*Please note that this is a NEW venue for London meetings!
On Wednesday 28thof August 2013, Ian Stewart (Mathematician, author of The Science of Discworld Series and popular science books) will be interviewed by Stephen Baxter (author of Flood, The Time Ships, The Long Earth (with Terry Pratchett) etc.).
ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)
The interview will start at 7 pm. We have the room from 6 pm (and if early, fans are in the ground floor bar from 5ish).
There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.
After a fantastic debut novel, South African author Charlie Human was kind enough to answer some questions and give a little insight into his novel.
For those who haven’t read Apocalypse Now Now could you give a brief description your novel?
It’s about Baxter Zecenko, a Machiavellian teenager who is the kingpin of a porn-peddling syndicate at his high-school. Baxter prides himself on not being weighed down by psychological constructs like ‘emotions’ and ‘a conscience’. Well until his girlfriend, Esmé is kidnapped and he’s forced to re-evaluate his life.
He investigates Esmé’s disappearance and finds that the only person that can help him is an alcoholic South African Border War veteran, and supernatural bounty hunter Jackie Ronin. Together they set off into Cape Town’s supernatural underworld to find Esmé.
Your novel reads at a cracking pace, could you explain your writing process?
I’m not a full-time writer so I write whenever I can. Trains, waiting rooms, coffee shops; whenever and wherever I can carve out a little time. I handwrite a lot of the ideas first and then flesh them out when transferring onto computer. I also don’t write linearly. When you don’t have a lot of time the best thing to do is just grab onto an idea that excites you and write about that for as long as you can before life intervenes.
Apocalypse Now Now is a huge amount of fun to read but goes to some fairly dark places, what was the idea behind it that sparked it all off?
Cape Town’s tabloids were responsible for some of the inciting ideas. They have huge circulations and peddle a mixture of news, soap opera and superstitious urban folklore. They’re pretty dark, obscene and completely bizarre. Actual headlines I have read while taking the train to work include “Tokloshe stole my baby”, “Priest fights fire demon” and “The Snake Men of the Cape Flats”
I started to think about what it would be like if these headlines were real news stories that we were blissfully ignoring.
You draw on South African myths and superstitions such as the ‘tokoloshe’ introducing the reader to a very different type of supernatural than the normal European/American one; how rich is the vein of horror and myth in SA and do you think it is time for the wider world to be introduced to these ideas?
The tokoloshe is such a South African mythological institution that I had to include him. He’s got various iterations and some are lot darker than the way I’ve presented him in Apocalypse Now Now.
Cape Town is interesting because it’s a place of extremes. It’s really urban and cosmopolitan but then there’s still a place that I used to walk past on my way to work that sells banishing spells for people with tokoloshe problems.
Southern Africa as a whole is such a fusion of myths that have rarely been used in fiction. Apocalypse Now Now has San, Afrikaans, Xhosa and European myths all blended together. I think more local writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists are drawing on these mythologies as a way of exploring our world.
Following on from that, how do you think your novel fits into the horror/fantasy genre of vampires and zombies?
I like to think Apocalypse Now Now does its part in giving Southern African monsters a place in the international monster menagerie. After all parasitical monsters, or the rising of the dead, are hardly unique to European mythology. Why should European fantastical creatures get all the glory? Equal representation for monsters!
How important was it for you to introduce all the different influences of the South African culture in the various characters in your work?
I always remember something Lauren Beukes told me about when she met Neil Gaiman. She asked him about his research methods and he shrugged and said “At a certain point you just make stuff up.” Rather than trying to faithfully depict every aspect of South African culture I’ve riffed off it and tried to create something that people from any part of the world could enjoy.
There also features a lot of pop-culture type references, how meta do you think fiction is becoming and has your work in online media had a direct influence in your approach to writing?
Yes, definitely. When the mind is constantly bathed in the warm glow of memes and the recombinant creativity of the Internet it’s bound to have an influence. Those kinds of intertextual references have become a sort of cultural shorthand to express situations, thoughts or emotional states. I don’t think it would be possible to create a contemporary urban teenager without having that as part of the way he thinks.
The mix of real and twisted pervades every layer of the novel, from Baxter’s ‘business’ and his school life to the mix of history and myth – was the aim to blur all boundaries and almost push your lead character into becoming an unreliable narrator?
The concept of the unreliable teenage narrator was something I enjoyed playing with. I wanted the audience to swing between liking Baxter and not liking him and between believing him and not believing him.
Your novel features some unnaturally adult children, what drew you to using a teenage protagonist in this sense?
