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A Couple of Pints at the Quart Pot
Neal Asher
interviewed by Duncan Lawie

Neal Asher is a classic overnight success; he was signed by Pan Macmillan in 2000 after 20 years working his way up through the small presses. (A number of his early pieces were, in fact, published by Pigasus Press) His novels show the depth of background Asher has developed over the course of that time, with centuries of history and oodles of technology alongside quite a collection of nonsense names. The setting of all three novels has become known as the "Runcible Universe" as this is the name Asher has given to the gateway
 
 
Neal Asher
device normally used for travel between worlds. These devices, and much else in the human Polity, are actually controlled by artificial intelligences. Gridlinked (2001) and The Line Of Polity (2003) each use the idea that some humans don't like this idea, but the centre of the novels - as with The Skinner (2002) - is in encounters with the alien. They are highly readable, fast paced and gripping books with subtly complex plots and well realised settings.
   I met Asher in deepest Essex, where he has lived all his life, for his first face-to-face interview and, settling down in the leather chairs of the Quart Pot, began by asking how much of his short work was set in the runcible universe.

Well, bits of the ideas involved are in all my stories, but those definitely not involving runcibles ... probably a third, something like that. In fact, my next book isn't set in that universe.

Is it completely new territory or something you've looked at in short stories before?

It's called Cowl. I did it as a novella ages ago. Someone was aiming to publish it back then but they gave up on their little venture and it just sat in my files - novellas are particularly difficult to get published. When it came for me to do the second contract with Macmillan, I thought "well I'd like another three book contract please, better think about what I'm going to do." I like to alternate things a bit, I don't like to stick with Cormac all the time. I thought of that novella because there are so many ideas in it that needed to be developed. Lots of toys, I loved it and thought it could be a book, really. There's only one short story related to it, The Torbeast's Prison published in Kimota.
   Cowl is time travel, but it's big time travel. There are a lot of time travel stories completely wrapped up in human history but there's an awful lot more time before that. In my reading I like things like Hawksbill Station by Silverberg [also published as The Anvil Of Time], where they were banging criminals back to the time of the trilobites. It's been around for a while [first published in 1967] but I just like that sort of 'big time'. My book involves very far future humans travelling back, and a creature at the beginning of time apparently trying to wipe out the whole of human history, and of course plenty of gratuitous violence.

Just for a change.

Yeah, just for a change [laughs].

You're a full time writer now - how long since you made the switch?

This is my second summer, just starting, where I'm not doing what I did before, which was contract grass cutting. I went through about 10, 15 years working in engineering, but ended up going self-employed round about 1987. I set up my own business, cutting grass, cutting trees, all that sort of thing. It was great as far as being a writer was concerned, as you go out in the summer and do all this work and when it dies off in the winter you sit down at the word processor.

I've been trying very hard to think of anyone else who has gone from small press publication short stories to US hardback [Gridlinked is due out in the USA in autumn 2003].

It's a funny old route I've taken - bloody long one, I know that. Have you seen any of those articles I've done on my website - there's one on there that was written before I was taken up by Macmillan, how I'd worked my way up through the small press from endless rejections to stories being accepted and magazines folding to stories being accepted and getting a free copy of the magazine to some money and gradually up and up ... all the Tanjen stuff was great.

What happened? They don't seem to have any presence online at all.

They're dead. He couldn't win, despite quality production - if you see a copy of The Engineer, it was beautifully done. It's very difficult to start up a publishing company where you come up against the big companies. It's not about the product, it's about the distribution. You get someone like Macmillan, they'll send catalogues out and the bookshop will order loads of different things and they'll all go in a box to go out to the shop. Whereas, if you are a little publisher, they say "ok, we'll have that" so you've got to get one book there. Not cost effective - it just doesn't work. And another one's just gone - Big Engine.

Very frustrating.

It's hard work. You've got to do it in such a way that you are not constantly losing money, pumping money in with no return. The Tanjen books were really good compared to those produced by some large publishers. You've probably had it happen - you buy this lovely looking book from Smiths, read it once and the second time the pages are falling out. I've got that with my copy of The Use Of Weapons [by Iain M. Banks]. But unfortunately quality production isn't enough.

