Interview here with My Bookish Ways. Nice questions, including what book would I most like to experience again for the first time.
Incidentally Mother of Eden is out in the UK on June 4th (in spite of some slightly confusing statements on Amazon UK, which the publishers are currently fixing). It’s out in the US this week.
In the picture I’m standing on a Roman road outside Cambridge, where I go to walk our dogs. Sort of appropriate really, in a book which talks a lot about living among the residue of the past.
Here’s a short Q & A that the US publishers (Broadway) did with me for Mother of Eden:
1. The protagonist of Mother of Eden is a headstrong, determined young woman named Starlight Brooking, who brings about huge changes in society around her throughout the course of the novel, ending up as a truly revolutionary figure. Did you make a conscious decision to have a female protagonist? What is the role of female characters in science fiction in general, and has that changed over the years?
I guess as a writer, one tends to default to viewpoint characters who are a bit like yourself. Well, I know that’s true of me anyway, and so I make a conscious effort to try and develop main characters who are different. John Redlantern, in Dark Eden, while male, was unlike me in that he is very much a doer: someone who must be constantly on the go in order to feel alive. (This really isn’t me at all! I’m very good at doing nothing!)
Given that the protagonists of all my novels, and the majority of my short stories, had been men, I decided that it was about time I wrote a novel with a female main protagonist. In fact Starlight is female and a doer. (She’s also less than half my age, but this is common for my characters. I don’t seem to have done with that time of life!)
I like Starlight as a character. Others will have to judge of course, but, apart from that first little conscious effort of choosing a female protagonist, I didn’t find it hard to write from her perspective. Then again, I have three sisters (no brothers), two daughters, a mother, a wife, women friends, and I have worked most of life in a profession which is 85% women. If I’ve being paying attention at all, I really ought to be able to describe things from a women’s perspective!
As the book developed, it became increasingly about women too. As in Dark Eden, the story is told by a number of different people and, at one point I thought of having only women as viewpoint characters. In the end, although most of the viewpoint characters are women (Starlight, Glitterfish, Julie, Quietstream, Lucy…), I did include two men: the gentle Greenstone, and the brutal Snowleopard.
I am sure that most of the science fiction I read growing up in the seventies was (a) written by men, and (b) had men as main characters, with women mainly present as objects of love and desire. I think SF has moved on from that, thank goodness. However it does strike me that we are still better in SF at writing about tough male and female protagonists acting in stereotypically “masculine” ways, than we are at writing about people (men or women), who are gentle and nurturing in stereotypically “feminine” ways. I think that’s something to think about. After all, we need nurses and teachers at least as much as we need soldiers and atomic scientists, and I would say a good deal more so.*
2. Mother of Eden has so much to say, as Dark Eden did, about how civilizations develop and the sacrifices we make in the process. Did you start with certain issues that you wanted to address, or did those come naturally as you wrote the novel?
Well, both. I think the content of this book flowed naturally from Dark Eden, and some basic themes were certainly there in my mind from the beginning. But new themes and ideas emerged as I went along.
In Dark Eden, I showed a society that was becoming increasingly dominated by men, and increasingly controlled by violence. I knew from the beginning I wanted to think about how that developed. In Mother of Eden, the followers of David and the followers of John have created two hierarchical, militarized and male-dominated societies (a description which, of course, would still fit most of the societies on Earth today). However in both societies, there persists a folk memory of the time when the whole human community of Eden was a single family in which the central figure was a woman. (I think this is also true for most of us on Earth today: most of us grew up in an environment in which a woman was the dominant figure, our primary source of nourishment and comfort and safety, insofar as we had these things at all). Even in these male-dominated societies, it seemed to me, women still had immense power, and men, afraid of this power, had tried to channel and control it in various ways to make it serve their purposes. Gela’s ring, which Starlight puts on her finger, became a focal point for a lot of my thinking about this.
