Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Cult of Me Interview

This one round about the publication date of Dark Intelligence. Amazed to see, down at the bottom, I was still using my Virgin Freespace website then.

Please introduce yourself, who are you and what do you do?

I’m Neal Asher science fiction writer, one of the big boys in British space opera if you believe some, or a hack who snuck in under the wire if you believe others. But though it’s nice to define myself as a writer, I am and have been other things too. As the biography on my blog says: I’ve been an engineer, barman, skip lorry driver, coalman, boat window manufacturer, contract grass cutter and builder. Now I write science fiction books, and am slowly getting over the feeling that someone is going to find me out, and can call myself a writer without wincing and ducking my head.

I started off being published in the small presses – in the days when most magazines were still printed and posted – getting my first short story published back in 1989. After that I worked my way steadily up the writing ladder to actually be paid for a story some years later, then producing a couple of novellas and an anthology after that. I was taken on in 2000 by Macmillan and have been overproducing for them ever since. Thus far they have published 17 of my books while I’ve also done a few on Kindle myself. My stuff is translated into 10 or so languages, into audio books too, but no film yet.

What first inspired you to start writing?

I have a standard pat answer to that. I’ve always had an interest in all sorts of stuff – chemistry, biology, electronics, art, reading and writing – but it was all a bit scattershot. I realized that to achieve anything in any of them I needed to narrow my focus i.e. I was a Jack of all trades but master of none. I chose writing because it could include an eclectic selection of those other interests. However, this pat answer does not explain the thrill I get when I hear Paperback Writer by the Beatles or the yearning I had when I used to watch the old Melvin Bragg program for which it was the theme tune. I guess I got so much pleasure from my reading of vast amounts of SFF I couldn’t see a better job than being one of those who produced it.   

And what attracted you to writing science-fiction?

Science fiction sort of found me. I wanted to write and the next step was publication as vindication of that. I started off writing a fantasy (in pen on paper then typed on an electric typewriter – I have to add that I have actually done real cutting and pasting!) and completed a trilogy plus the first book of another one. These I was sending to big publishers, and they were promptly sending them back. Next researching smaller markets I wrote articles and short stories. I then discovered the SFF small presses and started producing science fiction short stories for them. Meanwhile I wrote a contemporary novel, then I wrote my first SF novellas like Mindgames: Fool’s Mate, The Parasite and The Engineer. Only after these and numerous short stories did I attempt something larger, and that was Gridlinked. I reckon the reason I didn’t start off straight away with science fiction was that I was aware that I did not know enough. Contemporary stuff you write about the extant world, for fantasy you make it all up (though logical consistency is required) while for SF you have to have a pretty wide knowledge of science before you make it all up on the basis of that. 

If you could spend a day with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

I’m not really sure that there’s anyone. There are many I’ve admired from afar but I don’t know them. I’m old enough and wise enough to now know that someone can be an icon in the public world but that does not necessarily mean they are not an arsehole in private. I’ll keep my illusions.

Which author do you most admire and why?

I have so many I admire for so many different reasons, or sometimes because of one book. For singular books it’s the likes of T J Bass for Half-Past Human or James Kahn for World Enough & Time (and there are others). Then there are those writers who have never disappointed, whose every book I have read and kept: Terry Pratchett, Iain M Banks, Roger Zelazny, Tanith Lee, Sheri Tepper, C J Cherryh, David Gemmell, Alan Dean Foster … Aaargh! I could just go on and on.

What is your favourite word?

I try not to have a favourite word because, as a writer, I want to use the best word for the job. I was once accused of overusing ‘candent’, but I’m all better now and don’t use it so much.

Where is your happy place?

Usually I would say swimming in the Libyan Sea off the coast of Crete or eking in my garden at my house there. However, my wife Caroline died of bowel cancer this January and right now I don’t have any happy places.

What are you working on at the moment?

Over the last year or so I wrote the first draft of a trilogy concerning and AI called Penny Royal. This entity first appeared in a short story called Alien Archaeology (published in Asimov’s and a Year’s Best anthology) then in my book The Technician. This trilogy has the overall title of Transformations and the books are: Dark Intelligence, Factory Station Room 101 and Spear & Spine. Presently I’m editing them.

Tell us about your latest work and how we can find out more.

The next one to appear will be the first mentioned above – scheduled to be published next February. The last book I had published was Jupiter War, the last in the Owner trilogy, the prior books being The Departure and Zero Point. If you want to find out more about these books and all my others there’s plenty of information on my website There’s also plenty of stuff on my blog at I can also be found on facebook at neal.asher or on Twitter @nealasher And of course my stuff can be found in all good book stores online or on the high street.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

My Other Stuff

Since being taken on by Macmillan I’ve published getting on for 30 books, but not all of them are from that publisher. I’m not a writer who had instant success with a big publisher. As I have noted elsewhere, I climbed every step of the ladder, sometimes with people stepping on my fingers. I’ve had numerous short stories published in magazines that no longer exist now, novellas and collections similarly launched by ‘small presses’ that went to the wall, and others that didn’t and are still selling some of my old stuff.

All of this happened before the advent of Kindle and Amazon’s POD (print-on-demand) books. I went from sending stuff by post along with return postage to that excellent invention called email. Wow! I could send stuff without having to print it out! Though, admittedly, at the time small presses insisted on hard copy before any emailing happened. Then, as now, there were many wannabe writers who would have created an email deluge.

Anyway, since being taken on by Macmillan I’ve published a fair bit of this stuff on Amazon. Recently, because I could, I published a 21,000 word novella called The Bosch, and again discovered there are plenty of fans who don’t know about ‘My Other Stuff’. 

I’ll go through, kinda, in order of original publication. The first thing that was not a short story was a novella I originally titled To Die But Once. I’d found out about a press aiming to sell airport short reads called ‘Club 199’ and sent this effort of to them. It surprised the hell out of me to get an offer for it of £1,000 and I snatched it up. The novella (45,000 words) was duly published but then, not long after and (I think) due to changes in the ‘net book agreement’, Club 199 went down the pan. I didn’t my much like their title change to Mindgames:Fool’s Mate because it reads like an observation. Here it is on Amazon. It just has a generic cover on there, not this one. Up in my loft I have about twenty or so of the originals in shrink wrap – bought from a distributor who tracked me down in later years. I may sell them off one day.

