Reality 36 is now out in North America, so here’s an interview with me about it done by Jessica Strider, who works at The World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. Reality 36 is on display there, along with a shorter version of the below text. You can also read it on her blog.
What’s Reality 36 about?
This is a tough question to ask an author, in a way it’s really for the reader to decide this. Also, in what way ‘About’? This could mean the story, or my intention for its themes, or, as it’s SF, the world. Books are a collaboration between writer and author, and as reviews of Reality 36 have shown me, they all see different things, and judge it on different criteria. So, I’ll answer all three.
Reality 36 is the first in what I hope will be a series of detective/action/SF novels set just over one hundred years from now. The main characters are Richards, a Class 5 free-roaming artificial intelligence, and Otto Klein, a German cyborg ex-commando who served in the EU army. They run a security consultancy agency, which means they cover cases from missing persons to small-scale wars.
In this particular story, Richards and Klein are sort of bullied by the AI head of the European Police into investigating the death of Zhang Qifang, the world’s foremost AI rights activist, who appears to have been murdered more than once. As they draw closer to solving this unusual homicide, they discover a plot that puts both the Grid (VR cyberland internet thingy) and the Real (er, the real world) in danger…
Theme wise, it’s kind of about the Singularity. Some people have called this a Singularity book, which is close, but not entirely right, in a way I think of it as an Anti-Singularity book.
I don’t really believe in the Singularity as such, technology may accelerate to dizzying levels of change, but people will remain people. What Richards and Klein are living through might well be referred to as The Singularity by historians in their future, but like our own constantly changing today, to them it’s just everyday life, as all centuries and all times and all cultures are to those that exist within them, no matter how rapid or slow change is within those times. But I can say Reality 36 touches on what it means to be alive, with one of my heroes a machine that thinks it’s a man, the other a man who was made into a machine, the technology of their day throws this question into stark relief.
World-wise, I’ve tried to construct what I call a “whole cloth world”. A lot of SF uses ONE BIG IDEA that changes everything, and then examines those changes, and that idea, in-depth. This isn’t how the world works, it’s how parables work, and though somesuch SF is amazingly profound and I love it, I personally didn’t want to write parable SF. I’ve looked at economics, technology and possible political change (all inspired by history and contemporary developments) to, I hope, depict a believable future. I also don’t really believe in “collapse” or “apocalypse” (also both labels that have been applied to the book). Lots of bad stuff has happened in the future, but you know, life goes on.
As a parallel — to people from the 19th century, our world would be awe-inspiring and terrifying, much of what we think and do in the free west would appal them, as would the consequences of what they did to make our world the world it is. But we’re still here, we’re still diverse, we’re still making love and war. The same logic applies to the future depicted in Reality 36. No togas. No one big idea. No nonsense.
Of course, it’s also a kick-ass, action-packed adventure novel with loads of fights, drama and excitement! All that stuff above, that’s background, and it stays in the background. Reality 36 is a lot of fun, I hasten to add!
Has being a magazine editor helped you with regards to getting your own work published? (In terms of editing your manuscript or understanding more of the inner workings of publishing.)
Kind of, but not in the way you mean. (Background info – I’ve been a journalist since 1997, and worked on SFX, Death Ray, and White Dwarf as well as others).
Magazine and book publishing are very, very different beasts. Like, say, the difference between running a butcher’s shop and an upmarket shoe boutique, I mean, both are shops… My manuscripts are (I have been told) cleaner in terms of errors and the like, probably due to my editorial training. Having said that, I do have a good deal of insight into how book publishing works, among other things, because over the years in the course of my job as an SF journalist I’ve met and interviewed many great publishers, authors and agents, some of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends, and many of whom have given me great advice and encouragement at crucial times. Without them, I doubt the book would have been published.
Likewise, writing so many words every day for 14 years taught me some very important technical lessons that I’ve been able to bring into my fiction.
You’ve interviewed several high-profile authors for your job. Which author – living or dead – would you like to interview for fun and why?
Actually, I’ve interviewed dozens of writers, including some of the biggest names in the field, and that also taught me a lot. (Specifically, that there is no one way to write. I went into SF journalism to learn this secret. There is no one answer, kids, NO ANSWER! AIEEE! It’s like Lovecraft out there). But anyone? Ooh, HG Wells, because he was a great visionary, but also a priapic love machine (he was an early proponent of free love, and a terrible adulterer)! I’ve never really been able to square the two sides of him in my head… Or maybe Lovecraft, because I’d like to introduce him to some nice black friends of mine, get him a cup of tea, and ask him to calm down a bit.
You’ve posted a number of book reviews on your website. Do you find reviewing books makes you more critical when writing your own?
Again, because of my job I’ve actually written hundreds of reviews; there are only a few examples up on my blog, although I am trying to write more. In a way, reviewing made me less critical of my own work — not because I think it’s awesome and I am the best writer in the whole wide world EVER — but because for a very long time I was too critical of my own work, and that sent me to the pub rather than to the typewriter. And I’m not talking about the standard aspiring writer rant of: “They published this? I could do better in my sleep!” What really helped me is in reading so many hundreds of genre books, and then being forced to critically appraise them, it made me aware of what works and doesn’t in a novel, and how to form one to a specific end and market, and then to apply that to my own writing, although I stress this is all within the small cone of my own preferences.
