Stephen Baxter (2007)

This interview with Stephen Baxter was originally published in Death Ray 07 in late 2007. It was conducted to publicise his book, H-Bomb Girl, and was published before the death Arthur C Clarke, with whom Baxter talks about working below.

Q&A Stephen Baxter

The Scouse author’s latest book takes him tumbling back in time to 1960’s Liverpool and the palm-sweating height of the Cuban missile crisis. Only it’s just that little bit different. Yep, the bone fide scientist (he has three degrees) and scribe of fantastical far futures is exploring his other favourite subject, alternate histories, once more.

Guy Haley: Unlike a lot of authors, who tend to write in one world or on one theme,  you often change subject matter between hard SF and alternative history. Why is this?

Stephen Baxter: I think that’s true, and it doesn’t always do me the best of favours. Changing your strategy isn’t very good for your publishers. It goes back to right at the beginning of my career, my first couple of novels were hard SF, and I think that that’s my basic brand, but my third novel was Anti-Ice, which was an alternate history, of the kind that H-Bomb Girl is. I think it’s better to have a wider range of inetrests and I like to keep myself fresh by finding new ways of telling stories, and new avenues to explore.

GH: Do you get bored then, with one creation?

SB: I wouldn’t say bored, each book is the best book I’ve got in me at the time if, but I have to rip myself out of one particular thing after a while, when I’ve mined the seam, and move onto something entirely different. In fact I’ve been prolific the last few years, a couple of books a year, and that’s partly by alternating – I have a hard SF series on the go and then young adult like H-Bomb Girl or the Mammoth books.

GH: You’re working very hard. The third Time’s Tapestry book has just come out, and now this. That’s a lot of writing.

SB: I’ve always had a work ethic. I didn’t give up my day job until after The Timeships was published. I was working full-time up to that point, I was commuting to London as well, so I was working in the evenings and the weekends. I’ve always tried to keep to the habit of using time well.

GH: What attracts you to alternate history?

SB: I’ve always been interested in history for as long as I have been interested in science, and then alternate history is the different possibilities and the contingency of everything. I mean, you look back in your own life and see how things could have been different if you’d made a different choice – like meeting your wife for the first time, if you’d stayed at home that day things would have been entirely different. The present is as contingent as the future.

And the notion of the past as well is very interesting. I mean, trying to write my way into Liverpool of 1962, it’s like an alien planet, everything’s different. I think the mobile phone especially is a huge disjunction between the present and the past, I expect 1985 was a lot more like 1962 than now, just because the phones and other communication technologies have changed everything about the way we live.

One of my impulses behind H-Bomb Girl is that in each age we have an apocalypse, the moment it’s the green apocalypse isn’t it, where we’ll be fighting over the last scraps of water in 100 years’ time, but when I was growing up it was the Cold War. We weren’t going to grow old because the computers were going to unleash a nuclear holocaust that was going to just end everything. Absolutely terrifying. And I think looking back to the previous generation, for them it was the Second World War. The pre-war generation were terrified of the coming war. Well, it was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Each generation has a horror show ahead. So I thought it might be interesting to write for a modern generation of teenagers about the fears of a previous generation of teenagers. I wouldn’t want to diminish the challenges of climate change, but I suspect we’re going to muddle through somehow.

GH: Will you be working with Arthur C Clarke again?

SB: Yes, in fact we’ve been working on another new book, the Time Odyssey Series. It’s called First Born and it’s going to be out next year from Gollancz.

GH: How do these collaborations work?

SB: They generally start with a four or five-page outline from Clarke, but they’re really open-ended, you’ll have what becomes the kind of first chapter and plot threads, but generally without a resolution, so then we bounce that backwards and forwards by email until we’ve got an outline that we agree with and then off we go.

He was ninety this year. I’ll be happy if I’m as mentally active as he is when I’m that age.

GH: You are from Liverpool. What was it like going back in time?

SB: Well, I wasn’t even five when the Cuban Missile Crisis kicked off, so in a way it was looking back to a time just before I can remember really. So it was interesting. It’s not autobiographical but it’s like that. It’s looking at a place I know well bu through different eyes and describing it from an outsider’s point of view.

The great thing that I turned up in research from my point of view was that the Beatles played in my old school! In 1961, in one of their many sort of cavern era mini-gigs. It was a Christian brothers school and they got thrown out apparently. All the teddy boys rioted. I didn’t see my school in the same way after that, I’d stood on the same stage where the Beatles played. That era’s become a bit mummified in a way, sentimentalised, but it was like a punk explosion really, all radical, very unpopular with the grown-ups.

GH: Everyone always blames the kids! Teddy boys, Mods, Punks, now hoodies…

SB: I think it’s just jealousy, everyone wants to be young again. Youth is wasted on the young, they say. But again we muddle through. It’s as if we think we’re the last sane generation and they’re all mad and dissolute behind us. But they’re not, people mature and grow up.

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