This interview first appeared in July 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Stephen Baxter is the author of over forty books, including the Xelee Series, the Manifold series, and The Time Ships, the only authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. He’s also collaborated with Terry Pratchett on The Long Cosmos series and with Arthur C. Clarke on books such as Time’s Eye and The Light of Other Days. Baxter’s latest book, which he wrote with Alistair Reynolds, is called The Medusa Chronicles.
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We’re here with Stephen Baxter. Welcome to the show.
Thank you, it’s great to be here.
Your new book, which you wrote with Alastair Reynolds, is called The Medusa Chronicles, and it’s a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s story “A Meeting with Medusa.” First of all, tell us about the original Arthur C. Clarke story. What’s that about?
It’s from 1971, and I think it’s generally seen as his last significant piece of short fiction. It won a couple of awards. The Medusa of the title is a lifeform that lives in the clouds of Jupiter. All of this comes from Carl Sagan, actually. In Jupiter’s deep cloud layers, it’s very hot in the center and cold at the top, so somewhere in the middle, he hypothesized that it would be Earth-like. You could have a kind of great, gaseous ocean, where gigantic creatures could live.
The story is about an astronaut, Howard Falcon, who goes on a balloon dive into Jupiter and encounters these whale-like Medusas, as the title suggests. He has various perils along the way, and just escapes with his life, but there’s a twist at the end when you find out that actually Falcon is an experimental cyborg. He’d been through an accident early in his career, which had left him crippled, and he’s now half-man half-machine, which is how he was able to withstand Jupiter’s high gravity and so on.
That was what inspired our doing a sequel. There’s a great line at the end where he says, “He was neither man nor machine, but both sides of that divide, which have need of him in the troubled centuries to come.” And so the young Alistair Reynolds, that really inspired him to wonder what would have happened next. What would have happened in these troubled centuries as a conflict on an interplanetary scale developed between man and machine? That was where we started from.
I want to say a little more about Arthur C. Clarke because obviously he’s just one of the all-time greats when it comes to science fiction. Could you just say a little bit about what makes him such an important writer?
He was certainly important to me because of his very cool and kind of lofty intellect, and his great prose as well. He’s in the tradition of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon wrote on the vast scales of space and time with a kind of authoritative science background to it all. The future of mankind in a billion years and so forth, and that was what inspired the young Clarke, who was a farmer’s boy from Somerset. He aspired to this same kind of sensibility, but he told compelling human stories as well.
For instance, Childhood’s End, one of his more famous novels, is about aliens who come to the Earth, but why? Because humanity is about to evolve into a higher form, which is a common thing for the universe, and the aliens are here as kind of midwives to this process, so this is a very lofty theme, a very high concept. But the story Clarke actually tells is of a mother who’s going to lose her child. A boy, he grows up to the age of ten or so, and then he starts developing strange powers, the aliens recognize what’s going on, and he gets taken away in the end. So, on the one hand, you’ve got this magnificent, high-concept story of human evolution going on, but it’s told through the tale of a mother and a son, and it resonates with how you’re going to lose your kids when they grow up, anyway. It’s great artistry combined with great themes that he was dealing with.
He’s also well known for coming up with the concepts for the space elevator and the communication satellites.
Absolutely. That’s the other side of him. His background was engineering. He worked on experimental radar techniques during the Second World War for the RAF. He came out of that with an understanding of telecommunications and satellites. As you say, he came up with the notion of twenty-four-hour orbit satellites beaming signals across the whole hemisphere of the Earth, and the space elevator. He wasn’t original with that, I don’t think, but he kind of dug it up from the writings of Tsiolkovsky, who was an old Russian from fifty years earlier, I think.
Clarke proposed how it might be built, and then the engineers get ahold of that and say, well this wouldn’t work, but you could do it like that. He was a genuine visionary in terms of his nonfiction output as well. He definitely inspired the NASA guys who later went to the moon. As I recall, one of the Apollo crafts was called Odyssey after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and one of the Apollo orbital missions—I think it was Apollo 10—were planning to play a prank, where, having gone around the back of the moon, they were going to say there’s a huge monolith standing there. But they chickened out in the end. That shows the influence, you go around the moon, and you’re thinking about Clarke’s movie.
You actually knew Clarke pretty well, right?
Well, I worked with him. We wrote four novels together, in the end.
