Not The Day Job

Tech journalist by day, this is where I keep my food writing & SF journalism...

For several years I wrote book reviews and conducted interviews for SFX magazine, starting with the Iain Banks interview in the very first issue. If you've seen the publicity photograph showing Iain poised at a cast iron gate, about to walk away, that was taken at the every end of the day after the photographer had kept us on top of Colton Hill in the howling wind for the whole interview and kept begging for one last shot. Courteous to the end, Iain stopped one last time and then strode away. I also wrote the programme notes for the Newcastle Playhouse production of The Wasp Factory. Despite having known him for many years, I still haven't managed to persuade anyone to have me interview Bryan Talbot.

I was a founder member of an APA called CHEFF (Cooks, Hedonists, Epicures, Foodies and Fetishists - and having been taught the meaning of fetishism at an early age by Neil Gaiman, with the aid of a brand new black leather jacket, I count myself all five of those.

My contributions for CHEFF don't really have recipes in, although there are plenty of dishes that you could cook as long as you have what I think of as 'cooking common sense' - which means you don't need me to tell you how many potatoes you need to feed three people and you can decide how much wine to put in the casserole for yourself.

If it's recipes with measurements you're looking for, you'll find some of mine in both the first and second editions of the Callahan's Cookbook, compiled by DM from alt.callahans. Sadly neither Mary MerryTail nor Ignatz manage to drop by the bar very often these days, but if you remember us from The Place, sink a toast for us.

I wrote a number of pieces for the now-defunct AboutFood site and I reviewed various items of kitchen equipment for Amazon UK. Incidentally, several of my pieces from CHEFF include references to food sensitivities which I no longer experience.

Military sf is seen as a male province and it seems to worry people when women write about war and fighting. Do you feel that you have to outdo the men?

No, when I write, I set out to outdo everyone.

I always enjoy writing Culture novels, I feel at home; it’s my train set, I built it, I chewed that papier mache! I love writing Culture novels - it’s almost too much of a self-indulgence.

At the end of Snow Crash we’re left wondering what might happen to YT and in The Diamond Age there’s this prim and proper pseudo-Victorian school ma’am racing her wheelchair and coming out with phrases like “chiseled spam”. So tell us, is Miss Matheson YT?

I prefer not to issue a definitive opinion on that.

So she might be?

I prefer not to issue a definitive opinion on the subject!

I did all the things that I wanted to do at the beginning and I stopped while I still loved it and I caught all the balls that I threw into the air while it was going on and I think it’s worked pretty well…

First it was going to be a sewer. Then a deserted tube station. It might have been a tall roof in London or a deserted smoke-filled hospital. In the end we caught up with Neil Gaiman on the set of his new TV series, Neverwhere, in the depths of South London. Ex-journalist, comic writer, creator of Dream and Death, collaborator with Terry Pratchett, short story author, song writer, poet, anthologist; Mary Branscombe finds there’s no end to the work filling Neil Gaiman’s strange dark days.

There’s an Angel, called Islington, who lives in a cave full of candles, and the Earl’s court endlessly circles London in an underground train; there’s a post-modern vampire called Lamia, and a bodyguard called Hunter, guarding against the cut-throats Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, who have “A levels in Advanced Menace”. London below is a scary place, especially for Door, whose family has just been murdered and especially for Richard who tries to help and finds that his life is never the same again. Our hero is “definitely a goodie although he does tend to spend the entire plot wandering around going ‘what?’ and ‘I don’t know what’s going on’”. And there’s a terrifying beast (who’s really a bull called Albert). If you want to know what’s going on, you could wait till Neil Gaiman’s latest creation, Neverwhere, makes it on to BBC 2 in October, or you could tackle Neil’s ‘expensive’ imagination now.

When we arrive the producer, Clive Brill, explains how lucky we are to have avoided the sewers. “We have been filming in the dirtiest, coldest, most revolting places underneath and above London.” Neil on the other hand is all affability, warning us about the gusts of ‘smoke in a can’ that fill the set, occasionally “in quantity such that it was escaping from the sides of the building and the fire brigade got called. Plus we had little firelighters going, these little paraffin things on little tin trays on the walls everywhere, fires flickering and licking…”

The set here is equally fascinating - one carriage of a tube train done up as a mediaeval hall, wolfhounds and all. Neil shows us around. “The idea is that it’s one of those carriages that you never quite know why they’re there - because all the lights are off and the doors never open and you think ‘what is that for? Does it just fill up a space?’ and our heroes find when they knock on the door of one of those that it is this mediaeval earl’s court. There’s a fireplace, there’s even a library round the back. It actually does have all the dimensions of an actual underground carriage and down there on the throne at the end we have Freddy Jones, or rather we don’t have as he’s off having lunch”. We don’t have the recalcitrant wolf hound either, as it’s having to be tempted onto the set with a handful of digestive biscuits. It’s the usual disciplined chaos of a film set, busy turning imagination into fantasy. I keep asking the owner of the imagination what Neverwhere is but it proves hard to pin down.

Beasts and earls and tube trains and angels? What exactly is Neverwhere?

“Part of the inspiration for me was as a child I always used to think of London as a magical city like Baghdad in the Arabian Nights, only weirder. And I pondered some of these names and I wondered who the Earl of Earls Court was and whether there really was a knight on the bridge of Knightsbridge. And whether they had clowns at Oxford Circus…

What I did was I just sat down and wrote the kind of thing I would love to see on television but have never seen, figuring people then would slap me down to size and what’s actually happened is that I’d ask for something impossible and then they’d get very very cold and very uncomfortable and work very long hours actually giving it to me.

So far I have made a very very very successful career out of writing the kind of stuff that I like. I don’t write things for a mass audience because I have no idea what mass audiences like or want. So I write what I’d like to see and often I find a very large number of people like that kind of thing as well.

Neverwhere is not a comedy, its not horror, it’s not a gothic - it’s a contemporary fantasy for adults which has some funny stuff in and has some scary stuff in and has some weird stuff in and has some exciting stuff in. There’s blood, there’s excitement, there’s weirdness; I think there may be a nipple or two.”

Are you worried people are going to try to pigeonhole it?

“I feel an enormous amount of sympathy for anyone who tries to pigeonhole it! My own suggestion has unfortunately been ignored - I suggested ‘not as scary as the (big letters) X Files, not as funny as (big letters) Red Dwarf!’ but they said no! I thought that was good positioning for it. Absolutely nothing like the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. It’s not like Dr Who at all!

Its strength is that there isn’t anything else like this and its weakness is that you can’t say ‘well it’s one of these’. It’s about this guy and then you start explaining London below to people and then after a while you just give up and say ‘watch it - and watch it from the first episode because it will make more sense’.”

If this one of the few sets, where have you been filming? Have you had problems finding locations?

“Well, we don’t have the money to build it so we’ve gone out and found it, like underground stations that have been closed for sixty years. We spent two nights filming on H.M.S. Belfast which is the sort of place where you think they’d automatically say no.”

So you’ve been around disrupting London?

“No! Apart from those poor people staggering off the Piccadilly line swearing blind that you wouldn’t believe what they thought they saw in the underground. The trouble was even with those few underground trains that went past quite slowly, you had to be looking in the right place and just following it with your eyes as you went, so you get one, two, maybe three people on a whole train who would have seen as far as they could see, a dinner party floating in the air with giant snakes and four people, who looked rather strange sitting around, having lunch, and huge candelabras - one of which blew over and smashed rather excitingly.

One of the things we have is the original London urban legend. You know about the crocodiles and the alligators in the sewers of New York? London for many years had a similar urban legend, that there was apparently a butcher in Fleet Street in the early 17th century who was fattening up some pigs and one of the piglets ran away and got into the Fleet ditch and disappeared off into London’ sewer system where according to legend it grew huge and very dangerous. Occasionally they’d send hunting parties into the sewers, trying to find it and they never did. People would go to look for it and they’d never come back. So we decided to put the giant boar into this and then we rapidly discovered that there weren’t any giant boars in England which made it rather difficult, so we have a beast that will be played by a bull called Albert. With make-up! Because he’s going to have tusks and old spears sticking out of his side

It’s not only a beast called Albert, it’s also a huge animatronic thing and it’s incredibly realistic. It’s something between a bull and a boar - it’s a boarish short of bull or a bullish sort of boar. It’s great, it’s wonderful and it will be going on to work with Diana Rigg.”

Did you find writing a script much different from writing a comic, or a book?

“Normally I think visually because I’m describing panel by panel; you’re writing a script; I think it’s much harder to write a good comics script than it is to write a good film script or TV script or whatever because you’re not just being the writer you’re also being the director and the editor.

Recently I’ve been approached by a few different Hollywood film studios who are interested in me directing stuff. To one of them I said ‘what makes you think I could direct?’ and they said ‘we read your script for Calliope in the back of Dream Country and it’s a shot by shot description of what you’re doing, of course you could direct’ which I thought that was very nice of them. Possibly foolishness, but very very sweet.

I’m currently writing the novel, out when the series comes out - which is a bit upside down, writing the novel once you’ve already written the script - and it’s fun because I actually know what happens so I never have to walk round going ‘well, I wonder what happens next’ because I did that for five years. I’m enjoying playing with the things that you can do in prose. Very often I look at something and think ‘no, I wouldn’t have done it that way’ or ‘hang on, I have the budget to do it another way.’” Clive interjects; “ultimately we’re restricted by the budget and Neil’s imagination is expensive.”

“An easy example of that is one place that we originally set the first floating market in the script and then lost because they have no sense of humour, was Harrods. I thought ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this strange huge market in Harrods’ food halls’ and we suggested it to them and they didn’t think it would be. And we thought ‘there’s no fun in building Harrods food halls’ so we’ve actually set it in Battersea power station now. But in the novel I thought ‘I can just go back and put it in Harrods food halls’ so we get this huge fight going on underneath the fish sculpture.”

