Interview from way back in 2004.
Hello Neal. What made you want to be a writer?
When I was a school kid, I would one day be taking apart an old television and finding out how thermionic valves work, the next day painting a picture or making a model out of Tetrion wall-filler, and the day after that peering through my microscope at something scraped off the window ledge, or discovering that a particular mixture of table salt and copper sulphate in solution violently dissolves aluminium. My interests were all over the place and unfocused. So it wasn’t surprising that, after a school teacher praised a story I’d written in a creative writing class, writing was added to the list. My varied interests continued after I left school, with the addition of beer drinking, smoking, and women. At some point in my late teens or early twenties I decided to focus on one thing and not be a Jack of all trades and master of none. I chose writing, SF & Fantasy because that was what I read. A good choice because it incorporated all my other interests.
When and with what did you make your first pro sale?
Pro sale? My first sale was a short story called ‘Another England’ to BBR (Back Brain Recluse) in 1989. I’d been writing for a long time before that, producing the inevitable ‘fantasy trilogy’ and revising it endlessly. I then discovered the small presses and started trying to write short stories for that market. The BBR story can’t really be called a professional sale because then it was an A5 mag and the payment one free copy. My first real professional sale was the novella (written doing the rounds of a postal workshop) Mindgames: Fool’s Mate. For that I received a one-off payment of £1000. It was published in 1992 by Club 199. Then more short story sales followed along with sales to the publisher Tanjen.
Before exploding onto the scene with ‘Gridlinked’ in 2001, you spent a
couple of decades working through the small presses. Do you think your work
is better for the long run-up?
I think so. I’ve been writing for a long time and that experience tells (I hope), and I did that without much expectation of reward, absorbed the disappointments, and just got on with it. I think many writers who are taken on younger, when they’ve produced only a little work, find it difficult to knuckle down to the next book. I don’t. By the time Macmillan published me I’d written seven novels (unpublished). Gridlinked and The Skinner were sort of done at 70 and 80 thousand words respectively. I’d was about 30,000 words into The Line of Polity (though I abandoned them when I came to write it out properly) and I’d written a novella called ‘Cowl at the Beginning’ which became Cowl. Those years climbing up the ladder also brought home to me how lucky and privileged I was to be taken on by a large publisher. If it seems easy, then you’ve less inclination to work hard at making a success of it. Twenty plus years of rejections sit behind my attitude to the business of writing.
You’ve recently become a full-time writer. Is it strange having no other
work to think about?
It’s surprising how quickly I got used to it. What may have helped was that prior to Macmillan I was self-employed, grafting for wages in the Summer and writing in the Winter. The greatest difficulty has been keeping the weight off having gone from a physical job to sitting in front of a pc all the time, and a tendency to sometimes go a little stir crazy.
How much planning do you do before you sit down to write a story?
Very little. With The Line of Polity I actually went after a bursary (didn’t get it). To do that I needed to send in sample chapters and a synopsis. When I came to write the book for Macmillan I abandoned the synopsis and most of those first chapters (the 30,000 words mentioned before). I did this because I felt constrained and bored by knowing where the story went. For me writing is just as much a process of discovery as reading.
Roughly how long does it take for you to write a novel?
That’s a difficult one to answer. I aim for 10,000 words a week. Some weeks I manage that. Others I don’t. I’d guess at about six months to the first draft, then I spend a month editing (at one point I actually read it backwards a paragraph at a time — you don’t get involved in the story that way and pick up mistakes easier). Then I get people to read it, correct the mistakes they pick up, make additions, subtractions … Maybe eight or nine months. Roughly. Very roughly. Cowl was 125,000 words and The Line of Polity 175,000, so you can see there’s some variation.
Your books have a great deal of new technology and sciences in them, but you
have no formal scientific training. Does this lack of background help or
hinder your research?
My background was in engineering so I’ve that body of knowledge to call on: mathematics, metallurgy, manufacturing, toolmaking, programming computerised machine tools etc — the nuts & bolts end of our technical civilization. I read a lot of science books and magazines and like to think some of it takes root between my ears. I’ve also the background of both my parents being teachers — my mother a school teacher and my father a lecturer in applied mathematics — and the greatest knowledge any teacher can impart is how to think. Formal training may well have hindered me by narrowing my focus. It could negate that eclecticism that writing is all about. But I don’t really know. I do know that receiving such training I probably would not have become a writer. I would now be peering down that microscope, or delving into the guts of computers, or mixing exotic chemicals in a laboratory…
If we’re to believe George W. Bush, man could be treading on Martian soil in
the not too distant future. Is space exploration important, in your opinion?
Yes it is important. It would hugely advance our technology and as a consequence the quality of our lives. It would give us new places to live, grander vistas for the human imagination, a greater understanding of the universe, the possibility of the human race surviving to the end of the universe (and maybe beyond that). But what’s the alternative? Do we just sit on this planet gazing into our navels until the sun goes out? If our only reason for being, is just being, then we’ve no right to set ourselves any higher than any other animals on this planet.
Your fourth novel, ‘Cowl’, is out now. What attracted you about writing a
time travel book?
I’m awed by the sheer scale of Earth’s history. To pick up a fossil on a beach and think that this was alive two hundred million years ago. To try and grasp the epic timescales involved: 170 million years of dinosaurs, 65 million years of mammals, and all that time is what? About an eighteenth of the time life has existed on Earth? What does a million years mean? It’s like trying to grasp what a light year means. So try four and half billion years. I wanted to bring some essence of that into a book. It’s the sensawunda that drew me to SF in the first place. I’ve found it before (concerning time travel) in the like of Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station, but not in many other books. Most time travel stories seem to be set within recent human history, the last piddling few thousands of years.
Time travel is one of SF’s more tricky sub-genres. How did you come up with
your time travel technology?
