Alastair Reynolds is the author of the Revelation Space series, which includes the novels Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, and The Prefect. Other novels include Century Rain, Terminal World, Pushing Ice, and House of Suns. His latest novel is Blue Remembered Earth, the first in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Your new novel is called Blue Remembered Earth. What’s it about?
Well, this is a big departure for me. It’s my attempt to get back to something a little bit closer to the present in terms of the way I think about science fiction. So it’s a novel which looks at where we might be in a hundred and fifty years in terms of going out into the solar system, going back to the moon and Mars, but also looking at the Earth, the kind of trends that we might expect to see over the next century and a half on our own planet—things like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and ubiquitous surveillance technology.
The story centers around the Akinyas, who are a wealthy family from Tanzania. Why did you decide to put that focus on Africa?
I had an idea for doing a sequence of books that would look at space exploration from a fairly realistic standpoint—not too many crazy gadgets or magic physics coming into it, and I wanted to put a slightly different spin on it, because I think a lot of that stuff’s been done before; there’s lots of novels about colonizing the solar system. And at the time that I was thinking about that, I was also listening to a lot of world music, particularly a lot of African music. West African music, actually, as it happened. I love that music, I fell in love with it over a period of time and just basically listened to nothing else, and one day the penny sort of dropped—why not just do a novel where Africa is the dominant technological powerhouse of the future? We’ve had science fiction novels where China is dominant, we’ve had novels where India is dominant, and I suppose it’s all about getting away from that clichéd old tired idea that the future belongs to the West. So I was excited by that, and I liked the idea of taking a set of African protagonists and exploring them across more than one generation.
You mentioned that there have been a number of novels set within the solar system. We recently interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson about his book 2312, which was one such book. Do you think there’s a trend toward that right now?
I was really impressed by 2312. It’s one of the things where you start reading and you think, “Well, why did he decide to write this novel at the same time that I wrote mine?” And I guess it’s just things are in the air, and you respond to things. For me it was the celebrations that started around about 2008, when people started thinking about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo landings—and of course with the death of Neil Armstrong, that’s something that’s come back into the news again—and for me it was a natural point to start thinking about a novel set in the solar system rather than off around some distant star.
Though I suppose Kim Stanley Robinson’s been mining that particular scene for years and years with the Mars trilogy, so for him it’s a natural continuation. And whenever people mention 2312 and Blue Remembered Earth, there’s another book . . . is it Leviathan Wakes? Which I think is also essentially set in the solar system. And of course there’s Paul McAuley’s Quiet War sequence, which does catapult out into interstellar space later on, but the first two books are entirely set within the solar system.
You’ve worked as both a space scientist and a science fiction author. How much of a feedback loop have you observed between the two?
Well, speaking for myself, I really struggle to pinpoint whether I became a scientist because I like science fiction, or did I gravitate to science fiction because I identified strongly with scientists? I don’t know, it’s been there all along, right through my life. I think I set myself on a course to become a scientist around about the time that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series was on television, and there really was no going back for me at that point, and then I went on to study space science, and then get my PhD, then go abroad and work in the European Space Agency. But the thing that surprised me, with regard to the crosstalk between science and science fiction, was when I kind of “came out” about being a science fiction writer, a lot of my colleagues who I’d never previously suspected of having any interest in science fiction turned out to be avid science fiction readers with extensive knowledge of science fiction, and that was very interesting to me. Ever since then I’ve been keeping a quiet eye on this whole business of how science and science fiction talk to each other, particularly in the areas of space science.
How closely have you been following the current Mars rover mission, and how significant do you think that is?
I’ve been following it since the point where—not only when they launched it, but as soon as I found out about this sky crane landing maneuver. I just thought, “This is the most insane, audacious thing anyone’s ever attempted, and there’s no possible way it’s going to work.” But it did work, and it was a phenomenal achievement, I think, to land this enormous, complex piece of machinery on Mars. And so far everything seems to have gone without a hitch, and it’s beginning to do science, and just today they’ve released some absolutely remarkable high resolution images of the surface of Mars. It’s phenomenal.
