Tuesday, 28 January 2020

A long-form interview with Reaktor magazine

The Estonian magazine Reaktor recently ran a long interview with me, conducted by Reidar Andreson. Very kindly. I've been allowed to reproduce the interview here, in its original form. I hope it's of interest.


Reaktor: Being mostly researcher and small-time writer myself I would like to ask about the change in your career – from astrophysics to a full-time writer. What affected you to leave behind your job as an active scientist and focus on writing only? Studying space sounds infinitely fascinating field to delve into a lifetime. Do you miss sometimes working in the university or ESA? Do you still keep in touch with your former colleagues and discuss topics about cosmology for example?

AR: I was never as good a scientist as I hoped to be. I mean, I was all right – I could do some competent research – but I realised early on that I didn’t have what one of my colleagues called “the fire in the belly”, that drive that keeps you up at night and makes you work stupid hours. By the time I became a scientist, it no longer excited me on that deep, visceral level, whereas writing was starting to become more and more intellectually challenging. I’m powerfully drawn to science but in an extremely non-disciplinary sense, so rather than being a researcher, which means zero-ing in one tiny area of one topic, I’d have been better off being a science communicator or science fiction writer.

I still keep up with science, but I’m as interested in neuroscience or genetics as I am cosmology or particle physics. I want it all! I miss some aspects of the research life, but I knew that before I left. Working in a team environment is very satisfying, and no two days at work were ever much alike. But my colleagues have been very kind in keeping in touch with me, and I still feel that I have some informal ties to ESA.

Reaktor: Writing scientific reports or papers is completely different than writing a fiction. How difficult was it for you to make a shift and change the writing style from presenting clean, dryfacts to generating beautiful sentences with rich selection of adjectives and poetic metaphors?

AR: The hard shift was the other way round: I’d already written lots of fiction before I ever had to write a scientific paper. I never found it easy. In fact, writing papers was by the far my least favorite part of the whole package of being a scientist. I found each paper to be a long-winded struggle, including dealing with anonymous referees who sometimes seemed to insist on a lot of fiddly, time-consuming changes just for the sake of it. Not all of them, I should add.

Reaktor: Let’s talk about science a bit. You have said you do not believe that FTL travelling is possible in our universe and try to stick to this conviction in your novels. However, the exotic matter is another story. In “Century Rain” your characters discuss the “exotic matter to enlarge and stabilize a wormhole throat”. Also, in Revelation Space series there are mystique and very powerful alien weapons, some of them being able to possibly operate on unknown particles. What are your thoughts about humanity acquiring knowledge about dark matter, particles, and energy? Can we exploit it somehow in the near future and bend space to cover large distances?

AR:  I don’t believe FTL travel will ever be possible, but I’m not so dogmatic about it that I can’t enjoy stories that use that technology, or even deploy it in my own, on occasion. It’s good to keep a slightly open mind, and of course some stories wouldn’t even work without such contrivances, so why not write them. As for exotic matter – as far as I’m aware, it’s just a mathematical construct which constrains the properties you’d need to do certain difficult operations, such as stabilise a wormhole throat. But there’s no hint of how such stuff could be manufactured, or whether such material would even be possible in our universe, so I would be rather skeptical about our chances of ever exploiting it.

I put dark matter in a slightly different category: unlike exotic matter, there’s at least some broadly persuasive evidence that it might be out there, and a number of different theories about what it might be made of. That’s not to say I believe in dark matter unreservedly. There is a small but credible group of scientists who think we’ve got our ideas about galactic rotation wrong (galactic rotation curves being one of the main arguments put forward for the existence of dark matter) and that some “modified Newtonian dynamics” or MOND may be at play. I feel the same way about dark matter and dark energy as I do about inflation: it was a nice idea at the time, which seemed  to answer some questions, but as time goes on it’s starting to look as if it only ends up adding more complexity.

Reaktor: Continuing the previous topic, some scientists are speculating that so-called dark universe (currently invisible and undetectable to us) is estimated to fill more than 90% of space. It may contain intelligent life and is probably not so far away from us. We just cannot perceive them yet. What is your opinion about finding life in this or other side of the border?

