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.

Hilldiggers

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.

Enjoy!

Book Plank Interview

This one was in 2015:

Hi Neal, welcome over at The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions for us.

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Neal Asher is? What are you likes, dislikes and hobbies besides writing?

NA: Well I guess I can be defined as Neal Asher the SF writer now. As for likes, dislikes and hobbies they are all in a state of flux at the moment since I’ve gone through a life-changing event. This January’s release of Dark Intelligence also marks one year since I watched my wife die of bowel cancer. A lot of the things I used to like I just haven’t got back into e.g. I haven’t read a book for a year. A lot of the things I disliked no longer bother me much. Also my hobbies have changed. I do a lot of walking now. I spend my life divided between England and Crete so additional hobbies here are spending far too much time on Facebook and Twitter – that hasn’t changed. Out there, as well as tramping round the mountains, I swim, kayak, repair my house and grow all sorts of stuff in my garden there, but mainly chillies. I like chillies.

BP: You have been writing for quite a while now do you still know when and where you decided that you wanted to become an author?

NA: Sort of. My standard answer to is that when I was in my teens I was a Jack of all trades but master of none – I had many interests including writing. By my early to mid twenties I decided to concentrate on one of them if I was to make anything of it. I chose writing because in writing an interest in and knowledge of other stuff can be incorporated.

BP: You are one of the leading Science Fiction authors of Britain. Have you ever thought your books would be turned into such a success?

NA: I of course hoped for that but while spending 20 years running at the publishing brick wall with my head I had my doubts. By the time Macmillan took me on I’d decided that I’d been on that course for so long that it was too late to give up and try something else.

BP: The book you wrote, Gridlinked, started off the Polity universe. What gave you the idea behind the Polity universe?

NA: It grew out of the short stories I was writing before Macmillan took me on. Some of the same elements would appear in different stories, like the Runcibles, U-space, Polity AIs, the alien enemy the Prador, the Golem androids and so forth. I naturally came to the decision that I wanted everything in (kitchen sink and all) so I could have a big enough canvas on which to sketch out any story I cared to tell.

BP: In the last couple of years you have written a trilogy featuring a different universe, The Owner Trilogy. With Dark Intelligence you return back to the Polity universe. What was the thought behind this?

NA: The Owner universe is not new. I wrote a number of stories featuring this character that appeared in my collection called The Engineer (later updated to The Engineer ReConditioned). However, those stories where set far in the future, while the Owner books tell the story of his genesis. I wanted to do something different because I was aware that how by sticking to what I was doing I could become stale. I was also aware that by doing something different I could end up being pilloried by the fans. I went with it because I would rather have people complaining about the lack of a Polity book than them saying my latest Polity book is shite, because I’ve become stale. I returned to the Polity with Dark Intelligence happily, feeling refreshed.

BP: Dark Intelligence is to be published this February, if you would have to sell the book with a single sentence how would it go?

NA: What you expect from the Polity and more.

BP: Writing a story within an already established universe must have been difficult, how did you go about planning to write Dark Intelligence.

NA: I did have to do some rereading of The Technician and some other books to check detail, also a short story called Alien Archaeology that features that Dark Intelligence – the black AI Penny Royal. But beyond that I planned it like I plan all my books, which is to say not at all. For me it all happens at the keyboard.

BP: Did you encounter any difficulties when you were writing Dark Intelligence?

NA: Nothing beyond the usual i.e. occasionally having to strip out a proliferation of plot lines or remove the odd character. A story published in Asimov’s called The Other Gun was the result of that. I cut out a couple of characters and the plotline involving them and turned them into that story. I have another chunk of text like that on file which I’ll also turn into a short story too, or maybe even something longer. But overall I wrote Dark Intelligence, and the ensuing two books, very quickly. In fact I’d written the entire trilogy to first draft well before the first book of it was due for delivery to Macmillan.

BP: What was the hardest part in writing Dark Intelligence?

NA: The same as it is with any book or series of books: writing a satisfying ending. I have to tie off all my plot threads and avoid like the plague a deus ex machina. In this case I had to write such endings for each of the three books and the trilogy as a whole.

BP: Besides the hardest part, which scene, chapter or happening did you like writing about the most?

