Though a decade passed between Alastair Reynolds publishing his first short story, 1990’s Nunivak Snowflakes in 1990 in Interzone and his first novel, Revelation Space, the past decade has more than made up for that initial hesitance, with a major novel almost an annual event, leading up to his tenth, Blue Remembered Earth, launching a new trilogy. He was good enough to take time out to talk to Geek Chocolate about his past and future work, his inspirations, and keeping up to date on science.
Geek Chocolate – Terminal World, the most recent of your standalone novels, is different from your other work, being planetbound and devoid of high technology. I’d love to learn more of that world, but you say on your website that you have no plans to revisit that universe. It’s unusual for you to turn your back so definitively on anything. Why do you feel that one glimpse was enough?
Alastair Reynolds – I’ve said the same thing about Century Rain, too. Both books were written in a frame of mind that they would be definite standalones, with no thoughts of taking the story further. I suppose it’s also a way of reassuring the reader that I’m not expecting them to sign on for endless uncompleted series.
GC – When reading the Deep Navigation collection, I was struck by similarities between The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter and Terminal World, both of which feature decaying worlds surviving without tech and the imagery of angels, although one is set on Earth, and the other is hinted at being Mars. Were they conceived as part of a whole, or is it a case of two different ways to approach an idea?
AR – I suppose there are aesthetic similarities, and of course there are angels in both stories, but there are no deeper connections. I don’t think I gave Sledge more than a second thought during the writing of Terminal World.
GC – For a novel of many striking images, the lights going out in Spearpoint, battles between airships, steam gangland bosses, the most striking was the plain of wrecked spaceships. Decay is a theme that runs through your work, other examples being the Rust Belt or the ruined Earth of Century Rain, yet the civilisations persist. Where do these images come from, and how close are we to the point where humanity becomes irrevocably dependent on technology?
AR – We’ve probably passed that point already. I don’t know where the fixation with decay comes from, although I can point to my upbringing in the former industrial landscape of South Wales as a possible wellspring. The danger with these things is that as soon as you’ve identified it, it becomes impossible to deploy it without falling into self-conscious mannerisms. To some extent, Blue Remembered Earth is a very conscious attempt to move away from decay, entropy, etc as dominant tropes.
GC – You delight in taking the commonplace and twisting it, making it quirky or threatening. The examples I’m thinking of are fish in Nunivak Snowflakes, the menacing alcove in Chasm City or most recently the innocuous sounding Clockmaker in The Prefect. Do you like to play with expectations, and which is your favourite creation?
AR – The trouble with these things is that as often as not I can’t remember where the initial inspiration come from – certainly not with a story like Nunivak Snowflakes, written the better part of a quarter of a century ago. I suppose there’s a point in the writing of something where the imagery or terminology snaps into particular focus, where you realise you’ve tapped into some interesting area of the subconscious, but I’m at a loss to articulate the process, or will it to happen.
GC – The fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who is almost upon us, and you’re taking The Harvest of Time to the party, featuring the classic third Doctor lineup of the Master, the Brigadier and Jo Grant. It’s such a shame that Katy Manning is the only actor out of that gathering still with us. What does the Doctor mean to you, and how does it feel to be part of the celebration?
AR – The celebration was a long way off when the idea of the Doctor Who novel was first mooted. I’m thrilled, obviously. There aren’t many televisual or cinematic properties that I’ve ever wanted to be involved with, but Doctor Who has a particular place in my heart. Like any kid who grew up with it, I feel a particular sense of ownership – it’s my Doctor, as much as it’s Russell T Davies’ or Steven Moffat’s, or indeed any of the writers who were involved in classic Who. I don’t think it will come as a great surprise when I say I want to foreground the inquiring, scientfic, skeptical aspect of the Doctor’s personality. I like the new stuff a lot but I think that’s something that could do with being stressed a little more.
GC – Unlike many science fiction writers, your novels have a marked preference for strong female leads – Revelation Space, Pushing Ice – or at the least, on an equal footing – House of Suns, Redemption Ark. Is that something you do to balance the traditional “boys own” feel of science fiction, or do you feel women react differently in extreme situations, and so are more interesting to write?
AR – It probably started out as an attempt to provide some balance (of course lots of other writers were doing likewise, long before I came along) but these days I’m more likely to let the needs of the story dictate the choice of protagonist. It seems to even out in the long run; I don’t look at what I’ve just done and think “right, this needs a female viewpoint now.”
GC – Neotenic infantry, mathematically cooled supercomputers, piezoelectric flashes to disable photophobic aliens, weapons of mass destruction powered by exotic mathematics, burial at “C” – which of your many outrageous inventions are your favourites, and which do you think are most feasible?