I mean, on one level I’m slightly disappointed that there aren’t people on Mars already. When I was a kid, I was reliably informed that we’d have gone to Mars by 1985, and of course it’s 2012 and we’re still really no closer to a human expedition to Mars, but that shouldn’t detract from the amazing achievements that are being done on a day-to-day basis by robotic envoys.
When you said that you were disappointed that there weren’t already people on Mars, I thought at first you meant like Dejah Thoris or something.
Yeah. [laughs] No, I mean, I think I kind of grew up with the expectation that we would have gone beyond Earth orbit by now and returned to the moon, and even in the ’90s there was talk of manned expeditions to Mars, and then slowly the penny drops that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, I think. But there are all sorts of encouraging noises coming from different directions at the moment. I mean, Elon Musk is talking about going to Mars much sooner than people expect, and I’m genuinely interested to see where these private initiatives take us.
Actually, speaking of Elon Musk, I recently attended a lecture by Howard Bloom on the commercialization of space, and he was basically saying that we all need to get behind Elon Musk because that’s really America’s only shot at a robust space program, and if we don’t, the Chinese are going to beat us to the asteroids and gain just an insurmountable economic advantage. What do you think about that idea?
Well, I don’t particularly care who plants these flags on things. If the Chinese are the first to the asteroids or the first to Mars, good for them, as far as I’m concerned. But yeah, it’s clear that Musk is the one at the moment who has the vision and the capital to make significant things happen. I mean, my natural sympathies tend to lie—because I was a scientist working with an international space agency—I would have liked to have seen a more concerted international effort to do these things through space agencies, but if that can’t be made to work—as increasingly seems to be the case—then so be it, and I shall be excited about private initiatives.
Your Revelation Space universe is distinctive for having no faster-than-light travel. What are some of the challenges and considerations of writing space opera with no FTL?
Before I started writing the Revelation Space books, I’d already written two novels in my teens that were full of the stock furniture of science fiction—they had hyperdrives and force fields and tractor beams and all that stuff in it. And around about the time that I was writing the second one I started reading more hard science fiction, books by people like Gregory Benford and Robert Forward, where there was a tendency to try to keep the science a little bit more plausible, and I started to think, “Well, the next book I write, I’m not going to have any of that stuff in it. I’m just going to try to keep the physics as believable as possible.”
So it was a natural challenge for me to try to write a space opera without faster-than-light travel, but I never found it particularly constraining because, okay, it eliminates certain story lines, there are certain things you can’t do in that kind of framework, but at the same time it opens lots of other possibilities. You can have stories about people leaving their planet and not coming back for a hundred years, because they’ve been traveling at the speed of light. One door closes and another opens, so I’ve always found it perfectly liberating as a writer to work within that kind of framework. It’s never felt stifling to me.
So getting back to Blue Remembered Earth, a major theme of the book is the conflict over whether humans or robots will be the ones to travel the stars. How do you feel about that yourself?
First of all, there’s the question of whether we should spend any money at all on space exploration, which I think is really stupid because as a society we spend almost nothing on space exploration. We spend more money on chocolate as a species than space exploration, and we certainly spend far more on wars and militarism than we do on space exploration. So I have no time for that argument. But I think it’s a far more interesting and nuanced question whether we should be sending robotic envoys or whether we should be sending people, and I can see very, very strong arguments from both sides.
I was an astronomer for many years, and astronomers by and large—and this is a generalization—they do tend to come down on the robot side of the coin, because they tend to perceive that they could be doing lots more interesting things in the solar system in terms of space probes and telescopes and things like that if all this money wasn’t wasted on things like space shuttles and space stations. But as a science fiction writer, of course I’m massively excited by the idea of sending human beings into space. I mean, just a couple of nights ago I watched the International Space Station glide over my house, and to think that there are six people up there, there’s a permanent human presence in orbit around our planet, it gives me an enormous kick and I feel very privileged to be alive at a point where I can actually look into the sky and see people up there, and I would hate that not to be the case.
