A Bundle of Interviews
Here are half a dozen interviews from the past 10 years about Stanley Kubrick, Space Marine, Cthulhu, writing poetry, technothrillers, my influences, and lots of other things.
NICK GEVERS INTERVIEW; ANSWERS BY IAN WATSON in 2002
(…but what were the questions? Apparently prompted by my story collection The Great Escape, now available as an ebook from www.sfgateway.com)
1. “N’importe où hors de ce monde” (Anywhere out of this world) – I think Rimbaud said that, around the time he was growing lice in his hair. Or maybe Baudelaire said it. Brought up on Tyneside in the conformist post-war 1950s semi-austerity and banality, that was definitely my attitude. Alternatives to these? Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but I didn’t live in America. Colin Wilson’ The Outsider etc – well certainly yes, expansion of consciousness, but the rest of the Angry Young Men didn’t seem all that exciting, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter emoting about church bells, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim farting around at a provincial university, Braine, Barstow, and Sillitoe writing about northern towns that were even grottier than Tyneside… or Science Fiction, other worlds, wonders, the stars my destination — and the book of that name was in the local library, along with Van Vogt (obviously a mind-expanded alien with a name like that) and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, wonderful metaphysical quasi-SF wonderfully dramatised on the BBC Third Programme one Sunday afternoon in, I think, 1956. A Sunday afternoon in 1956 was dire beyond belief.
The function of the SF genre, in my opinion, is to expand the mind in the context of scientific discoveries about the nature of the universe in whole and in parts, and to spur us technologically towards finding out more, including more about the nature of life and ourselves. Such factors as the threat of nuclear warfare, Chernobyl, acid rain, global warning, ozone holes, pollutants in the environment, fear of genetic engineering etc have pissed off a lot of people with science and its products (though where would be without those?), hence the predominance in bookshops of fantasy (a lot of which serves a maintenance function, of healing restoration) where the rules are those of magic rather than of scientific reason, and the increasing rejection of reason in religious fundamentalisms, anti-evolutionary so-called Creation Science, and New Age spiritual wishy-washiness, which is nice enough but probably not very helpful with regard to our survival as a species, which has to be through more and better technology.
2 Anything important I know about linguistics is self-taught. I did an English degree at Oxford in the 1960s, but we wasted our time (in my view!) studying sound shifts from Old to Middle to Modern English and translating texts about nuns’ underwear because such were the only surviving examples of some dialect. Fine enough for proto-Tolkiens, I suppose. Saussure was mentioned in one lecture, but that was about it as regards modern scientific linguistics, semiotics etc. I boned up on these and related structural anthropology when I was teaching futurology and SF at what was then Birmingham Polytechnic Art & Design Centre in the early 70s. One of my colleagues was a structural anthropologist, and another was into semiotics.
The standpoint I proceeded from was Chomsky’s theory of general grammar innately programmed into us, which allows children rapidly to acquire any human language, and my first novel, The Embedding, was the first SF novel to promote this. By contrast a novel like Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao follows the perhaps more colourful but dodgy Sapir/Whorf theory that languages arising in different cultures condition different views of reality (although I made some use of this too) — thus a Hopi Indian supposedly perceives the world differently from a European. Putting it crudely, Sapir/Whorf divides human languages. Chomsky unites all languages at some deep level, so his radical political activism is a logical outcome of his linguistic theories.
I’ve grown increasingly interested in Wittgenstein’s idea that words speak through us, rather than us “choosing” what we say. Language constructs us rather than us constructing language.
I’m very interested in all codes of communication: body language, costume, cosmetics, perfume, whatever. Perhaps the universe essentially consists of information. So I’m rather fond of my novel The Flies of Memory, its principal character a body language expert.
3. Usually when two (or even three) entirely separate ideas come together, this
pollinates a story or a novel. Somebody once wrote about me: what other people see as a coincidence, Ian Watson views as a connexion. The fusion of two ideas, like sperm and egg, gives rise to an embryo story which then usually grows quite quickly, sprouting limbs and other parts seemingly spontaneously. None of my stories has ever been pre-planned. My first few novels were planned in advance, but ever since Miracle Visitors I’ve relied more on intuition than planning. Miracle Visitors was a hard book to write because I had no idea where it was going. I suppose this was the whole point of the book – about a phenomenon which first reveals but then conceals itself in ambiguities. Coincidentally, while I was writing Miracle Visitors, reports of UFO sightings were appearing in the local newspaper, thirty miles away, twenty-five miles away, twenty – better hurry up and finish this book before they get to me! Since then I’ve relaxed more, except as regards doing a lot of rewriting after I capture a story. Whether I’m a good writer or not, I’m certainly a busy rewriter. Oops, that’s nonsense, I’m not relaxed when I’m writing — I get deeply involved. What I mean is that I don’t worry that I won’t be able to finish something, no matter how crazy the situation. If a story isn’t a bit crazy it isn’t interesting enough.
4 Stanley’s assistant phoned a number of SF booksellers and asked, “Who is British SF writer with lots of ideas?” My name came up. Books were ordered. Stanley read a few stories and I was phoned. A motorbike courier delivered the Aldiss vignette which originally gave Stanley the idea for a robot Pinocchio then I was invited down for Chinese take-out. Stanley said the project had bogged down and asked me to write a 12,000 word story doing whatever I wished with the material. Highest pay-rate I ever had for a story that no one will ever read: $20,000. Summoned once more, I briefly nursed the illusion that I might have come up with something filmable. “It’s no use for the project,” Stanley said, “but I like the way you did it.” And so commenced nine months of us trying out innumerable story lines and variants. I visited two or three times a week to spend the whole afternoon, I faxed scenes, we talked on the phone for hours. Escher-thinking ruled. Houses of cards collapsed and rose again. “Look Ian,” said Stanley, “the boy and the bear are going to get nowhere unless someone helps them out, a sort of G.I. Joe character.” “How about a Gigolo Joe?” I suggested. “Write some scenes, Ian.” I did. “I guess we just lost the kiddie market,” said Stanley, “but what the hell.” I never thought that Gigolo Joe would make it all the way through to screen, but he did. It was all a bit like quantum indeterminacy, a myriad possibilities – until finally the wave function collapsed into one actual 90-page story. This is what Spielberg based his screenplay on, but Stanley got despondent – and then three months later Stanley phoned and said something like, “This is one of the great stories of the world.” Then years passed by.
The constant mind-shifts were a bit disconcerting but I did like Stanley a lot, nice dry sense of humour. When he got despondent I’m glad that he didn’t just walk away, as from other people, but took the trouble to phone me. I regarded the project as a sort of surrealist comedy in my life, so my brain only turned into scrambled egg on a couple of occasions.
5 I adore Spielberg’s A.I. Of course I’m a wee bit prejudiced since so much of my story got used, and Jude Law is so wonderful as Gigolo Joe. Dr. Know didn’t much appeal to me, being so much like a Disney cartoon, but nothing is perfect for everyone. A.I. seems to have polarised opinion considerably, some people deriding it and others loving it and weeping in the cinema and writing passionately about it as something very special, quite different from the usual Hollywood movie, and important — even philosophically so. There’s been quite a bit of confusion among critics, in fact, especially about the final 20 minutes which aren’t Spielberg being sentimental (his main addition was the cruel, brutal Flesh Fair [No it wasn´t; I wrote the basis of that too, which Spielberg found among scenes which Stanley had insisted on excluding]), but are exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what Stanley wanted. And as for sentimental, well, at the end of his perfect day David is alone without his mother for ever and ever in a universe which contains no other life, only the evolved Mecha (robots, not visiting aliens!) who can only study the traces and leftovers of extinct human life. David miraculously sheds a tear, and I don’t exactly blame him.
The evolved robots are marvellous – “machines of loving grace,” to quote a line from a poem by Richard Brautigan. The ending is really quite multi-layered. A.I. is a movie that is going to need, and receive, a fair amount of reassessment, and this will probably happen sooner rather than later. I think Stanley would have been pretty pleased with what Spielberg did. I am.
6 American editors had been asking Gollancz, “When is Ian going to write a big book?” So I did. So the same editors then said, “It’s too big.” They probably felt that The Books of Mana (which, as you say, are – or is — actually one long novel) was a bit eccentric to cater to the big-saga-buying readership.