NA: Well that would be telling too much! But being vague I guess I can say the last section of the very last book…

BP: Gridlinked was published back in 2001 for the first time, do you think the vision of Science Fiction has changed in any way when you look at it now?

NA: Only in that it has continued changing as it has always changed by incorporating new technologies.

BP: Dark Intelligence marks a new series, do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue in the near future?

NA: I am setting forth on writing a follow up to the Owner books.

BP: Science Fiction is a very broad genre everything and much more is possible. What do you like most about the Science Fiction genre?

NA: Sensawunda.

BP: If you would have to give your top five favorite books, which would they be?

NA: I’m guessing you want SF books here so, off the top of my head: Half-Past Human – T J Bass, Use of Weapons – Ian M Banks, Blindsight – Peter Watts, Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan and Wyrms – Orson Scott Card. But those are just the ones that came into my mind just now. Ask me again in a few days and you’ll probably get a completely different list.

BP: and last, can you tell us a bit more about what is in store for the readers of Dark Intelligence?

NA: An intricate story concerning transformation, the effects of memory editing and war time atrocities, and the redefinition of death. All liberally spiced with far future technology, grotesque alien life, violence and exploding spaceships. As ever.

BP: Thank you very much for your time Neal and good luck with your future writing!

Counter Culture

Another one from that ‘Neal Asher Gets Rabid’ series. Sorry to say this was during my first encounters with the SFF world outside of enjoying reading books and attempting to write them. Not far off twenty years ago now.

 

It is human nature to strive to be, or to be perceived as, superior to your fellow. This striving stems from the simple imperative that if there’s someone higher up the ladder than you, then there’s still someone who can step on your fingers, or shit on you. It is the same quest for superiority that forms hierarchies in any organisation, group, or loose alliance. And it is the one that has created the ‘liter-arty intelligentsia’ (those with pretentions to being intellectual heavy-weights) who seek to rule the SFF world, and seem to think their pronouncements are holy writ. They also create slavish followers trying to squash themselves into the same mould.

On the whole they are dreadfully serious – humour is alien to them. In conversation they will often smear popular culture. If everyone likes Friends, then they don’t and will give some apparently worthy reason why. The plain silly they can own, and thereby score points: “Well actually, my favourite program is the Magic Roundabout.” The points here are for false frivolity, thereby demonstrating how though they are intelligences to be reckoned with, they can still be fun. Even better if they can attach some meaning that isn’t there: “It’s about arachnophobia and patriarchal societies, you see.”

If a group is discussing a film, they’ll always find a flaw to criticise, to demonstrate how observant they are and how so far above the work in question. However, if something is judged as being worthy by other, higher, members of the intelligentsia, they’ll hop on the same band wagon, for to say otherwise in such a case might open them to criticism. Perhaps they have not been bright enough to plumb the deep meaning of it all? You will find these same people in the Tate Modern, attaching meaning and importance to what is quite evidently crap to anyone with half a brain. Only the braver members of their kind might voice a contrary opinion, usually those ones who still have something functioning between their ears, and have yet to buy a life-time membership.

Full members live to raise themselves in the regard of others, but are caught in a fantasy of self-regard. The top ten reading lists of same will always be for the sake of appearance and intellectual poseur points. They will denigrate some of the old greats just to demonstrate how independent is their thought. They’ll forget all about the lurid SF and fantasy books that drew them into the genre, because they have of course outgrown such trash. LeGuin and Delaney will be in and Dickson and Zelazny out. They’ll definitely dislike Lord of the Rings, obviously – too many normal plebs like it (and of course the same book has to be allegorical). In their lists will be a smattering of books concerning subjects ending –ophy, ology, istry or ics, and you can guarantee that none of them will be mathematics, physics, biology or chemistry, or anything actually useful. And presently they’ll be wading through a tome produced by some obscure European philosopher and foolishly think that what insight they have is something new.

Equally, they will, when asked to list their top ten favourite films, make their selection based on how they think this will enhance their facade, not on what they actually like. Blade Runner would certainly be allowable to them, but Terminator or Terminator II would definitely be out. Battleship Potemkin is a definite, but Total Recall will cause them pain (having its source as Philip K Dick but starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). Black and white films would be in, the more obscure the better, and better still if French, subtitled and deeply ‘intellectual’. In describing their selection they’ll use the word ‘noir’ a lot, and sometimes lapse into ‘surreal’.

