Monday, March 30, 2020

B. Parnell Interview

Back in 2015 this one, I think.

1. Do you agree with technologists and scientists like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking that AI could be detrimental to humanity? IE, in the short term, affecting jobs and the economy and in the long term potentially dangerous?

At one time I worked in a factory filled with CNC mills and lathes. On occasion I programmed and ran a massive machine that drilled, bored, tapped and milled engine blocks using tools from a carousel containing 32 of them. Once set up it did this at a rate of a few hours per engine block. It was inhumanly fast and accurate and probably did a job it would have taken ten, if not more, skilled milling machine operators to do in the same time. So in essence the Luddites were right about machines. The same rule can be expanded for computer controlled machines and, of course, the more intelligent they get the more human jobs they can take. At present they’re taking over repetitive tasks but as time goes on your solicitor, lawyer, doctor, surveyor and many more besides will probably be artificial. I don’t see this as a problem as far as the quality of the work is concerned. However, our society will have to change radically. Quite simply, if machines are doing all the work, who earns the money to pay for that work? Capitalism would collapse and the detrimental effect might be that we would end up under some hideous centrally-controlled authoritarian socialist regime. But I can see the optimistic side too. Through technology the human condition has always improved, and the result of the above may be more utopian than dystopian, especially if that central control is by machine, who would lack many of the detrimental drives of human politicians.

As for the potential dangers long-term you first have to get aboard with ideas about the AI singularity and I’m not sure that I am. Yes, technological development has ever been on an upward exponential curve, but I’m wary of this idea of a sudden leap taking things beyond human conception. This ‘rapture of nerds’ is too much like religion for the tech-head for my liking. Yeah, we’ll get to AI, but necessarily build it from the nuts and bolts upwards and understand the process all along the way. It will impinge on our lives in much the same way as all our other technologies: science fiction one day then part of our lives the next – taken with a shrug and a, ‘What was all the fuss about?’ I also think it highly likely that as we get to AI we’ll also be upgrading humans too and there’ll be a point where, on the mental plane, it’ll be hard to distinguish us from our creations.       

2. In their Future of Life open letter, Musk, Hawking and others say that AI could also be beneficial to mankind, provided that it does what we want it to do. Do you think that researching the risks will be enough to prevent adverse effects? Or do you think that creating another sentient race of any kind (robots, androids, cyborgs, software AI) can’t be risk-proofed because, by its intelligent nature, it will have its own goals and ideals?

Well they’re covering their arses both ways aren’t they? AI could be a danger and it could be beneficial. This is basically a statement that can be made about any new technology and rather undermines any point they were trying to make.

There will be dangers with AI, just as there were dangers with the car, with electricity, with the chemical industry. The biggest danger I suppose is how it is used by us. Nuclear weapons are the same – they could destroy our civilization, but only if we use them for that. Killer robots are a real possibility, if not a reality now, but the best ones are unlikely to end up in the hands of anyone who wants to destroy everything. In the end it all comes down to how they are used and how they are programmed. An artificial intelligence per se will be without the kind of evolved and sometimes destructive drives we have … unless they are put there by us. Yes, AI could develop its own goals and ideals, but I still don’t buy into the ‘rapture of nerds’ and the idea that it could become an all-powerful force. And again, I also think that by the time it’s becoming that effective we will struggle to distinguish it from ‘evolved intelligence’. 

3. Do you think the development of AI is inevitable? Is it also necessary, eg for space colonisation, solving world problems like energy, climate change, etc?

It would certainly be very useful for space colonisation and many other tasks where putting a human in place can be difficult. If fact, any problem becomes more solvable the more brain power is applied to it. Yes, I think AI is inevitable. It’s arguable that it’s already here.

4. What do you think science fiction about AI can teach us about how to conduct research in the field?

Don’t leave out the ‘off’ switch?

5. Which are the most important writers of AI sci-fi and why are their works so influential? Which writers should researchers be listening to?

Science fiction plays with many ideas and by a general reading of the more up-to-date stuff researchers can glean some ideas. But the researchers are the experts, not the SF writers, and if anything the flow of ideas goes the other way. Mostly, I hope SF is something to instil enthusiasm for what they are doing in those researchers. Well in fact, in some cases, I know it is.

6. Are there lessons we can learn from sci-fi about driverless cars, autonomous drones, learning algorithms and other technologies that exist now?

Not a lot. SF writers (mostly) aren’t technologists, traffic control experts, military tacticians or high level programmers but generalists. And SF gets things wrong a damned sight more than it gets things right.

7. In your own work, something that comes up is the difficulty in creating an AI for a specific purpose (eg war drones) that is then left directionless once that purpose is over (the end of the Prador war). Do you think it's as dangerous to create an intelligent machine that we purposely restrict as much as possible as it is to give that machine self-determination?

I guess you might end up with some problems if you repurposed a war robot as a traffic cop and didn’t take away its guns. But really I don’t think the purpose some AI has, or has been made for, will be so permanent. It’s difficult to re-educate a human trained or indoctrinated to kill because we don’t know how to take one apart and put it back together again, physically or mentally. In fact we’re only just dipping in to figuring out how we work. AIs, because we will have created and understood everything that goes into them, should be much more malleable. My war drones are really a cipher for the hardened combat veteran trying to adjust to peacetime. 

8. Is there any specific part of your own work that you hope AI researchers pay attention to?

I just hope they read and enjoy it when they’re not working, and return to what they do well with enthusiasm. Though I wouldn’t mind if that enthusiasm became directed more towards memplants, mental uploading and other human enhancements.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Ever-Expanding Polity

This one was written for the Macmillan website last year.

The Polity is a far future society run by artificial intelligences. In the early years of space travel, as we spread out into the solar system, the political make-up of humanity is a mixture of national and world (or moon) governments, and large corporations rather as depicted in The Expanse. However, unlike that series, these separate political entities – polities – employ AI for gain. During this time a scientist by the name of Iverus Skaidon direct-links his mind to the AI Craystein Computer and invents underspace travel, just before his mind blows like a fuse. The invention of this faster-than-light travel results in a diaspora from the Solar System with many groups heading out into the galaxy, usually in cryogenic storage in their ships, to set up numerous colonies. Shortly after this the AIs decide enough is enough and firmly take over. This relatively bloodless coup is later known as the Quiet War. Thereafter, during a renaissance, a second wave of humanity, guided by the AIs, spreads out into the galaxy (quite often running into that first wave). Skaidon’s technology, whose naming template is based on the poems of Edward Lear, gives the nascent Polity the runcible: gateways for instantaneous travel between worlds.

Prador Moon.
Many worlds beyond Earth are occupied by alien life, but alien intelligence seems harder to find. Polity scientists find the remains of ancient civilizations they name the Atheter, Csorians and the Jain. Remains of Jain technology soon reveal themselves to be very dangerous – the stuff growing like plants and subsuming other technology. Another alien race is not encountered until the Polity occupies a substantial area – a sphere of expansion whose breadth is the thickness of our galactic arm. The prador – giant arthropods much like a by-blow of fiddler crabs and wolf spiders – are hostile xenophobes ruled by a king. They at once attack the Polity.

