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Some Sort Of Internal
Consistency...

Alastair Reynolds
interviewed by Duncan Lawie
 
  
"I thought, well what would a hive mind really be like?
Could it have some beneficial aspects?"

"I'm very interested in the whole idea of space
travel and colonisation of the universe,
just from a philosophical point of view"

"I think you should always follow your obsessions
as a writer, because that produces the most
interesting work. If that becomes unfashionable,
I don't care because it's just what interests me."
 
  
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds' third novel - Redemption Ark - was published in July, 2002. It forms a sequel of sorts to his first novel - Revelation Space (published in 2000) - whilst also broadening some of the themes of Chasm City, his second novel. All three books are set some 500 years ahead of us, as humanity reaches out across nearby space in ships which approach the speed of light. Their universe is dark; humans and post-humans troubled by the products of their own burgeoning technology and remnants of alien species. The richly imagined settings and stories have developed along with Reynolds' writing skills since his first short stories were published in 1990. In that decade, he also travelled from Wales through England and Scotland to his current home in the Netherlands, gathering expertise and experience in his chosen field of astronomy.

Astronomy is such an ancient field, so there is a kind of confused image that runs from Galileo's telescope to the modern super telescopes. What do you currently do?

I guess I am an astronomer. It changes from year to year. Right now I'm doing pretty much pure astronomy even though on my door it just says consultant. I'm part of a team building a new type of very sensitive optical camera [for the European Space Agency]. They're quantum devices and sit at just above zero [K] bathed in helium. When a photon - a particle of light - hits them, you get not only the arrival times, which we know with microsecond precision, you also get the energy of the photon. If you have an array of these building up into a mosaic, you can build up a picture with almost as much information as you could possibly want.
   We're at the point now where we're starting to get really nice actual science out of this - what's actually going on in these stars - particularly binary stars. They turn out to be very suited to study using this kind of camera because we have the capability to record the arrival times of photons with such high precision. That's very good if you want to study rapidly varying phenomena. So one of the interesting things is when you have binary stars and you are looking in the same plain as the orbit as that eclipse takes place, as the light is blotted out by the other star, potentially there's a lot of information there because you've got gas streams and discs of matter swirling around. If you can record the way the light changes rapidly as it dims and the colours, in principle you can then unravel a 3D picture of what's actually going on in that binary system. It's really satisfying because you can start putting together a really neat, really detailed picture of what the stars actually look like, with gas flows and whatever. We can go from a dot of light twinkling on an array to an artist's impression. I find it very fascinating.

Serious SF does seem, almost by definition, to pay more attention to science than it used to. Does that seem to be a reaction to the way media SF doesn't?

I can't say for myself, because I've always found science intrinsically interesting. I don't try to structure my stories around particularly scientific conceits as such, I just try to basically tell a fairly standard story - if you like - an action adventure, chase, spy thriller, whatever, but I try to make it scientifically consistent at every point, to the point that I want to. It's an aesthetic choice. I enjoy stuff by Samuel Delany and Philip K. Dick who are writers who are not particularly concerned about scientific accuracy. If the writing is good, it doesn't really matter. What I do like to see is some sort of internal consistency. I really like China Miéville's stuff. Obviously this doesn't make any kind of sense from a rational, scientific standpoint, but there is a consistency there that makes it telling and convincing. That's all I ask for, really, just the idea that the writer has thought a bit about the underpinnings of their world.
   Nova by Samuel Delany, is one of my favourite SF novels; one I've read many times. It was published in 1968 but it was quite clear that he based all the science in it on a book of astronomy that must have been written in the 1930s. They had this notion back then that the spiral nebulae were fairly local spirals of gas - in fact, that's why they were called nebulae. We only realised with Hubble's work that they were distant, vast aggregations of stars and they were millions of times further away than people had realised. But in Delany's work, he refers to a ship emerging inside a spiral nebula and then zipping off to another part of the galaxy. It's clear that either he was being wilfully inaccurate just for the sheer hell of it, or he was basing his science on an extremely outmoded view of the cosmos, but it didn't spoil my enjoyment of it for one moment. Of course, my enjoyment would not have been lessened had it been more scientifically accurate, but it's not something I'd lose a lot of sleep over in other people's work. I just want a decent story, decent characters, and a bit of intelligence. I'm not as interested in hard SF as I was a few years ago, partly because the field has changed. Inevitably you respond to what's going on around you. There's been a weird seismic shift between science fiction and fantasy, the lines of division are blurring. It's bound to be interesting, isn't it, whether you're a reader or a writer in a field, to see this breaking down of genre boundaries? Things like Miéville's book, where I couldn't decide for myself whether it was SF or fantasy.