My own first novel was published twenty-five years ago, and I sent it to Clarke to blurb, and he gave it a nice blurb, “a promising writer.” Then a few years later, I did a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and that was sent to Clarke. He really liked it. He didn’t actually produce a blurb that we could use on the cover of the book, but we got in contact after that. He had a souvenir postcard of H.G. Wells that he sent me, for instance, and we started corresponding. I interviewed him a couple of times for magazines.
A few years after that, in the late ’90s, he came up with an idea for a book. By that time, his health wasn’t great, and he looked for collaborators, so I was in the frame as a collaborator for this next novel series that he wanted to work on.
I only actually met him once. He came to Britain in the early ’90s for one of the Arthur C. Clarke award events. It was in his hometown, so he came there, and I met him. He was with his brother, who was also a successful writer, in plumbing, would you believe? He wrote plumbing textbooks that became the standard for students in Britain. He claimed he made more money from writing that textbook than Arthur did from science fiction. That could well be true.
Face to face, Clarke was a quite shy man, but he was friendly. I think he found it easier to communicate through emails.
After that we communicated mostly through email and phone calls. He lived in Sri Lanka, so there was a big time difference, and plus he was in his eighties when we were working together, so he’d be awake at three in the morning, and he’d want to work on something, and sometimes he’d call at ungodly hours.
What I learned from him in terms of going forward was how enthusiastic he stayed. Throughout his life he’d be doing an interview about 2001 or he’d be given a doctorate by Liverpool University. He’d always want to talk about the latest book. The next project. Always going forward and producing new stuff and new ideas. So, that’s what I want to be when I grow up: like Arthur in his old age.
Speaking of the latest book, why don’t you tell us about The Medusa Chronicles. How did the idea for this come about?
It was Alistair’s idea, I suppose, but it was more something that exploded in the middle of an email conversation. We’ve known each other for twenty-five years, and we email about this and that. That story, “Meeting in Medusa,” in particular, grabbed Al at a young age. There was a serialized version in England with great illustration in a boy’s magazine. We were talking about this, and Al said to me, “We should do a sequel.” I think it was just a throwaway joke, but then I thought, “Wow, hang on, could you do that?”
So, I went to read the story, and I could immediately see how you could develop enough material for a novel. There’s a hell of a lot in there. Falcon’s own personal story. There’s Jupiter. There are the hints about the conflict between man and machine in the future, which itself is a kind of alternate history because it has a scene from 1971 that computers were going to be like HAL in 2001. Kind of mainframes with personalities. Clarke didn’t really foresee the internet as we have it now, with lots of dumb machines connected together in a kind of big smart network. So these machines would have personalities. They would be more like HAL, maybe embodied somehow. But that’s an alternate history, a different kind of technological development. Then, in the background of the story as well, there are Clarke’s general concerns and his themes. He wrote most of his stories against the background of a world government. This story is set in 2099, and by this time there’s a mature world government in place. Once we’re no longer fighting wars and spending money on armaments, we can spend it on expensive space programs and cleaning up the planet and so forth. You’ve got this very utopian picture, and a near future of how the world could be made a better place. It’s kind of a vision that’s been lost now. Again, it was good to go back to. All of this kind of struck me in a blinding flash really in the first half an hour or so of reading the story. So, I got back to Al quickly, and we started bouncing the idea backward and forward.
Say a little more about this alternate history because you had to come up with some way to get from 1971 to people exploring Jupiter in 2099, right? So what was that sequence of events that you dreamed up?
We could ignore Clarke’s dates altogether, although it seemed more interesting to make it fit to Clarke’s timetable. There didn’t seem any way to me, starting from where we are now, that we’re going to get to Jupiter by 2099. We’ll be lucky to get to Mars with humans by then. But, looking back to 1971, we’re still in the middle of the Apollo lunar landings. The space shuttle was going to lead to a space station soon, which was going to lead to a Mars mission, perhaps in the ’80s or the ’90s, so clearly the history that Clarke was basing his story on, looking from our perspective now, was an alternate history.
So, we chose to do it straight as an alternate history. In the book, history changes as an asteroid approaches Earth in the ’60s. Instead of going to the moon with Apollo Saturn technology, we deflected the asteroid with the Saturn Vs and so forth. Great sacrifice, huge cost, sacrifice to the astronauts. The moon landings are postponed, but the astronauts are heroes, and the value of a space effort couldn’t have been made more graphic, so the White House and around the world were happy to invest masses of money into an expensive space program and move on from there.