Something that emerged as a theme as I went along was power more generally. Not just men’s power and women’s power, but power itself: what it is, where it comes from, what you have to do to get it.
Another theme, that was of course present in Dark Eden also, is our relationship with the past. Now of course, the story of Dark Eden is itself the past, and we have two different societies whose enmity is based on their different takes on the meaning of those events, much as (for example) the enmity between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the world today is a continuation of a quarrel that goes back to the eighth century.
As to the sacrifices we make in order to progress, yes this remains a big theme in this book. I am struck by the idea that every human society is a kind of compromise. To get one thing, we have to give up another. There is always a price for everything, it seems to me. This means that if you want easy answers, or comforting messages about how one day everything will all be wonderful, then I’m not the person to come to! I guess if I had an easy answer, I wouldn’t be writing novels!
3. Mother of Eden takes place 200 years after the events of Dark Eden. How did you decide which changes would have taken place in that time? How has the language changed as the inhabitants of Eden have lived there over the decades?
The decisions you make when writing a book of this kind are always a compromise between realism and what works for the story. I did not make major additional changes to the language, over and above those made in Dark Eden, because I didn’t want to make things too difficult for the reader, but I tried to give some sense of the fact that geographical dispersal has meant that people in Eden no longer speak a single dialect but several different ones which would, in the fullness of time, become separate and mutually incomprehensible languages. I also tried to show how new words would have to be reinvented when old words had been lost. In Dark Eden, having lost the words “sea” and “ocean”, but having retained the word “pool”, John and his followers give the name Worldpool to the large body of water they found on the far side of Snowy Dark. In Mother of Eden, the institution of marriage having been forgotten, new words have had to be invented as something like marriage has re-emerged in both of the main societies. Likewise, since the word “servant” ceased to exist in the relatively egalitarian early days, new words have had to be found to describe people who perform that kind of function in the new near-feudal hierarchies that have emerged.
In relation to society more generally, I just tried to think of the way the dynamic at the end of Dark Eden would lead: an expanding population, enormous new territories, competing leaders and ideas…
4. On a related note, can you describe your process of world-building? How did you go about creating the world of Eden—and even beyond that, imbuing it with a sense of history and tradition? I was struck by how the characters act when they go to Veeklehouse, the same way we might act about seeing a monument today. What’s the process of taking a basic human reaction like that and translating it to a totally foreign environment?
Well of course, that’s an old theme in SF: estrangement, things from the present seen in a new light in the completely different context of the future… And it’s a universal human experience too, isn’t it? Human bodies and minds come and go, but our artifacts may continue for hundreds or thousands of years, as a kind of ghostly reminder that things were not always like this, and won’t always be like this in the future. I live in Cambridge, for instance, in the part of England known as East Anglia and every week or so I walk my dogs along the top of a dyke built a millennium and a half ago to protect the Kingdom of the East Angles against invaders from the West. You can’t know the names of the people who built it, or what was going through their minds as they worked. That’s all gone for good. Yet the dyke remains stubbornly there.
My world-building takes as it starting point my thoughts about the world I actually find myself in and the dynamic that led it to be that way. One thing I try to avoid is going for continual novelty. I don’t want to overload my world with wonders. Of course, I take all kinds of liberties, and yet I want my worlds to feel like worlds and not like theme parks.
5. You’ve written before on the distinctions between literary fiction and science fiction, or “genre fiction” as a whole—including a piece last year for The Atlantic. Why do you think it’s so important to debunk these stereotypes?
Well, my motive is basically selfish. I don’t want people thinking that my stuff is ‘just science fiction’ and therefore not worth taking seriously. I can’t judge the merits of my own work, but I do know it deals with the same range of issues and concerns as any other branch of fiction, and I’d like that to be recognized.