So it’s all a nice break from comics?

“Actually DC do want to do the comic of Neverwhere. What I’d do is I’d give them the scripts and let them get on with it. We’ve also had a number of approaches from a number of different major film studios about doing Neverwhere the movie and I’m starting to go ‘I don’t know if I’d want to write the script’ - there’s a limit to how many times you can write something without getting really deeply and utterly sick of it. Right now I still like it, I’m halfway through the novel and I’m still liking it; I suspect if I actually had to sit down and do the comic script version or the radio version or something I would have had enough of it.

I’m talking currently with Warner Brothers, the film people, about maybe writing and directing a live action version of Death: The High Cost Of Living, filling it out a bit more. We may do it, we may not; they gave me a green light on it in October and then withdrew it immediately when they realised it might conflict with the Sandman movie… so we’ll see.”

Who would you like to see as Death?

“Don’t know. But I have to say that I don’t find the idea of interviewing every wonderful actress in Hollywood between the ages of 16 and 22 a particularly onerous one; there are things you do for your art, I could do that… dinner with Winona Ryder, lunch with Christina Richie, I could go through it, for my art…”

All this activity coincides neatly with the end of the Sandman comic which is what you’re probably best known for. Have you done everything you wanted to do with it?

Sandman 75 is out tomorrow. And I did all the things that I wanted to do at the beginning and I stopped while I still loved it and I caught all the balls that I threw into the air while it was going on and I think it’s worked pretty well. There are some things that I regret but the things that I regret are specifically to do with just the logistics of bringing the thing out.

I did promise myself that I would quit before I had to get up in the morning going ‘oh god I have to do Sandman.’ I never got to that stage. I got very slow, towards the end and a lot of that was because I wanted to avoided what I’d done before. When you’re starting, it’s wonderful because there’s nothing you’ve done before. Every panel transition is new, every character, every line of dialog is completely new. When you get to the end you’re trying to figure out ways to tell stories that you’ve never done before and that gets a lot harder. When I began it took two weeks of every month and by the end it took six to eight weeks of every month to write.

But also, you get to do things like Sandman 74 with J Muth - the Chinese poem - it was the kind of thing I could only allow myself to do in the penultimate one, because it was just too weird; the only place I could ever do that is the one before last, because if they hate 74, what are they going to do? Stop reading?”

Of course the story continues, with your second Death mini-series and after a fashion in The Dreaming. Are you involved with those stories at all?

“No what I have done is read them as they come in and sometimes I like them and sometimes I don’t. Really it’s leaving people the idea of the Dreaming as a playground and see what they do with it. I do plan other things - by the end of the next decade I would like to have done something for each of the Endless, that would be fun.”

And what will you be doing first?

“Right now what I’m planning on doing is all the stuff that I had to put off until Sandman was over. There’s a lot of things like Neverwhere, like novels, like movies, where I’m going ‘ooh! I can do one of those now that I haven’t got a monthly comic to write’. And I still like comics and I can go back. I think if I’d had to stay in comics for another couple of years and not been allowed to go off and do anything else, I could see myself getting up one morning and going ‘oh fucking comics, I don’t never to write another one’ and that would have been that. Everything else is prose right now, or film, or TV, except I have to do a comic strip for Oscar Zarate. Oscar is doing this book about London and Warren Pleece is going to draw this eight-ten page story; that should be fun.”

So was it a relief to do something different, with comics like Miracleman and Angela in Spawn?

Angela was such fun to do, it was complete and utter mindless silliness and it was a wonderful relief to do too. At that time, if I could get a page of Sandman done a day, I felt very very happy. On a normal day I’d get three quarters of a page of Sandman done and it was hard fucking going. And then I was offered Angela, where I’d write an issue in a day.

Miracleman is in an interesting position; it might be able to continue now. Miracleman 25 was finished two and a half three years ago, maybe longer and it’s been sitting around since not long after Miracleman 24. There is one whole comic nobody’s ever seen. Eclipse (publishers of Miracleman - Ed) were basically cheating people out of royalties and they were ordered to pay however many hundreds of thousands in back royalties and they couldn’t pay and they went under. And for years it was off in bankruptcy hell. Todd McFarlane just bought the entire Eclipse assets in a bankruptcy sale.”

Your last book was Angels and Visitations, which turned into the CD, Warning Contains Language. How did that happen?.

“Really it was what I did in my summer holiday! The way that it came about, I was getting pissed off at the fact that whenever I did readings at conventions, I discovered there was a thriving trade in Neil Gaiman bootlegs and I thought ‘hang on, if this stuff is going to be out there at least let it be good’. I never quite expected it to turn into this smash-hit CD thing; it began as a version of some Angels And Visitations stuff and then it just grew and got completely out of control and turned into a double CD.

Similarly, Angels and Visitations has gone on to be probably the small press success of the decade, we’ve done 25,000 copies of a $20 hardback which is an awful lot. It will be coming out of print very soon; we’re going to do the fourth printing and then we’re going to retire it. As part of the book deal I’ve done with Avon books in America, they’re going to be publishing two novels and a short story collection. The first of the novels will be Neverwhere and the second of the novels will be another thing, actually, about London, seen from a very different perspective and there’s the short story collection so I thought I think we’re done with Angels and Visitations, but I have an enormously soft spot for it.”

You’ve never perpetrated a funny cat book, but you did succumb to humorous fantasy in Good Omens. How did you come to work with Terry Pratchett on that?

“I wrote the first 20,000 words of this thing as a book I called William the Anti-Christ. I showed it to a few people, Terry Pratchett was one of them and then put it in a drawer and forgot about it. After I’d finished Don’t Panic; The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Compendium, I thought I can write in this style and by the time I got to the end of it I thought this is really easy, this is a doddle so I did a chapter of it, liked it, thought it’s quite good and then thought ‘I really don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer of funny horror’. Of the careers waiting for me in this world, a writer of funny horror is one I really do not want and I put it in a box, in a drawer and forgot about it.

And a couple of years later Terry rang and said ‘you know that book you started, d’you know what happens next?’ And I said ‘not really’ and he said ‘well I do. Do you want to sell me the idea and the first chapter or do you want to write it together?’ And I said, ‘let’s write it together’.”

So how did you collaborate? I’ve head you describe it as ‘alternate words.’

“We spoke all day on the telephone and then at nights I’d write stuff and mornings, Terry’s time, he’d write stuff. He had a slight advantage over me in so far as he was writing it between projects while I was writing it while also writing Books Of Magic and Sandman which meant that at two o’clock in the morning no matter where I was at on whatever I was working on I’d stop and write Good Omens until I fell asleep.

At the time Terry made lots of jokes about how once it was over, it would be our job to imply that each of us did all the writing on our own, all the way through and the other one just numbered the pages. These days when people ask I explain that I wrote 90 percent of it and Terry wrote the other 90 percent. And it also got very silly because there were places were I wrote sequences that were Terry’s idea and Terry wrote sequences that were my idea and then when we got towards the end, I’d written all the four horsemen of the apocalypse until they got to the airbase so I said ‘you take over the four horsemen and I’ll take over Adam and the gang because I’d like to do a whole Adam and the gang sequence’ so Adam and the gang going to the airbase and arriving there is all me and the four horsemen all Terry, just because we wanted a go at each others characters.”

Would you work together again?

“At the time Terry was a mildly successful fantasy author and I was a young journalist who’d just started writing a comic and we both had time. These days we’re both multinational corporations; there was never any contract between us for Good Omens, it was just ‘fine, we’ll do it and split the profits fifty-fifty between us’ but these days, the manoeuvring! People in suits would have to talk for a year before me and Terry would be allowed to have lunch together. I think he still owes me a lunch for Johnny and the Dead though, I gave him the title for that.”

Is it different when you’re working with Dave McKean on graphic novels?

Violent Cases and Mr Punch are both me things; they’re both things I wrote and then handed to Dave. Signal to Noise on the other hand, was very very collaborative. I wanted to do something about the apocalypse and Dave wanted to do something about a film director dying and I said ‘let’s combine the two’.

Dave is doing the cover of Neverwhere (the book) and he’s doing the opening title credits so it’ll be very much a kind of animated Sandman…”

Weren’t you a journalist before you starting writing comics and novels?

“I was a terrible journalist, I was really rotten. I was quite a good interviewer, but I got bored after four or five years, I’d met everybody I wanted to meet. And also I’d moved from magazine journalism to newspaper journalism and discovered that I really hated it. I do not have the killer instinct that rejoices in sending other people’s children home in tears. I quit journalism in about 1987 when I got a phone call from my editor at Today and she said ‘Neil you’re our fantasy person, do you know anything about Dungeons And Dragons?’ I said, ‘yeah, yeah’ and she said ‘great, this is your big opportunity. We want a front page and an inside spread on how Dungeons And Dragons drives people to madness, Satanism and suicide’ and I said ‘no’, and she said ‘what do you mean no?’ and I said ‘I don’t think I’m working for you any more’.”

The Encyclopaedia of SF says that your writing combines “draconian verbal economy with an ample romanticism?” What does that mean and do you agree with it?

“Isn’t that nice. I think what John Clute is saying (Neil got the author spot on, but then he did co-write the entry on the graphic novel for the Encyclopaedia - Ed), although I could be wrong, is that I get my money’s worth from the words that I use, I make them work fairly hard. When I’m doing OK, I think I do; I know that I’m in trouble if I have to write pretty because it means that other stuff isn’t happening and I’m covering for it. That’s the quote that goes on to talk about ‘the burden of half-uttered resonances’; which is really very pretty and I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it think it means again that when I’m working well I can get things to resonate, I can say more than is being said.”