Jason Carroll, an ex SAS soldier and contract killer is convinced he will die in action. It is thus embarrassing when he is run over by a bus. It is even more embarrassing when he, an atheist, realises there is an afterlife…

Resurrected on a huge flat plain, he is forced to play a deadly game. Moved as a pawn to the whim of the Gods in a fight to the death with warriors from all ages of earth’s history. Killed again and again only to be resurrected.

The General, the Grim Reaper and Anubis are some of the strange beings who direct this grisly entertainment. Is it real or only in his decaying mind. Who is the Clown? It there anywhere to escape to?

To retain his sanity, he must believe there is an end; an escape; a purpose. A thought-provoking story leading to an action filled climax that challenges our accepted beliefs…

While this was being published I was banging out stories to those small magazines when a new small press called Tanjen took an interest. First up they published a 40,000 words novella called The Parasite. After that they published a collection of short stories called The Engineer. Tanjen was another of those small publishers that went to the wall. The Engineer is still published by Wildside Press in the US (but available here too) but under the new title The Engineer ReConditioned with a couple of extra stories. The Parasite I published myself – again in a generic cover.

After mining complex ices deep in the Solar System, Jack Smith is concerned about his profit margin, but is it him who doesn’t want to face quarantine or something squirming inside him? The Cryon Corporation Director, Geoffry Haven, is also concerned about the bottom line and might consider Jack an expense he can no longer afford, though perhaps suitable for a starring role in a snuff movie. Meanwhile, the human and unhuman agents of World Health must investigate. Perhaps it’s time to deploy vat-grown killers and an anti-photon weapon, because the parasite is coming to Earth, and it’s hungry.

The Parasite was first published by Tanjen Ltd as an illustrated novella back in 1996. Tanjen closed down a number of years later and since then the novella has been difficult if not impossible to obtain. There are copies out there, but checking recently I haven’t seen one for below $50.00, which is a hell of a lot for something only 130 pages long and perhaps only for completists. I’ve edited it again, thought I haven’t been too heavy-handed since I didn’t want to deliver something that had completely ceased to be the original. This is my first attempt at self-publishing through Amazon Kindle. I hope you all enjoy it!

“Once again, Neal Asher gives his reader a meal of such exquisite taste that you're left like Oliver, desiring more.” – Authortrek

Mysterious aliens ... ruthless terrorists ... androids with attitude ... genetic manipulation ... punch-ups with lasers ... giant spaceships ... what more could you want? This great collection of 10 short stories by the author of Gridlinked, The Skinner, In the Line of Polity, and many more is a great read!   

I also, at some point, did a couple of longish stories called Africa Zero and The Army of God and the Sauraman. These were first published in a magazine, but are now published under the single title Africa Zero by Wildside Press. Only available in paperback I think.

The novellas Africa Zero and Africa Plus One in one book. The Collector rampages across a far future Africa populated with gene-spliced vampires, resurrected mammoth, and nutters with APWs. But he can handle it.

In the late nineties, still looking to find homes for my stories, I came across a publisher called Piper’s Ash and sent them a few stories. They published five short stories under the title Runcible Tales and kept on selling this little chapbook even after I was taken on by Macmillan. When they too finally went to the wall I stuck that on Amazon too:

This is a 'chapbook' of five short stories so not very long (about 30,000 words). It consists of: Always With You - Webster engages on a mission to destroy a Prador planet breaker. It helps if you have Horace Blegg on your side, and an internal medic, but are these enough to overcome overwhelming odds? Blue Holes and Bloody Waters - marine biologist Karl finds that humans haven't quite adapted enough - or have they? Features the first mention of the retro Anti-Grav cars featured in “Gridlinked” that I have come across Dragon in the Flower - Ian Cormac's first encounter with Dragon - this is printed word-for-word in “Gridlinked”, so this should be the Runcible Tale most familiar to Neal Asher readers The Gire and the Bibrat - Telepath John Tennyson is given more than a helping hand by Agent Prime Cause in his search for the location of a scream... Walking John and Bird - John Walker consults Horace Blegg and Dragon with questions concerning his link with Bird, a seemingly invincible entity. Trouble is, especially where Dragon is concerned, he may not like the answers.
Another small collection was Mason’s Rats. These three short stories were first published in a magazine, then published in the form of a booklet the editor of that mag distributed at an SF convention for publicity. Yup, those too, though you can only get them on kindle as the amount of text is too small for POD

With the above I’d about caught up with the novellas and collections. However, I still had (and still have) numerous short stories that need a home. To that end I put together a collection of them called Owning the Future – this title because some are set in the ‘Owner’ universe of my books, some in the Polity and some elsewhere.

I have a varied collection of short stories in my files and, of course, the temptation is there to dump them on Kindle, take the money and run. However, though I think some of them are great, some aren’t, and some are profoundly dated. I am aware that there are those out there, who will just buy these without a second thought, so I have to edit, be selective, and I damned well have to show some respect for my readers. Kindle in this respect can be a danger for a known writer, because you can publish any old twaddle and someone will buy it. Time and again, I’ve had fans, upon hearing that I have this and that unpublished in my files, demanding that I publish it at once because surely they’ll love it. No they won’t. A reputation like trust: difficult to build and easy to destroy. I’ve therefore chosen stories other people have published here and there, and filled in with those I really think someone should have published. Here you’ll find some Polity tales, some that could have been set in the Polity (at a stretch) and some from the bleak Owner universe. Enjoy! Neal Asher 04/06/18

One outlier people may not know about is a short story, published in my collection for Macmillan The Gabble, that they put out for publicity by itself. This is Snow in the Desert.

In the parched, arid wastes of this far-flung Polity world, Snow is being hunted. With a prize on his head and his life in danger, trust is a luxury he can’t afford. Hirald, pale and deadly in the blistering heat, is an ambiguous presence. But who is she? What does she want from him?
Mankind has sought Snow’s secret for thousands of years, and blood will flow in the desert before it’s revealed.