As I’ve said many times before, all fiction involves making stuff up –making up characters, making up situations– in order to be able to explore aspects of life that might otherwise be impossible to reach. (After all, imagination is needed just to put yourself into the head of a person other than yourself.) Science fiction’s one defining feature is that, as well as inventing characters and situations, it also invents worlds that are in some way different from the one we actually know. It’s just another strategy that can used to generate stories, one among many, and I refuse to believe that the mere presence or otherwise of this strategy is reliable indicator of the quality or seriousness of a book. SF can be brilliant, good, bad and terrible, but then so can love stories, or war stories, or stories set in the past…
*More extended thoughts on this theme can be found here in a post I called ‘An unsung Einstein’.
This interview took place some months ago, but has only just been posted here. They were rather interesting questions, though, looking through my responses, I seem to have been a slightly jaundiced mood at the time. The interviewer is based in Sydney.
Interview with Paul Semel here.
Thanks to Iain Maloney – his debut novel, First Time Solo is out this year – I’m a link in a chain. The idea is that writers answer four questions on their blog – What am I working on? How does my work differ from others in its genre? Why do I write what I do? How does my writing process work? – and then nominate one or two other writers to do the same. You can see Iain’s answers here. And here are mine:
What am I working on?
I’ve just finished a short story for an anthology edited by Ian Whates (Solaris 3). It’s called ‘The Goblin Hunter’. I’m currently working on another short story.
I’ve recently completed a new draft of Mother of Eden, which will be published by Corvus later this year, and another draft of the new, and quite substantially rewritten, edition of Marcher, also to be published later this year (by NewCon Press). I’m waiting for some editorial feedback on Mother of Eden, and a friend is kindly having a look at Marcher for me. Hence the opportunity for a story-writing interlude.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Genre’s a slippery concept. It’s one of those words that we use as if we all mean the same thing by it, but in fact it can mean a number of different things.
Leaving that aside, though, every single bit of fiction that I’ve published has been categorizable as science fiction, in so far as (a) there’s always something in the world of the story that’s different from the world we live in, and (b) that something is always, at least nominally, explainable by science, rather than being supernatural. (I did write one story – ‘The Warrior Half-and-Half’ – where there was a dispute between two characters about whether the latter was the case.)
I couldn’t possibly claim my work to be different from everything else in the science fiction arena, but there are some things quite commonly found in science fiction that I tend to avoid:
I’m not keen on thriller-style protagonists or a thriller-like stance on life: hard-boiled, supercompetent, nonchalantly violent, effortlessly at home with technology. This may partly be because such people are so utterly unlike myself that I find it hard to imagine myself inside their heads, but I suspect that they are equally alien to a lot of people who write about them, and that this is why they often seem rather wooden, as characters tend to be if the author hasn’t been able to sit behind their eyes. I try to give my characters real emotions. Indeed their emotional lives are often what I start with.
I try to avoid overdoing the pyrotechnics. I get quickly bored by books or films in which one fantastic, amazing, stupendous, utterly gigantic thing follows another. I yawn at the idea of yet another incredibly vast spaceship, for instance, or yet another incredibly narrow bridge over yet another bottomless abyss. I’m all for ‘sense of wonder’ – it’s one of the incredients that drew me to SF in the first place, another being the limitless potential for thought experiments of every kind – but if you want to elicit a sense of wonder from your readers, I think it’s often a case of ‘less is more.’
I’m also not that keen on the space opera convention of the galactic empire (though I’ve occasionally toyed with it in short stories). This is partly because (to me) such settings tend to be classic cases of ‘more’ ending up as ‘less’ – if you present a galaxy in which each planet is basically a single nation, and people go back and forth between them in days or weeks, what you have really done is reduced the galaxy to the size of the Earth! – and partly because it just so isn’t ever going to happen. Not that there’s nothing wrong with writing about things that couldn’t really happen, of course – I’ll cheerfully admit that this is true of nearly all of my stuff – but I regret the fact that this particular not-going-to-happen has become so dominant within SF.
Why do I write what I do?