Do you have a name for your future history?

No, I don't. I should think of one. It's one of those things - it's not planned. I wrote one story in Interzone that seemed to relate to one I'd done earlier. Then I thought, oh - I could tie that to the novel I'm writing at the moment and then I wrote another story that was also part of that universe. But you never think beyond one or two stories at a time.

So there wasn't the next 5000 years planned out before you started?

I don't plot things out laboriously in advance, I always have to go back and make major changes in the story to accommodate later stuff. I guess for marketing reasons I should come up with a name for it but I think everyone understands when I say it's a story in the same universe as Revelation Space. Some people have said 'the Conjoiner series' but then these characters are not particularly central to many of the stories and if you say it's the Conjoiner/Demarchist sequence that sounds like Shaper/Mechanist [ref: Bruce Sterling -Ed], it sounds like a cheap rip-off of something someone else has done and I try and avoid these things.

I was looking for names and ended up looking up 'Exordium' online, which turns out to be a sequence of five books by someone else completely.

Yes, it's funny that because my original working title for that book was 'Exordium and Terminus' after the song In The Year 2525 by Zager and Evans from the 1960s. The subtitle of that is Exordium and Terminus and I always thought 'exordium - what a great word, what is it?' so I looked it up in a dictionary and it said the beginning or prologue and so I thought that would be a really good name for an experiment in time travel or something like that. So I told my editor the next book was going to be called Exordium. So, 'great name, really brilliant, but we need two words', so I said Exordium and Terminus. Then we found out there was this other sequence of books with exordium in the title so we couldn't do that. It's still in the plot, but it had to be pared down a bit.

One of the pleasures is being able to use words - like Demarchist - and make them your own, when they sound like such good SF terms.

Well, Demarchist isn't my word anyway.

It's another dictionary word.

Yeah, I think it was a real political term - democratic anarchy was the root of it. It's all basically participatory democracy. The first place I encountered it was in the book The Outcasts Of Heaven's Belt by Joan D. Vinge. She uses this demarchist culture as a contrast with this spaceship culture entering this asteroid belt. It's a really good book. It's only about 100 pages long but it had a good effect on me. I always try to make sure no-one thinks I made that up.

I understand there's another book to come in this sequence.

The next book, the fourth one, will be part of the same future history but it's my intention that it will be a completely standalone story, completely detached from the larger story of the other three books. The one after that will not be in the same universe. It will be a totally different novel. I've got some vague ideas at the moment about where it might go. After that, I don't know. At some point, there will be another book that picks up the story of Redemption Ark, again with this gap of about 50 years. I've got some sneaky ideas about what will happen in that book, but I need to take a bit of a breather before I get into that. [Note: since speaking to Alastair, he has changed his plans for the next novel, which he suggests will now conclude the larger story of the Inhibitors.]

Redemption Ark feels a bit like the middle of a trilogy to me, like it was carrying the weight of the ideas you've developed so far whilst Chasm City was so completely separate from Revelation Space. Since I'd read the Clavain stories in Spectrum SF, it also felt like there was a lot of time in Redemption Ark where you have to catch up the readers who haven't got the whole story, so to speak.