Snow in theDesert is compelling, brutal and lingers long after the final word: the perfect introduction to Neal Asher’s Polity universe fiction.

So now we’re up to date, or rather, up to date as I write this. In 72 hours perhaps not because I’ve stuck a novella up for Kindle and POD called The Bosch.

The Bosch: A Novella (Far Future Polity) by [Neal Asher]

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Getting There

Here's one from way back before I was taken on by Macmillan, so interesting for new writers climbing the ladder. Perhaps they will realise, what with Amazon Kindle publication and the ease of submission to magazines over the internet, that they never had it so good!

The first time novellist or short story writer is up a certain well known creek without even a canoe. If you're a politician, a film star, or a model  (you don't even have to be able to write), the big publishers will provide you with a nice fat cheque and a power boat. The catch for a new author is that they might publish you if you're known and as a new author you'll only get known if they'll publish you. It is also a sad fact that the likes of Harper and Collins receive two to three hundred manuscripts a week out of which they might publish two or three a year. Many large publishers freely admit that they will not even look at work unless it is submitted through an agent. It would also seem that these publishers are now run primarily by accountants and financial directors. Editors wanting to take on something new have to present this work to these people to justify the expenditure. As such justifications usually begin with, "Well this is like ... " the chance of anything groundbreaking being taken is minimal. The fact, I think, that all writers should be aware of is that these large publishers are not out to make books; they're out to make money. So what other options are there? There are, thankfully, the small presses, and through them a gradual struggle up the ladder in the hope that you'll reach a point where you can no longer be ignored.

Small press publications range from illiterate productions of stapled-together A4 sheets to some magazines indistinguishable from what you'll find on the newsagent's shelf. There are presses that produce paperback books of a quality that exceeds that of the mainstream publishers (How often have you had one of these mainstream paperbacks fall apart in your hands as you read it? How often has the cover picture and blurb born no relation to the contents?) It is worth noting exactly what 'small' means in the latter cases. It usually only refers to circulation, editor's bank balance, and advertising. They are not necessarily small on enthusiasm or professionalism. Don't be fooled into thinking that you can get any old crap published here, but also be aware that if you are good, you stand a better chance here than with one of the lumbering giants that has a stranglehold on the the newstands and bookshops.

Unfortunately the SF F and H (magazine) small presses are pretty much a closed circuit and it is quite possible for you to be very well known in them but not known outside. Very often the magazines published have a circulation that can only be numbered in the hundreds and not very many of them. The closed circuit is due to a large proportion of their readership being writers and by the mags only advertising in each other, (no doubt due to cost). What are you after though? If it is money then forget it. Payment ranges from a free copy of the mag your story is in to, if you're really lucky, ten or twenty quid. The most I have achieved for short story publication was £60 from a magazine called Scheherazade and that was for ten thousand words divided over two copies. If it's an audience you're after then the most you can hope for is that for ten or fifteen minutes you will have the undivided attention of each of those hundreds of readers. Better than nothing.

A problem you'll face, writing for these small circulation magazines, is their proliferation and their swift demise. I have frequently had stories accepted by magazines that have then folded before publication of said story. There is no fault here in the enthusiasm or even financial acumen of the editors. It is just that a circulation of any more than a few hundred seems a tough barrier to break. Some have managed to, but for every one that does it seems that twenty others go to the wall. That barrier I think is ultimately heart-breaking for many editors.

Another problem can be the lengths of time involved. In some cases you will not recieve a reply for a few months, thereafter, if your work is accepted, it can be months and even years before you see your work in print, and see any cheque that might be involved. This is because small press editors have to work for a living and that job ain't in publishing. They have piles of stories to read through and reject before they find your gem. And often they might only bring out their magazines quarterly or even yearly. You'll often notice when looking at these magazines that they'll have an issue number, but that the editor has not been brave enough to put on a date. In one case I had to wait three years from acceptance of one of my stories until publication. But let's face it, if you're a writer, you should be thinking about your next story on the way back from the post box.

Why write for the small presses if your ultimate aim is big time publication? To begin with the small presses are a superb training ground for the wannabes. Very often the editors of these magazines will take time to offer some criticism of your work (remember, if that criticism is 'this is drivel' that's more than you'll get elsewhere). You'll also get a fair amount of feedback in the letters pages and even in other magazines. In this sense the closed circuit will work for you; many of these magazines have review columns and as well as reviewing films, and large circulation books and magazines, they review each other. Also, because of that proportion of writers in the readership, you'll know that if you do get published it is not because of a lack of submissions to the magazine. The small presses are essentially a proving ground for the wannabe.

To break into the small press market you do have to buy magazines. Some magazines will only publish stories written by subscribers; a form of nepotism brought on by a desperation to get subscribers. Once you've bought a few magazines you'll have a feel for them and from adverts in them you'll find other mags to which you may send your scribblings. Each time you send something off (with an SAE and covering letter) you'll quite probably get fliers from yet more magazines with your rejection or acceptance. It is quite easy to build up one hell of a list of possible markets. If you want to increase that list then get hold of publications like Zene, Light's List, or Dragon's breath. In the fifteen years I've been writing for the small presses I've felt no need to submit work outside the UK, but then I'm not someone who produces a story a day.

Once you've broken into the small press market (meaning that you have proven your worth to yourself, not that you have learnt the funny handshake) it's worth looking at the small press book publishers in the hope of having something longer published. As you do these things take note of your achievements and utilise what leverage they might give to get you higher up the writing ladder. Unfortunately though you'll find that small press book publishers face similar difficulties to those of the magazine publishers. So far I've seen three of them get into difficulties.Club 199, a publisher aiming to produce cheap paperbacks (£1.99, hence the name) had the printing side of things organised but not the advertising side. New Guild, whom I was under contract with, made the same mistake. Tanjen, has recently ceased taking on any new work. Sadly, these small publishers are up against the huge advertising machines of the large publishers, the clout they have with the likes of W H Smiths and Waterstones, and the spreading of costs over huge print runs.