Has what you read changed since you started writing?

I wonder if because you write stuff you're critical faculties are geared up a little bit higher. I find it harder and harder to get hold of something that I enjoy reading, which is why it's lovely to pick up an Alastair Reynolds book or a Richard Morgan. Altered Carbon is one of those books where you don't get time to take a breath. It drags you straight in there. It's great.

One could say yours are a little similar. They're pretty non-stop.

Thank you very much.

I definitely enjoyed The Skinner better than the other two.

Kevin Patrick Mahoney (GENre) says that he thinks that The Skinner is the best of them all. I tend to agree.

Is that because it's a bit freer from what you've written before? Because it's set so much later?

With a stand alone book I've got no constraints. I can just let myself go. I found that with The Line of Polity I had to keep referring back. I find it very hard to kill my characters as well, so I tend to find things for them to do, which I shouldn't, really. That's changing a bit now.

You've mentioned Banks already. I've read reviews which compare your work with his Culture. Do you feel that's valid?

Yeah, you can compare it, but it's not so much that. I read Banks, and when I actually consider what could happen in the future and how things would run, what he has done with the Culture is absolutely right. We make machines to do things better than we do them - all our tools, everything. A pair of pliers is made to grip better, harder than you can. We're making thinking machines now, so it's going to reach a point where we are going to get machines that can think better than us and they will naturally take over. Now, whether they take over in a violent manner or not or whatever, it will happen. You'll have AI managers and they're just going to be better at managing, they can be on the job 24/7 can't they? They don't have to go and get slaughtered on a Friday night and have a hangover. It just struck me as perfectly logical - and what a way to go. I've got a cynical view of human nature. You've just got to read the papers and look at the news to have that confirmed and it's almost like I can't think of a way where we could govern ourselves without stuffing it up.

Another view of what might happen comes from people like Vernor Vinge, who seems to expect that some time in the next 20 to 50 years that we're all going to go pop because the machines won't need us.

The Singularity - the AI snowball effect, where it takes the whole lot over. There's that view. Another one comes out in Cowl. It's directly related to what's very topical at the moment with SARS, that we are breeding stronger diseases and weaker humans. You can see it with things like MRSAs in hospitals and the use of antibiotics, making bugs that are resistant to antibiotics; like giving rat poison to rats. It'll kill 998 out of 1,000 but then the two that remain are resistant to rat poison, and they breed. We're doing that with bugs and bugs are in the billions. So a possible future is that plague scenario.

So we all end up as slurry again, back to the primordial.

Yeah - working our way up again. Unless we get off this planet.

That has been an eternal theme of science fiction, hasn't it? That we have to get our eggs out of the one basket.

There's another one in Cowl. A far future human is talking to a guy from 100 years in our future whilst they are both standing looking out over the carboniferous forests. The far future human says "you were provided in your time with massive amounts of fossil fuels and you squandered them instead of using them to get off the planet."
   Fossil fuels power our technology and we're just powering ourselves nowhere. It's a bit depressing really. You get a war and everyone gets motivated - not necessarily the present one, but a real crisis and everyone gets motivated. If you could just apply that same kind of motivation to a project for the human race wouldn't it be good?

In Gridlinked, Mr Crane is insane. Unless something like that happens to a Golem, are they going to be moral people?

I was just about to say "you're going to go all Three Laws of Robotics on me aren't you?"
No, basically. The book I'm on now is called Brass Man. You can possibly guess what might be going on there but I've been getting into that a bit, about the Golem and the assumption - that Trekkie assumption - that the android with his positronic brain is always morally a good guy who won't kill anybody and all that nonsense. I like it when you have all that, and then the android does the unexpected. When a person is faced up against a Golem and says "you can't kill me" and the Golem says "why?" Thump.

An article in Foundation was talking about Star Trek, asking why there weren't any gays or lesbians in their perfect universe.

