SFX Interview

Freezing author poses in a field outside Bradwell Power Station.
When the photographer Will Ireland turned up at Althorne railway station I thought why not head down to the River Crouch? There’s some nice enough scenery down there that could be used as a backdrop. However I was forgetting that I was not in Crete where car parking is easy, but in England where someone wants money or some busybody complains. We ended up at the power station because, well, what kind of backdrop do you have for an SF writer? After posing in a field for a while I was reminded of that phrase (I think), ‘The most dangerous industry in Britain,’ from The Edge of Darkness when security guards came out to see what we were doing and take down details. Apparently they had decided not to release the dogs. Mr Ireland helpfully suggested that they did, while he sat in my car and took pictures of them chasing and pulling down the author.
This photograph shoot was all to accompany an interview that’s appeared in this month’s issue of SFX. Apparently there’s a not so good review of Dark Intelligence in there too but I’m not particularly bothered about that. Fan opinions are what count and I’ve already seen some reaction prior to this…

Anyway, since the interview was just sampled I thought it worthwhile publishing the full text here:

SFX Interview 
SFX: The new book, where did it spring from? (Without quite wishing to ask where do you get your ideas from..)

Neal: In a way my readers are a little bit responsible for that. What has happened here is similar to what happened in my 5 book Cormac series. In the first book, Gridlinked, I wrote about a character called Mr Crane – a rather large android made of brass – and the readers came back at me about that saying just how much they enjoyed him. The third book of the series I wrapped around Mr Crane. It was called Brass Man. But it was also my choice because I’m a fan at heart and really enjoyed writing about Mr Crane too. In Dark Intelligence I’ve revisited another character who first appeared in a short story called Alien Archaeology in Asimov’s and then in an off-shoot book from the Cormac series called The Technician. This ‘character’ is the blacklist AI Penny Royal. My readers rather liked that creation, and I like it too. Also, after writing a dystopia trilogy set in the near future of Earth, I felt the need to return to the Polity and do something sprawling. The ideas? They turn up at the keyboard as I write.   

SFX: A key theme seems to be transformation, and the effect of physical transformation on the psyche. Were you always consciously exploring that theme, or did it develop through the writing?

Neal: The theme of transformation has developed through the writing but has also been there right from the start. It was in some of my earliest short stories, for example the immortality imparting virus, spread by the bite of a leech, in a short story called ‘Spatterjay’, which formed the basis of my trilogy beginning with The Skinner. Immortality is another constant theme in my books – physical immortality through medical technology and through the recording and backing up of minds. Another of those stories concerned both ‘Always With You’ included a doctor mycelium inside the protagonist that kept him alive during a battle with one of the bad-ass aliens that appear in Dark Intelligence – the prador. I’ve been working with these from the start and thinking more and more on the second element you mention: the effect of transformation (and immortality) on the psyche. In The Skinner, for example, I looked at the ennui of immortality and that appears again in Dark Intelligence.  

SFX: There are plenty of horror elements in the book, errm, just how nasty is your imagination? More seriously, is there a desire to shock? If so, why?

Neal: My desire is to entertain and the horror elements, and the violence – the conflict – are a large part of that. Simply flick through the pages of SFX and point to a book, film or game that doesn’t contain them. I think you’ll find that difficult. There’s a large element of the voyeur in all of us of course. I guess my problem developed from when from a book about writing I read that there should be conflict on every page. I thought that meant exploding spaceships.

SFX: How does the novel fit into the existing Polity timeline?

Neal: Dark Intelligence starts a little while after the events in The Technician. The latter book was a sort of off-shoot from the second book in the Cormac series, The Line of Polity, but set twenty years later. So Dark Intelligence, and the ensuing two books of this trilogy, are set just a little while after the Cormac series and some centuries before the Spatterjay series.

SFX: Going back, were you someone who always wanted to be a writer?

Neal: Like so many people I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school, beyond get some money in my pocket and go down the pub. I did, however, have many interests: biology also specifically mycology, chemistry, electronics, physics, painting and sculpture. I used to flit from one interest to another but not achieve much beyond learning a little more – it was after I was at school, for example, that I learned how thermionic valves and then transistors work. I also read a great deal – mostly science fiction – and at school wrote my first short story, which the teacher complimented (thank you teacher), and as a result writing became another of my pursuits. Over many years I inevitably wrote a fantasy trilogy. Only when I was in my mid 20s did I realise that writing was something that could incorporate all my other interests and only then did I really focus on it completely.      