Personally, I don’t think the teenagers are that adult-like. Baxter is precociously intelligent and likes to believe he’s the smartest person in the room, but he’s certainly not mature. He talks a big game, uses big words and ideas but he’s still just a kid trying to figure stuff out. I remember teenage life being a bit of a dark, wild rollercoaster ride and I tried to capture some of that energy in the teenagers I depict.
You’re novel has been described as a mix between Quentin Tarantino and Neil Gaiman, who has influenced you in your work?
There have been so many but top of my list would be Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, Nick Harkaway, Margaret Atwood, Richard Morgan, Jeff VanderMeer and Richard Kadrey.
Then there’s Credo Mutwa, a Zulu sangoma or shaman, who has taken Zulu oral folklore and written it down (with, I understand, some heavy editorialising) I really enjoyed reading his folklore while I wrote the book. He also has some kind of connection to David Icke, which I find very amusing. I can only imagine the kind of insane conversations they must have.
As a self-confessed ‘mild-mannered digital marketer by day, impresario of the obscene by night’ how has the process of seeing your debut novel hit the shelves been and what can we expect from you next?
That’s actually a quote from an interview I did with Nechama Brodie. She was referencing the fact that I have a bit of a split personality with my day-job and my writing career.
Publishing has been a really interesting experience so far. It’s amazing to have people read and connect with the novel, and the fact that it’s been translated into Afrikaans, and is soon to be translated into Italian and Japanese blows my mind. The sequel to Apocalypse Now Now is in the works and will be out in 2014.
Jack Skillingstead has produced a novel that is both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about this fantastic book.
For those yet to read the book, could you give a brief outline of what ‘Life on the Preservation’ is about?
The city of Seattle is caught in an endless one-day time loop. A graffiti writer and painter named Ian Palmer periodically wakes up to the new reality but his efforts to sort it out are thwarted by the Curator, an alien presence inhabiting and, apparently, controlling the loop. Meanwhile, outside of Seattle, the world lies in apocalyptic ruin. A teenage girl named Kylie, one of only a handful of survivors, manages to penetrate the dome covering Seattle. When she and Ian find each other they eventually figure out the mystery. The novel is about alien intervention, outsider mindsets, the possibility that we make the worlds we live in, and sex. Honestly, it’s hard for me to reduce the book to a paragraph, but this is the gist of it.
You’ve managed to pack a huge amount of ideas into one novel – a post-apocalypse adventure, zombie automatons, an alien invasion as well as questions of an afterlife along with a deeply heartfelt love story – how did all this coalesce in your mind to form the novel?
LOTP began as a short story I wrote for Asimov’s and published back in 2006. This original version was much more straight forward than what the novel eventually became. I first began to think of doing an expanded version when a famous writer verbally critiqued the story for me at the Nebula Awards in Tempe, Arizona. He seemed to think the background was inadequately filled in. I didn’t agree, at least not in terms of the short story, but it started me thinking. In the Asimov’s story all the action takes place on the Seattle Preservation. Now I began asking myself questions about the world outside the dome. It occurred to me I could write a big science fiction adventure novel about alien invasion and the plucky survivors who reclaim their planet. I must have been out of my mind, because that is exactly the kind of book I would have little-to-no interest in writing. Nevertheless, I tried for about two years to make that concept work, gulled by visions of popular success. Finally, I gave up on that angle and surrendered to what the book really wanted to be, simply showing up at the keyboard every day to discover what came next. This approach allowed things to flow. Basically, I stopped trying so much and my unconscious began to deliver interesting stuff like the rejected androids that wander the blasted lands outside the dome — not zombies, but doomed and immortal simulacrums that had started the process of becoming self-aware. As for the love story between Ian and Kylie, that was the through line that was present from the very beginning, especially in the short story.
Your book has some similar mechanics as the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ – the notion of one day constantly revisited – which has become a cult classic, especially amongst Buddhists. Whilst very different to the movie, your novel considers the same idea of mistakes and learning to make the perfect day – what was the thinking behind your approach?
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that the world isn’t what we think it is, that there is something going on behind the scenes. This is fertile ground for the imagination and mental illness — that perfect intersection where genius meets the guy in the straight jacket. What I liked about Groundhog Day was the dark stretch, where Bill Murray repeatedly tries to kill himself. He was desperate to get out. In real life, if you want to call it that, I often have the sense of being trapped in a day that repeats with only minor variations. I doubt I’m alone in this feeling, but if I am then please issue me my straight jacket. Is all the world a stage, or are we nothing more than bags of self-deceiving brain chemicals? And can we chose which to believe? Does the truth matter, or just the belief? To reference another movie, think of John Murdock in Dark City. Murdock discovers he can remake his world with the evolutionary power of “tuning.” In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray transforms his relationship to the world, and so transforms the world itself.
The book’s main characters are all quite damaged in their own ways and the work deals with loss, isolation and death in an interesting way by suggesting that love can overcome all – could you explain a little about your intention here?
