With twelve major novels published since his 2000 debut Revelation Space, shortlisted for both the BSFA and Arthur C Clarke awards, alongside a plethora of short stories and novellas, former astronomer Alastair Reynolds is not only of the most prolific and significant of modern science fiction writers but also one of the most approachable. Attending the Edinburgh International Science Festival to participate in fellow astronomer and novelist Pippa Goldschmidt‘s event What Scientists Read on April 17th, he was sat with Geek Chocolate for a long chat over coffee and cake to talk about his career, his novels, his future work, the current frontiers of astronomy and a few teases about the forthcoming concluding volume of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy, due 2015.
Geek Chocolate – While space is where you made your name, the first two novels of the Poseidon’s Children sequence have a very strong ecological theme, the elephants of the first volume becoming the trantors of the second, and the influence of the merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations and their resolve to live in harmony with the sea. Was that a conscious change?
Alastair Reynolds – It probably reflected personal concerns that have always been there that haven’t necessarily come out in the fiction, I think. I’m not an ecologist but I’m quite interested in the natural world, that’s just one of my general interests in life, the world around me, and I suppose that the fact that a large part of the first book was set on Earth and quite a bit of the second book is set on Earth, it was just an opportunity to reflect that concern in a book.
Other factors coming in, I’ve always liked elephants, my wife had worked with elephants in a rehabilitation centre, I had seen her holiday snaps, if you like, and soaked up a little bit of her experiences by proxy, so that fed into it. Just general stuff that I felt that I could get into that book that maybe would have been harder to get into one of the Revelation Space books.
GC – Your most recent novel, On the Steel Breeze, went through a dramatic restructuring in the second draft, changing the identity of the central narrating character. Have you ever had to redraft a whole novel so substantially before?
AR – I think that’s probably one of the more traumatic or dramatic cases of a major redraft. Going back, Revelation Space went through colossal convulsions before it was published but that was over ten years.
Chasm City was quite a significant set of revisions; I’d written a 100,000 word novel without a view to publication when I had a contract for Revelation Space, my publisher wanted to know if I had another book, I said yes I’ve got Chasm City set in the same universe but it’s substantially shorter, and they wanted it to be longer because they felt that it would look a bit odd to have a very short novel appear after a very long novel. I had to go away and think of a way that I might be able to make it a bigger book, hopefully without it feeling like padding.
I didn’t really touch much of what I’d written but I had to find a way to embed it into a larger story. I actually went on holiday for two weeks and I took a notepad with me, over long hours on the beach trying to think of a way to make the entire thing bigger, more layered, so that was quite a dramatic recasting of the story.
Steel Breeze, the book wasn’t even finished when I realised it was broken, in a sense. I’d taken a little break from it to work on the Doctor Who book, and when I went back to Steel Breeze the material had died on me, and that may well be symptomatic of taking a break from it, it’s possibly a mistake to do that. I find with any novel there’s always the sense that you begin to lose confidence in your own ideas and you need a certain momentum to carry you over that. If you take a step away from the book you lose the momentum and the confidence and trying to get both of them up and running again is quite difficult.
GC – The third book of Poseidon’s Children was only in the early planning stages when last you were in Scotland, but you were hoping to be further along by now. How is it going, what can you tell us, and when can we expect it?
AR – It’s going quite well. I took a completely different approach with the third book which generally reinvented my working methods. I’d never been one for a great deal of planning in the early stages of a book. I tried it a few times and it never really worked for me and I think the problem was that I wasn’t planning enough. It’s alright to write two thousand words of outline but that can contain so many pitfalls that you only really encounter when you’re writing the book that it’s almost wasted time.
I thought the only way to do this was to write a really meticulous, details chapter by chapter outline, so I wrote a twelve thousand work outline, which is approaching the work of a novel itself, it took about three months to write it. I submitted it to my editor, she read it in great detail then came back to me with hundreds of comments on it about the flow of the story, the pacing.
What that gave us though was a real confidence, a sense that we had a roadmap for the book, and I got a big wall planner, I could really see where I wanted to be through January, February, March, April, May, in terms of progression through the synopsis, and that’s where I am now. The first actual day of work on the book was 12th February, and it’s 17th April now, and as of this time last week I’d written 84,000 words and also taken a couple of weeks off to work on other projects. That’s a novel already. Structurally, it isn’t, but in terms of word length it‘s already a decent novel, so that‘s pretty good.