The Polity, its means of travel mostly by runcible, does not have adequate ships to counter the heavily armoured prador vessels. In the ensuing war whole solar systems are wrecked, suns detonated, billions of lives lost as the Polity fights a steady retreat. However, it being anathema to them, the prador do not have AI. This turns the tide of the war as the Polity ramps up industrial production and technological development producing ships in immense factory stations: war factories. Amidst this war a human pirate called Spatterjay Hoop finds a world inhabited by a strange ecology. Leeches there transmit a complex virus which, when it infects humans, makes them rugged and near indestructible (a reusable food source for the leeches – as all the virus’s hosts). He captures millions of humans and, in alliance with the prador uses their technology to core-and-thrall the humans with prador tech, turning the victims into mindless slaves of the prador. During this operation a prador captain also becomes infected with the virus. It changes him, and his crew (his family) in many ways, one of them being an increase in intelligence. He understands the tide of the war now and, realizing the prador cannot win, returns to the Kingdom and usurps the old king, then makes a truce with the Polity. It is an uneasy truce and an area of space, devastated by the war and named the Graveyard, lies between the two realms, while Earth Central the ruling AI of the Polity, and the king of the prador, sabre rattle at each other.

Shadow of the Scorpion
In this milieu Cormac grows to adulthood, haunted by childhood memories of a sinister scorpion-shaped war drone and the burden of losses he cannot remember. Signed up with Earth Central Security he is sent out to either restore or maintain order in worlds devastated by prador bombardment. Old enemies and new dog his path to memory through the ruins left by wartime genocides, where he discovers in himself a cold capacity for violence.

The Cormac Series
Now an Agent of the Polity, Cormac is dispatched on a mission to investigate a runcible disaster that killed thirty thousand people on the world of Samarkand, and sank the world into an Ice Age. This was apparently caused by an alien entity called Dragon – a giant creature consisting of four biomech spheres miles across, who might be older than human history, or might just be a liar. Other missions ensue involving Separatist (those who want to secede from the Polity and its ruling AIs) terrorism, a rogue biophysicist, the terrifying Mr Crane – a brass android killing machine – the brutal theocracy of the planet Masada, and always the involvement of Dragon. But during these investigations Cormac finds one linking thread and uncovers a larger threat. Ancient Jain technology provides individuals with great power, even as it takes control of them. This is especially dangerous when the individuals are disenfranchised AI war machines – drones and warships – who have developed contempt for humanity.

The Spatterjay Trilogy
Many centuries after the war, the leech-infested planet now named Spatterjay, is not part of the Polity but is a ward of the same. Here living sails drape the spars of primitive sailing vessels, Old Captains, stronger than Polity Golem, sail the seas and contemplate their endless lives, while the ancient war drone Sniper looks for action. Three travellers arrive. Erlin is immortal and seeks from an Old Captain a reason to keep living. Janer is host to the hornet hive mind – a tourist. And Keech is a policeman who’s been dead for seven hundred years – but still hunts the notorious Spatterjay Hoop, who might have turned into something monstrous. But their small journeys become entangled with ancient prador agendas, the truth behind the Spatterjay virus, and the ever- present threat of Jain technology.

The Technician
More history is revealed. On the world of Masada the gabbleducks appear to be strange animals who speak nonsense in human language. They turn out to be the devolved descendants of the Atheter who, in a strange act of racial suicide, deliberately sacrificed their intelligence to escape millennia of war instigated by the Jain tech they took up. On their world too are hooders – giant vicious creatures resembling centipedes – that are in fact devolved war machines of the Atheter. It seems that this Jain tech is responsible for the destruction of them, the Csorians and the Jain themselves. Atheter technology is only somnolent, however, and activates again.

McCrooger, Polity ambassador, is ancient and tough when he comes to the worlds of Sudoria and Brumal. A cosmic super-string drifted into the system of the two planets when they were locked in war. It is packed with alien technology, or even life. For safety it was stored – in four segments – within a maximum-security space station. A female research scientist there fell pregnant and gave birth to quads before committing suicide. By the war’s end, one planet was devastated by the other’s hilldiggers – so named as their weapons can create mountain ranges. When McCrooger arrives the quads have reached adulthood, and are gaining power in post-war society. One of them has his sights set on claiming the hilldiggers and their power for himself, but is his agenda his own?

The Transformation Trilogy
The AI Penny Royal, driven insane by orders no soldier should be forced to obey and fractured into a swarm AI, is a dark presence in the Polity and the Graveyard. For payment it transforms people to their ideal, but this always turns out to be a deal with the Devil and the transformations grotesque. Has Penny Royal returned to sanity now? What are its aims? Thorvald Spear, resurrected after a hundred years, sets out intent on vengeance against this entity. But it seems Penny Royal, hunted down by the dangerous forensic AI the Brockle, might be atoning for previous sins and following a larger agenda, which leads back to the place where it lost its mind, and to a black hole.
The Gabble and Other Stories
This is a collection of short stories about some shadier corners of the Polity. Find out about the gabbleducks of Masada and the hooders, ancient races and ancient technologies resurrected, dangerous alien life forms – the hunters and the hunted.

The Rise of the Jain Trilogy
A corner of space swarms with Jain technology, a danger to all sentient life. The haiman Orlandine has made it her life’s work to contain it, and is hatching a plan to obliterate it. Dragon shares her vigil, but fears she is being manipulated by some alien intelligence. Meanwhile, Polity and prador fleets watch this sector of space, as neither can allow the other to claim its power. Things are about to change. The Jain might not be as dead as they seemed and interstellar war is just a heartbeat away.
The Polity started out in short stories in the small presses. I wanted a far future in which I could tell any story, and it grew organically without much in the way of a plan bar this. I create ecologies because the logic of the predator and its prey must be adhered to, though my preference is always for the most grotesque of the former. I visualize that ‘technology indistinguishable from magic’ and give it credence from heavy science reading. And I try to wrap all this up in stories you will enjoy and characters you’ll care about. Here then are some of the stories I’ve told in the ever-expanding Polity.
And I will be telling more.

On a final note: the Polity is not all of it. In the Owner Trilogy I tell the story of a near future and brutal dystopia, while in Cowl I venture into time-travel and a war across the ages between far future humans, to the beginning of life of Earth.


Friday, March 20, 2020

Book Plank Interview

This one was in 2015:

Hi Neal, welcome over at The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions for us.

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Neal Asher is? What are you likes, dislikes and hobbies besides writing?

NA: Well I guess I can be defined as Neal Asher the SF writer now. As for likes, dislikes and hobbies they are all in a state of flux at the moment since I’ve gone through a life-changing event. This January’s release of Dark Intelligence also marks one year since I watched my wife die of bowel cancer. A lot of the things I used to like I just haven’t got back into e.g. I haven’t read a book for a year. A lot of the things I disliked no longer bother me much. Also my hobbies have changed. I do a lot of walking now. I spend my life divided between England and Crete so additional hobbies here are spending far too much time on Facebook and Twitter – that hasn’t changed. Out there, as well as tramping round the mountains, I swim, kayak, repair my house and grow all sorts of stuff in my garden there, but mainly chillies. I like chillies.

BP: You have been writing for quite a while now do you still know when and where you decided that you wanted to become an author?