Partly I was having fun with taking a character who'd been in these short stories and then pitching him 400 years after those events, referring to them but I didn't intend to slot them in as flashbacks. The other thing is that, it might feel like the middle third of a trilogy but it begins with a new set of characters and it largely dispenses with the old set at the end of the book. Indeed, Clavain will only have, if anything, an extremely minor part in continuing the story. Without wanting to spoil it, it's my intention that he dies on the planet that he gets to at the end. He doesn't go on to have any role in the subsequent adventures. It's like passing the baton to the next generation. It was a much more technically difficult book to write than I anticipated at the beginning. I thought, well I'll do a sequel to Revelation Space and I'll make it so that -
   a) you don't need to have read Revelation Space
   b) it won't reveal any of the plot spoilers from Revelation Space
   These things are more difficult than I anticipated at the time. I also felt, as I was moving into the story that there was no way I could deal with the actual conflict with the Inhibitors. It just had to be on the eve of something, the eve of a major war. There's a feeling, I hope, towards the end of the book that the storm clouds are gathering and that this little band of characters have just managed to get out in time but they know that's not the end of story. The larger conflict is yet to begin.

A significant theme of all the books has been, well, revelation and redemption.

I can't really analyse these things. Redemption Ark was a title I'd had kicking around in my files for a long time before I attached it to that novel. That sounds odd, but I think a fair few writers do this - they often have titles that they know they need to use. I guess they're fairly useful for the imagery. I'm not interested in the standard clean-cut space opera characters that are un-redeemably good or bad. I do like the idea, as a story mechanism, of characters that have done something atrocious or terrible in the past and are trying to atone for it. I just find this endlessly interesting. It's also something that comes up a lot in crime fiction, particularly the more modern, hardcore American crime writers. Their protagonists, loosely categorised as heroes, often have extremely dark, violent pasts, which occasionally bubble up to the surface again. They're often searching for some kind of personal redemption. It's something that has always seemed to me interesting. If you're going to try and darken space opera a bit, why not bring in some of the themes that come into crime fiction.

You read a fair bit of crime...

I read tons of crime - perhaps not as much as I did a few years ago, but that's generally because my own reading has slumped a bit lately. I'm no longer keeping up with all the new writers. My sister sends me crime novels with recommendations. I tend to pack them when I go on holiday. I do love crime fiction. I think it pushes a lot of the buttons that science fiction pushes - they both have a lot to do with unfolding mysteries.

But when writers try to explicitly mix crime with SF they tend to come undone - to my mind because anything can happen in SF while crime novels tend to rely on certain parameters being known.

I think a good science fiction novel should also have those parameters. Those parameters should be implicit and the reader should be aware of them. When you're halfway though a science fiction novel you should know whether the characters could suddenly escape by teleporting if they're in peril. The writer should have established early on that certain rules apply in this universe. I think if the writer is skilled enough, they can use the same techniques to tell a crime story. It is, obviously, trying to do two different things at once - tell a convincing SF story and a convincing mystery. It is difficult. Although I've nicked a few crime tropes, I haven't yet attempted to tell a proper detective story. It's something I intend to do at some point. I've begun to think a bit about a detective story within my future history. I've got the detective - that's half - I've got a nifty idea for a detective but I need to think up the crime now. Then you need to examine it from every angle for consistency, how you can set it up as an enjoyable story for the reader with a fair amount of facts at each point. I see it done well in other books, so I know it can be done if you are sufficiently good at it. I think what's interesting about crime fiction is that a lot of techniques are applicable to other types of writing. If you study the way crime writers write, they, like SF writers, have to impart nuggets of crucial information to the reader unobtrusively. If anything, they have a harder job because they really have to do it unobtrusively, so they have to slip the vital fact in so that the reader can have no argument with the fact having been presented, but it must not be seen as significant at the time.

Do you find yourself tempted to draw the characters back into other works, like the cameos in the latest book?

Yeah, well, I'll probably stop doing that now. I think I've probably cameoed all the characters I could haven't I? It's a bit naff in some respects but it felt right at the time.

As a reader, you often want to know what happened next, even though it might not be where the writer wants to go with his plot ideas.

I read a lot of Gene Wolfe and Wolfe's characters are always wandering in between his novels in sort of disguised form. He plants clues to the reader that this is so-and-so. Wolfe does it with enormously more skill in his books, and they're often a lot harder to solve. I enjoy that, and it's something I aspire to.

Redemption Ark builds up a justification for alien killing machines, that they aren't just 'evil incarnate', that they have a purpose.

