INTERVIEW WITH ALASTAIR REYNOLDS
CONDUCTED BY JOHN BERLYNE IN LONDON - MAY 18TH 2001
writer Alastair Reynolds is the author of numerous short stories that have
appeared in the genre magazines both here and in the US. He is the author of two
hard SF novels. His debut work, Revelation
Space appeared in 2000 and make a big impression in the field. It was highly
recommend by LOCUS and was nominated for both the BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke
awards - a tremendous achievement for a first time novelist - and is already
much sought after on the collector's market. His new novel Chasm
City has just been released in the UK by Victor Gollancz and is already
garnering much praise. Reynolds was born in Barry, South Wales in 1966. He
studied at Newcastle and St. Andrew's universities and had a Ph.D. in astronomy.
Since 1991 he has lived in the Netherlands, near Leiden, where he works as an
astrophysicist for the European Space Agency. I met up with him in London to
talk about his new book.
SFRevu: Al, you're in the country to do a short signing tour for your new book Chasm
City and to attend the Arthur C. Clarke
awards. Which of the two are you
most excited about? Is this just part of the job for you?
I guess it is just part of the job. I don't get particularly excited
about a lot of things to be honest. I'm really just in it for the writing. 90%
of the pleasure of writing is getting something right in evening when I'm
working, slaving away on the computer. Everything that follows on afterwards is
nice but it's almost a distraction. As far as I'm concerned, once I've tidied up
a manuscript and got it reasonably good, I'm not really interested in that book
anymore and I'm thinking of the next one. So I come along and I do these things
and I enjoy them, but my mind's always one book ahead.
SFR: So we should be talking about the next book?
All I'm thinking about at the moment is not Chasm
City. I mean Chasm City done and Revelation
Space is years ago as far as I'm
concerned. But I am looking forward to the Clarke thing because you get meet a
lot of writers and talk to people.
SFR: Do you think awards are important for the industry if not for you
I think they probably are, but I sometimes wonder if there are not too
many awards and that every new award that comes along somewhat devalues the
existing ones. I remember when I was a kid you'd go into Smiths and you'd look
at the science fiction books on the shelves and you'd see "Hugo"
winner or "Nebula" winner and you'd think, well, that's obviously a
good book. Those were the only two awards that ever got printed on books then -
they were sort of badges of quality in a way, but now there's so many awards
that it's bewildering Ö.
SFR: They're still considered the two premier genre awards though.
Yeah, but if you were coming along now as someone who was not familiar
with science fiction you'd just think oh, well there's that
award and that award and that award and you wouldn't know necessarily which awards had the
history behind them.
SFR: The Clarke awards are specifically for the best British novel though
The best novel published in Britain. Bruce Sterling won it [in 2000 with Distraction],
Amitav Ghosh won it a few years ago [in 1997 with
The Calcutta Chromosome].
SFR: Tell a little about your background. I think the fact that you are a
scientist as well as a writer is important in terms of your work. You're a
SFR: Born and raised in Barry?
I was born in Barry.In
historical terms it's quite a new place. It was Victorian sea-port and for a
time it was one of the busiest in the world with coal and banana imports and
exports (Not bananas - we donít grow many bananas in south Wales!) I was
raised in Barry and at a fairly young age the family moved to Cornwall where I
spent my formative years. Then we moved back to Wales and I spent a few more
years in Barry and then Bridgend. So I am Welsh but I wasn't raised wholly in
Wales. I've always felt slightly outside Welsh culture. I only have a slight
SFR: Where did you study and what did you study.
When I was about sixteen you know you have to make a decision between -
well, at that point you've done your O Levels and you can kind of study
everything up to O level canít you? It's very didactic. But then you have to
start making career choices for youíre A levels. That was really horrible for
me as I was very keen on art. I really liked painting - it's something I still
do. What I really wanted to do was continue that, but I also wanted to explore
science - I was getting interested in astronomy and physics at that point. But
you have make a cut - at least at our school there was no way to continue an
interest in the arts and the sciences.
I was also good at English but that had to go if I wanted to do science. So at
that point I committed myself to a scientific education.
SFR: It's not something you regret though.
Not really. My rational at the time was oh well, I can do physics at
university but it doesn't stop me writing or painting.
SFR: You were writing already by this time?
Yeah. I started my first novel when I was thirteen and finished it when I
was sixteen. I immediately started another one and finished that one when I was
eighteen. All that time as well I was writing loads of short stories as well in
longhand. Not really intending to publish them anywhere, just writing them for
the fun of it. I didnít really know anything about science fiction magazines.
I'd buy collections by people like Larry Niven or Clarke but I sort of assumed
that these stories had just been written and put in a book. I didn't realise
that there was a history of magazine publication behind most short stories. I
thought that you just write loads of short stories and then one day you've got
enough and you make a book! It was good practice though.
SFR: And so you were a voracious reader?
Not as much as some people I think. I've never been a really fast reader
and I'm not particularly well read in either the genre of science fiction or
mainstream literature. I'm really poorly read in both the classics of the field
and the classics more generally. I'm trying to correct for that. I'm a keen
reader but not a "voracious" one.
SFR: Do you admit to any particular influences?