I myself had also been wanting for quite a while to write a big book, to spread out a feast as it were. In actual fact I don’t write very fast (despite appearances, perhaps!) so I knew this would take a long time, a couple of years as it turned out. With the money Stanley had paid me, not to mention Games Workshop’s forty thousand quid for my four Warhammer 40,000 novels (which I had great lurid Gothic fun writing) and with a reasonably generous advance from Gollancz, I could afford to take two years doing just what I wanted without worrying. I spent those two years on a sort of poetic high.
This would have been no use if I hadn’t encountered my ideal subject thanks to a trip to Finland. I read (in translation, I hasten to add, but a wonderful translation) a book of poems by Eino Leino which are capsules of themes and episodes from the Kalevala, and as I read these already they were mutating into scenes and events on another world. The important thing for me about the Kalevala is the shamanistic power of language to control and transform reality – so here we come back to my perennial obsession, and maybe it is The Books of Mana rather than The Flies of Memory that I should single out as best expressing my preoccupations with language.
7 I was told by a reliable source that a Sales Director at Gollancz hadn’t been doing very much to direct sales but had used sales trips to set himself up in business in America with an American woman. I was told by another reliable source that the sales department seemed to be actively engaged in trying to destroy the careers of several authors. Gollancz even forgot to export any copies of one of my novels to Australia, as I discovered after a senior university librarian, who collects my books, contacted me.
Heigh-ho, not enough sales, even though my Hard Questions had earned out its advance (admittedly partly thanks to translation sales). Off I went to Orion. Orion suddenly bought Gollancz. A six month moratorium on deciding anything. Off I went to Virgin. The Managing Editor wanted my latest novel Mockymen as lead title for their new SF line. Just as we were about to sign a contract, the sales team told him he already had three books to launch with, can’t have another one. So the new line launched with three titles by unknown authors and bombed. Off, next, to the excellent David Marshall’s Pumpkin Books. Yes, yes! At the eleventh hour, just as the book was about to be printed, accumulating surrealistic personal and business misfortunes overtook Mr Pumpkin. By now lots and lots of time had been wasted. However, Golden Gryphon Press will now publish Mockymen in Autumn 2003. The cover, by Steve Montiglio, looks gorgeous. [And then Storm Constantine published the definitive edition through her Immanion Press, which is the ebook now available through Gollancz´s www.sfgateway.com.]
The other cause of hiatus was that my wife Judy was disabled by steadily worsening emphysema. I was her full-time carer. Wheelchair clocked in, oxygen cylinders clocked in, etc etc, a downward spiral. Life became very ritualised and constrained. Caring occupied more and more time and energy as the condition worsened until Judy died at Easter last year. So when I had time I wrote some stories and also poems (culminating in my first volume of verse from DNA Publications recently, The Lexicographer’s Love Song). I spent quite a bit of time travelling last year for a change: Spain, Ireland, Germany, Poland.
8 I love short stories. Years ago, in the introduction to my Slow Birds collection, I wrote that novels are monsters that escape from the author to make their own independent way in the world, but short stories stay at home in the personal mental greenhouse, like bonsai, cacti, whatever. Often there’s as much pleasure in seeing a story in print as in receiving copies of full-length novel which may have taken a year to write. A story has at least a chance of achieving a sort of perfection — someone once remarked that a novel is never finished, it is merely abandoned.
9 I think most of my story collections have been fairly eclectic because I like to write stories that range as widely as possible in theme and mood. I try not to repeat myself. A linking theme? Searching, that’s it. Almost all of the stories consist of searches, for this or for that. I suppose very many stories do deal with searches, and I write a story in order to search for, well, I suppose, meaning, significance. To see the familiar in a new way, and to affect the reader’s vision of the world likewise.
10 Wit is a dangerous faculty. I remember, in Brighton at a world SF convention, an American writer asked me earnestly, “Why are there so many Greek restaurants in Brighton?” I promptly answered, “Because Greece is closer to Brighton than to other parts of Britain.” Later he wrote complaining that he had asked a serious question but I had merely been witty at him. Oh dear, here we call it a joke. My sense of humour sometimes gets me into trouble. I don’t think there should be any taboo topics. This leads to censorship and fatwas and whatnot. “Sacred” things should be probed, not protected. There’s still good taste to maintain! — but a whole lot of people live by delusionary belief systems. People happily propagandise these systems, the anti-Darwinian Creationists, for instance. Why defer to delusions?
11 I’ve been to Finland twice but I haven’t actually been to Kaliningrad (yet), except in my mind. These places are out in the margins, or have been so – Finland controlled or semi-controlled by Russia, Kaliningrad an enclave separated from Mother Russia. At the margins shadowy figures mingle. And they engage in intrigue.
12 In June 1999 The New York Review of Science Fiction printed an essay by me which amongst other things puts forward the perhaps tongue in cheek proposition that
SF is closely akin to Surrealism – what else are the alien worlds of SF but a kind of fulfillment of the surrealist quest for imaginary nonhuman worlds? Indeed in France, where the surrealist Boris Vian beautifully translated Van Vogt to great acclaim, Van Vogt’s works were viewed as great literature of the surrealist school.
Psychological allegories? “The China Cottage” is almost a true story. My mother owned that china cottage made in Japan. After my mother died, Judy and I sought more and more examples. There must be a hundred and fifty pieces in this house. I can spot a piece of Maruhon Ware in a junk shop window from the opposite side of a street, but nowadays I rein myself in. The story merely takes this to greater extremes of life-consuming obsession. As for “The Last Beast out of the Box” my own daughter Jess painted the selfsame box with different cats when she was a child… and a new cat clocked in as depicted. A number of stories are related to my life, as I experience it. I tend to experience things exaggeratedly, not always a sensible idea but it does produce stories.
13 Another story of obsession – in this case, an obsession on the part of aliens. Maybe obsession spurs a lot of my stories, as well as searching. Although a search is a kind of obsession. (I am finding it quite therapeutic doing this interview. Much cheaper than visiting a psychiatrist.) I can’t remember where the bombardment by coffins idea came from. I think I jotted it down years ago and put it in a file. I shouldn’t be surprised if I was reading New Scientist and found something about the dangers to Earth from incoming asteroids and another something about people arranging for their ashes to be fired into space. I was never much of a fan of Heinlein and I haven’t read a word by him, ancient or modern, since the solipsistic bloat of I Will Fear No Evil in the 1970s. Hmm, while I was busy writing “Ferryman” I was well aware a different sort of story from my “usual” vein while I was busy writing it. Ye Gods, can I parody somebody I have hardly read? This leads to very Borgesian thoughts.
14 The famous SF critic whom I know and love (honest!) never reads stories on first publication but always waits until they have been winnowed into a book, so now that “Docklands” is appearing in a book will the sh*t hit the fan? No, of course not. A lot of the story is true, or by now it seems to me to be true — apart from the Allotes in the actual hotel. I did dream exactly that dream of them and the Forest Folk on the first night of the convention, the same night that my daughter Jess dreamt her dream as described. The rooftop makeover is actual; I saw it on TV. Am I trying to make out that I have no imagination? That I just go round experiencing things exaggeratedly? Anyway, “Robin Hood” has always looked quite heroic, and he writes of heroes (myth-egos, now is that the word?), while Julius Caesar has to be a hero of criticism, what with an encylopaedia containing a whole hidden series of trapdoors and mazes revealing a Theory of Fantasy which he then ingeniously proceeds to apply to the writing of a Science Fiction novel! Orange Pip, Plum Stone, Pear Core, now what was it called? I believe I had my dream because of a conversation with him in the subterannean corkscrew car park, so the story is all his own fault. As for excitement, well, Bob Silverberg and his wife were robbed. Police and cream cakes!
15 I wrote “Speaker” before I had tasted any absinthe, but researching the story wised me up to what constitutes proper absinthe, namely the percentage of thujone, the active pharmacological substance in Wormwood, Artemisia Absinthia. So when I went to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) last August for a Poetenfest and happened to find an upmarket booze shop hosting an absinthe promotion, after a chat with the enthusiastic owner I bought a high-strength bottle for a ridiculous price, along with slotted spoons for the sugar cubes.
Incidentally, there were no poets at the Poetenfest – apparently poet has a much wider connotation in German of creative artist. I’d thought what I would do in Aachen was check up on Charlemagne, whose bones are there — every five years they get shown to the public though I was a year late. Pam Sargent had asked me to write a story for her upcoming anthology Conqueror Fantastic, alternative history takes on Genghis Khan or Napoleon or whoever you please. Which hero for me? I cudgeled my brains. The invitation to Aachen seemed like an omen, but in the event Aachen for me was absinthe and 102 full-size painted horses in the streets or sitting on benches reading newspaper, not forgetting two golden unicorns mounting the front of a pub vertically. I did not see these because of the absinthe but because Aachen was hosting an equestrian festival at the same time.