NA: Sort of. My standard answer to is that when I was in my teens I was a Jack of all trades but master of none – I had many interests including writing. By my early to mid twenties I decided to concentrate on one of them if I was to make anything of it. I chose writing because in writing an interest in and knowledge of other stuff can be incorporated.

BP: You are one of the leading Science Fiction authors of Britain. Have you ever thought your books would be turned into such a success?

NA: I of course hoped for that but while spending 20 years running at the publishing brick wall with my head I had my doubts. By the time Macmillan took me on I’d decided that I’d been on that course for so long that it was too late to give up and try something else. 

BP: The book you wrote, Gridlinked, started off the Polity universe. What gave you the idea behind the Polity universe?

NA: It grew out of the short stories I was writing before Macmillan took me on. Some of the same elements would appear in different stories, like the Runcibles, U-space, Polity AIs, the alien enemy the Prador, the Golem androids and so forth. I naturally came to the decision that I wanted everything in (kitchen sink and all) so I could have a big enough canvas on which to sketch out any story I cared to tell.

BP: In the last couple of years you have written a trilogy featuring a different universe, The Owner Trilogy. With Dark Intelligence you return back to the Polity universe. What was the thought behind this?

NA: The Owner universe is not new. I wrote a number of stories featuring this character that appeared in my collection called The Engineer (later updated to The Engineer ReConditioned). However, those stories where set far in the future, while the Owner books tell the story of his genesis. I wanted to do something different because I was aware that how by sticking to what I was doing I could become stale. I was also aware that by doing something different I could end up being pilloried by the fans. I went with it because I would rather have people complaining about the lack of a Polity book than them saying my latest Polity book is shite, because I’ve become stale. I returned to the Polity with Dark Intelligence happily, feeling refreshed.

BP: Dark Intelligence is to be published this February, if you would have to sell the book with a single sentence how would it go?

NA: What you expect from the Polity and more.

BP: Writing a story within an already established universe must have been difficult, how did you go about planning to write Dark Intelligence.
NA: I did have to do some rereading of The Technician and some other books to check detail, also a short story called Alien Archaeology that features that Dark Intelligence – the black AI Penny Royal. But beyond that I planned it like I plan all my books, which is to say not at all. For me it all happens at the keyboard.

BP: Did you encounter any difficulties when you were writing Dark Intelligence?

NA: Nothing beyond the usual i.e. occasionally having to strip out a proliferation of plot lines or remove the odd character. A story published in Asimov’s called The Other Gun was the result of that. I cut out a couple of characters and the plotline involving them and turned them into that story. I have another chunk of text like that on file which I’ll also turn into a short story too, or maybe even something longer. But overall I wrote Dark Intelligence, and the ensuing two books, very quickly. In fact I’d written the entire trilogy to first draft well before the first book of it was due for delivery to Macmillan.

BP: What was the hardest part in writing Dark Intelligence?

NA: The same as it is with any book or series of books: writing a satisfying ending. I have to tie off all my plot threads and avoid like the plague a deus ex machina. In this case I had to write such endings for each of the three books and the trilogy as a whole. 

BP: Besides the hardest part, which scene, chapter or happening did you like writing about the most?

NA: Well that would be telling too much! But being vague I guess I can say the last section of the very last book…

BP: Gridlinked was published back in 2001 for the first time, do you think the vision of Science Fiction has changed in any way when you look at it now?

NA: Only in that it has continued changing as it has always changed by incorporating new technologies.

BP: Dark Intelligence marks a new series, do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue in the near future?

NA: I am setting forth on writing a follow up to the Owner books.

BP: Science Fiction is a very broad genre everything and much more is possible. What do you like most about the Science Fiction genre?

NA: Sensawunda.

BP: If you would have to give your top five favorite books, which would they be?

NA: I’m guessing you want SF books here so, off the top of my head: Half-Past Human – T J Bass, Use of Weapons – Ian M Banks, Blindsight – Peter Watts, Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan and Wyrms – Orson Scott Card. But those are just the ones that came into my mind just now. Ask me again in a few days and you’ll probably get a completely different list.

BP: and last, can you tell us a bit more about what is in store for the readers of Dark Intelligence?

NA: An intricate story concerning transformation, the effects of memory editing and war time atrocities, and the redefinition of death. All liberally spiced with far future technology, grotesque alien life, violence and exploding spaceships. As ever. 

BP: Thank you very much for your time Neal and good luck with your future writing!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Counter Culture

Another one from that 'Neal Asher Gets Rabid' series. Sorry to say this was during my first encounters with the SFF world outside of enjoying reading books and attempting to write them. Not far off twenty years ago now.

It is human nature to strive to be, or to be perceived as, superior to your fellow. This striving stems from the simple imperative that if there’s someone higher up the ladder than you, then there’s still someone who can step on your fingers, or shit on you. It is the same quest for superiority that forms hierarchies in any organisation, group, or loose alliance. And it is the one that has created the ‘liter-arty intelligentsia’ (those with pretentions to being intellectual heavy-weights) who seek to rule the SFF world, and seem to think their pronouncements are holy writ. They also create slavish followers trying to squash themselves into the same mould.

On the whole they are dreadfully serious – humour is alien to them. In conversation they will often smear popular culture. If everyone likes Friends, then they don’t and will give some apparently worthy reason why. The plain silly they can own, and thereby score points: “Well actually, my favourite program is the Magic Roundabout.” The points here are for false frivolity, thereby demonstrating how though they are intelligences to be reckoned with, they can still be fun. Even better if they can attach some meaning that isn’t there: “It’s about arachnophobia and patriarchal societies, you see.”

If a group is discussing a film, they’ll always find a flaw to criticise, to demonstrate how observant they are and how so far above the work in question. However, if something is judged as being worthy by other, higher, members of the intelligentsia, they’ll hop on the same band wagon, for to say otherwise in such a case might open them to criticism. Perhaps they have not been bright enough to plumb the deep meaning of it all? You will find these same people in the Tate Modern, attaching meaning and importance to what is quite evidently crap to anyone with half a brain. Only the braver members of their kind might voice a contrary opinion, usually those ones who still have something functioning between their ears, and have yet to buy a life-time membership.

Full members live to raise themselves in the regard of others, but are caught in a fantasy of self-regard. The top ten reading lists of same will always be for the sake of appearance and intellectual poseur points. They will denigrate some of the old greats just to demonstrate how independent is their thought. They’ll forget all about the lurid SF and fantasy books that drew them into the genre, because they have of course outgrown such trash. LeGuin and Delaney will be in and Dickson and Zelazny out. They’ll definitely dislike Lord of the Rings, obviously – too many normal plebs like it (and of course the same book has to be allegorical). In their lists will be a smattering of books concerning subjects ending –ophy, ology, istry or ics, and you can guarantee that none of them will be mathematics, physics, biology or chemistry, or anything actually useful. And presently they’ll be wading through a tome produced by some obscure European philosopher and foolishly think that what insight they have is something new.

Equally, they will, when asked to list their top ten favourite films, make their selection based on how they think this will enhance their facade, not on what they actually like. Blade Runner would certainly be allowable to them, but Terminator or Terminator II would definitely be out. Battleship Potemkin is a definite, but Total Recall will cause them pain (having its source as Philip K Dick but starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). Black and white films would be in, the more obscure the better, and better still if French, subtitled and deeply ‘intellectual’. In describing their selection they’ll use the word ‘noir’ a lot, and sometimes lapse into ‘surreal’.