The defining spirit of these people is a total lack of honesty. They are pretentious: truth is not their stock in trade, for if you are truthful people might see you as you really are, and might be able to assess your intelligence, judge you. Better to lie about your intellectual gains, better to be obscure and misjudged as being deep. Better to appear to be … better.

Asimov’s Q & A

This is a Q & A Asimov’s sent me last year to run on their website when my short story ‘An Alien on Crete’ was published.

What is the story behind this piece?

Again, as is usual with me, I was ahead of my publishing contract with Macmillan having one book The Human (third book of the Rise of the Jain trilogy) ready, bar a bit of editing, for publication almost a year before I needed to hand it in. I’ve wanted to return to writing more short stories for some time, since it was through them I got my first stuff published. I also feel that the change, the discipline and the necessity for brevity are good for my writing. I can explore stuff outside of my long-running space opera series too. It also makes good business sense to expose readers who might not have heard of me to my stuff. And opportunities had arisen (which I can’t talk about) concerning the TV streaming services. So I started writing some more short stories.

How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

I am lucky enough to spend half of my year on the island of Crete and there, besides kayaking and swimming, I spend a lot of time walking in the beautiful mountains. One of the advantages of only needing a laptop, or even just pen and paper to do your job, is that you can do it anywhere. Being an SF writer I of course visualized all sorts of sensawunda stuff in those mountains: starships in the sky, alien plants growing amidst the rest, some places where you could think you were on an alien world, how the walk would be while installed in a new Golem chassis and, of course, an alien landing there. This last was the one I took – a very tiny spark of inspiration – and expanded. As they say: ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration.

Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

This is a standalone. As I noted above, writing short stories gives me a chance to explore other stuff. I have started a follow-up to it, but then meandered off into writing something else.

Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

I do relate because, well, I walk in the mountains like the protagonist and so much of what he sees is exactly what I see when I’m out there. I’ve sat drinking raki at a kazani and shopped in that butcher’s shop in Makrigialos. Some things I changed out of narrative necessity. The house in the story is very similar to mine, but there’s nowhere you can back a vehicle up close to the back door. The cisterns I see are normally quite shallow so not enough to trap a creature, though I was quite happy recently to see a deep one that fit the bill!

How did the title for this piece come to you?

It’s a very simple title. Does what it says on the tin. Though I have to add that there is a little bit of a twist there – a bit of a double meaning – because the protagonist is ‘An Alien on Crete’ since it is not his home country.

What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? What is your history with Asimov’s?

As I was working my way up through the writing world I started by getting stuff published in the small presses (while in the meantime banging off synopses and sample chapters of my books to book publishers), and gradually moved on to larger publications. In my youth I did of course read Isaac Asimov and had known about the magazine for some time. When I was a teenager my mother brought home a bunch of such publications from a charity shop for me and I loved them. Asimov’s was a prime target for me – a validation. I finally did get a story accepted when Gardner Dozois was the editor and subsequently had more taken. Titles are Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck, Alien Archaeology, The Other Gun . . . I lose track – there might be others. The cover pictures for the magazine were taken from a couple of them. Thereafter just about every one of them went on to appear in anthologies like Hartwell and Kramer’s Year’s Best SF and Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. It’s good to be back.

Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

Years and years of reading SFF had its effect. At one time I was polishing off an average of ten books a month. The acknowledgements in The Skinner (my second book from Macmillan) begin like this: Thanks to all those people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny. . .  A deep interest in the sciences and much reading of them also informs my work, and of course various excellent films. I must at least tip my hat towards Alien and Aliens, Terminator and others besides.

How much or little do current events impact your writing?