I don’t know if love can overcome all that stuff, but love is probably our most potent defence against fear. Damaged people tend to isolate themselves. It’s an emotional act of self-defence. There’s a great Stephen King story called, “All You Love Will Be Carried Away.” His character is a travelling salesman in the Midwest, trying to decide whether to kill himself in his crappy Motel 6 room. So, the damaged and isolated person’s response is: Don’t love anything, because if you do it will just be carried away. Isolated people develop crooked interior lives. They may believe they are seeing the truth of the world, but they probably aren’t. In the book, Father Jim’s ugly, guilt-twisted response to his sexual urges and Ian’s desperate isolation are counter pointed by his innocent love, and love-making, with Kylie. Does love overcome all? Probably not, but without love we are something less than human.
One of the novel’s characters is coloured by elements such as graffiti, his motorbike and Seattle – is there another type of love affair going on here?
Ian’s love affair with outlaw art is his way of not inhabiting any meaningful human relationships — those problematical relationships that experience has taught him will only be carried away and leave him broken-hearted. But it’s a fallacious idea that art can save you. The motorcycle belonged to Ian’s estranged father. While the father was building the thing in garage it was like a rival. Ian’s relationship to the bike is complicated. As far as Seattle goes, what’s not to love? I should note that Ian’s neighbourhood landscape differs from the current reality. The building Ian lives in no longer exists, nor does Vivace’s — at least the one that Ian visits in the novel. Both have been supplanted by light rail construction, which is rapidly uglifying Capital Hill.
You’ve created an amazing cast of characters but you’ve also dealt with them as forms of consciousness (or spirits), able to cross time, reincarnate themselves and inhabit new life forms as themselves – could you explain your ideas on this a little more?
You could almost call the book “Who Am I And Does It Matter?” It wasn’t a conscious choice to explore this question, yet it’s all through the book. In subsequent, finer-grained drafts, I noticed this question recurring and deliberately worked it. My unconscious provided Ian’s “WHO” tag, but I more consciously decided how that would play out with the know WHO you are stencils, etc. In terms of identity, Charles Noble is the most interesting. As a human being he was a gay man from a small town, harassed and ostracized in all the usual ways until he took control of his life, changed his name, and moved to Seattle. The name he chooses — the identity — is that of a minor character in some novel. After he dies, the Curator begins using Noble’s body. The Curator was human-like in his original presentation. Then the Cloud “evolved” his entire race. The curator’s final physical form was that of a giant jellyfish thing, perfectly adaptable to space. After that, his transphysical evolution completed itself. When he begins using Noble’s body he is like a puppet master manipulating strings. But gradually he becomes more and more a part of the Charles Noble personality matrix. Here we have, let’s see, seven fairly distinct identities inhabiting the one character.
With such a complex and layered novel, could you reveal a bit about your writing process – did you have to plot and plan extensively or was the process more organic in some ways?
I covered this a bit in one of your previous questions, I think. When I first decided to expand the short story to novel length I did try to plan. But my plans came to nothing, which is what usually happens. At the time I was worried about writing a popular novel and having that kind of success. I’d been publishing professionally for a few years and had plenty of writer friends who were more successful than I was, and it had started to bother me. Also, the story seemed to lend itself naturally to a Big Adventure kind of structure. After two years of hand-banging labour on my so-called adventure novel, I knew that thing was dead-on-arrival. At that point I considered giving up. Instead, I started over from scratch, this time abandoning anything resembling a plan. Every day I simply sat down and wrote what happened next. When I got to the end I went back and rewrote. So it was another two years before I managed to find the novel in my unconscious and then fix it with my conscious editor (and the help of my wife and friends, who read various versions).
It’s fascinating how you managed to sketch in some huge concepts without getting caught up in the idea – how did you manage the details whilst keeping the story moving so brilliantly?
Though I am, at least nominally, a science fiction writer, the kind of Big Idea story that is a staple of our field holds only marginal interest for me. This is funny, since LOTP and my previous novel are both full of big ideas. But those ideas are in the background. The Cloud is like God. You can’t really write about it directly. You can only explore it’s effect on the hearts and minds of your characters. I remember reading an Asimov novel in which there were no human characters. For me it was like dragging my attention through wet cement. Big Ideas are abstract, but human characters can transform the abstract to the personal. For me, smaller is bigger.
Finally, what is next for Jack Skillingstead?
Last year I wrote a reincarnation fantasy set in Las Vegas. It’s a YA, and my agent is currently shopping it around. Now I’m onto a new book, a kind of science fiction thriller based on my Sturgeon-nominated short story, “Dead Worlds.” In December I have a gig teaching a writing workshop on a cruise ship to the Bahamas. My wife and I did this last year and it was a blast.