In science fiction? Yeah, definitely. My first exposure to written
science fiction was when I was about eight. There was a magazine that started
reprinting short stories by Clarke and they did a lot of his classic
fifties/sixties stories about space stations. I was really impressed by those
stories. They had a big influence on me. I particularly remember reading Meeting
With Medusa, which had a major effect on me. I think it influenced my taste
in science fiction quite heavily. The same magazine eventually ran out of Clarke
stories and started reprinting Asimov ones. So then when I started reading books
I was naturally drawn to Asimov and Clarke because I already had some
familiarity with the short stories. So I think I took the same route as most
people with science fiction, just reading the obvious big names and then
gradually you get a little more adventurous in your tastes so I started reading
Philip K. Dick and stuff like that. Nothing too unusual. My dad would always
encourage me to read mainstream books but I'd read them - usually with some
enjoyment - and then immediately turn back to science fiction.
SFR: Is that pattern still happening today?
These days I'm more eclectic in my reading. I tend to read a lot of crime
stuff and a fair amount of mainstream stuff. I think I read at least as much
crime fiction as science fiction. I genuinely enjoy it anyway but I think crime
writers have cracked a lot of problems and you can read them almost as how-two
manuals - really brilliant dialogue, exposition, conveying information to the
reader in an unobtrusive way. These are all things science fiction writers have
to learn to do and crime writers have had to learn these tricks as well.
SFR: Would you say it's basically the same technique to write in either genre
I think there's a lot of overlap. It's surprising there not more
crossover in terms of the writers. I think if you talk to fans, a lot of science
fiction fans are also people who read crime novels. They both tend to involve
the solution of puzzles.
SFR: I always imagine that crime novels are written backwards. You have to
have the solution to the problem and then work out how it was arrived at.
Someone once said that crime novels and science fiction novels are the
same book but with the arrow of time reversed. It's a good quote but I can never
quite understand it! But I think there is a commonality there. They both involve
the layers of misinformation and the uncovering of things.
SFR: So are we going to get an Alastair Reynolds crime novel?
I'd argue that Chasm City, while not a crime novel in itself, is quite heavily
influenced by crime novels. It's got a lot of the feel of the noir-ish thriller
- means streets, that sort of thing. I think it would be a different book had I
not read lots and lots and lots of crime novels - particularly hard-boiled
crime, the American stuff rather than the British.
SFR: When and where was your first short story published?
My first professional sale was to Interzone.
SFR: You have an ongoing relationship with them?
Yes, this goes back years. When I was about eighteen I subscribed to Interzone
and when I went to university I continued to read it. Interzone hadn't been going that long then and the stories it was
publishing were very different to the kind of stories I was aspiring to write. I
was doing hard sf stuff - ineptly, but that was what I wanted to do - whereas Interzone
were publishing kind of edgy, new wavy, experimental prose fiction.
SFR: This was in the mid-eighties?
Yeah - this is the time when they were more likely to publish something
by, say, Angela Carter than Larry Niven. (They've never published Larry Niven!)
But towards the middle/late eighties they stated publishing people like Stephen
Baxter, Paul McAuley and they were doing stuff that was closer to what I wanted
to do, so I thought, well, actually you can do it if you write sufficiently good
stories. I was motivated then to really try and crack them so I started
submitting stuff to Interzone. What I'd do was every holiday - I was doing my degree at
the time - every time I was home in Wales I would try and crank out a story and
send it Interzone. Basically every
three months I'd hit them with something, they'd wait three months and then
reject it. This went on for years - well, it seemed like years at the time!
Eventually I sent them something which they rejected, but in a more favourable
way than they had rejected anything before and I thought, "Ah! I'm kind of
getting there now. I'm getting close." So I think one or two submissions
later they bought one of my stories. That was in 1989 and it was published in
1990. At that point you always feel like you've cracked it in a way, but looking
back on it now, it was just the beginning. I published a few more stories with Interzone
over the next year or so and then I had a lean period where I wasn't writing
much as I'd just moved to Holland and whatever I was sending they weren't
buying. So I thought, "OK, what I'll do now is rather than mess around with
short stories, I'll try and make some progress on a novel." That's when I
started writing what became Revelation
SFR: Were you submitting these stories elsewhere as well to try and get them
No. I've always been a little big cautious about submitting to short
press magazines. I think they do a really good job but I always felt I want to
be paid for something. To have that validation. I was thinking that if they have
a slot in a magazine that they could fill with a story by Stephen Baxter or me
and say buy my story as opposed to
some other writer, that must mean it's passed some minimal quality control. Interzone
is not technically a professional magazine as its circulation it too low, but I
though I would wait until I could crack the more professional sf magazines. I've
never been that prolific anyway. I think if I was putting out loads of stories
then I would have sent them to every market I could think of. But I've always
been pretty timid in my submission patterns anyway. It took me years to work up
the courage to start sending stuff to the States and to my surprise I didnít
find it any harder to break into the American market than the British one.
SFR: Which is a better format for you then - the short story or the novel?