The defining spirit of these people is a total lack of honesty. They are pretentious: truth is not their stock in trade, for if you are truthful people might see you as you really are, and might be able to assess your intelligence, judge you. Better to lie about your intellectual gains, better to be obscure and misjudged as being deep. Better to appear to be … better.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Asimov's Q & A

This is a Q & A Asimov's sent me last year to run on their website when my short story 'An Alien on Crete' was published.

What is the story behind this piece?
Again, as is usual with me, I was ahead of my publishing contract with Macmillan having one book The Human (third book of the Rise of the Jain trilogy) ready, bar a bit of editing, for publication almost a year before I needed to hand it in. I’ve wanted to return to writing more short stories for some time, since it was through them I got my first stuff published. I also feel that the change, the discipline and the necessity for brevity are good for my writing. I can explore stuff outside of my long-running space opera series too. It also makes good business sense to expose readers who might not have heard of me to my stuff. And opportunities had arisen (which I can’t talk about) concerning the TV streaming services. So I started writing some more short stories.     

How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
I am lucky enough to spend half of my year on the island of Crete and there, besides kayaking and swimming, I spend a lot of time walking in the beautiful mountains. One of the advantages of only needing a laptop, or even just pen and paper to do your job, is that you can do it anywhere. Being an SF writer I of course visualized all sorts of sensawunda stuff in those mountains: starships in the sky, alien plants growing amidst the rest, some places where you could think you were on an alien world, how the walk would be while installed in a new Golem chassis and, of course, an alien landing there. This last was the one I took – a very tiny spark of inspiration – and expanded. As they say: ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration.

Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
This is a standalone. As I noted above, writing short stories gives me a chance to explore other stuff. I have started a follow-up to it, but then meandered off into writing something else.

Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
I do relate because, well, I walk in the mountains like the protagonist and so much of what he sees is exactly what I see when I’m out there. I’ve sat drinking raki at a kazani and shopped in that butcher’s shop in Makrigialos. Some things I changed out of narrative necessity. The house in the story is very similar to mine, but there’s nowhere you can back a vehicle up close to the back door. The cisterns I see are normally quite shallow so not enough to trap a creature, though I was quite happy recently to see a deep one that fit the bill!

How did the title for this piece come to you?
It’s a very simple title. Does what it says on the tin. Though I have to add that there is a little bit of a twist there – a bit of a double meaning – because the protagonist is ‘An Alien on Crete’ since it is not his home country.

What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? What is your history with Asimov’s?
As I was working my way up through the writing world I started by getting stuff published in the small presses (while in the meantime banging off synopses and sample chapters of my books to book publishers), and gradually moved on to larger publications. In my youth I did of course read Isaac Asimov and had known about the magazine for some time. When I was a teenager my mother brought home a bunch of such publications from a charity shop for me and I loved them. Asimov’s was a prime target for me – a validation. I finally did get a story accepted when Gardner Dozois was the editor and subsequently had more taken. Titles are Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck, Alien Archaeology, The Other Gun . . . I lose track – there might be others. The cover pictures for the magazine were taken from a couple of them. Thereafter just about every one of them went on to appear in anthologies like Hartwell and Kramer’s Year’s Best SF and Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. It’s good to be back.  

Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
Years and years of reading SFF had its effect. At one time I was polishing off an average of ten books a month. The acknowledgements in The Skinner (my second book from Macmillan) begin like this: Thanks to all those people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny. . .  A deep interest in the sciences and much reading of them also informs my work, and of course various excellent films. I must at least tip my hat towards Alien and Aliens, Terminator and others besides. 

How much or little do current events impact your writing?
My Polity space operas are set far in the future in an AI run utopia that’s a bit rough around the edges and not quite as utopian as it should be, especially when there’s an alien race that would like to exterminate humanity and plenty of dangerous ancient alien technology lying around. Our present is their ancient past and does not impinge very much. My Owner trilogy (not in the Polity) is an extrapolation from the present day to create a dystopia, I mean, every SF writer should have a crack at a dystopia, right? In the short stories it just depends on what and when I’m writing about. An Alien on Crete depicts a little of present day Crete. A recent story called Longevity Averaging is a product of my reading on biotech developments in life extension, and likely political outfalls from that (longevity averaging is what happens to your pension). But when it comes to present events I try not to proselytize. As far as I am concerned my job is to entertain and create that good old sensawunda. It is not to use my writing as a vehicle for partisan politics.

Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
I have a trilogy called The Transformation Trilogy – Dark Intelligence, War Factory & Infinity Engine – and I think that kinda defines a lot of my work: transformation. As is expected in any book the characters will be changed by the events that occur. But I always take it a stage further with technological and organic transformations: life extension, mental uploading, downloading and editing, humans loading their minds to crystal substrates, AIs loading their minds to something organic, body switching, physical adaptation to new environments, mental expansion and cerebral additions. Throughout my stories many of my characters change in radical physical and mental ways. Why do I keep returning to this? Because I am fascinated by what we might become.   

What is your process?
I’m not a planner. I don’t map out a plot first and fill up a pin board with post-it notes. I’m a seat of the pants writer. Sometimes I’ll have a vague image of where I want to get to and stuff I want to include, then I simply sit down and write, and it all happens at the keyboard. I aim to write 2,000 words a day five days a week and usually hit that target. The next day I read through the previous day’s stuff doing a bit of editing, then just continue. Times when I’m not writing like that are usually when I’m dealing with the publisher’s editing, or later on. I find that as I write, plots threads and ideas proliferate and require thinning out. I move stuff around, make alterations throughout to make it work. I blend characters together, excise characters and make additions. I often chop out large chunks and have a file called ‘BitsSF’ where I put them. These can sometimes use elsewhere. In fact a story I had published in Asimov’s The Other Gun was, initially, one such excised chunk of text. 

How do you deal with writers’ block?
In the far past this was something I struggled with occasionally, but not now. I’ve spent so long being disciplined about my writing I just write. I suspect a lot of writer’s block stems from lack of confidence and an inability to tear apart something you’ve already written, as if it’s a stone sculpture near completion and you have to be careful with the chisel. Writing is nothing like that. It’s protean, disposable and can be shifted about like a magnetic montage. Whenever I hear this question a quote I vaguely remember comes to mind. It has been paraphrased quite a lot, the current Stephen King version being ‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.’

How did you break into writing?
I climbed up the entire ladder with people stepping on my fingers all the way. I started writing longhand with a fountain pen and typing on a manual typewriter when I was a teenager. The fantasy trilogy I inevitably produced did the rounds of publishers (by post) and still sits in my files. I wrote another fantasy then had a crack at something contemporary (dated now – no mobile phones or computers). I picked up a writing magazine at about this point and discovered the small presses: little A5 magazines printed from people’s home and with readerships at most of a few hundred. I started sending stories to them and, it being that only subscribers could submit stories, had to buy the magazine before submitting. I had an acceptance but the mag concerned closed before it was published. My first story appeared in a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1989, for which I got a free copy of the magazine. Onward and upward. I got a novella published by a publisher called Club 199 for which I actually got paid money, just before the publisher went bankrupt. Slightly larger magazines started paying for my stories. A small publisher did a collection called The Engineer (it can be found under the new title of The Engineer ReConditioned). I wrote a book called Gridlinked and that was to be published, the publisher went bankrupt. I wrote another called the Skinner that went nowhere. I had a novella called The Parasite published. By this time I had learned that it’s a good idea to put in reviews etc with those samples and synopses you send to publishers. Conveniently I’d just had an excellent review of The Engineer in a national magazine called SFX. I sent a colour copy of that to Macmillan along with synopsis and sample chapters of Gridlinked and later got a phone call from a very posh sounding guy called Peter Lavery who was the Editorial Director there. That was in December 1999 and by the next year I had my first three book contract. The rest as they say, is history.

