Saturday, February 29, 2020

Interview for Ali Mirenayat

No idea where this went. I really ought to record the destination of these interviews when I save them. Too late now. This was in 2017 and is a tad terse. Their comes a point when answering the same questions again and again becomes tiresome and I detect that tone from me here.

Please give us your biography.

I was born in 1961 in Essex, Great Britain, and divide my time between there and the island of Crete. I’ve been an SF and fantasy junky ever since having my mind distorted at an early age by JRRT, Edgar Rice Burroughs and E C Tubb. Sometime after leaving school I decided to focus on only one of my many interests because it was inclusive of the others: writing. Finally taken on by a large publisher, Pan Macmillan, my first full-length SF novel, Gridlinked, came out in 2001, and now in total have 23 books to my name, also in translation across the world.

How did you become a Science Fiction writer? Which genre your novels are category?
You have written many science fiction novels so far. Which ones do you like the most?

I started off writing fantasy and still have on my computer a trilogy and the first book of a second trilogy that remain unpublished. While I was trying to get stuff published I found the small presses in England and started submitting to them. By then I was writing more SF because it interested me more. I then proceeded to SF novels and it was these that were taken by Macmillan and I have felt no urge to change genres since. I try not to categorize my novels but others do. They call them space opera and cyberpunk. Whatever. I like all my novels in different ways, but I guess my preference is for The Skinner and Brass Man.

Which ones are the best science fiction writers to you? Why?

Many of them are very good in their own particular way. When I look at my shelves of books I find it difficult to say this one is better than that one. In my acknowledgements in The Skinner I wrote ‘Thanks to all those excellent people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny’ which about covers it.

Which SF novels are the best to you? Why?

As above.

How do you show the subject of dystopia in your novels?

My Owner trilogy is dystopian. In these books I show a future in which the world is overpopulated and running out of resources, but the main dystopian element is, as it always has been as in books like Orwell’s 1984, the State controlling every detail of how we live, up to an including how we think.

How is the representation of virtual utopianism in your novels?

Despite the drama of the books – the action usually taking place at the border – my Polity books are utopian. There is no lack of resources, all human ills have been cured and people potentially can live forever. Also the Polity is run by benevolent artificial intelligences who do not have the drives of human politicians, whose scramble for power and money is, in the end, just an evolutionary imperative.

You already have identified the fictions such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Amber as significant creative influences. Why is that so?

I just enjoyed them as a child along with many other books. They led me into reading fantasy and SF but I am not sure I would describe them as significant creative influences.

Please simplify for us the Polity universe. What is that?

A utopian society as above.

Hive minds is one of the themes which is used in your fiction. Would you please explain it?

These are minds that are distributed throughout a number of units. Each unit is capable of some independent thought but the drive and reason for existence is overall. Here you have both parallel and serial processing and the result is synergetic. They are minds based on the social structure of hive insects.

How do you see Science Fiction in 2050? What changes do you think will it have?

I think in this age of the computer the lines between books, films and virtual reality will continue to blur. I see the creators of stories like myself working with software that turns what they produce into more than just the print on a dead tree or a kindle. I am not sure that the book as we know it will survive – people already prefer the easier fiction fixes. 

Many people mistake Science Fiction with Fantasy Fiction. How do you differentiate them?

For me the difference between SF and fantasy is that for fantasy one must be more adept at ‘suspending disbelief’, especially if it is inclined to utilize magic and the supernatural. SF must have logical consistency, fantasy often does not.

To what extent, your science fiction is close to the reality?

In some details it is close to reality and the questions it poses a real: how will we deal with AI, with extended life spans, with the ability to transform ourselves, with a vast civilization, with nanotechnology and super weapons? However, I am no prophet. My aim, first and foremost, has always been to entertain.

How do you get all those ideas in your novels? Do you have any studies on any specific science before that?

