One of the nice things about my jobs is discovering fans of the show. And one of the even nicer things about my job is discovering I happen to be a fan of someone who happens to be a fan of the show. Such is the case with author Alastair Reynolds, a heavy hitter in the field of literary SF who, I recently learned, had some very positive things to say about Stargate: Universe over on his blog (http://approachingpavonis.blogspot.com/). I was, of course, thrilled to hear it, not least because I consider his novel, Revelation Space, one of the greatest works of space opera in recent memory. He’s one of those rare writers, like John Scalzi and Jeffrey Ford, who has never disappointed. And, like the two aforementioned writers, Alastair has kindly taken the time to drop by this blog and answer some reader questions – in his case, in support of his novel, and our July Book of the Month Club selection, House of Suns.
Incidentally, between the time I wrote up my thoughts on House of Suns and now, I’ve read two more of Alastair’s books: Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Zima Blue. Engaging, frightening, funny, thought-provoking and very, very clever – I can’t recommend them enough.
Over to Alastair…
Hi all! First of all, thanks to Joseph for this very generous write-up of HOS – it’s really appreciated, and I’m delighted to have had the chance to connect with some SG fans who might not have tried my work before.
Penny writes: “My Questions for Alastair Reynolds: 1) you use BIG white boards to help organize your thoughts when writing a book but do you use similar items in your everyday life to help stay organized?
2) what are you currently listening too?
3) not a question but just wanted to say that I have enjoyed your books and own almost all of them thanks for being such an AWESOME writer.”
AR: No, I am pretty much the most disorganised, shambolic person you will ever meet. The whiteboard is my way of controlling some of the chaos associated with the writing process but I don’t use anything like that in real life. I probably should, but you need a certain threshold of “organised-ness” before you even get to the step of using things like diaries, calendars, etc, and I’m hopeless at that.
What am I currently listening to? The new Teenage Fanclub album, some older Foo Fighters stuff, Vampire Weekend, Fiona Apple, Florence and the Machine … lots of stuff, really.
Thanks the kind words, too!
Bytehead writes: “It was a wild ride, that’s for sure. I figured it was going to be some kind of mystery, but that certainly wasn’t the climax, so I really wouldn’t say the novel is a sci-fi mystery. As I was reading up to the climax (it is hard to actually claim what the climax is, but I think it would be opening up the star dam), I really didn’t understand where this book was going. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but I usually like to have an idea of at least the direction we’re going. The ending was indeed, rather abrupt. It fits, it was probably a bit tidier than I’d like, but I’ve read worse, much worse.
My question for the author would be: The Absence is interesting, and bringing up star dams, I figured that somebody or something had managed to just put Dyson spheres around all the stars, on their way to being a Kardashev type III after having perfected type II. The fact that opening a wormhole could do that… Well, quantum mechanics being what it is, possibly. My only complaint when I first thought about it was, what about the gravity waves? Yes, I know, it’s science fiction Bryan! Of course, on second reflection, I guess the Absence will go away once our two galaxies merge 4.5 billion years in the future.”
AR: Thanks – glad the ending worked for you. I don’t think it’s any great confession to say that I struggle with endings, especially at novel length. They’re very hard to judge; by the time I’m done with book I’m so invested in it that I have zero objectivity at that point, and the same goes for anyone else involved in the editing/production. I’ve taken stuff out of endings because I felt they were too drawn out, and then got stick for being too abrupt. And I’m constantly tinkering with the degree of closure. Personally I don’t like things too neat and tidy; I’m always happy to accept a degree of ambiguity as a reader.
But horse for courses.
As for the Absence, I’d come up with a similar idea in an old short story, Byrd Land Six (it’s in the Deep Navigation collection, from NESFA press). In HOS, I just scoped it up to galactic proportions. I wasn’t worrying too much about the detailed physics at this point, just the causal implications. It’s about as close to magic as you can get. I think I do mention that gravity waves pass through the Absence, don’t I? The idea was that satellite galaxies would still keep orbiting Andromeda as they were before the Absence was activated.