I must warn about the drawbacks of absinthe. One is the time-consuming ceremony of preparing the stuff – drizzling water slowly over a sugar cube, then dripping absinthe on to a teaspoonful of granulated sugar and setting fire to it till it caramelises before dunking in the absinthe and topping up with chilled water. No wonder those absinthe drinkers in French paintings of the 1890s look so melancholy. “Waiter, another glass please.” “Oui, Monsieur, in half an hour…”
And there is great danger of setting yourself on fire. When I carried out the ceremony at home too much absinthe spilled on to the sugar. As soon as I lit the spoon, flame leapt to a piece of absinthe-stained paper lying on the kitchen table. I hurled the paper on to the floor, which thanks goodness is of slate, and stamped on it. My slipper promptly burst into flames, compelling me to kick it off then beat it against the floor. Beware!
On the other you can try Johnny Depp’s method in that gorgeous if ghastly Jack the Ripper movie, From Hell. Lie in the bath (a sensible fire precaution), pour a glass full of undiluted absinthe, then drizzle laudanum over the sugar cube.
Oh yes, the conqueror I sought… I wrote a story about gay Nazi sailors, seven-kilometre long battleships, Hitler, and Wittgenstein.
16 The next novel I write might be in collaboration with an American writer (just as I wrote a novel in collaboration with Michael Bishop years ago) but since this isn’t settled yet I shan’t say more. [This didn´t happen.] Of course as I said earlier my much-delayed Mockymen is due out next year. It starts with a novella, “Secrets,” which appeared in Interzone then moves into a hardship near-future when enigmatic aliens-bearing-gifts use the bodies of victims of a drug called Bliss to host their alien minds. I suppose by now enough uncollected stories have already mounted up to fill another collection, but heavens, the latest one is only just being published right now.
Thank goodness Games Workshop are going to reissue with a fanfare my three Inquisitor books starting this Summer – ever since I went on e-mail I’ve had a steady stream of pleas from “Desperately Seeking” in the UK, USA, OZ, Germany.
Oh, and my erotic satire The Woman Plant came out in Japanese last year in a beautifully produced sexy hardback and has sold five thousand hardback copies to date – it’s a finalist for the Seiun Award, the “Japanese Hugo.” I’m hoping to get involved in more film work. I just joined an agency in Hollywood which actively (as opposed to passively) promotes suitable SF stories and novels to producers and directors. [This was a complete waste of time.]
An interview with the Hungarian magazine Atjáró in 2003
(the questions themselves are missing)
About the only, or strange, interesting thing in my home town when I was a schoolboy was a little plastic ostrich that stood in a shop window constantly dipping its head into a glass of water. Everything else seemed so ordinary. Years later, when I wrote my SF/horror novel The Fire Worm – a sort of exorcism of my boyhood — I managed to make my home town much more interesting and wierd. Horror illuminates, though with a dark and sickly kind of beauty. However, years earlier the place seemed so unstimulating. So it was a great relief when I discovered science fiction books in a newsagent’s shop. Jon J. Deegan isn’t one of the world’s great writers, but his pulp SF novel Antro the Life-Giver (now utterly forgotten) excited my imagination. And then I discovered rather better “Golden Age” SF novels in a library, books by hallucinatory people like Van Vogt who wrote about unusual mental powers. I was already interested in the mysteries of the mind, altered states of consciousness. I nursed the idea that I was going to write “mainstream” fiction some day, but as things turned out everything that I write becomes fantastical almost immediately.
East Africa was important to me because for the first time I encountered an alternative culture to the West, the African world-view, different concepts of space and time and existence. If you’re going to invent alien societies it’s a good idea to experience an alternative society on our own planet. But at the same time Tanzania was culturally dull compared with West Africa where all the artistic action was. I respect Tanzania politically, but it didn’t fire me much imaginatively. Still, it was occasionally exciting, such as when I drove through a bush fire as fast as possible before the petrol tank could heat up too much. And when I met a bad-tempered elephant. And when a big sting-ray swam directly under me while I was admiring a coral reef.
I began writing SF in Japan as a sort of psychological survival strategy. There seemed little connection between the Shakespeare and so forth that I was lecturing about — and the Tokyo environment which seemed to prefigure the 21st century, all the techno thrills and all the environmental and other horrors that SF writers foresaw. Japan started me writing science fiction seriously. Another thing that excited me in Japan was Shinto shrines, so colourful and sometimes peculiar (such as the Shrine of Gratitude for Penis near Nagoya).
The Woman Factory is an SF erotic satire about custom-made pleasure-girls, very influenced by my stay in Japan. I rewrote it since it appeared in French, and two years ago the book appeared in Japanese in a beautiful edition which was a bit of a best-seller and was also a finalist for an award often described as the “Japanese Hugo.” At present, if you want to read it, you’ll have to learn Japanese! Since it takes ages for the Japanese to learn to read Japanese, this is perhaps not worth the effort. Maybe it will appear in English some day. Or in Hungarian — it would be amusing if it appeared in Hungarian because still the vast majority of people wouldn’t be able to read it.
Quite a few British SF writers became full-time authors about the same time that I did. Many more British writers become full-time than Americans, proportionately. At the time I was lecturing in Futures Studies at an art college, and my colleagues said I was crazy to give up the job, but I was young and excited and had confidence. As things turned out, I was in debt for much of the 1980s, until Stanley Kubrick came along, but if I’d had a real job I wouldn’t have had time to write all the novels and stories I wanted to. Anyway, I was only comparatively poor — I could still buy beer. Apart from the time when I decided to make my own beer, which was a bad mistake.
Living in socialist Tanzania moulded my political awareness. Also influential was the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and anti-establishment activism. On returning to Oxford in 1970 I joined a Trotskyist party to promote world revolution (perhaps not a bright idea, in view of Al-Quaida). Britain had several tiny Trotskyist parties, quarrelling with each other. But they were so blinkered by ideology and slogans. When I moved from a city, Oxford, into the countryside I became much more sensitised to all the American bases in England and preparations for the Third World War, so I became active in CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and at the same time I joined the Labour Party and stood as a candidate for local government in a very Conservative rural area. This guaranteed that I did not get elected (fortunately, because all the bureaucracy of politics would probably have bored me to death), but at least the opposition had somebody to vote for, for a change. I did get a third of the vote.
I like to attempt different sorts of things, in different sorts of ways. In the past few years I have even become a poet (with one book of poems published recently, The Lexicographer’s Love Song). In a sense I’m a traditional story teller as regards narrative structure, but I like my narratives to tell peculiar stories which can’t be foreguessed. Initially I agreed to write a Warhammer novel for the money, but as soon as I start I became thoroughly involved and had wonderful hectic fun going over the top in bizarre lurid Gothic madness. Writing should be fun. Writing should disorder, and then re-organise, readers’ minds so that they see the world in a different way.
I’ve always been interested in altered states of consciousness. One of the very first things I published, when I was a schoolboy, was an article in a gardening magazine about how to grow the peyotl cactus which produces Mescaline. At the start of the 1970s I took LSD about a dozen times, and this showed me a lot about the structures of my own perception. I never smoked much grass or resin (marijuana) because the effect – becoming fatuous — doesn’t interest me too much. Anyway, I’m genetically programmed to drink beer (or wine) because my great-uncle (the dark sheep of the family) was an alcoholic sailor. I haven’t taken a major hallucinogen for about 30 years; LSD takes up the whole of a day! But the experience was very valuable to me, intellectually and emotionally, and it fed into my writing, not least in The Embedding. Lately, I became rather interested in Absinthe, although while preparing it the correct way with sugar cube and slotted spoon then a teaspoon of sugar soaked in the green fairy, I set fire to my slipper – so beware. Also, a lot of the commercial Absinthe on sale is lacking enough (or even any) of the activate pharmacological agent from the plant Artemisia Absinthia, namely Thujone. This is cheating! I did admire Johnny Depp in the Jack the Ripper movie drizzling laudanum into neat Absinthe. Wonderfully over the top. Heroin etc, at present, is evil, a tool of exploitation. You might define Homo Sapiens as a drug-taking animal, except that elephants and other animals will go out of their way to get high on naturally occuring fermented fruit. The point for me about drugs is the “high” bit, literally – meaning that it raises your consciousness, whereas heroin etc diminish and enslave you. Just wait for the designer drugs of the future.