AR: I’ve played with ideas about life being embedded in the galactic supervoids in House of Suns,but on a personal level I’m somewhat skeptical on several fronts: first of all, as mentioned above, I’m not sure we’re on the right track with our ideas about dark matter and dark energy in the universe as a whole, and secondly, I’m somewhat doubtful that there is a lot of intelligent life out there, based on the usual well-trodden arguments from Fermi and subsequent thinkers. Really, though, when we speculate about intelligence elsewhere, we’re just stumbling around in the dark.

Reaktor: Artificial intelligence and robotics research fields are moving forward in fastening speeds. OpenAI initiative and DeepMind working with Artificial General Intelligence have trained computer bots that can easily win top human players in complex strategic games like Dota 2 and StarCraft 2 with final AI version running on a common computer. The bots beat men even when they limited AI actions per minute to an average human level. By adding Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas robot in the mix, it could happen soon enough that we have human shape machines capable of doing various things and even giving orders to other units. Many SF authors depict in their works various interactions between humans and intelligent robots, as do you. What do you think, is the reality starting to catch up fiction?

AR: A few years ago – a decade or so – I got it into my head that it was time for “the robot” to come back into science fiction as a central theme. I felt it had been neglected for a few decades, perhaps because of a perception that Asimov had said all that needed to be said, and nothing else was interesting. There are lots of artificial intelligences in cyberpunk, but they tend to be mainframes or distributed computers, rather than robots. So I started writing stories with robots in them – something I’d always done, in fact, before I was published – and I put humanoid robots into several novels and stories. Hesperus, in House of Suns, became a real fan-favorite, which surprised me. I felt that I was a tiny bit ahead of the curve in that sense, but now robots are back big-time, with anthologies and so on coming out. I’ve just done  another story for a robot anthology coming out next year, edited by Jonathan Strahan. There’s no doubt that reality is indeed catching up, at least in terms of the mechanics of making a walking, talking, android-like robot. I’m not sure that the sentient, autonomous robot is any closer than it was fifty years ago – or a hundred years.

Reaktor: Can you name some of the classic SF writers that have influenced you most? What about modern authors; do you have time to read new published material? Could you also mention some non-SF writers you admire?

AR: The names I’ll mention are all obvious and predictable: Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, James White – then a second wave as I hit my mid-teens: Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford and others. Then a third wave – William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, JG Ballard, Ian Watson, Stanislaw Lem and so on. Then a fourth wave as I realised I needed to catch up with the likes of Christopher Priest, M John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin and others – the eminent writers of the 1970s New Wave. I’m the first to admit that my reading was dominated by men, but it is what it is. Somewhere in my early twenties I also latched onto Gene Wolfe, and he became one of my central influences, even though I could never write a paragraph that came close to one of his. There are others: Connie Willis, Michael Bishop, Michael Swanwick, Linda Nagata and others. Beyond SF, I think my approach to narrative and character in Revelation Space owed much to James Ellroy and his LA crime novels. I’ve read an enormous amount of crime fiction and still do. I also have an affection for historical fiction, particularly the likes of C S Forester, Patrick O’ Brien and Bernard Cornwell, and in more recent years I’ve been trying to rectify my appalling lack of knowledge of earlier writers by reading Dumas, Austen, Dickens and so on. Nothing I read is very intellectual: I’m just not that sort of reader.

Reaktor: In current times, there are lot of tensions and instability in world politics, not to mention major processes close to your home like Brexit. Are you affected by these debates and political games? Do you transfer and alter some aspects from current political or socio-economical events into your books? 

AR: They oppress me terribly. I’m a child of the Cold War. I grew up in the firm and certain knowledge that a nuclear exchange between the West and East was all but inevitable at some point, probably before the end of the twentieth century. I don’t know anyone of my generation who didn’t feel the same way. It was drummed into us all the time. Then, by some miracle, we escaped from under that shadow. Nuclear weapons remain a grave concern, and proliferation must be resisted, but at the same time it seemed as if we’d dodged that particular bullet, and emerged stumbling into sunlight and hope. The Berlin Wall came down. Nelson Mandela was released! The world seemed to be on a better track, one that put racism, nationalism and militarism behind us. But we all know that wasn’t to last and now we seem beset by old-world politics of the worst kind, everywhere we look. Idiots in the White House, idiots in Downing Street. The total, shaming idiocy of Brexit. I was never going to be a fan, given that I lived in the Netherlands for nearly two decades and benefited from the ease of movement of EU rules. My wife is French; her family are scattered across half of Europe. I am a European to the marrow, a Federalist, and always will be.