Larry Niven, another great science fiction writer, came up with a good line a while ago. He said, “The reason that dinosaurs got extinct was because they didn’t have a space program.” That’s pretty much it. We were like the dinosaurs. But with the asteroid having missed, people realized that we need a space program just to stay alert for things like that. A space program would have brought benefits of other kinds, such as maybe power from space as opposed to sources on the ground and so on. Resources from space instead of mining the Earth. It would have made a difference technologically as well. In our alternate history, we have very advanced spacecraft, but primitive computers comparatively.
Say a little more about these efforts to draw resources from the solar system because you have these robots out in the Oort Cloud flinging ice meteors back at Earth.
That’s the idea, yeah. There are masses of resources out there if you can only get to them. The big hurdle, really, is getting off the Earth, or getting stuff back to the Earth at the cost of our gravity well, but once you’re up there, it’s very easy to fling stuff around.
If you wanted to make Mars like the Earth, you really need water and nitrogen to give you not just a gaseous atmosphere but for plants and so forth. But all this stuff is out there. You’ve just got to build an infrastructure to bring it home. You’d have an Earth which could be reduced to a kind of park. Or a garden. Leave the Earth to do what it’s really good at, which is support a biosphere, all the resources of life. Bring down the resources from space as you need them to maintain an advanced civilization. Meanwhile, move out into the solar system, like safety caches of humans scattered around the system so that no one dramatic event could destroy us, ever.
But also just the sheer adventure of exploring the moon, exploring Mars, and so forth. In one of my own novels, called Voyage, which is a different kind of alternate history in which the post-Apollo decisions to proceed with the space program were slightly different—instead of building the shuttle, you build a quick trip to Mars, the way Apollo Saturn was a quick trip to the moon with not really much of a follow on. A quick trip to Mars without much of a follow on. But you still get to Mars. So, the astronauts who walked on the moon would have been young enough, at least some of them. Like John Young for instance, who flew the space shuttle: you could imagine him walking on Mars in 1985 and 1986. How fantastic!
Even if we hadn’t really followed it up, what a fantastic adventure it would have been. Also, the science would have been great as well. One geologist on Mars for a day could probably achieve more than all of the probes we’ve sent up there so far. Working on a book now is kind of a fulfillment of all these lost visions, if you’d like.
You have this civilization, and they’re exploiting the resources in the Oort Cloud, and then they’re also doing mining in the upper atmosphere on Jupiter.
Yes. This is another old space dream, really. Jupiter is a great source of isotopes for fusion. There’s one isotope of helium called helium-3, which is ideal for relatively clean fusion, but it’s vanishingly scarce on the Earth. I’ve seen one study that one interstellar space probe, unmanned, would use up all the resources on the Earth of helium-3. It’s much too valuable to use. It’s on the moon, but scattered very thinly. You’d have to scour the entire face of the moon to extract this stuff.
It’s there on Jupiter. Very thinly scattered, but again, Jupiter is so big. There’s a lot of it. So you could have floating factories to produce this stuff and export it to the Earth for relatively clean energy. But Jupiter is not really a place for humans, so it’s an ideal place for the machines. Our machines are more like androids, human-like individual entities but with robot bodies, so they’re capable of withstanding the conditions within Jupiter. Off they go, but they start pursuing their own agenda within Jupiter. Exploring its interior, and obviously making contact with the kinds of lifeforms on Jupiter.
A lot of this book deals with Falcon and other characters descending through the atmosphere into the depths of Jupiter. When you’re writing about what’s down there, how much of that is based on known science and how much is based on your imagination?
It’s kind of both, really. I think everything we come up with in there is possible. There’s nothing actually ruled out by physical law or by observation, but, we do know very little. The models of the atmosphere that we have are quite old now. They certainly go back to the ’60s. Carl Sagan, as I said, came up with this idea of life forms in these cloud layers. You have a layer of ammonia ice, and then you have a layer of water ice or water vapor, maybe, and methane in there somewhere, and so forth. These components would separate out. The organic chemistry from the sun is at the top of the atmosphere, so a lot of organic chemicals are floating around in there. You could have some kind of aerial life form evolving in this kind of soupy, thick atmosphere. Is it really like that? We don’t know. We’ve thrown one probe in, Galileo, which arrived in the ’90s. It burned up quite quickly, but it did return readings on the structure of the atmosphere, and they found it was much drier than expected. Much less water than everyone expected from external readings. But that’s typical. You could throw a probe at Earth, and it would land in the desert, say, and you think there’s no water. Or it lands in the ocean, and you think the world’s full of water. So one pinpoint probe isn’t really a proof of anything one way or the other.