For me my writing has been a gradual struggle up that ladder, the small presses being the first few rungs. Too often we hear of someone getting the x-thousands advance on their first book and hearing this lose sight of the fact that they are the exception. There is a lot of truth in the image of the writer struggling away in his garret then drinking himself to death. The reality is that writing is hard, getting published is hard, and that if you want easy money your best option is to become an estate agent. 

It took me five or more years to get my first short story accepted and then that magazine folded before publication of my work. After that slight boost (and it was a boost; someone had actually wanted my work) I got more and more stories published, the occasional novella serialised, and a one-off novella published for a single cash payment. For my short stories my reward was a copy of the magazine and some complimentary letters (mostly). After another five years I was getting the occasional cheque - about enough to pay for a toner cartridge a year - then in the following five years finally gained some notoriety through the publisher's Tanjen, with the production of another novella (The Parasite) then a short story collection (The Engineer). My story, I warn you, has been one of relative success. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Where do I Start?

More and more frequently now people ask me, of my books, ‘Where do I start?’ I guess it can be a daunting prospect now I’ve published getting on for thirty of the buggers, but understand why many want to start when they see the enthusiasm of those who have been reading for some time. And it is to those long-time fans I turn to for anecdotal guidance.

But first let me give you some idea of what these books (also novellas and short stories), are all about. Many of the books set in the ‘Polity’. This is a future in which AIs control the ‘Human Polity’ – a vast civilization taking up a large portion of the galaxy. Books about this future form the main body of my work, which consists of series, trilogies and ones that stand alone. I have also written books outside of the Polity set in other futures, but there are not so many of them. These are The Owner Trilogy – a dystopian near future – a one-off time-travel book called Cowl, and a few novellas published before I was taken on by Macmillan. The only books where you will find these futures are mixed together, is in some short story collections.

My fans often tell me of which books introduced them to my work. Quite often they will have picked up something in the middle of a series and, enjoying that, moved on to the rest to discover the order of the books. Others, who read my books from the beginning, prefer publication order, but publication order is not series, or the chronological order of this future. For example, publication order of the first books with Macmillan was: Gridlinked (Cormac book 1), The Skinner (Spatterjay book 1), The Line of Polity (Cormac book 2), Cowl (stand-alone time-travel), Brass Man (Cormac book 3) and The Voyage of the Sable Keech (Spatterjay book 2). So you can see they’re a bit all over the place. To add confusion, while these were being published, I also wrote and published two books for Night Shade Books in the US, which were later published in the UK. These were Prador Moon (A Polity prequel) and Shadow of the Scorpion (A Cormac prequel).

Cowl by [Neal Asher]

Now, putting aside the fact that some prefer The Owner trilogy to the Polity books, or prefer Cowl, I’ll concentrate on the Polity books because with those is where confusion arises:

The consensus of opinion I have gleaned from social media, is that you should start either right at the beginning with Prador Moon and then follow through chronologically, or you should read the first two series I wrote. The latter means: starting from Gridlinked and reading the Cormac series, then starting with The Skinner and reading the Spatterjay series. Actual chronological order I’ll put below.

However (there’s always one of those), in the chronology of the Polity future, the Spatterjay trilogy comes after trilogies I wrote later – Transformation and Rise of the Jain. But some feel it better to read the Spatterjay trilogy (after the Cormac series) before moving onto Transformation and Rise of the Jain because my writing has changed over time and you will have a better grasp of the ones written later by reading those written earlier.

Sorry if that confused you – I’m trying to be as clear as possible. 

So here, for your edification, is the order of the books as they lie in chronological order in this Polity future, but not in the order in which I wrote them:

A war between the Polity and the alien prador is often referred to in the later books. This prequel tells a story about its beginning. It’s a short action read and a good introduction that does not have the complications of the later books.

This prequel tells the story of Ian Cormac growing into adulthood. He goes from childhood to military service in the ruination left by the prador-human war, is haunted by memories of his missing father and by the mysterious intermittent presence of a scorpion war drone.

Cormac is now an agent of Earth Central Security. He starts being gridlinked i.e. had computer hardware in his skull linking him to the AI net, but is taken offline to recover his humanity as he investigates threats to humanity: separatists terrorists, a giant alien probe called Dragon, and ancient lethal alien Jain technology. The books are: Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, Brass Man, Polity Agent and Line War.

The Technician by [Neal Asher]

This stand-alone Polity book tells the story set on the planet Masada, which appeared in The Line of Polity. It concerns the Atheter race who committed a form of racial suicide by sacrificing their intelligence two million years ago, a biomech war machine they left behind and an even more dangerous mechanism left to ensure their choice. 

A character in The Technician is the black AI called Penny Royal. This trilogy concerns a resurrected soldier from the war seeking to avenge an atrocity committed by Penny Royal during that conflict, restitution and absolution, and apotheosis.

At the end of the Cormac series the haiman (a combination of AI and human) Orlandine is woken up by Dragon after two hundred years frozen. They have a job to do, which is to guard the Polity against an infestation of Jain technology in an accretion disk. Together they create a defence of thousands of giant weapons platforms, but Orlandine’s idea to hoover up the Jain tech using a black hole might not be the best one she had. . .

Three travellers arrive on the oceanic planet Spatterjay, where humans are immortal and very tough by dint of a virus imparted by the leeches of that world, where living sails make contracts with the Old Captains on the ships and an ancient war drone called Sniper is growing bored. They are Janer, who carries the eyes of a hornet hive mind, Erlin who wants to find an Old Captain to teach her how to live, and Sable Keech a policeman who hasn’t allowed being dead for seven hundred years get in the way of hunting down villains. Things are about to turn nasty, what with the old enemy the prador and evil the Skinner arising.

A Polity ambassador arrives in a system where a terrible war once raged between the two rival planets where the human inhabitants have ‘adapted’ to their worlds. He knows that during their war, one side captured a bizarre object suspected of being a cosmic superstring and is investigating. It is stored in the four Ozark cylinders of a massively secure space station in orbit. A woman fell pregnant while conducting research on this alien entity they now call ‘the Worm’, and gave birth to quads. Grown up now, one of this exceptional breed seems determined to gain total control of the deadly hilldiggers – giant dreadnoughts used to end that war.