It's got to be fear of failing to sell. A lot of people are very bigoted; you get a knee jerk reaction about it all. I went through a period where I was thinking "should I make Gant and Thorn gay lovers?" Then I thought that I don't have much sex in my books anyway - makes all the pages sticky - and wondered why I was thinking that. In reality, I don't want to go exploring all those issues anyway. I'm writing Schwarzenegger fiction.

Big toys and alien creatures

I did notice there was a bit more justification for Skellor in this book, rather than that he'd just gone mad and lost it like Pelter in Gridlinked.

Yeah, you have to look a bit more behind the characters, but I think my biggest fear in doing too much of that is that I don't want to bore the reader. Yes, some people want more justification, they want to know more about the history of the characters - was Arian Pelter abused by his father - but how deep should I go? What kind of fiction am I writing? I'm writing action-centred science fiction with big boys' toys and alien creatures and so forth. I don't want to get that wrapped up in the psychology.

There's something to be said for the idea that some people just are bad.

Just downright bad [laughs], that's how he is, full stop.

You say you don't like killing off characters. It seems to me your protagonists are getting a bit invulnerable.

Yeah, there's a big danger there. I've seen it in a lot of fiction where you make your characters invulnerable and it destroys the story.

They end up wandering around fighting monsters they can kill with one punch.

One of the chapter starts in Gridlinked, which I reread just recently, was saying that: you'd think with the big increases in wonderful technology for the police, for security, military, this kind of thing, that you'd reach a stage where the criminal just can't do anything. Obviously it's just not like that because your criminals are going to be in an arms race with the people who are trying to stop them. So, yeah, I can make my characters more invulnerable, the good guys, but then you make the bad guys like that as well. It just takes a few more exploding moons and so on to finish the baddies off.

In fact, whilst everyone from Mika to Gant to Skellor are getting stronger, Cormac seems to be intentionally made...

Human.

And that's a product of his choice, to do that, to weaken himself, in a certain sense.

Choice. I think his choice was taken way from him.

As far as having the gridlink taken way, yes but in Polity there is discussion of how he has chosen to need sleep and a reference to the fact that he is silver-haired.

He's staying human.

It seems unusual to find someone like Alastair Reynolds who is actually a scientist working in science fiction.

Is it though? Asimov.

Yeah, you can come up with a list of writers who are scientists.

You get people coming in from all different directions. There's a literary side of it, and perhaps people involved in that are going to lean more towards the fantastic, not going to be quite so much on the practical technological elements. Then you get people coming from the other side who are. Most writers are not from practical professions, though.

Perhaps it's partially a product of the New Wave period which was so much about writing literate fiction, with the emphasis more on being a good writer than a good technologist.

You've got to be both though, in the end.

It is a broad enough field that you can have people like Ursula K. Le Guin, who isn't so dependent on the tech, despite inventing the ansible.

Ansible / Runcible.

So was that a sound alike?

No, yes, maybe. I tracked down a nonsense word from Edward Lear. It was close to ansible so I used it for the instantaneous transport system. But you do often get similar ideas surfacing separately. I've talked about this to Alastair Reynolds, and had a brief exchange with China Meiville on the subject. In some sense there seem to be ideas which have their time. Everybody goes "Einstein, wonderful chap, came up with the theory of relativity and so on" but if Einstein hadn't been there, somebody else would have done it within the same period because the time is ready for the idea, everything is coming together at that time. The same thing happens in the science fiction world.

To a certain extent, you have to understand a certain amount of jargon before you can make a lot of progress in science fiction. SF jargon, like knowing what a positronic robot is; we all know Asimov invented that and that the three laws of robotics came from there.

I've found it with my wife reading my books. She had never read SF before, and nor had her family; just hearing how people who don't read science fiction try to read it. They tend to get hauled up. The advice I give is that when you come to something you don't understand, just skip it. It normally comes out in the story anyway, doesn't it? It's like AI - it should be obvious in the context. Then again, you go to the farming community around here and AI is artificial insemination. Also, I had Gridlinked reviewed by some readers on BBC Essex. They had a book club thing where the readers would all go off to read a book then come back to talk about it on air. They weren't science fiction readers and they all came back talking about A-ones.