I’ve written more than a third of the book but less than half of it, but I don’t have the fear of where I’m going next which is quite a good breakthrough. To me that was an extremely productive few months, and there’s also been travel in there as well. I submit it in July and it will be out in the summer of next year, so still a long way off.
GC – When originally promoted, the books were to be set over a period of 11,000 years, and while the second was a lot further than the first, spanning a handful of centuries, you still have a long way to make good on the promise.
AR – I do. I’m not going to deliver on it is the short answer. The first book, I was still fully committed to that structure, but by the time I got to thinking seriously about the second one it just wasn’t working for me. I love the idea of the big 11,000 year time frame, but I found the necessary gap in the characters, the generation gap between the first and second books, was too much for me.
I couldn’t invest my emotional authority in them as the writer, so I had to get much closer to my characters in the first book which is why there’s really only one generation between them and also some continuity between the characters. So at that point, yeah, I sort of consciously dissolved the whole thing, it’s not going to be 11,000 years, it’ll probably be about 1,000, but we do get some glimpses of the very deep future towards the end of the third book.
Thematically the arc is the same, it just plays out over a more compressed timeframe.
GC – One of the new and most interesting characters of On the Steel Breeze was Travertine, of whom (if that is the right term) we know very little. Are we likely to learn more this time around?
AR – Well, I don’t want to spoil too much about the new one but Travertine doesn’t really play a significant part in the third book, although Travertine’s influence is strong.
GC – When I last interviewed you, and this was early in the writing of the first book, you said you hoped the sequence would capture “that great serene detachment of mid-period Arthur C Clarke.” Are you satisfied you achieved that?
AR – You’ve got to aim for something, even if you miss it, but that’s what I was aiming for. I think with the second book it probably drifted a little bit away from that.
I certainly wanted to dial down the violence and the factionalism, though there is some of that in the second book, which is probably a failing on my part. I couldn’t imagine a sufficiently engaging story without having this interpersonal conflict, and there’s more on that in the third book, but there is some of that in Clarke as well.
GC – Even when Clarke had conflict, it tended to be intellectual conflict.
AR – Yes, that’s right. I think maybe it’s a generational thing. The sense of wonder that propels you through the narrative of a Clarke novel may just not work for people today, they just feel too slow, the stakes aren’t high enough, perhaps.
GC – Whereas perhaps that’s the reason why I adore your work so much, because I love Clarke.
AR – So do I, so do I. I think I’m always trying to be true to the Clarkian vision.
GC – Many of your books have dealt with artificial intelligences, the Clockmaker of The Prefect, the Machine People of House of Suns, the artilect of Eunice Akinya in On the Steel Breeze. You’re here as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and earlier in the week Charles Stross took part in a fascinating talk on the possibilities of AIs and the responsibilities we might have to them. Where do you reasonably see artificial intelligence in our lifetimes?
AR – I don’t think things are going to change dramatically. If you look, predictions for the emergence of artificial intelligence have been around since the nineteen sixties, and it’s always ten to fifteen years away. My sadness is that my computer is no more intelligent than the computers I was using thirty years ago or twenty years ago when I was first a scientist. Faster and more powerful, certainly, but still just fundamentally dead, stupid as a rock when you get down to it.
I don’t know what people are thinking of in terms of things going on in laboratories, but you can build a supercomputer and fundamentally it is just a faster and more powerful version of a PC, and the fact that it’s massively multi-parallel doesn’t necessarily make it smarter. I don’t think that artificial intelligence in the HAL 9000 “the machines rise up” sense is anywhere near, though it may get better at emulating it, creating the impression of artificial intelligence, things like natural language, comprehension, and machine translation is obviously getting better, but they’re all sleights of hand, aren’t they? It’s not like there’s a mind behind the scenes that’s actually understanding any of this stuff. It’s just brute force computation.
GC – Which very much makes the next question hypothetical. It’s long been known there are oceans on Europa, and you wrote the story A Spy on Europa for Interzone back in 1997, and now we believe the same to be true of Enceladus. With the difficulty of transporting fragile humans across the solar system, let alone returning them, an autonomous decision making robot, able to set its own goals and priorities without referring back to Earth while searching for life would be more practical than firing dumb probes and hoping they get lucky, with the caveat that if it was sufficiently advanced to approach sentience, it would know that it was being sent into permanent solitary exile. Is that morally justifiable?
