interview by Joe Vaz
From Issue 18 (Feb 2012)
If there’s one name that seems to pop up year after year on ‘Best of SF’ lists, it’s Alastair Reynolds. His short stories and novels consistently top reader’s polls and annual anthologies. There is a reason for this – he writes damn good Science Fiction.
If his books were movies they would boast the kind of budget that Hollywood simply cannot afford – planet-sized starships; intelligent, darkly artistic nanotech plagues that twist the fabric of matter, turning whole cities into gothic nightmares and ships into cavernous biomasses; unfathomable space zoos populated by myriad alien species; a bio-mechanical spacecraft possessed by its captain; a race of Ultranauts – something between Star Trek’s Borg and Goths who got a little carried away at the body-modification parlour.
Reynolds’s books will make your eyes bleed and your brain flatline. Along the way, they’ll introduce you to unforgettable characters, take you on epic journeys and leave you questioning your understanding of time and space itself.
Do you define yourself as a writer or as a scientist?
Oh, purely as a writer, now. I’m a former scientist. You never stop thinking like a scientist I suppose, but I don’t do it anymore. I’m a writer.
You tend to create massive universes, these huge canvases, and then focus on a single human element in the midst of it all…
I feel the ones that work best are the ones that focused on the characters rather than the landscapes.
That comes across in your writing. You tend to focus more on the effects of space travel rather than the technology behind it.
I always try to remember that the characters in the book should be fully embedded in the future and in the world they’re living in, so for them, what we would regard as amazing technologies are completely prosaic and mundane. They’re not going to be knocked out by some gadget. A spacecraft for them is just a means of getting from A to B and they don’t particularly care how it functions. I try not to get into those boring discussions that you get in bad science fiction about how the engine works… unless it’s central to the story, that’s different.
How did House of Suns come about?
That was something that has been brewing for a very long time. I wrote a short story called “House of Suns”, easily twenty years ago, with the intention of having it published in Interzone. They didn’t buy it and it could have dropped out of memory, but I always liked the title.
Now that I’ve written the book, I can see that some of the elements in that original story made it to the book.
It had a robot as a central character and there are robots in House of Suns. One thing I should also say about the origin of that novel is that I did a novella a couple of years ago called Thousandth Night, which not many people read. That kind of laid the groundwork, if you like, of the Gentian Line and the shatterlings. When I came to work on the book I kind of liked the idea of taking everything that I liked from that novella and discarding everything that I hadn’t liked. In no way is House of Suns a sequel though. It’s not even consistent with Thousandth Night but I already had the idea of Campion and Purslane from the earlier story.
How does House of Suns compare with your other work?
I genuinely wanted to write something that was quite different from the other books. I wanted to do something very far future, very colourful and big-scale and fundamentally quite optimistic. The Revelation Space books are quite dark and claustrophobic. I enjoy writing them but I’ve been living in that universe for at least ten years longer than anyone who has read them and every now and then, I just need a change of scenery.
House of Suns is written entirely in the first person, but from three different viewpoints. Was it difficult to write that way?
I kind of groped my way into that. House of Suns was all written from Campion’s viewpoint to begin with. Then I started thinking that if I was going to do a book about clones, maybe I should be thinking a little more carefully about viewpoints. It seemed like the natural thing to do was to tell the story from several viewpoints, and because they are fundamentally the same person, I thought I could get away with the first-person viewpoints.
It’s fairly unique…
It’s not the done thing to do a multiple-viewpoint novel with multiple first-person viewpoints, so I kinda knew I was… not breaking the rules… but violating one of the things they say you shouldn’t do.
I added Purslane’s point of view after Campion’s. Later, I realised I could put Abigail’s strand in there as well.
There were actually a few technical problems with that quite late in the writing of the book. There is a strict alternating pattern all the way through the book, between Campion and Purslane, and then at the beginning of each section you get the viewpoints from Abigail, and quite late in the process I realised I had screwed it up. [Laughs] At some point, I’d moved a chapter around for plot purposes and thrown the whole rhythm of the story out, so there was some fairly furious fiddling around to reinstate the correct viewpoints.
Hopefully the scars don’t show. From that perspective it was technically difficult, not artistically difficult.
How do you keep track of the strands?