The thing is, though, what we know evolves so quickly now, which is fantastic. Just in my lifetime alone, you’ve got this revolution in what we know about the planets. For a fiction writer the main thing is just trying to keep up. What new possibilities does this open up? What would it be like to live on these worlds as they are being revealed to us, and what kind of life might we find there inside?
Right, my dad is a scientist. He works in low-temperature superconductivity, so this line caught my eye where you say that the interior of Jupiter might be composed of metallic hydrogen that might be useful as a room temperature superconductor or a high-energy-density fuel.
Yeah, to be honest, I know very little about that beyond what you said there. But there is speculation that there are exotic forms of hydrogen. I think the idea of mining it is fairly far away. But Jupiter is a natural laboratory.
It’s strange that we seem to understand the sun pretty well. The model of the sun’s interior has stayed pretty static since, I think it was the 1920s. It’s fairly simple physics. It’s just hydrogen and helium with this immense mass crushing everything, and you can predict what the temperature of the core must be. So the models of the sun are fairly stable, but the models of Jupiter are kind of similar between the Earth and the sun. Jupiter is 300 times the mass of the Earth. We don’t know what happens to hydrogen or the simplest elements in these strange conditions of high temperature and pressure that you find in there. It’s fascinating to think that we might dig down there one day and see what’s going on in this kind of natural laboratory.
In this book, you also have some really advanced futuristic technology. There’s the momentum pump and the asymptotic drive. Could you talk about those?
Those are some of the more advanced technologies in the book. Stolen a bit from Clarke. One thing we did was read a lot of Clarke outside the novella itself to get more of a background of where it fit into his general work.
In the near future, he imagined fusion rockets, nuclear fission rockets, for instance, taking Falcon out to Jupiter as in, say 2001. And the design of those things was fully stable, in Clarke’s mind, at least, a big dumbbell shape like Discovery in 2001. He’d been working on designs like that since the ’50s. However, he was interested in exotica as well. There were two things in particular that caught his attention in his later life. One was the idea of an inertialess drive where you could somehow take away the inertia of an object, like making it matterless.
In a way, that’s become more plausible in recent years because of the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is an exotic particle which gives other particles mass, strangely. So matter is imbued by the Higgs. If you could somehow turn off the Higgs or detach it from a body then you could reduce the mass and so reduce the inertia. Or maybe inertia has something to do with being coupled into space-time. That’s another speculative possibility.
The momentum pump is another variant of that. How you could move a moon with a small engine. This is pushing at the boundaries, but there are speculative papers that you can find at the fringe of physics on how this kind of thing might be done. I think, really, the reason there’s room in physics for doing that kind of thing is because physics is so incomplete. We don’t have a good theory of where general relativity and quantum mechanics meet, which is quantum gravity. I know there are many models of it around. That’s where these exotic possibilities like hyper drives and inertialess drives and so forth might lurk. Which is great for the science fiction writer. If you want something beyond the known then you go for that. Clarke would fill his books with afterwords listing the references for these speculations: hyperdrives and so forth. It’s not authoritative. This is only guesswork, but at least it’s educated guesswork about how this thing might be possible. It’s not magic. But it’s very speculative science.
One of the wildest ideas in this book is one of the characters talks about enclosing the entire planet of Saturn in kind of a shell that people could walk on and live on.
I think that, in a way, is less fantastic than some because the gravity of Saturn is only about one G, the same as the Earth’s. So a structure that’s capable of withstanding one G would be able to support itself—if you could build that thing in the first place. It’s not like, say, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, this belt whirling around a sun so fast that it gives you a spin gravity of one G, but so big that it’s about the same distance that the Earth is from the sun. The stresses on that would be similar to the stresses that hold the nucleus of an atom together. So that’s a pretty exotic material that you need.
I suspect that you could build a shell around Saturn. You might need some magic carbon nano-fiber tubing, that sort of stuff, but nothing beyond the bounds of possibility. The big trick with that would be building it in the first place, assembling the material, and so forth. Probably the way to do it would be to mine Saturn for the material itself and build it in place. I think as megastructures go, it’s relatively plausible, which is a pleasing thought. That strange thing was one of my personal contributions to the book, which I dreamed up from knowing that Saturn had gravity of about one G.