My Polity space operas are set far in the future in an AI run utopia that’s a bit rough around the edges and not quite as utopian as it should be, especially when there’s an alien race that would like to exterminate humanity and plenty of dangerous ancient alien technology lying around. Our present is their ancient past and does not impinge very much. My Owner trilogy (not in the Polity) is an extrapolation from the present day to create a dystopia, I mean, every SF writer should have a crack at a dystopia, right? In the short stories it just depends on what and when I’m writing about. An Alien on Crete depicts a little of present day Crete. A recent story called Longevity Averaging is a product of my reading on biotech developments in life extension, and likely political outfalls from that (longevity averaging is what happens to your pension). But when it comes to present events I try not to proselytize. As far as I am concerned my job is to entertain and create that good old sensawunda. It is not to use my writing as a vehicle for partisan politics.

Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

I have a trilogy called The Transformation Trilogy – Dark Intelligence, War Factory & Infinity Engine – and I think that kinda defines a lot of my work: transformation. As is expected in any book the characters will be changed by the events that occur. But I always take it a stage further with technological and organic transformations: life extension, mental uploading, downloading and editing, humans loading their minds to crystal substrates, AIs loading their minds to something organic, body switching, physical adaptation to new environments, mental expansion and cerebral additions. Throughout my stories many of my characters change in radical physical and mental ways. Why do I keep returning to this? Because I am fascinated by what we might become.

What is your process?

I’m not a planner. I don’t map out a plot first and fill up a pin board with post-it notes. I’m a seat of the pants writer. Sometimes I’ll have a vague image of where I want to get to and stuff I want to include, then I simply sit down and write, and it all happens at the keyboard. I aim to write 2,000 words a day five days a week and usually hit that target. The next day I read through the previous day’s stuff doing a bit of editing, then just continue. Times when I’m not writing like that are usually when I’m dealing with the publisher’s editing, or later on. I find that as I write, plots threads and ideas proliferate and require thinning out. I move stuff around, make alterations throughout to make it work. I blend characters together, excise characters and make additions. I often chop out large chunks and have a file called ‘BitsSF’ where I put them. These can sometimes use elsewhere. In fact a story I had published in Asimov’s The Other Gun was, initially, one such excised chunk of text.

How do you deal with writers’ block?

In the far past this was something I struggled with occasionally, but not now. I’ve spent so long being disciplined about my writing I just write. I suspect a lot of writer’s block stems from lack of confidence and an inability to tear apart something you’ve already written, as if it’s a stone sculpture near completion and you have to be careful with the chisel. Writing is nothing like that. It’s protean, disposable and can be shifted about like a magnetic montage. Whenever I hear this question a quote I vaguely remember comes to mind. It has been paraphrased quite a lot, the current Stephen King version being ‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.’

How did you break into writing?

I climbed up the entire ladder with people stepping on my fingers all the way. I started writing longhand with a fountain pen and typing on a manual typewriter when I was a teenager. The fantasy trilogy I inevitably produced did the rounds of publishers (by post) and still sits in my files. I wrote another fantasy then had a crack at something contemporary (dated now – no mobile phones or computers). I picked up a writing magazine at about this point and discovered the small presses: little A5 magazines printed from people’s home and with readerships at most of a few hundred. I started sending stories to them and, it being that only subscribers could submit stories, had to buy the magazine before submitting. I had an acceptance but the mag concerned closed before it was published. My first story appeared in a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1989, for which I got a free copy of the magazine. Onward and upward. I got a novella published by a publisher called Club 199 for which I actually got paid money, just before the publisher went bankrupt. Slightly larger magazines started paying for my stories. A small publisher did a collection called The Engineer (it can be found under the new title of The Engineer ReConditioned). I wrote a book called Gridlinked and that was to be published, the publisher went bankrupt. I wrote another called the Skinner that went nowhere. I had a novella called The Parasite published. By this time I had learned that it’s a good idea to put in reviews etc with those samples and synopses you send to publishers. Conveniently I’d just had an excellent review of The Engineer in a national magazine called SFX. I sent a colour copy of that to Macmillan along with synopsis and sample chapters of Gridlinked and later got a phone call from a very posh sounding guy called Peter Lavery who was the Editorial Director there. That was in December 1999 and by the next year I had my first three book contract. The rest as they say, is history.

What inspired you to start writing?