Finally here's a collection of short stories mostly set in the Polity and often related to the events above. It can fill in some nerdish detail but it can also be a starting point if short stories are your thing.

So there you have it. You can follow through chronologically or you can sort of go by publication order. I leave it up to you. I will add, that from a recent discussion on all this, that for many readers it did not matter where they started. I've seen those that started from the end of the Cormac series with Line War, others who started with Dark Intelligence. In general, if you enjoy my writing, it doesn't matter too much. You will find your way.

Happy reading!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Crowsnest Interview

Interview from way back in 2004.

 Hello Neal. What made you want to be a writer?

When I was a school kid, I would one day be taking apart an old television and finding out how thermionic valves work, the next day painting a picture or making a model out of Tetrion wall-filler, and the day after that peering through my microscope at something scraped off the window ledge, or discovering that a particular mixture of table salt and copper sulphate in solution violently dissolves aluminium. My interests were all over the place and unfocused. So it wasn’t surprising that, after a school teacher praised a story I'd written in a creative writing class, writing was added to the list. My varied interests continued after I left school, with the addition of beer drinking, smoking, and women. At some point in my late teens or early twenties I decided to focus on one thing and not be a Jack of all trades and master of none. I chose writing, SF & Fantasy because that was what I read. A good choice because it incorporated all my other interests.

When and with what did you make your first pro sale?

Pro sale? My first sale was a short story called 'Another England' to BBR (Back Brain Recluse) in 1989. I'd been writing for a long time before that, producing the inevitable 'fantasy trilogy' and revising it endlessly. I then discovered the small presses and started trying to write short stories for that market. The BBR story can't really be called a professional sale because then it was an A5 mag and the payment one free copy. My first real professional sale was the novella (written doing the rounds of a postal workshop) Mindgames: Fool's Mate. For that I received a one-off payment of £1000. It was published in 1992 by Club 199. Then more short story sales followed along with sales to the publisher Tanjen.

Before exploding onto the scene with 'Gridlinked' in 2001, you spent a
couple of decades working through the small presses. Do you think your work
is better for the long run-up?

I think so. I've been writing for a long time and that experience tells (I hope), and I did that without much expectation of reward, absorbed the disappointments, and just got on with it. I think many writers who are taken on younger, when they've produced only a little work, find it difficult to knuckle down to the next book. I don't. By the time Macmillan published me I'd written seven novels (unpublished). Gridlinked and The Skinner were sort of done at 70 and 80 thousand words respectively. I'd was about 30,000 words into The Line of Polity (though I abandoned them when I came to write it out properly) and I'd written a novella called 'Cowl at the Beginning' which became Cowl. Those years climbing up the ladder also brought home to me how lucky and privileged I was to be taken on by a large publisher. If it seems easy, then you've less inclination to work hard at making a success of it. Twenty plus years of rejections sit behind my attitude to the business of writing.

You've recently become a full-time writer. Is it strange having no other
work to think about?

It's surprising how quickly I got used to it. What may have helped was that prior to Macmillan I was self-employed, grafting for wages in the Summer and writing in the Winter. The greatest difficulty has been keeping the weight off having gone from a physical job to sitting in front of a pc all the time, and a tendency to sometimes go a little stir crazy.

How much planning do you do before you sit down to write a story?

Very little. With The Line of Polity I actually went after a bursary (didn't get it). To do that I needed to send in sample chapters and a synopsis. When I came to write the book for Macmillan I abandoned the synopsis and most of those first chapters (the 30,000 words mentioned before). I did this because I felt constrained and bored by knowing where the story went. For me writing is just as much a process of discovery as reading.

Roughly how long does it take for you to write a novel?

That's a difficult one to answer. I aim for 10,000 words a week. Some weeks I manage that. Others I don't. I'd guess at about six months to the first draft, then I spend a month editing (at one point I actually read it backwards a paragraph at a time -- you don't get involved in the story that way and pick up mistakes easier). Then I get people to read it, correct the mistakes they pick up, make additions, subtractions ... Maybe eight or nine months. Roughly. Very roughly. Cowl was 125,000 words and The Line of Polity 175,000, so you can see there's some variation.

Your books have a great deal of new technology and sciences in them, but you
have no formal scientific training. Does this lack of background help or
hinder your research?

My background was in engineering so I've that body of knowledge to call on: mathematics, metallurgy, manufacturing, toolmaking, programming computerised machine tools etc -- the nuts & bolts end of our technical civilization. I read a lot of science books and magazines and like to think some of it takes root between my ears. I've also the background of both my parents being teachers -- my mother a school teacher and my father a lecturer in applied mathematics -- and the greatest knowledge any teacher can impart is how to think. Formal training may well have hindered me by narrowing my focus. It could negate that eclecticism that writing is all about. But I don't really know. I do know that receiving such training I probably would not have become a writer. I would now be peering down that microscope, or delving into the guts of computers, or mixing exotic chemicals in a laboratory...

 If we're to believe George W. Bush, man could be treading on Martian soil in
the not too distant future. Is space exploration important, in your opinion?

Yes it is important. It would hugely advance our technology and as a consequence the quality of our lives. It would give us new places to live, grander vistas for the human imagination, a greater understanding of the universe, the possibility of the human race surviving to the end of the universe (and maybe beyond that). But what's the alternative? Do we just sit on this planet gazing into our navels until the sun goes out? If our only reason for being, is just being, then we’ve no right to set ourselves any higher than any other animals on this planet. 

Your fourth novel, 'Cowl', is out now. What attracted you about writing a
time travel book?

I'm awed by the sheer scale of Earth's history. To pick up a fossil on a beach and think that this was alive two hundred million years ago. To try and grasp the epic timescales involved: 170 million years of dinosaurs, 65 million years of mammals, and all that time is what? About an eighteenth of the time life has existed on Earth? What does a million years mean? It's like trying to grasp what a light year means. So try four and half billion years. I wanted to bring some essence of that into a book. It's the sensawunda that drew me to SF in the first place. I've found it before (concerning time travel) in the like of Silverberg's Hawksbill Station, but not in many other books. Most time travel stories seem to be set within recent human history, the last piddling few thousands of years. 