With the first one, I didn't set out to write a book about the Fermi paradox. Revelation Space developed into this sort of mess and I had to impose some order on it. I tried to think about the assumptions I'd made about the existence of alien civilisations and I realised that I could say something coherent about the Fermi paradox and came up with the idea of these killing machines stalking the galaxy. When it came out a number of people said 'you were obviously thinking of Fred Saberhagen's Beserkers'. I hadn't read any of them but I'd read enough about these stories to realise that they're also implacable alien killing machines. At that point I thought, well, if I go on to say anything more about this in Redemption Ark I'd better make sure it's taking it somewhat further than that. It wasn't enough that they were just killing machines - there had to be some logic to it.
   If you start thinking about it in logical terms, if you have robots cruising around the galaxy wiping out Life, there would be enormously more efficient ways to do it. It would be a daft strategy, so there has to be some deeper meaning to it, so I had to rack my brains for a long time to find something that might go a little beyond that, so I started thinking about trying to put a bit more science into that. A major struggle with the third book was to deepen that theme a little bit.

As for the Conjoiners, do you think they're a success as a hive mind?

Not really, not by the time of Redemption Ark. I mentioned them in a couple of pieces, then with the Spectrum stories I felt, well now I really need to get into them, understand what they're like and how they tick. At that point I was trying to view them sympathetically, as that's not often done in SF. Hive minds are often viewed as evil and bad - just an un-redeemably terrible thing. So for those stories I thought, well what would a hive mind really be like? Could it have some beneficial aspects? But for the purposes of Redemption Ark I zoomed forward a few hundred years and started thinking about what a war would do. I think wars always shift benevolent societies towards totalitarianism. It's not a particularly original insight, but I think it's fair enough. We've seen this in the last few months, liberties are eroded, personal freedoms are restricted and governments become more autocratic.
   I thought much the same thing might happen to a hive mind. In times of peace, where it felt unthreatened, all the individuals might have some say over the evolution of the whole entity, but as soon as they come into contact with something nasty, well for a start you don't want to have the outlying, fringe members of this hive mind to know everything vital in case they get captured, so you'd start concentrating vital information in the centre. Before you know it, you're edging back towards something centralised, less distributed than a hive mind. That, of course, would bring all sorts of tensions, because people on the fringes would feel a bit paranoid, they'd feel they weren't in complete possession of all the facts. Then you'd get all these schisms. Basically, Redemption Ark starts off with all these nasty factions stalking the Conjoiners. And, of course, Clavain, who's never really felt at home there, really starts getting nervous about this. It was a way to start a book with some conflict. The other thing I tried to do was to suggest that the Demarchists were becoming more like the Conjoiners, in the act of fighting the enemy you have to become more like the enemy yourselves, I tend to feel, so they start to become more rigid and heading more the direction of the very thing they were opposing. I cut a lot of scenes where I went into this stuff in more detail because it was slowing down the first half of the book - it's all there in my mind anyway!

The books seem to have just about everything thrown into them in terms of SF ideas, but there seems to be a justification for everything that's there. It's something that seems to have emerged generally in British SF in the last few years; that we can play with all the old toys as long as we can think up a reason for it.

Some SF environments feel real and some don't. You can always tell the care that the author has put into thinking out the background. It's not just like someone shoving a load of toys into one sandpit, there's got to be some thought as to how these things would interact. I can't say that I thought it all out in meticulous detail beforehand, some of it emerges organically, but I hope that also makes it quite interesting for the reader, the way some ideas have been deepened. That's something I enjoy in other writers work, when you see the point where everything starts to become mature and interesting. I think that's really exciting. It's like with Iain Banks' books, I didn't really enjoy the first couple of space operas he did. I really, really didn't like Consider Phlebas, but within three or four of them, I thought they were really good. Either he won me over, or as the writer becomes more at home and familiar within their universe, they can start playing with it in a more interesting way, I think. Of course, that's often the point where the writer gets disinterested in it and moves onto something else. I certainly don't intend to spend the rest of my career within this particular universe. I think it's got a shelf life of a few more years.
   There are certain parameters that I have to work within. I'm very interested in the whole idea of space travel and colonisation of the universe, just from a philosophical point of view - what would it mean to us, could we retain any semblance of humanity, or do we have to change, to adapt. I can always see that one of the questions I'll keep coming back to is our future destiny in the universe. I think you should always follow your obsessions as a writer, because that produces the most interesting work. If that becomes unfashionable, I don't care because it's just what interests me. Given that, there are also all sorts of boundary conditions you can bring in, like do you have extraterrestrials or not, do you have faster than light travel or not. All these things are not just little tweaks; they have a major impact on the whole structure of the story.

