Interview with Irena (Croatia)

From 2007:

Just a couple of hours before I had to “meet” Neal Asher in a chat room for an interview we had arranged, I had the misfortune to read an interview he did recently, in which he had answered all the questions I wanted to ask him. So I had to come up with an entirely new set of questions and found myself probing Neal’s mind about the craft of writing …

Ire: I like what you said in the other interview that a writer should – above all – be writing, writing, writing and reading, reading, reading. It seems so many people nowadays perceive writing not as a job or as hard work, but as something anyone can do. You may have the talent, the will, the whatever, but most of all you have to work and learn the skill.

Neal: It’s a learning process that never ends. I would say that if I ever think that I know it all, that’ll be time for me to quit.

Ire: Have you ever attended a writing workshop?

Neal: I was involved in a postal workshop and once I went to a writers circle – I didn’t bother going back because they spent too much time slagging off Jeffrey Archer and complaining about not getting published. I guess it goes back to that comment I made in that other interview: a writer writes.

Ire: And how do you get your ideas? I mean, it’s nothing new when you look at it: aliens, AIs, monsters, etc. But your writing has that je ne sais qui, something of yours that can’t be found in other authors. Is it pure talent and imagination or do you have your little factory of ideas?

Neal: Like a lot of SF writers I’m building on what went before and putting my own spin on it. Damn, I can’t really say. I’m a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer. I don’t plan much. I just sit down and get on with it. I’m writing the kind of stuff I like to read.

Ire: Do you have any favorite themes you like to write about? And do you sometimes “use the SF” (as some mainstream writer would put it) to tackle our everyday lives and problems that we may face in the near future?

Neal: Our everyday lives and the problems we face do come into the equation, but tackling them isn’t my main aim. I’m out to write sensawunda SF and entertain. Favorite themes would be technology, biology (usually alien, but then, if you want to find the alien just go and lift the nearest rock), war, murder … hang on … in retrospect it would seem my main themes are mind control, hive minds, how a far future technology impacts on the human mind and the relationship between human minds and artificial intelligence. However, if there are no big-fuck spaceships, gun-fights or large explosions, my interest wanes.

Ire: I’ve found on the net your list of 10 SF novels you’d recommend ( and the first two are written by Iain M. Banks. Is he your favorite author? Many critics compare your work to his, being you both have novels that take place in the same universes respectively, in highly developed cultures (you Polity, him Culture), that they are action packed and usually have very charming AIs, amongst other characters.

Neal: Ian M Banks is certainly one of my favorite authors. In “Polity Agent” he’s in the acknowledgements where I thank him for his drones, though admittedly the idea of quirky robots/drones has been around for a while (R2D2 anyone?).

Ire: What other authors have had the most influence on your writing?

Neal: Well, if you list just about every SF writer for the last fifty or more years, that’ll about cover it. In “The Skinner” acknowledgements I thank ‘all those writers from Aldiss to Zelazny’ A to Z. Greats like Clarke, Silverberg, Asimov are on the list. The likes of Van Vogt, Harrison … damn. My SF collection is up in my loft so I can’t refer to it to remind me. Let’s just say there are a lot of influences there.

Ire: I’d like to ask you to give some advice to young and aspiring authors, but I know what you’d say: stop overthinking it and start writing it, right?

Neal: Yes. I’d also like to add that I’m not a great believer in natural talent. I think we all possess the capability of being good at something; it’s just that not all of us possess the will and the capacity for hard work.

Ire: How long have you been writing?

Neal: I think I wrote my first bit of SF when I was about 15 or 16. After leaving school I dabbled a bit more but didn’t take it seriously until I was about 20. I then spent a lot of time writing a fantasy. Later I started having a go at short stories, the first one of which was published in a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1989. Okay, I’m 46 now so, on and off, about 30 years. Shit … is it that long?

Ire: Your books have been translated into French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, German, Russian … did I miss any?

Neal: There’re Czech copies. I won their Salamander Award for “The Skinner” and was short-listed with “Gridlinked”. Other countries now conquered are America and Japan.

Ire: Once I commented your book on your old website and you said something along the lines of it mattering more to you to be translated into a “small” language, like Croatian for example, then into a “big” one.

Neal: Did I? There you go: I write so much on the Internet that I cannot remember it all. Financially it’s better if say America or Germany takes a book of mine, but in terms of kudos and getting my books out there I take as much pleasure in sales to smaller countries. Hey, know any good Croatian publishers? LOL

Ire: How about China then? It’s the biggest SF market on the planet. Have you any plans for Chinese translations of your books?

Neal: I’d love to see it. What is it? Close to a billion of them. Another one might be India with its billion citizens too. “Gridlinked” in Hindi?

Ire: So you’ve written a lot and you’ve conquered most of the world translation-wise (or you’re planning to), but do you have any idea how well your books are selling?

Neal: I know my books are selling pretty well in Britain, but I don’t have figures for the other countries.

Ire: How much do you work on promoting your books?

Neal: I’ve done plenty of interviews, a few signings and attended one or two SF conventions. I guess I do most of my promotion like this, over the Internet, talking to those who read my books.

Ire: You keep a relationship with your readers mostly through your blog and forums. Do you ever get any ideas from the people you talk online? Do they ever make suggestions?

Neal: Yes and no. When I wrote “Gridlinked”, the book included a character called Mr. Crane – a two-and-a-half meter tall brass Golem android. I really liked the character and was thinking about doing more about him. Quite possibly it was the feedback from fans – saying they really liked him – that  … informed my decision to write “Brass Man”. The feedback from fans saying they like my stuff is what helps keep my nose to the grindstone.

Ire: So, it could be said that you’re listening to the pulse of your readers regarding your books?

Neal: Yeah, I’m listening. I’m not going to go off and do something all arty just to satisfy my ego – I’ll keep giving them what they want.

Ire: You said you’ve written a couple of fantasy novels that haven’t been published yet. So the question of the hour is: which do you prefer – fantasy or science fiction?

Neal: I definitely prefer the SF. Even the fantasy I was writing had to have a logical basis – the powers employed were super-science rather than magic – and there were few of the usual standard fantasy tropes like elves, dwarves or magic swords. Thought admittedly there was a ‘staff of power’. Anyway, SF was where I was successful and now having written lots of it, it’s my preferred form.