Time travel is one of SF's more tricky sub-genres. How did you come up with
your time travel technology?

The first step was to try and get round the 'if I shoot my father before I'm born' paradox. I tried to put together a theory relating time travel to energy usage, just like space travel (Simply put, you can't travel faster than light because that would require infinite energy -- kind of cosmic brake). Somewhere I'd read the idea that creating a paradox will shove you into a parallel timeline. But if time travel is possible, travellers can travel from all timelines, create paradoxes and shove themselves into other timelines. You'd end up with infinite timelines and travellers -- we'd be up to our necks in the buggers. My way around that was the probability slope. Along the main timeline at the top of the slope time travel is possible. Creating paradoxes shoves you down the slope into parallels where it becomes less probable. To get back up to the main line requires an increasing amount of energy. The greater the paradox you create, the further down the slope you get pushed. At the bottom of the slope infinite energy is required to time travel. I then incorporated the idea that time travel is only possible throughout those ages when life was on Earth, that certain kinds of energy are created by the complex molecular interchanges involved. Gasp! I then disappeared in a puff of my own logic. 

If you had one of Cowl's 'tors' attached to your arm and could travel
through time, what would you do? Would you advise your former self?

I’m quite satisfied with my life as it stands. I might nip back a few weeks and advise my earlier self of the lottery numbers. But then, would I have sufficient energy to labour up the probability slope to return and enjoy the money? Perhaps I’d go further back and tell my young self to put out that fag. It’s the ‘if only I knew then what I know now’ syndrome. But regarding the smoking: if I hadn’t smoked, rather than lighting up a fag I might have stepped off the kerb earlier in front of a bus.

Your most popular novels are those of future action hero, Ian Cormac, who
you introduced us to in 'Gridlinked' and continued with more recently in
'Line Of Polity'. Is there a limit to what you can write about him and the

The simple answer has to be no. But I may get fed up with writing the Polity books and want to do something else (publisher permitting). Maybe more about the Umbrathane and Heliothane, maybe some stand alone works set in some entirely different future (or past) world. My original intention was four books concerning Cormac, one for each Dragon sphere, but now there’s Jain technology to contend with…

'Line of Polity' saw Cormac move from the small numbers conflict of
'Gridlinked' to a much larger, planet-wide civil war. Did this change in
scope have anything to do with current events?

Not current events, no. Events as they have always been. ‘Those who fail to learn the lesson of history are damned to repeat it.’ How often should that be repeated? Shock and awe, Mr Rumsfeld? Ever heard of the Blitz? Aaargh, don’t get me started!

Both in 'Cowl', where Polly and Tack are re-educated as they go back in
time, and the physicist Skellor's nanotechnology mutations in 'Line Of
Polity', characters end up as totally different people at the end of the
book. Do you think it's possible to reach a stage where personality is as
designable as everything else?

Definitely. We do it with drugs, education and indoctrination now. We’re just not very good at it yet. Factor in technologies to alter the brain, reprogram the mind, make additions. I think it the case that anything that has been created it will be possible for us to create, and change. The sky is not the limit – far too close.

Artificial Intelligences play a major role in your Polity novels, taking a
lot of the responsibility for running governments and systems from
politicians. Do you think we will ever see a machine pass the Turing test
and perform the same function in our world?

We’re not far off creating machines that can beat the Turing test now, and there are human being about now who could not. But what does that mean? As in my books, the test of intelligence/sentience will change as we learn more. The goalposts will keep changing. As to machines running governments, what would the requirements be? I don’t suppose the ability to lie and talk bollocks would be all that difficult to program in.

Do you think people are right to be wary of machines replacing us?

I guess so, in view of the fact that we would be creating the machines in the first place and they might take on our nasty traits. I do, however, buy into the Banksian credo that the machines are quite likely to be better than us. No glands.

I take it you're already writing your next book. Can you tell us anything
about it?

Well, I’ve completed Brass Man, which follows on from The Line of Polity. That’s due to come out next April. I’m now in the process of editing The Voyage of the Sable Keech which follows The Skinner. The title Brass Man, for those who have read Gridlinked, is probably a bit of a giveaway. As a far as Sable is concerned I can say that Sniper’s back, the Prador are going for a bit of ‘shock and awe’, and a schizoid hive mind is on the scene.

What books & authors have had the most influence on your writing?

My stock reply to that, which you’ll find in the acknowledgements of The Skinner, is that list of names stretching from Aldiss to Zelazny. I’ve also stuck some top tens up here and there: one on the Guardian website and one on Zone SF.  The trouble is that as soon as I start to list them I find there are many I’ve missed.  Best to just say many many writers and many many books – not all fantasy and SF.

You mention in your biography that you began writing fantasy. Do you ever
plan returning to the genre?

My plan is to some time return to that fantasy I’ve written and rewrite it. When I’ve got the time … Other things get in the way though. I know I’ve got to write more stories, novellas and the next novel for Macmillan. Only in the last couple of days someone has been after me to produce some Polity novellas to publish in a collection. Maybe I’ll return to the fantasy when all the other wells run dry, which I hope never happens.

With yourself, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and Ken Macloed, among
others, hitting their stride in the hard-SF genre, British science fiction
is looking good at the moment. Is this a trend you see continuing?

All I can say is that I hope so. Possibly it will, simply because SF is coming more and more into the mainstream via film and television. I know I certainly want to see more books from the above mentioned writers.

Is there any advice you can give to upcoming writers?

A writer writes. He doesn’t agonise about being a writer. Learn your craft and don’t stop reading. Don’t spend all your time on the great novel – try other markets. Never think you have nothing more to learn. Concentrate on telling a story, not on demonstrating how intellectually superior you are. The best writers are invisible. I feel a ‘How to’ book coming on…

Thanks for your time.

Regards, Tomas L. Martin

Monday, April 13, 2020

Galaxy Blog

This one was a guest blog done in 2011, regarding The Technician.