I don’t write in a vacuum, so these real-world factors are bound to seep into my books, by choice or otherwise. I saw House of Suns as a “post-911” book as it deals, on certain levels, with authority, retribution and the use of torture as a means of intelligence-gathering. Similar themes play out in The Prefect, and ten years later they were still echoing through Elysium Fire. That has been called a Brexit-themed book and there is some truth in that, but I started it long before the referendum, or Trump’s election. What I was most concerned about was the rise of demagoguery. I had one selfish fear, which was that the world would improve before the book came out, and the likes of Trump and Farage would be consigned to the dustbin of history. But things have only got worse. That said, I still remain a stubborn optimist in the long-run.


Reaktor: Now let’s move on with the topics about writing fiction. Do you have a fixed daily writing routine when working with the first draft of the novel? Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you try to reach a certain number of words per day?

AR: I do have a certain routine but it can take a few months to click into it, once I start work on the novel. The early stages are always difficult. I don’t like doing first drafts and I don’t like doing the early bits of first drafts even more! I am not really a morning person, nor particularly a night owl. My most productive time, in terms of ideas gelling, tends to be early to mid evening. But that’s not very sociable so I try to confine my writing to daylight hours. Ideally, I do about three thousand words a day, broken into chunks of a thousand words. I’ll do a thousand in the morning, a thousand early to mid afternoon, then another thousand by late afternoon, or spilling a little into the evenings. It gets more complicated in winter as I am also a runner, so I need to fit that activity into the available light, which usually means breaking into my writing routine during the afternoon, and then catching up later.

Reaktor: Also, you have said in one of the previous interviews that you like to keep a lot of notes and draft versions of each piece. Do you always hard-plan your stories in advance, or have you tried to write something without thinking much ahead in order to see where Pegasus leads you? 

AR: I keep a lot of fragments and earlier drafts as I write, but I do very little in the way of forward planning. It just doesn’t suit me creatively, to work from an outline. I’ve tried it for a couple of novels and they weren’t as satisfying to me as the ones I’ve dived into without much of a roadmap. I’m a firm believer in the power of the unconscious to generate interconnections within stories, connections that pop out late in the draft almost as if they were pre-ordained. I can’t speak for others, but those connections have only really happened in the novels that were guided by Pegasus. I like that saying, by the way – I’ve never heard it before, but it’s going in the toolkit!

Reaktor: Every Estonian fan is excited when foreign SF author mentions “Estonia” or “Estonians” in their text or TV/movie script. This is one of the reasons your novel “Pushing Ice” has won a special place in our hearts. In it you describe a character who enjoy listening to Estonian choral music and also mention our world-famous composer Arvo Pärt. How did you get to listening to Estonian choral music? Do you prefer listening music when writing and does it inspire or help you to create certain scenes? What kind of music style and artists do you like overall?

AR: That’s extremely gladdening! Those references I put into my books are never cynical. I cannot remember where Arvo Pärt came into my life but I would certainly have been listening to his music at the time, and I still have it. It’s possible that it was recommended to me by a mailing list I was on that time, which was ostensibly about the British group The Fall, but which included many very knowledgeable contributors who would often suggest new music to explore. I may also have just picked up an Arvo Pärt recording from a shop, purely out of curiosity. I do listen to a lot of music while I write, but it has to be of a certain kind. I need to be familiar with it, to some degree, and it can’t be too lyrical. I seldom listen to Neil Young when I am writing, for instance, because he is such a brilliant lyricist and his words tend to penetrate my brain too readily. Classical music is all right, and also any rock music that I’m already familiar with, to the point that it sort of fades into the background as aural wallpaper. Now and then I will listen to something to evoke a particular mood: usually something dark, gothic and medieval! I listen to some metal when I run, but never when I write.

Reaktor: You are excellent at coming up with new vices and offsets for future trans-humanist/post-humanist cultures. What are your favourite cultures you have created and why?

