Interviews

Alastair Reynolds – Terminal World

March 20th, 2010 by Anthony CW Morgan

Born in Barry, Wales in 1966, science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds spent his early years in Cornwall, returning to Wales for his primary and secondary school education. A degree in astronomy was undertaken at Newcastle, England, something which was followed by a PhD in the same subject at St Andrews, Scotland. Reynolds first experienced publication in June 1990, the short story “Nunivak Snowflakes” appearing in Interzone 36. Leaving the United Kingdom in 1991, he spent the next sixteen years working in the Netherlands, mostly for the European Space Agency, although he also had a stint as a postdoctoral worker in Utrecht. In 2008, Reynolds returned to Wales, and now lives in Glamorgan.

Inking a publishing contract with Gollancz Books, Reynolds debut novel Revelation Space was published in 2000, garnering nominations for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Other tomes were written which used that book’s universe, namely; BSFA Award winner Chasm City (2001), Redemption Ark (2002), Absolution Gap (2003), and The Prefect (2007). Other novels penned by Reynolds are; Century Rain (2004), Pushing Ice (2005), and House of Suns (2008). The 2003 Gollancz release Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days collects the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, whereas 2006’s Zima Blue and Other Stories (Night Shade Books) collects nearly all of the Welshman’s short stories that didn’t exist in the Revelation Space universe up until that time. An expanded version of that collection was issued in the United Kingdom in April 2009. Released in 2006 as well, but through Gollancz, Galactic North collects all of Reynolds’ novellas and short stories that exist in the Revelation Space universe up until that time, albeit with the exception of Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days.

In June 2009, Reynolds signed a new publishing contract with Gollancz Books worth one million pounds, the deal being for him to pen ten books to be published over a ten-year period. Ninth novel Terminal World was issued in March 2010, with a trilogy of books dubbed the 11K sequence due to transpire in 2011 and beyond. To discuss Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds was interviewed via email.

You described Terminal World as “a far future, steampunk-influenced planetary romance about the adventures of an exiled pathologist, and a city in need of medicine”. Could you elaborate on that description and provide an outline of its plot, and also, in what ways was the story influenced by steampunk?

Without giving away too much of the story, it’s about Quillon, a fallen angel – a genetically engineered creature, only part human – who has to leave his city, a vast vertical structure organized into different, technologically-distinct precincts. Quillon escapes out into the wilderness beyond the city, and almost immediately runs into trouble. He’s a doctor by profession, so as well as trying to survive, there’s a part of him that wants to help, even when it’s not in his best interests. By and by he – and a loose affiliation of allies – fall in with Swarm, a kind of mobile nation composed of hundreds of airships. In the meantime a catastrophic event befalls the city and Quillon has to wrestle with his conscience – does he return and face his enemies, or abandon the city in its hour of need?

It’s steampunk only in the sense that it shares some of the trappings; the technology, the gaslit ambience in places. It’s also an argument with the form, a way of me reconciling some of the problems I have with it, with my underlying desire to write something that’s still essentially science fiction as opposed to fantasy or alternate history.

Twelve thousand extra words were written for Terminal World at the last minute, but were eventually unused. What did those words mostly consist of, and why was the decision taken not to use those twelve thousand words?

I wrote three chapters that served as flashbacks into the earlier life and times of Quillon, explaining exactly how he had come to live in the part of the city where he was in exile. It was felt that this was a good idea at the time but the flashbacks upset the structure of the book, which until then had been very linear, with the action beginning on page one and moving forward. My editor and I couldn’t find a way to incorporate them into the book in a way that felt elegant, so they were ditched. It’s not too unusual, though – I routinely cut a lot of excess material; it’s just that this stuff was written and rejected very late in the day.

The city featured in Terminal World, Spearpoint, consists of “a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different – and rigidly enforced – level of technology”. This likely has a social impact upon the residents of each city-state, affecting who they are and how they act as people. What opportunities did that present in terms of characters from different city-states interacting with one another? Culture clashes?

That’s one of the main themes of the book, how these zones and their inhabitants interact. Early on it was clear to me that the people in one part of the city would be well aware of what goes on in another part, but they wouldn’t necessarily be able to travel out of their own zone. Even the exchange of material goods and utilities is difficult. I could see ways to have fun with that, especially in the early chapters where Quillon has to make his escape by descending through different zones, through progressively more primitive technological levels.

Terminal World‘s central character Quillon, lives incognito and works as a pathologist in the district morgue “following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong”. Who or what exactly is Quillon hiding from, and while living incognito as well as working with a pathologist, what is he like on a mental and an emotional level? Living with the fact that the infiltration mission “went tragically wrong”? And as well, does the fallout from that play an indrect or direct role on anything later on in the book?

Quillon is hiding from his former employees – the people (or angels) who sent him on an infiltration operation. Beyond that, I wouldn’t want to give any more away.

You wrote a story called “Pandora’s Box”, which was translated into Finnish by Toni Jerrman. At July 2009’s Finncon in Helsinki, you both then destroyed the last English language copy of the story. What spawned the idea to do that? Was it difficult to resist the temptation to secretly keep an English language copy?

Toni and I cooked up the idea during a drinking session a few years earlier. It seemed fun – and I was interested in the idea of reading a piece of mine translated from a foreign language, with no reference to the original. At some point I’ll pay someone to translate it back from the Finnish. There was no temptation to keep a backup copy – in fact, my only worry was that I might inadvertantly do so, by forgetting about a copy stored on a memory stick or something. But I’m pretty sure we got them all.

How do you look back on your twelve years (1992-2004) as a scientist within the European Space Agency in the Netherlands? Has your time working for the European Space Agency influenced your work somewhat?