AR – Well, that’s a good question. I think that, without wanting to boost my own work, I’ve just recently written a story, In Babelsberg, a very cryptic title, which is about a space probe that gets sent into the solar system but that is artificially intelligent and it almost becomes a celebrity, so that when it comes back to Earth it actually does the chat show circuit and does slide shows about going to Titan and Europa, things like that, but it’s been screwed up by being out there.
GC – It’s a celebrity, of course it’s screwed up.
AR – The more intelligence you pack in to a robot, the closer you get to sentience, then the thing will want free will, then it will get annoyed that it doesn’t have free will, so yeah. I think there will be places for machines but no matter how smart the machine is you’ll probably always be grateful to have a human in the decision room, close enough that they can interact in real time. We might not send people into the ocean of Europa, but we might want to have people fairly nearby in orbit, so they can teleoperate the submarines.
GC – One of the classic tropes of space opera is the “big dumb object,” which you’ve generally avoided, other than perhaps the artefact of Pushing Ice, with the Cerebrus of the Delta Pavonis system and the Sentinels of 61 Virginis definitely being “big smart objects,” vastly intelligent, powerful and inscrutable.
AR – That’s right, yeah.
GC – Does the challenge of the unknown excite you more than a lump floating in space, no matter how exotic?
AR – I think it’s more that I haven’t come up with a better idea than anyone else. The big dumb object has been handled by writers over the last forty, fifty years in lots of different ways, and unless you can come up with a genuinely new twist on it, I’m not going to go near it. I’m not going to do Ringworld or Orbitsville, but if I had a really, really good idea about a big dumb object I would write it tomorrow. There would be nothing told hold me back. It would have to be something that I was excited by and it would have to be an original take on the theme. There is some of that in the new book as well, but I think it would be something of a blurring of the boundaries, is the thing dumb or is it smart, often we don’t know and the characters don’t know.
GC – It’s a while since we heard anything from the Revelation Space universe, and a lot of people are anxious. The threat of the Greenfly is real and imminent, possibly more dangerous even than the Inhibitors. Do you have any inkling of when you might take us back, even in a short story, a flash fiction, a tweet?
AR – Well, I started a story last year, actually, which I’ve picked up again, finished and redrafted, and it’s still sitting on my hard drive, waiting for the final tweak, and there’s a magazine that wouldn’t mind having it, they don’t even know what it’s about, but they would like a story off me and they’re doing their final issue pretty soon. My intention is that over the next year I’d like to do two or three more stories in that universe then I get it back into my head so I’d be in the position that I could do a novel if I wanted.
I do intend to do another one at some point but I couldn’t do it now, I just don’t remember all the stuff, but if I write a story I sort of reboot the whole structure. It’s really complicated. Well, the story’s not, it doesn’t deal with the Greenfly or anything, it’s set earlier in the history than that stuff.
GC – As long as I’ve got pattern jugglers, I’ll be happy.
AR – It’s got none of that, no. It touches on the Inhibitors and a little bit on Ultras, things like that. It’s a gothic horror story, relatively long, but it’s not hugely complicated. The next one might be a bit more complex but I thought I had to start with something relatively simple to ease my way back into the universe. So there will be more stuff, and hopefully people will buy it.
GC – Until the current trilogy, with covers by Dominic Harman, the British editions of all your books had a very consistent cover style rendered by Chris Moore. Knowing that you sketch and paint yourself, how much input did you have in those covers, do you have a favourite, and why did this trilogy demand the change?
AR – I have very little input into the covers, and I think that‘s probably true of most authors. Generally the way it happens is the publishers need to start briefing the art department well in advance of the book actually being delivered, often I may only have written a chapter or two and they want some pointers for the cover. They don’t say to me “what shall we put on the cover?” they generally say “give us some ideas, tell us some key scenes of the book or themes or motifs that might feature on the cover.”
Often I don’t have a really clear idea at that point, but you do your best. You say “well, okay, there’s a spaceship doing this at this point, that might look quite good.” In terms of the artist, I have no say in that whatsoever. Chris Moore was a big hero of mine through the seventies and eighties, I really admired his work and I thought it was amazing to get his covers, Dominic Harman is a friend, and he did quite a bit of stuff for me in Interzone in the nineties, so again, I was very happy to have Dominic, but saying that in fact I had no contact with Dominic while he was doing the covers. Everything is mediated through the publisher.
I really liked the cover of Blue Remembered Earth, I thought it was really good. I wanted something thematically similar for the second book, so I said, look, most of the book takes place in this huge generation ship thing so can you work up something along those lines? You’re inside the ship, the landscape curving around, elephants and trees in it so you can still have that thematic connection to the first one, and they came back and said it just isn’t working. I never saw the roughs as to why it wasn’t working.
