Simon Morden (2007)
From Death Ray 4.
Simon Morden is a scientist who, having worked his way through a varied number of jobs in a peripatetic career, now finds himself writing more often than not. A firm proponent of Sturgeon’s law, he is on a mission to bring great storytelling to the fore in his novels.
The Lost Art is an intriguing concept, why did you decide to pitch it to the children’s as opposed to the adult market?
The Lost Art was conceived and written as an adult SF book – but it piqued the interest of my publisher, David Fickling. His imprint does publish mostly children’s books, but he’s also a man with a mission: to gather the lost souls of teenage boyhood and introduce them to some cracking stories. It’s going to be one of those cross-over books he specialises in, like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which people forget won several children’s fiction awards despite (or perhaps because of) the bad language. The Lost Art has plenty of strong meat, coupled with that ‘sensawunder’ that still makes me smile when I find it in other books. I hope it appeals to kids of all ages.
Your biography says you are a bona fide ‘rocket scientist’. What does your work involve?
My PhD was in planetary geophysics and my thesis was titled The implications of the magnetism of chrondritic meteorites. I spent two more years doing further research, and if you buy me a drink I can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about early solar system processes. But all good things come to an end: the grant money ran out, and I spent several years in a series of weird jobs, before becoming a full-time househusband looking after my kids. I teach part-time at their primary school, where I’m responsible for answering all the difficult science questions that come up.
How did this lead to writing SF?
It’s almost the other way around: reading SF lead me to become a scientist. I was a horribly precocious child who started on science fiction at a young age. One of the first I picked up was a Harry Harrison story. That put me on the right path for the next thirty years or so, and I see no reason to change direction just yet. As for writing, I finished a novel at the same time as my thesis – fantasy, because it was so different to my studies – and fortunately the thesis was more impressive. That first novel is in a drawer slowly turning into coal, but I had caught the bug: I wrote another novel, SF this time (also unpublished and unpublishable), and just kept on going. I finally sold a short story in 1998, eight years after that first novel. I don’t whether you’d call it persistence or sheer bloody-mindedness. But it was a good apprenticeship, all the same.
In your book, the Earth’s axis is reversed, essentially turning the world ‘upside down’. Would you explain to our readers how this happened, and what the effects are in the story?
The world is, literally, upside down. North is south, and the sun rises in the west. It’s meant to discomfort and draw a line under what has gone before – the present age – so that both we and the hero Benzamir are in a place which is at the same time familiar and strangely different. How this happens is through the phenomenon of geomagnetic reversal, where the magnetic poles flip: the planet stays exactly the same except all our compasses point in the wrong direction.
What would be the consequences if this happened for real?
Geomagnetic reversal isn’t something I made up, either. It’s happened hundreds, if not thousands of times before – the record of these events is found in the rocks beneath our feet but not in our written history. What’s believed to happen is that the magnetic field which is generated at the Earth’s core falls to zero and then grows again in the opposite direction. Why it happens is unknown, as is what happens when it does, which means SF writers like me can use and abuse the event for their own nefarious ends, with little fear of contradiction. It’s unlikely that the world will be consumed in fire, or that it’ll rain frogs. But I’ll no longer live south of the river.
The book references a number of human cultures, but Arabs appear to feature more heavily than most. What attracts you to their culture?
When I write, I have characters who turn up and inhabit my stories. It just so happened that Benzamir wanted to see where his ancestors lived – what is now Morocco, and what will become the southern coast of Africa on the shores of the Inner Sea. Inevitably he makes both friends and enemies, and through him we get to see a little of their incredibly complex, sophisticated and ancient culture which he might have once belonged to but has to look at with an outsider’s eyes. It’s also become abundantly clear that having a bunch of Arabs saving the world is more than a little perverse in the current political climate: that rather appeals to me.
You seem quite forceful in your opinions about SF being a useful form of literature. Why do you think it is sometimes look down upon by the mainstream arts crowd?
Excuse me while I saddle up my hobby-horse and climb on. SF was the major literary art form of the twentieth century. It changed the way we behaved, the way we saw both the present and the future, and it even changed our language. Forget the rest of the world for a moment, the cultural heritage of Britain would be significantly different if it wasn’t for powerful, insightful, wonderful fiction like War of the Worlds, Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World, or Day of the Triffids. So how did we get to the point where there’s a tendency amongst some critics to say a book is too good to be science fiction? Is it snobbery or is it ignorance? Whichever, it’s at its most obvious when a usually non-genre writer produces a book that is plainly SF but bends over backwards to deny that it is. We can all think of a few guilty names: hand on heart, I’m never going to be one of them. I owe science fiction an enormous debt that I’ll try very hard to repay.