As I grew up I had interests in all sorts of things: painting, electronics, biology, sculpture, chemistry, microscopy and of course reading piles and piles of SFF . . . I flipped from one thing to another all the time. One day, in school, instead of the usual boring English lesson, the teacher told us to just sit and write a story, any story. Maybe she was tired and bored and wanted to take a break from the usual. I had great fun writing something completely derivative of E C Tubb’s Dumarest Saga and at the end was singled out and complemented by the teacher. Writing now became one of my interests. Later, maybe in my early twenties, I realized I would not be able to build a laser rifle, matter transmitter or create a monster, or invent some fantastic chemical process. I also looked at what was appearing in the Tate Gallery at the time and decided that if that was art it was not for me. But I was still interested in all these things and understood that in writing I could incorporate them all. That was when I made a decision to take it seriously and make it my singular goal.

What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m at about twenty-six published books now. For a while I’ve been writing trilogies and have noted that as my oeuvre grows it needs more points of access for the new reader. While working on a short story (again from that ‘BitsSF’ file) I found it expanding and it eventually turned into the first draft of a book called Jack Four. It’s a standalone set in the Polity and readers do not need to have read the other books to enjoy it. I then started another short story that grew. It’s complicated because a lot of what I was doing was telling backstory and the timeline is all over the place. But considering that Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons is one of my favorite books, I’m okay with that. It concerns the colonization of a world, human radical adaptation to that world, right at the time the Polity comes across the hostile alien prador and an interstellar war begins. This will be another standalone. I’ve nearly finished it now . . . but that’s my aim: a few standalone books set in the Polity to draw readers in. After this one, whose publication date will be over two years hence, I’ll get back to those short stories and doubtless another one will grow in the telling.

If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

My own. Yeah, some nasty stuff does happen in that future, but it’s a big wonderful universe with everything in it I love from the thousands of books I’ve read: FTL travel, matter transmission, godlike AIs, post-scarcity, human immortality and more besides. I have to add that in the Polity I created a future in which I could tell just about any story I chose. As such, the possibilities, if one were to actually live there, are endless.

What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

Right now, since I’m 58, human longevity so I can get to see Musk putting people on Mars, I can get to see the solar system of The Expanse, I can get to see the starships heading out and perhaps climb aboard one. Maybe I would get to see an alien, or stand before a panoramic window gazing out at the shifting clouds of a gas giant. Endless possibilities again, which all disappear if you’re dead.

What are you reading right now?

Frankly not enough. I wonder if I’m starting to get a bit jaded because it’s not often I’ll pick up a book and fall into it like I did in my youth. I think a problem with being a full time writer is that it’s difficult to turn off the editing head, so I find myself reading something and wanting to make corrections or alterations. I also don’t get so much time to read, what with the writing, gym visits, walking, kayaking, repairing furniture, growing chillies and my current attempt to learn Greek. I must make time!

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

Write every day. Count words. Stop thinking about ‘being a writer’ and be one. Get on with it and do it. Remember the 10,000 hours principle. There’s an analogy I use here when wannabe writers baulk at the prospect of writing a 150,000 word book. Someone who runs a marathon might well have, in their past, got out of breath walking up the stairs. But then they walked a bit further, then they started running, just a little way at first, then further and further. That’s how you do it: a bit at a time and then more and more. There’s that aphorism too: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

I write. I live in the UK in Essex half the year, and the other half on Crete. I’m a widower as of five and a half years ago, having watched my wife die of bowel cancer. One day I will write a book about my experiences on Crete and with grief. It will be called Walking to Voyla – an Ottoman ruin I walked to over a number of years while trying to get my mind straight again. Not much else.

What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

I’ve done all sorts. I’ve worked in many factories, making steel furniture and aluminium windows for houses and boats. I trained as a production engineer then toolmaker. I’ve operated all sorts of machinery like milling machines and lathes, including programming the numerical control varieties. I’ve been a builder, done council contract grass cutting, run my own business chopping trees and hedges, putting up fences and sheds, laying concrete – basically anything that came along. I’ve driven skip lorries and delivered coal, renovated motorbikes and cars – all practical stuff in essence. All of this is grist to the writing mill but I would say that the engineering background definitely shows through. I know how stuff works and can make that real in my work.

How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL…)

I have a blog at http://theskinner.blogspot.com this is also copied across to my website at nealasher.co.uk. I can be found on Twitter @nealasher and on Facebook at Neal Asher.