– Without giving anything away, what can you tell your fans about House of Suns?
It’s a standalone novel, set in a universe which I’ve only written about once before, in my novella Thousandth Night. It takes that story as a starting point, but messes around with some of the assumptions and characters. The plot is totally different. The book takes place (mostly) around six million years from now, at a time when humans have colonised and re-colonised the galaxy many times over. The main protagonists (there are two first-person narrators) are clones, members of an extended family of starfaring “shatterlings” who left the solar system around the year 3000 and have been travelling ever since, apart from reunions where they get to exchange memories. The book deals with the aftermath of an attempt to wipe out the shatterlings, and the reasons behind that massacre. It’s a somewhat looser and more fantastical book than the others. There’s a lot of unexplained furniture in it – magic spacedrives, force fields, tractor beams and stasis devices. I’ve always loved far-future SF ever since reading Clarke’s The City and the Stars at an impressionable age. I wanted to get across something of the same feelings of vast stretches of time that I got from that book.
– How would you describe your work to someone who hadn’t tried your books before?
Intensely bleak, but with an underlying cheerfulness? Cheerful, but shot through a streak of intense gloom? I don’t know really. Readers who like my stuff tend to like a constellation of vaguely similar writers – people like Banks, Vinge etc. It’s hard SF but not too hard, and I try and emphasize the characters over the hardware. Not, of course, that I don’t like to indulge myself with some deliciously cool hardware now and then. If I meet someone who hasn’t read any of my books, I try to point them towards Century Rain as it can be read on the level of a detective thriller, for at least a good chunk of the novel.
– Will you be touring during the course of the spring/summer to promote House of Suns? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?
Nothing very much so far, but I’ll be signing at Forbidden Planet in London on April 12th. A week or two after that, I may be doing some events in Sweden – but that’s still to be firmed up.
– After working for the European Space Agency for more than a decade, you finally made the transition and became a full time author? How difficult was it to make that decision? What prompted it?
I didn’t have much choice, really – either the job or the writing had to go. I’d managed to combine both for a number of years, but ever so slowly it was starting to catch up on me. I do feel that you can hold down a day job and be a writer, but perhaps not a book-a-year writer, and certainly not a big-book-a-year writer who also likes to do short fiction. I’d really enjoyed my time at ESA, though, so there were many aspects to the job that I knew I would miss in the long term. Writing is a very antisocial occupation, whereas working within a team at ESA was the exact opposite. I missed, and still miss, the social interaction. But there are good things about being a writer, too.
– What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
It would be awfully presumptuous to say, I suspect. I think I’m not bad at creating a sense of atmosphere – that’s something I hear from my readers over and over again. They like the creepy bits. And I think I can do the nuts and bolts hard SF stuff, and the dreaded world-building (I’m kind of with M John Harrison here, though, when he spoke of the great clomping foot of nerdism). I think I’m good at texture and depth, creating a sense of a lived-in, slightly broken-down and squalid future. I’m less good at plotting, although that’s not to say I don’t take it seriously. Dialogue and characterisation, room for improvement – but again, I do take them seriously and sometimes I think I hit the mark.
– There is a strong theme of identity running through your work, most notably in Chasm City. Was this notion of ‘self’, transformation through technology and what makes a human being human something you always wanted to explore?
You’re right to identify that as a central theme, but I’m at a loss as to why I’ve gravitated towards it. Certainly, two of my favorite (though very different) writers, Gene Wolfe and Philip K Dick, have explored these themes in great depth – greater depth than I’ll ever manage, I suspect. I don’t think one can over-analyse personal thematic concerns too highly – trying to work out why I find something interesting is a bit like trying to pick up a bar of soap in the shower.
– What are your views on faster-than-light travel? You were quite strict about not using it in the Revelation Space universe (whilst hinting that it is possible, but ultimately dangerous) but then employed wormhole technology in Century Rain.
I’m actually very open-minded about the possibilities of FTL travel, or – shall we say – FTL or superluminal communication. I do get slightly irritated when you hear self-appointed SF pundits say something like “of course, all SF books featuring FTL or time travel are essentially fantasy”, as if there was no distinction between questioning one tenet of modern physics, and – say – positing the existence of wizards. The possibility of FTL communication is still being debated in physics journals. The same goes for time travel. It’s by no means a closed book. It won’t be a closed book until we have a complete understanding of Quantum Mechanics (nonlocal influences) and General Relativity (wormholes, etc). Right now I’d say I’m 95% confident that FTL travel will turn out to be impossible in our universe (so will reverse-directed time travel, for associated reaons) but that still means I’m 5% open to the idea.