SFX: Was there a breakthrough moment when you thought, yeah, I can do this?

Neal: For me there was no sudden break-through moment. I paused at every step up the hill. Years of nothing published at all then a short story in a magazine for which payment was a free copy of said magazine. More stories published, the odd novella, a couple of short story collections, even some money but not enough to make me think about giving up the day job. I had an agent once hawking that fantasy – no luck. I had novels taken by small publishers who crashed and burned before publication. Yes, when I got a phone call from my first editor at Macmillan that could be called a break-through, but I still didn’t give up the day job for a couple of years. I swiftly learned that getting a book with a big publisher doesn’t mean Champagne and big cars thereafter. What it means is your publisher/editor asking what you are going to produce next year, which is a step many fall flat on their faces over.

SFX: Of all the jobs you had pre-full-time writing, which would you least like to return to and why? And conversely, which would you happily do again?

Neal: I guess that delivering coal for two weeks in the freezing rain just before Christmas was the worst. Nothing like having to use a scrubbing brush to clean parts of the body that should never see such a brush at all. I think it’s also fair to say that I would hate to return to any of the highly physical jobs I did. Even though I keep active now I’m still aware that I am of the age when constant physical work starts causing problems: trapped nerves in the back, tendonitis, cranky knees. A job I would do again (but I think to say ‘happily’ is pushing it a bit) is one in engineering when I was operating milling machines and lathes and the like. But this would be the one when I was machining a wide variety of components and also programming and operating CNC machines. It wouldn’t be a similar job I had where the instruction might have been, ‘Neal, here are 2,000 aluminium blocks. I want you to bore a hole in each and slice the corner off.’   

SFX: Crete: are you still spending large amounts of time on the island? What’s your life like there?

Neal: As a writer, who of course can do his job anywhere he can take a laptop, it has been good. I don’t have internet in my mountain house so I tended to get a lot more work done! I could do my 2,000 words a day, which is my target when doing the first draft of a book, then go swimming in the early afternoon. Food and drink are relatively cheap, the temperature can climb into the 40s and the light is intense. Mostly you live outdoors. I enjoy growing stuff in my garden there that I can’t grow very well here. Chillies being a particular favourite, but also all sorts of weird and wonderful flowers and fruits. Things are relaxed and life there can be idyllic. However, it only reaches the above stages after a lot of effort. Too many people move there on the basis of what they saw on holiday and that isn’t the life at all. It can been quite a frustrating and maddening culture shock. If you are not the kind of person who has interests it can be boring – going to the beach has its limitations for many, and many find their entertainment in a bottle. A lot make the move there then after a few years give up and go back to Britain.
However, it is difficult for me to say much about my life there now since it has changed radically this last year – my wife died of bowel cancer last January. This year I did spent a lot of time walking in the mountains, and swimming and kayaking in the Libyan Sea. This was mostly to try and hold depression at bay. I have struggled to write, and to care about much at all.

SFX: How has it changed since 2008 economic meltdown?

Neal: It depends where you go in Greece or in Crete. Generally it is not as bad as we see in the news where the impression is given of rioting all across Greece, when it is mainly just in Athens. However, in Sitia, where I get my shopping, there are apparently 120 families on the breadline. In Lidl there is a large basket by the exit where you can leave for them some of the food you’ve bought. In Makrigialos, where I go swimming – a tourist area with a lot more money about – change is not so evident. In fact the melt-down there is just a continuation of how things have been going downhill with the introduction of the Euro – tourists heading to other cheaper destinations, and businesses steadily going under. All Greeks are now being hit by new taxes as the government struggles to maintain its bloated bureaucracy while continuing to act as if ‘austerity’ is just for the public. There are property taxes now for people who are often described as property rich but dirt poor, and many simply cannot pay them. It seems that every few months we see a new tax – often abandoned when the government fails to collect it.   

SFX: You’re, as far as I can tell, politically conservative (I know, but best shorthand I can find). Does that make you feel like an outsider in the context of SF contemporaries who mostly seem to me to be left-leaning?