In the end they just decided to go with a more exterior view of the spaceship, which is great, but to me it’s a little bit more generic, but now they’re looking at doing a rebrand of the three books with very, very different cover treatments which will be very interesting if they’re done well. They look good in rough form. They’ll reach out to a much wider audience, they don’t scream science fiction. So we’ll see.
GC – I’ve always liked Revelation Space, it’s just so simple and stark, it just says, this is big, this is space, this is science fiction.
AR – It’s a good cover. It doesn’t look anything like the spaceship, but that happens. I think that they felt that look had been emulated to the point where it no longer had the impact that they wanted.
GC – I did like the two versions of Blue Remembered Earth. The hardback, it was colourful, it was natural, it was Earth, and yet it was science fiction. He got it all in one cover. The paperback edition is completely different, but again, it’s a beautiful, dramatic picture.
AR – I really liked that cover. They shrunk it down for the paperback and it didn’t work, apparently.
GC – Your background is astronomy, and space opera is where you made your name, though always obeying the laws of physics. Was that a specific challenge you set yourself, never to exceed the speed of light, with the fastest ships the lighthuggers of Revelation Space or a generations long time dilated car chase in House of Suns?
AR – I actually make much less of a deal of it, I think, than a lot of my readers do, because I wrote a couple of books in my teens that were full of hyperspace jumps and things like that, and by the time I wanted to write something else I thought I wouldn’t mind trying to keep it within physics, within Einstein, because it makes everything bigger, which is the main point, and it’s really just been my motivation ever since.
There are two ways to go with space opera. You can create a sense of a very complicated, teeming galaxy, what we get in Star Wars, where Han Solo can hop from one solar system to the next in his lunch break, and that’s great, but it feels clotted and populous and it doesn’t feel huge. To go the other way you really have to straddle the distances, to really capitalise on that, and I thought, well, there were a handful of writers doing it in hard SF but not to my knowledge really in the space operatic sense.
I thought if I can do that, if I can pull that off, it will give it a bit of uniqueness, and I’ve done it ever since, but you know I would quite happily write something with faster than light travel in if I felt it met the needs of the story. I’ve just written a 40,000 word novella which has faster than light travel in because it wasn’t possible to tell the story in any other sense. It’s called Slow Bullets, which may not be the title it has when it comes out, but that’s the title it’s had on my hard drive. Obviously not in the same universe as Revelation Space. It’s just the aesthetic choice you make at the start of each story.
GC – Certainly that final scene of House of Suns, having read the whole book, having known the physics, when the ship blasts out of orbit with the sister on board, the tension is there, the drama is there, simply because the reader knows the way the universe works you know the brother can’t catch that ship, you know it’s impossible, but equally, you know he won’t give up, he’s in it for the long run, and that’s what makes it work.
AR – I can barely remember that now! I’ll have to go back and re-read that.
GC – Although it wasn’t planned, your Doctor Who novel, Harvest of Time, came out in the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the show and was a wonderful celebration of an era which is, with Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, Roger Delgado and Barry Letts all gone, largely accessible only through memory and imagination.
AR – That’s right.
GC – What was it like to recreate that era without shaky sets and dodgy colour separation overlay?
AR – Well, I tried. I just sat down and thought of telling a bigger story. I just wanted to have fun with it and write something that felt true to the period. I have memories of that period of Doctor Who. I hadn’t seen all of the Jon Pertwee stories at the time, I hadn’t even seen all the ones with the Master, and I still haven’t, I haven’t seen The Time Monster, but I just had fun with it. These actors, most of them are dead, the least I could do was try and be sensitive to their depictions of these characters, try not to put anything into their mouths that they probably wouldn’t have said, have fun with it but at the same time be respectful to the material and that was the spirit in which I approached it.
I never worried about the sets. Some of the stuff in the book is probably more than they could have done, but you never know. They were quite creative. They didn’t just go to power stations.
GC – And you make it work. All the Earth stuff feels real, the oil rig feels genuine, and then in the final act you look out the window and there’s suddenly this barren vista, and I was picturing a Chesley Bonestall matte painting there.