– Century Rain was an ambitious book, mixing elements of the noir thriller with alternate history with hard SF. What was it that you wanted to achieve with that novel?
The incept point for that book was listening to a pop song (something by the electronic duo Goldfrapp, as it happens) and being overcome with an intense feeling of sadness at the idea of losing the Earth. There’s a bit on their second album where Alison Goldfrapp sings about waterfalls and rainclouds with a kind of whistfulness as if to suggest that these things no longer exist, and that for me was the emotional hook for a novel. God, doesn’t that sound pretentious? But that’s how it happened. I thought about it for a year or so and then came up with the underlying skeleton of the book – a murder mystery in Paris, a desolate, post-nanocaust Earth in another plot strand. I was also interested in the idea of writing an alternate history novel that was embedded in our universe. I guess I wanted to write an SF novel that felt black and white, which is why I made Floyd colour blind.
– Do you have any desire to write outside of the SF genre? A few other SF writers, such as Richard Morgan and Justina Robson, have recently dabbled with Fantasy and I got the impression from Century Rain and The Prefect that you’d make an excellent contemporary or period thriller writer as well!
Much as I’d like to fantasize about it, I don’t have what it takes to write a non-SF thriller. I really do think that a strong literary thriller depends on one of two things – either a strong sense of character, or a strong sense of place, ideally both, and I don’t I’m massively well-equipped for either. I’m totally uninterested in plot-driven Dan Brown type stuff, although good on those that like that kind of thing. Above all else, though, I love SF with a fierce, uncritical passion! It’s like being handed the best electric guitar in the world, with the best effects pedals. Why would you not want to use it?
– With authors such as yourself, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks, Richard Morgan and Neal Asher, British SF seems to be flourishing at the moment compared to a general downturn in the genre, particularly in the United States. Why do you think this may be?
Some of my favorite SF writers are American, but I don’t think you can escape the fact that there’s been – for whatever reason – an abdication of interest in the medium/distant-term future in American SF. I know there are a crop of younger writers coming out who are perhaps redressing that, but there’s no denying that the big hitters – the big American SF guys of the eighties and nineties – seemed to undergo a collective loss of interest in writing about anything other than the very near future or the present. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why Greg Bear stopped writing the kinds of book he seemed best suited to – things like Eon, Anvil of the Stars, Moving Mars – for these near-future technothriller type books. This man had an almost supernatural aptitude for massive, widescreen SF – SF with a head and a heart. There are others – Sterling, Vinge, even Gibson to a degree. If the British books have done well, I suspect it’s not because they’re fundamentally better or different than the kinds of book that the US writers might have been writing had they stuck in the game – it’s just that they didn’t, and we did. You can’t even say it’s a leftist thing – you’ve got all shades of the political spectrum in those names up there.
– The Revelation Space universe is a huge and fascinating achievement of world-building and I was particularly struck by how you established its complexity in the trilogy and then used Chasm City, The Prefectand Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days to fill in some of the blanks in the history of that universe. Can we expect to see more of this in the future, or will there be direct sequels to Absolution Gap taking us further into the future? Or anything about the older history of the universe, such as the wars on Mars? Or indeed, any kind of companion book to the setting?
Well, I certainly hope that there’ll be more. At any one time, though, I typically only have one idea in my head. Clearly, there’s a limit to how much you can say about a certain fictional universe before the narrative space becomes too clotted. But I hope that day is some way off. I could envisage a sequel or two to The Prefect, maybe a book set after Absolution Gap, but I don’t think I’ll do anything set really early in the sequence. The later stuff is more exciting to me as a writer – the Melding Plague era, when it all starts getting a bit seedy and gothic. As for a companion book – maybe, one day. There are some extremely tentative moves in that direction, but we’re talking about a very long term project.
– Were there any perceived conventions of the science fiction genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write those different novels?
Not as such. I think to go about twisting or breaking conventions, you have to have a very confident overview of the genre, a sense of its boundaries and operating principles – and I’ve never had that. SF has always felt to me to be this vast, amorphous thing, extending in all directions, with a very vague and ever-shifting border – it’s a bit like being stuck in an amoeba. I did have a conviction that one could do a big, space-operatic type novel without invoking FTL travel, but that wasn’t a completely new innovation.
– The Prefect was a very interesting novel for the way it constantly subverted the expectations the reader had of it, particularly regarding the Clockmaker, which may be one of your most interesting creations. What was the idea behind that novel? And was it challenging to write a tension-filled story where a society is in jeopardy when the ultimate fate of that society is already known from later novels?