Gaiman on Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is quietly prolific. It’s not until you sit down and think that you realise how much he’s written. “It’s scary; I realised the other day I’ve got over 20 books currently in print. So, things that I would recommend.”

Mr Punch

“Of which I am so incredibly proud. It’s a graphic novel I did with Dave McKean; it’s really, I suppose, about memory and childhood. There is a fantasy element strung through it very delicately like a vein. It’s basically about violence, and memory, and the nature of violence and memory and the nature of the way that you see things as a child. It’s also a lot about families and families and secrets. And it’s some of Dave McKean’s finest work.”

Angels and Visitations

“My short story collection and stuff; a miscellany. It’s a hardback book I did with Dreamhaven which has a bunch of short stories and journalism; it was basically a book I did to celebrate having been a professional writer for ten years.

Some I put in because it was good, some just because I had a soft spot for it. It’s my little book of stuff I like and it’s got a few short stories I’m fond of, a few poems I’m fond of and there is at least one short story that is simply in there because I was very proud of writing it when I wrote it and at the age of twenty one I would have been so thrilled that it was going to wind up in a hardback book that I sort of put it in for me back then, a little gift for my 21 year old self.”

Sandman

The best-selling comic and graphic novel collections that tell stories, mainly about Morpheus, who brings sleep but not always rest.

“The nice thing about Sandman now is that one is almost in a position where one can say well, Sandman. 1-75, it is a big thing. Preludes and Nocturnes, the Dolls House, Season of Mists, Dream Country, Brief Lives, Game of You, Fables and Reflections, Worlds End, the Kindly Ones and the final volume, the Wake. It is a great big thing. They should be read in that order, they provide many hours of interesting entertainment and have lots of odd stuff in. I’m very proud of them.”

Death the High Cost of Living.

“Also a graphic novel; it’s the story of what happened when Death was mortal for a day. I just like Death. It’s a very gentle up-beat, delicate little story.”

Signal to Noise

The graphic novel of a comic originally serialised in The Face.

“I’m currently very fond of that, I’m enjoying it a lot at the moment because I’m turning it into a play for Radio 3. I’ve been away from it for long enough that I’m actually enjoying the process of going back in and messing with it, writing little extra bits and going back and taking out descriptions of what you can hear and inserting descriptions of things you could see.”

Snow Glass Apples

Where Sleeping Beauty is actually the villain, a chilling story of obsession and necrophilia.

“A short story I did as a chapbook, which I’m very fond of. It’s a fairy tale turned inside out and upside down. It has been picked up by various years’ best anthologies. I think of all my short stories, that and one I did called Murder Mysteries (which is in the back of Angels And Visitations), are probably my favourites.”

Black Orchid

Neil’s first mainstream comic (after Redfox), drawn by Dave McKean. It’s the story of a superhero who’s really a flower.

“It was this very noir thing and we set ourselves all these rules; no third person narration, very bonketa-bonketa-bonketa-bonketa pace and fixed grids…”

Spawn

Todd McFarlane’s strange comic, guest-written by luminaries including Alan Moore, Dave Sim and, of course, Neil Gaiman. Neil wrote about the hunter, Angela.

“I wrote it in this completely bizarre way, I just drew it all out for myself and got a little tape machine and dictated what was happening in each panel and the artist went off and drew it and it came back to me and I’d write all the dialog. It was the easiest funniest, silliest thing I think I’ve ever done. And my son liked it which was the purpose of the exercise.”

Temps, The Weerde, Villains

Shared world books for Penguin.

Temps was an idea I’d had five years before; one night in a bar, we were talking about Watchmen and stuff and ‘of course’, I said, ‘if it was in England’ I said and just started burbling about these inept super-hereoey types who would never wear costumes just working for the civil service as temps. And The Weerde was something I basically made up on the spot when Penguin said “and we’d like a horror one”.

And then Villains came about because after that they wanted a normal one. They said “could we have one that’s closer to the stuff that people buy?” And Mary Gentle was going to have to edit that one and I said ‘why don’t you just do something in which the bad guys win?’”

Gaiman on artists

Neil’s own colour-by-numbers Sandman is always popular at conventions but he has worked with a huge number of artists on Sandman and other books, with varying results. When we asked Neil about his favourite artists he was unfailing enthusiastic.

“My favourite comic artist to work with is probably Dave McKean just because I think he’s a genius and because I never know what I’m going to get but it’s always better and stranger and more than I ever asked for. I’ve been incredibly spoiled on Sandman, I’ve had a list of artists that most people would kill to work with - of living, working artists there are very few that haven’t done something - even Barry Smith did us a pinup! I would love to have worked with Bernie Wrightson circa 1974/75 (the original artist on Swamp Thing - Ed). I would have liked to have worked with Barry Smith (the artist on Elric comics - Ed). They are the only two people in the world of classic comics that I wanted to work with who I haven’t, either in Sandman or in something else. I got to work with Michael Zulli, with Bryan Talbot, with Charles Vess, Jon J Muth, Ken Williams, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham. It’s an amazing list, it is a wonderful, wonderful list. Mike Dringenberg and a whole host more - Craig Russell in Sandman 50. I’ve been spoiled!

A lot of the people I’d love to have worked with are dead; I’d love to have done stuff with Windsor McKaye - he did Nemo in Slumberland, wonderful artist. There are other people that I’d love to have done comics with like Aubrey Beardsley and Francis Bacon possibly - that would have been interesting. Richard Dadd - a Victorian artist who went mad, killed his father and spent the rest of his life in Bedlam; where he did The Fairy Fellow’s Masterstroke and The Marriage of Oberon and Titania. In fact I’ve been talking with John Bolton (who’s another artist I’ve been spoiled by getting to work with, we did the first of the Books Of Magic together) about doing a Richard Dadd comic - the life of Richard Dadd, moving in and out of his paintings.”

Originally published in SFX magazine - copyright Mary Branscombe 1996

His books are multi-layered adventure stories with tomorrow’s technology mixing with yesterday’s archetypes to threaten a world that’s never quite as we know it, but Neal Stephenson still has to visit London to promote his latest best-seller. Mary Branscombe uncovered him in a Kensington hotel and discovered a dark-eyed and intense man with a very dry sense of humour and a penchant for painfully descriptive neologisms.

Neal Stephenson has only written four-and-a-half novels (including, Interface, a collaboration with his uncle under the pen-name Stephen Bury) but Snow Crash was probably the most successful SF novel of 1993 and 1994 put together, establishing him as a trendy, must-read author who gets his short stories into Wired and Time magazine. Stephenson enjoys the sort of mainstream success normally reserved for Terry Pratchett and Iain Banks’ non-SF novels; The Diamond Age looks set to repeat the success of Snow Crash and his earlier ecological thriller, Zodiac, has just been published in this country. His books touch on everything from virtual reality, nanotech, computer viruses and how to keep credit card transactions secret, to teenage rebellion, martial arts, personal morality and the inner meaning of fairy tales. And they’re damn good reads as well. We asked him about the secret of his success.

In the bookshops, we’re seeing Snow Crash and The Diamond Age in the mainstream section rather than on the science fiction shelves. Is your all your work SF or do you see Zodiac and The Big U and Interface as being completely different sorts of novels?

No, but those are the two that have been labelled and marketed as science fiction. I try not to be label conscious when I’m writing. Arguably everything I’ve ever written could be classified as science fiction and arguably it could all be categorised as fiction that has a lot of technical stuff in. If you look at it there’s no real logic to the way the labels work and Michael Crichton writes what could very easily be described as science fiction but it’s simply not labelled and marketed as such.

You haven’t published any short stories in the traditional SF markets. Instead you had Spew (a story about monitoring everything from shopping habits to cable TV) in Wired and Simoleons (about the development of cyber-cash) in Time Magazine. Are you deliberately looking for new markets for your writing?

I don’t know much about short stories - I don’t write many of them, I don’t think I’m particularly good at them, I haven’t published many. The one in Wired, I don’t think there’s anything unusual about that - they like to publish fiction but they don’t very often come across any that’s really suitable. And the one in Time was a complete fluke, it was a shocking fluke. They were doing this special issue on technology, they decided they wanted some fiction and they hired me as the “cyberlebrity” of the moment to write it for them. You can’t ring up Time magazine and ask if they want to publish fiction!

Are you planning to turn Spew into a novel?

No. I realise it’s got a sort of indefinite ending but that’s not to be interpreted as a sign that I’m going to continue it.

Your main characters are often very active, using martial arts, riding inflatable boats round harbours and diving in polluted water. Are any of these the sort of antics you get up to - how much of you is there in the books?

Not very much! The character in Zodiac was loosely inspired by a good friend of mine who did some of that kind of work and so he was able to help me out with some of the details - really all of the details. A lot of people are frequently surprised to find out how different writers are from the characters in their books, because I think sometimes people may underestimate the amount of creative work and imaginative work that goes in to writing a piece of fiction.

So do you get your inspiration from anywhere in particular?

I am more and more attracted to the ancient Greek view that it comes from the muse who is capricious and unpredictable, because there’s no logic to it at all.

There’s a very strong sense of place in Zodiac - Boston is virtually one of the characters in the story. I went to college in Boston and I lived there for a while after college and compared to other locations I could mention in the United States, Boston does have architectural style and a feel that is entirely its own. I think it helps to anchor any book if you can try to provide some clear description of the setting.

In nearly all of your books you have a fairly cynical view of government as manipulative and politicians as corrupt. Are your personal politics reflected in your writing?