I’m unable to write under the influence of any drug except caffeine. I can auto-hallucinate well enough (at least mentally) without artificial assistance, which is how I wrote my Warhammer 40K books.
I could only have worked with Stanley for such a long time if I liked him as a human being, and he could indeed be very likeable. At the same time, he was a very focused – and even obsessive – perfectionist, so it was necessary to safeguard your own individuality otherwise you might be drained, consumed; which wouldn’t have been much use to Stanley in the long run. So for instance I told Stanley right off that I would only work for so many hours, and never at weekends, and that I required beer before we got down to business because beer was necessary for my imagination to flourish when brainstorming with him. Inevitably he did try to get me to work 24 hours a day, but this just resulted in us joking about trade unionism and productivity agreements. People who were too much in awe Stanley, or greedy for the money, couldn’t work with him productively. I regarded the whole episode at the time as a surreal comedy, which was a healthy attitude. I had been hired to play with him in his nursery of the mind, as a sort of shaman who must guess what he wanted because he didn’t quite know.
I love the movie, apart from finding the Dr Know information-oracle too Disneyesque. During his lifetime Kubrick wanted Spielberg to direct AI because the movie ought to have fairytale magic, and who better to provide this? Spielberg shot the movie as a homage to Stanley as regards technique. The final 20 minutes, which some reviewers thought were Spielberg being sentimental, were exactly what I wrote for Stanley, and exactly what Stanley wanted, exactly filmed by Spielberg. Spielberg’s main addition was the harsh, cruel Flesh Fair because he felt more action was needed. Incidentally,
I had no contact with Spielberg as to the making of AI, because none was necessary.
Certainly The Flies of Memory. And others too, I’m fairly sure, but I don’t want to make rash statements.
I play table tennis quite vigorously once a week, then I go to a pub to regain the liquid I lost as sweat. I go to a gym once a week for a 2-hour workout on exercise and weights machines. I garden. I write menus and cook what I have told myself to cook. I roll cigarettes. I gaze into the distance and think. I spend a lot of time answering or causing e-mails, which sometimes gets in the way of writing at all. For the past 20 years I’ve been Secretary of our Village Hall — which is the social and entertainments, not the political, side of this little village I live in. I like Italian-style coffee bars. I like shopping. I read widely, although more slowly than I ought to because I get distracted or start scribbling notes for a story. Recently I’ve forgotten to watch TV, so I have a lot of tapes to catch upon on. I’m learning Spanish. I look after Poppy, my black cat, or maybe she looks after herself. I drink red wine and strong dark beers. I go to the cinema with my daughter and her partner; most recently we saw Lara Croft 2, which wasn’t really worth seeing. And The Hulk, which was worth seeing. I listen to music, ranging from Kraftwerk to Classical. Sometimes I conduct the music, but since I don’t know how to conduct maybe this comes under exercise. I hardly ever dream about people I actually know, but about characters having quirky adventures — quests, espionage etc.
The future is unpredictable, so large-scale plans are fantasies or illusions. But I hope to see yet another story collection published, which will be my eleventh (I think). At the moment I’m writing short stories and poems, though I really ought to start another novel. But my latest novel, Mockymen, was grotesquely delayed by crazy publishing calamities and is only just out now in America about five years after it was written. I didn’t feel like starting another one until Mockymen found a home, but also my wife was dying slowly from emphysema until April 2001 and I was her full-time carer, which was increasingly difficult and demanding and constraining, so in a sense I have been relaxing or recovering from that since, but vigorously so.
On Saving Books
or Hard Questions: How I Learned to Stop Worrying, Love the Small Press and Write Poetry.
John Kenny talks to Ian Watson for Albedo magazine in 2003
John Kenny: First of all, let’s get the inevitable AI question out of the way. When you were working on AI, how much of a distraction was that from your other work, your writing?
Ian Watson: When I was working with Stanley Kubrick, it was full-time. I was the ‘mind-slave’ of Stanley and by contract I was working for him full-time. Nothing else could get in the way of Stanley’s requirements and one of the problems was keeping a niche in my private life, as he would have liked to consume my weekends.
I did make it plain to Stanley that I was working during the week only and I was not going to work weekends and because he knew I was a supporter of the Labour Party, he would make quite a few jokes about trade unions and productivity agreements. One day, in fact, when I faxed him 10 pages instead of my usual three, he said “What is wrong with you? Have you had a Productivity Agreement with yourself?”
Bob Shaw, who had worked with him for five or six weeks only a while prior, and could not take the constant mind tricks, innocently went off to a Science Fiction Convention over one weekend, I think in Vancouver, admittedly. Stanley immediately sacked him because this was not what he ought to have been doing; he wanted mind and body dedicated to the project.
JK: How long were you involved?
IW: Initially, from March 1990. Stanley talked to me about the project and asked me to write a 12,000 word story development of the existing material, which had not got terribly far, doing anything I wanted with it. I did write a 12,000 story which included all sorts of things, such as artificial intelligence in outer space, plus time travel back to ancient Alexandria, and a residual colony of human beings being kept alive in the far future by the aliens.
Stanley called me back to him and I thought, “Gee, I have cracked it”, and he said to me, “Well Ian, the story is no use for the project, but I like the way you went about it, so would you work with me on a week-by-week basis doing story development?” and I said “Yes.”
That story, which is not bad, will remain unpublished forever, because is not my property; it is the property of Warner Brothers. It was called ‘Foxtrot’. Why was it called ‘Foxtrot’, I wonder. After ten years I can scarcely remember. So, what Stanley and I went on doing was working from my scenes and brainstorming what happens next. After we worked out what ought to happen next, we jumped to an entirely different aspect of the movie, different scenes, different settings. I think he indulged in a lot of lateral thinking in order to maintain a fresh intensity all the time, so you did not get into a comfortable rut. It was rather like the little mermaid dancing and experiencing pain the quicker she dances.
So, the stimulus was provided by constant shifts of perspective, which included not just talking about the story, but also shifts into the real world, so that Stanley would suddenly say to me, “So, do you think are they going to nuke Saddam Hussein?” This was at the time of the run-up to the first Gulf War, and for about 10 or 15 minutes we would shift to discussing the psychology of Saddam Hussein, whereupon Stanley would immediately throw from left field a question about another aspect of the project and what happens next and we would be back to the story.
It proceeded like this and was quite intense in the sense that you never knew what was going to happen within the next few minutes. Invariably, by the end of an afternoon, when I was hoping to go home and next morning write up some of the scenes that we had decided upon, Stanley would start plucking away at the logical fabric of what we had created and what was a hair-thread crack would rapidly become the Grand Canyon and the house of cards would collapse.
But that kind of thing actually taught me quite a lot about logical plotting, because Stanley was extraordinarily logical, inclined to have everything seamless. Hollywood movies in general, nowadays especially, with the story or scriptwriters coming last in the pecking order, tend to have vast flaws in the story logic because quite often the story is still being cobbled together during shooting. But Stanley wouldn’t allow anything like that. He needed to spend years and years to have everything perfect, to have the machine, the clockwork impeccable before the shooting commenced. And then of course he would spend about two years shooting, the philosophy being that once you have everything gathered together, you might as well film the same scene 50 times over, rather than just doing it a couple of times and saying ‘”wrap”. Because, if you do it 50 times, something “interesting” might happen; this basically involved the actors going so far beyond just being actors that they were either living the role by then in a Zen state of hypnosis, or they might go crazy and do something completely original, fresh and strange.
JK: I suppose in the best case scenario, extra-curricular activities like this can act as a stimulation for your own writing.
IW: It was very stimulating as a mental discipline in thinking both logically and also flexibly and free-rangingly and not getting stuck in a rut, being able to kick yourself out of a rut into something parallel or in different directions. The remorseless logic of Stanley was a thing that did have an influence upon me.
JK: Seeing as how we are talking about the whole movie side of things, I believe you’re involved in a number of movie development type packages.
IW: I am, but none of them are particularly near fruition. There is a proposed Warhammer 40K movie which has been in development on and off for several years. Last year, I was pulled in by the guys who had the licence to try and develop it to re-jig the script, which at that time Dreamworks were interested in. Dreamworks said that this movie has a hero at the beginning and he is a hero at the end and he doesn’t change one little bit in between, so what I was trying to do was to provide some more character motivation, which does not tend to exist very much in Warhammer land, or at least it didn’t.
When I wrote the four Warhammer books, the biggest problem was converting mentally from a Citadel miniature and board game with rules and background studies, and characters almost like human machines, and trying to give them some kind of human feelings, emotions, background and motivations, which nobody had managed before.