I enjoy them equally. When I'm stuck in the middle of a short story
that's causing me problems I wish I was writing a novel! And when I'm in the
middle of a novel that seems to be taking an eternity to finish I always think
"I wish I could stop and do a quick short story." So they are
different forms, but they're not radically
different I think. When you're writing a scene, it's a scene whether it's in a
short story or a novel.
SFR: I interviewed another writer who said that he avoided short stories as
they tended to take as much time and effort to write as a novel but paid a lot
They do take quite a bit of time. One short story I wrote took me nine
months! But I've had other ones that I did in three days. You canít really
tell in advance how long they're going to take. But they're good in the way that
you can try out stuff in a short story and it might or might not work. You can
experiment with stuff before you embark on a novel.
SFR: But your novels aren't long short stories and your shorts aren't
truncated novels - or are they?
I donít see a massive distinction. Both my novels, Revelation
Space and Chasm City, had their
genesis in an attempted short story - neither of which I ever finished in that
form or ever tried submitting anywhere, but with neither one did I think I was
starting a novel when I started either of those two books. Now I have to be
mindful of delivery dates for books, so I can't just go off and write any number
of short stories now I've got to finish book three. But in an ideal world I
would just write whatever came into my head and see how long it ends up. I've
done short stories that were long enough to be classified as novels - you know
in the old days anything over 40,000 words was a novel. I've done novellas that
were almost that long. Money isnít the issue. I love doing short stories. My
first drafts are usually crap and long! And then over the next few weeks I try
and cut it down and make something that's lean and works and has a bit of punch
to it and it's just a brilliant feeling.
SFR: Are you a good editor of your own work?
I donít know if I'm good or not but I'm an enthusiastic cutter of stuff
- maybe sometimes too enthusiastic! I've cut stuff that maybe shouldnít have
been cut. But I'm not precious about what I write. If I write something I'm very
happy to get rid of it because I regard it as part of the process. You have to
write more than you end up with. I used to think it was only me who did this but
practically every writer I've spoken to has said you have to write anywhere
between fifty and a hundred percent over the word limit before you get the kind
of core of what you're going to save. It's kind of depressing in a way. When
you're on the first draft you think you're writing all this stuff that seems
quite good at the time but I know in a few months I'm just going to be cutting
this out! If only I could know in advance which bits I just shouldnít bother
SFR: Is the concept of "kill your darlings" something you have to
It can be a useful indicator of stuff but I think when you're desperately
trying to cut wordage, you tend to think more along the lines of what is really
vital in advancing the plot and what isnít.You mustn't cut too far. There was a writer I was reading recently, a
little piece they wrote about cutting stuff and they were saying that there are
certain details in a science fiction story that covey a sense of strangeness or
futurity to the reader. They may not be vital to the plot but they are vital to
the texture of the story. It may be best to leave things in, in that sense.
There are some things that you really should resist the urge to cut even if
they're not that vital.
SFR: If you remove certain elements, it ceases to be a genre story.
It can still be a science fiction story but can become very grey and
diagrammatic if it's got no texture. It's on the level of two characters walk
into a room and they have a conversation. That might convey all the information
the reader needs to know. But if you tell the reader that the door dilated and
then coffee table appeared from the floor, it gives a little bit of weird
futuristic detail which may give the overall story more believability in the
reader's eye. There's always a bit of tension between cutting and not cutting,
SFR: I just want to touch now on the various themes that appear in your work.
It has been described as "Hard SF on an epic scale" - and your novels
are big - in both conception and page number. How and why are you painting on
such a huge canvass. What is it that attracts to you tell stories of such size
They way I see it is I've got certain books I've read at various times in
my life that have had a big influence on me. Some have been long books, some
short. With Revelation Space, I guess I was being more influenced by the long
books. I tell this to people and they just donít believe me, but I genuinely
didnít realise that Revelation Space
was as long as it was! The first draft was type written for a start so I
couldnít do a convenient word count - I probably estimated the word count a
few times and drastically got it wrong. I was very surprised when it came out to
be 200,000 words. It was even longer in the draft that was submitted but it
genuinely wasn't my intention to write quite such a huge book. I was aiming for
somewhere a bit more modest.
SFR: Was it a case of it simply taking on it's own momentum?
It could also be a sign that the writer isn't in complete control of the
material because it sort of spirals out of control and you end up with this sort
of "plate of spaghetti" plot that's so overcomplicated, over-intricate
and needs many hundreds of pages just to resolve it. I think there was an
element of that there and a valid criticism of Revelation
Space would be that the story is over complicated.
SFR: That's very self-effacing.
Well, you've got to be honest with myself. I always try to learn from my
mistakes. It's also something that in the case of some of my short stories,
looking back on them now I can see a tendency to over-complexity, too many plot
elements. So I'm making a conscious effort to simplify things now. Certainly the
last few short stories I've done, I've really struggled to make them simpler. It
sounds paradoxical but I actually find it harder to write a simple story with
not too many plot elements. When I'm writing the a first draft of something, to
keep it interesting for myself, I'm like a cook, putting lots of different
ingredients in. I sort of think I can get rid of those later because I won't
need them all, but it's very difficult, when you've finished something, then to
unravel the thread, pull it out without wrecking the whole thing. The trick then
is not to be over-complex at the outset.
SFR: Something I find very interesting about your work is the way you play
with time. Your novels span years and years.