I think that if you do even a cursory reading of 20th century history you can’t help but come away with a somewhat sceptical attitude towards large governments and government power in general and that doesn’t have to glow out of any fundamental philosophical or political belief system. It’s just very simple - if there’s a big beast that keeps running around and eating people in plain sight and knocking you around and threatening you then you can see and agree that the big beast is nasty and scary and ought to be caged or done away with without having to base that opinion on any kind of political system of belief system. So my position at this point is that I’m really sceptical of any kind of totalising ideology and that includes Libertarianism - but it also includes just about any governmental system you can think of. Actually, the more I go along, the more respect I have for some of the really old tried and tested political systems like the United States constitution, the parliamentary system here. They’re both imperfect and they’ve both occasionally been vulnerable to excesses of government power but as we’ve gotten more experience and become more sceptical of government power ,I think those systems still have a lot to offer.

The technical side of your books is always convincing, you seem to know a lot about exotic weapons as well as cryptography and computer networks. Do you hack?

Well, I’ve been programming computers since I was fourteen. Most of my experience in the last decade has been on the Macintosh. I’m trying to develop some facility in Unix and Internet-related coding but that’s sort of a future project. But along the way I’ve been reasonably fluent in probably eight different computer languages. So while I haven’t actually sat down and written cryptocode I’d like to think I have enough grounding in math and computers to be able to give a convincing account of how that stuff might work, what would and wouldn’t work - what the bugs would be.

I’ve never been paid to write code, which may be all for the better! I come from a family with a lot of techies. One of my grandfathers was a physicist and the other was a biochemist, my father is an electrical engineering professor and I’ve got various other scientists in the family and I grew up in a town that’s a one-industry town centered on a technical university so all when I was growing up of my friends’ daddies and mommies were PhDs and hard scientists. Wherever you grow up, you think that’s normal, so that’s what I thought was normal until I left. I’ve kind of been immersed in that world ever since I was born and I feel reasonably comfortable with it. I studied physics in college and moved over into geography because they were doing a lot of computer stuff at that time and it was a good way, probably the best way to get a chance to just play with computers (particularly graphical computers). I did some work as a research assistant during my summers in physics labs but I’ve never used my degree or my computer programming skills to actually make money.

How feasible is the science in your books - is it hard science or flights of fancy? Do you expect to see any of it in real life?

I think that the best approach is to stay with hard science as far as it can go and then if you want to go on a flight of fancy try to blur the dividing line a little bit. So, in Snow Crash for example, the science and the computer science is mostly pretty straight and the historical research is all for real - the only thing that’s fancy is just that one extra step of imagining that an ancient virus could actually infect the brain!

Another example that’s come up just recently is in The Diamond Age. The nanotech in that book has been vetted by the leading experts in the field like Drexler (author of Engines of Creation), and Merkle (a researcher at Xerox who’s worked out the major equations describing how nanotechnology would work) gave it a good review after the fact but the one complaint Merkle has is with the notion of a centralised feed system (which I won’t explain because it’s in the book!). That that notion is not really technically sound because it wouldn’t be that hard for every house to have its own source and you wouldn’t have to have it all networked in that way. And I have no doubt that that’s technically correct statement because he knows much more than I do! However! In a way it’s not exactly the point here, because the question is, suppose you were designing a new society that was going to be built around nanotech you might - in fact you probably would - feel the need for some kind of central control mechanism and so you might build it that way.

There are many examples of technologies in our world that aren’t necessarily the most logical way to do something. It’s not what you would do if you were starting from scratch but it’s what we ended up with because it’s path dependent.

Another point I would make regarding technical accuracy is that in The Diamond Age the Drummers are presented as being able to use some kind of collective mind to break into the most advanced crytpto schemes - well there’s a great deal of speculation there. On the other hand we’ve all seen examples of math prodigies who could do amazing things in ways that couldn’t quite be explained so it’s at least got some grounding.

Do you see nanotech as being the next big development, rather than Artificial Intelligence or a singularity with people uploading themselves into computers?

I’m pretty resistant to any scenario that presumes some kind of equivalence between the brain and computers. It just seems too schematic to me and whenever people have these really schematic ideas about what’s going to happen in the future, the reality always turns out to be much more complicated. Reality is an adaptive system; simple things don’t happen in reality, reality changes as things are happening and particularly as regards anything to do with brains and artificial intelligence - I’m sort of a follower of Roger Penrose when it comes to all that.

I think it’s possible to be very sceptical about artificial intelligence without being mystical or unscientific at the same time. The predictions of the strong AI people have been just so pathetically far off the mark, so consistently for such a long time that I think one has to assume that there’s something there that they’re not getting, that we’re not getting and one therefore has to take a cautious sceptical approach.

Were you trying to achieve anything in particular with Diamond Age, like recreating the Victorian novel, following the lives of the characters like Dickens?

Well that I guess it’s true that that aspect of the book is a little Dickensian; that was not a conscious effort to be Dickensian because I’ve always has a bent for writing very long complex novels so I suppose that writing a pseudo-Victorian novel gave me the license to give in to that tendency!

I don’t know if there ever is any one clear pre-existing goal that one pursues in these cases. It just struck me as an interesting idea and I thought that I would have a go at it; I did want to do something with nanotech because after reading Drexler’s book I felt that it would be very hard to responsibly write any science fiction again that didn’t largely revolve around nanotech so I did want to explore that, see what could be done with it.

You obviously don’t see nanotech as being the solution to our every problem because otherwise you’d have to write about post-scarcity utopias where there aren’t any problems left and it’s terribly terribly boring…

Like Star Trek? Yeah! Well, there’s a really fundamental split there, in one’s attitudes about human nature. The Star Trek attitude is that the only reason we’re nasty to each other is because sometimes we run out of stuff and that if we stopped running out of stuff we would all stop being nasty to each other and then our only problems would occur when our spaceship inadvertently ran into a tachyon storm out in the middle of nowhere! And I don’t buy that view, I don’t see any reason to buy that view of human nature.

I mean we’re very close to a post-scarcity future right now - at least in my country. There’s poverty but there’s not starvation, except in really odd places, and there’s disease but there’s not plague, there’s not people dying in the streets and there’s homelessness but most people can find a place, can find a roof over their heads if they need it - it may be in a homeless shelter or something nasty but anyway it’s something - and it certainly hasn’t stopped people being nasty to each other. I mean look at OJ - he wasn’t lacking for anything, nobody in that sick sub-culture in LA was lacking for anything but all it did was remove all the limit from how tawdry they could be to each other. That’s all post-scarcity did for them, break down the barriers that kept them from being as grotesque as they could theoretically be. So I guess one of the points that’s being made in The Diamond Age and it’s kind of a sledgehammer point, is that you’ve got this group of people, the thetes, who have everything they need in the way of food, shelter and even information and they’re still miserable wretches, just like Dickensian miserable wretches.

But Nell escapes. Does that mean you believe in the redeeming power of education?

Sure. I don’t think education by itself is a panacea, I think in general that it can raise people up out of the really nasty primitive lifestyle. But there are plenty of educated people who behave badly, so I think there’s also a need for some kind of cultural norms that encourage some sort of ethical system, what ever it may be - whether it’s based on scientific rationality or some kind of religion or whatever. I think that there is a need for ethics and morals if you will, but education is a good start.

Talking of education, at the end of Snow Crash we’re left wondering what might happen to YT and in The Diamond Age there’s this prim and proper pseudo-Victorian school-ma’am racing her wheelchair and coming out with phrases like “chiseled spam”. So tell us, is Miss Matheson YT?

I prefer not to issue a definitive opinion on that.

So she might be?

I prefer not to issue a definitive opinion on the subject!

Moving on to Interface, the novel you wrote with your uncle, is the marketing of politicians in that book based on anything in particular?

It’s very simple straightforward observation of reality in the United States, slight exaggeration and out comes a novel. They came very close to doing this with Reagan in his last election campaign, they actually had a real-time polling system hooked up during one of his debates and the results were being telephoned to Ed Meese who was standing about six feet away from Reagan just off stage and the only thing that kept them from closing that feedback loop was the six-foot distance between Meese and Reagan so it’s hardly science fiction or even fiction to talk about closing that loop.

Why did you pick the name Stephen Bury?

Well he couldn’t use his real name because he’s an academic who writes a lot of books and his publisher made an ultimatum that it would have serious consequences on their future relationship if his name began to appear on tawdry novels! So we had to come up with a pen name from him and this was before my name was worth anything and we just thought “well let’s go for it”. If we could even get one or ten percent of the Tom Clancy-Stephen King market - the airport book market - we’ll be rich so let’s come up with something really short and pithy that can be put in very large letters on the cover of a novel, or a whole series of them! So it was just pure mendacity and of course now we’re being heavily second guessed and there are those who think that we should go ahead and start putting my name on these books, combined with some fake name for my uncle but we’re going to stick with Stephen Bury because in the science fiction world everybody knows so there’s no point. It’s not going to help because everybody already knows!

So there’ll be more Stephen Bury books?

Yeah, we just finished one called The Cobweb which is going to be out in the States next summer and we have ideas for more, it’s just we’re taking a breather from it now for a year or two, we may get back to it later.

Cobweb is set in a Twin Cities area in Iowa in 1990 and one of the cities is a university town - lofty and affluent, up on the bluffs, oak trees and gothic buildings - and the other one is down in the flood plain and it’s a really depressed industrial town with rendering plants and packing houses and there’s a deputy county sheriff in this town who becomes aware that some of the Iraqi foreign students are engaging in some highly disturbing extra-curricular activities. It’s the adventures of this sheriff trying to deal with this problem when nobody else takes it seriously.

Are you working on any other books yourself?