Ire: Why do you think there’s so much interest in fantasy these days and less and less in SF? I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Brian Aldiss last year and he said it’s because people are feeling that there’s nothing much left to discover. That we’ve gone too fast and too far with technology and people are kind of regressing, looking for spirituality in myth and legend.

Neal: I think it is because fantasy is easier and most people know the language. The SF ‘language’ is a difficult one to acquire. I think you’ve got it about right there: a close analogy is between science and religion – the latter is easier and requires a lot less thought.

Ire: And do you hang out with other writers? Do you exchange ideas with them, discuss the current trends?

Neal: I have to admit that I don’t hang out much with other authors. I’ve met a few. It was nice when getting taken up by a big publisher to actually meet one of my heroines – Tanith Lee – and others like Harry Harrison and Michael Moorcock. I’ve chatted in passing with China Mieville, Liz Williams, Alastair Reynolds and others, but never really had lengthy conversations with any of them. I guess I’m just doing my own thing and going my own way. I’m no necessarily aiming to do anything new … I’m aiming to do what is mine, and what’s entertaining.

Ire: And finally, how do you see your future as a SF author? Are there some rewards you are aiming to get? Some stories you are eager to write?

Neal: I’ll keep on writing while publishers keep taking my stuff. I’m on my ninth book for Macmillan right now, am lined up for doing another book for Night Shade Books and hope to see more contracts. What rewards? The rewards are on the shelf behind me. Not many people get to earn a living doing something they love. I appreciate that and want it to carry on.

Forbidden Planet Blog

A short blog post written for the Forbidden Planet blog all of 14 years ago.

The Voyage of the Sable Keech and Polity Agent are respectively my sixth and seventh books for Macmillan. When asked what inspired me to write them I have to regretfully inform those with stars in their eyes that inspiration is what part-time writers can afford to wait for, I’ve got a job to do. When I first approached Macmillan I had Gridlinked and The Skinner written (though at about half their present length), the former concerned the travails of agent Cormac and latter, set some 600 years later, was a mad romp set on a world crammed with lethal fauna. Rather liking agent Cormac I expanded and continued his story in the next book, The Line of Polity, then followed that with the time-travel novel, Cowl, and thus set the way I produce my books: Cormac novel, something else, Cormac novel, something else and so on. This was accidental to begin with then reinforced later so I’m not tied down to, and only known for, the one series. This can be limiting for a writer. It has been evident that writers of many other such serialized stories get penalized by their fans when attempting to write anything else.

Still following this course I then wrote the next Cormac book: Brass Man. This sparked from numerous comments from readers about their love of a character in Gridlinked called Mr Crane – an eight foot tall brass Golem with a penchant for ripping off people’s heads when not adding to the collection of little toys in his pocket. Voyage, which follows The Skinner, came next. I wanted to return to the world of Spatterjay not because I intended to explore this or examine that, but because it’s fun, I liked the ecology there, enjoyed the characters I’d created, and could see the perfect place to start with the character Vrell, a huge crablike alien who submerged in Spatterjay’s seas at the end of The Skinner. In this book I incorporated some elements from my others like the the hooders from The Line of Polity and used the authorial technique of letting rip and enjoying myself, then gradually trying to get things under control by tying off and interlinking the numerous plot threads.

Polity Agent, which comes next in the Cormac sequence (September 6th this year) has been a part-culmination of some sort of process going on in my back brain. Throughout the previous books I introduced various plot elements and threads that have remained unresolved: is Horace Blegg really an immortal superhuman who survived Hiroshima; what happened to the ‘Maker’ alien that was returned to its home civilization at the end of Gridlinked; where did the lethal organic ‘Jain’ technology come from and what is Dragon, the huge alien biomechanism sent to the Polity by the Makers, really up to? Some of those questions will be resolved, some will have to wait for Line War (next Cormac book), though there will of course be another book inbetween called Hilldiggers.

Five Questions

Again I’m not sure who I did this for. 2017 and regarding Infinity Engine.

  1. What is your short ‘elevator pitch’ for Infinity Engine?

It is the beginning of the universe, and the end.

  1. We are at Book 3 of the Transformation series, how are the stakes raised in Infinity Engine?

It has been a wild ride but in has to come to an end. When I set out to write a book or a series of books I don’t plan, there are no post-it notes above my desk, in fact I’m as eager to know what comes next as I hope the reader is. All my creations have a purpose (well, if it turns out they don’t they end up deleted either by editing or laser carbine) and Penny Royal – that ‘dark intelligence’ – revealed its purpose as the series progressed. Here you have a rogue AI who is a potential paradigm changer in a massive human and AI Polity. It should therefore not be surprising that its purpose and its aims are tremendous. Penny Royal has the power to transform just about anything, including people, and ultimately it can use that power on itself.

  1. Did you have a favourite character to write in the Transformation series, and if so, why?

Opinions on my characters vary from cardboard and flat to wonderful – it’s all a matter of perspective and really I think more to do with how the reader enjoyed, or not, the story. I enjoy writing my human characters and getting into the intricacies of the workings of their minds, but I don’t want to do too much of that simply because it slows down the story. But the characters that interest me the most are the non-human ones. I like my drones – machines made for the apparently cold, ruthless and efficient destruction of an enemy who are irascible, sometimes comedic and often cock a snoop at authority. I like my aliens because I can imagine the completely different societies they arise from, the ways that they will think that in some cases will be similar to that of human beings (they are evolved creatures after all) and sometimes wildly different. And my AIs: godlike patience with the slow development of humanity contrasted with super-fast thought and instant access to masses of information. Sverl, my favourite character in the books, is a combination of them all. He was an alien prador who had a cultural problem. Believing in the superiority of the prador he could not understand why the Polity, with its weak humans and detestable AIs, came close to defeating his kind. He went to Penny Royal for answers and as ever, in deals with that devil, got more than he bargained for. His transformation turned him into a tri-part being: prador, human and AI. In him I could illustrate what people think it means to be each of these, and how that might not be right. I relished that, just as I relished his grotesque physical transformation and the final truth of his existence.