In the world of SF fandom, we’ve already seen crowd funding start-ups for books, films and conventions. Now, Rule 32, a team of self-confessed “geeks”, are turning to the indiegogo resource to launch their own crowd-funding mission: the “ulimate geek events venue”.
Their goal is to crowd-fund the purchase and development of a beautiful, but currently rather shabby, 1920s theatre building in Worcester in order for it to become a cool venue for all sorts of SF-related events… a “Hard Rock Café for Geeks”, as it were.
It’s an ambitious project that needs some somewhat substantial sums to back it, and so I was curious as to what had inspired the venture. I caught up with Rule 32 team member, Su Haddrell, to find out more.
Donna: Who or what is Rule 32?
Su: Fundamentally Rule32 is the concept of bringing everyone together to enjoy their individual interests. The name initially came from the film Zombieland. “Rule#32:Enjoy The Little Things.” It just fitted. Rule32Cafe will be a café bar and events venue, aiming to provide a space to chill out, play games, drink tea and read books, or visit for a writers panel or comic signing.
Donna: Who are the team behind this and how did they come to take on this project?
Su: The Rule32 team are a group of friends who have been friends and geeks for years. We often had that “We should open a geek café” discussion. One day last year, a combination of career frustration and general restlessness lead us to start researching the concept. And it just got more serious the more we looked into it.
The Rule 32 Team!
Donna: Are you intent on world domination?
Su: I think the Rule32 concept definitely has cloning potential. I’m not sure if that’s where we’re looking to take it, but if Rule32cafe is successful, then it opens up huge opportunities for similar venues for likeminded people across the UK. And then the world. Start small I reckon…
Donna: Why Worcester?
Su: It’s our home town. We’ve known each other for years, we love the city, and none of us have plans of moving anywhere. And it’s a good city to use – easily accessible by train for visitors as well as having a local student population. The café has the opportunity to frequently refresh its audience and keep up with any new geek interests.
Donna: What’s the first thing you hope to achieve?
Su: That’s a big question! At the moment, we aim to achieve funding! Then we achieve property! Then we achieve renovation and decoration. Then we achieve opening! There’s always a bigger fish…..
Donna: Ultimate aims?
Su: Personally, I think this is our career plan. None of us are opposed to hard work – it’d just be nice to be working hard for something worthwhile instead of the job that pays the bills. Businesswise, we want to be known throughout the UK as the Geek Venue to visit. We’d love to hear that question “Have you been to Rule32Cafe? It’s amaaazing!”
Donna: Will you be looking to make the space about the projects you have already envisioned, or would you be hoping for more people to get involved past the funding stage, and how?
Su: We love getting people together, talking, networking and involving everyone. Whilst we’re very precious about our concept and what we’re aiming to do, we want to be able to appeal to and involve all interests. Several people have approached us suggesting cosplay workshops. Others have suggested Steampunk tea parties and table top Game Tournaments. The idea of a Lord of The Rings weekender – all films showing all night, with themed food, quizzes, costumes etc. has been very popular. Whilst we won’t have the space for LFCC scale conventions, we can definitely cater to a whole host of event types. We want to work with other people as much as we can. If there’s an audience for it – we’ll have a crack at it.
Thanks, Su! If you would like to find out more, or perhaps even make a donation, Rule 32’s indiegogo link is: http://igg.me/at/Rule32cafe/x/2069990… And the team promise that if you can refer 5 other people to the project, you can win prizes donated by SFX, Neil Gaiman and Robert Rankin, who have all lent their weighty support to this campaign.
Peter Higgins debut novel is a fascinating blend of detective novel, alternate history, sci-fi and fantasy and he kindly took the time to answer a few questions about his work.
Could you explain a little bit about Wolfhound Century to those who haven’t yet read the book?
It’s a thriller set in a world that draws heavily on early 20th century Russia and central Europe: there are marching crowds, modernist artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries, a continental war, state police that murder their own citizens. A lot of the action takes place in a city that resembles St Petersburg in that period, though with elements from places like Berlin, Prague and Vienna as well. But it’s also a world of giants and sentient rain and immense alien creatures that fall from the sky.
This is your debut novel, what has the process been like getting here?
I started out writing short stories for science fiction and fantasy magazines. At the back of my mind, though, I was itching to write novels. I thought, and still think, that a really brilliant science fiction or fantasy short story is one of the absolute genre pinnacles, but I found I was doing more and more background research for my stories, and it began to feel that 5000 words just wasn’t enough for the kind of thing I wanted to do. So when I got a story accepted in Asimov’s Science Fiction, I decided it was time to take the plunge and have a go at a novel. It was a big step into the dark – I took eighteen months off work to concentrate on writing full time – and ended up with Wolfhound Century.