No. I need to get back into a productive cycle again but at the moment I’m writing a screenplay, I’ve written a script for a CD-ROM game - of course we don’t call it a game! Actually the term I prefer to use is “edfotainucation”! It’s an edfotainucational piece set in Seattle in the present day and it’s a noir type of psychological thriller, it has a lot to do with memory, how our memories work and putting an audio-visual interface on that.

The production company is Shadowcatcher Entertainment and it’s a newish company in Seattle that was founded by some people who got out of Hollywood because they couldn’t take it any more. Any time you try to produce anything where a couple of millions of dollars are required, it’s funny how those people with millions of dollars get particular about who they give it out to! I can’t imagine why it’s that way but they’re just ever so cautious about writing out two million dollar cheques.

Do you think media like CD-ROM will ever replace books?

No. I think they will replace certain types of books, I think they will replace reference books, do-it-yourself books, cookbooks, atlases - anything where there’s cross-referencing, where there’s lots of graphics but I think that’ll just clear the field for good old linear narratives. I’m quite convinced people will be reading novels on paper a thousand years from now. I think it’s a technology that’s well developed and pretty much reached perfection and it will pretty much keep on going.

What about films? Is work progressing on the film of Snow Crash and are you involved?

That is also happening, but that script has been written by another fellow, which is fine with me. I was hired to write an unrelated original screen play. The script is written and so again it comes down to trying to figure out why these people are so cautious about writing 40 or 50 million dollar cheques for the budget. But there are some people on the job in LA who are as good as anyone in the business at handling that sort of political stuff so they’re busily trying to come up with these machiavellian schemes for convincing the people in question that there’s nothing better they could possibly do with that particular 40 or 50 million dollars.

Do you have any strong feelings about actors for particular roles?

The first thing that has to be said is that my opinion is completely irrelevant! That is a decision that will be made partly by the director but largely by the people who write out the cheque for 40 or 50 million dollars. As far as I know the only person who’s physically right for the part of Hiro is Roland Gift, he’s the only person I’ve seen who could really come anywhere close to matching the way Hiro looks - but that’s just rank speculation. I have the feeling that people who make the movie will be a lot less concerned with matching the description in the book to the character than they are with marquee value so I wouldn’t be surprised if Hiro underwent some racial changes. Other than that I think Patrick Stewart would make a good librarian.

Do you have any idea how long it might take?

The complications of producing it are such that from the time that the fateful cheque is written out to the time they actually begin shooting will probably be a year, which is a pretty long time but it would take that long just to organise the whole production and work out the details with ILM regarding the effects and from the time that filming begins to when it comes out could easily be an additional year, so - not any time soon.

There’s such a lot going on in your books that it can be difficult to pick out the themes or the messages. Do you feel that people understand your books or are there issues that consistently get misunderstood?

I think that a lot of people felt that Snow Crash was an all out attack on all forms of religious belief which it wasn’t. It was more an attempt to point out a distinction between religions that are kind of viral and not based on any kind of rational thinking versus ones that are, as the Muslims would say, “Religions of the Book”, meaning ones that are based on fixed text and immutable and from an informational point of view more hygienic!

That’s one skewed interpretation that seems to come up frequently and another one that I get all the time is the d-word, dystopia. It seems as though a lot of people can’t talk about this kind of fiction without framing it terms of a dystopian view of the future and so I’m constantly pointing out that the twentieth century has been pretty damn dystopian and nothing shown in any of my books is as dystopian as a good part of the world has been for a good part of the twentieth century. I don’t go to either extreme, I don’t believe in the Star Trek world and I don’t believe in the George Orwell world either. People will be doing good things and bad things to each other and there’s going to be a really fine granularity to it. You won’t have entire continents suffering from massive persecutions, but you may have a lot of individual people who are being persecuted within a family or a small community instead. I just think that the future’s going to be really, really complicated.

The (snow) crash guide to Neal Stephenson

The Big U (1984)

A gonzo campus caper described by John Clute as “rather in the style of National Lampoon’s Animal House” only with intelligence.

The Big U is essentially sophomoric campus humour, a few worthy moments, a few bright spots but probably not worth seeking out.” [Stephenson has suggested that he allowed the book to be reprinted because he didn’t want fans to be overpaying for an out-of-print book.]

Zodiac (1988)

An ecological thriller, following the strange adventures of Sangamon Taylor as he tries to avoid being poisoned by the unethical chemical companies or sacrificed by the drug-crazed heavy metal fans before he has time to save the world (again).

Zodiac is a fun book and a book I still have great affection for.”

Snow Crash (1992)

The future of virtual reality and the end of the nation state collide as the katana-wielding Hiro Protagonist and the hip skateboard courier YT bike across America running from the prehistoric computer virus that infects the human mind.

Snow Crash is the famous one and it’s probably worthless for me to introduce it.”

Interface (1994 - with J Frederick George as Stephen Bury)

The conspiracy that controls all the other conspiracies decides that the best way to make money is to control a US president, not just assassinate one. Take a senator with a stroke, implant a radio-controlled microchip and you can react to the polls in real time but can the senator stay human?

Interface is meant to be an entertaining but not stupid book - I hope that’s what it turned out to be.”

The Diamond Age; or, a Young lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995)

In the nanotech age of plenty, in a South China slum on the other side of tomorrow a streetwise tearaway steals a book to give to his sister Nell and the Illustrated Primer changes her life and that of its inventor. We said “violence, adventure, sex, serious hardware and an intriguing plot - it’s all here and it makes an excellent story.”

Diamond Age is my take on nanotechnology which I think is going to be very important and on the way it’s a continuation of some the thoughts on society and culture that are there in Snow Crash.”

Originally published in SFX magazine - copyright Mary Branscombe 1996

Although colonising the nearest almost habitable planet is a frequent subject for science fiction, with more than 15 Mars books coming out in the last four years, one writer has dominated the red planet recently as much by the scale of his ideas and themes as by the scale of his Mars trilogy. But Mars certainly isn’t the only interest of the versatile Kim Stan Robinson (Stan, as he’s referred to by everyone including himself) as Mary Branscombe found out and for all his skill in plot and character he clams to be the last to get plot twists on TV.

With the majority of his books and short stories mentioning Mars, at least in the background, the obvious question to ask Kim Stanley Robinson is ‘why Mars?’ In an interesting case of art imitating life, it turns out that Stan’s interest was piqued by Voyager’s images of Mars in The Atlas of Mars, put out by the US Government, with stereo-optical pictures taken by two cameras, so you can see a three dimensional image of the surface of another planet. “I was fascinated when I saw all these geographical features that were like the mountains and deserts I love so much, but huge. Incredibly tall cliffs, giant volcanoes, enormous canyons as long as the United States is wide. As a rule of thumb you can think that features on Mars are about ten times as big as the equivalent geographical feature on Earth.”

And the size of the Mars trilogy is to scale, not surprisingly with over a hundred years and a whole world to cover (Stan jokes that he kept a map of the journeys the characters made around and around the planet “just to make sure I hadn’t missed anywhere that I could explore” - but knowing him it’s likely to be true). Now that the chunky third volume, Blue Mars, is out, we wondered if he know how big the story was going to be when he started. “More or less. The timescales that are put on terraforming vary from 100,000 years or 20,000 years down to 50 years, but that is a pretty extremist judgement, so my timescales are within the bounds of possibility. When I first started on Red Mars and after the first hundred pages they hadn’t even got there, I realised that to cover all this it would need to be a trilogy so I stopped and went back to my agent and my publishers, who weren’t at all unhappy!”

Over such timescales, you either need a succession of characters, or characters who stay around for longer than usual and the Martian colonists handily develop techniques for extending their lifespans. “I don’t like the generational saga and I wanted the same people to be alive through the whole extent of that Martian novel, so at first it was just a practical technical novelist question that quickly led into the larger things. I think it’s important to take the whole treatment of longevity as a subject seriously if you’re going to use it at all but it’s certainly is convenient when you’ve got a long scale narrative.

This whole longevity thing in science fiction is also an interesting way of talking about the felt experience of our own lives, how long it sometimes seems. Living a long time but losing your memory is an interesting analogue for ordinary experience. It’s a way of talking about it in a heightened way.

The nice thing about that Martian project is that everything fell together so well. I needed the longevity so that I could talk about Mars properly but I really wanted to talk about longevity and our own relationship to memory in a landscape anyway, so it was a very magical falling together of all kinds of different topics in a way that made it good for me.

It started as a convenience long ago when I did Icehenge and the novella Green Mars; I saw immediately how useful it was going to be. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for years, I’ve been writing about this topic now since the late 70s, off and on, and there’s a development in my thought about it. I did the research on gerontology and senescence intensively for Blue Mars; after years of playing with it and seeing what I thought about, Blue Mars is like a culmination of a lot of things.”

In fact Blue Mars is the culmination of years of hard work, researching geography, meteorology, space construction, politics, genetics… “It’s a novelist’s talent to research effectively for what I need for the book rather than for a complete knowledge of the subject so there’s a kind of stagecraft to it - but I’ve been reading about these related groupings of topics for so long that especially near the end I was beginning to make connections over broad areas. I think the combination of those two adds up to a fairly information dense book”.

One character who exemplifies that intense research is Sax, the withdrawn scientist and one of the big surprises of the trilogy is that out of all the fascinating characters in the First Hundred, Stan picked on Sax to carry much of the narrative in the second and third book. “For a long time my social life was my wife’s social life (she’s a chemist) and when I came to write Sax I found I had all this information about the scientific mind, at least from the point of view of chemistry.” Tortured for information about the rebels, the precise (if devious) Sax returns in Blue Mars - aphasic, struggling for words and coming out with phrases that are not quite right, but often revealing and almost poetic. “That was great fun to write. I wish in a way that Sax could have carried on like that rather than learning to speak again.”

