finished book as it was then. A bit more stylistically polished, maybe, but otherwise unchanged.
Q: Black Man/Thirteen has a lot of very powerful things to say about the development of American society over the next century. How did you go about deciding to what extent the USA would ‘fall’ as it were, and what parts of the country would go in each direction (the South into religious fundamentalism, the North into international cooperation etc)?
Well, I owe the initial inspiration to the “Jesusland” map that appeared on the internet just after the 2004 Presidential elections. That’s when I first started to give the idea any serious thought. But I think it’s become increasingly clear to everyone over the last couple of decades that there are – at least – two very different Americas out there, and in contrast to the European Union, which seems to be subsuming its cultural and political differences in a general (if somewhat smug) general sense of modernity, these different aspects of America don’t seem to be reconciling at all. If anything, they’re more savagely at each other’s throats than ever. So I found myself wondering how it would play out if that savagery was ever genuinely set loose, and what the geo-political consequences would be.
As to the specifics, it wasn’t hard to draw out the current cultural tendencies and extrapolate. The west coast of America is undoubtedly and increasingly becoming attuned to the economic and ethnic rhythms of the Pacific rim. Attitudes to the environment really are diverging as California’s supposedly Republican governor and various politicians in the north eastern states all begin to address the issue of global warming, while the heartland continues to kick against it. Secessionism is alive and well as a political idea across the Deep South. So-called red states receive more in federal aid than they contribute in tax dollars, and still go on cutting their own throats by supporting anti-government politics. New Orleans dies in the mud like any third world disaster area, New York bounces back from 9/11 as a rallying point for the modern western world. And last year I watched a frightening documentary about a college in the US founded by born-again Christians for the expressed purpose of sending young fundamentalist men and women to Washington in a bid to capture the organs of government, and ultimately the Presidency. So while I don’t necessarily believe that America really will split up as envisaged in the book, I think the cultural fault-lines are there for anyone to see.
Q: Black Man/Thirteen can be seen as many things – allegorical in nature, a political statement, or just a rip-roaring adventure. When you set down to write the book, for what were you aiming and did the target change in the writing?
No, it didn’t. I’ve always felt that as a novelist, your primary function is to entertain, and when I sit down to write, what I’m usually aiming to do is tell a compelling story built around emotionally engaging characters and scenes of high drama. That’s what Black Man was, from the very beginning.
That said, I’d find it almost impossible to write any kind of story if it didn’t have some underlying social and political significance to it, because it just wouldn’t feel realistic. We are social creatures, and politics is simply human behaviour writ large, so it will inevitably inform any realistic narrative. And I’ve never felt that because you’re writing a fast-paced sex-and-violence-driven narrative, you can’t have any kind of intelligent reflection in it. I don’t see any reason why you can’t have your cake and eat it here. Who says you can’t have entertainment that is satisfying both viscerally and intellectually? Why, if you’re an intelligent reader or movie goer, should you have to put up with that kind of polarized approach to story-telling? So yeah, Black Man is and always was intended to offer engagement at all those levels, but equally it will always be up to each individual reader to take what they want from it and leave the rest.
Q: Black Man/Thirteen is relentlessly anti-racism from the jump, but sexual identity and sexual nature are a bit more jaded. Without getting into too much detail on plot and ideas, I can see the argument for Black Man/Thirteen as a misogynist novel. I can see an equal case for it as a staunchly feminist and even misandrist book. Do you foresee controversy with regards to this subject matter? Was that your intent?
I’m not really bothered by controversy one way or the other – as a writer, I don’t think you can afford to be. If you intend to write anything worth reading, you’re bound to upset someone sooner or later. It doesn’t pay to worry about it, you just have to get on and write, as honestly as you can, and let the readers and critics sort it out for themselves. And to be honest, there’s not much in Black Man, thematically speaking, that hasn’t already been touched on in my earlier books, so I don’t see any substantial storms on the horizon.
