Saturday, March 19, 2011

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (10)

In the middle of one of my favourite films, Wim Wender's Paris, Texas, the central character, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), has a strange encounter on a freeway overpass. Travis, who's been missing for four years, has been brought to Los Angeles by his brother Walt after wandering into a bar in the Texas badlands and collapsing. He slowly recovers his memory and is reintroduced to his young son, Hunter, who has been raised by Walt and his wife. When Travis decides that he has to find his estranged wife, he and Hunter leave together on a road trip back to Texas. The encounter happens just before they start off, during one of Travis's long, lonely walks:

It's as if Paris, Texas briefly intersects with another film - an SF disaster epic in which the unheeded warnings of a crazy man turn out to be prophetic. And yet it also fits in with the outsider view of America - the emptiness of its landscapes; the unceasing rush of its roads; the everyday surreality - that's so beautifully captured by Wenders and his cinematographer, Robbie Mueller. In that context, the idea of meeting a raggedy prophet of a science-fictional disaster is no stranger than, say, the shot in which the camera pans to reveal two giant dinosaurs in the parking lot of a truck stop in San Bernadino.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


New French magazine Yggdrasil recently interviewed me about The Quiet War for its forthcoming first issue. Here's the English version, by kind permission of editor Jean-Francois Micard, who asked the questions:

Yggdrasil: The Quiet War is a space opera situated in the near future and in our solar system. Was it important for you to stay close to the predictable reality?
Paul McAuley: It was important to stay close to known reality rather than predictable reality. I don’t believe that SF is in the prediction business. Instead, it should be exploring the vast range of possibilities that open up from signs and wonders in the present. As far as The Quiet War is concerned, I felt that it was important to stay close to known reality rather than predictable reality for two reasons. First, the novel was inspired in part by the images of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn sent back by the Viking 1 and 2, Galileo and Cassini spacecraft. By the tremendous variety of the landscapes of the moons, by the deep and strange histories implied by their forms, and by their sheer unexpected strangeness. By the subsurface ocean of Europa, the sulphur volcanoes of Io, the geysers of Enceladus, the vast equatorial mountain range of Iapetus, the lakes and dunes and cryovolcanoes of Titan, and much more. Second, I like to have a link between the present we all share and the futures of my various novels. It’s important to me - if not to the reader - to know how we might get from here to there.

In this future, the world supremacy switched to Brazil, which gave you an alternate point of view about the world. Do you think that after decades of European / US-led SF, the time is right for an SF that explores other areas of the world, like in The Quiet War, or Brazil or River of Gods from Ian McDonald for instance?
Futures in which Anglocentric late-stage capitalism are by no means the only possible futures. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. My first three novels shared a future history in which another version of a Greater Brazil became the dominant political force on Earth. But yes, the time is definitely right, now. The Cold War ended two decades ago. America is still the only world superpower, but China and India are catching up fast.  And who knows how the democratic revolutions in the Middle East might revitalise Arabic culture?

Your work as a whole goes through a lot of settings, from space opera to techno-thriller, or even noir steampunk. Is it necessary for you to move through genres like this rather than settle in one and develop from there?
It’s necessary for me to write the book I want to write next. Commercially, it might have been better for my career if I had expanded the star-spanning space-opera future of my first three novels, but instead I wrote a novel about Mars, and then an alternate history involving Leonardo da Vinci. Because I’ve been interested in Mars for as long as I can remember (one of the first SF novels I ever read was HG Wells’ War of the Worlds); because I wanted to write a novel about Renaissance Florence. At one point I was pushed towards techno- thrillers, but the kind of techno-thriller I wrote were, typically for an SF writer, pro-science rather than Awful Warnings. I’m also an avid reader of crime novels, and when I was given the opportunity to write a crime novel I seized it. One day I’d like to write another. Meanwhile, I’m having a lot of fun with my new space opera future history.