One thing I had written down there were ship names in your books...

This is where I switch into rant mode. I have distinctive ship names and sometimes I've been taken to task for ripping off Iain Banks with these ship names because they're long and convoluted names. What I always say is that if anything was an inspiration, it was M. John Harrison, with The Centauri Device, where he had all these ships named after pre-Raphaelite paintings, or something. That's what I'm keying off from, basically. I know Banks was a fan of that book as well, so I think we are both keying off from the same source. God knows what Harrison was keying off from.

It's such a difficult thing because you can take the Navy tradition and name your space shuttles after famous ships.

Most of my ships are named after surrealist paintings and stuff like that. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to track down which ones are which. I do have tremendous problems with character names and ship names. I hate it when I've got a good flow, I'm writing well and suddenly I have to put a character name in and suddenly everything comes to a grinding halt because I'll spend two hours trying to find the right name for this bloke who comes in with a cup of tea and walks out of the room again. It's the same with spaceship names - I do change them a lot. Sometimes I hit on one that just feels right.

It actually gives a certain shape - the idea that a family of names has come from, say a Francophile background.

Yeah, that's deliberate. My partner is French and I work in a European environment. I like the sound of French names. I've tried to justify it. When you create a future history, you always want to give some texture that distinguishes it from someone else's, so with the Revelation Space future history, there is this sort of Franco thing running through it. The idea is that at some point Canada has become a more predominant superpower than is the case today.

Which is how we get the Canasian language?

That's right, which is a combination of Chinese and the French Canadian. Don't ask me to work out how that looks or sounds...

Or happens? It's like the early Paul McAuley novels had a Brazilian future, which made no obvious sense from where we are.

You never know. Two-hundred years down the line, there can be some contingency. Basically, Demarchists tend to have French and/or Asian names and I throw in the occasional random one now and again to make it more believable. I just like the sound of those names. I imagine the characters as speaking something that's vaguely French with some Cantonese elements in it. Or 'Russish', which is Russian English, my idea of what would happen if you had this international space station with Russian and English crews who formulate this kind of Creole, and extend that a few hundred years down the line.

Norte..?

That's basically American English but with some Spanish.

So are you concentrating more on short stories, or has the next novel got a due date?

It's got a due date - I'll start writing it by the end of the summer. I've just done a long novella, which will come out in the US later this summer for Golden Gryphon, a future history story, but with more of a character focus and less emphasis on hardware. I'm doing another Clavain story at the moment, which is causing me problems. The other two did as well - I get half way through and hit a wall where I can't progress with them. Then I bash my head against it for a few days.

There's so much breadth, you can stick any kind of alien artefact...

Yeah, but it gets a bit wearing for the reader, though, doesn't it - Oh God, it's the moderately interesting alien puzzle of the week. I scratch my head and try to think of something different to do rather than just encounter yet another alien oddity. Since those stories are about him and his relationship with the hive mind, in some ways the stories should involve that relationship, test him, test his loyalties in some way rather than just being a Star Trek episode where their super intelligent scientists probe some mystery. Technically, there's room for a lot of stories, but in terms of my ability to write them there's probably only room for one or two more. Again, the whole future history's not got an infinite shelf life. For a start, on a purely technical level, it makes reference to a lot of solar systems near our own with planets around them and all this is being horribly constrained at the moment by all these new discoveries of planets. I can easily imagine that in five to ten years some of the planets that I've mentioned in these systems - they won't have been discovered - but they may become implausible due to, say, the orbit of gas giants. If you have a big gas giant whipping around the star, it prohibits stable orbits of other stuff, if it's in an elliptical orbit, or something like that. So you can imagine that, five to ten years from now I may be at odds with observations about the planets around Epsilon Eridani. Now, I know a lot of writers would just keep on writing, but I would be quite uncomfortable about that. I'd probably say it was time to put it to move on, try something different.

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