But I think from a science fictional perspective, with something like the Poseidon’s Children books, I’m actually trying to suggest a third way, which is that—the notion that I think will become apparent as the books progress is that there will be a kind of convergence, which I think could well be the case, where, in effect, our robotic envoys become steadily more sophisticated and more autonomous—and we’ve already seen the first glimmerings of this with things like the Curiosity probe, where you have these highly sophisticated robots that we’re sending to other planets, other parts of the solar system, where they have to operate to some extent independently of human control, because of the time lag issues. So we have to make these things smart, and we will only make them smarter in the future. And at the same time as we send people into space we may well find that, because of the innate hostility of the environment, we may have to make people perhaps a little bit more mechanical, a little bit more like machines—not in a horrible clanking fashion, but we may have to explore different ideas about mind augmentation, human augmentation.
One character in the book actually comments that in time the distinction between humans and robots will come to seem as insignificant as the difference between Protestants and Catholics.
Yes, and a very good friend of mine, who’s read a number of my books and is a Catholic scholar, said, “I take offense at that. You cannot trivialize these things,” which I was very amused by. But yeah, that was a flippant line of dialogue, but I just wanted to try to articulate the standpoint of someone living a few hundred years from now looking back at some of the ideological arguments we have today, just as sometimes we look back on 18th-century ideological arguments and think, “How could they have been so narrow-minded?”
The book also presents a future Earth on which crime has been eliminated by constant surveillance. We also just interviewed David Brin, who wrote a book called The Transparent Society, basically advocating for that. Is that something you’d advocate for as well?
I can see lots of positives to having universal ubiquitous surveillance at all times. You would never have a situation where, say, a child wandered away from its home and came to harm. That would simply not happen if we could tag every human person on the planet and know where they were at any one time. Lots of crimes would simply evaporate, lots of misfortunes simply would not be able to happen anymore. But of course then that takes us into sort of murky areas of civil liberties and personal freedom and privacy. Particularly in Britain, they say you can’t walk out of your house without showing up on a CCTV camera several times a day. Whether that is going to lead to a regimented police state or whether we will just accept it and we will gradually become a safer society, I think it’s too soon to tell, but for me it’s an interesting area to explore in science fiction.
The technical problem I had in the book was that there was very little way for me to come at the idea of this massively wired-up, highly surveilled society unless there was something to counterpoint it, and I thought, “Well, if I have a little pocket on the moon where they have the exact opposite approach, then I can actually have a kind of debate about the whole thing,” which allowed for that possibility of discussing the whole issue in a plausible way.
Since the story is full of intrigue and conspiracies, was it really a nightmare trying to tell that sort of story given the universal surveillance situation on Earth?
Well, partly as a reaction to a couple of books that I’d written recently, I decided that I would keep the onscreen, on page violence as low as possible in this book. I didn’t want a scene where people were shooting each other with ray guns or things blowing up—I mean, a certain number of things do blow up at various points in the book, but I think it’s quite moderate compared to some of the things I’ve done recently. That, for me, was an interesting challenge, to see if I could write a book where there wasn’t an awful lot of violence on the page.
And quite aside from the technicalities of writing about this society where these things aren’t possible, I was also sort of thinking back to the classic science fiction of, say, Arthur C. Clarke, his classic books of the ’50s like Earthlight and The Deep Range and The Sands of Mars, going right through to the ’60s and ’70s as well, with things like The Fountains of Paradise, where, for me, these books were genuine page turners, and I just found them massively exciting and thrilling novels. But there’s a distinct absence of violence and thriller elements and melodrama in these novels. Instead, the motor of the story tended to come from the mysteries that the characters were confronted with. The universe, if you like, was the big bad guy, rather than having some cartoon villains cropping up every few chapters. So I’d really like to creep a little bit closer to that model in my science fiction, and this seemed as good a time as any to try it.
The book contains some invented terminology such as “chinging” and “voking.” What’s your approach to coming up with terms like that?
I’m always a little bit cautious around invented terminology, because so much science fiction is off-putting to the uninitiated. You open up the first page, and it’s full of all these made-up words. So I try to keep a lid on it if at all possible, but at the same time, I’m thinking about a society in which these fairly novel technologies are fairly commonplace. It wouldn’t make sense for the characters to say, “I used the remote telepresence technology to communicate with so and so.” They’d have a more economical way of saying that.