AR: It’s always fun to write about the Ultras and the Conjoiners, although tricky at times as I have to keep the descriptions fresh and maintain a certain level of inventiveness, which means coming up with new angles or ideas to build on what I’ve already shown. I don’t take any credit for the basic philosophies behind these cultures, though. I was only following the leads set by writers like Bruce Sterling, in imaging these fractured, diverse, kaleidoscopic posthuman futures.

Reaktor: If you woke up in one of the settings or worlds you have written about, which would mean a “whoa, cool!” awakening and which would be an “oh no…”?

AR: I think there are bits of both in all the settings and worlds – places and times where it’s fairly comfortable, bordering on utopian, and others where it’s very much the opposite! Although I’m very content with the time and place into which I was born, I could see the attraction of living in the epoch of galactic civilisation depicted in House of Suns, in which a group of relatively happy-go-lucky humans are given this awesome technology of interstellar travel and basically just told to go out there, explore, learn things and have fun. On the other hand, although I really love writing in the setting, I’ve never had any desire to live in the Revelation Space universe. It’s like the Dark Ages, with plagues, madness, and apocalypse at every corner.

Reaktor: Could you describe your thinking process on some in-universe technologies? For example, how did the flexies from “Pushing Ice”, smart matter, and Melding Plague from Revelation Space universe, or the famous whip-hounds from Prefect Dreyfus Emergency series came to be?

AR: It depends on the demands of the book. With Pushing Ice, I gradually moved the start-date closer and closer to the present. Initially it was 2178 or so, but then I thought that if I shaved a hundred or more years off that, I could have characters that were more relatable to us in their fashions, interests and so on. All I did then was have a careful think about what sort of technologies might be on the horizon by 2057. Obviously, being on a ship, they were going to need recognisable computer interfaces of some kind but I didn’t want to just have laptops and LED screens. I’d been reading about flexible display devices for some time so it wasn’t all that hard a leap to come up with the flexies. I was pleased with some of the peripheral details,such as the way the flexies could be stitched together to make bigger screens, then peeled apart, or how they could be tucked under a garment to recharge. I saw them as looking like soft mouse mats with gel-like surfaces that merged upon contact.

I can’t remember the origins of the smart matter and Melding Plague with any detail, as the ideas go back much earlier than the publication of Revelation Space. I mentioned the plague in a story that came out in 1990, and you have to remember that was very much the tail-end of the cyberpunk boom, so almost every other story had to have nanotech or computer viruses in it. I do remember reading an excellent Ian MacDonald short story around then that had some sort of nanotech plague in it, so the idea certainly wasn’t original to me. There are also precursors in the likes of Greg Bear’s Blood Music.

I remember the whiphounds much more clearly. I wanted my prefects to have some sort of weapon but nothing that felt familiar. No guns, swords or lightsabres. At the time I was a keen user of whips! I rode horses very regularly, so that may have helped crystallise the idea of an autonomous robot whip. It’s still one of my favorite inventions in any of my books, and one of the few that I feel I could stand up and say is an original, if minor, conceit. The weird thing is that as soon as I came up with the whiphound, I could see exactly how it functioned, how it would move, how it would be deployed and retrieved and so on.

Reaktor: In your stories and novels there are a lot of interesting and strong female lead characters: Jane Aumonier and Thalia Ng from Prefect series, Skade, Ilia Volyova, Ana Khouri as well as her daughter Aura from Revelation Space universe, Ness sisters from Revenger series, Abigail Gentian from “House of Suns”; “Pushing Ice” seemed to deal mostly with female characters and having men doing sidekick roles. In several cases it feels like your female characters are more nuanced and interesting to follow compared to male counterparts. What is your experience writing characters from different sex?

AR: I try to do the best job I can but I don’t over-think things. Some of those characters started off as male; some of my male characters started off as female. All I will say is that by the time I started to publish science fiction, many other writers had begun to break down the old traditions of SF as dominated by the stereotypical male protagonist. It seemed a no-brainer to me that this was the way to go, and that any character in any story could be of any gender or  background. I know I still have a great deal to learn and improve upon and I hope to continue on that path through the rest of my career.