I started to wonder how come a gas giant has got a similar gravity to the Earth? How can that be so? Even Jupiter is only a couple of times or a few times Earth’s gravity. There have been studies of exoplanets, planets beyond the solar system, showing a strange kind of convergence of planetary formation or a coincidence of planetary formation that you get about a G. The big rocky planets compress and sort of stabilize their gravity at about a G. And the gas giants as well seem to diffuse out to a certain size so that you’ve got much larger masses, but they’re so big that the gravity is about a G or a couple of G.
So it’s a strange thing being adapted to a gravity well of about a G. It doesn’t suit you to live on the moon, which is only a sixth of a G, or in a space habitat with zero G. It would actually suit you quite well to live on a lot of worlds around the universe where the gravity is near to one G, more or less, even a shell around a gas giant would give you about a G. My interesting fact for the day.
You said that that was one of your contributions. Could you just lay out what you and Al Reynolds each brought to this project?
We had a quickfire exchange of emails and ideas and phone calls to begin with, coming up with a lot of ideas. Then we met face to face at the World SF convention in London in 2014, just for half a day, but by then we had masses of material and ideas. I think we’d already gotten a notion of how we go forward, but we came up with a breakdown there. We put the thing into six parts. The whole thing was going to be episodic anyway, which we could split up between us.
Roughly speaking, I did more of the earlier episodes, including the alternate history of the Apollo days. Al did more of the later episodes out in the solar system. Originally, we were going to go out to the stars as well, but in the end we stayed in the solar system. I think that shows a slight difference of bias there. I’ve done the grand, very far future stuff in my own novels, but also a lot of alternate histories and near future books as well.
Al is somewhere in the middle of that. Off in the middle distance somewhere out in the Oort cloud, but not yet reaching the stars.
There is another difference between us, as some of the reviews have picked up, which is a difference in style. I think I’m a bit more like Clarke in writing style. Slightly more cerebral in a way, and cooler, and the characters interact in a thoroughly restrained way. They feel deeply, but they don’t necessarily act on impulse. At one point, Falcon watches the machines take over the Earth. As an observer, he’s coolly reporting what happens. He’s angry, and he’s newly motivated to take on the machines again, but he takes it coolly.
Al, though, is a more kind of visceral writer, I think. He gets into the guts of the characters. He has very physical confrontations between them. He writes in a very physical way as well. You see the quivering lips and the clenched fists. His confrontations were much more vivid, I think.
In the end, we wrote these chunks, put them together, and went through the books several times. Smoothing out the joints, if you like. Rewriting all the sections together. It isn’t a Clarke book. It’s not a Baxter or a Reynolds book, either. It’s something in between.
There’s actually a funny story that I heard about the first time that you met Al Reynolds. Could you tell that story?
We met about twenty-five years ago at a sixty-fifth birthday party for Brian Aldiss, the great writer, which was being run by Interzone. Al is about ten years younger than me, which matters a lot less now, but back then, I was mid-thirties and Al was mid-twenties. I’d had a couple of books published. Al was just starting out. He comes up to me slightly star-struck, and he said to me, “Oh, Steve, nice to meet you. Of the previous generation of writers, you’re the one who most inspires me.”
I’m thirty-five, and I felt like a hundred and five. I felt like H.G. Wells. It was a shy and awkward moment, but I tease Al about that regularly ever since.
You put an actual scene in this book that was inspired by that?
Yes. It’s somewhere near the beginning. You have Falcon, who goes to Jupiter. It’s actually in Clarke’s novella. A guy called Springer lands on Pluto in the same year, so you had these two big events during 2099. At the end of the year, they’re both invited to a big oceanic event with the world president to see in the new year. And Springer, this guy is more media savvy than our rather clumsy cyborg hero, Falcon. So, trailed by cameramen and so on, Springer walks up to this guy and goes, “Falcon. What a good guy here. Of the previous generation of explorers, you’re my big inspiration.” And then he’s called away from the photoshoot, leaving Falcon seething. We smuggled that in, yes.
Speaking of the world president, you mention that in Clarke’s universe there’s this world government. I’m wondering what you think about the prospects of world government from our current vantage.
Clarke didn’t write a consistent universe, although the 2001 series did fit into a single universe. But he did have these consistent themes, and one of them was the emergence of a world government, which he thought would come about peacefully, I think, thanks mostly to communication. Global communication. That would spread education, for one thing, and just increase our global awareness. If you can see the other guy suffering, it makes you less willing to go to war. His technological interests mapped out to those political interests. He’d known Olaf Stabledon, who was a great visionary of political future and a future without war.