So what I usually do, I just put placeholders into the text, and then at some point a better idea might occur to me—or it might not—and I go back. I have a big whiteboard above my desk, and if I have even half of a good idea I write it down on the whiteboard and see if I like it a few weeks later. But I knew that I wanted to have advanced telepresence technology in these books, which I think is actually quite plausible, the idea that you can project yourself into another receptacle, be it another human being or a robot or even thin air, and this is all mediated through implant technology. And I just started thinking about, well, it’s a kind of virtual reality, and then I remembered that in the ’90s a lot of people were talking about “virching” as a shorthand for “virtual reality technology,” and I thought, “Virching. They wouldn’t say ‘virching.’ They’d shorten it even more than that, they’d say ‘ching.’” So that was where “ching” came from. And the other thing was “voking.” That was just a way to avoid saying “subvocalization” every third paragraph.
One character in the book is a businessman who’s installed an “empathy shunt,” so he can turn off his empathy when making business decisions, in effect turning himself into a sociopath. What do you think about that idea?
I created these two brothers, who are both highly corporate individuals involved in the running of the family business. Basically, I wanted to distinguish one from the other and I thought, “Well, if one of them’s a complete sort of corporate idiot, I’ll make the other one twenty times worse.” I think I must have read an article in Scientific American or something about empathy, and there’s also this ongoing thing about psychopaths and sociopaths who rise to positions of high influence in society, whether it’s CEOs of big companies or movers and shakers in Hollywood, whatever it is, but that interested me, and I thought, “Well, what if the guy could actually press a button and become more sociopathic when he needs to? What if he’s actually quite a nice guy, but when he needs to go into the boardroom and make the cutthroat, killer deal he can actually turn off his empathy and he doesn’t worry about shafting the little guy anymore?” And I thought, well, that might work.
Probably one of my favorite moments in science fiction is the scene in Revelation Space where a character survives being shoved into an elevator shaft. Could you just talk about how you came up with that idea?
This is the scene where one of the characters is in a very long spaceship with a central elevator shaft, a bit like the spaceship in Dark Star, and she falls down it, and she realizes that she’s not actually falling at that point, she’s actually stationary with respect to the rest of the universe. And this idea pops into her head, in the seconds that she has remaining before she hits the bottom of the shaft, that if she can actually access the engines of the spaceship, she can make it reverse, and the ship will stop falling at that point and she will be saved.
I mean, because I did physics in school, and one of the classic experiments that comes up when you’re talking about the equivalence principle is, if you’re in a rocket with no windows, what sort of experiments could you perform to tell that you’re actually not in a rocket, that you’re just in a little metal room on the surface of a planet. All that sort of stuff is interesting. There are other thought experiments that involve things you could do in an elevator that would determine whether you were actually falling or whether you were weightless—if you’re in an elevator and things are floating around inside, does that mean you’re actually falling down the elevator shaft or are you actually drifting off in deep space, and are there experiments that you could actually perform to distinguish between the two? So all that stuff was sort of floating around in my brain, and a character falling down a lift shaft seemed like a good way to bring home for the reader the idea that frames of reference are important in this novel, and we’re trying to keep reasonably close to Newtonian physics or Einsteinian physics rather than Star Trek physics.
You also wrote a short story that I really enjoyed called “Understanding Space and Time,” which is about a guy who wants to understand everything about the universe, and his mind becomes so big that it’s actually in danger of collapsing from the force of its own gravity. I understand that that story originally appeared in a convention booklet? [The story also appeared in the collection Zima Blue and Other Stories.]
Yeah, I mean, the process of writing that story was very, very convoluted. I was at work one day, when I was still a space scientist, and an email popped into my mailbox from Nature, the prestigious science magazine. They’d basically decided they were going to run short science fiction stories, and I forget what the word length was, whether it was 600 words or 1200 words, but it was certainly no more than that, and I’d never written anything remotely as short as what they needed. So I thought about it, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know if I can.”