So, Emily Wu, the Product Manager for Macmillan books in Australia, told me that they supply books to a good specialist science fiction/fantasy bookshop in Sydney called Galaxy Books, who asked whether I might be interested in providing a guest blog for their website. I’ve never done a guest blog before but, being an SF writer and avid SF reader, how could I possibly refuse a request from someone with a name like that?

Y’know, I loved Ringworld, and Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven and maybe she’s related to Louis Wu? Maybe she’ll send a Pak Protector after me if I don’t do this blog. Maybe she is a Pak Protector!

I emailed the store manager Mark Timmony about this and he replied with ‘Basically I have been letting author's run wild talking about the world(s) their latest title is set in and the themes they wanted to/were exploring that are not immediately obvious from the blurb’. Well, a chance for me to waffle on about one of my books… It’s a no-brainer really.

Okay, here’s one of the selection of blurbs I wrote up for The Technician:

Twenty years after the fall of the Theocracy, a religious policeman, Jeremiah Tombs, the only living survivor of a hooder attack, has escaped his sanatorium. The scorpion drone Amistad lets him run, for though Polity technology could cure him, the AIs are reluctant to meddle since it was the near mythical Technician that attacked him, and it did something to his mind that even they don’t understand.

The amphidapt Chanter pursues the Technician in his mudmarine, trying to understand the grotesque sculptures of bones the creature makes with its victim’s remains, trying to understand its art. He is recruited by Amistad, along with ex-rebel Commander Lief Grant, and a lethal black AI everyone thought was dead.

Tombs could possess information about the racial suicide of the Atheter, but his self-destructive madness needs to be cured by confrontation with the reality about him, a reality in which the religion-hating Tidy Squad wants him dead. And meanwhile, in deep space, the mechanism the Atheter used to reduce themselves to animals, stirs from slumber and begins to power-up its weapons.

Right, time to heat up the waffle iron.

The planet Masada, the planet where this is set, first puts in an appearance in the second book in the five-book Cormac series: 1. Gridlinked, 2. The Line of Polity, 3. Brass Man, 4. Polity Agent, 5. Line War. There was, quite simply, one reason I wanted to return there –gabbleducks – and, initially, that was the title of the book I was writing. These creatures are the deliberately devolved descendants of the Atheter mentioned above, and they have grown in the telling, sparking off three short stories Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck, The Gabble & Alien Archaeology, which appeared in Asimov’s Magazine, some ‘Year’s Best’ collections and now finally reside in a collection with the overall title The Gabble. I wanted to write more about them, expand on them, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

First let’s take a look at Neal Asher’s desk and the preparations he’s making for his next book. Post-it notes on the pin board? No, just some Jon Sullivan covers, the Greek alphabet and last week’s shopping list. Rough synopsis on the screen. No, just a ranty blog about smoking bans or political correctness. Some ideas jotted down on that pad? No, they’re from the last book. Research notes? Get out of here, haven’t you heard of Google?

Actually, I did do a little preparation for The Technician by reading The Line of Polity and Alien Archaeology to remind myself of some cogent points. However, when I write a book I embark on the same voyage of discovery as you guys when you pick up a book and open it, except my voyage starts at a blank page.

With this book I started by writing about a toadman called Chanter and his interest in the grotesque art of a hooder called the Technician and, when on my voyage I found out that the Technician was a two-million-year-old biomech war machine, and that kinda hooked my interest.

Next I wrote about Jeremiah Tombs, ensconced in a sanatorium for over twenty years, mad as a box of frogs after having had a very nasty encounter with the Technician, and it having done something quite odd to his mind. I wanted to know exactly what that hooder did to him, and the only way to find out was to write my way there. Along the way it seemed the right thing to do to drop in the war drone Amistad (The Shadow of the Scorpion), a black AI called Penny Royal (Alien Archaeology) and some inevitable interference from that alien entity called Dragon, who suicided on Masada, and rose again as an entire race. But even with all these, the threat levels weren’t quite high enough and the chances of planetary extinction remained low, so it was necessary to spice the mix with a billion ton ancient genocidal mechanism.

 Keep it simple, I say.

Of course there are gabbleducks here, but they don’t feature so much as the Technician itself, hence the change of title. I guess that leaves things open for me to do a book called Gabbleducks sometime in the future.

Now, to conclude, because I’m running out of steam and don’t know how to waffle on without giving too much away, I have to wonder if you are any the wiser for reading this? Probably not, but I hope you’re intrigued…

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Interview with Irena (Croatia)

From 2007:

Just a couple of hours before I had to "meet" Neal Asher in a chat room for an interview we had arranged, I had the misfortune to read an interview he did recently, in which he had answered all the questions I wanted to ask him. So I had to come up with an entirely new set of questions and found myself probing Neal's mind about the craft of writing …

Ire: I like what you said in the other interview that a writer should - above all - be writing, writing, writing and reading, reading, reading. It seems so many people nowadays perceive writing not as a job or as hard work, but as something anyone can do. You may have the talent, the will, the whatever, but most of all you have to work and learn the skill.

Neal: It's a learning process that never ends. I would say that if I ever think that I know it all, that'll be time for me to quit.

Ire: Have you ever attended a writing workshop?

Neal: I was involved in a postal workshop and once I went to a writers circle - I didn't bother going back because they spent too much time slagging off Jeffrey Archer and complaining about not getting published. I guess it goes back to that comment I made in that other interview: a writer writes.

Ire: And how do you get your ideas? I mean, it's nothing new when you look at it: aliens, AIs, monsters, etc. But your writing has that je ne sais qui, something of yours that can't be found in other authors. Is it pure talent and imagination or do you have your little factory of ideas?

Neal: Like a lot of SF writers I'm building on what went before and putting my own spin on it. Damn, I can't really say. I'm a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer. I don't plan much. I just sit down and get on with it. I'm writing the kind of stuff I like to read.

Ire: Do you have any favorite themes you like to write about? And do you sometimes "use the SF" (as some mainstream writer would put it) to tackle our everyday lives and problems that we may face in the near future?