My ideas germinate at the keyboard. They stem from years of reading science fiction and science. Occasionally I will make specific studies as I did for the Owner trilogy when I read about zero-point energy and the Alcubierre Drive

What is your view about the role of cinema in science fiction? Which science fiction movies could be the great masterpieces in literature?

The role of cinema in SF is much the same as the role of books, only dumbed down to snare a larger audience. Many of them could be great masterpieces of literature like the Alien franchise – I think some attempt screen-wise is being done in that respect for these films, but is failing. I was going to mention Blade Runner, but that comes from the SF literature (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K Dick). 

What is your idea about posthumanism? Could it give humans immortality and enhancement?


How do you see the changes in twenty century science fiction and contemporary science fiction?

Nothing dates quite like SF. Books I read in the past, where the astrogator used a slide rule to make his calculations might still be enjoyable but are old and used up now. SF must always incorporate the now, and extrapolate from it, to remain relevant. It is and it does and so will continue to survive, though in what form who knows?

Many thanks for your responses in advance.

Friday, February 28, 2020


Here's a review I wrote of 'Aliens' back in 2009. Again I don't know where it was published. Rereading it I find my opinion hasn't changed.

Back in the mists of time, before I discovered Interzone or the then quite active small presses, I subscribed to Omni magazine. It provided some superb SF short stories, plenty of informative articles and the frankly gobsmacking art of H. R. Giger. When I first saw some of his Necronomicon creations, being at once beautiful and horrible, they caused a visceral reaction. Here was something created with skill and imagination, which was not part of the typical con-game usually found in galleries of modern art. 

‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ caught my attention because, bloody hell, someone in Hollywood seemed aware of what space actually is. The film Alien, out in 1979, I found wonderful in its design – that ship of bones, the massive pilot in its seat, the rapidly growing alien itself – but sadly the shock value was undermined because I went to see it with those who had seen it before. When they weren’t saying to me, “Hey, you’ll like this bit!” and giving away what came next, the sphincters tightening in the surrounding audience, who also seemed there for a second viewing, was almost audible.

Only later whilst reading an article about this film, did I make the Giger connection and, when Aliens was on the cards in 1986 without Giger being so much involved, I expected the typical disappointing sequel. Having also learned that gung-ho troops had been transplanted into it directly from the set of Platoon, my hopes further waned. But I did go to see it, and sat mesmerized, luckily without anyone beside me to shout, “Hey, that’s not a xenomorph, that’s a little girl!” I revelled in award-winning scenes like the lander crash, sat boggle-eyed during the battle scenes, and even enjoyed those Platoon transplants. Cameron had done the franchise proud and ‘disappointing sequel’ was being saved up in spades for what came next.

Anyone who reads my stuff will know I like my monsters, but I also like them to be part of an ecology – I like justifiable monsters. Before seeing the first film I was dubious about it simply because predators need prey, a food supply; you can’t just have a flesh-eating monsters on a barren world. However, this creature came from a cargo of eggs aboard a crashed ship so raised as yet to be answered question of why; could they be a weapon? It also fascinated me to learn that the xenomorph was based on a parasitic wasp and, having read much about the various stages of parasitic life, there seemed nothing odd about the egg, face-hugger and chest burster life cycle. But I wondered where Aliens would now take this. Certainly the introduction of bug hunters and the upscaling from the crew of a ship as prey to a whole colony looked promising, but what about the creatures themselves? I wanted to learn something new, and I needed a bigger monster fix.

When Ripley stumbled into the birth chamber of the mother alien, I got precisely what I was after. Though the alien in the first film seemed scary enough, the scare factor was more about what you didn’t see (rather like the scratching at the door in the original version of The Haunting). For me, the mother alien was a pivotal moment in film. Here, at last, we were shown in lurid detail something terrifying and it did not disappoint. In fact, the damned thing got better when it detached itself from its egg-laying abdomen and went careering after Ripley like some skeletal by-blow of the goddess Kali (dark mother, of course) and an entomophobe’s ultimate nightmare.