The originating impulse for The Prefect was simply to do a book set in the Golden Age. I had a number of sketchy ideas before I settled on the basic outline of the book, with the prefects, Aurora, etc. I was – and am – a fan of the TV series 24, so I was also intrigued by the notion of doing a 24-like storyline in the RS universe. By which I mean, a story that starts out with a small crisis, and rapidly escalates to the point where an entire society is (as you say) in jeopardy, and in which there are only a couple of people who can save the day. I dealt with the issue of tension by avoiding it completely – I just took it as a given that people would accept that something survives. But how much, and at what cost? We can still watch a film like Casablanca with enjoyment, even though we know that the “good guys won” in the end.
– Are we going to be seeing the Clockmaker again?
I think it would be more a less given that the Clockmaker would need to play a role in any future outings for Dreyfus, although not necessarily as the central plot device or threat. It might feature the way Lecter does in Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs – a kind of goading, teasing presence.
– Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
Tough one. On a day when I badly need the money, I’d take the NYT list, thanks very much. On another day, a Hugo would be lovely. Of course, they’re not mutually exclusive, as I’m sure Neil Gaiman would confirm.
– Although your work has been published on both sides of the Atlantic, it appears that you never gained the same notoriety in the USA that you did in Europe. The same could be said about Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. Why is it that the most prominent UK scifi authors have seemingly not been able to woo American readers the way they managed to win fans across the pond?
Dunno really. I’m just happy to have some American readers – enough that it’s a viable proposition for my books to appear there. Actually, doesn’t Peter F Hamilton do very well, anyway? The relative failure of Banks to pick up an American audience is a mystery, of course. What’s not to like about his books?
– Speaking from your own experience, do you feel that there is a difference between European and North American fans?
I don’t think you can lump European fans into one pool, quite honestly. The Finns are quite unlike the Brits, who are quite unlike the French or the Germans. They all like SF, but they come at it from different angles, with subtly different mindsets. The Brits seem to be just as interested in real ale as SF. The Finns are the most literary and enthused, I think – and they’re easily the coolest. My experience with fandom, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been universally welcoming and positive, I have to say.
– Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the covers that grace your books?
You can’t underestimate the importance of cover art. I was enormously lucky in that my first book was marketed with a strong cover design, one that was developed very carefully before the book appeared. It made a huge difference. So many people have told me that they picked up Revelation Space because it had a cool – and let’s not be coy about it – shiney cover. I’m just grateful. I love all the covers – even more so given that most of them are by Chris Moore, a childhood hero of mine. That’s not to say I don’t look at some SF covers and think – urgh – horrible! And I think some of the best covers ever were done in the seventies.
– More and more, authors/editors/publicists/agents are discovering the potential of all the SFF blogs/websites/message boards on the internet. Do you keep an eye on what’s being discussed out there, especially if it concerns you? Or is it too much of a distraction?
To a degree. I try not to get too sucked into it, though. It’s not healthy to obsess over every data point, every review or reader comment. I think the first few times you see someone writing about you, you have this massive emotional response to it. But after a while, it all just fades into the background noise. I used to get seriously ecstatic about a good review, and serious down about a bad one – but now the hit only lasts for a few minutes. As someone said, a bad review should spoil your breakfast, not your dinner. I don’t have the internet in my study, incidentally, so I deal with the possibility of distraction by not being able to access it. Works well for me…
– 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.
Doesn’t bother me either way. I’m a genre writer – I chose to be one, I ended up one, I still am one, and I’m not writing transgressive, genre-blurring fiction. I write “core SF” – it may occasionally incorporate horror or noir tropes, but it’s not pretending to be anything other than what it is. I don’t expect or even feel that I merit mainstream recognition. There are excellent writers out there who do, but to a degree, they’re beginning to get it anyway – people like China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, Kelly Link. It’s also worth noting the traffic in the other direction – writers like Micheal Chabon, Michel Faber, David Mitchell and others, are (on occasion) perfectly willing to deploy SF tropes, and they do it successfully. I’m far more excited about what they’re up to next than about whether the genre deserves more respect.
– What project will you be tackling next following House of Suns? Any tentative title and progress report?
Nothing at all to report! I’m working on a novella at the moment, concerning a near-future Russian space expedition into an alien artefact that pops out of a wormhole into our solar system. Once that’s off my table (which should have been three days ago, ouch) I’ll begin to germinate some ideas for the next book.
– Anything else you wish to share with your fans?
Nothing other than enormous gratitude, and the hope that they’ll stick with me…
Interview by Patrick
Copyright – Patrick fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com