AR – I’m quite happy to take credit for some of these ideas, but deep down I know that there are many, many antecedents in earlier SF – I’m riffing off other wr
iters, who were (I’m sure) riffing off their own inspirations, in a chamber of echoes all the way back to at least Doc Smith. I do like the cryo-arithmetic devices but again, the basic idea of “weird thermodynamics” is something I read in Greg Bear many years ago. Actually, most of my stuff is stolen from a writer called Greg, be it Bear, Benford or Egan. It’s not false modesty so much as a realisation that I suspect I may be one of those writers who shuffles tropes in (hopefully) interesting ways, rather than being an originator of genuinely fresh ideas.
Blue Remembered Earth
GC – You’re done a future history before, with Revelation Space and the associated novels and stories, but Poseidon’s Children, your new sequence, is different, in that it’s set at a lower technology level, and is set, at least in the initial stages, on Earth. It also takes a totally different approach to the space race, forgetting the USA and the USSR, and making Africa the key player. Challenging preconceptions, both of your work, and of the way history has unfolded again?
AR – A change is as good as a rest, as they say. Actually I don’t situate the new stuff in direct opposition with the Revelation Space books; there’s a lot of imaginative water between them and I’ve written a lot of stuff since the last RS book. It is my attempt to dial down the superscience a bit, at least in the first couple of books, and also (as I’ve said) to try and channel that great serene detachment of mid-period Clarke. The focus on Africa was almost accidental – I was listening to a lot of West African music, especially Desert Blues, which is a vast genre in its own right. In that sense the soundtrack shaped the direction of the book. The challenge for me now is to sustain that theme through the successive volumes.
GC – Do you maintain an awareness of the forefront of research and technology, and how necessary is that to keep your books moving forwards and ahead of the game?
AR –I’m basically fascinated by science and technology, so I don’t regard it as a major chore to keep abreast of developments – although I stress that this is very much as the level of reading New Scientist and Scientific American rather than reading academic papers. Papers are incredibly dull reading, even the ones with genuinely revelatory science in them. As to how much the books need that awareness, I’m not sure. A lot of it is still made-up.
GC – You’ve said that you’re aware the Revelation Space stories are not entirely consistent, and that there are errors in Century Rain. Larry Niven revised Ringworld after publication, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have issued “authors preferred versions” of their work, and George Lucas has been known to make subtle adjustments, whereas Douglas Adams were almost proud of his indifference. Would you ever be tempted to change one of your books?
AR – If I had a year off, and nothing better to do, I might not mind the chance to make a few changes to some of the books, but where do you stop? Someone once said it would be like trying to eat just one Malteser. I made a few minor tweaks to some of the stories, before they were republished in the anthologies but it was mostly pretty slight stuff – a revised line break here, a paragraph break there. It wasn’t that I thought the stories were beyond improvement but you have to accept that there’s no point making radical changes; you might as well write a new story instead, as it’ll probably entail no more effort.
Remember when The Police released that updated version of Don’t Stand so Close to Me? No one ever plays that version on the radio, it’s always the old one.
GC – When John Carter hits cinemas next year it will be the first major Hollywood adaptation of a hard science fiction novel in fifteen years, since Contact and Starship Troopers in 1997, and frankly, it’s not one that was on my wish list. What classic novels would you like to see adapted, as films or mini series, and which of your own works do you think would translate best?
AR – That’s an interesting definition of “hard science fiction” – I’m not sure I’d have ever considered John Carter in that category! But you’re right, there’s not much of it out there. My feeling is that the directors with the best feel for grand scale science fiction, such as James Cameron, tend to be more interested in developing their own visions. And perhaps that’s no bad thing. Obviously there is a perception that some books are “due” their filming, and if that means some money and exposure coming to writers who deserve it, that’s (one hopes) a mostly good thing. I can’t think of any I’m desperate to see, though. I mean, I love the New Sun books of Gene Wolfe, but at the moment the ultimate, most wonderfully staged adaptation of those books is the one currently playing in my head (and the head of everyone else who ever read and was impressed by those books).
CG – Last question – when can we expect a return to Revelation Space, and the story of Greenfly?
AR – I’ll probably leave that particular area well alone but I’m sure I’ll return to the Revelation Space universe sooner or later. A novel isn’t all that likely for a few years but if had any idea for a story, I’d write it tomorrow.
Alastair Reynolds’ most recent novel, Blue Remembered Earth, the first volume of Poseidon’s Children, was recently reviewed by Geek Chocolate and is now available from Gollancz, as is the majority of Alastair’s back catalogue