Aliens started with slow creepy tension, heated up steadily to the flash point of the nuclear detonation of the terraforming plant, then wound down a little before hitting the satisfying ‘oh shit’ moments that have become almost a cliché in many horror films (and already used in Alien) when the monster leaps out of a cupboard and must be disposed of in a final desperate battle. The last scenes, with the android Bishop being torn in half, and the duel between Ripley and the alien mother, ticked every damned box for me. It’s a section of the film which, with nerdish admiration, I’ve clicked through frame by frame. But, in the end, as later additions to this franchise have demonstrated, special effects don’t make a film, story does, and only when the two work well together go you get a result like this: a classic. 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Book Signing!

Okay, be there or be square, or some such. I'll be signing the books in the store and probably popping round to the Angel for a drink afterwards.

NEAL ASHER will be signing THE HUMAN at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore on Thursday 16th April from 6 – 7pm!

Image may contain: possible text that says 'NEAL ASHER THE HUMAN AN ANCIENT TERROR IS FREE ONCE MORE'

Their enemy seems unbeatable. But humanity is indomitable . . .

A Jain warship has risen from a prison five million years old, wielding a hoard of lethal technology. Its goal is to catch their old enemy, the Client, and it will destroy all who stand in its path.

Humanity and the prador thought their mutual nemesis – the bane of so many races – was long extinct. But the Jain are back and Orlandine must prepare humanity’s defence. She needs the Client’s knowledge to counter this ancient threat. But is the enemy of your enemy a friend? Earth Central even looks to the prador for alliance. These old enemies must now learn to trust one another, or face utter annihilation.

As the Jain warship crosses the galaxy, it seems unstoppable. Human and prador forces alike struggle to withstand its devastating weaponry – far in advance of their own. And Orlandine’s life’s work has been to neutralize Jain technology, so if she can’t triumph, no one can. But could she become what she’s vowed to destroy?

The Human is the final, thrilling, book in Neal Asher’s Rise of the Jain trilogy.

Neal Asher lives sometimes in England, sometimes in Crete and mostly at a keyboard. Having over twenty-five books published he has been accused of overproduction (despite spending far too much time on the social media, or kayaking and walking) but doesn’t intend to slow down just yet. 

Czech Interview

All I know about this interview is the title above and the date, which was 2004. I suspect it related to an award I got in Czechoslovakia for The Skinner, which would have gone into translation there after its publication date of 2002.

1. You started to write more than 20 years ago, but till 2001 you were published only short stories in small press magazines or novellas in rather obscure publishing houses.  Since 2001 – and Gridlinked – you have published a new novel every year a now you are in the process of writting the 7th novel. Can you explain the turning point? What has changed more: you and your style or the audience?

I reached my present position by climbing the writing ladder one rung at a time with people stepping on my fingers. I wasn’t published at all for many years, then I had a few short stories published, advanced to novellas and collections and finally to Macmillan. About twenty years ago I completed a fantasy novel and ever after I was sending synopses and sample chapters to large publishers (and writing more books). The turning point was a combination of luck and the skills I’ve learnt. By the time I sent a synopsis to Macmillan there had been a resurgence of interest in science fiction, I had attained a fairly high level of professionalism, and when I sent in my synopsis it was accompanied by excellent reviews of my small press work. The timing was just right, since Peter Lavery at Macmillan was looking for SF & fantasy writers to increase his list. Perhaps a review of The Engineer from the national magazine SFX, which I put on top of they synopsis and sample chapters (of Gridlinked) helped, as did the website I had created which put on display all my other work.

I reckon they continue offering me contracts is because I have learned how to produce and keep on producing, and because my stuff sells. Gridlinked was 65,000 words long when I first submitted it and I extended it to 135,000 in a couple of months (they were worried about this, but upon reading it decided the new version was better than the old); I did the same thing with The Skinner; and all my other books have been submitted early.