Shiny writes: “What I liked most about the ending was the sacrifice of Hesperus, although I hope that there is a way to resurrect him (yet again!) in future books. I love that the Machine People were all so hard to trust/rely on/believe. And it was mostly that human fear of anything without a soul that we see so much in movies and TV (cyborgs, replicants, cylons, clone wars soldiers, terminators in general.) I found it interesting that I kept having this nagging prejudice against the machine people throughout the book; but it’s not often that we ever in our real lives have to think hard about how we would feel putting our trust in machine intelligence.
I found myself preferring Campion’s daredevil ways and his loyalty to Purslane; the POV on him was always wry.”
AR: I liked Hesperus a lot as well. I don’t think he would necessarily be able to come back in any sequel, but I’d love to continue the story of the Machine People and Gentian Line at some point – it’s still very much my intention. And yes, I was playing with ideas of prejudice in my handling of the MPs although obviously I stack the cards somewhat with Cadence and Cascade.
Jim of WVa writes: “All of my questions about RS-series and House of Suns were answered by going to the FAQ sections on Dr. Reynolds’ website. However, three questions remain:
1. One of the Gentian shatterlings was the original Abigail Gentian. Was the original Abigail in latter day portions of the HOS under a different name (i.e. Purslane)?
2. Would non-FTL space opera work on television?
3. How would one make a clone that was of different sex than the original?”
AR: I ducked the issue of which, if any, of the surviving Gentians is “really” Abigail. They don’t know, and I’m not sure there’s any means for them to discover it even if they wanted: the trail is cold by now. Purslane is a pretty good candidate, of course – but that’s not definitive, it’s just me looking back at the book.
Would non-FTL space opera work on television? Hell, yes – give me the money, I’ll make one! Good question, though – I’m honestly not sure. Firefly was kind of non-FTL, wasn’t it? Even though they had this improbably complex solar system with hundreds of planets in it. The Beeb tried a realistic space series in the 1980s, called Star Cops – it wasn’t space opera, but it was a police investigation type show with a different high-tech crime each week, and the science/tech was very much grounded in current ideas about rockets and Mars bases as so on. It wasn’t all that good though! Personally, I don’t mind a bit of ‘ole FTL myself, just as long as it’s handled consistently from episode to episode.
Re: cloning, I got some stick for having male and female “clones” of the same woman, but my point would be, this is the year 3000, people. They’re as far beyond “cloning” as we are beyond the invention of gunpowder. I never tell the reader what the Gentians are like on the chromosomal level – indeed, in the original story “Thousandth Night” it was pretty much implied that they were able to change shape/gender at will, only conforming to human morphology for the purposes of the reunion. I should probably have made that more explicit in HOS, and taken pains to explain that “cloning” is just a shorthand for making male and female avatars of a living person.
Line Noise writes: “Questions for Alastair Reynolds: 1. You’re quite a prolific writer. How much time do you spend writing each day, do you have a daily word target and what proportion of your time is spent writing new stuff, revising old stuff and researching cool ideas?”
AR: I don’t know how many hours I spend per day, but I tend to aim for around 3000 words of new stuff. This varies a bit, though – at the start of a project, when I haven’t really got the momentum going, I’ll be happy with 1000 words of good stuff. Near the end, I might be hitting 4-5000 words a day. That’s not a rate I can sustain for very long, though. I tend not to do a lot of revising until I have something approaching a draft – I find it’s a real trap to keep reworking and polishing when you don’t have the basic framework of the story nailed down. As for researching cool ideas, I don’t do a lot of that – I just keep my eyes and ears open, read a lot of science stuff (New Scientist, Sci Am and so on) and allow my subconscious to filter it through.
“2. How long did it take you to get your first novel published? Did you get many rejections?”
AR: This is one of those “it depends what you mean by…” questions. I submitted Revelation Space to a publisher in 1997, and two years later (after they’d been swallowed by another company) they bought it. So you could say it took two years and no rejections, but I’d also spent the last ten years establishing a minor name for myself in the short fiction market, and part of that was a deliberate strategy to eventually break into novel sales.
“3. The artwork on the covers of your books are fantastic. Do you have any input on the artwork?”
AR: A little – I’m asked to provide input for possible cover ideas, but the ultimate selection and design process is out of my hands. There’s generally time for me to see a rough of the cover and suggest some tweaks, though.