Yes. I've always enjoyed stories that have a large implied span of time.
It doesn't have to be the main narrative that spans a lot of time. In Chasm
City the foreground narrative is only a few days in the life of this
character as he's going through the city. But because there are flashbacks the
implied span of time is much longer. What I was striving for was to give this
glimpse into this huge history that was lying behind this character. In Revelation Space as well, you get a glimpse into this vast galactic
history spanning millions of years. I've always liked stories like that so it's
just me trying to imitate people I've been impressed by.
SFR: Is there an element of trying to keep some sort of scientific truth
behind the story - relativity etc.?
Yeah. When I started writing Revelation
Space, I'd already written two novels in my teens that were typical science
fiction space operas in that they had faster-than-light drives,
faster-than-light communications, all the gadgets you could name. By the time I
was writing the second one, I was already disillusioned with this. I regretted
having tipped all those elements into it. I would have been more satisfied with
it had I imposed some restrictions on the universe, in terms of, for instance,
faster-than-light travel. The old argument in science fiction is that you must
have faster-than-light travel because otherwise there are certain stories you
can't tell, because you can't get your characters from A to B in a reasonable
time and I think, fine, I agree with that. But why not put that restriction in,
but explore different kinds of stories? So that's what I'm trying to do. Given
that we canít travel faster-than-light in the Revelation
Space universe, how would it end up? Is it still possible to tell fairly
exuberant action adventure stories within that constraint? I'm still trying to
figure that out for myself and something I'm determined to stick to in this
universe is not to violate that constraint.
SFR: The net effect for the reader is that it makes your stories very
compulsive and frustrating in all the right ways. All those years in cold-sleep,
the characters wake up in a completely different environment.
I canít claim any originality for it because I've been influenced by a
lot of writers who have done the same thing as me. Poul Anderson wrote quite a
few stories where you canít go faster-than-light. More recently there are
people like Joe Haldeman and Gregory Benford who have written loads of novels
where the light barrier can't be passed and what I liked about those books was
that because space travel was more difficult, took longer, it seemed to make the
universe feel bigger and bleaker and more mysterious to me as a reader. That was
what I was being inspired by. I hasten to add that I genuinely love and enjoy a
lot of books written by other writers where they cheerfully disregard all these
conventions and I'm not saying at some point in the future I wonít do a
traditional, "no holds barred" space opera, but it wouldnít be in
this universe. And as an astronomer I am aware that the universe is a big place
and I donít want to cheat my readers on that. I want them to get that sense of
enormity that I get when I'm looking into the sky and thinking god, even the
nearest star is so far away. It's almost mind blowing!
SFR: The Revelation Space universe is populated with some truly extraordinary
ideas. I want to touch upon one of two of them. Do have any pet favourites?
There are very few things in Revelation
Space and Chasm City that were
original. I strive to be original but you just end up being influenced by other
writers and it's often not until after the fact that you realise. I see Revelation Space with all those different factions as just being the
sort of continuation of a trend in science fiction that has been there since
John Varley's novels in the 70's, The
Opiuchi Hotline,or in the 60's
you had Larry Niven's books in which space was a teeming universe with lots of
different factions. If you create a universe and just populate it with only one
or two factions, it's quite boring in a way, but if you get lots of different
antagonistic powers whether they're human or alien or whatever, it just creates
endless new plot possibilities. It's a way of generating conflict in the story.
In the Revelation Space universe I
like The Ultras. The idea is that at
some point in the future they develop the ability to travel quite close to the
speed of light in these gigantic space ships and the people who crew these space
ships, because they age more slowly, because they are spending most of their
lives travelling near the speed of light and in any case they're frozen for most
of the journey, they see people who remain on planets as very ephemeral. They
live and die in a very short span of time compared to these star travellers. So The
Ultras end up feeling quite sort of smug and superior over planetary life
and they kind of evolve away from the norm. I quite like them - not the sense
that I admire them, but I like them as a plot element. In Revelation Space, the story is told form the point of view of The
Ultras and then in Chasm City
they're the bad guys. They're in the background and they're a sort malign force
that don't do any good in the book.
SFR: What about the hermetically sealed palanquins?
Oh yeah, I like the Palanquins. That's a good one! There are quite a few
stories in the pipeline or which have appeared which are set at various points
in the history of Chasm City and after the plague, these characters have to
travel around in these hermetic boxes to avoid the virus. Visually I liked that.
What I'm doing at the moment is, in Revelation
Space there are passing references throughout the novel to this human
splinter group called The Conjoiners.