He was never a political activist, I don’t think, but he thought this was the way for an advanced society to go. Of course, he was a generation who lived through the Second World War, and after the war you did get great global institutions emerging. The United Nations for one thing.
I do think global action, in the end, is necessary. Because we face global problems. The migration crises, climate change, resource depletion, all of these things are going to hit us on a global level, and so, for instance, the UN organized climate change initiatives, imperfect as they are, all of those seem entirely in the right direction to go to me. We have to work as a species to manage the planet.
I think we’re slowly moving towards that kind of arrangement with more power, effectively, being invested in the international and global institutions and less at the national level. I really think the big challenge, as Europe has shown, is democratic legitimacy. Americans would say the same thing. You want to be able to vote that guy out, whether he’s your local mayor or the world president. You’ve got to be able to vote the guy out. Otherwise, you’re not going to accept the deal. I think we’re at a bump in the road from that point of view. I’m not sure how Clarke himself would have voted. I think he would have railed against the democratic deficiency of the actuality versus the goals of the post-war founders. It is kind of interesting that we published a book about the world government just as it leaves the European government, but I suppose it shores up the issues.
You’ve mentioned that you’re a big fan of H.G. Wells, who also campaigned for world government, and I also saw you say in an interview, that you were actually pretty critical of his conception of that. I was wondering if you could say a little more about that?
That’s my other big project at the moment, I’m doing a sequel to The War of the Worlds by Wells called The Massacre of Mankind. That will be out next year. It’s like another collaboration, actually. It’s like the same as working with Al and with Clarke. You read around the guy’s work.
He could clearly see what was wrong with late Victorian society and Edwardian society. He abhorred the First World War when it came along. He could see the need for universal education, for a start, proper education for women, which he saw as a great waste of human potential. Some things that are also of his time: he was for cleaning up the cities, clean streets; you have a lot of filth in the contemporary cities, which his books are set, but the futuristic cities are always very clean. He’s writing from the late age of the horse, everything is sort of horse dung and rubbish and the streets and cities are black from soot. So he wanted cleanliness, and education, and good food, and so forth. But how to achieve that?
In A Modern Utopia, for instance, which is the most striking fictional version of this, it’s actually an alternate history that developed from a Roman empire that never fell, but they have a kind of senate of self-appointed scientific minds who run everything on behalf of everybody else, so at that point in his life, this is about 1905, I think he thought democracy was a bit of a bust. You had to give up control to the smart people. They would run things for us. They would allocate education for us. They’d weed out defectives from society one way or another and send them off to colonies elsewhere.
And he couldn’t seem to see where this kind of scientific government was liable to lead, and it led, of course, to Nazi Germany. A scientific elite, a scientific running of humanity, a scientific categorization of humanity, kind of quasi-scientific, in a way, leads directly to eugenics and the gas chambers, unfortunately.
Wells lived long enough to see the Second World War come about and the horrors of Nazi Germany. And George Orwell, who later wrote 1984, skewered Wells with one quote. He said, “Nazi Germany is what you’ve been arguing for all your life.”
So that’s why I think you have to be critical, in retrospect, at least, of Wells. He had this great vision of a unified utopian world, but early in his life, he couldn’t seem to see that scientists aren’t to be trusted, basically. Nobody is to be trusted, as Churchill said. Democracy is the worst system of government in the world except for all of the others. At least you can vote the guy out, you know?
Wells did evolve his views later in life, very greatly. He died in 1946, but in the later stages of the war, they were already planning for the peace and the founding of the UN, and Wells was very influential in getting the Declaration of the Rights of Man drawn up. The Universal Declaration as excerpted by the UN, and later by bodies like Europe. I think, if nothing else, he should be remembered for that. He’d seen the folly of his ways. By the end, rather than prescribing forms of world government, he was looking for ways to ensure the rights of the individual, so a fair life and a decent education and so forth. He will be critical, I think, of his early musings, but we all learn by experience, don’t we?
You’ve mentioned that you collaborated with Clarke and Alistair Reynolds, and in way, with H.G. Wells. You also collaborated with Terry Pratchett. I was wondering if there are any marked differences between working with these different authors?
I think the commonality is enthusiasm. We’d all had a background in the stuff that we read. Even with Clarke, who was forty years older than me. Enthusiasm for the background of the material, and for the actual writing itself.