What inspired you to start writing?
As I grew up I had interests in all sorts of things: painting, electronics, biology, sculpture, chemistry, microscopy and of course reading piles and piles of SFF . . . I flipped from one thing to another all the time. One day, in school, instead of the usual boring English lesson, the teacher told us to just sit and write a story, any story. Maybe she was tired and bored and wanted to take a break from the usual. I had great fun writing something completely derivative of E C Tubb’s Dumarest Saga and at the end was singled out and complemented by the teacher. Writing now became one of my interests. Later, maybe in my early twenties, I realized I would not be able to build a laser rifle, matter transmitter or create a monster, or invent some fantastic chemical process. I also looked at what was appearing in the Tate Gallery at the time and decided that if that was art it was not for me. But I was still interested in all these things and understood that in writing I could incorporate them all. That was when I made a decision to take it seriously and make it my singular goal.  

What other projects are you currently working on?
I’m at about twenty-six published books now. For a while I’ve been writing trilogies and have noted that as my oeuvre grows it needs more points of access for the new reader. While working on a short story (again from that ‘BitsSF’ file) I found it expanding and it eventually turned into the first draft of a book called Jack Four. It’s a standalone set in the Polity and readers do not need to have read the other books to enjoy it. I then started another short story that grew. It’s complicated because a lot of what I was doing was telling backstory and the timeline is all over the place. But considering that Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons is one of my favorite books, I’m okay with that. It concerns the colonization of a world, human radical adaptation to that world, right at the time the Polity comes across the hostile alien prador and an interstellar war begins. This will be another standalone. I’ve nearly finished it now . . . but that’s my aim: a few standalone books set in the Polity to draw readers in. After this one, whose publication date will be over two years hence, I’ll get back to those short stories and doubtless another one will grow in the telling.

If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
My own. Yeah, some nasty stuff does happen in that future, but it’s a big wonderful universe with everything in it I love from the thousands of books I’ve read: FTL travel, matter transmission, godlike AIs, post-scarcity, human immortality and more besides. I have to add that in the Polity I created a future in which I could tell just about any story I chose. As such, the possibilities, if one were to actually live there, are endless. 

What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
Right now, since I’m 58, human longevity so I can get to see Musk putting people on Mars, I can get to see the solar system of The Expanse, I can get to see the starships heading out and perhaps climb aboard one. Maybe I would get to see an alien, or stand before a panoramic window gazing out at the shifting clouds of a gas giant. Endless possibilities again, which all disappear if you’re dead.

What are you reading right now?
Frankly not enough. I wonder if I’m starting to get a bit jaded because it’s not often I’ll pick up a book and fall into it like I did in my youth. I think a problem with being a full time writer is that it’s difficult to turn off the editing head, so I find myself reading something and wanting to make corrections or alterations. I also don’t get so much time to read, what with the writing, gym visits, walking, kayaking, repairing furniture, growing chillies and my current attempt to learn Greek. I must make time!

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
Write every day. Count words. Stop thinking about ‘being a writer’ and be one. Get on with it and do it. Remember the 10,000 hours principle. There’s an analogy I use here when wannabe writers baulk at the prospect of writing a 150,000 word book. Someone who runs a marathon might well have, in their past, got out of breath walking up the stairs. But then they walked a bit further, then they started running, just a little way at first, then further and further. That’s how you do it: a bit at a time and then more and more. There’s that aphorism too: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
I write. I live in the UK in Essex half the year, and the other half on Crete. I’m a widower as of five and a half years ago, having watched my wife die of bowel cancer. One day I will write a book about my experiences on Crete and with grief. It will be called Walking to Voyla – an Ottoman ruin I walked to over a number of years while trying to get my mind straight again. Not much else.

What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
I’ve done all sorts. I’ve worked in many factories, making steel furniture and aluminium windows for houses and boats. I trained as a production engineer then toolmaker. I’ve operated all sorts of machinery like milling machines and lathes, including programming the numerical control varieties. I’ve been a builder, done council contract grass cutting, run my own business chopping trees and hedges, putting up fences and sheds, laying concrete – basically anything that came along. I’ve driven skip lorries and delivered coal, renovated motorbikes and cars – all practical stuff in essence. All of this is grist to the writing mill but I would say that the engineering background definitely shows through. I know how stuff works and can make that real in my work.

How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL…)
I have a blog at this is also copied across to my website at I can be found on Twitter @nealasher and on Facebook at Neal Asher. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Censor Censorship

This is an old one I did as part of a series called 'Neal Asher Gets Rabid' for the BSFA (I mention video tapes, so that old). I think I got rabid in this case after seeing TV versions of Conan the Barbarian and Lethal Weapon - both censored to the point they had become nonsensical. And hearing Danny Glover say, 'I'm too old for this stuff' - the 'stuff' being in a totally different voice, pushed me over the edge.

We live in a very strange society in which it is considered more dangerous to display an erect penis on television than it is to show, for example, someone having his throat cut. This is just one symptom of the strange disease that afflicts the so-called great and the good, bringing about in them a myopia in which they come to see sex as somehow a more heinous sin than violence. Certain words are not allowed because of their shocking sexual connotations, yet it is alright to show people being shot and knifed. The sex act itself must be ridiculously disguised, yet the scene in which someone is burnt to death is as realistic as possible.

This is just one of the crazy inconsistencies of this madness called censorship. If we are to suppose that films on TV cause children and the weak of mind (neither of which are likely to pay licence fees) to emulate them, this begs the question: which of the above would you want your children to emulate? The censors would of course want the lot censored and to feed us on a diet of gardening and cookery programs. I can only say that this would only lead to people turning off the television and seeking their entertainment elsewhere, perhaps out mugging pensioners to get the money to rent a decent video tape or two.

I hate censorship and would throw more weight behind the argument calling for it to be removed. It is wrong. It is another mishandling of power that takes responsibility away from the individual and in effect makes individuals more irresponsible. I wonder just how many really scientific studies have been made of the effects of TV violence on the individual. None I would warrant, simply because it would be impossible. For one thing there is no possible control group for any experiment or study. All that has really been done is the kind of statistical analysis that comes up with the result that 'violent people watch more violence on television than non-violent people', which goes nowhere in revealing why those people were violent and renders the analysis meaningless. Still though, censorship persists, and grows.

In the literary world that hideous creeping fungus called 'political correctness' is walking censorship in through the back door of children's books, and I have to wonder how long it will be before it reaches adult books. How long before this force that has emasculated our teaching profession and police starts turning all fiction into an inane mush? How long before 'conflict' is removed from fiction because it is too … confrontational.

But how about a reversal?