JK: How did your involvement with the Warhammer franchise compare with the AI project, where, as you say, you had this free-ranging approach to trying to develop the story? Did you feel yourself constrained by that product?
IW: No, I saw the flaws, holes and loopholes in the proposed screenplay that Stanley would have leapt upon immediately and that is where I went to work. I fixed the illogics in it so that everything flowed into everything else naturally and explicably. There are other things I’ve been involved in such as an aborted project for a TV series about hi-jinks in the solar system. At the moment I am trying to do a development of one of my own stories, called The Bible in Blood, a package that will hopefully appeal to producers in Los Angeles.
In the last few months, I acquired an agent in Hollywood who specialises in trying to develop existing short stories and novels. Well, they don’t develop them, the writer has to develop them and they give guidelines based on their knowledge of what the studios think they want at the moment, and what is just not going to work at the moment. This means I am either wasting my time or not, in the sense that something might actually happen because it will be pitched relevantly at the needs of producers right now.
Otherwise, sitting over in England, you could develop your own stories and you could be pitching at people who have no interest in that particular thing. My movie agent did send me an e-mail asking me if there were any stories or books in the science fiction field which closely resembled V, that series with the notorious, ghastly lizards who invade the earth. Apparently, one studio wants to make a series closely copying V. V works, let’s copy it. I wouldn’t in a million years have imagined that anyone would want to copy V, but apparently somebody does. I myself am developing a story which has strong fantasy elements in it, most of which I have been told to take out and throw away, so I am trying to write it in an entirely different, more realistic way, but still eerie and haunting.
JK: It is interesting to see that Minority Report, for example, is based on a short story written in the 1950’s. AI is loosely based on a story written in the 1960’s. It seems to be that, with the latest science fiction movies, they are going further and further back to look at existing material to use at least as a kicking off point. It’s an accepted idea, certainly amongst science fiction fandom, that science fiction literature is where you go to find the cutting edge of the genre. Whereas the visual medium, TV and movies, seems to be lagging behind by 20 years or so.
IW: That is possibly true. The thing with Minority Report is that Philip Dick has become a very sexy Hollywood name, so that anything you can take from him and develop, no matter how far you wander from the original Philip Dick idea, it is by definition bankable. I believe Hollywood studios are now looking into the science fiction literature because a lot of SF movies have been cobbled together without looking at existing stories. They’ve been creating them from the ground up, basically non-science fiction writers getting together creating a movie from scratch, as witness Armageddon or Independence Day or The Black Hole. The list is quite long of movies that have been generated in Hollywood not on the basis of existing science fiction material.
A lot of the options on existing SF material have resulted in no movies. Though they have resulted in some good ones. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven was optioned about 10 times before it finally became a movie and it was a very good movie as a movie but not a blockbuster. Hollywood, of course, is very much into blockbusters and now that special effects and computer animation have become much more sophisticated, the temptation is to go for massive effects and action, which tends to push to one side the subtleties of a science fiction story, the characterisation, the social background. In a very real sense, Minority Report was put together by a committee. What is the future going to look like? Let’s toss around some ideas. Well, we’ll have those, yes, and those. What else will we have in the future? It does not necessarily present a believable image of the future. It is a collage of picturesque things thrown together.
JK: Talking about your writing, you seem to be very fond of the short story form. Everything we have talked about in terms of movie developments is mainly based on the short form and a significant number of your books have been collections. It seems to be something you are very heavily involved in.
IW: I am up to nine collections now. Golden Gryphon are probably going to do a tenth collection in 2004. This was not something that I was heavily into at the beginning. I did start out as a science fiction writer by having a couple of short stories published in New Worlds, but basically I was writing novels to begin with. Five novels were published and I had only published about eight or nine short stories. I got out a sheet of paper and ruled lines and wrote down the titles of the stories and I would add a tick if they got sold. I thought one sheet of paper would probably be enough for the rest of my life. I’m basically going to write novels, I thought. How wrong I was.
JK: It seems to me, from reading a mixture of your novels and short stories, that you do most of your experimentation in the short form. There is such a diversity. I mean you really go out there on some of them. Do you look on the short form as maybe offering more possibilities for trying things out?
IW: In the short form you can set up a situation which is internally consistent within the limits of that short story, but for a novel you have to think of the vast ramifications beyond the actual story. Sometimes, I have written a short story which I have expanded, or rather continued into a novel. Expansion suggests you just pump in a lot of air to make it bigger. My novel Converts, a slapstick comedy about metamorphoses, started off as a short story which Terry Carr bought and I wasn’t thinking of turning it into a novel at the time at all.
My story Jingling Geordie’s Hole appeared in Interzone, to be voted simultaneously the worst and best story that year. I had no intention when I wrote that story of a novel appearing called The Fire Worm and it was only a year or two later that I thought of other implications beyond the original story.
The Flies of Memory is another case where I wrote a novella and that was published and when I finished the novella, I thought, you know, that’s it. I have done it and what not and then a few months or a year later, it was resurrected in my head and I thought I had to continue this story and develop it further.
The same thing happened with Whores of Babylon. I wrote a story called ‘We Remember Babylon’, which was really a rather brief one, about ten pages. It appeared in a Susan Schwartz Anthology and was anthologised in Don Wollheim’s Best of the Year. I then saw many implications in this story and wrote Whores of Babylon, which I sent to Don Wollheim. He thought We Remember Babylon was one of the best short stories of the year and I thought Whores was a nifty novel, so what better publisher? But Don sent me a rejection letter which said, “I cannot imagine why anyone would want to recreate Babylon in all its dirt, filth and degradation as you have done, at length”.
The novel only appeared in England and was shortlisted for the Arthur Clarke Award. Being shortlisted for the Clarke Award, you would think it was a fairly okay book, but I re-read it about four years ago because I was thinking it deserved a sequel and I noticed an awful lot of stylistic infelicities and other things which could really do with improvement. It is going to be a re-issue by Big Engine at the end of 2003 and I have re-written it considerably. I quite often use short stories as a test pad for what later becomes a novel.
JK: Considering the way the market has gone in the last 10 to 15 years and considering your involvement with something like AI and the time you devote to short fiction, do you feel any pressure from the publishing world to maintain a presence on a fairly regular basis with novels?
IW: I haven’t noticed that anyone in the publishing world rings up and says “Hey, we haven’t had anything from you for a long time.” In fact, Gollancz kicked me overboard a few years ago now, commenting about the Great Escape story collection that it wasn’t going to sell enough copies to justify printing. This same collection came out from Golden Gryphon in the States, with stunning reviews, the like of which I had never had before. One review on national radio resulted in 1,000 extra orders for the hardback the next day. So thank God Gollancz kicked me out as regards that book and likewise my most recent novel Mockymen, which Golden Gryphon are going to publish this coming autumn.
Mockymen went through some surrealistic publishing disasters. After my extraordinarily efficient foreign rights manager at Gollancz was sacked she told me that it seemed as though the Sales Department was deliberately trying to destroy the careers of several writers, not just me. So off I went to Orion. They were interested in Mockymen, but suddenly there was a mysterious moratorium on buying any new titles and months later, lo, Orion bought Gollancz itself, so now they had a big inventory plus the same old Gollancz Sales Department figures.
So off I went to Virgin Books which was starting up a new science fiction line. Peter Darvill Evans, the Managing Editor, wanted Mockymen as the lead title and we were just about to sign a contract when suddenly his Sales Department told him, to his astonishment, that he already had three books for the launch and could not have another one. Virgin launched with three books by unknowns and the new SF line flopped.
Next I went to Pumpkin Books, run by David Marshall, a small press producing very high quality books designed with love and rather like Golden Gryphon in the States. Bizarre personal chaos increasingly afflicted Mr Pumpkin. He got as far as an actual setting copy of Mockymen and the cover art when accumulating disasters finally brought Pumpkin Books down.
Then I contacted Golden Gryphon — where doom has not yet occurred! Nor does it looks as though it will. The story collection is out and has done extraordinarily well. It seems certain that Mockymen will appear as well.
To a large extent, the future of interesting SF written by people who do not necessarily sell vast numbers of copies, is in the small presses. New technology makes it possible for the small presses to do really beautiful jobs on relatively small print runs, which will sell and an example of this Peter Crowther starting up PS Publishing specifically to publish novellas, reasonably priced, and it is doing very well. That is why, I suppose, Albedo One is launching into publishing books. This is totally viable now and, increasingly, people who love SF are not going to go down to Smiths, because they will just get wall-to-wall David Eddings or Robert Jordan or whoever else. For the innovative stuff, you are going to be looking at the small presses, which are no longer small in production values.