Neal: In Britain the divisions between left and right are a joke. I look at the two main parties in Westminster, supposedly left and right, and they both look like Orwell’s pigs. They both consist of career politicians who are divorced from reality by massive salaries, pensions and an over-privileged lifestyle. The true division now, to me, lies between authoritarian and libertarian. I can be described by that much-abused word ‘libertarian’ but, before anyone assumes that means I’m a gun-toting bible-belter, I am a libertarian in the sense of “classic liberal”. To quote: “individual well-being, prosperity and social harmony are fostered by ‘as much liberty as possible’ and ‘as little government as necessary’”.  
Yes, I do sometimes feel like I slipped under the fence and got into the SF world before anyone could release the dogs. I once chatted with an SF writer who was ‘politically conservative’ (whatever that means) who was amazed that I didn’t just keep my mouth shut and my head down. But my contention was that, even if you are writing some way out stuff, truth is one of your most important tools. However, I do tend to be more close-mouthed now simply because, over this last shitty year, my perspective on what is important in life has changed a great deal.   

The Death of Science Fiction (Again).

Oh, good grief, there it is again. On Facebook I followed links posted by Jetse de Vries, to yet another essay about the terminal decline of SF. This on top of another article a while back by Mark Charan Newton about ‘why SF is dying and fantasy is the future’ (no vested interest then from this fantasy writer) and lots of articles related to that, and now, if you search with the words ‘science fiction is dying’ you get numerous hits.
I do get heartily sick of all this effort to stick head-up-own-backside to examine one’s navel from the inside. I started reading SFF over thirty years ago, but it wasn’t until I got involved with the small presses, started finding out about organisations like the BSFA and the BFS, and started reading various magazines, that I discovered that SF seems to have a parasite literature attached to it. Whole swathes of self-styled academics pontificate about the meaning of it all, they wank off into deep critical analysis of stories and books – my first close encounter with this was discovering a review of Mason’s Rats that was about twice the length of the story itself – have lengthy discussions about ‘issues’ in SF and speak with all seriousness about gender divides in genre, the lack of representation of homosexuals, the implicit racism in something like Starship Troopers. Really, if you can be bothered to read all through these highly ‘intelligent’ waffles, the only response upon finishing the last line is to point and giggle.
And an old favourite in this rarified atmosphere is ‘the death of SF’ (or fantasy, or the short story, whatever). It surfaces with the almost metronic regularity of a dead fish at the tide line (stirred up, no-doubt, by some ‘new wave’). SF isn’t dying, it hasn’t been ill, and frequent terminal diagnoses often see the undertaker clutching a handful of nails and a hammer and scratching his head over an empty coffin. However, discussions about this demise have been resurrecting themselves in only slightly altered form since I first read ‘about’ SF rather than SF itself. I’m betting there was some plonker declaring the death of SF the moment Sputnik beeped or just after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. Really, the whole pointless staggering debate needs a nice fat stake driven through its heart.

SFX December 2008

Nice profile piece on me in the December 2008 issue of SFX, with a full page picture too (inside, not that scary-eyed depilatephobe on the front cover). I can’t say it was much fun posing in the pissing rain on the Mayland mud flats, but the result seems pretty good. I’d just love to know how the other more ambitious photos of me posing against a wall of scrap turned out. That picture could have had the tagline: here is Neal Asher superimposed over a view inside his head.

Writing News

Righto, I’ve cleared 100,000 words of Orbus, which is always a bit a of a milestone, and the endgame progresses nicely what with a planet getting blown to smithereens and some seriously huge dreadnoughts knocking the shite out of each other.

Nice reviews appearing here there and everywhere for Line War. There’s the previously mentioned one in SFX 169 (May), a good one from Anthony Brown in Starburst 362 and others elsewhere. I particularly like this one I found on Sarcade’s Weblog. I also like it that no one has yet accused me of the Space Opera sins of anticlimax or deus ex machina.

Had a photo shoot on Wednesday: professional photographer all the way down from Bristol to take shots of me posing in the pissing rain before Maldon mudflats and trying to look cool in a scrapyard. This is for an SFX profile which should be coming out at round about the time my short story collection gets released.

Oh yeah, and not long until Shadow of the Scorpion is available.

And I note that David Gunn’s next book is out to hopefully cause Maximum Offense!

Article 5: Getting There.

