In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Alastair Reynolds to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Scales.”
Back in 2009 there was a bit of publicity surrounding my new ten book deal with Orion. As part of that, the Guardian newspaper asked me to write a short story that could be narrated (by me) and made available as a podcast. “Scales” is that story. It was written to a very tight brief, both in terms of the word count and the time I had to deliver it, but sometimes that can be a very refreshing way to work. Rather than faff around on something for months, get it done by Wednesday …
As to the theme, at the back of my mind I’d had an idea about how contact with the alien would lead to us becoming progressively more alien ourselves. All I did was bolt that notion onto a simple war story and “Scales” was born.
The Earth depicted here is one some of us may be able to comprehend: Morally ambiguous at times, and capable of both humane action and cruelty. Aside from the technology, not much has changed, which aids in the believability of this story, and can be argued for as a theme in several of your stories and books. Was this an intentional choice?
I had to keep to a very tight wordcount so there really isn’t a sentence in that story that wasn’t essential to the story. Obviously, not a lot of room for going off on tangents about the development of society in the future. I don’t really believe in this particular future, mind—I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever become engaged in an interstellar war with an implacable alien foe.
You spent 16 years working for the European Space Agency. Did those years have any influence on this story?
Pretty close to zero influence, I’d suspect. It’s not at all a hard SF story (not that I particular self-identify as a hard SF writer to begin with) but something more along the lines of a Philip K Dick short, in which the wacky concept is the thing and the issue of whether or not it makes scientific sense is rather less germane …
In a 2003 interview with Locus, you pose the following questions: “Are we going to go out into the universe, and if so will that change us? Can we go out there and still stay human, or is it necessary for us to become something else just to survive in the universe?” This story is definitely one way of answering these questions. Do you still wonder this today?
Oh yes, very much so—in fact, it’s about all I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of years, while I burrow deeply into the start of my new trilogy, which is all about the spacefaring impulse. But, it’s done with an eye to keeping the science plausible, in stark contrast to “Scales.”