JK: Certainly, with the big publishers, the back-list has disappeared. If you want to explore the classics of the genre, you have to hope for a publisher like Gollancz to bring out the Masterworks series, otherwise you can forget it. And the mid-list has vanished.
IW: It has vanished. There are, at the moment, a lot of excellent new novels by very good mid-list authors going around New York much praised by editors but unbought. One answer to this is print-on-demand and that is certainly the answer to the misfortunes of the back-list. More and more back-list is now becoming available through print-on-demand. The problem with POD, though, is that at least in the short term writers are unlikely to earn nearly as much.
JK: It is a double-edged sword, though. The ease of publishing now facilitates good work coming out from mid-list writers and allows classics to stay in print, but particularly with the Internet, I find it is almost too easy in some ways to become published. There is an awful lot of dodgy stuff out there.
IW: There are some e-publishers who will publish anything, without exercising any real critical or editorial control. This was bound to happen. At least it’s better than vanity publishing where you pay to be lumbered with 5000 copies of a book no one but family and friends want, to store in your garage! Conversely, it can be rather a problem for even a good e-published book to get the attention it deserves. A friend of minepublished a jolly good book with Cosmos Books, who are particularly friendly to British writers. The reviews of this book are excellent. Sales remain extremely low. Maybe this doesn’t matter in the long run, because the book is going to remain permanently available and as that particular author picks up more reputation through short stories and being anthologised in “Best Ofs”, people will always be able to get a copy, whereas after quite a short while most traditionally published books are no longer in existence — and if the first or second book does not do well right away the author is doomed in the traditional market. I think I prefer the situation now, even though it does mean that a lot of mediocre stuff will probably be out there.
JK: I suppose Theodore Sturgeon’s law of 90% of science fiction is crap, but then 90% of everything is crap, will always apply.
IW: 90% of mainstream novels are crap, but for some reason they are not generally treated thus. Whereas a bad SF book is good excuse for being rude about the genre as a whole.
JK: We are still fighting for recognition, which is possibly not a bad thing.
IW: At the same time it’s irritating when mainstream writers condescend to attempt something science-fictional without knowing the field, and produce a botch of a book, which then gets good reviews in The Sunday Times or wherever. I think China Mieville says that in your interview with him in Albedo One (issue 26 – ed).
JK: So, what’s on the cards for you next?
IW: I don’t know. I hope I surprise myself. It’s even possible that I might write another Warhammer 40K novel in my Inquisition War series, because I left a lot of loose ends and I did have such fun writing those books. You can go completely over the top in gothic lunacy.
JK: We’ve spoken mostly of the professional side of your life. On the personal side, you went through a very difficult time when your wife was dying.
IW: I was a disabled carer, increasingly full-time, as emphysema progressively becomes worse. This is so constraining. There’s a continually constricting cage not only for the victim of the disease but for the carer as well. The ability to go places and do things diminishes constantly. This is one reason why I didn’t start another novel as well as the fact that I wanted to find a home for Mockymen, in the midst of its various publishing disasters, before starting anything sustained. You get this sense of the whole world closing in on you, a dark tunnel you might be stuck in for years. Everything becomes so ritualised and time-consuming. You scale down.
That’s really why I became a science fiction poet in the last three or four years. Poems are short enough to do in between changing the oxygen cylinders, pushing a wheelchair around, and all else. Poems are like extremely condensed stories (mine, anyway).
JK: I suppose you would need to have something that you could devote even a tiny amount of time to when somebody close to you is very ill.
IW: For a writer not to write is to go mad. You have to maintain some contact with the external world. In this respect e-mail was a complete blessing; you can communicate with editors by e-mail when it’s a question of poems. Obviously editors don’t want stories as e-mail attachments unless they invite this, but you can e-mail attach your poetry and get almost instantaneous responses from people.
As life scaled down, I was adapting to this, which to my surprise and pleasure turned me into a science fiction poet and two of my poems have been finalists for the Rhysling Award, the Science Fiction Poetry Award. I had written poetry before now and then, usually because I had a character in a novel who was a poet, so I would need to demonstrate this. In Deathhunter Norman Harper, a deliberately banal parody of Robert Frost, gives vent to saccharin clichés in the style of Frost and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire poet. In fact he’s such a bad poet he gets murdered early on in the book.
In Whores of Babylon one of my characters goes to the Greek Theatre in Babylon to see a production of the Andromeda of Euripides, which unfortunately has been lost, so I needed to invent it, in the style of a 19th century translation – one long soliloquy, at least. There was a funny sequel to this. I was invited to be Guest of Honour at a science fiction convention in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is one of the places that claims to have Andromeda’s Rock, where supposedly she was chained as a sacrifice to a sea monster. I told the organiser in Israel about Whores and we kicked off the convention in Old Jaffa, overlooking Andromeda’s Rock, with me reading out my invented soliloquy from Euripides then an Israeli actress declaiming a Hebrew translation of it, which was great fun.
JK: It is incredible how things can go through so many filters and end up at a stage where you ask yourself “Did I write that?”
IW: Most things turn out to have a use somewhere sometime. My big two-volume Book of Mana, which is actually one long book cut in half, features a poetess. Some of my existing poems became her works and I wrote one or two others specially for her. But I hadn’t imagined that I would have a flair for writing poems about, say, Isaac Newton. I was very pleased and glad. It isn’t exactly a way to make a fortune, as Gardner Dozois of Asimov’s kindly pointed out to me when I sold the second of my science fiction poems to him. “Are you determined to earn as little money as possible?” he asked.
JK: But in terms of money, presumably you still have got a lot of your work in print.
IW: Not all that much. In the last year, three books have come back into print with Richard Curtis’ e-writes programme, Hard Questions and Converts and The Fire Worm. I just picked up a batch of copies because I had almost none left and the books could have vanished. Curtis told me that they were going to be sourcing in the UK as well as the USA, so I asked “where exactly, because I know that Cosmos Books are printing in Milton Keynes, which is half-an-hour’s drive from where I live.” It turned out to be exactly the same place, about five minutes from where my daughter lives. That saved on postage! Now those books are saved and alive again.
It looks quite likely that a new American publisher, BenBella Books, will reissue my Book of the River trilogy as one fat trade paperback volume. The Science Fiction Book Club in America did an omnibus volume years ago under the title The Books of the Black Current. BenBella might rename the trilogy Yaleen, after the main character. Incidentally, the trilogy features a feminist utopia.
JK: That is a constant struggle then. I mean, you have got to really keep an eye on your work, what is out there. It is sad to think that certain of your novels have not seen print for a number of years.
IW: As applies to so many hundreds of other writers. Keeping the things in existence is extremely important. Gollancz retained a few of my books when I reverted the rights to everything out of print. Miracle Visitors is due out again in June 2003 with a beautiful cover, UFO that is a kind of coruscating, three-dimensional Star of Bethlehem coming low over a desert with a crescent moon behind and a guy on a camel reacting with great surprise. They Maybe they should be bringing it out next Christmas — people might mistake it as a suitable stocking filler.
JK: Good thinking! Though I think you would be loath to say delay.
IW: Never say that. Never say that.
An Interview with José García, “the Jolly Spaniard”
(2005 or early 2006)
Is it worth maintaining the thin red line between
science fiction and fantasy?
In the long run it’s impossible, because when space exploration ceases and big tech fails and resources run out, et cetera, and after what’s left of human civilisation undergoes a paradigm shift, all science fiction will become fantasy. After a few hundred years, SF will be more fantastic than fantasy. This will be the posthumous victory of SF, although only hypothetical alien archeologists of the further future will realise.
As the new John Clancy you’re writing a near future
anti-terrorism pot boiler. Who are the enemies of
freedom and what’s their evil plan?
