You have worked in quite a few types of media, including scripts, short stories and novels. How did you get into writing novels, and how different is the writing process from our other projects?
Q&A With Neal Asher
02/08/2012 by Natasha Lavender
Neal Asher explains why reading science fiction requires intelligence and imagination
One day, in my early teens or maybe even before that, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I have a vague recollection of producing a short story called The Light Creatures, along with my own illustration, and a fantasy book with various lurid drawings of demons. But this was one of my many interests: there was the art, sculpture, an ambition to build a laser out of TV valves and other salvaged electronics, chemistry, biology ... they changed on a daily basis. Some while after that I realized I wanted to write, which is a different matter. Like so many people I started out with a fantasy trilogy and completed it (maybe in my early 20s). I even got an agent, but no joy.
Then, avidly reading anything about writing I could get my hands on, I discovered the small presses and tried my hand at short stories, I also tried out TV and film scripts but got nowhere with them. Steadily climbing up through the small presses I produced loads of short stories because those were the ones that sold, even if sometimes the payment was only a free copy of the magazine concerned. The length of what I wrote naturally expanded to longer stories, novellas and back to full-length novels, two of which, plus a proposal for a third (Gridlinked, The Skinner, The Line of Polity) were eventually taken by Macmillan.
I think I was more of a short story writer than a novelist since by books, after going under the pencil of my editor, usually ended up longer. Short stories require concision and more attention to structure if one is to deliver a punch in just a few thousand words. Novels require other disciplines like world-building, more attention to characters, a slow build of tension, more care about not wandering into dead ends and a pay-off at the conclusion commensurate with the hundred thousand or so words before. It’s a lot easier, writing novels, to find oneself waffling, and it is also easier to lose hold of the story threads since they are long and interwoven. As for TV and film scripts, they have a lot less meat on their bones. To begin with you of course have to write visually and audibly – you can’t wander into the internal world of the characters concerned – and, since you’re not the producer of the end product, you have to leave the producer and director their elbow room.
What do you enjoy the most about writing series fiction?
It has its good points and it has its bad points. It’s easier to continue with established characters, worlds you have already built, the technologies, scenes and story threads. However, half a million words into a series you really do have to remember the colour of prador blood from book one. There’s a whole lot more you have to keep encompassed in your skull, and you have to frequently check back for consistency. There’s also the boredom factor to contend with because you are increasingly constrained by what went before and so less able to go on wild flights of imagination.
After the success of your Polity novels, were you nervous about how readers would respond to a new universe? How do you begin to create them?
When I look around at other writers I see many of them confined by their fans, by their publishers, and by fear of failure, to a single narrow milieu. Continuing to write the same thing they can become dry and stale, and quite often just fade away. Also, those who followed their initial success with lots more of the same, are always punished for daring to venture off into something different. Because of this, right from the start I tried to keep myself out of the trap.
This is why you didn’t get the Cormac series delivered one book after another, or the Spatterjay series, and why various outliers like Hilldiggers and Cowl were also dropped into the mix. In itself this wasn’t too risky, since most were Polity books, but I can see how, if I had written the Cormac series first then followed it with the Spatterjay series, there would have been those protesting the change and demanding another Cormac book.
I did take a risk with Cowl and, when I delivered it, an editor’s response to someone else was: ‘We might have made a mistake here’, whereupon that book went on to be shortlisted for the Philip K Dick award. I took a risk writing Orbus in present tense, and that polarized opinion with some hating it and some thinking it my best book to date. So, I departed with The Departure (the first book of the Owner series) because I did not want to be trapped in the Polity forever. I took this risk because I didn’t want to become stale. I’ve opened up another option, another future in which to set books because I’m here to stay and intend to keep on writing books until they nail me into a coffin.
I suspect that most of those Polity fans who may dislike this book are not going to dump me at once. Maybe they won’t buy or read the next two books in this trilogy (which would be a shame because it gets a lot more sfnal), but they’ll probably pick up the next Polity book I produce (which I’m thinking of calling Penny Royal – I may have ‘departed’ but that doesn’t mean I’m never coming back to the Polity). Meanwhile, this book is attracting new people to my stuff, and it’s expanding my market, since many of those new people will go on to try my previous books.
How did I create them? I went back to some short stories I produced (in my collection The Engineer Reconditioned) generally about this character called ‘the Owner’ and decided to write about how he became what he became. Some of those stories are quite dystopian in outlook so this became a dystopia ... but, to really answer your question: I sit at the keyboard and write. That’s all.
You have said that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sparked your imagination. What about these works has most influenced your own writing?
These books, and also a lot of the fantasy I read way back when (including wonderful stuff like Zelazny’s Princes in Amber), sparked my imagination and led to the fantasy that is still sitting in my files. Other works of both SF and fantasy kept that spark burning – the list of my influences is a long one. What is it about them? They are not mundane; they all contain that element only to be found in SFF, which is best described as sensawunda.
Why do you think the wider literary world neglects science-fiction and fantasy?
Because enjoying them requires intelligence and imagination? Maybe that sounds flippant, but when I look at my readership and see just how many smart hard science types enjoy my books, I wonder. One of the barriers to reading SF is the language which most readers of it have acquired over a long period of time. They know that AI means artificial intelligence and not artificial insemination, for example. The readers are also open to new concepts, new ideas and are able to suspend disbelief. They don’t get stopped because someone is having a conversation with his gun and it speaking back because, just maybe, some of them are already writing the software. Those in the ‘wider literary world’ who neglect or dismiss SF and fantasy are poorer for doing so. I certainly don’t dismiss said wider literary world.
If you could have access to any of the technology you have created, which would you choose?
It would have to be life-extension because, once you have that, everything else becomes possible. Personally I would like to be loaded to a Golem chassis ... however, maybe you are thinking about The Departure and ensuing books...? In that case it would have to be the external back-up drive for my mind.
Your main character, Alan Saul, is a troubled figure. Do you find it more appealing to write about anti-heroes?
They are more interesting and more complicated than the archetypal good guy. In any given situation you can never be entirely sure how they are going to react, which has its shock value. And with such characters it’s easier to ask some fundamental questions about morality.
Do you feel that the politics of your novels closely reflect current events?
I think so. We have increasing state interference in our lives, increasing bureaucracy and governments increasingly accruing power and never giving it back. We have the growing monolithic power blocs, constant surveillance, robots designed to kill, technocrats being shunted into power without any of that inconvenient democracy stuff. You get the picture.
Your books often deal with humans’ close relationships with technology. Do you think there is a danger in relying too heavily on computers?
Yes and no. Too much reliance on computer storage is always in danger or something like a humdinger of a solar storm. Too much reliance on computer modelling takes researchers away from empirical testing and checking and in some cases builds fantasies that become difficult to dispel: my computer says it’s so, therefore it is so...which of course loses sight of the crap-in-crap-out rule. However, who can deny just how fast our technology is accelerating when scientists around the world can talk to each other at the push of a button and when data can be searched out in a few seconds? Who can deny how great it is when this technology is being applied physically? Ask someone in a computer-controlled exoskeleton. The good points of computers heavily outweigh the bad ones.
If you could travel to any fictional universe (from other novels or films), which would you visit?
I reckon I would have to pay a visit to Iain M. Banks’ Culture. I could quite happily spend the rest of eternity there.
Zero Point by Neal Asher is out today, published by Tor.