As far as the race and gender issues in the book are concerned, it’s worth pointing out that all I’ve done here is use the available genetic science; the idea that race offers any kind of marker for innate genetic differential was demolished conclusively back in 1972 by Richard Lewontin, and these days no-one but a bunch of sad-case white supremacists would give it house room; the evidence on the other hand that there are substantial genetic differences between the sexes at a psychological as well as a physical level is massive and continues to grow. Were it not for a willful and rather childish refusal to face these facts in the world of social sciences, there’d be no more dispute about this now than there is about Lewontin’s work on race.
Q: Whilst reading Black Man/Thirteen I became convinced it was set in the same world as the Kovacs books, and that the remarkable new technology coming from Mars was from the secret discovery of the alien tech from the later books. I was surprised therefore when in another interview you said they weren’t in the same timeline. Can we expect to see further development of the Black Man/Thirteen setting in future books?
Yeah, that was a really cool idea about the Marstech – wish I’d thought of it myself at the time!
In fact, in Black Man I made a concerted effort to get away from the Kovacs universe because, as I said earlier, I wanted to deal with issues the technology in those books allows us to sidestep – that’s to say the inevitability of death and the inescapable prison of our own flesh. So the fact we end up with a colony on Mars in this book as well was purely co-incidental – it’s simply that I think a human presence on Mars is absolutely going to happen, and any book set more than a handful of decades ahead of now is going to come off pretty unrealistic if it doesn’t accept that fact in some shape or form. Of course, your Martian colony doesn’t have to actually get a mention, or more than a passing mention maybe, any more than Australia has to get a mention in a contemporary thriller set in the US; but once I had the colony there as a given, there were just so many fascinating factors and issues to explore, that it ended up a big part of the novel after all.
Q: With Black Man/Thirteen taking place before your Takeshi Kovacs novels, was the idea for the book gestating all along or did Carl Marsalis come to you after Kovacs?
No, it’s all fresh, apart from the name. The first (and now defunct) novel I ever wrote featured a cop called Darius Marsalis – I was listening to a lot of Branford Marsalis at the time, it was a sort of homage – but Dari Marsalis was nothing like the Carl Marsalis in Black Man.
Q: Do you truly believe the Alpha Male to be extinct?
That’d be nice, wouldn’t it. But no, they’re still with us. Surplus to requirements in western society, I’d say, but it’s taking them – and us – a long time to notice the fact.
In fact, I’m being a little harsh here. One of the points that the book tries to make is that alpha male tendency alone isn’t really the problem, it’s the tendency the rest of us have to do what those fuckers say that really creates the static. Let’s take a for-instance. If the Cheney gang had jumped up and down and demanded a war in Iraq, and the rest of us had just said “Hell, no – that’s a fucking stupid idea”, well, then we wouldn’t have a war in Iraq, would we? But instead, those assholes managed to whip up such a cloud of bullshit pseudo-patriotic fervour that the war became a foregone conclusion, and we all sleep-walked into it. It’s not the demagogue that’s scary in humans, it’s the mob tendency he can always awaken.
Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
Well, that really isn’t for me to say. What I can say is that my work is largely character driven, with a high octane plot necessarily arising from the sort of characters I’m interested in creating, and the scenes I tend to envisage them in. But whether that’s a strength or not is another matter. Depends on what you want to read, I guess.
Q: Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
In Black Man, almost all of them. I don’t think there’s a single major character in the cast who ended up where I’d expected them to. Some of them didn’t even come close. That’s part of the reason the damn’ thing took so long to write.
Elsewhere in my writing, I think Mike Bryant in Market Forces probably provided me with the most surprises of all my major characters so far – and that’s remarkable, because Market Forces was derived from my own original screenplay, and so written along very clearly delineated plot-lines, far more so than any of the Kovacs books. So the thing is, Bryant ended up exactly where he was always going to, but he astounded me with the amount of sympathy he managed to evoke in me along the way.