Neal: Our everyday lives and the problems we face do come into the equation, but tackling them isn't my main aim. I'm out to write sensawunda SF and entertain. Favorite themes would be technology, biology (usually alien, but then, if you want to find the alien just go and lift the nearest rock), war, murder ... hang on ... in retrospect it would seem my main themes are mind control, hive minds, how a far future technology impacts on the human mind and the relationship between human minds and artificial intelligence. However, if there are no big-fuck spaceships, gun-fights or large explosions, my interest wanes.

Ire: I've found on the net your list of 10 SF novels you'd recommend ( and the first two are written by Iain M. Banks. Is he your favorite author? Many critics compare your work to his, being you both have novels that take place in the same universes respectively, in highly developed cultures (you Polity, him Culture), that they are action packed and usually have very charming AIs, amongst other characters.

Neal: Ian M Banks is certainly one of my favorite authors. In "Polity Agent" he's in the acknowledgements where I thank him for his drones, though admittedly the idea of quirky robots/drones has been around for a while (R2D2 anyone?).

Ire: What other authors have had the most influence on your writing?

Neal: Well, if you list just about every SF writer for the last fifty or more years, that'll about cover it. In "The Skinner" acknowledgements I thank 'all those writers from Aldiss to Zelazny' A to Z. Greats like Clarke, Silverberg, Asimov are on the list. The likes of Van Vogt, Harrison ... damn. My SF collection is up in my loft so I can't refer to it to remind me. Let's just say there are a lot of influences there.

Ire: I'd like to ask you to give some advice to young and aspiring authors, but I know what you'd say: stop overthinking it and start writing it, right?

Neal: Yes. I'd also like to add that I'm not a great believer in natural talent. I think we all possess the capability of being good at something; it's just that not all of us possess the will and the capacity for hard work.

Ire: How long have you been writing?

Neal: I think I wrote my first bit of SF when I was about 15 or 16. After leaving school I dabbled a bit more but didn't take it seriously until I was about 20. I then spent a lot of time writing a fantasy. Later I started having a go at short stories, the first one of which was published in a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1989. Okay, I'm 46 now so, on and off, about 30 years. Shit ... is it that long?

Ire: Your books have been translated into French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, German, Russian … did I miss any?

Neal: There're Czech copies. I won their Salamander Award for "The Skinner" and was short-listed with "Gridlinked". Other countries now conquered are America and Japan.

Ire: Once I commented your book on your old website and you said something along the lines of it mattering more to you to be translated into a "small" language, like Croatian for example, then into a "big" one.

Neal: Did I? There you go: I write so much on the Internet that I cannot remember it all. Financially it's better if say America or Germany takes a book of mine, but in terms of kudos and getting my books out there I take as much pleasure in sales to smaller countries. Hey, know any good Croatian publishers? LOL

Ire: How about China then? It's the biggest SF market on the planet. Have you any plans for Chinese translations of your books?

Neal: I'd love to see it. What is it? Close to a billion of them. Another one might be India with its billion citizens too. "Gridlinked" in Hindi?

Ire: So you've written a lot and you've conquered most of the world translation-wise (or you're planning to), but do you have any idea how well your books are selling?

Neal: I know my books are selling pretty well in Britain, but I don't have figures for the other countries.

Ire: How much do you work on promoting your books?

Neal: I've done plenty of interviews, a few signings and attended one or two SF conventions. I guess I do most of my promotion like this, over the Internet, talking to those who read my books.

Ire: You keep a relationship with your readers mostly through your blog and forums. Do you ever get any ideas from the people you talk online? Do they ever make suggestions?

Neal: Yes and no. When I wrote "Gridlinked", the book included a character called Mr. Crane - a two-and-a-half meter tall brass Golem android. I really liked the character and was thinking about doing more about him. Quite possibly it was the feedback from fans - saying they really liked him - that  ... informed my decision to write "Brass Man". The feedback from fans saying they like my stuff is what helps keep my nose to the grindstone.

Ire: So, it could be said that you're listening to the pulse of your readers regarding your books?

Neal: Yeah, I'm listening. I'm not going to go off and do something all arty just to satisfy my ego - I'll keep giving them what they want.

Ire: You said you've written a couple of fantasy novels that haven't been published yet. So the question of the hour is: which do you prefer - fantasy or science fiction?

Neal: I definitely prefer the SF. Even the fantasy I was writing had to have a logical basis - the powers employed were super-science rather than magic - and there were few of the usual standard fantasy tropes like elves, dwarves or magic swords. Thought admittedly there was a 'staff of power'. Anyway, SF was where I was successful and now having written lots of it, it's my preferred form.

Ire: Why do you think there's so much interest in fantasy these days and less and less in SF? I've had the pleasure of meeting Brian Aldiss last year and he said it's because people are feeling that there's nothing much left to discover. That we've gone too fast and too far with technology and people are kind of regressing, looking for spirituality in myth and legend.

Neal: I think it is because fantasy is easier and most people know the language. The SF 'language' is a difficult one to acquire. I think you've got it about right there: a close analogy is between science and religion - the latter is easier and requires a lot less thought.

Ire: And do you hang out with other writers? Do you exchange ideas with them, discuss the current trends?

Neal: I have to admit that I don't hang out much with other authors. I've met a few. It was nice when getting taken up by a big publisher to actually meet one of my heroines - Tanith Lee - and others like Harry Harrison and Michael Moorcock. I've chatted in passing with China Mieville, Liz Williams, Alastair Reynolds and others, but never really had lengthy conversations with any of them. I guess I'm just doing my own thing and going my own way. I'm no necessarily aiming to do anything new ... I'm aiming to do what is mine, and what's entertaining.

Ire: And finally, how do you see your future as a SF author? Are there some rewards you are aiming to get? Some stories you are eager to write?

Neal: I'll keep on writing while publishers keep taking my stuff. I'm on my ninth book for Macmillan right now, am lined up for doing another book for Night Shade Books and hope to see more contracts. What rewards? The rewards are on the shelf behind me. Not many people get to earn a living doing something they love. I appreciate that and want it to carry on.