You work for years as a scientist, and The Quiet War is full of very precise scientific details. Is it important for you to have this amount of accurate details?
Because I know a little about scientists and scientific culture, I try to get that right - especially as there aren’t that many novels about science, and scientists, even in SF, and it’s a big and important area of human endeavour. And because many of my SF novels are about how humans find ways of living in new landscapes, I like to get those details right, when the landscapes are real. I wanted, in The Quiet War, to get as close as possible to standing on the surface of Dione, or tramping through a riverine canyon on Titan. I wanted the experience in close up: what things look like, the way hills and craters were shaped, and so on. Along with travel writing, science fiction and fantasy are the last refuge of the pastoral.

Do you keep up to date personally with new scientific discoveries and theories?
I try. All SF writers should try keep up to date with that kind of thing, shouldn’t they? I follow developments in fields I am interested in, and I am also a big believer in serendipity - in the happy accident, in stumbling over something that fits into the narrative I happen to be constructing. The internet is very useful in that regard.

Sri Hong Owen and Averne are called (in French) sorcières génétiques. Do you think that, ultimately, science is akin to magic / witchcraft?
Not at all.  The whole point of scientific experiments is that they can, in theory, be replicated by anyone. That’s why scientific papers can be dull and baffling to the layreader - they contain all kinds of detail required to make such replication possible. Science allows industrialisation and mass production because it defines predictable cause and effect based on shared observations and experiments. Magic on the other hand is personal. Every operator has different skills not shared by others, and every operation is as unique as a handwritten book.

Contrary to what a lot of people believe, you prove here than each moon has its own characteristics, and influence its settlers. When many writers just invent new world, do you take more pleasure in building them around accountable facts?
It’s much more satisfying, for me, to have a map. No matter how sketchy. The map does not of course contain every detail. It is not the territory it represents. But it provides a framework within which the imagination can work. Without that framework, when anything is possible, and while you might say that the imagination should be free to create anything it wants, if anything is possible then nothing is of any real value.

The Quiet War is about a war that doesn't have the fury of 'traditional' wars, it's mainly about micro-actions like sabotage and bacteria. Do you feel the wars of the future will have that dimension?
They’re already growing in that direction. 9/11. The stuxnet worm attacking the software that controls Iranian nuclear facilities. Drones. The idea of netwar - conflicts that are not controlled from the top down, like conventional armies, but are organised in all-channel networks.

It's not really a war in the traditional sense about territories and resources, but more about what kind of future wants humanity. It's also an exploration of different social/political/philosophical systems, Earth being settled in an ecological conservatism when the extraterrestrial colonies evolved into various social systems. Which one is your favourite?
The idea of city states in which every citizen has a share in the commons, and can influence the direction and development of their society by earning social value through good works is to me very appealing. And so is the idea that in the near future the human race will face up to what it has done to the Earth, and start to make amends. But in The Quiet War, the green movement has been hijacked by nondemocratic cabals and turned into an ideology that excuses all kinds of repression, so it wouldn’t be a very comfortable place to live. Although readers of both novels will find that things do change . . .

Each of the colonies are, in essence, an utopia. Is it harder to write about utopias rather than dystopias?
It’s much harder to write about uptopias because it’s hard to make them nteresting. If a place is perfect, and everyone is happy, what happens? Ordinary everyday human dramas, of course, and these are fine and enduring subjects for the novelist, but perfect utopias are fixed places. Nothing changes. Novels about them too often lapse into long descriptions of the plumbing system, and guided tours of the munipal steam creche and the balloon works. Fortunately, the cities and settlements of The Quiet War’s outer system are flawed utopias. They are tested by pressures from within and without, and the drama in the two novels is derived from how they resist those pressures, how they fail, how they adapt.