  1. Which book, film or TV programme do you always recommend to people and why?

I do make recommendations but with no expectation that what I recommend will be enjoyed. It is all subjective. Because of its insight, even though written quite a few years ago, I often recommend the book Half-Past Human by T J Bass. For me it perfectly depicts a future Earth if we don’t get up and leave. Trillions live in cylinder cities underground while the Earth’s surface is all for agriculture. All animals are extinct. The humans don’t use large resources – they are four-toed nebbishes with rosewater blood. There’s a Sharps Committee that goes around taking away anything a person might harm himself with – the ultimate extension of today’s Health and Safety. The humans are programmable and are the drones in a vast human hive with no purpose beyond continuing to exist. It’s a dystopia but an enjoyable one with the introduction of the Buckeyes – original high-resource humans. But it is also a good lesson in where homogenizing humanity to fit some ideas of what society is will take us.

  1. What’s your top writing tip?

My top writing tip remains the same: write. You learn to run a marathon by running. And there is no rolled-up trouser leg and special handshake that will expedite you to success. You just have to write well.

Concept SciFi Interview

Here’s an interview from 2008:

1. Everyone seems to ask authors to describe at length how they got ‘into’ writing. Instead, can you sum it up in a single sentence?

I have numerous interests and, when I was in my early twenties, I decided I could be a jack of all trades but master of none or I must choose one interest to concentrate on, so I chose writing.

2. How do you approach the art of writing a novel? Are you a ‘planner’ or an improviser’?

Definitely an improviser. I know some people plan out their novels even so far as writing chapter by chapter breakdowns of the things beforehand. I can’t do this. I tried it once in pursuit of a bursary and then, when the novel concerned was taken by Macmillan (The Line of Polity), I dumped ninety per cent of it all and started again, because I was bored by knowing where it was going. You know, to a certain extent I don’t like having to write up proposals and give titles (even if provisional) for my next three-book contract, but I guess the publisher has to have something to show the accountants.

3. Some of the scenes in your novels are quite aggressive and many people have likened this to the kind of prose you’d find in a cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk novel. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, I don’t much like all these daft labels people keep coming up with. Is it post-cyberpunk, new British space opera, new weird, mundane, post-Poe new concept pre-singularity fiction? Bollocks. It’s science fiction which is essentially a sub-genre of fantasy. Everything else sounds just too damned self-important and too much like seeking critical approval of the ‘Ugh, sci-fi, that trekky squids in space nonsense!’ crowd. Screw this bowing and scraping to those whose imaginations cannot manage to extend beyond the mundane, and who found (real) science too difficult at school so went into the arts.

4. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple of things at the moment. The first is a story based on something called Rockfish, produced by Blur Studios (you can find it on You Tube), which still needs some serious hacking about and may, or may not, be turned into a movie script. The other thing is a novel for Macmillan that steps out of my usual Polity universe. The working title is The Owner of Worlds. Here’s one of those proposals I was talking about:

In my collection The Engineer ReConditioned, I introduced an immortal who is refered to by those resident on worlds usually with regressed civilizations, as the Owner, for he owns those worlds. The stories concerned were called Proctors, The Owner and Tiger Tiger, and I’ve also recently had a 20,000 word story called Owner Space accepted by Gardner Dozois for his Book Club anthology Galactic Empires. In the aforementioned stories that character is ten thousand years old, controls a spaceship the size of a moon and owns numerous worlds from which he keeps surrounding civilizations by dint of the fact that he controls a very advanced technology, is in fact melded with that technology. I would like to tell the story of how he got to that position.

5. Star Wars, Star Trek or neither?

I much enjoyed Star Wars when it first appeared because here at last were the images I saw in my mind when reading SFF, but of course that’s a very long time ago now. When the new Star Wars films appeared I enjoyed the first (especially the character Darth Maul, though that Ja Ja Binks needed strangling) then thought the second bloody silly, despite the special effects, and never bothered with the third. I think it is basically SFF for teenagers. Star Trek (original series) I enjoyed at the time, and later I did enjoy the Next Generation and might well still enjoy it. Certainly the films still grab me, in fact, I intend to watch Star Trek Nemesis some day soon and expect it’s still good.

6. You’ve written a number of short stories as well as some hugely successful novels. Which form do you prefer and why?

When I made that choice to ‘be a writer’ I started off with the inevitable fantasy trilogy. Numerous rejections later, including a short period with an agent trying to sell my stuff, I had a crack at something contemporary but, numerous rejections later…  Going via the route of various writer’s magazines I discovered the British small presses and, still with no intention of giving up, I tried my hand at short stories. In the end my first stuff was published in short story magazines (the first in Back Brain Recluse in 1986), but I continued with the novels too. I enjoy both for different reasons. Writing short stories is an excellent discipline for tightening up my writing and trying out new ideas. In a novel I can expand ideas, do some meticulous world-building and and explore intricacies of plot and character.

7. What can we expect to see from you in the future?

After Rockfish and the Owner novel I’ve will write the last book of my last three-book contract with Macmillan. The working title is ‘Gabbleducks’. Throughout all my books and short stories the gabbleducks (or the Atheter race) are often part of the scenery, but evidently a part that many find interesting. I’d like to tell a story, from the point of view of one character who has a fascination for these creatures, detailing everything known about them. It’s a story that’ll incorporate some of the events in The Line of Polity, but they’ll be background this time. After that I expect I’ll throw some more proposals at Macmillan, maybe I’ll rework the fantasy I wrote (a trilogy plus the first book of a second trilogy), maybe the contemporary novel. Certainly I’ll be producing some more short stories and there’s also the possibility of some script writing coming my way.

8. Can you tell us something of interest about yourself not related to science fiction?

Many years ago I reached green belt in Shotokan karate, which probably means no-one can build houses on me (maybe that’s a joke only understood by the British). I’m learning Greek (Cretan Greek to be specific) and expect, just like English, I’ll never stop learning it. I sang karaoke for the first time in my life last winter, and intend never to get so drunk again.

9. I you could have one piece of tech from any novel you’ve written, what would you like it to be and why?

That would be the downloading or uploading of the human mind to AI crystal either in a Golem chassis, war drone, static AI or to a new body. Either that, or I’d like to be infected with the Spatterjay virus (stretching things to call that tech), or just subject to the life-extending medical technology of the Polity. Quite simply I would like not to die, which, really, is not unreasonable. But I rather suspect the booze and cigarettes will take me off before someone works out how to plug a human mind into a computer, or how to regrow lungs and livers.