Your novel takes place in an amazing setting – what drew you to this idea of an alternative Russia?
I’m a child of the Cold War. From an early age I absorbed a sense of Russia as a deep and mysterious, dangerous and inaccessible Other Place. There was the nuclear threat and the massed tanks on the frontier and espionage and all that, but there was also another side of Russia that was everywhere and very visible at the time. The way I remember it, books by writers like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were very prominent in bookshops and libraries. I became aware of Russian music, Russian art, the huge role the USSR played in defeating Hitler. There was a feeling, which I internalized almost unconsciously, that Russia was a place where everything was heightened: art, literature, revolution, war, grinding oppression, bureaucracy. Russia mattered. It also had the dark scary glamour of inaccessibility: Russia at that time was on the other side of a frontier, through the looking glass, reachable only through story and imagination, without any of the prosaic dullness of the abroad that you could actually go to on family holidays or school trips.
As it happened, though, I didn’t start with the intention of writing about Russia at all. I was working on a story with a northern, forested setting: wide plains of grass and tundra, wintry Baltic shores, giants and trolls, and I was thinking about the Teutonic Knights and the Northern Crusade. But it was only when it struck me that this was also the place of the Russian revolution and the Eastern Front that the whole thing exploded into life for me: I felt I’d touched on a much deeper vein of emotional and thematic importance. And I realized I could write it as a thriller, and I was away …
You seem to have settled your narrative in a time where modernism and ‘the modern’ was the future (and ruled by the Russian Futurists), a time that is now antiquated – what attracted you to using that time frame?
There was a huge excitement in that period – roughly, the first couple of decades of the 20th Century – particularly in Europe, I think, when it seemed like everything, absolutely everything, could be different. There was a feeling that all the old certainties were all wrong, the past could be jettisoned, and humanity was going somewhere new. There was new technology, new art, new literature, new forms of thought. Freud. Revolutionary communism. Non-Newtonian physics. Atonality in music. Non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. There were attempts to develop forms of art and politics that would dissolve and escape from national boundaries. Practical ideas for space flight began to emerge. Anything and everything was possible. It was an utterly astonishing period of creativity, absolutely teeming with possible futures.
In Wolfhound Century I’ve tried to catch the atmosphere of that modernist explosion of possibilities and set it in the context of the other side of those times: the oppressive surveillance regimes, the human suffering of that dark history. The book itself sometimes makes use of modernist techniques of writing – twisted, skewed fragments of allusion and bits of poetry and popular culture, sliding between genres, and so on. It’s a way of getting at one of the themes of that period, the struggle between the full potential of human perception and breadth of consciousness on the one hand, and on the other the attempts of a totalitarian state to impose uniformity of thought and compliance with collective norms: the clash between an autonomous ‘I’ and an oppressive ‘We’.
The novel features an interesting blend of fantasy and alternative history, reinterpreting the sci-fi elements in the story as pseudo-religious theories – how did this unique blend come about?
I’ve mentioned the way the early 20th century absolutely seethed with possible alternate futures. When we look back on that period now, our view is very much coloured by our knowledge of what came afterwards: catastrophic wars; oppressive governments exterminating their own citizens by the million. And those totalitarian states (of whatever ideology) clothed themselves with the pseudo-religious rhetoric of historical inevitability and eternal permanence.
But I feel it’s really important to remember that what actually happened in the 1930s and 1940s – Stalin, Hitler – wasn’t inevitable, any more than it was permanent. It could easily, even accidentally, have been otherwise. Wolfhound Century aims to recover that sense of undecideness, of many possibilities still in play, the flux and struggle between different potential futures. You look at the bleak lives of the workers, the struggles of the dissident artists, the dispossessed former aristocrats, the excluded minorities, and you feel that their lives are probably only going to get worse. But not necessarily. The totalitarian state is powerful, but it’s not all powerful. The dead hand of history is not – quite – inevitable. There are other forces at play.
So in a way, I guess, Wolfhound Century walks a line between alternate history and fantasy. If it is alternate history, it’s not the kind where the world is like ours except for one change, one divergence: it’s a world where much is different, and things exist which are shadows or impossibilities in our world. Some of what’s there is recognizable, and reflects or resonates with the historical, but I’m more interested in the ideas, the atmospheric details, the art and stories and struggles of the period, rather than familiar events or real geographies.
A number of your characters are fascinating, including Vissarion Lom, a hard-boiled detective type, yet one firmly entrenched in the religious/political framework of the story – did you set out to re-imagine the crime detective in a fantasy epic?