Why does my work sell? I suspect the readership has always been there, but that publishers go through fashions. In the 70s and 80s the fashion was for horror, big fantasy, and that the only SF available was dismal dystopian crap. Maybe it’s simply the case that new technologies have brought down the cost of smaller print runs and publishers can now afford to cater for niche markets.      

2. You use quite much of violence in your books. Or perhaps I should say it better this way: You are able to make up amazing, hard-to-beat- villains  and monsters. Where do you find the inspiration for them? Have you read – and enjoyed – Harry Harrison's Deathworld series?

I did read and enjoy Harry Harrison’s Deathworld series (in fact the man himself asked me that), but as I say in the acknowledgements in The Skinner: ‘Thanks to all those excellent people whose names stretch from Aldiss to Zelazny’. In my early teens I started off with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, E C Tubb, C S Lewis and have been an SF and fantasy junky ever since, which is not to say that’s all I read. Maybe my characters are inspired by the many thousands of books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched – I could never say for certain. As for my monsters: I’ve always had a great fascination for biology (present and prehistoric) and for monsters in general (I was drawing them as a child at school while everyone else was drawing flowers in plantpots). I always try to make my monsters biologically plausible and create an ecology into which they fit – it’s all part of the enjoyable world-building aspect of SF. 

3. Most of your novels take place in one universe, invented by you. The Czech readers have their first chance to disclose this universe in The Skinner, your second novel. What can they expect to find?

To the Line planet Spatterjay come three travellers: Janer brings the eyes of a Hive mind; Erlin comes to find Ambel – the ancient sea captain who can teach her to live; and Sable Keech is a man with a vendetta he will not give up, though he has been dead for seven hundred years.

The world is mostly ocean, where all but a few visitors from the Human Polity remain safely in the island Dome. Outside, the native quasi-immortal hoopers risk the voracious appetite of the planet’s fauna. Somewhere out there is Spatterjay Hoop himself, and monitor Keech will not rest until he can bring this legendary renegade to justice - for hideous crimes commited centuries ago during the Prador Wars.

Keech does not know is that while Hoop's body roams free on an island wilderness, his living head is confined in a box on board one of the old captain's ships. Janer, the eternal tourist, is bewildered by this place where sails speak and the people just will not die, but his bewilderment turns to anger when he learns the agenda of the Hive mind. Erlin thinks she has all the time she will ever need to find the answers she requires, and could not be more wrong. And so these three travel and search, not knowing that one of the brutal Prador is about to pay a surreptitious visit, intent on exterminating witnesses to wartime atrocities, nor do they know how terrible is the price of immortality on Spatterjay.

As the fortunes of the recent arrivals unwittingly converge, a major hell is about to erupt in this chaotic waterscape ... where minor hell is already a remorseless fact of everyday life – and death.

4. Your books from the Polity universe have two main characters,  a monitor Sable Keech and an agent Ian Cormac. They are both the good guys, fighting for ESC. Is it possible for them to meet in some of your works? And on the same side?

I’ve recently been working out the chronology of my books and what you say is entirely possible. Sable Keech is killed then reified about seventy-five years before the events of Gridlinked. The events of The Skinner then take place seven hundred years after his death. This basically means that Keech, reified (a high-tech zombie), is about in the Polity universe while the events in Gridlinked and subsequent Cormac books take place. Also, if Cormac survives his present trials, he may meet up with Keech some time in the future. Remember, these people do not die of old age!   

5. You are considered to be one of the writers of so called New Space Opera, which – in my opinion – succeeded in giving a new push, new blood, to the SF genre, at least in the 1st decade of the new millennium. Can you compare the original space opera and the new one?