My Allowed Walk

How things change, eh? A month ago I’d paid for two further months at the gym to tide me over until I left the country. I’d bought a suitcase and was filling it with items to take off to Crete on the 19th April, three days after signing copies of The Human in Forbidden Planet in London. Then along comes COVID-19 and the shitstorm began. Shortly thereafter my gym closed and my flight was cancelled. I moved the latter to 2nd May but am not getting any hopes up. Now, rather than go to the gym I’m walking, and this post is mostly about including some text with a few photographs.

I did start writing here about the virus and the response to it, but too much has been written already and I’m a tad sick of it. Afterwards, when the dead are counted and the economic cost assessed, perhaps we’ll understand it all better, though not much better. Unfortunately, two arguments will arise in contention with each other. 1. The governments closed things down too much because the death rate didn’t warrant it. 2. If governments had not acted as they did the death rates would have been catastrophic (because my computer model says so).

Bollocks to all that. Let’s go for a ramble. Here’s some pictures from my walk yesterday:

Views across the Essex countryside all around, but for a large part of this walk I’m watching where I’m stepping at the side of the roads. Usually I’m also keeping an eye out for mad white van driver and elbow-breaking wing mirrors, but this time, not so much.

You get the idea. . .
Another one of those places, and there are many of them around me, where you say, ‘Used to be a pub’. The building on the immediate right was The Black Lion while those just beyond it used to be the car park.
Maybe a quarter of the way here and I’m still walking down beside roads, though here at least there are pavements.
At last on the track down to the River Crouch. Here I find dog walkers social distancing by about twenty feet. Perhaps they’re risk averse in Althorne.
Bleak Essex fields again. This is not Basildon Essex but rural Essex not far from the sound of banjos playing.
Passing over the railway line that to the right leads to London and to the left to Southminster. Woodpecker in the trees behind me. I wondered what the bloody noise was till I saw the holes up there in the trunks.
Blackthorn in flower. In some places the blossom lying in cracks in the roads make it look like we’d had a sprinkling of snow.
Down by the River Crouch now. I’ve picked samphire and wild spinach (or rather ‘sea beet’) down here at other times of the year. The sea wall is often decorated with hollowed out shellfish and crabs.
View towards the marina – the direction I’m heading.
The other direction towards Burnham-on-Crouch. Nice cream teas, fish and chips and cockles thataway. I’ve done the walk there a few times. I just hope I don’t get the opportunity to do it this year.
This in the boatyard of the marina. My cynical thought applicable to present times was: yeah, out of the water, up on blocks and behind a mesh fence
A crane, because I like it.
On the way back towards Althorne Station (from where I would have been departing to London in two weeks) and thence back to the roads.
View from the Lower Burnham Road towards the River Crouch.
Water tower converted into a house on that road. Not to my taste but probably a good place to live with a great view from that balcony up there. I wonder what shape the rooms are inside?


Couple of views on the way back.
Rectory Lane. Because the fields are higher on either side and there are no ditches at this point it spends a great deal of time flooded. Knowing that many streams trace the route of footpaths I reckon this will become a stream if our civilisation collapses. Happy thoughts.
American diner just around the corner from where I live. I’ve enjoyed nice breakfast in there. I wonder if it will still be in existence next year?
So there you go. I know that for most people who live in the UK the pictures above are pretty boring standard stuff. But plenty of people visit this blog from elsewhere so there’s something of interest here for some of them.
Have a good day!

Film Scenes

This from 2017. Not sure who for. . .

I guess I can be described as a ‘visual’ writer. When I think of things as I’m writing I’m not hearing the sounds or smelling the smells – they are usually an afterthought – but picturing the scene, and perhaps I don’t focus enough on how the characters are feeling. I think I do, but that’s a debate for another time. Anyway, perhaps I should have been a script writer since it is always the scene first, and the actions – on occasion I can be caught sitting at my desk doing the karate arm blocks of a fight sequence.

Perhaps this is why many scenes in favourite films have so much impact on me. I can remember years ago playing again and again, on video tape, scenes from the movie Excalibur. My particular favourites are when Arthur collects the sword from Guinevere when she is in a nunnery, the knights riding out through an orchard and falling apple blossoms, and a final one where the sword is returned to the lake, perfectly vertical as the lady of the lake catches it and silhouetted against a bloated bloody sun. Yet now, in retrospect, as I picture these in my mind I realise that the sound was important: the sound of that door slamming as Arthur leaves Guinevere’s room, Carmina Burana playing as the knights ride out and the other music throughout. Perhaps I should concentrate more on sounds…

Others that got repeated replays were scenes from Blade Runner. Again on video tape so you’ll have an idea of how long ago. Perhaps I’m a sick puppy but often it is the violent ones that get to me. When Deckard shoots the first replicant and she crashes through numerous plate glass windows, when he shoots Pris and she dies thrashing inhumanly fast. When Roy Batty kills his creator, and his descent in the elevator afterwards. But most of that film was visually gorgeous (though when I look at it now I’m thoroughly aware of how dated is the 80s chic), which is perhaps a characteristic of its director Ridley Scott. Los Angeles of the future as seen then and which is only two years away now, an owl on its perch, an origami unicorn, Roy Batty dying on a roof in the rain and releasing a dove. Damn I’m going to see if this film is available 4K or Blueray and watch it again!

Alien was a film I loved but whose effect was marred by being in the cinema with people who had seen it before. ‘Ooh, this bit!’ rather spoils the shock effect. Again this was visually gorgeous (to me) again Ridley Scott’s vision but thoroughly enhanced by the biomechanoid art of HR Giger. Of the particular scenes I most like I don’t include the ‘chest-burster’. It’s famous, I know, but to me the grotesque violence of it simply has a road-accident fascination. I like dripping chains and a frightened cat, a xenophobe woman facing ultimate horror, the journey into the Gigeresque sculpture that was the alien ship, the pilot of that ship and as ever the dripping skull-like alien head opening its teeth in strobe-light. But preferable for me are scenes in the next film: the shuttle crash is a classic and rightly so, the alien mother rampaging after Ripley and their final confrontation is awesome – I ran that final fight frame by frame once and could see no joins, Bishop jerking and looking down to see the mother alien’s tail punched through his body, and then it lifting him up and slicing him in two, the fire-fight in the colony laboratory area, ‘Let’s rock!’ and Vasquez opening up with her M56 Smart Gun, Hudson being dragged into the floor by skeletal alien hands … here I could go on and on. This film is just about as packed with the good stuff as Blade Runner.