“4. You’ve steadfastly shied away from Faster Than Light travel for most of your stories. Is that because you try to keep the physics of your fictional universes
closely tied to our own universe?”
AR: Sort of, but it’s also as much to do with the idea that it might be interesting to do it that way from a fictional perspective, in terms of the new story ideas that a slower than light universe might generate. I’m actually fairly open minded on the whole FTL/STL thing.
“5. An astrophysics question unrelated to your writing that you may or may not be able to answer: If the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation is supposed to be remnant radiation left over from the Big Bang, how can we see it? Shouldn’t it have been shooting away from us at the speed of light for billions of years?”
AR: That’s a damn good question, and exactly the kind of thing I get headaches thinking about. My understanding (I’m not a cosmologist!) is that the answer lies in the fact that theBig Bang created both space and time, and every point in the visible universe was squeezed into the same tiny volume at the time the CMB was created. The radiation corresponding to “our bit” has indeed been rushing away from us for billions of years, so in effect someone else – on the other side of the universe – could be looking at our contribution to the CMB right now, just as we’re looking at the photons originating in their part. Does that make sense?
Lspacediva3 writes: “I’ve been reading and following Alastair Reynolds for many years now, and House of Suns was both familiar and refreshing when put alongside his other work. I thought the comment from a Goodreads member summed up House of Suns very well — comparing it to the Revelation Space novels, it was something to the effect that this book was like looking through candy-colored rather than slime-covered glasses One of the many little pleasures I got, as a reader “d’un certain age”, was discovering the references to King Crimson — the characters “Cadence and Cascade” and the ship the “Yellow Jester” made me smile.”
AR: I like the candy/slime analogy; that’s exactly how it felt to write HOS. And I’m glad the KC references provided amusement – there are plenty more elsewhere in my books, too. Purslane’s ship, Silver Wings of Morning, is from a Neil Young lyric – don’t think anyone’s picked up on that one yet.
RebeccaH writes: “…it was interesting that all the civilizations and races in the galaxy were descended from humans, even the Machine People who would have had their origins in human technology. I wonder if Mr. Reynolds believes that humans are alone in the universe (which I fervently hope is not the case).
AR: I think we *could* be, but I’m open to the idea that we might not be. I think it boils down to numbers/probability, and right now we’re in the dark about a lot of the background science. For instance, we know there are a lot of stars out there, and we suspect a lot of those stars have planets. But how many of those planets are suitable for life – even life as we don’t know it? So far a lot of the planets we’ve detected are in weird orbits, but I’m hopeful that we’ll find an Earthlike world in an Earthlike orbit eventually.
The other side of the coin is evolutionary biology – what are the odds of another intelligent species arising on one of those planets, given the age of the galaxy? Life on Earth got going pretty quickly once the planet had settled down but it’s only relatively recently – in astronomical terms – that we’ve seen complex animals, let alone mammals, primates etc. So right now I’d be wary of anyone who claimed dogmatic certainty about the subject of life in the universe.
“The one thing I didn’t understand in the story was Palatial. What was its significance to the story? Were the Ghost Soldiers supposed to be precursors of the Machine People? Who was the little boy, and what happened to him? Even though he supposedly became a drooling idiot when extracted from the game, did he actually become Valmik, the Spirit of the Air, and eventually Valmik/Hesperus? Those are the things I wish had been just a little bit clearer. Also, did Mr. Reynolds get the idea for the Gentian house from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California?”
AR: I’ve been wary of talking about the Palatial subplot in public, for fear of sounding as if I’m “explaining” my own book. But since you asked – and major spoiler coming up – the shatterlings carry repressed memories of what they did to the First Machines. The Palatial episodes reflect a real-life incident from the childhood of Abigail Gentian, but in the intervening time, the subsequent crime of the wiping out of the First Machines has been embroidered into that story. So: there *was* a little boy, who was a real friend of Abigail (and nothing to do with Valmik). The little boy as remembered in the Palatial subplots, though, is a conflation of the actual little boy, and the representative of the First Machines who had direct dealings with the Lines. The subsequent story that takes place in Palatial – the stuff about the Ghost Soldiers and so on – is a parable about the genocide of the First Machines.