I done a few short stories where I've explored them in a little bit more detail
because what I wanted to do, I always knew I would have to bring them onstage at
some point. I haven't done it in Chasm
City so I'm going to have to do it in book three. It turns out that The Conjoiners have kind of been 'secret masters' if you like, for a
few hundred years. They've been having far more influence on things than people
have generally realised . What they are is a group of humans that started
experimenting with linking their minds together in to a sort of parallel
computer mesh and they've been ostracised by some of the other factions as it is
considered they've gone too far. They sort of disappeared into the woodwork for
a few hundred years but they've been beavering away on various projects that
have led to discoveries. I've set the groundwork in a few short stories for
bringing them out in the open, telling a story from their viewpoint. I've got a
protagonist who I've developed in a couple of stories who is one of these, but
he's only recently been converted so he's still got a strong affiliation with
normal humanity so he's a bit torn between these two powers. Anyway, he gets
into a series of adventures that will send him on the trail of what happened in Revelation
Space. It's always seemed to me that given The Conjoiners were this "on the ball" faction, very
clever and intelligent, they would have to have some involvement in what
happened in Revelation Space. They
must at some point become involved and follow up these events and see what the
implications of them are because it could have far reaching consequences for
SFR: Was this conceived whilst you were working on Revelation
Space or was it tacked on later?
I sort of had a vague idea. When one is doing final rewrites on a book,
at that point one's already probably quite well advanced on the next book and
maybe thinking about the one after. There are certain things in Revelation
Space which I knew I would put in and would be useful later. And I was
writing the stories at the same time, so they were sort of influencing each
SFR: What kind of developments or differences do you think there have been
between the two novels? Chasm City
takes place before Revelation Space?
Revelation Space has such a
strange structure in terms of time scales but it is mainly set after Chasm
City. Chasm City is nominally set
seven years before Revelation Space.
Why are they so different? Well, I'd just finished Revelation
Space, a draft of it, and I hadn't sold it at that point or even sent it to
any publisher. I had actually, but I
hadn't had any feedback or any hint that I might at any point sell it and I'd
just done a few short stories and I thought well, I'm going to do something longer now but I don't want to do
another book in the same vein as Revelation
Space. In fact I just started writing a novella that I thought would be a
kind of seedy, grimy, noir-ish novella and that ended up becoming a novel. But
it wasn't written with any strategy in mind. It was just that I felt, well, I'll
do something different now.
SFR: Chasm City in way seems a more
"fun" read than Revelation Space. Was it more fun to write?
Both books were problematic at times. There were times I was ready to
chuck 'em across the room in despair. That's always going to be the way of
things. There were times when I was having fun, but there were other times Ö
SFR: What kind of problems were you causing yourself?
A problem as such is that I just donít plan my books out in advance. I
donít work like that. I just have a sort of very vague idea of where I'm
going. If I work from an outline, it's usually just a couple of post-it notes
stuck to my computer. Inevitably one reaches a certain point with a book that
one has to think ahead or one realises that decisions one took earlier in the
book are problematic in terms of the plot development or one has to go back and
fix things or change things.
SFR: Do you often paint yourself into a corner?
Oh yes! All the time, yeah! All the time. But that's half the fun.
Sometimes you paint yourself into what appears to be a corner and sort of
agonise about it for a few days and then you find your way out of it and I
always tend to feel that might a good thing because if you couldn't see a way
out of it immediately, the reader's not likely to when they're reading it in
real time. If you've grappled with a problem for days before solving it, and the
reader's reading it, just turning the pages, you're probably going to be ahead
of them - hopefully! Whether that's the case or not, I don't know!
SFR: Do you think the essential story of Chasm
City could have been set in its own story universe?
Oh yeah. I don't think there's many elements in that book that actually require
it to have been set in the Revelation
Space universe. Obviously there are links with Revelation Space and some of the mysteries in Revelation Space are explained a little bit in Chasm City - one finds out a little bit about the plague - but yeah,
with some butchery one could have set it in another universe. Some plot elements
would have had to be changed, but when I started writing that novella, it was
intentionally set in that universe. I wanted to do a little bit more in Chasm
City. Revelation Space has scenes set in Chasm City - in fact in the first
draft of Revelation Space there was a
lot more in Chasm City and I took a lot out and none of that actually went into
the book Chasm City, but a lot of the
invention in my head went into it. Things I'd worked out in my head went back
into Chasm City.
SFR: One of the greatest strengths of Chasm
City is your conception of the place itself - how it is after it has
suffered the effect of this plague. You've used the term "noir" to
describe how you see it. I found it had a real "steampunk" feel to it,
if that's a fair assessment. What made you settle on this very visual concept?
There's nothing particularly original about it, I suppose. In science
fiction and fantasy and in the media, there are lots of models one can think of
for sort of grimy steampunky cities, arenít there? One of my favourite films
is Brazil, and I guess whenever I
write something that's in a city, Brazil is always in the back of mind somewhere because I like that
film so much and I've seen it so many times. But there's also things like Judge
Dredd, 2001 AD, Mega City 1 - I remember in the Judge
Dredd comics, Mega City 1 was always sort of weirdly shaped structures and
then when Judge Dredd went down into
the sort of basement levels there were all these old buildings left over from
the twentieth century like the Empire State Building and they were almost lost
beneath these super high-rises and I like that idea of the grimy and the
high-tech co-existing. But there have been dozens of stories and cities like
that. I think it's just one of the archetypal venues for science fiction - the
grimy rotting metropolis. Gene Wolfe's done a few of them in The Book of the New Sun which I like a lot.