Then I was cycling home and this idea came into my head about this man, the last man on Mars, and all sorts of weird things happen to him, and he ends up trying to understand the universe. So I got home and I wrote the story in a sort of blind rush of inspiration, but it had to be done quickly anyway because there was a very tight deadline. But I could not get the damn thing to fit the required word length. So I went back in the morning, and I emailed Nature and I said, “Well, I’ve got this story, but it’s a bit long. I’ll send it to you anyway, and then you can decide what you do with it.” So I sent them the story and that was that. And then I was cycling home again later that evening, and I thought, “Hang on, I’ve had a better idea now. I’ve got a story that really does fit 600 words.” So I wrote that one instead and sent the shorter story, which was completely unrelated, to Nature, and they ran the shorter story. So then I had this other story, which I didn’t know what to do with. So I took it back home with me and I fiddled with it over a period of time trying to find a way to make something of it, and I added a bit to it and took a bit away and added a bit more, and it never really caught fire, and I was just left with these sort of story fragments that weren’t going anywhere, and that was probably a good five years before I finished it.
And then what happened was, as you say, I was scheduled to be guest of honor at a regional British science fiction convention called NovaCon, which takes place in the Midlands in November every year. And the tradition at NovaCon is that the guest of honor provides a story, maybe of novella length or novelette length, which is then printed and distributed as a souvenir chapbook for the people who attend the convention. So I had to write the story, and time was ticking on, and I had months and months to think about it, and it seems a long way in the future, and then it was suddenly not months and months, it was two months, then it was one month, and then it was like, “Damn, I’d better come up with something.” In desperation I looked into my files on my computer, and I found the fragments of this earlier story, “Understanding Space and Time.” And at that point I thought, “Hang on, I know exactly what I need to do to that story.” I’d had enough time away from it to see it with a fresh eye, and I knew that I could make something of it.
The coda to this story is that I then got married, and then I went off on my honeymoon with my wife. And I basically wrote that story on honeymoon, which was not the smartest thing to do. [laughs] But basically every morning my wife would leave the hotel and go down to the beach, and I would spend a couple of hours fiddling with that story until I’d added a few thousand words, whatever it was, and then I’d be done with it, and then I’d spend the rest of the day enjoying myself properly with my wife. But I did finish the story in time for the convention and they published it as a chapbook. I always quite liked it, I was quite taken with that story after I wrote it and it’s still one of my favorites.
Actually, speaking of conventions, in the past few days there’s been some talk online about trying to organize a Revelation Space convention in London. Have you been following that at all?
Yes, I’ve been following it on Twitter. I mean, good luck to them. I’m sort of astonished that there’s that level of interest, that people feel that it’s something worth doing. I think it’ll be like a mini-convention, like a one-day meet-up, and I’ll do my utmost to support it and go along. I won’t say I’m skeptical, but I routinely do book signings around the country, and readings and talks on different topics, which are well-publicized well in advance, and sometimes hardly anyone turns up to these things, so I’m quite hardened, and I’m not exactly convinced that there are huge numbers of people out there who would go to something like that, but perhaps there are, perhaps I’m wrong.
You might be a little sick of this question, but we had a bunch of listeners who want to know if there will be more Revelation Space books and/or a Revelation Space movie?
Well, there will certainly be more Revelation Space stories, I can’t say that often enough. I mean, it’s my baby. I enjoy writing those stories enormously, but I did need to get away from it for a bit. I never wanted to be a particular type of science fiction writer—I wanted to be like Harry Harrison or James White or Philip K. Dick, someone who operates across the whole of science fiction and does a bit of this and a bit of that. So I felt I needed to get away from the Revelation Space stuff for a while and plant a few flags elsewhere in the genre, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forsaken it by any means. Certainly it is harder and harder to tell a new story in a framework, a fictional universe where you’ve already made up lots of stuff. The narrative airspace gets very congested. It’s hard to slot a new story in there without tangling yourself up in contradictions. But I fully intend to do more, as I do enjoy writing in that universe.