AR – Well they would have had a matte painting, wouldn’t they? And what we have got to remind ourselves is that you get DVD of Doctor Who and the Daemons or something, and you watch it now, probably on a much bigger screen than it was ever intended for, and it looks ropey, the effects don’t look that great, but when I was a kid we watched it on a small black and white television. That gets you a lot closer to reality, because everything looked rubbish on a black and white television, didn’t it? You don’t remember.
GC – I do remember! I just watched Mind of Evil for the first time ever, and one of the things that struck me, I actually thought it was filmed on location in a prison, or the BBC had a standing set that they used for Porridge or whatever, but no, it was a custom set and they went over budget but to have that environment really helped the story.
AR – I think it looks like a real prison, so yeah, they could do great things really, with the right will.
AR – I did. I saw the one about Hartnell, I thought it was really good, really well done.
GC – I wanted to play on that console room set.
AR – I liked the John Hurt one. I thought that was good. I didn’t like the Christmas one. I thought that was a fundamental missed opportunity.
GC – I’m glad they didn’t labour Matt’s death. Although I’ve known every Doctor, maybe not as they have been first broadcast, he is genuinely one of my favourites.
AR – Oh, yes, I think he’s been fantastic. I would have quite happy for him to continue for a year or two. But yes, they go, you accept that, it’s a natural part of being a Doctor Who fan, but I didn’t feel the whole season had been particularly strong in terms of storytelling. Missed opportunities. One or two good episodes, but some of my least favourite of them all.
GC – My feeling was, we’ve had Clara for a year and a half now, and she’s no Amy. Within five minutes of Amy being on screen, I knew who she was.
AR – I don’t get… not to take anything away from the actress, but I don’t like the whole Clara character. I don’t like the premise, I don’t like the way she’s written, she’s a set of mannerisms, not a character, in my opinion. Maybe that’s just me.
GC – It’s not just you.
AR – I thought Amy was okay, but I just like a Doctor Who companion who is just a companion, not someone who has some extra dimension to them. We’ve had it with a number of them, haven’t we? Beginning with Rose, I suppose.
GC – Martha wasn’t, but Donna was.
AR – Oh, Martha, I liked Martha, but she was only in it for a bit, then she disappeared.
GC – With the news about Enceladus, the indications just this week that a new moon may be forming in the rings of Saturn, Kepler detecting exoplanets in greater numbers than was ever anticipated, and the possibility, remote though it may be, of the Mars One project, this is an exciting time for local planetary and deep space astronomy. What’s next for the final frontier?
AR – Wow, I don’t know. I’m kind of hoping that with the snowballing of Kepler results, the general push into looking for exoplanets, we’ll find a genuinely Earthlike planet, that we’ll characterise a planet in the right orbit for life, for water and so on. The next thing would then be to obtain a direct image of that planet.
I think that the discovery of a genuinely Earthlike planet will probably happen within a decade, then to take a picture of it, that will be twenty to thirty years away given our technological capabilities. If we could get the hint of continents or oceans or icecaps, that would be an amazing spur to further explorations, and I think there’s a reasonable shot at that happening in my lifetime.
As to going back to Mars, I don’t know. You hear about all these initiatives, and I’m not saying they’re not credible, but there’s no real sense that any of them are definitely going to happen. It could all crash and burn and we would be back at square one.
GC – But we have to try.
AR – Well, yeah, but we’ll always be twenty years from a human setting foot on Mars, and I have a horrible feeling that’s going to be the case in twenty years’ time, it’s always going to be that far away. But we shall see. It would still be exciting just to play spectator to this stuff.
AR – Well, it’s not for me to say. My personal golden age might be the seventies: Gene Wolfe, Christopher Priest, Ursula Le Guin, Mike (M John) Harrison, Samuel Delaney. The response to the new wave was an interesting period in science fiction. I don’t worry about it, really. You can’t dwell on these things, you’ve got to give it time. In twenty years, probably some of the writers that we assume will be around for a long time and talked about will probably be beginning to slip into obscurity, it could be me, it could happen.
You go to any second hand shop and you’ll see writers who were very, very prolific, very well thought of for a short period of time, then they sort of slip from the consciousness, they don’t have that weird staying power. How does that happen? Like Bob Shaw, a very good writer, but virtually out of print now. You struggle to find a Bob Shaw novel. You might get Orbitsville in an SF Masterworks edition, but I’m not even sure of that, but the vast bulk of his work is out of print, the vast bulk of James White’s work is now out of print, and those are writers with good posthumous reputations as well. You can’t take anything for granted.
I don’t worry about golden ages, I just get on with it.
GC – Thank you so much, it was good to see you again.