Reviews are, after all, only opinion. But reading and writing reviews, or rather the thought behind the reviews, definitely helped sharpen my own storytelling skills up. They made me better at writing what I like, if that makes sense.
What made you want to be a writer?
I love stories. I like to be my own boss. On top of that it’s a lot safer than being a stand-up comic, which I wanted to do for years, but never had the nerve. If you’re a rubbish comedian, people throw things at you and boo. If you’re a bad writer, you can read awful reviews at home and weep in private, so cowardice might be one reason. I wanted to engage with people, I always have. It’s an approval thing. I’m a mess. You should see me repeatedly googling for reviews. It’s sad. Help me.
In the books you’ve written, who is you favourite character and why?
Tough choice. I don’t really have a favourite. Richards and Klein both, maybe.
If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?
No. Their world is in an even worse mess than ours! But like all authors, my creations are reflections of me. I’m a bit up and down. Richards is cheeky and attention seeking, Klein morose and introspective. Both are determined. Zip them together and you get a version of myself. Ahem, I should make clear that I am neither a 170 kilo military cyborg nor an advanced artificial intelligence. And I’m not German. Well, not much.
What was the first novel (published or unpublished) that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?
A book called Tales of Infinite Adam, it was basically the plot of that Jet Li film The One, but with poor comedy and lots of whining (all my early characters were drunken, self-doubting, Northern whiners, I had to write three books to get that out of my system). That took me about six years to get two-thirds of the way through, and then The One came out and spoilt it. I was there first Li, y’hear!? (Er, best not say that too loudly, he might kick my head in).
When and where do you write?
I am a new writer and a father, and thus poor. I work in a gap between my tiny house’s stair banisters and my bedroom wall on the landing. Seriously, this is God’s honest truth. I do a lot of my thinking in the shower, in that weird semi-dream state running up to a nap, and when walking my Malamute, Magnus.
What’s the best/worst thing about writing?
The life — wandering o’er hill and dale with my dog, and spending loads of time with my son (I work part-time, and look after our three-year old half the week). The opportunities for drinking… The worst is the pay. Note to self: Get more famous.
Oh, sorry, you mean writing writing? Thinking up a story is great fun, like telling a campfire tale in your head, making it work, dreaming up cool bits of dialogue — all great, and I do that a lot, and have great fun writing it up. Among others I have ideas for six more R&K novels, so please buy this one so they’ll get commissioned, folks, as I’d like to write them.
Actually getting a book down is a horrible, painful, difficult slog which is about as much fun as mining coal; except you’re a coal miner who doubts his mining ability with every painful swing of the pick. Rewriting is lots of fun again. I liken it to sculpture, only you’ve got create your own block of marble (the raw copy) before you can chisel out your statue (the redrafting). Imagine squeezing marble out of your behind… It’s metamorphic, you know, a lot of geological effort goes into making it. (Shudder).
I’m getting carried away here. It’s a great job. I love it. At least I better, it’s taken me 20 years to get here. I’m in a pickle if it’s not what I want, aren’t I?
What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?
There’s not much I didn’t know, really, as I’d had so much contact with it beforehand. Sounds immodest, but I think I had a grasp of the basics. (NB, I know NOTHING about the actualities of making and distributing and accounting a book, just the point up to where it is sent to the printers).
Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?
Write. Don’t just talk about it. Let people read it. Listen to them. Let professionals read it. Listen to them REALLY carefully. Don’t think you are brilliant when people tell you your work is rubbish repeatedly (it probably is) don’t think it’s awful when people tell you it’s great repeatedly (it most certainly is, and no, that doesn’t include what you mum, gran, or the dog says). My biggest problem with would-be writers (and I mean from before I got published) is massive, misplaced self-confidence. And never, ever, self-publish, unless you’re putting out some worthy academic tome, then it’s a useful. Those people fleece hopeful folks of cash.
And then, when you’ve taken all that on board, write some more. The actually writing part is key here. Do it lots until it is good enough.
Any tips against writers block?
Just sit down and write. I always find having too many books on the go and several deadlines helps plenty to clear blockages. I’m not sure writer’s block really exists, anyway. When I get it, it’s a mix of pathetic anxiety and bone idleness, and I kick myself hard for it. If I get tired of one book or job, there’s always another task to be done, and then I go back to whatever I’m “blocked” on (I still do magazine contracts, which helps break it up).
How do you discipline yourself to write?
How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel or story?
Um, well, dunno really. In total I’ve had like seven or eight, but for many different things. I was lucky to be mentored by a publisher for a while who saw some promise in me, and I listened to her very, very carefully (see above), and she was harsh! My eventual writings weren’t to her taste, but she helped a lot. I had one book nearly published which failed near the end of the process, that was tough, and that was done face to face, but most of the rejections I’ve had were positive, ie “You can write, this is awful/ not bad/ not quite good enough (as my career progressed), but you can write, so write something else.” In fact, nearly all of them have been the much coveted “personal rejection”. Eventually, someone said yes, then several someones said yes.
I have a lot of ideas, and the process of publication is so long —the book I referred to above, the one that nearly got there, took nigh on four years from initial interest to final, crushing refusal — that by the time people get back to me I’m on to something else rather than hanging around in a tizz waiting for approval or emotional demolition. I always reuse my ideas anyway, nothing goes to waste. Now I’ve five books coming out over the next two years, so I must be doing something right. I hope. I really like this job. Please buy my book.