Obviously Terry was a very different writer to Al or Clarke, but he was a science fiction fan as a young reader. His first stories were science fiction. I think what he really wanted to be was an SF writer. His first couple of novels were SF.
He actually met Clarke when Terry was about sixteen, a young fan, and Clarke was kind to him, so he always called Clarke “Uncle Arthur” after that. Not to his face, but you know, that was his position in the genre, as far as he was concerned.
By the time I’d worked with Terry, he’d gone through the whole of Discworld, and he’d developed that very dry humorous voice, on the one hand, and his approach to characters was quite different.
We had a big science fictional frame. The project we worked on, The Long Earth, is about a universe full of have parallel Earths that you can simply walk into, each one slightly different from the rest. It’s a big idea that I think was too big in a way for Terry, who likes to work with individual people. When we collaborated, I brought the framework, the maps, timelines, and so on of how this universe could be structured, but what Terry was brilliant at was getting hold of a character and really drilling down into their motivation.
That’s one big difference, this really deep characterization which Terry was capable of. You clearly need characterization in SF, and I think it’s underrated, actually, how good the best are at characterization. Clarke and Wells, for instance.
In SF the hero is really the idea. Or maybe the universe itself is a character overwhelming everything else, and there’s no room for this kind of deep characterization that you might get in mainstream fiction. But Terry got really deeply into the heads of these people in this fantastic world. I think that’s certainly one difference. The balance of characterization versus ideation, if you like.
I saw a quote that said that as a writer, you’re order, and Terry was chaos, and it’s kind of an interesting mix of order and chaos when you came together.
Did I say that? Somebody said it. But, yeah, at one point we were trying to figure out the structure of The Long Earth, infinite in principle, but how could you make it more interesting? Each is slightly different from the rest, I thought. After about a hundred worlds, you get to an ice age world, and you go a bit further, and there’s a dinosaur world and so forth. But, Terry was all for randomness. So, you go along ten worlds, and then suddenly, bang, it’s entirely different from anything you expect. So, it could be a desert world in the middle of the ice ages, but it could be something very strange. One of his favorites was a cue ball world, entirely smooth, like an abstraction. There’s nothing there. There’s air to breathe and so forth, but there’s a blank landscape. Nothing there at all, like a huge roller skating rink. So, Terry liked to break this up with random changes and so forth.
We talked to a mathematician at one point, Ian Stewart, who collaborated on The Science of Discworld books, talking about this kind of structure, and Ian said, in modern thinking, with the mathematicians, the most fertile structures you can have are a balance between order and chaos. Modern fighter planes are deliberately made unstable, all controlled by computer, so that if it’s unstable you can deliberately flip it quickly into another state, so you can do very fast turns and quick maneuvering and so forth. It’s managed chaos, in a way. So, this mathematician said maybe our Long Earth was the same kind of thing. It’s orderly, but it’s on the edge of chaos, so interesting things can happen. The whole time you’re about to tip over the edge of the wave.
I think between me and Terry this clash of order and chaos was quite productive in the end. One thing I was careful to see about in the beginning was to make a note of every mad, random idea we had and try to get as many of them into the early books as possible, just in case we wanted to go back to them later, in case they turned out to be really good, as a sort of hook for the sequels. And that paid off, I can tell you.
I was also curious if you’d seen the Syfy channel adaptation of Childhood’s End, and if so, what you thought of that?
Oh no, I haven’t seen it actually. No. I’m behind on that one, I’m afraid.
Then you said in an interview, “NASA, I’m afraid, has become a sclerotic, big organization locked into the space station project, which will generate a lot of jobs but little else.” I was wondering if you could say what you think we should be doing in your terms of space exploration?
I think that’s probably a fairly old quote, which I suspect was valid fifteen years ago, maybe. I did a little research into NASA when I wrote my novel Voyage. It’s an alternate history of the space program in the seventies and eighties.
They were extremely generous because there are a lot of science fiction fans in NASA, as you can imagine. I was shown around the hardware, crawled around a space shuttle simulator, saw a shuttle launch, which is an astounding experience, a very physical experience, very visceral. Shown some of the plans they were drawing up at the time for Mars missions, if the call ever came. But the space station, I’ve never been a big fan of that project, to be honest. It’s kept a presence in space. We’ve learned lessons from it. But we could’ve done much more with the money, I tend to feel.