There you go – three to four films I’ve chosen to select scenes from. Hey, but there are plenty of others. The look on Sarah Connor’s face when the Arnold terminator starts to rise after being hit with multiple shotgun blasts. The T1000 of Terminator II breaking apart as it tries to walk through liquid nitrogen, then it blown into a grotesque sculpture over a tank of molten metal. Then there’s the Glaive in the film Krull attacking the monster – a scene those familiar with my work might recognise…

Chronicle Book Box Interview

This one is from 2018 after publication of The Soldier.


What do you read for pleasure and what are you currently reading?

My preference is for science fiction and fantasy books, but I do read other stuff. Having gone through a bit of a hiatus in my reading I’m easing myself back in with some Terry Pratchett books. I’ve just finished The Hogfather and have Sourcery lined up next.

Where is your favourite place to read?

Sprawled on my sofa with my feet up on my table. Location is irrelevant, beyond it being comfortable, since I am in the book.

When and where do you do your best writing?

I have a small bedroom converted into an office where I work on a pc, in England, while in Crete I use a laptop – in both places at a desk. However, just like with reading, location is unimportant beyond it being comfortable and without distraction. That being said, I do work better in the latter location when it is without an internet connection.

This is the start of a new trilogy but not a new universe for you, what inspired these new novels?

With book upon book I’ve steadily been filling in the detail of my Polity universe. One item in this universe I wanted to expand on is something called Jain technology. In this future a hostile civilization-destroying alien technology has wiped out other alien races and threatens the Polity. I wanted to say something about this and the Jain themselves. To this end I picked up a loose thread at the end of my Cormac series concerning two characters – an enhanced human called Orlandine and an alien entity (like a small organic moon) called Dragon – and ran with it. But inspiration? There is a quote by Peter De Vries that covers this: ‘I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.’

Can you tell us a bit more about the Polity universe for anyone not familiar with it?

Humanity expanded out into the Solar System, and began expanding out into the galaxy using generation ships, when the Artificial Intelligences took power in an all but bloodless conflict called the Quiet War. Under their benevolent dictatorship, and with the development of a U-space drive for ships (faster-than-light travel) and runcible gates (instantaneous matter transmission between worlds), humanity has expanded massively into the galaxy. The Polity is a nominally utopian society in which all ills have been cured and all citizens can potentially live forever. It is packed with glittering futuristic technology that should pave the way to technological singularity, but does not. Giant ships roam between worlds and there are even those who have embarked on a million-year project to build a Dyson sphere. But the universe is a dangerous place. The Polity has survived a massive interstellar war against hostile crablike aliens called prador and is now in uneasy truce with them. AIs go rogue and can be incredibly dangerous. Separatist terrorists work against AI rule. And of course there is that Jain technology too . . .

How far are you into writing the next two novels? Can you give us any hints as what we can look forward to?

I have the next book in the trilogy, called The Warship, and am now finishing off with the edited typescript. I have also written to first draft the final book, tentatively called The Human, and am leaving that alone for a while so I can cast a new eye over it later.

How would you describe your writing process?

Ideally, when I start out on a new book, I sit down at my desk at about 8AM, read through and edit what I wrote the day before, then write 2,000 words – I do this five days a week. In reality it is not as neat as that. I sit and read science articles, I get distracted by the social media, I procrastinate, sometimes I’m too tired to work, sometimes I get bored with what I’m doing etc. Still, I do manage to stay one or two books ahead of the publisher.

How would you describe The Soldier in only 3 words?

Sensawunda and action.

A Walk on Crete

This was one done for Asimov’s last year, to be published on their blog in conjunction with my short story ‘An Alien on Crete’ in their magazine.

I wake up early in the morning, put on my shorts and T-shirt and head out into the kitchen living area. A glance out of the small window through the two-feet thick stone wall reveals the bright lime-wash painted houses of the village, but only because the street lamp up the top here seems to have a halogen bulb. It’s still dark beyond its reach. I make a cup of tea and sit at my desk. My body aches and I feel slightly nauseated. The former is because of the six mile kayak run I did along the Cretan south coast on the Libyan Sea. The latter is because, at the best of times, ice cold Mythos beer served in a frozen glass is difficult to resist after such exercise. But on the plus side I’d also got a nice email while down at the coast. It seems I not only have a story coming out in Asimov’s but now a novella in Analog. I count up, sip my tea. Is it four or five taken since I started again to write short stories?

With my present physical state I consider forgetting about the walk and making this a rest day, well, until the kayaking, but reject the idea. Finishing my tea I check out the window again. A hint of division between sky and village now? Maybe. I make a cup of fresh coffee, sit down again and pull on my walking trainers, puff on my ecig. After that I pick up my Ipad almost by instinct, but again remember I have no internet up here. I really don’t need the distraction and am getting more done without it. Putting it down again I look across at my other desk, my work desk. It’s empty of all but pens and stray paper because I hide the laptop away in case someone breaks in. Not that such stuff happens here very much. The danger of burglary is much greater in the UK. My present ‘short story’ is not so short anymore having just passed 10,000 words. I’ll need to think about what to do with it. I rattle my fingers on this desk – my dead wife’s desk where she used to do her thing – then stand up and check outside again. Maybe it will be light enough by the time I finish my coffee. Stupid to go stumbling about on the rocky tracks through the mountains in the dark. I fear the thought of twisting an ankle and not being able to walk.

I check my supplies: some tissues and a plaster to go on one blistered toe should the one on there come off. Even though I’ll be walking for eight plus miles with the temperature heading up to 30 I don’t take water. Never really felt the need. I went gorge walking with some people once who said I must carry litres of water. I took about half of what they suggested and spent much of the gorge walk nipping behind rocks to urinate.