There is a school of thought that believes TV violence to be cathartic, and that the people who watch it are likely to be more relaxed and less inclined to violence than they might have been. In Jung Chang's Wild Swans she describes China, during the Cultural Revolution, as a pressure cooker without the relief valves of spectator sports or violent films. Now there, I think, is a woman more fit to judge morality than many. The same applies to literature: recently, an interviewer pointed out how the body count in my most recent book started high and continued to rise, yet my last encounter with violence left me feeling sick to the stomach because I had been involved in something really sordid. Those who are the spectators of violence are perhaps less inclined to take it up as a pastime – probably because they really know what it is. If violence is removed from all our forms of entertainment then people will lose a valuable learning resource and wander naively into truly dangerous situations. We cannot wrap everyone in cotton wool – because there'll always be someone out there with lighter fuel and a match.

Unfortunately, the censors are very often precisely the people to whom we must perforce complain, and complaining to them about censorship would be the same as writing to an MP with the opinion that you consider politics unnecessary. Entrenched self-interest is as difficult to excise as a verruca. And the censors will never admit any argument that might reduce their power.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Ryan Britt Interview

This one was done in 2015 and I think for Barnes & Noble:

Interview question Neal Asher
(Interview by Ryan Britt)

*You’ve been described as a military science fiction writer, even though your various novels seem to be so much more. Are you comfortable with this label? What makes good military science fiction?

No it’s not a label I am comfortable with because it feels too narrow. I do like my battles but I also like building ecologies, creating monsters of every stripe including the human kind, exploring the consequences of technology like mind recording, taking a close look at what immortality might mean and much other stuff besides. I’ve read fiction that does fall squarely under that label and always felt there to be large elements missing from its depiction of the future. Often aspects of what the future might hold are neglected: how humans and their society might have changed, the new weapons and their effect on tactics (often I’ve read fiction where the battles are just the past supplanted into the future and upgraded with lasers) – the thinking needs to be wider. Good military fiction would logically be the kind that does not neglect these.

*Funnily, you’re also claimed by the cyberpunk subgenre. Your Wikipedia page even calls you “post-cyberpunk.” Other than your books, what’s your favorite cyberpunk thing ever?

I’m not even sure what the label means – in fact I’ll have to go look it up – and don’t pseuds just love using sticking that word ‘post’ on things? Well … judging by ‘high tech and low life, post-industrial cultures, megacorporations etc’ I’d say that my fiction has elements of these. But it’s just another narrow label used by those who like to discuss SF and makes me tired just thinking about it. I guess, if we want to go there, my favourite cyberpunk thing would be Blade Runner.  

*Your Polity universe is interesting for a lot of reasons, but partly because it spans the majority of your various works. This reminds me a little of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books, or the sprawling “future history” of Asimov. What are the challenges in this kind of vast mutli-book world building? Or in other words, do you sometimes fantasize about ditching all this and writing a new novel set in a totally different continuity?

The biggest challenge I guess is continuity errors. The more I write set in the Polity the more I have to check in previous books. There are the simple things like what is the colour of prador blood, then there’s the more difficult stuff like what technologies are extant, especially when my Polity stories span a thousand years. Actually I haven’t fantasized about writing novels set in a new continuity but done so. The Owner trilogy is not set in the Polity. The reason I wrote that is because if you write in one setting, no matter how wide, you can become stale. The danger of course is that when you step out of that setting the fans can pillory you for it. But I’ll never ditch the Polity because there’s still a lot of fun to be had there. I stepped out of it for a while with the Owner then came back to it refreshed with the Transformation books. 

*You concluded the “Owner” series not too long ago and now the “Transformation” series has started. For fans of your books, what’s tonally different for this series versus the previous? Are we dealing with a Revolver/Rubber Soul situation, or is this more like Magical Mystery Tour?

The Owner trilogy was my shot at thinking hard about the future and writing a dystopia, though one based on some short stories I did long ago (they appear in The Engineer ReConditioned and elsewhere). The Polity, though it can be quite rough, is a lot more optimistic and being set further into the future enters Clarke’s realm of science bordering on magic. Despite the constrictions of those continuity errors mentioned above, I can let rip in the Polity – the Owner was more constrained by being closer to the present.

*You’ve got an AI ship in Dark Intelligence—“Penny Royal”—can you talk a little about the inspiration for that?

Penny Royal first turned up as a throw-away character in a story (published in Asimov’s) called Alien Archaeology. The AI was the go-to mad scientist to get something high tech done. I brought him back in The Technician and there he grew in the telling as something enigmatic and dangerous. In a way my readers are a little bit responsible for what happened next – similar to what happened in my 5 book Cormac series. In the first book, Gridlinked, I wrote about a character called Mr Crane – a rather large android made of brass – and the readers came back at me about that saying just how much they enjoyed him. The third book of the series I wrapped around Mr Crane. It was called Brass Man. But it was also my choice because I’m a fan at heart and really enjoyed writing about Mr Crane too. In Dark Intelligence I revisited Penny Royal. My readers rather liked that creation, and I like it too. Other elements have now been incorporated, like my reading on swarm robots and ideas about distributed intelligence, and in Dark Intelligence and the ensuing books Penny Royal has grown in the telling. Hugely.

*Speaking of intelligent spaceships and connected hiveminds, what are your thoughts on Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword?

No thoughts. I haven’t read them.

*I’ve read somewhere that your patronus (from Harry Potter) would be a lobster, but what’s your favorite dinosaur?

I was going to say velociraptor because I like the name and the idea of something so vicious and fast. But the one that has stuck with me is the troodon. This is the dinosaur Dale Russell based his dinosauroid on – dinosaur man. It is also the basis of the dracomen – creatures in my Polity books created by the interstellar entity Dragon as a taunt to humankind. The troodon also turns up in a story I did for Asimov’s called The Other Gun. There it was an enjoyably lethal sidekick for the main character.

*In your books you’ve got a lot of crazy science fiction conflicts occurring to people. Of all the things you’ve put your characters through, which one of those ideas scares you the most, personally?

None of them really scares me because most are unlikely in my lifetime. I guess the idea of immortality combined with endless torture is pretty grim, which is why it’s the big stick wielded by religion. Closer to home is stuff in the Owner books: the technology to utterly control the populace in the hands of authoritarian government.

*You’ve got a bit of a Rip Van Winkle story at the start of Dark Intelligence; someone waking up after a century of being dead. This seems like both classic Buck Rogers mixed with Alien: Resurrection. From Twain to Sleeper, why is this notion so compelling for writers?

For me the appeal had more to do with ideas about immortality, mind recording and past sins coming back to haunt us. I also like the aspect of the timespan involved. But I guess the appeal in most cases is perspective – bringing back someone from the past to see the changes.

*Your parents both loved science fiction. What would you say to a young writer who’s parents hate science fiction?

Pity them.

*What can readers expect from the next book in the “Transformation” series?

They can expect numerous twists and turns, growing insight into what Penny Royal is up to, the introduction of a few more seriously odd characters and, I hope, another wild ride.