Reaktor: You have successfully collaborated with your friend and known SF author Stephen Baxter –novel “The Medusa Chronicles”. I understand that both of you are fans of Arthur C. Clarke works and your novel is a continuation of his short story “A Meeting with Medusa”. How did you manage the writing process between two authors? Do you have any other future collaborations in mind?

AR: Steve and I are indeed old friends: indeed he’s among the people I’ve known the longest in my association with science fiction. The way that story began was simple: we both liked it and had both, independently, wondered what happened next. Then, one day, Steve and I were emailing each other and the subject of collaborations came up. It was mooted (by me, I think) that if ever we were to collaborate, it should be on a sequel to “A Meeting with Medusa”. That was quite early in the year. We spent the next few months getting our agents and publishers to sign up to the idea, and then getting permission from the Arthur C Clarke estate: not simple. In the meantime, we batted ideas back and forth via email.

At the London Worldcon in August 2014, we finally sat down together in a hotel bar and shaped those ideas into a sort of blueprint for the book: a structural synopsis broken down into six sections. Three for Steve, three for me, each of novella length. We went off and wrote our portions, then emailed them to each other. Steve composited them into a single document, and at that point we had the basis for a novel. We spent the next few months only ever modifying that one document, emailing it back and forth and with each of us having total latitude to do anything we wanted with it, including reworking each other’s portions and editing or deleting or moving large parts of text around. I am very pleased to say that by the time we were done with that, there were bits of the book that neither of us was sure who had written. Steve also said that we had a silent, third collaborator the whole while: Clarke. Both of us were steeped in his work, and I made a point of reading him every morning, to “boot up” his voice in my head.

We’ve talked in a light-hearted way about some future collaboration, but that book only just squeaked its way into our schedules (we both had other books to finish) and the stars would have to line up again for it to happen twice, but we are open to the idea.

Reaktor: In 2009 you signed a £1 million deal with Gollancz for ten books. For a distance it seems like a dream come true for a full-time writer. It’s 2019 now and if you look back to those past ten years are you satisfied with the outcome? Has the pressure to write approximately one book per year and having limited time for polishing novels affected your eagerness to write in any way?

AR: I must be careful in my answer here as I still have some way to go before I work my way out of that contract. It’s been good on several levels, but not an unmixed blessing, as I think anyone may guess. To begin with, it was never really a million pounds. That figure, apart from including agent fees, and taxes, and needing to be paid out over ten books, also included some sales bonuses. I didn’t hit those sales bonuses, so I didn’t get the full whack. But that was fine, as I knew what I was getting myself into: it was more about the public relations splash that a million pounds headline would attract. A more serious problem was that life throws things at you that you can’t honestly factor into your thinking. My father died after a sudden illness right at the start of those ten books, and I was the executor on his estate. That was very hard and stressful for me personally and cost a good year of healthy productivity. Then, my editor (who had been with me since the start) left to work with another publisher. The books fell into editorial limbo and without going into the gory details, it did take a few years to get back into a solid professional relationship with another editor, all of which put me behind on the contract. The money therefore needed to be recalculated – stretched out over more than ten years. I am on the eighth book now and still need to write books nine and ten from scratch, so I won’t be out of this for a while. But I am not complaining; I knew the deal and it has given me the freedom to write and not be constantly worrying about my next contract.

Writing a book a year is within my capabilities; indeed it’s how I prefer to work. I get bored with things if they drag on and tend to surf a wave of enthusiasm which rarely lasts more than six months. My mistakes have been in occasionally taking on too much work outside the scheduled novels. Apart from the books I have to write, I also did a novel for Doctor Who, and The Medusa Chronicles, neither of which counted as part of the ten. Two long novellas, Slow Bullets and Permafrost, could both have easily been expanded into novels: indeed Slow Bullets was deliberately cut down just so that it didn’t cause any contractual issues with me doing a novel for a third party. And I’ve also done a ton of short stories, as well as hidden work like movie treatments, and so on, all of which takes time. Right now, at least until the end of the ten book deal, I’m cutting back on all that extra-curricular stuff. If I write a novel and find I have the ideas and time for a short story, then I’ll write it, but it won’t be because I’ve promised it to someone. I’ve still got plenty of enthusiasm for novels, thankfully – even if it can be in short supply on any given day.