It’s a few minutes before 6.00AM. Something like OCD, or perhaps it is OCD, kicks in and I gulp coffee, pick up my key and I am out of the door on the dot of 6.00. This is supposedly so I will know how long the walk has taken me, but I never check the time when I get back. I shlep up the path from my house, past where my car is parked by a big ugly new house being built, walk up a steep road with olive trees on my left and broom and fig on my right. Even as I reach the top of this there is enough light for the dense yellow flowers of the broom to be painfully bright. From the top of the road I can see the lights of Sitia and the sea off the North coast. A track from the corner takes me down through olive groves, up past a market garden then to the track up the hill. I’m warming up and the aches are fading, but still I feel some trepidation about what lies ahead. At the top of the mountain are wind turbines. The track going up has been concreted in places to stop it sliding away because it is so steep. I liken it to climbing about thirty staircases.

I stomp up, slowly but never stopping. Lungs soon start going like a compressor even though I am walking slowly. Olive trees are everywhere, also the thorny scrub that is the reason for Cretan national dress including thick knee-high boots. By the time I reach halfway I’m pouring sweat and take off my shirt. At the top it is cooler below the steady whoomphing of the turbines. Leaning on his stick a shepherd watches me from a promontory and I see sheep coming down the track. I change course to take another route because the sheep will run away from me and then he’ll have a bugger of a job rounding them up.

‘Kalimera,’ I say.

‘Yaa,’ he replies after a pause, as if speech is something that has escaped him up here.

After a long walk under turbines, the sun breaking over the mountains in clear blue sky, I come to the turning that will take me down. I remember seeing, in a glance, something bright green here and thinking some idiot had thrown down some rubbish. Closer inspection revealed a bright green lizard over a foot long with a snake wrapped around it. The lizard’s head was in its mouth. I watched for a while and the snake took fright, dropped its catch and slid away. The lizard looked groggy but still alive. As I walked on I did not suppose he would live long, because surely the snake would be back.

I head down. I can now see the landscape laid out below: the market gardens, vineyards, the clustered white houses of Handras, and the rocky mount with its ruins that is my turn around point. That’s Voila, pronounced ‘Voyla’, and the ruins are of the Tower of Tzen Ali – some Turkish bigwig of the Ottoman Empire. On the way down to the roads that lead there I pass a monument: a flat slab of marble with a chain fence around it and a marble monolith at the centre. It is on a rough mountain slope with nothing else around but scrub and sheep. I read the words with my mediocre Greek but only later heard the story. It’s for a guy who was a school teacher when the German army invaded. He became part of the Cretan resistance and was captured. The Nazis tortured him and buried him alive.

Through a small pine grove I reach the roads again and start heading round to Viola. As always, at the turning that takes me back there, I pause and look down at the white line beside the road. I believe in nothing supernatural but sometimes things happen in your life that are weird, to say the least. After my wife died I walked and walked. One day I felt particularly bad and decided to walk until I felt better or collapsed. The point when I did feel better was right here. I stopped and looked down. Scribed in the white line at the edge of the road, in English, are the words ‘Never Stop Writing’. I’m pretty sure it relates to white line writing, maybe a stencil in the machine, maybe something the people who paint the lines put down every now and again for whatever reason, maybe something someone else wrote, again for whatever reason. But, bloody hell, they were some of the last words my wife said to me before she died.

I walk on, past more olive trees, vineyards, market gardens, past where a spring had been routed through ancient stonework like something straight out of C S Lewis, and then on past Voila itself. Ruins are ruins – fallen stone walls – but the tower itself is interesting. Off to one side is a church, the door always open, icons and other paraphernalia inside probably hundreds of years old. A dish is scattered with money where people have paid for the candles they’ve lit. Not something I would see in Essex.

Next through Handras. Old Greek houses are here, many of them now stripped of their layer of concrete to expose the stone. Beautified. Narrow streets lead off in every direction. Dogs bark, trees are laden with oranges and lemons, and nearly every small garden or yard is a paradise of perfect plants. Another track beyond takes me past more of the local agriculture, past rusted water pump windmills devoid of their canvas sails, their water cisterns sitting nearby, past quince trees that produce rock hard fruit the size of apples. Along here, later in the year, I will be able to sample five to ten different varieties of grape as I walk. They grow in the edges like blackberries in the UK. Armeni is next, another quaint village. I walk out past a yard I remember. Here I saw a jolly fat woman in a frilly apron cradling a rabbit. It seemed a scene out of Beatrix Potter until she snapped the rabbit’s neck.

Another track, past fig trees that will later produce delicious black figs. The cicadas are screaming now. I once considered writing a book about adventures on Crete and titling it Cicada Scream. Double meaning there because yes it describes the noise, but it also describes just how crazy things can get here in the hot months. On further tracks I am glad of my sunglasses as cicadas bombard me and there are so many one is sure to hit me in the eye. I feel little splashes of liquid too as they piss on me.

Beautiful gorge on the left, winding tracks, careful now because I am tired and the loose rock on the tracks can be treacherous. I pass more gardens, low down. Someone is turning on the water for his olives. Black water pipes strew the ground in every direction. Pear trees on my right, but they are not ready yet. I go up past Agios Yorgos (Saint George’s) and am on the track for home. It is yet another beautiful little building on this island where you can point a camera and click in any direction and have a postcard picture.

Finally I stomp down the road to home, and again forget to check how long this walk has taken me. A frappe seems in order and I enjoy that while I cool down. Next a shower – sweat-soaked clothing into the washing basket – and in clean clothes I consider the rest of my day. It will be the same as yesterday and the day before, and it will be the same tomorrow. I stoop down and take my laptop from its hiding place, put it on the desk and turn it on. Writerly procrastination sends me off to make a cup of tea, but then I sit down, open the laptop, and begin.

B. Parnell Interview

Back in 2015 this one, I think.

1. Do you agree with technologists and scientists like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking that AI could be detrimental to humanity? IE, in the short term, affecting jobs and the economy and in the long term potentially dangerous?

At one time I worked in a factory filled with CNC mills and lathes. On occasion I programmed and ran a massive machine that drilled, bored, tapped and milled engine blocks using tools from a carousel containing 32 of them. Once set up it did this at a rate of a few hours per engine block. It was inhumanly fast and accurate and probably did a job it would have taken ten, if not more, skilled milling machine operators to do in the same time. So in essence the Luddites were right about machines. The same rule can be expanded for computer controlled machines and, of course, the more intelligent they get the more human jobs they can take. At present they’re taking over repetitive tasks but as time goes on your solicitor, lawyer, doctor, surveyor and many more besides will probably be artificial. I don’t see this as a problem as far as the quality of the work is concerned. However, our society will have to change radically. Quite simply, if machines are doing all the work, who earns the money to pay for that work? Capitalism would collapse and the detrimental effect might be that we would end up under some hideous centrally-controlled authoritarian socialist regime. But I can see the optimistic side too. Through technology the human condition has always improved, and the result of the above may be more utopian than dystopian, especially if that central control is by machine, who would lack many of the detrimental drives of human politicians.