Nothing gets out of date quite so fast as science fiction, simply because it has to keep up with, and look ahead of, current science and technology (how many of those old writers predicted the personal computer, the Internet?). I read stuff like E E Doc Smith’s Skylark of Space series and enjoyed it thoroughly at the time, but now, picking up books like that and reading about an astrogator working something out on a slide rule just kills that ‘suspension of disbelief’ on which all space opera (and all SF) depends. I also think many of the older space operas were written in a time of greater naivety too. The characters and storylines now possess a harder edge; a greater understanding on the part of the author of how human beings, political systems, ecologies and much else actually operates. I now only read the old stuff out of nostalgia, and admiration of the story-telling skills of the writer concerned.
6. One of the most influential NSO writers seems to be Alastair Reynolds, whose novels started to be published one year sooner than yours. You use some similar methods and properties, such as "melding plague" and "nanomycelium". Has it ever happen that some reviever used these similarities against you?

I briefly talked to Alastair Reynolds about this. I’d written my first three books before I even picked up one of his (which I thoroughly enjoyed). I think it comes down to the fact that some ideas have their time. All SF is built upon what went before and what is currently being explored by scientists. Ideas concerning nanotechnology have been knocking around for decades and many SF writers are picking them up and using them. It is unsurprising that, as a result, those writers will come up with scenarios similar to each other’s. Though I think I’m right in saying that, because of my biological interests (specifically in fungi) I was probably the first to come up with nanomycelia. No reviewers have yet accused me of plagiarism. I’m not too bothered if they do because I can always prove them wrong. Jain technology, for example, appeared in my short story collection The Engineer in 1998, and my first nanomycelium story appeared in a magazine called Premonitions in 1992.

7. In the Line of Polity, your third novel, the force of evil is theocracy. Other than that, you do not use religion in your books too much. Was there some other reason for it except the one that you just needed some bad guys?

I take the view that as individual knowledge and access to information increases, primitive belief systems will continue to collapse. I don’t see how our beliefs in parochial gods will survive us encountering, in the future, the vastness of space and the further revelations of science. The Theocracy was a one-off created by special circumstances. And yes: I needed some bad guys.

8. On your webpage you posted samples of your fantasy novels – unpublished yet – that you wrote some years ago. Have you some plans with them? Do you think they may be interesting for  the Czech readers?

One day I intend to rewrite those fantasy novels and offer them for publication, but at present I’m heavily involved in the Polity universe and will keep on writing novels set in it while Macmillan continues offering me contracts. I like to think the fantasy novels would be of interest to many readers and did want to give myself a breathing space so I could turn my attention to them, to a contemporary novel I wrote some time ago, to my TV scripts, but that seems increasingly unlikely. One book a year for Macmillan may soon be changing to one book every nine months, I’ve got short stories and novellas I need to write because I already have a market for them ... so much to do and so little time.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A is for Alien

Here's one of those list thingies I did . . . a long time ago. No idea who I did it for.

A is for Alien, not because it was the best film of the series, but because it was the first. Here at last SF film lost the rubber head syndrome and on screen we saw something difficult to laugh at. Not only that, space lost its 2001 polish what with the Nostromo bearing more of a resemblance to a working JCB than many of the shiny toys we’d grown used to, and you could just about smell the hydraulic oil, and the BO.

B is for Blade Runner, because it has to be.

C is for Cicada Scream, the title I’ve chosen for a book I’ll one day write about Crete. On hot still days whilst driving down from Papagianades to Magrigialos the sound these insects make blends into one long loud scream. It sounds like madness which, considering our experiences there, seems to perfectly sum up the place.

D is for Dexter, the TV Dexter and not the books. I love the series, can watch it again and again and, I have to say, the character appeals to my inner psycho.

E is for Essex. Well, you can’t be more of an Essex boy than being born in Billericay and I have to support my home county since it comes in for so much stick from elsewhere in Britain. White stilettos? Yes, I’ve seen them, usually on some slightly inebriated female lying on the pavement of some inner city elsewhere. Thick Essex girls? If you say so, though oddly most of them seem to work for a living.  Rich builder boys and scrap merchants, wealthy oiks with no taste? Very true ... Essex is a county where the class system has been badly injured.