I don’t think I would find it easy to get involved in writing something if there wasn’t at least some sort of personal catharsis involved in doing so. And I think that feeling of catharsis, that sense of getting something out of the darkness of myself and into the daylight of the world, has a lot to do with why I write.
Another reason for writing is to do with my jackdaw-like tendency to collect interesting titbits in my mind, and then spend a lot of time ruminating over them. The things I find interesting – language, evolution, religion, bats, gender, childhood, irresolvable conflicts, octopuses… etc etc – are way too diverse for me to be a specialist in any of them, and in any case (I’m not sure why!) my whole nature shies away from specialising in anything. So writing fiction is a way of connecting all this stuff together into some sort of harmonious whole. Maybe a bit like the glass bead game in that novel by Herman Hesse, if anyone reads his stuff any more.
How does my writing process work?
I came across a quote from Mozart once, in which he said that the development of his musical ideas was something that he was consciously aware of, but the ideas themselves came to him in a way that was outside of his control, as if they’d been given to him by someone else (he may well have mentioned God). I can relate to that. In the past, I could go for long periods, maybe a year or more, without writing anything at all. There just didn’t seem to be anything there, and when I tried to force it, nothing came. But eventually it always did come, apparently from nowhere, and I was off.
Now that writing is my main job (I still have a day job also for two days a week), I obviously can’t take the position that if something isn’t there, I won’t even try. But since I’m writing mainly full-length stuff these days, and since, too, I’ve been writing now for several decades, I always have plenty of material to revise and rework if new stuff won’t come, and I find that if I go back a bit and go over what I’ve already done, I can often build up enough momentum to keep on forward into new territory.
I’ve also learned that sometimes you just have to hack stuff out, even if it feels like there’s nothing there. A project which refused to comes to life at the first attempt, will often, when I revisit it, spring to life at once, as if my mind has been quietly working away at it in the intervening time. This means it’s always worth building up a stock of raw material to come back to and work on later.
Actually, the process is a bit like surfing. You keep paddling back out into the sea over and over again, waiting for the right wave, and trying to stand up at just the right moment. Most times it doesn’t work – you paddle fast, you jump up on the board, but the wave leaves you behind – and then, suddenly and unexpectedly, you’re there.
* * *
Now for the next links in the chain, two friends of mine, and excellent writers both.
Una McCormack has written three Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels, two Doctor Who novels, and numerous short stories. Her short story, “Sea Change”, was selected to appear in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology in 2008.
Una is a fan fiction writer whose writing was so good that she was headhunted by publishers of Star Trek novels. (Yes, I know what I said about space opera above, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me!) You have to understand the sheer volume of fan fiction that’s out there to get a sense of Una’s achievement in being noticed. There are millions of instances of it on the internet (that’s to say: original pieces of writing, set in fictional worlds known to all of us: Star Trek, Harry Potter, Dr Who, Narnia, Middle Earth). What struck me about her Star Trek novel, The Never Ending Sacrifice, was that its vivid depiction of a brutally hierarchical society read more like Ursula Le Guin than a spin-off from someone else’s TV show.
Tony Ballantyne is the author of the Penrose and Recursion series of novels as well as many acclaimed short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world. He has been nominated for the BSFA and Philip K Dick awards. His latest novel, Dream London, was published in October 2013. He is currently working on Cosmopolitan Predators! for Aethernet Magazine.
His shortlisting for the Philip K Dick award seems to me particularly appropriate. The combination of deep darkness and cheerful playfulness in Tony’s writing is reminiscent of Dick, though Tony’s work has a flavour all of its own. In Dream London, dark, nightmarish forces have taken over the city and no one knows what’s happening, or even what’s real.
Here’s a recent interview with Kritika Iyer. Thanks, Kritika!
Here is the entry about me in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (out of date on my place of work, but otherwise pretty accurate.) What an honour! I was amused by the little space kept ready for the date and place of my death.