Cities in Flight

Written quite some while ago probably after an overdose of city fiction probably of the 'slipstream' variety. - Neal 2020

There seems a belief, ascribed to by many of those writing short science fiction today, that nothing of importance happens unless it is set in the ‘mean streets’ of some city. On the whole the works stemming from this will be based on some student or other urbanite living a squalid existence in a seedy flat, while experiencing either relationship problems, or angst about an inability to have a relationship at all. Often, the writers are displaying a lack of imagination by casting themselves in the lead role in the only setting they have experienced. From the other side, there are many writers of fantasy who cannot step away from the image of their characters questing through the wilderness or some agrarian idyll, though that usually stems only from the secondhand experience gained throught the books they have read. Getting back to the cities though: are the writers of much urban science fiction nowadays suffering from the same delusion as the fantasy writers?

Cities and the country bleed into each other. There are towns, villages, single houses and an infinite combination of everything inbetween; industrial sites in the country; city parks; wastelands being reclaimed by nature; connecting rivers and transport systems; and, fuckit, urban foxes. And of course in both directions there is a continuous exchange of people: wide varieties of commuters and ‘overspill’ and many so-called ‘country’ people moving into the cities to work. The dividing line, unfortunately, is near illusory, perceived mainly by resentful minds. Cities no longer have impenetrable walls around them with gates that are closed up at night and the countryside is no longer filled with Barny Hayseed clones chewing on straws and muttering about ‘tham thar towny buggers’. This perception displays the same blinkered vision as the present urban government, which legislates for cities and against the country – damaging those millions dwelling in between and polarising the attitude of many others – or of those dwellers in a time warp, the fox hunting lobby, who manage to piss off all camps.

Britons live in a huge and wonderful variety of environments. Along our coasts there are many people who have tried to opt out by living in their boats, others divide their lives between boats and often much neglected coastal houses, there are huge transitory populations on the sea on oil rigs and in container ships, many millions inhabit suburbs, large populations live in villages where their only real connection with the countryside is that they notice it from their car whilst caught behind a tractor on their weekly visit to Asda, there are inclusive island populations who don’t even think about any division between city and country, there are towns where the countryside is only a step away and in which the residents truly live their lives in both.

Of course, everything I’ve just written is also blinkered, for I’m describing Britain today. Maybe, an SF writer should be thinking of tomorrow’s Britain or an alternate one, or both. Also, Britain contains only a small fraction of the world’s population – there are actually other countries, and some very different ways of life. As for our urban environments? Even now the computer revolution is beginning to decentralise white collar professions, so what need to live in the city? Robotic manfacture is whittling down the required work force so what future need of industrialised towns? And the financial imperatives that originally made urban dwelling a necessity, will they last? Umph! Still today, still parochial!

What about undersea dwellings, orbital communities, nomadic populations, cave dwelling morlocks, people adapted to live under the sea, people loading their minds into VR, even nomadic minds leaping from artificial body to body? Ach, I could go on and on, but the point is made: urban SF writers, lift up your heads, take a look around and try to imagine yourself somewhere else. Oscar Wilde quipped about how he may be lying in the gutter, but he’s looking at the stars, some people, it would seem, are lying face-down in that same gutter.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Sandy Auden Interview

This interview is from way back in 2003. It was with Sandy Auden but for what magazine or website I have no idea.

What’s your secret for successfully writing multiple plot threads without confusing the reader?

I just take the view that my reader’s ability to comprehend is about the same as my own, and so long as I don’t get confused writing those multiple plot threads, my reader won’t get confused reading them. It is a bit of a balancing act and I’ve learnt you can’t please everyone. If you check out the reviews of GRIDLINKED on Amazon (UK) and you’ll see that some just did not get the ending. The ending to THE LINE OF POLITY for some was too much telegraphed and obvious, yet for others was annoyingly left of field – like with GRIDLINKED, the reader’s reaction depended on how much they took in earlier on. I just hope that for most readers the porridge was just right!

Why do your stories always include so many concurrent threads?

Boredom. Writing a straight forward ABC story can become grindingly boring, and doing so you very quickly know the ending, which I don’t like to know until I’m at least three quarters of the way through. I just let my stories run, take a look at them from different character’s POVs and, whenever I feel the urge, I throw in twists and turns from which other threads might develop. My problem is honing down the plot-threads I lace through a book and knuckling down to the grind of completing what I’ve started – tying off all those threads neatly. I had some problems with this in my latest book, where it was becoming too confusing and I necessarily had to strip out two entire plot threads and completely remove some characters.

We're getting to know Cormac a little better in BRASS MAN (or at least we think we are) but he's still enigmatic. Why write him that way?

To be frank, that’s just how he comes out. This is probably because he’s too busy dodging explosions or working out the motivations of enigmatic aliens, for there to be much about him. But then he’s a cypher for all those male lead/action heros throughout all fiction. You don’t learn much about them because the story in which they are engaged is the real focus. The only time you do learn something about them is where it effects that story, which is true of all a story’s characters i.e. Maybe a computer fell of Arian Pelter when he was a child and this accounts for his hatred of AIs?

Did you work out Mr Crane's mysterious background for BRASS MAN or did it evolve earlier than that?

Mr Crane’s background was written for BRASS MAN which, even when I was writing Cowl (fourth book) was only a title, and an idea about how Mr Crane would return and what his toys were really for. As I say in the acknowledgements, the book found its inception in all those who, having read GRIDLINKED, said, “I really liked Mr Crane, why did you have to kill him off?”

Why do you think Mr Crane has proved to be so popular?

I think that’s down to his sartorial concerns and his toys. It’s the appeal of that juxtaposition of the powerful and deadly with the humorous and humanising. Think of the Terminator needing to get hold of wrap-around sun glasses, the leather gear and the large motorbike, or in a Pratchett book the four horsemen of the apocalypse getting drunk and playing cards, or Death’s love of curries. 

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing some editorial work on THE VOYAGE OF THE SABLE KEECH, which completes my second three book contract for Macmillan. Here’s the blurb:

The reification Sable Keech, a walking dead man, is the only one to have been resurrected by nanochanger. Did he succeed because he was infected by the Spatterjay virus, or because he came late to resurrection in a tank of seawater? Tracing the man’s journey in a ship also named after him, Taylor Bloc wants to know. He also wants so much else – adulation, power, control – and will go to any lengths to get it. And he has brought the means.
An ancient hive mind, almost incomprehensible to the human race, has sent an agent to the world. Does it want to obtain the poison sprine – effective against those made virtually indestructible by the Spatterjay virus? Janer must find it and stop it.
Erlin, still faced with the ennui of immortality, has her solitude rudely interrupted by a very angry whelkus titanicus, and begins the strangest of journey’s. Captain Ambel’s own journey, from Olian’s – where the currency of death his kept in a vault – is equally as strange. But he must reap the harvest of Erlin’s mistake, and survive.
Deep in the ocean the virus has wrought a terrible change that will affect them all. Something dormant for ten years is breaking free, and once again the aftershocks of an ancient war will focus on this watery world. And Sniper, for ten years the Warden of Spatterjay, finally takes delivery of his new drone shell. It’s much better than his old one: powerful engines, more lethal weapons, thicker armour.
He’s going to need it.