Here’s an old one. I don’t recollect precisely when I wrote it, but certainly it was prior to 1999 when Macmillan took me on and prior to ’98 when I first started really using the Internet. It’s interesting to see my attitude of the time…

Getting There.
The first time novelist or short story writer is up a certain well known creek without even a canoe. If you’re a politician, a film star, or a model (you don’t even have to be able to write), the big publishers will provide you with a nice fat cheque and a power boat. The catch for a new author is that they might publish you if you’re known and as a new author you’ll only get known if they’ll publish you. It is also a sad fact that the likes of Harper and Collins receive two to three hundred manuscripts a week out of which they might publish two or three a year. Many large publishers freely admit that they will not even look at work unless it is submitted through an agent. It would also seem that these publishers are now run primarily by accountants and financial directors. Editors wanting to take on something new have to present this work to these people to justify the expenditure. As such justifications usually begin with, “Well this is like … ” the chance of anything groundbreaking being taken is minimal. The fact, I think, that all writers should be aware of is that these large publishers are not out to make books; they’re out to make money. So what other options are there? There are, thankfully, the small presses, and through them a gradual struggle up the ladder in the hope that you’ll reach a point where you can no longer be ignored. Small press publications range from illiterate productions of stapled-together A4 sheets to some magazines indistinguishable from what you’ll find on the newsagent’s shelf. There are presses that produce paperback books of a quality that exceeds that of the mainstream publishers (How often have you had one of these mainstream paperbacks fall apart in your hands as you read it? How often has the cover picture and blurb born no relation to the contents?) It is worth noting exactly what ‘small’ means in the latter cases. It usually only refers to circulation, editor’s bank balance, and advertising. They are not necessarily small on enthusiasm or professionalism. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can get any old crap published here, but also be aware that if you are good, you stand a better chance here than with one of the lumbering giants that has a stranglehold on the the newstands and bookshops. Unfortunately the SF F and H (magazine) small presses are pretty much a closed circuit and it is quite possible for you to be very well known in them but not known outside. Very often the magazines published have a circulation that can only be numbered in the hundreds and not very many of them. The closed circuit is due to a large proportion of their readership being writers and by the mags only advertising in each other, (no doubt due to cost). What are you after though? If it is money then forget it. Payment ranges from a free copy of the mag your story is in to, if you’re really lucky, ten or twenty quid. The most I have achieved for short story publication was £60 from a magazine called Scheherazade and that was for ten thousand words divided over two copies. If it’s an audience you’re after then the most you can hope for is that for ten or fifteen minutes you will have the undivided attention of each of those hundreds of readers. Better than nothing. A problem you’ll face, writing for these small circulation magazines, is their proliferation and their swift demise. I have frequently had stories accepted by magazines that have then folded before publication of said story. There is no fault here in the enthusiasm or even financial acumen of the editors. It is just that a circulation of any more than a few hundred seems a tough barrier to break. Some have managed to, but for every one that does it seems that twenty others go to the wall. That barrier I think is ultimately heart-breaking for many editors. Another problem can be the lengths of time involved. In some cases you will not recieve a reply for a few months, thereafter, if your work is accepted, it can be months and even years before you see your work in print, and see any cheque that might be involved. This is because small press editors have to work for a living and that job ain’t in publishing. They have piles of stories to read through and reject before they find your gem. And often they might only bring out their magazines quarterly or even yearly. You’ll often notice when looking at these magazines that they’ll have an issue number, but that the editor has not been brave enough to put on a date. In one case I had to wait three years from acceptance of one of my stories until publication. But let’s face it, if you’re a writer, you should be thinking about your next story on the way back from the post box. Why write for the small presses if your ultimate aim is big time publication? To begin with the small presses are a superb training ground for the wannabes. Very often the editors of these magazines will take time to offer some criticism of your work (remember, if that criticism is ‘this is drivel’ that’s more than you’ll get elsewhere). You’ll also get a fair amount of feedback in the letters pages and even in other magazines. In this sense the closed circuit will work for you; many of these magazines have review columns and as well as reviewing films, and large circulation books and magazines, they review each other. Also, because of that proportion of writers in the readership, you’ll know that if you do get published it is not because of a lack of submissions to the magazine. The small presses are essentially a proving ground for the wannabe. To break into the small press market you do have to buy magazines. Some magazines will only publish stories written by subscribers; a form of nepotism brought on by a desperation to get subscribers. Once you’ve bought a few magazines you’ll have a feel for them and from adverts in them you’ll find other mags to which you may send your scribblings. Each time you send something off (with an SAE and covering letter) you’ll quite probably get fliers from yet more magazines with your rejection or acceptance. It is quite easy to build up one hell of a list of possible markets. If you want to increase that list then get hold of publications like Zene, Light’s List, or Dragon’s breath. In the fifteen years I’ve been writing for the small presses I’ve felt no need to submit work outside the UK, but then I’m not someone who produces a story a day. Once you’ve broken into the small press market (meaning that you have proven your worth to yourself, not that you have learnt the funny handshake) it’s worth looking at the small press book publishers in the hope of having something longer published. As you do these things take note of your achievements and utilise what leverage they might give to get you higher up the writing ladder. Unfortunately though you’ll find that small press book publishers face similar difficulties to those of the magazine publishers. So far I’ve seen three of them get into difficulties.Club 199, a publisher aiming to produce cheap paperbacks (£1.99, hence the name) had the printing side of things organised but not the advertising side. New Guild, whom I was under contract with, made the same mistake. Tanjen, has recently ceased taking on any new work. Sadly, these small publishers are up against the huge advertising machines of the large publishers, the clout they have with the likes of W H Smiths and Waterstones, and the spreading of costs over huge print runs. For me my writing has been a gradual struggle up that ladder, the small presses being the first few rungs. Too often we hear of someone getting the x-thousands advance on their first book and hearing this lose sight of the fact that they are the exception. There is a lot of truth in the image of the writer struggling away in his garret then drinking himself to death. The reality is that writing is hard, getting published is hard, and that if you want easy money your best option is to become an estate agent. It took me five or more years to get my first short story accepted and then that magazine folded before publication of my work. After that slight boost (and it was a boost; someone had actually wanted my work) I got more and more stories published, the occasional novella serialised, and a one-off novella published for a single cash payment. For my short stories my reward was a copy of the magazine and some complimentary letters (mostly). After another five years I was getting the occasional cheque – about enough to pay for a toner cartridge a year – then in the following five years finally gained some notoriety through the publisher’s Tanjen, with the production of another novella (The Parasite) then a short story collection (The Engineer).
My story, I warn you, has been one of relative success.