Q: Were there any perceived conventions of the science fiction genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out each novel?
No, I don’t often think like that. I don’t believe there’s any special merit in breaking a convention per se – you only break it, if it gets in the way of what you want to do; if it doesn’t, you might just as well make use of it.
Q: Both SF and Fantasy have seen recent injections of elements of noir or thrillers into them. Yourself and Alastair Reynolds have done this for SF, and we’ve seen Scott Lynch do the same for Fantasy. What do you think draws genre writers to this, and to what extent can we expect these elements to dominate in your forthcoming fantasy work?
An acquaintance of mine, Ali Karim at Shots magazine, once suggested to me that “noir” was, quite simply, the antithesis of “Disney”, and for me that definition has stuck. Disney tells you entertainingly colourful lies about the way the world is – work hard, stay honest, follow your dream, and everything will work out in the end. Its proper audience is small children. Noir speaks to the adult in us and it offers no such shiny assurances. Noir paints the world very much the way it is – life is hard, humans are a dodgy lot, justice is scarce and very costly to manufacture, in the end we’re all gonna die. For any writer who’s interested in writing even faintly realistic fiction, how can all that not appeal?
And yeah, there’ll be a lot of that cropping up in the fantasy novels when they come out. That’s a promise.
Q: Both British print and screen SF seem to be undergoing very healthy periods at the moment, with many British SF authors in prominence in the genre and movies like Sunshine and TV series like Doctor Who in ascendence. Why do you think this is?
My guess is that it’s because we live increasingly in a world that will only stand interpretation via an SF sensibility. Technology is dragging is into the future at an unrelenting rate. The world our children now take for granted would have been considered pure science fiction even twenty years ago. What previously seemed outlandish and geeky to a mainstream audience is now all too plausible as fiction, and in all probability just around the corner in fact. There’s a generally high level of openness to speculation now, and that can’t fail to feed the genre.
Q: Several of your books have also been optioned for adaption, but have you considered ever writing a script directly for television or film?
No – I don’t have the temperament for it. To write for TV or movies, you have to be eminently pragmatic, collaborative, and open to compromise. I score pretty low on all of those.
Q: In other interviews you’ve remarked on the differences between US/UK publishing and the writers. Are there marked differences from the readers/fans from the US/UK?
Not that I’ve noticed, no. *pause for thought* I suppose you might make a case for there being less genre snobbery in the US, more of a willingness to consider a book on its merits simply as a piece of entertainment, rather than worrying about which genre pigeonhole it occupies first. But even that’s a highly subjective impression, and could easily be disputed on a case by case basis – for instance, the New York Times review of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake apparently savaged the book for being science fiction (something Atwood herself strenuously denied) before even attempting to actually examine it critically; meanwhile I’ve had a number of very favorable reviews out of the British broadsheets. Make something of that if you can.
To be honest, I think, as with the much-vexed question about US vs UK writers, this is really a case of Martian Canals – a very human desire to see and make patterns, where in fact there is only random detail. For instance, it’s often said that the American SF readership tends towards the right wing, whereas in the UK it tends to be broadly left/liberal. But then the vast majority of the fans I’ve met in the US so far seem to fit pretty cleanly into the left/liberal category. (Seems unlikely they’d enjoy my work otherwise, right?). So maybe it’s just that the conservative element is more vociferous in the US, and that in fact there are any number of Tory-voting SF readers back in Britain, quietly buying and enjoying writers like Peter F. Hamilton and Neil Asher, and simply not bothering to get agitated about leftist scum like me. Could that be right? Anybody’s guess, really.
Q: If you were going to introduce a reader to your work, which would you offer first? Altered Carbon? Market Forces? Black Widow?