In terms of a film, there’s not really been any significant sustained interest in the television or filmic media to date. There have been some nibbles of interest occasionally, but things just don’t go anywhere, and I’m completely hardened to it. The reason I’m a science fiction prose writer is because I want to write prose science fiction, and if being involved in science fiction moviemaking were a thing that motivated me, I would have tried to become a science fiction moviemaker. It’d be nice if it happened, but it’s not something that keeps me awake at night. But at the moment there’s not really anything going on. There’s a few things bubbling away in the background, but it’s mostly connected to other properties that are not related to the Revelation Space universe. People often say, “Well, they couldn’t film them because there’s no way they could afford the effects budget,” but I think that’s a bit of a red herring, because if you look at something like Doctor Who now—and I accept that Doctor Who is made with a large budget by television standards—but there’s really nothing they can’t show these days using CGI. Now, I have problems with CGI, but it does mean that they can pretty much do any kind of science fiction I think these days on an acceptable budget.
Speaking of Doctor Who, you recently wrote a Doctor Who novel. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, I was thrilled when BBC Books approached me and said—via my agent—they said, “Would you be interested in writing a Doctor Who novel?” And I was absolutely jumping out of my chair, because I’d always wanted to be involved in Doctor Who on some level, but I didn’t want to go groveling around asking to do something. They said, “We’re relaunching the idea of classic Doctor Who novels, as in books involving the earlier incarnations of Doctor Who, and you can basically take your pick as to which one you want to do.” There was no question for me that it was going to be John Pertwee, the third doctor—my theory is the Doctor Who you identify with is probably the one that was on television when you were seven, as far as I’m concerned. There was absolutely no question about it, I was going to write a Doctor Who novel with John Pertwee, and I had a lot of fun with it.
It’s a very different process than writing a book in my normal mode as a science fiction writer, because essentially when you start writing a normal science fiction novel absolutely anything is up for grabs. You can kill off any character quite arbitrarily at any point in the narrative. But of course when you’re working with established characters from a television format, you have to, to some extent, accept the limitations that come with that form. But I knew that as I went into it and I didn’t regard that as a problem, I just regarded it as a challenge. And also, thematically, a large part of the book is set on Earth in the 20th century, which I’ve not generally done before in my fiction, and that was interesting. But there’s quite a bit of space operatic stuff in there, there’s lots of stuff about time travel and alien civilizations and ancient super-weapons, that kind of stuff, so I was able to scratch a lot of the itches that I end up scratching in my normal science fiction.
You mentioned Philip K. Dick, and for our panel following this interview we were planning to talk about—since the Total Recall remake just came out—the ways in which Hollywood has adapted Philip K. Dick’s stories. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah, I mean, I love Dick. I’m not particularly well read in the novels, but I’ve read all the short stories, and Dick’s stuff has just soaked into me on a deep level, I think. I love Blade Runner. I love Verhoeven’s film Total Recall, though I mean, I’ve read “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and it’s got very little to do with the film. But the film is great, I genuinely love Verhoeven’s films, and I was just aghast when I heard that they were remaking it. I thought, what’s the point? I mean, you can either remake a really old film and bring it up to date, or you can remake a crappy film and do better. But the idea of remaking a film that’s still relatively fresh, I think, in people’s memories—I mean, Total Recall is not that old. It’s just completely crackers. The lack of imagination of these people that all they can think about is remaking 20-year-old science fiction properties, it just beggars belief.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Well, at the moment I’m hard at work on the follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth, which will be called On the Steel Breeze, and this is a book that picks up the threads of the Akinya family. So we’re still in the same universe, we’re still dealing with this powerful African family, but we’re now 150 years on from Blue Remembered Earth, and in fact the scope of the book takes us a lot further into the future. The action within Blue Remembered Earth was confined entirely to the solar system, but at the end of the book there were some narrative hooks in place that would imply that we were going to move beyond the solar system into interstellar space, and that’s what I grapple with in the sequel, On the Steel Breeze. It’s about interstellar colonization, again, told from, I hope, a relatively sober, realistic perspective. So there’s interstellar travel but it’s very slow, it takes hundreds of years to get anywhere, and I hope that I can develop some of the themes that were in Blue Remembered Earth—ideas about artificial intelligence, the elephants come into this book, but in a way that I hope is surprising, and again, we see a little bit more of the Akinya family, but a generation later. I’m still enjoying it, and I hope that some of that enthusiasm communicates to the reader.