Yes. Absolutely. I really like the way you’ve put that. One of my biggest influences as a writer is Gene Wolfe, and in particular The Book of the New Sun. In my own mind there’s a connection between Gene Wolfe’s Severian, exile from the torturers guild, and Vissarion, exile from the state security police.
There’s an implication throughout Wolfhound Century that more is at stake in Lom’s struggle against the forces lined up against him than simply solving a crime or stopping a killer: it’s about reaching for an alternative future, even if it’s a future you can only glimpse and you’re not sure how real it is or how to get there. The overall conception is that Wolfhound Century is the first part of a three-part series, and if you dig below the surface there’s a quest-story structure. Each book will be a thriller in its own right, but overall they build into one story arc that owes a lot to the fantasy trilogy tradition: though it isn’t a structure limited to fantasy and sci-fi, le Carré’s Karla trilogy is in there somewhere too.
There also seems to be a clash between the sci-fi, space-faring (evil) elements and the fantasy, nature (good) elements in the novel – without giving too much away, what is the sub-text here?
Wow, that’s a great question!
It’s always struck me that the sudden emergence of extreme totalitarian regimes like the Nazis, the Fascists and the full-on cult of Stalin was – apart from anything else you could say about them – very weird. The absolutism, the blind devotion and passive fear, the stark and unmistakeable imagery, the way they turned people from individuals into particles in a mass, the transformation of cruelty into a kind of oblivious managerial efficiency: underneath the awfulness, it’s also very odd. Really quite alien. These systems seem to have come from nowhere, emerged fully formed as a radically new way of organising people and society, and then – with equal suddenness – just disappeared again.
This sense of weirdness and alienness has always been part of the image of Nazism – the associations with occultism, the idea they were inventing flying saucers and super-weapons, and so on – and in very different forms it also turns up in responses to Lenin and Stalin: say, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or the sleek dehumanising visuals of some Constructivist and Suprematist art.
In Wolfhound Century I’ve used sci-fi tropes and images to catch that feeling of weirdness and alienness – wrongness, queasiness, out-of-scale-ness – about the regime in power. And in writing about the things that totalitarian and collectivist ideologies suppress and exclude – the full range of emotions and sympathetic perceptiveness, the richness and mythic quality of the unconscious, the ability to notice and value the natural world and what’s at the margins of perception – I’ve tended to edge more into fantasy.
In the end, though, I wouldn’t actually say that Wolfhound Century enacts a conflict between sci-fi and fantasy. I wouldn’t want to separate out the strands that neatly, either in my book or in the genre(s) more generally. For one thing, you can find mythic perceptiveness and concern with the magical boundaries of consciousness in the core science fiction tradition – say, Ray Bradbury, or the first Star Wars trilogy – and there’s plenty of core fantasy that doesn’t have it at all.
Hannu Rajaniemi praised you for your style and language and you also begin your novel with a quote from the poet Osip Mandelstam – has poetry had an influence on your work and, if so , how?
That’s another great question! Yes, poetry’s a big beast out there in the undergrowth when I’m writing. Apart from Russian writers like Mandelstam, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, and German poets like Rilke and Brecht, who are pretty direct presences in Wolfhound Century, I’ve been very much influenced by, for example, Ted Hughes and T S Eliot, and above all Peter Redgrove (particularly The Wedding At Nether Powers and Doctor Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit, and his prose book about consciousness, The Black Goddess). There’s also a thread of what might be called ‘intense prose’: the kind of exact, intense writing I love in writers like Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter. I owe a big debt to them. Dickens, too, in some of his darker, more intense passages, like the opening of Bleak House.
I’ve tried to make Wolfhound Century as linguistically alive, interesting and adventurous as I can. I see that as part of what’s possible in fiction, part of the range of ways of writing, part of the ground to cover. It’s more than just linguistic: it’s about intense, direct, complex perception, and pushing language into fresh territory to get at that. Thematically, it’s the opposite of the collective cultural norms the dictators sought to impose.
It’s important to Wolfhound Century, though, that the style doesn’t overwhelm the story. The poetic register is part of what’s available, but it’s not the only colour on the palate. I haven’t talked about thrillers much in this interview, but I’ve tried to make the style and language as good as I can within that genre, too. Wolfhound Century is also in a tradition that would include John Buchan and Graham Greene, as well as later books like Fatherland, Gorky Park and First Blood. I love the way an excellent thriller takes you straight into the story and keeps you gripped there, racing along. The most important thing about each paragraph is that it makes you want to read the next one.
The novel ends with a few storylines left unanswered, can we expect a sequel?
For sure. The next part of the trilogy, Truth and Fear, is coming out early in 2014.
The Solaris Rising anthologies you’ve edited have received a lot of success, the second expanding on the first – what were the parameters you set finding authors for this latest volume?