Reaktor: Fans think of you as an author writing mostly hard SF or in some cases Science Fantasy (e.g. Revenger universe). The noir toned grand space operas are associated with your name. This year you published a short thriller-like novel “Permafrost” which deals with climate problems; however, it is still kept on safe hard SF track. What about other speculative fiction genres, fantasy or horror? Have you tried or are you planning to write something on those fields as well?

AR: I don’t like to describe myself as a Hard SF writer, much as I enjoy some of what’s published under that label, because of the expectations it sets up in the reader. I think a lot of people were aware of my academic background and projected that onto my writing, but the truth is that my stuff is – deliberately and consciously – much more closely situated in the mushy middle, being neither soft nor hard. I think that’s why I was so comfortable doing a Doctor Who novel: it suited my sensibilities very well. I have done individual stories that are approaching Hard SF, in a very non-rigorous sense, but I’ve also done a lot of stuff that’s much more playful and space operatic and I tend to be more satisfied with the latter. Much of what I do borders on gothic horror and I suppose some of it edges into fantasy at times. I have no problem with that; that diversity of form is what I love about science fiction in the first place.

Could I ever write an out-and-out fantasy novel? No, I don’t think I’ve got the right narrative toolkit for that; it would just keep bending back to science fiction. Even watching “Game of Thrones” I keep asking myself pedantic, world-breaking questions such as: do they have a science of alloys? Do they have magnetic fields? Does anyone do astronomy? Are they really on a colony world, and are the White Walkers really nanotech zombie robots left over from the first explorers? That sort of thing.

Reaktor: At the FinnCon ‘09 in Helsinki you along with Toni Jerrman ceremonially destroyed the last English copy of your story "Pandora's Box". There were several Estonian SF fans present in the hall and it was indeed a memorable happening. Just a side note, this story was translated from Finnish to Estonian in 2011 (in anthology “Täheaeg 8” by Estonian publisher Fantaasia). You have said after the event that you would like to experience a “cool, icy detachment that seems to hover around prose that's been translated from a genuinely foreign language” with this text. How did that experiment concluded? Has somebody translated “Pandora's Box” back to English yet?

AR: I am very glad that you remember that performance. I was totally honest about it, too: I reallydid destroy every last copy. I have no record of that story now, and only the barest recollection of its themes. I did hear that it made it into Estonian, and I’d hoped that it might then migrate to an adjacent language, but I’ve heard nothing since. Perhaps you could help me reach out to anyone who might be in a position to translate and publish the story elsewhere? I would be happy to pay for translation costs, and/or waive publication fees – some arrangement.

Reaktor: Scorpio in “Absolution Gap” was brilliant, is there any chance of more books portraying hyperpig or, in general, stories told from not quite human perspectives or cultures? Do you have plans yet for the next Prefect Dreyfus Emergency? 

AR: Scorpio is one of those characters I never expected to be as popular as he was, and yet he’s a firm favorite. He will come back in some form. I re-read Absolution Gap this summer (a clue to what I’m working on next) and was taken with his character, so I’d like to revisit him in some context. As for Dreyfus, all being well there’ll be another one along, but not for two or three years. I do have a sense of what I want to do with him as a character, over five novels. Eventually he’ll retire from Panoply and leave the Yellowstone system.

Reaktor: For me the stand alone novel “House of Suns” was a mind-blowing experience to read. Sex changing clones, far distant (millions of years) future, civilizations capable of moving stars amongst other things, travelling to our neighbouring Andromeda galaxy to name a few. Do you have plans to add another chapter into that universe? If so, will it include more action in Andromeda as there are not too many books which describe life outside the Milky Way?

AR: It was great fun to write. Some books are a slog, even good ones, but that one was mostly a blast all the way through. I think it was a sudden sense of freedom, being able to use these enormous vistas and scales, in a way that had never been possible in the earlier novels. It’s basically a load of Chris Foss paperback illustrations turned into a novel! Anyway, I did return to that setting a couple of years for a short story called “Belladonna Nights” and that was partly to keep the ideas fresh in my head, but also to signal that I’m not done with it. I don’t have definite ideas for the next book, though, other than to say that it would probably involve Campion, Purslane and an alliance of robots pitted against less friendly forces.