World domination by American neoconservatives, by the trashing of Iran and other uppity states, is far too obvious, and politically I wouldn’t be a Clancy clone if I chose this. Team America already dealt with North Korea. Wrecking the Beijing Olympics with mutant bird flu is a bit too soon. But the London Olympics of 2012 is far enough away to be a good target. The President for Life of Turkmenistan is completely bananas, with a God complex, and he should still be around by then. Saparmurat Niyazok, jollily known as Turkmenbashi, a good name for a villain. No doubt he offended all Islamists recently by ordering his Book of the Soul to be inscribed alongside the Koran on a $100 million mosque, then banning any more building of mosques. Terrorists just can’t get near him. By 2012 Turkmenbashi should have a team of superhuman athletes ready to demonstrate his supremacy to the world – before his very gaze, in London. (Much oil and gas give him influence.) Think Hitler and the Munich Olympics. Islamist terrorists will try to mini-nuke the games, and for them the collateral damage to London will be fine. No, a mini-nuke is banal. Obsessed, they want Turkenbashi & his athletes to suffer publicly. They’ll aim to release mutated Ebola flesh-eating virus. Fill in the dots. Hmm, I wonder if should quickly trademark this plot.
ps: Curses! A bit of googling shows me that Tom Clancy (whom I never read in my life) actually produced two novels using Ebola virus (as well as printer ink, of course), in one of which the virus is to be released at some Olympic Games! So my idea would seem rather plagiaristic, even plague-aristic. Just as bad, a huge article in NewsCentralAsia protests that Turkmenbashi’s mosque isn’t blasphemous at all, because the quotes from The Book of the Soul are inscribed on the minarets, not on the main mosque. So Islamist terrorists have no reason to be annoyed with Turkmenbashi. And he has no reason to produce super-atheletes just so he can go to the London Olympics to be assassinated. And by the way, a variety of Ebola can make you bleed in a messy way, though most victims don’t. It’s a type of MRSA that eats your flesh to the bone.
The ticking you hear isn’t a bomb; it’s the radioactive decay of a bright idea with a very short half-life.
(PS: Turkenbashi proceeded to die about a year after this interview; just as well I didn´t use him for anything!)
You’re transported back in time to a pivotal moment in
history you want to change with nothing except a manky
towel. When are you and what do you do?
I want to assassinate St John on Patmos before he perpetrates The Book of Revelations which by its official inclusion in the Bible is responsible for the apocalyptic ravings of American fundamentalists which will bring about nuclear Armageddon. I shall use the towel to strangle him.
You may object that the canon of scripture was only officially approved at the Council of Carthage in 397, but too many people are present at a council, and nudity would be noticable, whereas Hieronymus Bosch’s Saint John on Patmos clearly shows John sitting alone in open countryside writing the book – alone, except from a bird, and a diminutive half-lizard-half-monk demon, who may be trying to distract John, and a nearby angel who seems to be dictating the text, or merely admiring the author at work.
The angel and demon should cancel out. John looks soppy. A soft target for a towel.
(PS: I reread John´s Revelation, and couldn´t fault it as a piece of apocalyptic writing per se, but it damn well oughtn´t to be in the Bible because of all the lunacy this caused, so now I´m on the horns of a dilemma… )
Pre-Interview with Sissy Pantelis for French Galaxies magazine
(the questions to be guessed)
“Science is dead” reminds me that in about 1899 the chief scientific adviser to the UK and/or US government and/or the British Astronomer Royal (I forget which, but some important scientist) said that nothing fundamental remained to be discovered. Ha ha. One trouble is that during the past few decades, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, there has come a big cultural disillusion with science because of nuclear weapons, climate change, biological warfare, global pandemic spread by cheap air travel, etc etc etc. Therefore more people prefer to read fantasy, where things happen by magic, and where solutions to problems are magical. Magic rings, magic jewels, magic swords, blah blah. I myself think the Frankenstein complex is still powerful. Quite a lot of TV and cinema films reinforce this.
Personally I think we have a “launch window” of about 100 years more in which we must get out in sufficient numbers into the solar system, where there are unlimited resources and energy available, otherwise we run out of the means to do so. Already some of the rarer elements essential to advanced technology are becoming scarce. Once used, basically they’re gone (no matter how clever recycling becomes). Maybe we have to rely on the Chinese to get out into the solar system effectively, since they’ll take risks which the Americans daren’t take. Not stupid risks, but calculated ones. Higher life on a single planet can be destroyed any time by a medium-sized asteroid or a comet core hitting the world. In this regard, I find novels such as Stephen Baxter’s Titan (about a one-way voyage to that moon of Saturn; therefore a =doomed= voyage) to be inspiring and to provoke wonder. I also very much like the SF of Alastair Reynolds, big, gothic, and quite frankly gloomy. What irritates me about the SF of Iain Banks is that all his entertaining fireworks often mask superficiality. Another “grim” UK writer whom I admire a lot is John Meaney. What I like is quite grim, plus a vein of humour.
I should confide that when I do interviews face to face I often feel afterwards that I have become a fictional character during the interview, one persona out of various possible personae. I construct a “self” for the interview, and I might construct a different self the next day. This is a good argument why the writing itself reveals more about an author than whatever the author says about it — even though I don’t agree with the deconstructionist argument that only readers can interpret an author, not the author himself.
Anyway, this means it’s probably safer to do an email interview with me, because that inevitably stretches over several days, and the fictional “selves” ought to average out!
2: I’ll send Oracle to Brussels as soon as I’m near a post office, maybe Saturday, maybe early next week. I live in a very small village with no post office of its own, so I only drive to a town once or twice a week. (No buses, either.) Then you can read about Brussels while you’re in Brussels, so long as you pass through about 200 pages set in England first of all. The book came about because, while I was driving along the roads near here ten years ago, I found myself wondering what would happen if I saw a Roman centurion standing looking puzzled. Would my Latin be good enough to talk to him? (No!)
Later, I went to a sort of festival in the grounds of big ruined country mansion, where 100 re-enactors had gathered together from the UK and Holland and Germany, so that for the first time since the Roman legions left England a complete century of Roman legionaries marched in armour. It was a misty day; to see the Roman soldiers appear from out of the mist was magical.
Possibly the French like Space Opera because the surrealist poet Boris Vian first translated Van Vogt into French (just as Baudelaire translated Poe). The translator was so much the better writer than the original author that Van Vogt was alchemised into gold.
Among Tim Powers’ books I particularly like The Drawing of the Dark. It’s about beer! Well, and a few other things too… I do respect manga. After all, I lived in Japan for 3 years. Myself, I don’t read manga, not because I don’t want to, but because there are thousands of other things to read. In AI the artificial beings were called Mecha (by me) because of manga and animé. I was lucky with AI, because Spielberg rescued the carnival of destruction from scenes which I wrote but which Kubrick told me not to include in the final story; however, Spielberg found them: the moonlike balloon capturing robots for destruction, and so on.
Now I must deal with a problem in the Islamic plague novel, a problem which could only become obvious after we wrote 95 per cent of the book.
Fortunately Andy and I found the answer, talking on the phone last night. We’ve overcome quite a few problems, such as biochemically how an Arab doctor of the 12th century could manage to store virus for 800 years. Maybe your desire for more medical stuff in fiction will be fulfilled somewhat by this book (if anyone publishes it).
A face to face interview is, for me, a bit like writing a short story. A character quickly developes, from within me, then narrative (or rather dialogue) requirements push that character in a certain direction which has to be self-consistent but which may move quite a long way from the source, which was myself. I don’t know if other writers experience this.
I have two Northern Irish friends who live in Brussels, in Rhode Saint-Génèse. She’s quite high (by now) in the EC Commission bureaucracy; he does amateur drama and quizzes and book reviews and has fun. We swapped houses for a week so I could research the Brussels part of Oracle.
Cyberpunk… One thing I do know is that William Gibson told me he was influenced by an illustrated article and a story by me which New Worlds magazine published in 1969/1970 about Japan…
My own fusion of horror & SF came about because (1) I didn’t have enough money in the 1980s; in fact I had negative money for the whole decade, so this may have influenced my outlook upon life a bit! but also (2) the 1980s saw a boom in horror in the UK particularly, and it seemed to me that the horror genre was able to illuminate human existence in a very interesting new way, as in Clive Barker or Ramsey Campbell. This connected up for me with politics, so that I did The Power, the first (and probably only) Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament horror novel — a fatal decision as regards getting any American edition — my characters, said an editor, would be about as popular with American readers as the Black Panthers; and the only UK edition was a cheap nasty-looking one. Likewise with Meat, which may be the only vegetarian horror novel: politically left-wing, a nasty cheap edition, and of course no sale in the land of McDonald’s. Sometimes it seems to me that I did things structurally in threes. My first three novels all had triple story lines, then with my fourth, Alien Embassy, I shifted to first person narrative in the mouth of a black African woman (which I suppose was innovative at the time, and maybe still is). The Power and Meat led to the fusion novel The Fire Worm; and then I switched course. On the whole, I don’t like to repeat myself much. My two technothrillers of the 90s, Oracle and Hard Questions, led to another fusion novel, Mockymen, which intersects Horror (in the first section) + Technothriller + SF featuring aliens. In the two-volume Books of Mana preceding the technothrillers (Lucky’s Harvest & The Fallen Moon) I intersected SF + Fantasy, based on Finnish mythology.
