Now that a new Interzone is out, I thought I’d reprint the interview with Simon Ings that appeared in the last issue. This accompanied my review of Wolves which I’ll also be posting here in the next few days.
You’re a restless writer – cyberpunk, new weird, now a catastrophe story – is this a deliberate strategy?
Well I’ve always been impressed by the Zen stricture that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him. If you think you have the answer, it’s time to formulate a different question.
Plus, I believe novels exist to explore all those parts of life that aren’t repeatable or testable – which is why I have a huge amount of time for books which are about “ordinary life”, and no time at all for book series. I just don’t see the point of it. If you want to work in television, work in television, for crying out loud, stop cluttering up the shelves.
All those important opinions aside, however, publishers shape writers’ careers more than the writers like to admit; I never much liked my original sf publisher and since the feeling was mutual I went off and did something else. Later I got drunk with an agent who thought I could write pop science. It turned out he was right. After that the chance popped up to ghost for one of the Davos set. I’ve never not leapt down a rabbit hole. The hope is that if you’re good enough, a coherent set of values and concerns will emerge over time, and across a body of work that’s been engaged with your life as you’ve lived it. And if that identity doesn’t emerge in public consciousness, and Radio 4 isn’t beating a path to your door well, who cares? You’ll at least have had a life.
Okay, you’re formulating a different question, but I wonder why that change of direction takes you back to one of the hoariest forms of British sf, the catastrophe?
The millhouse that sits at the heart of some of Wolves‘s darker flashback scenes is John Wyndham’s old place – I grew up near there. The whole business of imagining catastrophe as an escape from the rich and scary Real is pretty much a gentle extrapolation and embellishment of my teenage friendships. My work is much more personal, much more autobiographical, than people give it credit for. Everything in this book is true besides the events. The generic aspects reflect my reading as a kid, rather than any pressing need I feel to enter into dialogue with “the genre”. God forbid.
And while you say you hope for something coherent to emerge over time, is that what you really expect? Doesn’t changing the question work against that?
What are you suggesting – that we each have ONE coherent personality – one that’s available to consciousness, and can be elucidated by answering ONE correct question? That’s Facebook thinking. The personality of a body of work has its own integrity that unpacks itself over time. It sure as hell isn’t going to jibe well with the author’s Important Opinions.
There’s something jagged in the structure of Wolves, constantly moving backwards and forwards in space and time. Was this always part of your plan for the novel?
Wolves doesn’t actually have that complex an architecture: there are two chronologically coherent timeframes – the “before” and the “after”, if you like – and I bounce the reader from one to the other at regular, lawful intervals.
The jaggedness has another source entirely, and that’s the desire to cover thirty-odd years of future history (or, alt history, or whatever you want to call it …) entirely through the subjective experience of one character. My protagonist, Conrad, ventures an opinion now and again, but by and large the world is seen through his immediate consciousness. You don’t get that very often in sf, because the perceived need to “build a world” keeps dragging you out of your characters’ head. I was determined not to fall for that. (I despise worldbuilding.)
You can’t get away with that, all sf is a form of worldbuilding, and the fact that you stick within Conrad’s head doesn’t make it any less worldbuilding, surely.
I absolutely can get away with this – to the extent that I hardly know where to begin taking down your objection. For the sake of brevity let’s just define the row we’re going to have by saying that “worldbuilding” and “making things up” are not synonymous concepts.
Given the amount of flooding we’ve had, both last year and this, it seems almost disturbingly apposite. Was the novel written in response to these new weather patterns?
Funnily enough I recently asked the same question of Chris Priest in connection with The Adjacent. My answer is the same as his: not at all.
But of course, it depends on what you mean by “response”. I lifted a lot of that imagery from dreams I’d been having, mostly around my mother, who was dying at the time, and (cf. Freud) about the river near where I grew up. I think any writer remotely in touch with his own life will be playing with the weather a whole lot in the coming years. How can you possibly write about the world and not factor in climate change? Kudos to Ian McEwan, by the way, who’s been quietly mongering the weather for the whole of his career.
The problem is that I don’t think you can write anything without the present seeping in and affecting it. I was just wondering how consciously the present was shaping your future.
I think a better way of putting this might be: which bits of present reality are we avoiding by projecting them on the future? There’s remarkably little in sf that doesn’t have its real-world, present-day analogue. SF prides itself on its thought-experiments but very, very few of the challenges, dilemmas and nightmares it throws up are unprecedented. Read more history. Read more anthropology. This is a point Thomas Disch made again and again in his career, not that many of us listened. Is Wolves set in “the future”? I’m honestly undecided. The question is more psychological than anything.
Actually I’m making an assumption that the novel is set in Britain, but there are no place names. You use terms like “Middle” when referring to the city, which jars us from familiarity. And while our first visit to Michel and Hanna clearly takes us to Dungeness, you have displaced it to the north. Given that the flooding changes geography, is this loss of sense of place deliberate?
I wanted to write about a genuine technology, Augmented Reality, without getting tramlined into some dreadful dot-com satire. As I was writing, I found that adding a time or a place would immediately have the scene wilting like a lettuce. I quickly realised that the only way to tell truths about AR was to pull the technology out of the real word entirely, and run it through an entirely personal thought experiment. Of course doing something like that has all sorts of inadvertent consequences, which you can capitalise upon in the second draft. The floods, the weather, the shifting coastlines – all that came out of explorations of AR.
One of the major themes in the novel is perception, from restoring the sight of blinded servicemen to film-making to Conrad’s work in AR. I know that a few years ago you wrote a book about the eye, so is the whole idea of perception something you find yourself coming back to all the time?
Yes, though I have no idea why. If this life of ridiculous side-projects ever does cohere into something, my bet is it’ll resemble a peeled eyeball from the 1970s.
Finally, and briefly, has you work on arc infinity changed your own perceptions about science fiction?
Many years ago – the night Princess Diana died – I was fleeing an sf convention at 120mph in a hired Vauxhall Vectra, chanting “Never go back. Never. Go. Back.” And the happy fact is, I never have to. In the years since, “sf” has ceased to mean anything: the young writers I meet now are co-opting its drivers, its preoccupations and its techniques without the slightest desire to “be science-fictional”. (Yes, yes, I know there’s a “core genre” out there, but it’s got all the cultural currency of a caravan club; a Robin Reliant Users’ Group; the readership of Escort. It’s not dying. It’s dead. Someone tell Ann Leckie.)
For the last couple of years I’ve been editing Arc, a journal of the future by the makers of New Scientist. (arcfinity.org is the blog). Almost no-one I meet – and this includes writers who came up through the genre – gives a fig for what sf is. Everyone’s busy trying to see what this amazing toolkit – literary machines that saw us through the Cold War with our humanity bruised, twisted, but more or less intact – what all this strange, mostly Seventies technology can do.
I agree with you absolutely on this, but I still find myself endlessly wondering about this “literary machine”. Is it now taking a distinctively different shape, and what might that shape be?
I think of that machine as a curious, dialectic combination of avoidances and exaggerations. It understands that fiction exists to investigate reality, not reflect it. (reflect it how, for heaven’s sake?) It’s escapist and engaged, reminding us that “realism” is the biggest literary flim-flam of all. You don’t need sf to pull this trick off, of course – Cervantes managed quite well without it, thank you. But SF is one way – a good way – of keeping the spirit of burlesque alive. Underneath all that chromed, oh-so-rational motley, there’s a beast licking its chops.