Reaktor: You have mentioned that first adaptation of your works in any medium was the performance of “Diamond Dogs” at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago. How did that happen and what are your thoughts about bringing your story into theatrical spectacle?

AR: My lesson from that whole experience was that just because things take a long time, and at times don’t seem to be moving anywhere, doesn’t mean they won’t eventually happen. The initial approach was from a theatrical group in Chicago who were very good at adapting unlikely works, but which did not at the time have a performance space in mind. It took a long, long time for them to develop the story, then work out the mechanics of staging it ... and longer still to find a venue and a slot. But it did happen, and was for me a very rewarding culmination of the process. I went over to Chicago to see two performances, and I met the writer and cast, as well as many of the technical team behind it all. I’m not sure it did too well for them in terms of the critical reception, but it was very well attended on the nights I was there, and seemed to go down well with the audience. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Reaktor: Following the previous question, the adult cartoon series „Love, Death & Robots“ on Netflix had very good short movies based on your stories like „Zima Blue“ and „Beyond the Aquila Rift“. Do you have any more plans for your stories to be brought on screen? Any hints for live action TV series or even adaptation for a feature film? Do you like watching SF movies in free time?

AR: There’s been interest in adapting more of my stories and novels, but there are lot of obstacles between the idea and the inception. There’s money, for one, because a lot of what I’ve written would require quite expensive staging, but there are also contractual headaches whenever you talk about adapting something as unwieldy as a universe of books and stories. You can’t easily sell just one part of it, because that damages the viability of the property as a whole, but on the other hand any given party may only be interested in one particular story. At the moment there are a number of projects under discussion, but I wouldn’t hold out great hopes for anything on the big screen just yet.

I’m a hard sell for an SF film, unfortunately. I’ve seen so many that I’m not easily persuaded by the need to see any more, especially when so many of them seem to be assembled from the same DNA. I’d far rather go and see a well-made detective film than some over-the-top spectacle filled with unconvincing CGI. As a writer, too, I’d rather be exposing my brain cells to stuff other SF writers may not have seen.

Reaktor: Sometimes the works of fiction inspire people to create music and other pieces of art. Estonian trash-metal band Crucial Attack has written a song “Day of Burning Wings” that relates to the events of Amarantin apocalypse in Revelation Space universe. Are there any other musicians you are aware of who were inspired by your stories or novels?

AR: There have been a few. It’s always gratifying: I’m genuinely thrilled. It does tend to emanate more from the dark metal/gothic side of the musical sphere, for some reason! There is a prog-rock band called Hats off Gentleman, it’s Adequate who have been developing songs based around some of my books and stories, including Century Rain – they’re very good. There’s also an artist called Lauri Jarvilehto who performs under the name Songsworth – they’ve done some electronic/industrial songs inspired by my stuff. There’s an American group called Sound of Ceres, from Denver, who put out one album with some loose inspiration from my books, and then asked me to write a short story for the sleeve art of their second album. That was the reverse process: I was sent some rough cuts and lyrics, and I spun off from that to create a really short science fiction vignette. There’s also a Japanese noise-rock band who called one of their albums “Revelation Space” but I don’t know what to make of that, whether there’s any connection. There are others: my apologies for not mentioning more. I’m an amateur musician myself so obviously I find all this tremendously fun and exciting.

Reaktor: With the “Bone Silence” now being in editing and hopefully coming out soon, do you consider the Revenger universe as such completed or will there be more stories of the same Occupation or previous ones?

AR: It’s done for now. At the end of the book I added an afterword where I say that I’m done with the Ness sisters, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re done with me. That’s how I feel about it: time to close that chapter, for now, but I’d like to re-open it again at some point.The universe of the sisters still feels like it could stand a few more stories.

Reaktor: And now for something completely different. I noticed in your blog that you have, apart from writing stories, more hobbies as well; collecting models of aircrafts and spaceships for example. How many unique pieces of those you have already collected, and do you have a specific theme in mind (related to TV/book series, certain models of real aircrafts, etc.) when picking them? It seems you also play some instruments (a guitar); have you played in any band?