At one point near the end of HOS I have one of the characters (Purslane I think) say something to the effect that even if you suppressed a memory, it would force its way to the surface under other means. That’s the big clue to unlocking the Palatial subplot. Needless to say, having sweated blood to hack HOS down to size, I was tickled pink by suggestions that the Palatial subplot had been inserted as “padding”.
Oh yeah, and the Winchester Mystery House – indeed! I don’t know how well it is known in the States, but I’d only vaguely heard of it before I got a chance to look around it after World SF Convention in San Jose. I thought it was amazing.
Bytehead writes: “@RebeccaH: Palatial was a subplot that went with Abigail. It showed just how close Abigail had herself been to madness. And I think that it’s Purslane who is actually Abigail. Or at least the Wings of the Swan was the original ship for Abigail. Now why it was still the fastest ship (and rather old at that), that’s another good question, evidently there was a drive to keep the ship at the best (and being a collector…). But I think it points to Purslane being Abigail.”
AR: It’s a valid theory…
“Valmik was a machine person before the Golden Hour, so I think that excludes the little boy from being Valmik. And when was the editing down that took the boy’s name from Abigail?”
AR: She didn’t want to remember the name – it would have unlocked the rest of those suppressed memories.
“The Ghost Soldiers was just a part of Palatial. If anything, I would say that it was the boy’s family line that turned into the machine people. But that’s just
conjecture on my part. If/when there is another book, I suspect that we’ll get some of those answers. What kind of a response that will happen once they go back through the rabbit-hole, one can only guess. Especially since it will be a matter of a bit of time, even traveling through a wormhole.”
AR: Yes, any sequel to HOS will skip forward quite a few years.
KellyK writes: “Questions for Mr. Reynolds: 1. Given your background in the field of science, is it safe to assume you were a fan of science fiction prior to embarking on your career in the genre? If so, do you have any favorite SF authors (or non-genre writers) who either inspired you? Did you have any favorites growing up?”
AR: I’ve been fascinated with both science and science fiction for as long as I can remember, so much so that I can’t really say which one led to the other. As a kid – a really small kid – I was fascinated by films like the George Pal version of The Time Machine, Fantastic Voyage, and so on. I was captivated by Star Trek (and The Virginian, strangely enough – now I like horses and westerns – go figure).
In terms of written SF, I hit on Asimov and Clarke very early on, and it took me a long time to look beyond them to other kinds of SF – let alone the wider world of literature. For formative influences, though, I think Asimov and Clarke got in there really early. Later on I liked a lot of hard SF, cyberpunk and so on.
“2. Given the obvious thought and care that went into House of Suns, I imagine you’re a fairly discerning viewer when it comes to science fiction on the big
screen. Are there any movies that came out in the past twenty years or so that you feel got it right?”
AR: Plenty of movies I’ve enjoyed, but for the most part it helps to switch off the SF critical faculties, I think. Favorite SF films of the last twenty years or so? Robocop (massive fan), Terminator 2, more recently Avatar. Dark City is one of my favorites, but it’s not really hard SF. I loved Moon – fantastic. And I’ll also admit to really enjoying Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.
“3. At what point did you decide to give up your day job of the day and night job of a full-time writer? Ever regret the decision?”
AR: I decided to quit in 2003, but stayed on for another year. I’ve never regretted it. As great as may day job was when it was going well, I hadn’t been particularly enjoying it for the last year or so, and the writing was becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life.
psychochicken writes: “Question for Mr. Reynolds: I remember reading somewhere that you were a firm believer that we are alone in
the universe. Given your scientific background what lead you to this belief? How do you respond to people who think there are so many stars and planets that there surely must be life out there somewhere? Thanks!”
AR: I think I’ve covered that one earlier on – good question, though.
Shiny writes: “Question for Alastair Reynolds: The Gentians chronicled the rise of fall of different civilizations who precipitated their own through conflicts
driven by greed, imperialism and fascist ideology while remaining above the fray. Will the Shatterlings now escalate the war among the different Lines in future books because they’ve succumbed to the behavior of lesser cultures who perished through infighting? And is there are warning in your book for our own civilization about causing our own demise through wars, greed and rigid ideologies?”
