The Wonderful, Rational World of Alastair Reynolds2006-06-29
"I don't think readers should be encouraged to learn science from science fiction. Why get it filtered and diluted through the distorting medium of SF?"
HSF: What got you interested in science?
AR: I don't really remember a point where I switched on to science. I think it was just always there, simmering at a low level, until it sort of ignited in my teens. That was when I started reading some of Clarke and Asimov's non-fiction, like Profiles of the Future and The Stars in their Courses. I was also a big fan of Cosmos, Carl Sagan's TV series that aired in the UK when I was around 14. But from a very early age I always identified with scientists as role models. Dr Who, Spock, you name it.
HSF: What inspired you to incorporate the hard sciences into a fictional story?
AR: I really don't think I'm capable of doing it any other way. No matter where I start with a story, they always bend into hard SF by the time I'm done with them. I'm sure that would happen if I started writing a sword and sorcery epic: it'd end up being underpinned with this tedious rationalising structure. I wish I had the nerve to write something as unselfconsciously bonkers as China Mieville's work, for instance, completely unfettered by any sense that it had to "work" in the real universe.
HSF: How important is it to you, if at all, that the reader actually learn scientific concepts from your stories?
AR: Not important in the slightest. In fact, I don't think readers should be encouraged to learn science from science fiction, any more than you'd go to Patricia Cornwell if you wanted a primer in forensics, or Patrick O'Brien if you wanted to learn how to handle a ship in a storm. There is so much excellent science writing around these days, why get it filtered and diluted through the distorting medium of SF?
HSF: Some say that hard sf is the true defintion of science fiction. What do you think? Is there room for "soft sf"?
AR: Well, not only do I think there's room, I think soft SF is really the creative and emotional heart of the genre. If you look at the writers who have created lasting work, and reached beyond the "ghetto", it's been Bradbury, Ballard, Dick, Le Guin, and a dozen or so others. Most of them were not really what we would call hard SF writers. Clarke's a bit of an anomaly, really, and to some extent he's famous for his least typical pieces. Which isn't to say I don't love hard SF.
HSF: Some hard sciences, like quantum physics and string theory, are understood by a very small percentage of the world. How does this affect you as someone who is trying to sell hard sf books?
AR: It's not really been an issue, to be honest. To the extent that things like QM and string theory feature in my stories and books, they've tend to be window dressing, or at best a side-issue in a story whose main focus may be elsewhere. I've only written a handful of pieces that require the rigorous explication of a thorny scientific idea, and I wouldn't say those are necessarily my best stories, either.
HSF: It seems to me you're more inspired by the human condition than technology. Is that correct?
AR: It's not so much that I'm not inspired by technology so much as I'm wary of fetishizing it, which seems to be the case in so much hard SF, especially when it shades into mil-fic. I'm a big fan of technology in real life, certainly. I think the human condition will indeed always be more interesting than any mere gadgetry, but I'm more than willing to concede that technology may change us in profound ways - perhaps to the point where it wouldn't even make sense to think of us as human any more. From a fictional point of view, that's not necessarily a scenario I'm interested in exploring.
HSF: Hard sf seems to be gaining a wider following. How might one make hard science fiction more appealing to the masses?
AR: Is that really the case? I think one can argue that space opera has made a bit of a comeback lately, and perhaps begun to attract readers back to SF. But I'd be skeptical about making the same assertion about hard SF, which I view somewhat more proscriptively. That said, if you wanted to make it more appealling to the masses, it needs real human characters. Not necessarily characters for people to like, but characters that people want to read about.
HSF: What scientific fields or topics do you think will be most prevelant in the coming years?
AR: Difficult call. The standard answer is probably the biosciences: genetic engineering, cloning, etc. But we were saying this 10 - 15 years ago already. If I knew what the hot new topics were really going to be, I'd be writing about them. Still, I'd like to think that we're going to see some accelerating progress in artificial intelligence, after a decade or two in the doldrums. And the science of Earth-like exosolar planets should be fascinating.
HSF: What types of research do you do to gain scientific accuracy in your stories? Do you generally write what you know about, or do you intentionally write in unknown territory?
AR: I try to do as little research as possible. I rely on a pretty average home library of dog-eared pop science books, back issues of science mags, and good ol' Google.
As for what I wrote about, it's a bit of both. Sometimes I feel I'm on pretty solid ground, writing into an area where I feel I can trust my existing knowledge, even though I'm conscious that I'll still make mistakes. Other times I feel like I'm sailing off the edge of the world, with only a photocopied Nature article for company. I spent most of May trying to figure out how chambered nautiluses worked, because I thought it was necessary for a story I was developing. In the end I wrote the chambered nautiluses out of the plot, but along the way I learned a hell of a lot! (And discovered that there's a lot that marine biologists don't agree about, too).
My usual working method is to have some idea of where I'm going in terms of story, allied to a hunch that, even if I'm being vague about the science on the first draft, I can go back in and beef things up on the next pass. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I do strive to get the details as right as I can, with the proviso that the story should always be privileged above strict fidelity to scientific accuracy.
HSF: Which aspect fulfills you the most: your contributions to science or to literature? Why?
AR: I can't say I've ever felt a great deal of fulfillment from either, in all honestly. I like what I do, most of the time. But by the time I'm nearing completion on a project, I just want to get on with something new and fresh. I felt that way with science as well. If I say I'm unfulfilled, that makes me sound very unhappy, but it's not the case at all. I think writing is more like an itch I've got to scratch! Keep me away from it for any length of time and I get insufferable.
HSF: Which writers, books, or scientists have influenced you the most?
AR: Clarke and Asimov, to an obvious degree. Later, Niven, Benford, Haldeman. After that, the cyberpunks. Bruce Sterling is an obvious inspiration, I think. Gene Wolfe is another writer I'm in awe of. More recently, writers on the edge of the genre like Chris Priest or M John Harrison. As for science, I'm a huge fan of the writings of Oliver Sacks. Humane, poetic, awe-inspiring, and a rich font of science fictional ideas.
HSF: Are you influenced at all by current world affairs?
AR: No one writes in a vacuum, but I'm not interested in taking direct inspiration from the headlines. I mean, I'm writing a story now that in some way is influenced by current events (the war on terror, the erosion of civil liberties in the cause of security, that kind of thing) but none of that was going through my mind when I started working on it.
HSF: Please tell us more about your upcoming projects.
AR: The next year or so will be quite busy. I've got two collections of short fiction coming out in the next few months. The first, Zima Blue and Other Stories, should be out from Night Shade Books in the US in September. That'll collect around ten or so stories of mine which aren't part of the Revelation Space universe. In October, my UK publisher, Orion, will be doing Galactic North, which (as you might have gussed from the above) gathers all the RS-universe short fiction to date, together with three new novellas. There should be a US edition of GN at some point. Then in May, if all goes to schedule, my next full-length novel should appear, which will be a return to the RS universe. That's the one I'm working on right now. Can't say too much about it yet (doesn't even have a title at the moment) but it's a standalone thriller set within the RS universe, about 100 years before the events of Chasm City. It deals with life in a high-tech, near-utopian society. Of course, there's a snake in the grass, or there wouldn't be much of a story.