AR: I’m more of a maker than a collector, which is why each of them takes so long. Each of my models was built from a kit, sometimes over several years. The Starship Enterprise took about six or seven years from start to finish. The Eagle Transporter (from Space: 1999) took about a year from opening the box, to finally putting it in my cabinet. It’s huge, but still only half the size of the studio model. Some of the aircraft only took a week or so, and most of them are in 1/48th scale. I’m sort of a pacifist at heart but at the same time I have this lifelong interest in fighter aircraft, and a deep respect for the (primarily) men who had to operate them, on all sides. Beyond that, I don’t really have any themes in mind; I just like making models and learning new skills with my hands. I also build locomotives in metal, soldering together bits of brass and tin alloy: I have a railway in a spare room. I’m also in the middle of building a 1/8th scale P51D Mustang from wood, with full radio control. I also have a Klingon K’Tinga battle cruiser to build, to the same scale as the Enterprise: that should look really nice as a pairing. I wouldn’t mind an Imperial Star Destroyer but so far none of the kits look big enough to me; if I’m going to build one I’d want it to be huge.

I’ve never been in a band. I didn’t start learning the guitar until well into my late twenties, which is really too late. I’ve played and played ever since, but I don’t think you can ever make up for not learning earlier in life; there are just too many missed hours. I did join a guitar practise group for a while, where we’d all sit around and learn the chords to a song, bu tit was on a monday night and I was always tired after writing, so I gave it up eventually, preferring to learn on my own. I took classical lessons for about ten years, until my tutor moved away. Now I’m mainly focusing on electric soloing, using sheet music and play-along music. My wife bought me a beautiful 22-fret Stratocaster for my birthday, just so I could try to play “Comfortably Numb”. That’s been my main project for the year, apart from writing: trying to play a few minutes of solo guitar in a forty year old song!

Reaktor: Thank you for the interview, Mr. Reynolds! 

AR: You’re more than welcome, and thank you for the excellent questions.

7 comments:

  1. Great interview; thanks for posting it here. I'm quite excited about the prospect of a RS book that expands on or follows the events of Absolution Gap. I remember you mentioning a desire to embark on such a project a few years back (on a Reddit AMA, I believe), but I assumed we'd have longer to wait. I'm glad to be wrong.

    A question, if you have the time and a ready answer: I'm quite interested in how you (and artists in general) relate to old works. Did you feel like you were reading your own book when you revisited Absolution Gap, or was there a sense that the Alastair Reynolds of the early 2000s is a different writer/conceiver of stories than you are now? Of course, there’s no doubt that you’ve evolved as an author since then, but I’m curious about just how drastic you view that evolution to be.

    I'm happy to hear that you're tackling "Comfortably Numb" - I think its legendary status is well earned. It's one of those songs that, even after countless listens, totally entrances me. I feel that way about most of Pink Floyd's 70s output.

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    1. Enough time had passed that when I re-read Absolution Gap, I came to it with more or less fresh eyes. Of course I was aware that I'd written it, so can't separate that knowledge from the experience, but I'd forgotten all but the broad strokes of the story. I would say that 10 years is a good horizon for achieving some critical distance from your own writing.

      In terms of what I made of my earlier self, it was a mixture of reactions, ranging from "oof, I wouldn't do it that way now" to "fair dos, thats not half bad old chap" and all shades in between. I'd be worried if I'd found it universally terrible or universally brilliant, but thankfully it was neither of those things.

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    2. Thanks for the insight! I imagine it must have been fairly surreal to experience so many of the details of your book afresh and feel like an objective reviewer.

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  2. That interview was as long as a novella, and just as enjoyable to read. I love learning a bit of background on how an author gets inspiration for ideas.
    Good stuff.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this interview with us. I love all your novels and particularly those with strong female lead characters. Got my copy of “Bone Silence” last week, looking forward to it !

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  4. A really lovely and detailed interview. :-)

    I even learned some new things, including about new musical adaptations or references to your work by bands. I've read about some examples in the past, but I always enjoy reading about new examples popping up. :-)

    Have a peaceful and productive 2020. :-)

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  5. Thank you all, glad the interview went down well.

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