Yes, I’m delighted at how well received the books have been. There are some cracking stories in both volumes. As always when considering who to approach, I’ve chosen authors whose work I admire and who I felt confident could contribute something different to the project. In a sense this is akin to putting together a mosaic. From outset I’m looking for as rich and varied a selection of stories as possible, and in my mind each invite represents another element in an ever-changing pattern. Some authors inevitably decline due to existing commitments, while others submit pieces that aren’t quite what I’m after, but slowly the book takes shape. The hardest part is often deciding on which stories to leave out.
What is the process like working on this type of book – is there a lot of interaction with the editors at Solaris or do they give you full responsibility to bring the product to fruition?
Jon Oliver and the team at Solaris are excellent to work with, in this and just about every other regard. They trust me enough to give me my head and wait to see what I deliver. Once contracts are signed, they pretty much leave me alone to source the authors, commission stories, edit the stories, etc. Then, at or even (dare I say it) before the prearranged deadline, I send them the manuscript. I’ve no doubt that were they not to like what I submit I’d soon know about it, but so far…
It seems that you’ve brought in a number of new, lesser known authors alongside some ‘bigger’ names – how did you go about finding these writers and their stories?
Yes, that’s a policy I’ve pursued right from the start with my own NewCon Press anthologies and have carried through into Solaris Rising as well. It’s a little more tricky with the latter, because I have other people to answer to – the Solaris team. While I know they’re as enthusiastic about good science fiction as I am, I’m also conscious of the need to ensure the book sells well, and that means providing potential readers with new stories from authors they recognise and want to read. At the same time, introducing readers to exciting new voices is one of my principle motivations in putting anthologies together in the first place, but you have to get the balance right.
How do I find these newer voices? That’s easy. I’ve been reading short stories in magazines and, in recent decades, online for as long as I can remember. I meet writers at conventions and events. I belong to writers’ groups and critique work… All of these things bring me into contact with aspiring authors. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read something by a new, emerging, or lesser-known writer and thought, “Wow, I’d love to publish something by him/her!” It’s then just a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.
What is the best part of putting together a collection of stories such as the ones found in Solaris Rising 2?
Actually receiving and reading the submissions; especially when a given piece arrives from a writer I’ve not worked with before, whether that be from a newer voice or an established author I’ve long admired. The thrill of reading a really good submission and knowing you’re going to be privileged enough to present this the readership is… wonderful.
Is there a cross-over in terms of experience from your Newcon Press work and editing an anthology?
Very much so, in all sorts of ways. I couldn’t have begun to take on a project such as Solaris Rising without the experience gained from editing NewCon Press anthologies over the past few years. In addition, I wouldn’t have had the contacts to approach, nor the reputation (such as it is) to command the attention of established ‘big name’ authors.
How did Newcon Press come about? (I’ve read there is a story in this.)
I’ve been known to claim that NewCon Press was a venture that started by accident, and that isn’t so far removed from the truth. When freshly arrived in the community, I became involved in organising a convention in Northampton: Newcon 3. We had a fabulous venue, terrific guests: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Liz Williams, and Fangorn, and attracted a number of other authors besides: Ian Watson (the convention’s chair), Gwyneth Jones, Sarah Singleton, Mark Robson, Steve Cockayne… Unfortunately, too few people came along to enjoy the event, and we lost money.
I wasn’t carrying any of the resultant debt personally, but felt determined to do something about it, so I hit upon the idea of putting together an anthology of original stories as a fund raiser. What followed was an incredibly steep learning curve, as I’d never edited anything before, let alone sourced printers, commissioned cover art and stories, sorted out layout, etc etc… Ian Watson was a huge help on the editorial side, and Mark Robson, who had self-published very successfully before being picked up by Simon and Schuster, was invaluable when it came to the practicalities. Eventually, Time Pieces emerged, and I can’t begin to describe the thrill of holding that first title in my hand. Immediately, all the stresses and frustrations of recent months were forgotten, and I thought, “Hey, I could do this again…!”
You’ve also written a number of novels yourself – does this influence your choices and processes as an editor and vice versa?
Inevitably it all interlinks. When I write, I try to produce the type of novel or story that I’d want to read, that I’d be happy to shell-out my hard earned money for. When I compile and edit an anthology I take the same approach, accepting stories that appeal to me and which I’d be happy to pay for. That’s one of the first lessons I learned as a writer: if an editor rejects something by you, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad story, simply that this particular piece doesn’t suit their requirements or taste. I’ve recently seen two stories I rejected appear in fairly significant venues, which is great – best of luck to the authors. I’m also aware that I’ve accepted pieces in the past that have been rejected elsewhere. Again, so what? This sort of thing is inevitable, and that venue’s loss is my gain.