And, if you go around NASA, this was true about ten or fifteen years ago; at least, you did get the impression that it was kind of hanging on. It was a long program with an extended deadline, which never actually gets anywhere but keeps the jobs going. You can understand why that was. From the Apollo peak, I think there was something like half a million people in the space program, including the contractors, as well, at the peak. So, what do they do when Apollo is gone and the program starts shrinking?
I had been quite a fan of Robert Zubrin, of Mars Direct, looking for lean, mean ways of getting to Mars quickly. Whittle it right down. In the spirit of the sixties actually. Before Apollo there was a pretty expansive, long term program for building gigantic successors to the Saturn V, and using those to get to Mars. In the end, they focused on the goal, just get to the moon with the Saturn V, a kind of middle-sized rocket. Do it quickly with this ingenious way of landing, a separate lander. Lots of ways to save mass and size and the allotment of time and so forth. Just go for the goal.
I think that once Zubrin’s work came along, which must have been about twenty years ago now, I couldn’t quite see why this wasn’t taken with more enthusiasm by NASA, and by Congress, and those who hold the purse strings as well. I spoke to Clarke a lot about this, and asked him if he was disappointed that the kind of alternate future that we describe in Medusa didn’t come about with missions to Jupiter by the end of the century and so on. He said, no, he wasn’t disappointed at all. He said that realistically when he started back in the thirties or the forties, he didn’t really believe that humans would walk on the moon in his lifetime or that we would get as far as we have. He’s kind of disappointed that we stopped at the moon as far as human exploration, but he loved all the deep space exploration. It inspired his fiction. The early internet was great for him because he could just go on to the NASA sites and download everything that they had. He loved it.
I think NASA now is going more in the right direction, given the constraints on them. Very imaginative missions. Some great science being done. Unfortunately, I don’t think in my lifetime that we’re going to see a human walk on Mars because a huge funding boost will never be there, but maybe some motive to it, discovering life, for instance, and a real motive to get there. But, I have to praise the half of NASA that does the uncrewed probes and the fabulous science over the years, which I talked about this before, has absolutely transformed humanity’s vision of the universe in my lifetime, and indeed mine as well.
You also, in that same interview, talked about how we’re at this absolutely critical moment in human history. You say, “If we get it wrong over the next few decades, our descendants, if there are any, might not forgive us.”
I think that could be true. Don’t you? With the challenge of the climate shift, it seems very real to me.
At the same time, we’ve got the challenge of the oil running out, and the very fact that the energy sources we need to fix these problems could potentially worsen the climate problems as well. But it seems to me that we still have a window to do things like clean up the power generation systems, and maybe use off-Earth resources to support the Earth as we go towards, it seems to be, these two competing goals.
One is high civilization which supports everybody to a high standard of living, as we have in the western countries and the other goal being a healthy, stable ecology going forward to future generations as well. So, it’s one heck of a challenge, but I’m fundamentally an optimist.
Anyone of my age has lived through the horrible fear of nuclear war. I think that when my generation were kids we didn’t think there would be a nuclear war tomorrow, but I feel we didn’t think we’d grow old. Sometime between now and then, we thought the bombs would fall, so we’d never get to plant a tree in the garden and see it grow fully.
If we can survive the threat of nuclear war, the fall of the Berlin wall, and all that’s happened, then I think we can muddle our way through this in the end. It’s a challenge that we can’t shirk. But previous generations haven’t shirked their challenges, going back to Clarke’s generation. The West stood up to the Nazis even though that was a huge human and political and economic hit. If you look at it that way, we all came out of it better in the end.
Absolutely. We’re pretty much out of time. Do you have any final words you want to say, or any projects you want to mention, or anything like that?
No, I think I’ve covered everything. I will just say my projects I’m working on now are my own solo projects, so a break from collaborating, and off to the far future. My own starting point was a universe called the Xeelee Sequence. Off in the far future. That’s a real expression of my own influences, including Clarke, my first stories and books were set in that universe. I’ve kept on going back, which I think is a good idea. Clarke kept on going back to some of his early works and rewriting, and reworking, and expanding them. It’s not a bad idea, I don’t think, because the beginning is where your unconscious is more in control of your creative process than your consciousness. So, looking back to that is a good way of thinking, “What am I really interested in? What are my real concerns?” My current project is a rework of some of that stuff. A kind of a reboot with my current sensibilities, more modern science, and so forth. That’s great fun.
I’m really looking forward to that. We’ve been speaking with Stephen Baxter, and this new book, once again, is called The Medusa Chronicles with Alastair Reynolds. Stephen, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
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