“But at the end of Red Mars I realised that I had killed off all my male point of view characters with John Boone and Arkady and Frank and I was thinking ‘that was silly - what do I do now?’ and Sax just stepped forward.” Put that way Sax’ development makes a lot of sense, although when I ask about the intense pressure that he puts his characters under to get such developments, almost too much for the reader to empathise with, Stan laughs and says that the complaint he gets most often is that there isn’t enough happening to his characters.

Talking of research, he has been as close as you can get to Mars without going into orbit, spending some time at the South Pole last autumn (“It was 30 degrees below zero at night” ) as the first science fiction writer to win a National Science Foundation grant. “I heard about this and applied and was accepted, basically because of the Mars books. It was five weeks in Antarctica. I spent a week in a glacier area with a team doing field research then we spent a few days at the pole.” He’ll be using the experiences in his next book, Antarctica, an ecological thriller about what happens when the polar icecaps melt. He also seems tempted by the idea of a novel based on his experiences in Washington DC; “I think I could do quite a good book based on that.” [This became the series that starts with 40 Signs of Rain.]

However, the next book out will be A Martian Romance; a concordance to the Mars trilogy with explanations, essays on terraforming, short stories, his experiences while researching and writing the three books, plus poems and songs and stories. “All the things I couldn’t fit into the books.”

To avoid confusion, it’s worth remembering that although many of his books are set on Mars, not all of them are on the same Mars. In particular, the original Green Mars - a novella about climbing Olympus Mons that deals with the now-familiar themes of the ethics of terraforming Mar and the memory problems of longevity - seems to be set in a slightly different universe. “Yes, I wrote that mainly to stake a claim - at least a moral claim - on the name. I thought Green Mars was such a good name, such an obvious name. And when I heard about Olympus Mons, this enormous volcano, I just had to write about climbing it.” It turned out to be a sensible precaution; he’s since heard that Arthur C. Clarke considered using it as the title for his collection of articles on terraforming Mars (now called The Snows of Olympus).

He chuckles. “I suppose that I should write a Blue Mars equivalent - I have Icehenge as Red Mars and Green Mars the novella and then I’d have my own alternative Mars history.”

But then Kim Stanley Robinson likes playing with history. In his short stories The Lucky Strike and A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions (the later collected in the carefully named Remaking History) he considers the possible alternatives to the bombing of Hiroshima as examples of the many different theories of history. His favourite short story is again historical; the World Fantasy Award-winning Black Air tells the story of the Spanish Armada from the viewpoint of a press-ganged child.

His main experiment in alternative history is The Orange County trilogy (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge), which tells a story about growing up within a community on the coast of southern California - in three different histories. “Now that I am very proud of because I invented something quite new. They’re all three set in the same locale, in southern California, about the equal amount of time into the future (fifty years or so) but they’re three different futures - radically different in fact - so that one is after the fall, one is a dystopia and one is a utopia. They all three have one character who has lived three different lives in the three different futures but is given the same name so that if you’re paying attention you’ll see that there’s that one character who’s in all the three books.” The result is three wonderful inter-linked stories ringing the changes on all the possibilities in the situation.

Stan plays with time in many of his books, confounding our expectations of chronology. With his long-lived characters there’s always the tantalising possibility of discovering what really happened from those involved (assuming that they can actually remember) rather than piecing it together from archaeology and documents that may or may not give a true picture. But then the uncertainty is the point in Icehenge, which he refers to as a three-part rebus, a word game and when I ask him what the real truth was, he protests “I can’t remember! I deliberately wrote it as a puzzle. I showed it to my wife and she was convinced that Emma was Carolyn and forbade me to put any clues in that made that impossible! But I wouldn’t have anyway, because I wanted to leave it open for the reader to construct themselves.”

Mental effort in the books is usually accompanied by physical exertion. If the characters aren’t repeatedly walking, gliding and driving around Mars, they’re climbing up or hiking across mountains or going surfing. “What I try to do - as far as the circumstances of the plot allow for all these things like bodysurfing - is to give the sense of us as physical animals. We are not just brains in bottles,” he insists and condemns the modern tendency to get absorbed in “the industrial machine” to the exclusion of the outside world. “The whole notion of the standard science-fiction modes of the future is like Asimov’s Trantor, where an entire planet is a city; all these models are intensively urban or space-ship or completely metallic and it’s beginning to look like none of these ultra-techno futures are physically possible to sustain.”

He’s pretty active himself but despite the accounts of climbing that capture the detail and spirit closely enough to have climbers of my acquaintance lusting to climb with the man, he’s not an obsessive climber. “I’ve climbed about half a dozen times, but I’m more into hiking and scrambling.” He has been to Nepal and found it pleasantly mad - “we laughed every day we were there, it was just so ridiculous, with the contrasts” - very like his bitingly funny Himalayan story of yetis, Shangri La and American hippies, Escape From Kathmandu. The novella Green Mars was “a homage to the British climbers of the 70s, the Chris Bonnington group”, but he comments sombrely “many of them have died in climbing accidents” and confesses a healthy fear of falling. He adds that he gets a lot of his exercise these days from cultivating the land rather than clambering over it and points out with a grin how strenuous gardening is when you work at it.

A rather more laid-back attitude this, than the high-speed, drug-filled world of The Gold Coast or the censorship and grim committees of Icehenge. Many of his characters from that era feel trapped within a system they oppose and confused by not knowing how to voice their objections, let alone rebel. When I ask him about this he considers for a while and says “I know which characters you’re referring to”, then pauses again. When he continues, it seems he’s trying to draw a clear distinction. “At the time, that was something I was very concerned about. Now I’ve found that my writing is actually a political statement and I’m involved with running a community in northern California. I guess I’ve found my way to work within the system.”

“I believe in Shelley’s great statement: that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And I believe that science fiction is one of the most powerful modes of poetry of all time. Science-fiction is just a metaphor for the world we live in and metaphor is one of the basic tools of poetry.”

This all sounds much closer to the utopian and ecotopian possibilities of Pacific Edge and the 1994 collection he edited as New Ecotopias. In the introduction he discusses the ideas of Future Primitivism in the stories and it’s a concept that seems to fit a lot of his own writing as well. “At the time that was a label I was exploring to see how it described my work but whatever the subject matter, that is a collection of truly excellent stories.” The same can be said of almost everything Kim Stanley Robinson has written.

Stan on Stan

Kim Stanley Robinson’s works cover a surprisingly wide range, from murder mystery short stories (set on Mercury) to the magical realism (or just magic) of Black Air, as well his more famous Californian novels - and of course the Mars books.

The Planet on the Table (1987)

The first collection of short stories, including the award-winning Black Air and the thought-provoking Lucky Strike. “Those are my first eight short stories and that was back when short stories would take as much mental effort as a short novel so they’re probably my densest short stories.”

Remaking History (1994)

The second collection of short stories, including A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions and the political Down and Out in the Year 2000. “At that point I was trying all sorts of different experiments in short fiction so they aren’t as coherent as the first grouping; a bunch of experiments.”

Icehenge (1984)

Three linked stories about the search to understand a giant monument on Pluto - that’s made of ice. The first appearance of familiar themes like terraforming Mars, revolution, longevity and memory loss - plus a baffling puzzle. “One of my very first longer narratives where I stumbled into a lot of things that I was going to explore later. I particularly like the middle novella.”

The Memory of Whiteness (1985)

The travels of a touring orchestra and the blind young conductor whose music is more than it seems. “That was an experiment - one of the first long narratives I ever tried and it proved to me that you can’t write about music!”

Escape from Kathmandu (1986)

A glorious bitter-sweet romp of a book about the hidden secrets of the Himalayas (with a little help from a pair of American hippies). “That was a gift out of our trip to Nepal; my wife and I went to Nepal and afterwards the book wrote itself. Was it really that crazy? Yeah - if anything, more so!”

A Short Sharp Shock (1990)

Stan describes this tale of travel and transformation as ‘the weird one.’ “A surrealist science fantasy, written right after my first son was born in a state of sleep deprivation. I wrote it partly because I knew I’d be writing this huge realistic trilogy.”

The Orange County trilogy

The Wild Shore (1984)

Growing up in a post-holocaust America based on barter between isolated communities, a young boy finds that rebuilding the railways is as much about political ambition and betrayal as about travel and trade. “That was my first published novel, a kind of science fiction homage to Huckleberry Finn.”

The Gold Coast (1988)

Poetry and radical action, drugs and defence contracts, friendship, love, sex, lies and videotape in a futuristic mechanised, urban society. “One of the books that’s most importantly to me. It’s a very personal book about Orange County in the 1970’s (or the 2020s!)”

Pacific Edge (1990)

The third book shows a co-operative ecotopia in 2020, but there’s still conflict, still corruption, still politics and ambition - and still love and loss. “My utopian novel. It gives me a lot of pleasure as a novel whereas as a utopia it was a very frustrating experience - the form of the book made it hard to talk about larger issues in the way that I might have wanted to.”

Red Mars (1992)

One hundred picked scientists set out to colonise Mars. “What can I say! Probably the other book along with Gold Coast that’s most important to me personally. That was where everything really felt like it was falling together in a nice way.”

Green Mars (1993)

The First Hundred have gone into hiding at the pole but the children born on Mars have their own plans that don’t include the multinational corporations from an increasingly desperate Earth. “More of the same! That one was a tremendous challenge, to try to describe in detail a successful revolution. It was a political education to write that book!”

Blue Mars (1996)

The triumphant conclusion - can man live on Mars or just exist there? “I’m happy the way it ended - I’m happy with all of Blue Mars. I think of the three books as one novel really - a three volume, three-decker Victorian novel and I’m pleased with the way it ended.”