You began the novel as several short stories in that universe, do you plan to expand it beyond The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun? With other novels? Short stories?
I’ve just finished a novel called In The Mouth of the Whale, that extends the history of The Quiet War and the Gardens of the Sun across a leap of some twelve hundred years, and looks towards the history of the human species way beyond that. It’s set in the dust ring of Fomalhaut, and the atmosphere of a gas giant that’s believed to orbit that star. And right now I’m working on a novel set at about the same time as In The Mouth of the Whale, but in the Solar System.

Monday, March 14, 2011


The Grand Staircase of the St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel, which is about to open after years of renovation.  I have a tender spot for the place: it was the setting for the opening of my novel Fairyland, and very early on its hapless hero sweeps down this very staircase:
Gilbert Scott's great curving stair takes Alex down to the busy lobby.  He shakes out his black, wide-brimmed hat (yeah, Oscar Wilde) and claps it onto his head, trying to look nonchalant despite the ball of acid cramping his stomach.  A doorman in plum uniform and top hat opens a polished plate glass door and Alex walks out into bronze sunlight and the roar of traffic shuddering along Euston Road.

To the north, black rainclouds are boiling up, bunching and streaming as if on fast-forward.  There's a charge in the air; everyone is walking quickly, despite the heavy heat. Every other person carries an umbrella.  It's monsoon weather.
Fairyland was published sixteen years ago, while the hotel was still more or less a wreck (a great collection of pre-renovation photographs can be found here, showing what it looked like when I visited it, during a Christmas Art Fair, about a decade ago).  Fifteen years ago, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award - the first but by no means the last Clarke Award success for my publisher, Gollancz.  To celebrate the anniversary, and the e-publication of various of my backlist titles, including Fairyland, there's a bit of promotion going on at their site right now, complete with a competition.  Adam Roberts has put up a generous and long review of Fairyland (first published in a book about Clarke Award winners) on his blog, and there'll be other stuff turning up here and there too, including a special Gollancz newsletter, and some kind of competition for free books right here on the blog, towards the end of this week.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Via Talking Points Memo I came across a report of some crass eugenic-speak from a recently-elected New Hampshire State Representative, coupled with an unfortunate reference to a late SF author:
A 91-year-old freshman state representative has angered a Dover Community Partners staffer for his comments he doesn't support state funding for "the crazy people" who should be sent to "Siberia."...

Martin Harty of Barrington made the comments to Sharon Omand, a program manager at Community Partners, which provides behavioral health and developmental services for Strafford County. Omand had called Harty and other legislators to discuss measures in the proposed House Republican state budget that would make significant cuts to mental health services.

Omand told Foster's that Harty told her he disagreed with her about the need for funds for mental health services and he believed in eugenics.

"The world population has gotten too big and the world is being inherited by too many defective people," he told her.
Where does he get his ideas?
Explaining his thoughts, Harty said one of his main concerns is population explosion, and he is wary of funding a social issue that can't really be helped...
Harty referenced science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and his stories about a pending population explosion as someone whose messages he is "in tune with."
When I sent the link to a few usual suspects, Eileen Gunn pointed out that Harty was most likely channelling Cyril Kornbluth's satirical short story 'The Marching Morons', in which the US has become populated by lowbrows kept content by shoddy consumer goods and pointless jobs. In fact, Harty's idea about sending inverts Kornbluth's scenario: in 'The Marching Morons', the high-IQ elite have set up an Arctic retreat from the stresses of trying to run the US. As for Harty's claim of 'being in tune with' Asimov's messages about the population explosion, I really don't think so. Asimov, ever the rationalist, believed that the solution to over-population lay in promoting voluntary contraception, encouraging homosexuality, and world government. Not, I think, the typical views of a Republican - even of the New Hampshire variety.

Question - I have a vague memory, exclusive of title and author, of a short story in which criminals were sent to a walled territory to do as they would. Anyone know anything about this? Or of any SF scenario, apart from HG Wells' 'The Country of the Blind' or John  Varley's 'The Persistence of Vision' where the differently-abled have either volunteered for, or have been driven into, exile?
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