This book is a sequel to The Skinner. Prior to this editorial work, however, I was over a 100,000 words into a new Cormac book provisionally titled POLITY AGENT. In this I answer some questions: who and what is Horace Blegg, why was Dragon really sent to the Polity, what is Dragon and the Maker's relation to Jain technology, and why, when throughout the Polity's expansion no Jain nodes were discovered, did one end up in the hands of Skellor when it did? This would be the first book of a third three book contract (Peter Lavery at Macmillan has already asked me if I have any ideas).Other possible books are ORBUS -- following the adventures of a character from Sable -- HILLDIGGERS -- a standalone (the hilldiggers are spaceships named after what their weapons can do) – no shortage of ideas, really, and if Macmillan keep supplying the contracts I’ll keep supplying the books.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

My Chair Addiction

I’ve often commented how when I was in my teens my interests were very wide ranging. I dabbled in electronics, I had a microscope and a chemistry set. This last was supplied with all sorts of interesting extras from the chemistry department of a college where my father lectured applied mathematics. I painted, drew, made sculptures and carved. I loved biology and spent hours collecting and identifying wriggly items from a local stream and elsewhere. I dissected the poor unfortunates the family cat dropped on the patio, kept caterpillars and watched that transformation, started an abiding interest in mycology because that’s what my mother studied on her teacher-training course.

Writing was something I started when I was about 15 – aping the stuff in those lovely luridly covered books by the likes of E C Tubb, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt, Blish and many besides. This continued while I entered the world of work (Engineering). By my mid-twenties I realised I wouldn’t be building a laser weapon or space drive and that I was a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none, so concentrated on writing because all my other interests were relevant.

However, despite concentrating on writing and necessarily having less time to ‘play’ because I was working for a living, all those interests never went away. They transformed. I made wine and beer, jarred preserves, restored old motorbikes, enjoyed growing stuff. I still want to know what things are in the environment, how they tick. I read a lot of science. And I repair stuff and make things.

In the latter years, with more time on my hands, the repairing stuff became a bit of a thing. If something is broken I simply cannot just throw it away – I have to take it apart to see how it works and if possible make it work again. Financially this makes no sense at all because my time would be better spent writing another book or short story, but I can’t leave it alone. Often I’m successful, more often I’m not – usually saving various parts of what I’ve disassembled because, well, they might be useful for repairing something else.

My chair addiction started on the island of Crete. The Greek kafenion chair is a pretty simple hand-made thing: carved and doweling struts , square-section legs and back etc. It’s not glued together but held together by the basket-weave seat and tautening wires running between the legs. My wife and I saw a couple of them, busted and lying in a dump while out walking. I picked them up and took them home. Out of the two I fashioned one good chair. Next was a kafenion table from the same dump, at which point Caroline walked a number of paces ahead of me laughing and pretending she didn’t know me. Like the chair I realised that the only way to do a good job was complete disassembly, removal of all the screws, nails and glue of botched previous repairs, and proper reassembly. Next came repairs for friends – usually disassembly followed by reassembly with glue and the application of sash clamps.

I found a broken bamboo chair – I spotted it at the side of the road while driving down to a beach. On the return journey it sat in the passenger seat of the car, safely held in place with the seatbelt. Caroline and my parents-in-law consigned to the back. Since I was on Crete I was able to find bamboo to replace the broken parts and I then used flattened broom twigs for the binding. Another chair I repaired and then, while talking to a friend discovered he was an upholsterer in a previous life, which was handy. The one after that was an ancient thing that had been shattered, but our wood glues are very good so I stuck it back together, carved new parts for it, then did some upholstering myself with ersatz white leather, a carefully carved surround of thin wood and fancy metal studs. A friend wanted this chair repaired as a gift for his girlfriend. Since things hadn’t gone so well in that relationship he then aimed to use it for fuel for his stove, at which point I rescued it.

After that was a wobbly Victorian chair for my old editor. That was a kind of time travel as I took it apart – the layers of upholstery, the years upon years of repairs, the hundreds of nails, studs and staples. Reassembly again involved sash clamps and reupholstering and, of course, as with all the previous items, filler, sanding, wood stain and varnish.

It’s strange how you fall into things. I now have a collection of broken chairs sitting on Crete waiting for my attention, and I will no-doubt much enjoy repairing them. But of course the ones I keep I continue enjoying because, in the end, those belongings you lavish love and attention upon, and which have their own quirky story, are the best ones to own.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Interview for Angelica Jones

Here's an interview from 2013. Interestingly this was just after Jupiter War and before the name changes in the Transformation trilogy, as you will see below.

1. Out of all of your books, which book (or series) is your most favorite?

Difficult call since I have many favourites for different reason. Of my past books they would be The Skinner and Brass Man, of the three coming out it’s The Departure, but now of course, my favourite is what I’m now working on…

2. What is your inspiration behind the Owner Series?

I wanted to try something different from my usual Polity stories and, just like my Spatterjay series, found inspiration from a few of my previous short stories. These appeared in my collection The Engineer and its second version The Engineer ReConditioned and are Proctors, The Owner and Tiger Tiger. I’ve since done a few more set in this ‘Owner’ universe with Owner Space, which appeared in a Gardner Dozois collection and Memories of Earth which appeared in a recent issue of Asimov’s. In these stories Earth was often a distant Malthusian and oppressive nightmare, and the way the Owner behaved in controlling the worlds he ‘owned’ often related to that with ruthlessly-enforced population restrictions and humanity confined to certain areas. In fact, I wrote those stories when I still believed the messages of doom promoted by various green NGOs. When it came to the books I didn’t have to go with such a dystopian scenario because the Owner of the stories was truly ancient – 10,000 years old – and there was no real indication of the Earth he came from, just that it was out there and some bad things had happened there at some point in the past. However, because I hadn’t written one before, I decided to set the rise of the Owner in a near-future dystopia.

3. What is your favorite SF TV show?

Babylon 5 because it's one of the few that has a satisfying story arc that completes, rather than being an extended franchise that ends up being cancelled.

4. As a man of many traits, what do you say to those aspiring writers who are afraid to take a chance as you did, when you decided to solely focus on writing?

I have to be honest here. I spent 25 years running at the publishing wall with my head. Initial success was in publishing short stories, then some novellas and a collection. When I was finally taken on by a big publishing company I carried on doing the day-job for a couple of years to ensure I had enough money coming in to live on. I focused solely on writing only when I knew I could survive on it.

5. Other than the release of Jupiter War, what's next for you?

Well, I’ve already written another 3 books to first draft and handed the first of these into Macmillan. They concern an artificial intelligence, whose body form is similar to that of a giant black sea urchin, who first put in an appearance in the short story Alien Archaeology and then appeared in The Technician. The overall title of the trilogy is Penny Royal (the name of that AI), while the names of the books are: Isobel, Room 101 and Spear & spine.

This epic begins shortly after the events in The Technician, with the quest for vengeance of a bio-espionage officer resurrected from mem-crystal a century after the war between the Polity and the prador. It concerns the transformation (another of my favourite themes) of Isobel Satomi, Graveyard crime lord. Renegade prador abound, one of whom is undergoing his own grotesque transformation, and there might be some upsets involving the odd giant dreadnought or state-of-the-art Polity attack ship. It concerns the Weaver, a gabbleduck and only sentient example of the Atheter – a race that committed a form of suicide two million years ago. And it concerns Penny Royal, of course, who is once again on the move and might not be quite as ‘safe’ now as people had supposed, who in fact might be the most dangerous AI in existence...