F is for Frappe which is now, amidst those drinks with no alcohol in them, my favourite. It took me a while to get used to this drink because I had to lose the idea that I was drinking a coffee that I’d left out too long and really needed to put in the microwave. I also have to add that Greeks drinking hot small cups of bitter coffee is an impression that’s a generation out of date. They drink frappes, lots of them.

G is for Germany for a couple of reasons. We took a short break in Berlin some years ago and there found some of the most polite and helpful strangers we’d ever met. Also, Baste Lubbe, my German publisher, has bought every book I’ve ever written, some of them even before they were anything more than an idea, and maybe a title.

H is for Hornet. My stuff about hornets being intelligent you might think a product of all my previous SF reading, and I guess the hivemind aspect is. But let me tell you a story. Before I could earn money from writing I once repointed a three-storey Victorian house. Whilst I was poised precariously atop two roped-together scaffold towers I glanced to one side and thought I saw a helicopter in the distance. It took me a moment to process that it was actually a large hornet rapidly approaching. I had nowhere to run. The thing flew over, hovered over my bucket of mortar, dipping to inspect it. It then flew up to inspect the work I was doing on the wall. At this point I did something akin to abseiling without a rope, finally diving in through a window my workmate was repairing. The damned thing followed us, not angrily. It just followed. We had to leave that room and close the door between, checking every now and again until the thing went away. It did, but then returned many more times that day. The thing that stuck with me was its seeming intelligence – no bumbling about like a wasp or a bee. The hornet hivemind germinated then.

I is for Iain M Banks with his talking guns, crazy AIs, and spaceships so large just a glimpse of one might crash a civilization. His books were the first I ever bought new, having acquired my SF fixes from a second-hand book shop until I read a story of his in Interzone. His books weren’t in that bookshop, so I bought Consider Phlebas. I’m very glad I did.  
J is for Jacaranda. Damn, the name has been in my head for years and I’ve been seeing those beautiful blue flowering trees for years too. Only in recent years have I managed to connect the two. Well, I’ve always said that when I feel I’ve got nothing to learn it’s time hang up my keyboard. It’s certainly not that time yet.

K is for Karate. In days of yore it made me the fittest I’d ever been and is the only sport that ever appealed to me. Because I didn’t take all the tests I should have done, I only reached the level of green belt, about which I’ve over-used a joke concerning people being unable to build houses on me. 
I once fought in a competition at Crystal Palace, left in a state of euphoria until the bruises started to come up on my ribs and I discovered I’d broken my toe.

L is for Lachrymal. I once read an old dictionary from cover to cover and this was one of the words I found there. It’s a noun and one you won’t find in a more modern dictionary. A lachrymal is a small vessel made to contain the tears of the bereaved, and is buried with the dead. I used it quite a lot in a fantasy trilogy still sitting on my hard drive – this was before I lost the neophyte writer’s attraction to baffling the reader with an obscure vocabulary.

M is for Mundon, where I spent a quarter century of my life

N is for Nautilus, no, not Verne’s submarine, but the creature it was named after. Like someone else writing here, I too have an attraction to and an admiration of molluscs. The damned things are fascinating. Did you know that some snails manufacture a barbed calcite spear inside themselves to harpoon their mate? The nautilus, as well as being an odd creature of this nature, is also quite beautiful and strange, which is probably why Sniper ended up in a drone shell of that shape.

O is for Occam’s Razor, which is absolutely right, and a great name for a spaceship.