That would depend a lot on the profile of the reader we’re talking about – for someone who’s “not really into science fiction” (read: “hates the stuff with a passion”), Market Forces would be the obvious choice, because it’s the easiest for a non-genre reader to get their head around. There aren’t any major technological paradigm shifts to assimilate, and the characters are dealing, albeit in an extreme fashion, with a set of circumstances most of us in modern western society understand only too well. On the other hand, if this putative reader were a big crime fiction fan, I’d be tempted to suggest Altered Carbon, simply because so much of that book is built on a clearly recognizable noir framework, and I think most crime fans would plug into that framework fairly comfortably, regardless of the futuristic element. And if this reader were a straightforward devotee of SF, then obviously Altered Carbon would also be the best choice.
Black Widow, I think I’d really reserve for those who are specifically comic fans, because we are talking a whole other medium here. It’s true the Widow stuff does carry a number of the same thematic obsessions and stylistic dynamics as my other work, but it is still first and foremost a pretty solid example of the comic-book mainstream, and that’s something many prose readers simply don’t have any interest in at all.
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.
Honestly, I think speculative fiction has already smashed its way pretty conclusively out of that particular ghetto. Look – Cormac McCarthy published his first speculative fiction novel, The Road, last year, and it just made Oprah! I mean, how much more integration into the mainstream do you want? On this side of the Atlantic, Philip Pullman and Susannah Clark have both been taken to the bosom of the literary establishment, and in the US William Gibson is considered a literary Grand Old Man these days. And on the other side of the coin, we have Haruki Murakami and Thomas Pynchon, who both rank comfortably among the world’s most highly regarded living literary practitioners, and who both write what can only be described as speculative fiction. What’s more, Pynchon is very clearly a fan of, and wry borrower from, some very pulpy SF indeed, and Murakami’s last novel, Kafka on the Shore, included scenarios that wouldn’t have looked amiss in The Thing, The X-Files and The Chronicles of Narnia. So as far as the Great Escape of Speculative Fiction is concerned, we’re already over the wall and running.
That said, you can’t expect this to spill over into a general surge in the number of reviews for standard SF or fantasy in the mainstream press, because that just ain’t gonna happen. Critics are human beings, just like everybody else, and that means they have unreasonable prejudices just like everybody else. The response of the New York Times critic to Oryx and Crake that I mentioned earlier proves the point. The knee-jerk reaction of most of the literary establishment where SF is concerned is to couple it instantly with people dressed up as Klingons or Warrior Princesses. It’s unjust, of course, a massive generalization, and a lot of more serious writers in the genre suffer as a result. But we should perhaps bear in mind that there is some solid truth at the heart of this misconception – Star Trek and Star Wars are both massively popular in the science fiction community, and so are any number of other trashy TV shows, movies and book series containing similar elements. There’s nothing actually wrong with any of it, it’s all perfectly acceptable entertainment, and anyway heavy-duty literature is not to everybody’s taste. But are we in the SF community really expecting genre pulp of this sort to be given anything like the same critical weight as the latest novel by Philip Roth or Arundhati Roy? For me at least, that’s just not a reasonable stance.
Yes, there undoubtedly is at the heart of the literary establishment an ingrained and unjust (though very human) snobbery, and yes, this snobbery broadly despises genre fiction which it dismisses as pulp. We are talking here, after all, about an establishment which exists to generate interpretative analysis of fiction, and what’s the point of interpretative analysis if the book you’re talking about is too straightforward to need any. But in this, we in the SF community are often our own worst enemies, because we so frequently refuse to acknowledge our passion for pulp for what it is, and to differentiate intelligently between that and the works of genuine literary merit that the genre can also produce – but in percentage sales terms so rarely does. Yes, there is a road out of the SF ghetto, but the question is do we actually want to take it? Do we want to commit to subtly-textured, humanity-based complex speculative fiction, or do we love our pulp addiction too much to give it up? Or maybe, just maybe, we can love both for what they are, and leave it at that.
Q: Anything you wish to share with your fans?
Uhmm – hope you like Black Man, hope it’s been worth the wait.
Interview by Patrick