The first step was to try and get round the ‘if I shoot my father before I’m born’ paradox. I tried to put together a theory relating time travel to energy usage, just like space travel (Simply put, you can’t travel faster than light because that would require infinite energy — kind of cosmic brake). Somewhere I’d read the idea that creating a paradox will shove you into a parallel timeline. But if time travel is possible, travellers can travel from all timelines, create paradoxes and shove themselves into other timelines. You’d end up with infinite timelines and travellers — we’d be up to our necks in the buggers. My way around that was the probability slope. Along the main timeline at the top of the slope time travel is possible. Creating paradoxes shoves you down the slope into parallels where it becomes less probable. To get back up to the main line requires an increasing amount of energy. The greater the paradox you create, the further down the slope you get pushed. At the bottom of the slope infinite energy is required to time travel. I then incorporated the idea that time travel is only possible throughout those ages when life was on Earth, that certain kinds of energy are created by the complex molecular interchanges involved. Gasp! I then disappeared in a puff of my own logic.
If you had one of Cowl’s ‘tors’ attached to your arm and could travel
through time, what would you do? Would you advise your former self?
I’m quite satisfied with my life as it stands. I might nip back a few weeks and advise my earlier self of the lottery numbers. But then, would I have sufficient energy to labour up the probability slope to return and enjoy the money? Perhaps I’d go further back and tell my young self to put out that fag. It’s the ‘if only I knew then what I know now’ syndrome. But regarding the smoking: if I hadn’t smoked, rather than lighting up a fag I might have stepped off the kerb earlier in front of a bus.
Your most popular novels are those of future action hero, Ian Cormac, who
you introduced us to in ‘Gridlinked’ and continued with more recently in
‘Line Of Polity’. Is there a limit to what you can write about him and the
The simple answer has to be no. But I may get fed up with writing the Polity books and want to do something else (publisher permitting). Maybe more about the Umbrathane and Heliothane, maybe some stand alone works set in some entirely different future (or past) world. My original intention was four books concerning Cormac, one for each Dragon sphere, but now there’s Jain technology to contend with…
‘Line of Polity’ saw Cormac move from the small numbers conflict of
‘Gridlinked’ to a much larger, planet-wide civil war. Did this change in
scope have anything to do with current events?
Not current events, no. Events as they have always been. ‘Those who fail to learn the lesson of history are damned to repeat it.’ How often should that be repeated? Shock and awe, Mr Rumsfeld? Ever heard of the Blitz? Aaargh, don’t get me started!
Both in ‘Cowl’, where Polly and Tack are re-educated as they go back in
time, and the physicist Skellor’s nanotechnology mutations in ‘Line Of
Polity’, characters end up as totally different people at the end of the
book. Do you think it’s possible to reach a stage where personality is as
designable as everything else?
Definitely. We do it with drugs, education and indoctrination now. We’re just not very good at it yet. Factor in technologies to alter the brain, reprogram the mind, make additions. I think it the case that anything that has been created it will be possible for us to create, and change. The sky is not the limit – far too close.
Artificial Intelligences play a major role in your Polity novels, taking a
lot of the responsibility for running governments and systems from
politicians. Do you think we will ever see a machine pass the Turing test
and perform the same function in our world?
We’re not far off creating machines that can beat the Turing test now, and there are human being about now who could not. But what does that mean? As in my books, the test of intelligence/sentience will change as we learn more. The goalposts will keep changing. As to machines running governments, what would the requirements be? I don’t suppose the ability to lie and talk bollocks would be all that difficult to program in.
Do you think people are right to be wary of machines replacing us?
I guess so, in view of the fact that we would be creating the machines in the first place and they might take on our nasty traits. I do, however, buy into the Banksian credo that the machines are quite likely to be better than us. No glands.
I take it you’re already writing your next book. Can you tell us anything
Well, I’ve completed Brass Man, which follows on from The Line of Polity. That’s due to come out next April. I’m now in the process of editing The Voyage of the Sable Keech which follows The Skinner. The title Brass Man, for those who have read Gridlinked, is probably a bit of a giveaway. As a far as Sable is concerned I can say that Sniper’s back, the Prador are going for a bit of ‘shock and awe’, and a schizoid hive mind is on the scene.
What books & authors have had the most influence on your writing?
My stock reply to that, which you’ll find in the acknowledgements of The Skinner, is that list of names stretching from Aldiss to Zelazny. I’ve also stuck some top tens up here and there: one on the Guardian website and one on Zone SF. The trouble is that as soon as I start to list them I find there are many I’ve missed. Best to just say many many writers and many many books – not all fantasy and SF.
You mention in your biography that you began writing fantasy. Do you ever
plan returning to the genre?
My plan is to some time return to that fantasy I’ve written and rewrite it. When I’ve got the time … Other things get in the way though. I know I’ve got to write more stories, novellas and the next novel for Macmillan. Only in the last couple of days someone has been after me to produce some Polity novellas to publish in a collection. Maybe I’ll return to the fantasy when all the other wells run dry, which I hope never happens.
With yourself, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and Ken Macloed, among
others, hitting their stride in the hard-SF genre, British science fiction
is looking good at the moment. Is this a trend you see continuing?
All I can say is that I hope so. Possibly it will, simply because SF is coming more and more into the mainstream via film and television. I know I certainly want to see more books from the above mentioned writers.
Is there any advice you can give to upcoming writers?
A writer writes. He doesn’t agonise about being a writer. Learn your craft and don’t stop reading. Don’t spend all your time on the great novel – try other markets. Never think you have nothing more to learn. Concentrate on telling a story, not on demonstrating how intellectually superior you are. The best writers are invisible. I feel a ‘How to’ book coming on…
Thanks for your time.
Regards, Tomas L. Martin