As for the potential dangers long-term you first have to get aboard with ideas about the AI singularity and I’m not sure that I am. Yes, technological development has ever been on an upward exponential curve, but I’m wary of this idea of a sudden leap taking things beyond human conception. This ‘rapture of nerds’ is too much like religion for the tech-head for my liking. Yeah, we’ll get to AI, but necessarily build it from the nuts and bolts upwards and understand the process all along the way. It will impinge on our lives in much the same way as all our other technologies: science fiction one day then part of our lives the next – taken with a shrug and a, ‘What was all the fuss about?’ I also think it highly likely that as we get to AI we’ll also be upgrading humans too and there’ll be a point where, on the mental plane, it’ll be hard to distinguish us from our creations.

2. In their Future of Life open letter, Musk, Hawking and others say that AI could also be beneficial to mankind, provided that it does what we want it to do. Do you think that researching the risks will be enough to prevent adverse effects? Or do you think that creating another sentient race of any kind (robots, androids, cyborgs, software AI) can’t be risk-proofed because, by its intelligent nature, it will have its own goals and ideals?

Well they’re covering their arses both ways aren’t they? AI could be a danger and it could be beneficial. This is basically a statement that can be made about any new technology and rather undermines any point they were trying to make.

There will be dangers with AI, just as there were dangers with the car, with electricity, with the chemical industry. The biggest danger I suppose is how it is used by us. Nuclear weapons are the same – they could destroy our civilization, but only if we use them for that. Killer robots are a real possibility, if not a reality now, but the best ones are unlikely to end up in the hands of anyone who wants to destroy everything. In the end it all comes down to how they are used and how they are programmed. An artificial intelligence per se will be without the kind of evolved and sometimes destructive drives we have … unless they are put there by us. Yes, AI could develop its own goals and ideals, but I still don’t buy into the ‘rapture of nerds’ and the idea that it could become an all-powerful force. And again, I also think that by the time it’s becoming that effective we will struggle to distinguish it from ‘evolved intelligence’.

3. Do you think the development of AI is inevitable? Is it also necessary, eg for space colonisation, solving world problems like energy, climate change, etc?

It would certainly be very useful for space colonisation and many other tasks where putting a human in place can be difficult. If fact, any problem becomes more solvable the more brain power is applied to it. Yes, I think AI is inevitable. It’s arguable that it’s already here.

4. What do you think science fiction about AI can teach us about how to conduct research in the field?

Don’t leave out the ‘off’ switch?

5. Which are the most important writers of AI sci-fi and why are their works so influential? Which writers should researchers be listening to?

Science fiction plays with many ideas and by a general reading of the more up-to-date stuff researchers can glean some ideas. But the researchers are the experts, not the SF writers, and if anything the flow of ideas goes the other way. Mostly, I hope SF is something to instil enthusiasm for what they are doing in those researchers. Well in fact, in some cases, I know it is.

6. Are there lessons we can learn from sci-fi about driverless cars, autonomous drones, learning algorithms and other technologies that exist now?

Not a lot. SF writers (mostly) aren’t technologists, traffic control experts, military tacticians or high level programmers but generalists. And SF gets things wrong a damned sight more than it gets things right.

7. In your own work, something that comes up is the difficulty in creating an AI for a specific purpose (eg war drones) that is then left directionless once that purpose is over (the end of the Prador war). Do you think it’s as dangerous to create an intelligent machine that we purposely restrict as much as possible as it is to give that machine self-determination?

I guess you might end up with some problems if you repurposed a war robot as a traffic cop and didn’t take away its guns. But really I don’t think the purpose some AI has, or has been made for, will be so permanent. It’s difficult to re-educate a human trained or indoctrinated to kill because we don’t know how to take one apart and put it back together again, physically or mentally. In fact we’re only just dipping in to figuring out how we work. AIs, because we will have created and understood everything that goes into them, should be much more malleable. My war drones are really a cipher for the hardened combat veteran trying to adjust to peacetime.

8. Is there any specific part of your own work that you hope AI researchers pay attention to?

I just hope they read and enjoy it when they’re not working, and return to what they do well with enthusiasm. Though I wouldn’t mind if that enthusiasm became directed more towards memplants, mental uploading and other human enhancements.

The Ever-Expanding Polity

This one was written for the Macmillan website last year.


The Polity is a far future society run by artificial intelligences. In the early years of space travel, as we spread out into the solar system, the political make-up of humanity is a mixture of national and world (or moon) governments, and large corporations rather as depicted in The Expanse. However, unlike that series, these separate political entities – polities – employ AI for gain. During this time a scientist by the name of Iverus Skaidon direct-links his mind to the AI Craystein Computer and invents underspace travel, just before his mind blows like a fuse. The invention of this faster-than-light travel results in a diaspora from the Solar System with many groups heading out into the galaxy, usually in cryogenic storage in their ships, to set up numerous colonies. Shortly after this the AIs decide enough is enough and firmly take over. This relatively bloodless coup is later known as the Quiet War. Thereafter, during a renaissance, a second wave of humanity, guided by the AIs, spreads out into the galaxy (quite often running into that first wave). Skaidon’s technology, whose naming template is based on the poems of Edward Lear, gives the nascent Polity the runcible: gateways for instantaneous travel between worlds.

Prador Moon.

Many worlds beyond Earth are occupied by alien life, but alien intelligence seems harder to find. Polity scientists find the remains of ancient civilizations they name the Atheter, Csorians and the Jain. Remains of Jain technology soon reveal themselves to be very dangerous – the stuff growing like plants and subsuming other technology. Another alien race is not encountered until the Polity occupies a substantial area – a sphere of expansion whose breadth is the thickness of our galactic arm. The prador – giant arthropods much like a by-blow of fiddler crabs and wolf spiders – are hostile xenophobes ruled by a king. They at once attack the Polity.