SFR: One of the other things about Chasm
City that struck me was these constant changes of allegiance that go on. In
my review I've talked about the you constant wrong-footing the reader in the
same way you're wrong-footing the characters. I found as I was reading it, this
created a huge paranoia - very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick. Was this
I like Philip K. Dick and I've read many of his short stories - I'm not
particularly well read in his novels, but I've read most of the short stories. I
wasn't consciously aware of following a Dick-type approach with the book. I
guess I was thinking a lot of the crime novels I've read where you are
wrong-footed as a reader. The characters who seem most trust-worthy are never
the ones you can trust and as soon as you know that, you still donít get it
because the writer's still ahead of you. When I was writing Chasm
City, I did know who would turn out to be who. I didnít make it up as I
was going along. There are time when all those shifting allegiances get a bit
over complex - even for the writer I think. There were times when I thought
well, this is just getting far too complicated!
SFR: Did it need a lot of revision where that was concerned?
Yeah - there was so much revision done on that book that I think there
wasn't any one element of it that wasn't extensively revised and I would have
kept on fiddling with it for an eternity!
SFR: You've said to me before that it was a real struggle to get this one out.
Yeah. It was struggle because I wrote and sold Revelation
Space, which is a long book, and then before I'd sold that I'd also written Chasm
City - but that was just a reasonably short book. Gollancz - I think
correctly - pointed out that it would be a bit odd to have one long book appear
and then a very short book appear afterwards. So they said can you make Chasm
City longer? So then you have the technical problem of how do you expand a
novel without padding it? So I sort of agonised about this for months, trying to
work out ways of enriching the storyline without making it look like padding. I
hope I succeeded, but it went through many revisions where I tried to make this
seamless - I don't know whether I actually succeeded or not but that was the
main technical challenge, to make a long book out of a shorter initial work
without it seeming like padding.
SFR: What's your view on editorial input? On how you work with an editor on a
I enjoy the process. I really like it. The way both those books worked
was an initial draft was seen and read, commented on in terms of what worked and
what didnít and what general changes need to made and then I then went away
and worked on it for another three or four months.
SFR: Where you surprised by anything that was said to you during those stages?
Yes, it's always surprising. Another reader will always see things that
you donít see and they will see things that do work that you don't think work
and donít work that you think do work. I'm always of the opinion that it's
best to trust the reader in these things, particularly editors. They've got
vastly more experience and if an editor tells you that something doesn't work,
they're probably right. The tricky part is then finding a fix for something that
doesnít work. Once you've diagnosed the problem then you have to solve it
somehow. An editor can offer some guidance but at the end of the day the writer
has to go away and solve that problem. An editor can say, well this character
isnít well realised, you have to strengthen this character. It sounds simple
but when you actually go away and try and do, it's quite tricky.
SFR: And the trick for the editor is not to lead the writer by the nose.
I've been given a great deal of freedom to solve problems in whatever
manner I like and at no point have I been told you must do this, you must solve
this. It's always been like here are things we think are problematical, none of
it's set in stone, you're welcome to argue with or defend anything and if
there's anything you really think you need to keep - keep it. So far it's worked
very well. And I've enjoyed the revision process on short stories as well. I
always like getting that extra feedback and I think it always ends up improving
the finished product. Josette, my partner, reads all my stuff before it goes
out. She sees a certain number of things and I correct them. She'll point out
things on a basic level like transitions between scenes where you don't
establish that there's been a transition in location or something. The writer
knows what's going on in their head but often they forget to put those little
cues to the reader to say now we're a day later and it's in another town or it's
a different character. So on a general level a reader can pick those things up
and request changes.
SFR: You've very quickly become a collectable author - after only one book.
What's your view on that?
I'm not particularly well informed about the book collecting market - I
didn't know much about it before Revelation
Space came out and I donít know much about it now. I just sort of say,
well if they are collectable that's great but as I say, at the end of the day
all I really think about is getting the words down.
SFR: Do you collect any authors yourself?
I started reading C.S. Forester three or four years ago. On a whim I
picked up the Hornblower books and I read them on holiday.
SFR: You could have chosen a less expensive author to start collecting!
Hah! Basically I really enjoy the Hornblower
books. I still haven't read them all yet, but I've got them all and have read
about half of them. I thought they were wonderful. Then, bumbling around
second-hand book shops I'd notice the occasional paperback by C.S. Forester and
I started picking them up on a whim and they were always only about 20p and so
I'd just grab them. And sometimes I'd already got some of them already but I
noticed by looking into his bibliography that the vast majority of his novels
are out of print now and I though well, he's a good one to collect then. You
canít get his books any other way than through second hand book shops. So when
I say "collect" I just mean I like the idea of having everything Ö
Yeah! I donít know anything about value or anything like that.
SFR: You've got a web site now - you've had it for a while. I'd be interested
on your views of the Internet as a tool for writer, as an instrument of research
and now also as a way for reader to contact authors. You're very approachable
and open to that aspect of it.
Yeah - I created a website for myself as soon as the web came around. I
think most people became aware of the world-wide-web in 1994 - that was when it
really took off. By the end of that year I had my own prototype website up. The
hard part is encouraging traffic through your website. It was years before I
started getting any visibility on the web. It's only really since Revelation
Space that I've started getting people coming through. I can keep track of
the access statistics. Through my website I try and make myself available. But I
have to say that half the reason I have a website is purely for my own
gratification in a way because I stick stuff on the web and I know where it is.