Originally published in SFX magazine - copyright Mary Branscombe 1996

There are many examples of technologies in our world that aren’t necessarily the most logical way to do something. It’s not what you would do if you were starting from scratch but it’s what we ended up with.

Taking six years to write, Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy will be nearly 3,000 pages long (more if you count the book of short stories due next year) and it’s about nothing less than the end of life as we know it. Mary Branscombe interrupted the author at his labours to find out where he gets his sense of scale.

Peter Hamilton is fond of combining disaster with science fiction. He bought his first typewriter in 1987, accumulated “a huge pile of rejected short stories” over the next three years and then produced Mindstar Rising. The book started his career, as well as that of Greg Mandel, an ex-squaddie private detective with a telepathic implant in a tropical Britain flooded by global warming. After two successful sequels (A Quantum Murder and The Nanoflower), he turned to a larger stage – and much larger books. The Reality Dysfunction is an epic space opera dealing with alien civilisations, convicts, colonists and smugglers plus a nightmare taking over the galaxy – and it runs to 950 pages. He has just produced the second book, the 996-page Neutronium Alchemist and promises the third volume of the Night’s Dawn trilogy, The Naked God, before the end of the century. Quite a way from those rejected short stories.

Before he sold Mindstar Rising to Pan, Hamilton was repeatedly told that the book was too close to home and that there wasn’t much of a market for ‘Rutland sf’ but as a Rutland man “born and bred!” he couldn’t see the problem. “I sent Mindstar to one agent and it came back “this is unpublishable, it’s too parochial”. Yet, I’ve just managed to sell the whole Mandel trilogy to America and Tor Books didn’t seem to think that was a problem at all. People have been very curious - why set it in Rutland? Well, why not! I’m sure that if I’d set Mandel and the same problems in somewhere like Los Angeles or even London people wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow but they don’t seem to associate countryside England with the future. It’s very strange! I can’t quite work out why - it’s almost as if they don’t expect us to have a future, don’t expect us to be any different than we are today. It’s nice to visit London but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

The other disadvantage was Greg Mandel’s politics. As Hamilton puts it, Mandel was “on the side of the right wing at the time” and he starts the book tracking down the corrupt socialists who have brought the country to its knees. Having been vilified on occasion for sharing Mandel’s views, Hamilton is keen to point out that such comments are rather wide of the mark. “It’s certainly not any kind of polemic - it’s basically a detective thriller series, I wasn’t trying to make any great political points at all.

“The thing with the Greg books was, obviously, once you’ve got the background you have to stick to it. Mindstar Rising was conceived in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the days of the Kinnock Thatcher divide, whereas today we’ve got Blair and Major and who can tell them apart? Quite why they haven’t both defected to the Liberal Democrats with Emma Nicholson, I don’t know…

“If anything it was a comment on the extremism of the country at that time. If I were writing it today, Europe would be the deciding influence on the political background - into Europe and out of Europe. It was a child of its times - as is The Reality Dysfunction. I was doing the great capacious notes for it and that was about the time of the Vance Owen peace plans in Bosnia - it was on the television every single night, this dreadful conflict over there. We were getting reports from the ground, of people fighting and then we were getting reports from the top and the two were completely disconnected. I got very world weary and cynical about all this which is why I put in all the ethnic streaming planets - a comment that people can live in their own groups but refuse to live peacefully with different groups as neighbours. It’s not a state of the nation novel but it does reflect what’s going on around the writer at the time - even science fiction does that!”

After three books, Hamilton felt that another Mandel story would leave him “very much stuck in a rut”, not least because heroes with superpowers make it rather difficult to come up with problems they can’t solve. But is he abandoning Mandel for ever or will there be another book once he’s finished the current trilogy? “Everybody asks that! There is a little whodunit novella on file but The Nanoflower did tie it all up fairly well. If I do ever get round to writing it, it will be set just after A Quantum Murder. I’d like to think I could come back to him some day - Greg was a great start to a career.”

Larger and larger

The hefty tomes of Night’s Dawn are set further into the future and far from sticking to Rutland, they roam right across the galaxy; by the end of book two, we haven’t actually got to Earth yet. Space battles, fantastic weapons and galactic empires – there’s more than a touch of space opera here. “I vividly remember reading E E Doc Smith when I was about 13, (probably the best age to read him, I’m sure it would all fall apart horribly now, if I read him again) and I always loved his space operas and this gave me a chance to write my own!”

Don’t go expecting a light-hearted romp where the hero can’t lose, though. Plenty of scenes would fit right in to the average horror novel and ever scream is deliberate. “Hopefully none of it too gratuitous! It is to some extent a merging of the genres - supernatural versus superscience, supertechnology. To hark back to E E Smith again, the old idea of the evil empire wanting to take over planets from the good guys - “we’re after your women and your gold” - really doesn’t hang together these days. If you have a society as big and as powerful as this Confederation, it really does have to be something quite out of the ordinary to threaten such a culture. They have tremendous industrial and military resources available to them, yet they’re caught on the hop by this menace.”

Hamilton is fascinated by the possibilities of science, but he likes to mix them in with other genres; at times the Greg Mandel books are as much corporate thriller as science fiction. “It’s not so much that science fiction is mined out but this cross fertilisation does bring in fresh angles, fresh aspects you can use to explore people with.”

The mix has proved popular. “Somebody called me genre-bending which is a great phrase. I think if there were complaints, it was ‘It’s a cliff-hanger and it’s only volume one!’ And this is just the first part of the trilogy - it’s a very long story.”

That’s something of an understatement. With a cast of literally thousands on dozens of planets, you can start thinking about Dune and even Hamilton didn’t expect it to be “quite this long.” The first book just got away from him. “ I started writing The Reality Dysfunction thinking it would be about 750 pages and the characters and situations just grew… it wound up at 950 pages. Which gives you a lot of room to play about with concepts. Overall it’s probably about faith; faith in your self, faith in human nature. Individual characters make their own progress - almost like A Pilgrim’s Progress with Joshua’s travels through the whole story where he does have to learn to come to terms with himself. (The hero of The Reality Dysfunction, Joshua Calvert is the over-sexed starship captain of the Lady Mac, a man with the gift of luck and an eye for the ladies - Ed). There was actually quite a lot cut between the manuscript and what you hold in your hands. We cut about 35,000 words – my editor spared you that, give him credit!

And yes, it does take a long time writing that much. We saw the proofs of The Reality Dysfunction in December 1995, and The Neutronium Alchemist should be out this October (1997). “I started off with the plot idea and then I had to build the Confederation and the history behind it; that took three or four months - there’s virtually a book of notes on the background of planets and people and history.

“Finishing The Reality Dysfunction took eighteen to twenty months and The Neutronium Alchemist took again eighteen to twenty months and I expect The Naked God will take the same - and I’m regretting it already! Scheduled publication is 1999 and I’m on chapter four already.

“In between – to give me time to write it – there’s going to be a collection of short stories next year. It takes you through the Confederation time line up to the time of Joshua Calvert and Quinn Dexter. It actually ends with the recent Interzone story, Escape Route, the last flight of the Lady Mac before Joshua takes it over. It’s set to guide you through Confederation history. There’s a novella that hasn’t been published before, it’s how Edenism got started, A Second Chance of Eden, which is a whodunit. That’s to give me a bit of saving grace and let me write volume 3!

“It’s a wonderful feeling of achievement when you finish something this size but writing solidly for that length of time is draining - I think possibly this length of trilogy won’t be repeated by me.”

Unlike some writers we could mention, Hamilton isn’t pushing up the word count gratuitously. “One of the reasons I did have it this length is that I’m not entirely concentrating on the heroes and villains - there are little people as well, with interesting stories. How does a conflict of this size and this magnitude affect little people? It’s something I think we tend to overlook in the genre - it does tend to concentrate on the principals so I thought it would be nice to concentrate on the little people - how people like that are caught up in the grand events.”

The ‘little people’ can be just as fascinating as the main characters, providing you remember who they are when they crop up later in the story. Hamilton confesses to “capacious notes” to keep track of it all. “That’s why there’s a cast list in The Neutronium Alchemist. It’s bound to crop up on something this scale, unfortunately. It’s a question of where you draw the line on even the cast of characters list, which goes on for pages. Hopefully the main plot threads you can associate with and keep remembering.” And the background details and the sheer number of characters and locations certainly make it all feel real. “It’s one of the things I like about Tolkien; there is this impression of background, this solidity.” Tolkien’s not his only favourite though. “Well - looking at the shelves behind me! - I started off with Doc Smith at 13 and probably Biggles before that and then the usual route - Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Niven to some extent - certainly his 70s works were excellent I thought - some Ben Bova. More recently it’s stuff like Julian May, Joe Haldeman, Tad Williams, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald. Robert Silverberg - I really liked his Majipoor series.”

A larger screen yet

The latest rumours are that there is ‘some interest’ in doing a film of the whole Night’s Dawn trilogy, which could take quite a while. Hamilton is dubious as to whether they could manage it. “Well, there’s interest in that one production company and one producer have been making enquiries of my agent about have the rights been sold and if not, am I interested in selling the rights. We’re pretty much at the ‘wait and see’ stage. I can’t quite see them filming the whole series – I mean we’ve all seen Dune. There are probably sections you could take out of it and film but I think filming the actual entire story is pretty much a no-no - unfortunately. You’d need several hours - several tens of hours - and an awful lot of special effects. I think filming the entire trilogy is out but you can pick sections out, which is presumably what they’ll eventually do.”

In fact he doesn’t sound too pleased at the idea. “It would have to be mutilated. And given how much I’ve put into it all and then seeing bits pulled out… I suppose seeing bits of it would be better than none at all.” However, with his usual ingenuity, Peter Hamilton has the perfect answer – technology to the rescue. “I think in ten years time when you can just feed a book straight into a computer and have it turn it into a virtual reality by simple processing power – maybe that’s the thing to wait for.”