You find that science fiction writers form a conversation across decades, in the way that they are influenced by each other and carry ideas forward. You could suggest that Bank's Culture was a product of a certain era and maybe in ten years time we'll feel that what you're writing now is an answer to that, or a reflection on that.

Like having Golem androids that go around ripping people's heads off is an answer to the three laws of robotics? It also ties into the idea that certain things come out in their time. Nanotechnology came into SF x years back and subsequent development of the ideas of nanotechnology has made it more organic, a thing that grows root-like and plant-like. They come out in their time. In Line Of Polity, the Occam Razor starship is taken over by Jain technology. I'd written that when I hadn't read an Alastair Reynolds book. Then I pick up Redemption Ark - same bloody thing, isn't it! Space ship taken over by this organic technology growing through it. How spooky is that? And a major character in his book is also called Thorn. Go figure!

Do you find that names come easily to you?

I find that I'll bring a character in and just think of something and write it down, thinking that if it's not good enough, I can just change it. Then I start writing with it and it gets acquired by the story. Once I've been writing with a name for a bit, I don't want to change it, because that is that person. Kevin Patrick Mahoney commented on Line Of Polity about how the name Skellor made him think of Skeletor from Masters Of The Universe. Now, there's was a little bit of deliberate manipulation in that name - a bit like skeleton. I started using it and I thought at one point "bit too much like Skeletor, I must change that." I was going to change it to something like Skellan. I kept going through it and reached the point where I couldn't change it because he was Skellor. Cormac is Irish for 'champion', so that was deliberate, but most of them, I just bang them in because I want to get on with the story.

In Gridlinked you make a reference to an anti gravity car that looks like a Ford Cortina. It made me wonder why on Earth they would remember a late 20th century car.

Science fiction, even though we're supposed to be writing about the future, actually reflects the time we live in. All you've got to do is come into pubs like this and look around and there's this attraction to the past, these old things which, at the time, were crap. The Ford Cortina was crap but 10, 20, 50 years down the line - "god, that's a Ford Cortina you've got there! Do it up, it'll be worth a fortune." Kit cars always have a bit of the look of old sports cars, that kind of attitude, and I thought, well I could do a Model T Ford, which I have done in some of my short stories, or choose something which is really famous in our time or worthy from the past like a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, but no, fuck it, Ford Cortina go for it. I'm from Essex and I don't care.

When I was writing that down on my list of questions I wondered whether it was meant to be a Ford Prefect reference.

No, you're reading too much into it. You get an awful lot of that, I find. There are authors scattered all over the world reading reviews of their books and thinking "god, I didn't realise I was so clever!" I read a review online of Mason's Rats. The stories took the idea of what may be going to evolve intelligence next. Rats are getting pretty close to being tool users, they've got little hands and everything, and I just displaced it a little bit into the future. I thought I could play with that, have a little bit of fun with the idea, which I did. Basically, I just enjoyed myself for a bit. Then there's this review - it was almost as long as the three stories. Reading through it, it was going on about the political meanings and the deep meanings of this and the deep meanings of that and I'm thinking "fuck me, you're talking bollocks."

One of the reviews I read makes a reference to the Skinner's head...

That's another one of those things. I know what you're talking about, The Thing. As soon as I read it I thought, yeah, you're right, but it doesn't come consciously though, it's just what looks good.

Well, I'm not familiar with the movie so it didn't occur to me at all. In any case, the Skinner is probably the best visualised character, thing, in your work.

The initial short story, Spatterjay, came from a dream. I had this dream about some people on a beach and these big, long, horrible hands coming out and grabbing somebody and taking them and then something horrible capering off into the distance. Then there was another bit where some people are standing on a bridge, looking down into a stream and in the back of my mind, in this dream, I know it's an alien world. In the stream there's some trout, but all of a sudden one rears this leech head out of the water and drops back down again and you realise no, not trout.

Africa Zero is a completely separate setting.

Yes, totally.

It's a great concept.