It was a good time, a very priveleged working environment. I got to work with a lot of clever people, tackle a lot of interesting science, and do a lot of travelling, which I enjoyed tremendously. But it didn’t directly feed into my writing. My concerns as a writer are more or less those I’ve been working through since I first started taking it seriously, thirty odd years ago. The science is just the icing on that. It’s been useful for selling me as someone who understands space and the universe, of course.

Ten years has passed since the publication of Revelation Space in 2000. As a writer in 2010, and with ten years experience in writing novels, how do you feel your novel writing has evolved and developed over the last decade?

Hopefully I’ve learned a few things, especially at novel length. I can go back and look at short fiction I wrote in the nineties and not be horrified by it, but I can see the flaws in my first few novels all too painfully. At the same time I’m still happy with the stuff I got right, and I accept that a lot of this stuff is not at all apparent to the disinterested reader. I’d like to think I’m better at dialogue, better at character, better at integrating action and description – but I could be wrong about all those things. All I know is that it doesn’t get any easier…

After having spent sixteen years living in the Netherlands, you returned to Wales in 2008. How would you compare and contrast Wales in 1992 against Wales in 2010, as well as your life in general in 1992 against your life in general in 2010?

I hadn’t really lived in Wales since 1985, so it’s a tough one for me to call. I also came back so often that the changes happened gradually without me noticing at the time. Wales certainly seems a more optimistic place than it did back in the eighties – there’s a sense that you can have a career in the arts, for instance, without having to leave the country. The fact that Doctor Who is shot in and around Cardiff – that’s great, as far as I’m concerned. I’d never have dreamed of that as a kid.

In April 2010, Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science-Fiction will be issued through Solaris, and will include your short story “At Budokan”, which provides “a glimpse into the future of the global rock promotion business”. Given the ongoing debate about the impact of the digital age on rock music with illegal downloading and so on, combined with the economic climate, do you feel rock music has a healthy future or a bleak future?

I’m sure it’s got a great future. Whether that will mean bands making a living from touring, as opposed to releasing music, I don’t know. I hope it’s the latter, but when you look at global acts like the Stones, it’s not so clear cut. My story’s a pretty flippant take on it: it’s in no way intended as a piece of serious speculation about the pros and cons of digital downloading, or anything sensible like that. It has a giant robot version of Metallica in it, for a start. Personally I’ll keep buying rock music until they nail me into a coffin, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

In June 2009, it was announced you had a signed a ten-year, ten-book deal with Gollancz Books worth a million pounds. For you, what are the positives and negatives of such a long-term commitment? On one hand, this provides you with security, but on the other hand, much can happen over one decade in terms of a business relationship – it can grow into something even better, or unfortunately deteriorate.

It’s only a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The only thing I’ve ever found it hard to cope with as a writer is uncertainty, and this removes a big chunk of that. It also gives me the freedom to think about things like trilogies and so on. In terms of the business relationship, I’ve already been working with my editor, agent and publisher for eleven years, so it’s not too scary. I think we all know each other pretty well by now, and there’s a good basis of trust in that relationship.

In a June 2009 Guardian feature, you said “I’ve made the mistake sometimes of visualising one of my characters as black, and not stating it” in saying you intend to present a more balanced treatment of race. So with that being said, how would you describe science fiction’s treatment of non-whites to date? Is it a problem which needs to be addressed?

The track record isn’t very good, but it’s good to see science fiction examining itself, being critical and taking stock of where it is and what it needs to do better. I thought Racefail (the massive internet storm over science fiction’s handling of race) was very helpful in that regard. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I’m surprised how much it’s still resonating. For instance, I’ll find myself watching a TV commercial and seeing it through different eyes, wondering where the black people have all gone to. Or I’ll find myself examining the way non-white characters are presented in drama, in a way that I probably wouldn’t have done, at least to the same degree, before Racefail. Because I’m also using non-white characters in the new book, I’m also thinking about it on a creative level every time I sit down and write.

Your next novel will arrive in 2011, the first in the 11K trilogy of books, a trilogy which will deal with the expansion of the human species into the solar system and beyond over the next eleven thousand years. What about humans’ possible future expansion into the solar system particularly fascinates you, and so much so that you’ve been inspired to devote a trilogy of fictional books towards that very topic? And at the time of writing, what else can you reveal about this trilogy of books?

I’m wary of giving too much away, but it’s a sequence of books that deals with one clan, the Akinya household, who – at the start of things – are a powerful family based near the Kenya / Tanzania border in a fairly utopian Africa of the mid-twenty-second century. The Akinyas control the rights to several key pieces of technology vital to the expansion and settlement of the solar system. But the book focuses on two adult siblings, Geoffrey and Sunday, who are not typical family members: they’re far less interested in money making and power consolidation than the rest. Geoffrey is a scientist working on elephant cognition studies; Sunday is an artist living on the Moon. They get dragged into a kind of internal mystery surrounding a dead family member, and from then on the book takes us to various venues across the solar system. That’s book one of the sequence; the second one will leap forward another thousand years and pick up the thread of the Akinya family from a different perspective, focusing on extrasolar exploration and colonisation. The third one will go even further out. There are themes running right through the whole thing, and a kind of single viewpoint character to act as a unifying element – although I’ll say no more than that. As to what fascinates me, I couldn’t begin to explain it. I’m still completely enthralled by the idea of space exploration – now more than ever, when there appears to be a collective mood of pessimism about the whole thing. I think this is exactly the right time to do something big and bold and fundamentally optimistic.

For more information about Alastair Reynolds, visit his official website.


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