Originally published in SFX magazine - copyright Mary Branscombe 1996

Last summer at the Worldcon, Lois McMaster Bujold won yet another Hugo award, this time for Mirror Dance, the story of what happens after you rescue someone and they turn out to be your cloned twin brother who’s supposed to end up living your life for you. Apart from an unusual fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring, which starts with the premise that all that complicated mediaeval alchemy actually worked, her success hinges on just one series about the world and family of a most unlikely military hero, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan - he’s only four foot nine and suffers from brittle bone disease, yet manages to be a lieutenant in the Barrayaran navy, something important in Military Intelligence and admiral of the Dendarii mercenaries at the same time. This is military sf that’s often dark and vicious but never glorifies war and spends as much time poking and prying at its characters’ motives as it does sending them off to death and glory. We caught up with Lois McMaster Bujold when she visited London and asked her rather nervously, “so, why the gun-toting dwarf?”

Military sf is seen as a male province and it seems to worry people when women write about war and fighting. Do you feel that you have to outdo the men?

No, when I write, I set out to outdo everyone.

There’s a lot of politics in the books, manipulations by the military or the nobles of the way things are done and how people in power behave. Do your books reflect your own politics and beliefs?

Not necessarily! I suppose the character whose politics are closest to my own is Cordelia Vorkosigan who sits there and thinks “you’re all mad”. She’s as apolitical as you can get and still be conscious and walking around.

Your background is medical rather than military - does that affect the technology that you put in your books?

I worked for many years as a pharmacy technician and I had some biology background in college. So when I’m thinking of science fictional ideas they tend naturally to run on biological and medical lines simply because that’s where I’ve got the most background and the most sense of where the real problems are.

Despite all the technology in your books, it seems to be the effect of technology on society that interests you. Which is more important, the science in the story, or the characters, or the theme of a book?

The characters - but theme is what underlies it all. My stories are very character-centered but the character is always on some kind of spiritual journey. Some of my books have a clearer sense of theme and underlying structure than others and they tend to be the more successful books. Barrayar was very much a book about the cost of being a mother, the cost of parenthood and I found myself exploring the theme through all these parallel couples. We had Aral and Cordelia who were the main theme and we had Padma and Alice Vorpatril who were another version of it and we had the young Kou and Drou who were following along and modeling on Aral and Cordelia. We had the old Count Piotr and his long deceased wife as a another slice on that problem and all these different characters and their sub-plots took up different aspects of the theme - the way in a symphony the theme may be first played by the oboes and then by the string section and it bounce around and you get a different sense of the possibilities each time. Bothari and the uterine replicator [an artificial womb so women don’t have to carry a baby to term and give birth - Ed] was another couple in a weird sense, in this interlocking pattern.

The other book that I think is the most successful in terms of its relation of structure and character and theme is Mirror Dance, an exploration of the problem of identity and how you get it. It takes Miles’ clone brother Mark and proceeds to ring changes both between Miles and Mark and also the other clones in the story, the Durona group, and various renegades - looking at different patterns that fall from there. And of course Mark gets to go home to Barrayar and explore Miles’ identity so even when Miles is absent we have the shape of his identity all around. That book really excited me because of the way the theme drove everything and yet it appears to be a page-turning adventure plot.

So what are you reading and watching yourself?

I have been reading Terry Pratchett fairly regularly because I love his world view. On the level of theme, Pratchett just fascinates me - you read his books and you come back looking at this world through refreshed eyes. That’s an extraordinary effect for a book to have. I’m not presently following anything in television or on film but something may catch my eye.

But we hear that you are in fact a closet Blakes 7 fan?

I had a friend who had it all on tape and you know Blakes 7 fans are like drug pushers, they go off and try to make other Blakes 7 fans - “the first sample is free!” Actually I thoroughly enjoyed watching the series. It was a very different kind of television science fiction than we see in the States, it could never have been produced there so it was doubly fascinating. And of course it had all the nifty character interactions which I liked. You do not watch Blakes 7 for the special effects, except for the giggle value - the scene where the alien fleet came out and I swear somebody had emptied out and spray painted the contents of their desk drawer and thrown them onto a piece of black velvet and photographed them. “Look, the alien invasion fleet! Yes, there’s a Bic pen!”

Nearly all of your writing has been hard, military sf but you’ve also written one fantasy book, The Spirit Ring. Was that a different experience? Did you enjoy writing it and would you do another?

I’ve never felt that science fiction and fantasy were two separate things; they’ve always been a continuum for me. There are many other writers who have written on both sides - C J Cherryh is one who writes both science fiction and fantasy. So I never felt any inhibitions about doing fantasy. I just started off with the science fiction and the Vorkosigan series extended itself

My great-uncle was a professor of English at Princeton around the turn of the century and had written a scholarly monograph on an old folktale, called The Grateful Dead - the fast-forward version of which goes “a young man goes out to seek his fortune, comes across a situation where the body of a debtor lies unburied until his debts are paid, gets the guy planted as an act of charity and goes on down the road to further adventures in which he is aided by the grateful ghost of the dead man”. I had been seeing things like the Ace and the Tor adult fairy tale lines where they take old folk tales and turn them into modern novels for the fantasy and science fiction market and I thought “that would be fun to do”. With this folk tale, which no-one else seemed to have done, it was more obscure and it’s always fun to find the idea that hasn’t been mined by at least 17 zillion other writers before you.

I actually did more research for that fantasy, which ended up being set in 15th century Italy than I had done for any of my science fiction, because it was also my first historical novel (sort of). And yes, I think I would like to do more.

And did you find you got different reactions or attitudes to the books?

Yes, I am kind of glad that I started off with the science fiction first, because there’s a certain non-advantage to being typecast as a female fantasy writer. So I established myself in science fiction and then having covered my ass I was then able to go and do fantasy freely without having to worry about getting downchecked for it. But it was a challenging book to write and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The goldsmith in Spirit Ring reminded me very much of Cellini - did you base the character on him at all?

Yes! Benforte is lifted directly from Benevenuto Cellini - well I cleaned up Benevenuto, the real Cellini is so obnoxious I don’t think anybody could have stood him so Prospero is a sort of Cellini Lite. And Thur, the young Swiss miner, is based in a much more obscure way on Agricola’s de Re Metallica, a treatise on mining and metallurgy from the sixteenth century; he was very much the engineering type. Cellini was always parading front and centre of his autobiography and Agricola just receded behind his. If he lived in the twentieth century he would have a pocket protector and pens and a slide rule or a pocket calculator.

You’ve stayed in the same universe for most of your books (apart from The Spirit Ring). Is there anything you can’t do in that universe, or anything you wish you hadn’t done?

You do get stuck if you make it up as you go along. You look back four years on and think “why did I give these people names five syllables long?” I find that character interests me more than setting; I’ve set up a very broad generic universe that has room for all kinds of stories in it. Keeping the universe the same allows me to spend more time and energy and page space on the part that interests me more, which is character development.

I would not have any compunction about making up a new universe if I needed one for the story that I wanted to tell. But most of the stories that I’ve wanted to tell so far have fit into this universe. One of the things that defines a series in science fiction is that they all share the same universe. So you can write an extremely varied range of books, set them in the same universe, and have them cross-sell each other like series are supposed to do. There’s a certain market advantage there! I have gone on record as stating that mainstream fiction is the world’s largest shared universe series.

In Brothers in Arms you bring Miles to Earth and set the final scene on the Thames Barrier? Why did you pick it as a setting - have you ever been there?

It’s nothing at all like what I describe but what I describe is its ten-time great grandchild 900 years from now so it would naturally not be the same! What happened was I was writing Brothers in Arms at the time of the 1987 Worldcon [in Brighton - Ed] and I’d come over for that and got to spend all of three days in London, forty minutes in the British Museum (it’s not enough)! I had actually started to set the book in Paris - the Barrayaran embassy could have been anywhere on Earth for the purposes of my story - but I was so in love with London after that trip that I set it in London and gave Miles the same experience that I had, which was he gets there and he’s not allowed to see anything because there’s no time; they lock him up in rooms and he doesn’t get out. So there’s a little “write what you know” going on there!

Do you usually “write what you know? Where do you get your ideas from?

You get your ideas from everything you’ve ever done or learned or been. You get them from first of all having read other books, from all the movies you’ve ever watched, from all the history you’ve ever read, from all the classroom experiences you’ve ever had. You get it from travel - you name it - you get it from unfortunate disasters you have been through! The one thing about writing is that it has a tremendously redeeming quality - suddenly all your failures can be reclassified as raw material! So you use everything; I use people I know, I use my relationships with my family. Nothing is used whole - it all goes in and is transmuted and transformed and comes out as art on some level.

So the counter-question to that, to the people who ask it is “how do you not have ideas?” Please explain to me how you are turning your brain off so you do not have an idea from one day’s end to the other because I can’t imagine how that’s done.

Bujold on Bujold

The series has been quite deliberately designed (by me) so that every book stands alone and there is no wrong way to read them - you are never holding part three of a story of which you are missing parts one and two. Every book is a novel complete in itself, so it is safe to start wherever you can find one. If you have a choice, then two of the best books to start with are Shards of Honour, which is the first novel and the first book in the series. I usually recommend that to people who have a taste for - or at least are not allergic to -romance because it has a strong romance plot. If they prefer more the action adventure I direct them to The Warrior’s Apprentice which is the key book in the Miles series; it’s where Miles really gets introduced as a character.

Originally published in SFX magazine  - copyright Mary Branscombe 1996