Death Ray Magazine.

I must get hold of a copy of Death Ray Magazine. Here’s either part or all of a review in it of Hilldiggers:

“Asher has an axe to grind, but what a shiny, well-honed and beautifully weighted axe it is… He’s on top of his game with this one and his confidence entwines a fibrous thread throughout the plot. Multiple narratives occurring in different time frames, shifts between first-and third-person perspectives, a detailed and convincing description of planetary ecosystems…In lesser hands, a rambling wayward text could well result. What we have instead is a wonderfully rich and complex tale that happily flips between giving the mind something weighty to mull over and pleasing its baser, thrill-seeking desires… Asher’s skill is making it all seem wild, wonderful, politically provoking and fresh.”

Very nice.

Asimov's June 2007.

Okay, my story Alien Archaeology is being published in the June 2007 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. In that story you’ll find a gabbleduck, as depicted on the cover here, prador and homicidal humans – some of them working for the Polity – and what I hope is a ripsnortingly enjoyable tale. In my opinion Asimov’s is one of the very few magazines that delivers a good proportion of the same (but then I would say that). Get over onto their website and take out a subscription!

Asimov's Science Fiction.

Here’s some of the blurb from the Asimov’s Science Fiction site for the June issue of the magazine. I’ve yet to see the cover with it’s picture of a gabbleduck, but certainly I’ll post it here the moment it appears!

Popular and prolific British writer Neal Asher gives us a ringside seat for a fast-paced, suspenseful, and violent game of intrigue, double-cross, and double-double-cross, as a hunt for a stolen alien artifact of immense value forces a former agent out of retirement and into a tense chase across interstellar space into hostile landscapes where wiser humans would never dare to venture, with life or death hanging in the balance at every turn, for some hard lessons in “Alien Archeology.” This one is a full-blown, flat-out, unabashed Space Opera, and a thriller of the first water, so don’t miss it! http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0704/nextissue.shtml