I just kind of feel my way into it – a lot of it doesn’t come out until much later in the process, the final draft before submission. As I always say, my books are almost completely broken until the last day, when I just move them around and try to get them to come together. What I do to help myself follow this kind of structure is I use a lot of colours and fonts within my working documents. With House of Suns, for instance, Campion’s strand would be in one colour, and Purslane’s would be in another and Abigail’s in another, and there would be various other colours for other things – it just enables me to keep track.
One of your great strengths is the ability to sustain the chaos all the way to the end – it makes your books incredibly unpredictable.
It’s nice to hear that, I also get the opposite criticism where people have told me that they can see the end a mile off.
What I’ve done in the past is I’ve had a rough outline of the book and when I come to the critical point in the book I’ll flip a coin and go in the opposite direction to what I thought – if I can surprise myself, hopefully I can surprise the reader. But there needs to be some kind of payoff. I mean, a reader will put up with that only if they know there’s going to be some sort of reward at the end of the book.
A lot of people have a problem with the way Absolution Gap resolves, for instance, so I’m always mindful of the perception in the reader’s mind of the way the story is developing.
Your books tend not to really end – they just kind of stop. How do you know when you’ve finished a book?
There’s usually a scene I have in mind that I’m aiming for when I’m writing the book. It’s a key scene that I work towards.
I struggle with endings. I struggle with endings in other books by other writers. For me, 95 percent of the enjoyment of a book is the journey, not the destination. Time and again, when I’m reading a book by another writer, I get a sense of impatience. I’m really enjoying the book, but I’m now anxious to start another one and I tend to get that in the last 50 pages.
Now whether that sense of impatience translates into my own fiction I don’t know, maybe it does, seeing I’m always looking forward to the next one.
One could argue that since you’re writing future histories, those histories don’t really end.
That’s true, yeah, though frustrating for the reader to have that message rammed down their throat in every book.
House of Suns was certainly written with the intention that there would not necessarily be a sequel to it. It’s not a springboard for another novel; it’s not a slingshot ending.
Do you ever plan a sequel, or do you just find yourself being drawn back to a particular story?
I always felt with Pushing Ice that I wanted to do sequel, even when I was writing it. I haven’t done that yet, though it is certainly in my long-term plans. I enjoyed writing Century Rain enormously, but it was always clearly a stand-alone to me, and I’ve been very resistant to pressure from readers. But no, I don’t have a master-plan where I’m sort of planning eight books ahead – I tend to have a vague idea where I’m going to go in the next book, but I certainly don’t think more than one book ahead.
In writing it’s dangerous to think more than one book ahead.
As a reader, you come to expect that not all the loose ends are going to be tied up in an Alastair Reynolds novel…
I don’t particularly like the type of fiction where all the loose ends are tied up. One of the models of my type of fiction is crime-fiction and in most good crime fiction you don’t find out everything at the end of the book. There’s a measure of resolution at the end, but it’s not complete.
Did you have a clear ending for Pushing Ice? It feels like a science-experiment – let’s fling a bunch of 21st century humans further than ever before and see how long they manage to survive.
I didn’t have a clear destination with that book. I can go right back to the earliest notes I made for that book and I can remember that I didn’t know where I was going on that level. But because it was episodic, I was able to start writing it with the destination only vaguely clear in my mind.
The mythology of House of Suns is incredibly facetted and beautiful.
I enjoyed putting it all together and embroidering it with little details. What I really enjoy is the point in the writing where you take some of these half-formed ideas and you go back and enrich them a little.
How has your style evolved over the years?
When I set out to be an SF writer, I didn’t ever want to be a one-note writer. I always had a lot of different ambitions and a lot of different influences feeding me as a writer and I began to have this uncomfortable feeling a few years ago that I was beginning to get a little bit self-parodic, if you like.
Whenever I was mentioned in an article it was always, Cyber-Goth/Techno-Art/Space Opera, and all that. That is certainly an accurate description of the Revelation Space set, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of my ambitions as a writer. So I felt that I needed to start staking out a more literary territory, if you like. I began that process with Century Rain – that was a clear attempt by me to say, ”look, I’m not going to be just about cyborgs and nanotech for ever and ever”. And I felt with House of Suns that I wanted to counter some of these accusations of miserable-ism, but also it was just the book I wanted to write at the time.
What I loved about Century Rain was the amalgamation of 50’s noir detective novel within an unbelievably imaginative SF world.