P is for Parasite. I’ve always been fascinated by biology (all sciences really) and when, maybe fifteen years ago, a vet acquaintance offered to loan me a book on helminthology (the study of parasitic worms) I accepted. So, the brain worm, whilst in that stage of its life cycle when it occupies an ant, will make the ant climb to the top of a stalk of grass and cling there, awaiting a grazing sheep, which is the worm’s next host. Another parasite, occupying a snail, will make the snail grow a thicker shell to thus offer more protection to both parasite and snail, but kill the snail’s ability to reproduce. Well, all of this resulted in numerous short stories. It’s also to blame for the Spatterjay leech.

Q is for Quantum because in science fiction we don’t use abracadabra.

R is for Raki. Ouzo is the drink usually associated with Greece but raki is the one you should associate with Crete. Every village here has numerous stills, kazanis, and during October and November the roads are occupied by pick-up trucks carting about crates of grapes and large brown plastic barrels. I’m told that like grappa, raki is made from the leavings from a wine press, but I’ve yet to see that. At the kazani right next to our house on Crete they mince up grapes in barrel, allow the mix to ferment for a few weeks, then stick this lot straight into a still. Nothing quite like raki warm from the still, drunk in good company, to wash down barbecued pork, garlic bread, raw cabbage with salt and lemon juice, and pomegranates. And the stuff is cheap on Crete. Three Euros will buy you a litre, if someone hasn’t already given you gifts of more of the stuff than you can drink. It’ll be the death of me.

S is for Scorpion. I was writing Scorpion Memory during our first time on Crete. When I finished it, Night Shade Books felt the title too obscure and wanted it changed to Shadow of the Scorpion. By the time Macmillan took it on I’d already shared a house with the creatures, and had the pleasant experience of hearing one thud down on my pillow beside my face. The word seems almost precognitive, but it’s just coincidence.

T is for Terminator because the Golem owe him a lot.

U is for Unseen University where wizards eat and drink too much and smoke roll-ups, so are very familiar to me. It’s a place sitting at the centre of Ankh Morpork, which seems to sit at the centre of Discworld, at least in my mind. Thank you Terry Pratchett for endless hours of excellent reading, for the wisdom, and for slyly being ‘guilty of literature’. Collect your accolades and laugh.

V is for Volkhavaar by Tanith Lee. Never read a bad one from her but this one is my favourite. Here worship creates the god, long before Pratchett’s Small gods. I feel she single-handedly created the gothic fantasy genre, and few have written it so well.  

W is for Waylander, one of David Gemmel’s many heroes. Here’s another writer all of whose books I’ve enjoyed. Being unashamed to entertain seems a very good survival trait in the publishing world, and a path I always seek to follow.

X is a bastard. Open a dictionary and words beginning with X only occupy one page. I won’t go for 
X-files, because I didn’t really enjoy that silliness, and I’d rather hit myself in the face with a frozen kipper than watch The X-factor. How about xenophobia – the stick with which xenophobes beat others.

Y is for Yamas. Cheers!

Z is for Zelazny, for books I read until they were falling apart and had to put away because I had nearly memorized them.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

A Couple of Pints at the Quart Pot

Since I have a large collection of interviews I thought I might put a few of them up here since this blog has been a bit neglected. Here's a transcript of the first audio interview I did from maybe 16 years ago:

A Couple of Pints at the Quart Pot


Big Toys and Alien Creatures

Neal Asher is a classic overnight success; he was signed by Pan Macmillan in 2000 after twenty years working his way up through the small presses.  (A number of his early pieces were, in fact, published by Pigasus (link).)  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 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 Neal 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 Neal’s short work was set in 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.

(As a matter of interest. I’ve got a ‘Best of Robert Silverberg’ collection containing the 20,000 word novella Hawksbill Station which was published in 1967. He then expanded that into the novel a couple of years later. Interesting coincidence.)

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.

>Question here? What are you reading at the moment?

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, everythingA 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 24x7 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 minute 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 a thousand 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.

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 …


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 half way 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.


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’.


You have to train yourself - but people write in different ways.

Do you have a plot outline when you start?


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 synopses or a blurbs. 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 ]