So I put my C.V. up there because I'm always losing it! I think, hang on, if I
stick it on the web, I'll never lose it!
SFR: Unless the server crashes! Then you're in trouble.
Yeah! But also I do a bit of web design in work for the Space Agency and
I do fiddle around and try out ideas on my own website before I muck about with
official web pages. That's basically it really.
SFR: What about the whole e-publishing thing? Would you - or have you- put
stuff on the website that you havenít published elsewhere?
The only stories I have on the put on the web are stuff that's already
appeared in print magazines and in fact both stories had already been reprinted.
So I felt well, I've had my money's worth out of those stories, it would be OK
if I put them on the web. Do you know Keith Brooke? He's got this Infinity Plus
website [http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/] and he's been brilliant with that. He
encourages writers to donate stories to go up on the web there. I could put them
on my own website but I'd have to muck around with formatting them and playing
around with layout. Whereas if you give it to Keith, he's got a template already
and it looks very nice, it's very readable and it's in a forum where people are
already going to look for stuff to read, so you can guarantee it's probably
going to get look at. It may not be read by someone, but they'll at least find
it! Whether I would be prepared to put something up that I hadn't sold Ö I'm
still a real book junkie. I really don't like reading stuff off the web myself.
SFR: Do you think there's a future in e-publishing though? There's this big
debate in the industry, the whole thing about books being made available via
I don't really have a strong opinionon it. I just don't participate. Actually I'm not that interested in
computers. I work with them day in and day out. I've just never been that
particularly computer obsessed and I'm always the last person to pick up on any
high-tech innovations. I was the last person to buy a CD player - I'm waiting to
see if these CD's take off actually! I donít own a computer - I just borrow
them off people!
SFR: What's your view of the current scene? I was interested at the Chasm
City launch to hear Malcolm Edwards [Executive Director at Gollancz] state
that he thought the golden age of British science fiction was happening right
now. Do you agree with that?
I think with one or two exceptions most writers feel that they're living
through a golden age, don't they? It was clear that there were doldrums in the
British SF scene in the eighties and seventies and things began to pick up again
probably around the early nineties Ö if you're interested in traditional
SF. I mean there's always been quality
SF coming out. It seemed that the only people doing exuberant wide-scale SF were
the Americans and then people like Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley started
coming out and then Peter Hamilton and loads of other writers. I'm just as
interested in stuff that's going on in the States now. There's loads of
interesting writers coming out there as well. So I don't think it's necessarily
confined to the UK, I there's just a resurgence in SF across the board.
SFR: What do you put it down to?
I don't know.
SFR: I wonder if it's the Star Wars generation growing up.
I think there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in science now which
is inspiring a lot of interesting ideas in writers. I donít mean like dry,
hard SF stories necessarily but I mean there's just so many weird and wacky
things going on at the moment, how can you not
want to be an SF writer? When I pick up the American magazines I read loads of
good stuff in them. There's loads of nice American writers coming out right now
who have already been published. I'm just as excited about what's going on the
States as in the UK.
SFR: Where do you think it's all going to go over the next ten years?
Well there's bound to be ups and downs aren't there. At the moment, space
opera is quite trendy and popular but it wonít continue forever. Next year it
could be vampire novels again. Space opera was dead in the water a few years
ago. Things go in waves and you can't ever predict what the next wave's going to
be. No-one ever sees these things coming. If you try to be analytic about it,
you're bound to get it wrong, back the wrong horse. I guess there's a slight
hint that the next wave is going to be sort of dark, urban metropolitan fantasy
novels, if you like. Getting away from the Tolkein template. I've only started
reading these things quite recently.
SFR: You've just described the core elements of Chasm
I see Chasm City as science fiction novel that bends a bit towards that
urban fantasy feel at times while still being a science fiction novel. No, I
just sit back and see what's coming out. I can never predict what the next trend
is. That's why I'm still a reader and why it's fun to be a science fiction
reader. You donít know the way the field's going to go in a few years time.
SFR: What about your working pattern? Are you a disciplined writer?
I force myself to be disciplined. Because I do a day job, I get home and
I've learnt to my cost that if I donít go up and just start writing, I just
donít get anything done. It's no good just doing one or two nights a week. The
words donít add up fast enough basically. It's OK if you just want to write a
short story a year or something like that, but to finish a novel, you've got to
write every night you can. If you're at home, you've got to write, no matter how
knackered you feel when you come home from work.
SFR: Do you have a word target?
Yeah - I like to have started work by eight o'clock. I get home at about
six, go for a run, something like that, have a bite to eat and then if I'm not
at my computer by eight it's a bad sign. By ten o'clock I like to have done
fifteen hundred words minimum.
SFR: That's a lot!
AR: Well, it's the kind of bare minimum you can get away with I think. For a year I tried doing two thousand words a night and I could sustain that for a few day, but then it just really started catching up on me.
SFR: From what you were saying before, you're writing fifteen hundred words,
only seven hundred and fifty of which you can use!
Yeah - but if you knew that at the time it would just be soul destroying!
On the weekends I try and do a bit more.