AR: I don’t know where I’d go with the story if I ever continued it, although my suspicion is that the remaining Gentians would forge some kind of alliance with the peaceful elements of the Machine People. House of Machines is a working title for one possible direction. As for warnings – well, I think we could wise up a little as a species, and I’m hopeful that we will. In fact, as naive as it may make me sound, I do genuinely think we’re slowly getting better at living together on the same planet.
Airelle writes: “Joe I really liked reading House of Suns, it was hard to put it down. Thanks to Mr Reynolds for writing it. Are we sure for certain that
Hesperus is gone? I enjoyed his character. The time dialation torture, very effective, I could feel it slicing and dicing..ouch.. worse than fingernails on
a blackboard. Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading Mr Reynolds book and will certainly be looking for some more of his books, thank you.”
AR: Thanks, Airelle! Yes, I think Hesperus is really gone I’m afraid. My wife says I need to stop bringing characters back from the dead, anyway!
Apk51 writes: “If it’s not too late, I have a few questions for Dr. Reynolds… 1) Do all of your books take place in the same “universe”? Depending on which
way you do it, do you like doing it that way? If they are separate, do you find it confusing jumping between universes, from book to book?
AR: Five of my books (not HOS) take place in the same universe, the others are all standalones. It works for me – I can’t tell every kind of story in one universe, so I need to chop and change and it helps keep it fresh anyway. It doesn’t get too confusing, since I’m typically living with a given book for anything up to a year or more. Once I’m a few weeks into a project, it becomes the “default” setting.
“2) While reading, I was a little confused between the distinction of a House and Line; can you clarify?”
AR: I don’t think there is a clear distinction, to be honest. I called it House of Suns because I’d had the title lying around in my files since the eighties! I even submitted a story to Interzone with that title once. It had nothing to do with the novel but it was set very far in the future, and did have robots and wormholes in it.
“3) Are there any particular sci-fi books/movies/TV shows that served as inspiration for House of Suns (or any of your other works)?”
AR: Lots of paperback cover illustrations, especially those from the 70s, by the likes of Chris Moore and Chris Foss (British illustrators, mainly). Bits of Asimov and Clarke, especially the very far future stuff. Doctor Who.
“4) I don’t know whether or not you’re familiar with the debate between Strong and Weak AI (the distinction between a machine giving the illusion of sentience [weak], and actually being sentient [strong]). Based on the depiction of the Machine People, it seems you are a supporter of the eventuality of Strong AI, where machines will indeed able able to be considered alive, as opposed to just giving the illusion of being alive. Is that how you predict the future of robotics to develop in the real world?”
AR: It’s an assumption I was happy to take on board for the purposes of the novel, but it’s not a central belief. I’ll often buy into an idea for the duration of the book, purely to see where it takes me – eg, aliens or no aliens. The new trilogy I’m working on now, has weak AI and actual aliens (eventually).
“Thanks for answering our questions!”
AR: You’re very welcome!
AvidReader writes: “As Joe pointed out, what you do is a rarity: write entertaining hard SF with well-defined characters. Now I was wondering how you came to decide on your present career. When did you start writing? Was it always science fiction? What kind of a background (educational and work experience) have you drawn from in your work? And, given the opportunity, would you lend your prodigious talent to any other genre?”
AR: I’m delighted if people find the books entertaining, and respond to the characters as well. As I said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by SF and science. I started writing little stories almost from the moment I could write, period – I would even illustrate my own little books, and staple them together. And yes, I’ve always been driven to science fiction or at least technological-based stories. One of my formative influences is seeing James Bond for the first time – I was immediately obsessed with lasers and gadgets. My background has been science based, obviously, but perhaps less well known to people who don’t know me is that for a long time I aspired to be an artist or illustrator by profession. That ambition died away in my late teens but I still think I see the world through a filter that’s as least as much artistic as scientific, and I draw a huge amount of private inspiration from art. There are at least as many art books in my study as there are science texts.
Would I like to work in another genre? In my dreams, I’d love it, but there are only so many hours in the day and I’m first and foremost a prose writer by inclination. However one day I’d love to do some kind of text/illustration hybrid – not necessarily a comic, but maybe
an illustrated novella or something.
Hope this covers all the questions!