I don’t think I sell enough copies to have much influence; but who knows? It depends who reads them.
About Space Marine.
Space Marine was first published in 1993 but the manuscript was finished a
couple of years before that. Do you recall the reason for this delay?
The first medieval Warhammer fiction, and the Dark Future books by Kim Newman writing as Jack Yeovil, and the first 40K fiction by me were all published by GW Books edited by David Pringle in Brighton. David Pringle edited from Brighton the leading British SF magazine Interzone, and David prevailed upon some of his stable of writers to provide the then-owner of Games Workshop, Bryan Ansell, with his dream come true of “real books by real authors” set in Bryan’s beloved Warhammer domains. This arrangement came to an end in about 1991, and new management at GW spent a while before settling on the media packagers Boxtree as a new publisher. (This was long before the Black Library.) So some books got delayed, such as also the second volume of my Inquisition War trilogy, and Space Marine.
How much input did Games Workshop have into the plot of the book? Did they
request any changes once they saw the finished manuscript?
The original idea behind Space Marine was that it would a collective novel written by half a dozen authors charting the career of a particular Space Marine, a sort of linked anthology. So GW organised a get-together of potential writers at GW HQ in Nottingham, followed by rather good food and vino, to sort out a plan. I vaguely recall Kim Newman being there, and Barry Bayley, and Storm Constantine and Brian Stableford amongst others. I volunteered to do the set-up story, establishing the main characters and background, which I duly did, using Necromunda as a starting point. But then none of the other authors seemed keen on continuing with any particular urgency, so I simply carried on and finished the book.
Peering through the mists of time, I seem to recall GW feeling that maybe I should modify a few little delights in Space Marine such as the highly appropriate and much relished bum-branding episode, but they never actually instructed me or Boxtree about this, so the book was published just the way I wrote it; of which I’m jolly glad. Thus, perhaps, its popularity, or do I mean notoriety?
GW seemed quite happy at first at any rate, since a big section of Space Marine appeared in White Dwarf 165 in Sept 1993, although I do seem to recall a murmur in my ear that the section appeared because an important article on games rules wasn’t ready on time, consequently the pages needed to be filled. Never mind! A collector’s item, issue 165 (for me, anyway)!
Did you have plans for any other Warhammer 40,000 novels beyond those that
I did have a further Inquisition War novel in mind, because by the end of Chaos Child one of my characters was insane, another was hopelessly lost, and a third was dead, and I had come to care for the characters, so I thought I should get them out of these particular scrapes, even though in the world of 40K there aren’t exactly going to be happy endings in the usual sense, and all will remain whelmed in darkness. If I were ever to write such a book, for the sake of consistency it would really need to use the tech and organisational structures of the Inquisition, Harlequin, and Chaos Child, which mightn’t delight the games designers too much since almost 20 years has gone by in the evolution of the games.
Looking back now, would you say you were still happy with Space Marine or,
knowing what you know now, would you change anything about it?
Personally I’d change nothing about the book itself, since changing would lose freshness and spontaneity. I do myself regard Space Marine as part of the Inquisition War series – and indeed it is thus in the gigantic Hungarian language omnibus edition – since my Marine, Lexandro d’Arquebus, plays a role in Harlequin and then a major role in Chaos Child.
What sort of background were you given before writing the four books in the
GW gave me all the manuals existing as of about 1990 plus printouts of material still under development, regarding Necromunda for instance, and the Eldar; not to mention a stream of White Dwarfs where such material was appearing bit by bit. I was very well briefed, and in fact I still have all that material in a couple of boxes. Writing 40K required encyclopaedic study, whereas medieval Warhammer could be generic fantasy within the less enormous medieval Warhammer setting.
Did these books influence any later, original writings?
The book I wrote after the GW ones was my science fantasy epic, The Books of Mana from Gollancz (consisting of Lucky’s Harvest and The Fallen Moon) set on an alien planet inspired by Finnish mythology. This is my only epic, a rather weird one, and indeed it’s really one long book rather than a book and a sequel, for practical reasons of publishing. So I guess something epic and weird carried over from my 40K books. Fans of my 40K fiction might like the Mana books too. (Or might not.) Ah, and now I realise that the Mana epic is probably quite gameable, although I never thought about gameability when I was writing it, nor when writing the 40K books themselves.
Does it amaze you that after all these years the original copies of Space
Marine are still much sought after items?
It’s gratifying in one way, as likewise are the many fan emails over the years imploring me to give a clue as to where to get a copy… But when the price on e-Bay sometimes got close to $100 I couldn’t help but feel that I was losing out somewhere… um, could that have been in my pocket? So I hail the reissue with relief!
Do you ever inject yourself into the characters you wrote?
I did my best to hallucinate myself into their roles, despite the fact that a Space Marine isn’t exactly me! On the other hand, it was nobody at all until I first wrote fiction about 40K persons since no writer had done that before, and I wasn’t using role models except perhaps various obsessed individuals in the history of, say, the 14th Century. The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, as historian Barbara Tuchmann referred to that grim epoch in the title of her book which Bryan Ansell loved and told me to read.
Who are more fanatical Games Workshop fans or general SF readers?
GW fans are very enthusiastic and focused. Games Days (at least the ones I’ve attended) are rousing events, a bit like rallies, though not Nuremburg ones since attendees need to pay attention to the gaming. And the calibre of art and model work is pretty amazing; this is devotion. The sort of general SF readers who go to SF conventions are of course enthusiastic, though generally in a milder way, and are interested in a very wide range of stuff, quite a bit of it not even SF. Journalists hoping to poke fun at SF geeks should avoid SF conventions since they’ll be disappointed; to find fans wearing Spock ears and such they probably need a specialist media convention. I say probably since I don’t go to media cons. I guess Star Trek and Star Wars fans might be a bit fanatical, but I shouldn’t generalise, the way journalists do. To each, his and her own.
About my Cthulhu story “The Walker in the Cemetery”
What were your first thoughts upon hearing about the concept for CTHULHU REIGNS?
In fact my first thought was that this is very far from my usual vein, although I do like challenges. Also, what on Earth connection had I with Lovecraft? Though, to tell the truth, I do have a largish resin Cthulhu paperweight, or fetish object, hanging on one of my walls, bought at an SF convention 4 or 5 years ago because I felt attracted to it, evil and ominous though it looks. Also, I did contribute a short Lovecraft item to a beautifully illustrated bilingual anthology accompanying “An Exhibition of Unspeakable Things: Works Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book” which took place at the Maison d’Ailleurs (The House of Elsewhere) – the museum of sf, utopia, and imaginary voyages in Switzerland— from October 2007 to April 2008. Alas, I never got to Switzerland to see the exhibition, but the book is gorgeous. Le Livre Qui Rend Fou (The Book Which Drives You Insane)/A Book of Unspeakable Things, edited by Patrick Gyger. My piece was a mock-Freudian analysis of Lovecraft’s unwritten “The Father’s Kiss” as if by an imaginary contributor to the Journal of Miskatonic Studies. So I suppose this adds up to a bit of a Lovecraft connection.
But to actually write a Cthulhu story?
Quite often commissioned stories produce results which surprise me. There was me imagining I’d never write such a thing in my life yet, having written the story, it seems in retrospect to belong inevitably as part of my work.
How did you go about building/developing your particular story for this collection?
I decided to treat the theme completely seriously, and this dragged me into a kind of vortex of derangement once I started. But first I needed a suitable setting, and serendipitously I found this in the amazing labyrinthine Necropolis of Staglieno in Genoa, which incidentally also had quite an effect upon Nietzsche, Maupassant, Mark Twain, and Hemingway. When exploring its immensity in company with Roberto Quaglia (my collaborator on The Beloved of My Beloved, which I think is the only full-length genre fiction by two authors with different mother tongues), we actually got lost and locked in, rather as the characters in my story do, though for a different reason.
What did you most enjoy about writing this end-of-the-world tale? (Likewise, what was the most challenging thing about it?)
This soon became one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever written. For several days I was in a kind of altered state of consciousness, and a couple of friends asked me on the phone if I was okay because even my voice had changed. So the thing I most ‘enjoyed’ about writing the story was finishing it and escaping, a luxury denied to my characters.
What theme (or themes) became the most relevant to you as you wrote the story?
Suffering and fear and evil.