SFR: And you're keeping your novel writing time very separate from the time
you devote to working on short stories?
Well, one tends to have deadlines for novels but not for short stories,
so novels are always going to take priority. Right now I know I can only write
my novel. I can't take time out do any short fiction. When I finish the current
draft of the current book, I'll send it off to Gollancz, then I'll have a few
months then, kind of a gap when I can crack on with some short fiction.
SFR: Are you only ever writing one thing at a time?
Generally yes. I often have few things that have sort of failed but I
havenít given completely given up on, but more generally I tend to only be
working on one thing at a time.
SFR: You donít have a draw full of works in progress?
No, I'm not like that. I tend to have maybe one or two stories that might
be going somewhere and usually only one I'm seriously working on. When I was
writing Revelation Space, I was
picking it up and putting it down and writing short stories, but if you get
stuck on a short story that takes months, you can really lose momentum writing a
novel. So with Chasm City, I tried to
be more disciplined and only work on that. You get natural breaks where you
submit a draft and then there's a certain turnaround time until you get back the
editorial notes. In that interim period you can do a lot of short fiction
writing. So I still find time.
SFR: What's you advice for the aspiring writer? I hate asking this question
but I do think it's important. For
someone who has broken into the field at the level that you have it shows that
it can be done.
The one piece of advice I do give people is that when you finish
something and you send it off, whether it's a short story or a novel, get on
with something else immediately. Because that way, if the thing you've submitted
is rejected, by the time you get it rejected you'll probably be quite well
advanced on the thing you're working on and you wonít mind so much. You'll
kind of be emotionally committed to the thing you're working on. On the other
hand, if it is accepted, you're "quids in" then because you've got
something else coming along. Publishers will like that, magazine editors will
like it. They like to publish prolific writers.
SFR: Wasn't it Heinlein who said always finish what you write and always
Well, I agree with some of what Heinlein said, but I think some of it's
bollocks! Because he said things like never re-write, never polish and I think
that's just crap! Heinlein was clearly a very good writer and he could get away
with that, but I can't. My first draft is just really painful to read so I do a
huge amount of polishing.
SFR: So where are you on the next book? Can you give us any hints on it?
The next book? Well, after I finished Chasm
City I felt well, I've done a Ö
SFR: When was that?
I was still doing major stuff on it up until Christmas  and then it
went into typesetting.
SFR: That's a pretty quick turnaround.
Yeah - but I was still mucking about with it in a limited way right up
until the proof reading stage. You can still make a few little changes providing
it doesnít throw the page count out.
SFR: What does it feel like when you finally see the proof - the book itself
in print as it were?
Because you can't change anything then. I hate it! By that point you're
over familiar with the story Ö
SFR: But surely that's the point your working towards?
I always feel I can improve it - do better, but by that point you can't.
Your stuck! You're way too close to the story by then. You forget what it was
about it that was interesting about it in the first place.
SFR: The novel that's in the pipeline at the moment Ö?
OK. It's similar in scope and complexity to Revelation
Space. It's set in the same universe but unlike Chasm
City it's not claustrophobically confined to one or two venues. It's a star
hopping adventure with lots of different venues, a lot of space battles, a lot
of action scenes. At the end of Revelation
Space, this character Sylvestre possibly
wakes these kind of sleeping alien killer machines. The premise of the next book
is that yes, he does wake them, but the reaction time is about a century before
they actually emerge and start causing trouble.
SFR: Have you got a working title?
I don't yet. No. Basically what I want to do is a completely stand-alone
book set in the same universe but which nonetheless relates to the events that
happened in Revelation Space, but I want it to be a book that someone whose not
read the other two books can read and enjoy. There'll be a few things in there
which may be more enjoyable if you were aware of the things in Revelation
Space but on the other hand I'll try and make it such that someone who
hadnít read Revelation Space will get pleasure out of reading Revelation
Space after reading the third one.
SFR: If you were setting your stories all in one street for example, you might
soon run out of viable story ideas, but you could go on for years writing novels
set in this universe. How far can it be exploited - do you want to exploit it?
I've already done a short story which maps out the future history of this
universe right out to 30,000 years in the future, but in such a way as it gives
me lot of room for manoeuvre. I know I can write stories that are embedded in
that universe but are quite different in feel and texture to each other. I'm
bound to get sick of it at some point, but I'm not sick of it yet. I'm still
having fun with it in the short stories. The nice thing is that you make a lot
of arbitrary assumptions when you write these things and later they can either
be a pain or they can be quite nice because you suddenly realise that you can
join things together that you hadnít thought of before. So for me it's fun, a
nice process of building up this intricate structure in a kind of random and
haphazard way. I know things in my head that the reader doesnít know, I know
certain secrets that underpin this universe, so I'm not making it completely
from scratch. There are certain things I know that I'm keeping back from the
reader so that I can make it more dramatically interesting. But there are other
things I am making up as I'm going along and I'm trying to do so in a fun way.
And when is "Untitled" due to appear?
I guess it'll be about a year from now. The current schedule would be
that it will come out in May of next year.
SFR: So you're looking to finish it by Ö?
The whole thing will be done and dusted by Christmas.
SFR: Thanks Al. It's been great to chat with you.