I was aware that there were definitely antecedents of that. Other people had done Chandler versus SF, if you like, so I wanted to do Maigret, I suppose, for no other reason than that I like Paris. It was the first city I visited outside of the UK. It’s always felt like an accessible city for me, and easily researchable. I’ve got lots of books on French culture and my wife is French, so we’ve got lots of photo-albums. The whole thing felt like a book I could tackle.
And for the reader it’s fun to read an SF book within an architecture and city that is familiar; to wander those streets through your eyes. Have you considered adapting it to film?
It’s definitely the one I would put forward as the most filmable, and I always say, ”if you don’t like science fiction and you want to read something of mine…” Indeed, it’s the most cinematic and self-contained with a relatively simple plot. Nothing’s come of that yet, my phone is hardly ringing off the hook with offers. [laughs]
Speaking of film, do you struggle to enjoy mainstream Sci-Fi movies?
Not really, I just disengage whatever part of my brain would tend to get annoyed with that kind of thing. I think I used to, when I was younger, get really foamy at the mouth with that kind of thing. But I am a big fan of Doctor Who, which is very cavalier in its approach to science.
It has science?
It has an attitude to science. Science is respected by the characters. Star Trek always had that. I like that type of Science Fiction.
I’m not a big media science fiction fan. Most of it doesn’t really engage me to any large degree. I never saw Babylon 5, I saw a few episodes of Battlestar Gallactica and I found it too grim. What I like about Doctor Who is that it’s funny – it operates on quite a few levels.
One of the few recurring elements you use is prolonged human life. Is this simply a writing tool you use to be able to tell stories that, by necessity, take place over decades, centuries and millennia, or do you feel, as a scientist, that the prolongation of a single life-time will be extended to such lengths in the future?
It’s both actually, it’s not a wish fulfillment thing as I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, but people will live longer in the future. It is just a technical problem, really. The fact that they can already achieve that with mice by tweaking a few genes suggests to me that sooner or later they will solve it for human beings.
When you’re talking about a high-tech future, it’s something you have to address. You have to decide do they live longer or do they not, and if not, is it a medical impossibility or is it choice; so that’s part of the thinking that fed into the Revelation Space books. And then indeed, if you’re telling a story where you don’t have faster-than-light travel and it takes decades to get anywhere, it’s useful to have people who live a long time. So yeah, it’s partly a literary device but it also comes from my convictions about life.
So, why is FTL (faster-than-light) travel impossible?
Well, I don’t think it is impossible. Maybe I would say that it is probably impossible, but it’s not a completely closed question. If you take special relativity as your standpoint then indeed it appears to be impossible because it takes an infinite amount of energy to accelerate anything up to the speed of light. But we know that special relativity and general relativity are not the end of the story because they are incomplete descriptions. They don’t dovetail with quantum mechanics and we know that quantum mechanics isn’t a complete description either. So a fundamental theory of everything is still waiting to be discovered.
For my money, there are still little tantalising hints of weirdness like the quantum non-locality – the idea that one particle somewhere in the world can be influenced by another particle, apparently without any physical connection and instantly, without any time lag. And then there’s blackholes and wormholes and stuff like that.
I’m quite open-minded about it all. I put the no-FTL barrier in the Revelation Space books mainly because it seemed like an interesting boundary to put on the books.
What psychological effects do you think decades-long space travel would have on a human mind?
Hard to tell. It would depend on the environment. Presumably, travelling in a huge generation ship with lots of different biospheres and communities and millions of other colonists wouldn’t be as psychologically upsetting as being confined to a tiny ship with only a small number of fellow crewmembers.
Why do you think human beings are so obsessed with space travel? Isn’t it illogical? We have everything we need on Earth – air, water, food, sunlight, grass under our feet – why does the idea of spending decades stuck in a metal box in the darkest, coldest place in the universe sound so appealing?
It’s not about the travel, so much as the destination. Who wouldn’t want to walk around on Mars for a bit, or gaze up at Saturn’s rings? Logic doesn’t really have to come into it, I think. It’s not ’logical‘ for me to want to sit on a plane for 14 hours to fly to America, since almost everything there can be had where I live. But I still like going to America.
What blows your mind?
I get a big kick out of science. I read Scientific American and I watch science programmes on telly and I read the papers. Every now and again, something comes along which fascinates me. I still get a kick out of science fiction too, when, every now and again, I get a big dose of a sense of wonder that keeps me reading.
A longer version of this interview was originally published in Issue 7 of Something Wicked.
Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.