But not entirely original. I guess there are people who would feel the need to be thought of as utterly original. Well, that doesn't bother me a vast amount. All I want to be thought of is entertaining. But thinking about how things relate to different books, Africa Zero has a combination of influences - it ventured into a world like that in World Enough And Time by James Kahn. It's got a bit of the feel of that, but also of a lovely book, Mountains Of The Moon which I was reading at the time - not science fiction, it's about botanists in Africa. The book is wonderful, the stuff you're reading about in there. As you'll probably realise, I'm heavily into the ecologies and biology of things. On Mountains of the Moon they don't have heathers, they have heather trees, and the lobelias are giant lobelias. It was that book and the James Kahn which was the feeling of Africa Zero, where I went with it.

Do you think you'll go back to that setting?

I want to go back to them all - I just haven't the time. Everybody picks up on their favourite bit and says "why don't you do a book about that?" There's loads of places I want to revisit like that, and I want to create some new ones, but it's getting the time to do it all.

Do you think you'll ever go back to your early fantasy books which are in the drawer?

Well, I'm perpetually ahead of the game with the publisher - Cowl was delivered way before time. Brass Man, which is due next March, I'm definitely more than halfway through. I'd like to be in a position where I'm a year ahead of the game and then I can turn around and look at these other things. I'd like to rework the fantasy totally - and I've got a contemporary one as well.

That's part of the question, really. Have you gone so far beyond what you were capable of when you wrote those that it starts looking...

Yeah, the fantasy, there's so much more to do there. You learn such huge amounts. Obviously, I've been writing these stories for a long time and mostly, the only feedback you get is people saying they liked it or they didn't or that they publish it or they don't. You get no editing help, really, until you get taken up by a big publisher. With Macmillan, the manuscript went in to Peter Lavery and he gets his pencil out. You think you've got it fined down perfectly, but every sentence he's on there with that bloody pencil. When he sent the manuscript back the first time, he sent a rubber along with it and said "take on board what you want to take on board." That was the attitude, but I learnt so much more in that process. I've learnt more in the last few years doing this than I learnt in the ten before that.
   With the editing at Macmillan, you get two lots. Peter goes through it and does his bit and you go through it making the alterations you want, discarding the bits you don't want, changing bits where he's got the wrong end of the stick. That's essential, because if he's got the wrong end of the stick, you haven't written it clearly enough. You go through all that and then it goes back and the copy editor goes through it and it comes back to you again. There's a lot of house style involved in it plus picking up bits that have been missed by Peter, I guess.

I asked Neal to sign the books I had brought with me. He's clearly pleased that 'author' is now his job title. Even so, he says...

It's a lonely, introvert pursuit, which can be quite difficult to maintain and then the bastard thing is, when you're successful at it they want you to be an extrovert. "Come and stand in front of 30 people and read your story."

Do you have a plot outline when you start?

No.

A big idea - like the Skinner?

A lot of it happens at the processor. Other writers do it totally differently, plan it out with little bits of paper stuck on a notice board "this is what happens and then this." If I try to do that I get bored with it because I know what's going to happen. I will have images - I'll think "I want this image." The sails was one in The Skinner. I know I've got to have this, got to use this image, but then I've got to create the world to justify it. You can't just use it and that's it.
   I try to stick to this idea of doing x words a day - and I've read it in so many author interviews, that they do this much writing a day and I think to myself "If you're doing that much and these are your books, have you lost some in between?" When I'm steaming into a book - when I was doing Line Of Polity and The Skinner, when I was in the creative writing process, I was averaging 10,000 words a week, going on like that, but it doesn't last. Once you've done all that you've got loads of editing, going over and over it. Then, of course, it goes off to the various editors and comes back, and you spend weeks doing that. Then there's synopsis or a blurb. I don't actually do 10,000-a-week every week. I am trying to get back to that gold standard with the one I'm doing at the moment and failing miserably.

Of course, today this is my fault, dragging the writer away from his desk.  [tape ends]

Related item:
tZ  A Top 10 SF Novels - listing by Neal Asher

Links:  Neal Asher space - author's website

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