You write across the genre boundaries from Space Opera to Urban Fantasy – do you think those borders are permeable and interactive, each helping you write in the other landscape as they appear quite opposite?
I wrote the Noise books (space opera) for Solaris and the City of 100 Rows trilogy (urban fantasy with steampunk elements and SF underpinning) for Angry Robot simultaneously, and it helped enormously that I had both series on-going. As I finished one novel, I would take a break of a week or two and then swap to the next volume in the ‘other’ universe, so approaching the task with a fresh eye. To me, the Noise books are very much SF, the City books a little more ambiguous. Though the latter are structured as fantasies there are elements that straddle traditional genre boundaries. I’ve always enjoyed authors and works that do that – blur the margins of definition and refuse to conform to expectation. At the end of the day, labels such as ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ are not meant to enforce restrictions on the narrative structure but merely to give us, as readers, an idea of what to expect from a given book. They’re guidelines for the reader, not imperatives for the author. So yes, the genre borders are as permeable as an author chooses to make them for any given work.
Your Noise Within novel has been described by Stephen Baxter as ‘24 meets Starship Troopers’ – could you expand a little on that explanation for would-be readers?
Yes, it was very kind of Steve to say that. The Noise books were my opportunity to have fun with space opera: a black ops agent armed with an intelligent gun, AI spaceships, virtual reality, downloaded personalities, a ‘hidden’ rebel colony awaiting civilisation’s hour of need, a playboy businessman with hidden depths, a flawed heroine who is more than she seems, first contact with an alien civilisation that may or may not have been stage managed… High octane action, political skulduggery, doomed romances, assassination, exotic locations, a hedonistic pleasureworld, piracy in space, and very alien extraterrestrials… What more can I say?
You are also published by Angry Robot, producing a number of novels set in the City of Thaiburley where you’ve created a complex and intriguing world – what was the inspiration behind these stories?
To be honest, this whole series evolved from a single scene that sprung vividly into my head while watching a local TV news item about Burghley House, a nearby stately home. The report featured the mansion’s roof, which includes a dramatic array of elegant, slender chimneys and ornate crenellations. There’s a walkway built around the inner circumference of the roof and the views are designed to be visually stunning from wherever you’re standing.
I was instantly captivated by this roof and imagined it expanded to cover a vast city. As soon as the report finished, I dashed to the computer and started tapping away. The drama unfolded as I typed: there’s someone desperate to reach this roof, a place he’s never been to and not supposed to go. He’s a teenager, a thief; he’s already overcome many obstacles to get this far and has nearly reached his goal, but is thwarted at the last by witnessing a murder. The real murderer pins blame on the boy and the chase is on, with assassins and police hunting the fugitive through the underworld of an extraordinary metropolis…
These books seem to blend a number of elements and themes – is the ‘City’ books your space to let your imagination run wild?
Very much so. I had great fun writing these and was able to play around with everything from sword wielding warriors to rogue bioengineers, from flying policemen to lurking monsters, from steampunk steamships to feisty streetwise urchins… What’s not to love?
I’m a fan of China’s Perdido Street Station and of Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, both of which feature unique cities that inhabit the books in the same way that Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar does in so many of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. I’d always promised myself that one day I’d create my own wondrous and fascinating city, a place both quirky and dangerous… and here was my chance! As the series develops I take some of the central characters out of the city to find the source of the river Thair. While expanding on the urban sleaze of Thaiburley, this also enables me to explore the world beyond and introduce a wide variety of cultures, races and characters. I’d love to return to thaiburley at some point and don’t feel I’ve finished with the city, not by a long shot; my attention has merely turned elsewhere for now.
What can we expect from you next – more novels, more editing, more of everything?
Short answer… Yes! My latest novel, Pelquin’s Comet, the first in a new space opera series, is currently being considered by publishers. In some ways this is Sherlock Holmes-meets-Firefly, but in many others it isn’t at all. Solaris have recently commissioned me to compile a third volume of the Solaris Rising anthology series; my latest short story collection Growing Pains has just been released via PS Publishing; I have four short stories due out over the next few months in various anthologies and magazines, a 21,000 word novella, The Smallest of Things, that takes place across alternative versions of London currently being serialised in the webzine Aethernet… And I have all sorts of projects progressing via NewCon Press, with four anthologies currently being compiled, short story collections from Steve Ransnic Tem, Stan Nicholls, and Adrian Tchaikovsky imminent, as well as a fabulous novel from Neil Williamson called The Moon King, another, The End, from Gary McMahon, and the first ever UK publication of (this year’s Clarke Award winning author) Chris Beckett’s Marcher, previously only released in the States. This new version of the novel will be extensively revised, with a rewritten ending… So, enough irons in the fire to keep me busy for a while yet.