The Polity, its means of travel mostly by runcible, does not have adequate ships to counter the heavily armoured prador vessels. In the ensuing war whole solar systems are wrecked, suns detonated, billions of lives lost as the Polity fights a steady retreat. However, it being anathema to them, the prador do not have AI. This turns the tide of the war as the Polity ramps up industrial production and technological development producing ships in immense factory stations: war factories. Amidst this war a human pirate called Spatterjay Hoop finds a world inhabited by a strange ecology. Leeches there transmit a complex virus which, when it infects humans, makes them rugged and near indestructible (a reusable food source for the leeches – as all the virus’s hosts). He captures millions of humans and, in alliance with the prador uses their technology to core-and-thrall the humans with prador tech, turning the victims into mindless slaves of the prador. During this operation a prador captain also becomes infected with the virus. It changes him, and his crew (his family) in many ways, one of them being an increase in intelligence. He understands the tide of the war now and, realizing the prador cannot win, returns to the Kingdom and usurps the old king, then makes a truce with the Polity. It is an uneasy truce and an area of space, devastated by the war and named the Graveyard, lies between the two realms, while Earth Central the ruling AI of the Polity, and the king of the prador, sabre rattle at each other.

Shadow of the Scorpion

In this milieu Cormac grows to adulthood, haunted by childhood memories of a sinister scorpion-shaped war drone and the burden of losses he cannot remember. Signed up with Earth Central Security he is sent out to either restore or maintain order in worlds devastated by prador bombardment. Old enemies and new dog his path to memory through the ruins left by wartime genocides, where he discovers in himself a cold capacity for violence.

The Cormac Series

Now an Agent of the Polity, Cormac is dispatched on a mission to investigate a runcible disaster that killed thirty thousand people on the world of Samarkand, and sank the world into an Ice Age. This was apparently caused by an alien entity called Dragon – a giant creature consisting of four biomech spheres miles across, who might be older than human history, or might just be a liar. Other missions ensue involving Separatist (those who want to secede from the Polity and its ruling AIs) terrorism, a rogue biophysicist, the terrifying Mr Crane – a brass android killing machine – the brutal theocracy of the planet Masada, and always the involvement of Dragon. But during these investigations Cormac finds one linking thread and uncovers a larger threat. Ancient Jain technology provides individuals with great power, even as it takes control of them. This is especially dangerous when the individuals are disenfranchised AI war machines – drones and warships – who have developed contempt for humanity.

The Spatterjay Trilogy

Many centuries after the war, the leech-infested planet now named Spatterjay, is not part of the Polity but is a ward of the same. Here living sails drape the spars of primitive sailing vessels, Old Captains, stronger than Polity Golem, sail the seas and contemplate their endless lives, while the ancient war drone Sniper looks for action. Three travellers arrive. Erlin is immortal and seeks from an Old Captain a reason to keep living. Janer is host to the hornet hive mind – a tourist. And Keech is a policeman who’s been dead for seven hundred years – but still hunts the notorious Spatterjay Hoop, who might have turned into something monstrous. But their small journeys become entangled with ancient prador agendas, the truth behind the Spatterjay virus, and the ever- present threat of Jain technology.

The Technician

More history is revealed. On the world of Masada the gabbleducks appear to be strange animals who speak nonsense in human language. They turn out to be the devolved descendants of the Atheter who, in a strange act of racial suicide, deliberately sacrificed their intelligence to escape millennia of war instigated by the Jain tech they took up. On their world too are hooders – giant vicious creatures resembling centipedes – that are in fact devolved war machines of the Atheter. It seems that this Jain tech is responsible for the destruction of them, the Csorians and the Jain themselves. Atheter technology is only somnolent, however, and activates again.


McCrooger, Polity ambassador, is ancient and tough when he comes to the worlds of Sudoria and Brumal. A cosmic super-string drifted into the system of the two planets when they were locked in war. It is packed with alien technology, or even life. For safety it was stored – in four segments – within a maximum-security space station. A female research scientist there fell pregnant and gave birth to quads before committing suicide. By the war’s end, one planet was devastated by the other’s hilldiggers – so named as their weapons can create mountain ranges. When McCrooger arrives the quads have reached adulthood, and are gaining power in post-war society. One of them has his sights set on claiming the hilldiggers and their power for himself, but is his agenda his own?

The Transformation Trilogy

The AI Penny Royal, driven insane by orders no soldier should be forced to obey and fractured into a swarm AI, is a dark presence in the Polity and the Graveyard. For payment it transforms people to their ideal, but this always turns out to be a deal with the Devil and the transformations grotesque. Has Penny Royal returned to sanity now? What are its aims? Thorvald Spear, resurrected after a hundred years, sets out intent on vengeance against this entity. But it seems Penny Royal, hunted down by the dangerous forensic AI the Brockle, might be atoning for previous sins and following a larger agenda, which leads back to the place where it lost its mind, and to a black hole.

The Gabble and Other Stories

This is a collection of short stories about some shadier corners of the Polity. Find out about the gabbleducks of Masada and the hooders, ancient races and ancient technologies resurrected, dangerous alien life forms – the hunters and the hunted.

The Rise of the Jain Trilogy

A corner of space swarms with Jain technology, a danger to all sentient life. The haiman Orlandine has made it her life’s work to contain it, and is hatching a plan to obliterate it. Dragon shares her vigil, but fears she is being manipulated by some alien intelligence. Meanwhile, Polity and prador fleets watch this sector of space, as neither can allow the other to claim its power. Things are about to change. The Jain might not be as dead as they seemed and interstellar war is just a heartbeat away.

The Polity started out in short stories in the small presses. I wanted a far future in which I could tell any story, and it grew organically without much in the way of a plan bar this. I create ecologies because the logic of the predator and its prey must be adhered to, though my preference is always for the most grotesque of the former. I visualize that ‘technology indistinguishable from magic’ and give it credence from heavy science reading. And I try to wrap all this up in stories you will enjoy and characters you’ll care about. Here then are some of the stories I’ve told in the ever-expanding Polity.

And I will be telling more.

On a final note: the Polity is not all of it. In the Owner Trilogy I tell the story of a near future and brutal dystopia, while in Cowl I venture into time-travel and a war across the ages between far future humans, to the beginning of life of Earth.