Your first novel, Siege of Stars, is just out, the opening instalment in a projected trilogy of Big Ideas SF. Tell us more about the novel.
Baldly, it’s about a young member of an alien space-faring species called the Drovers. Their historic charge is to guide the endless migrations of immense beasts – the Drove – as they criss-cross the Galaxy. The Drovers, like the Drove, exist in several dimensions. They can be best thought of as moving knots of space-time. The Drove beasts are of a similar order to the Drovers, but huge and unintelligent. They eat stars for breakfast and kick planets around like footballs – but the Drovers have to keep them away from stars hosting planets where life might be found. But lately they have been getting too much for the Drovers to handle.
The Drove Elders come up with the only solution – the Drove must be destroyed. The Drovers cannot do this themselves as it is against their creed (look, is this making any sense?) To do this, they choose a young Drover called Merlin, whose task is to find, and if necessary evolve, a species capable of destroying the Drove.
The book – and the series – is really all about Merlin’s various adventures over millions of years as she tries to carry out her task. She has to battle against her own feelings of inadequacy, and has to face up to her mistakes (even gods suffer from Imposter Syndrome). Many times she has to assume the shape of an ordinary material being, but in doing so she runs the risk of losing sight of her task. I asked myself a question – were a being we’d regard as divine to be made incarnate, would she be fully aware of her true nature?
But, well, there’s a lot more to it than that. Some might say that it’s really all about good Scotch.
What led you to writing this particular story, rather than pursuing other ideas and interests?
I’d been a professional writer for some years and had written quite a lot of non-fiction, but I felt I couldn’t really consider myself a writer unless I tried some fiction. The freedom fiction offers is quite scary – many science writers are deterred by the plethora of free parameters. Even if you have a story to tell, there are so many choices to be made about how to tell it. Perspective, characterisation, tense, mood, structure. Well, I was also a fan of SF, and was the founding editor of Futures, the long-running series of SF short-shorts in Nature, where I worked. I’d written a couple of vignettes for the series myself. They were rather different from each other, but I thought I’d put them together to see if they’d play together.
But there was a lot of other stuff there in the mix.
I wanted to write a story about a marriage, a love match, from its beginning to its very end, spanning more than half a century of life events. I was quite consciously influenced by Anthony Burgess’ book Earthly Powers, a fictionalised biography. One of the appealing features of that book is that the protagonist’s brother-in-law is a priest who becomes the Pope. I liked that idea. Through that I was able to use the novel to scratch some itches I’d had about religion and what it means for human beings – and other people. I was also influenced by a sketch on that old comedy show Not The Nine-O’Clock News in which an anthropologist is interviewed – along with the gorilla whom he has trained. I’m sure readers can have lots of fun influence-spotting, from Olaf Stapledon to Julian May.
And there are quite a lot of other SF tropes in there – all part of my teach-yourself-fiction home study course. There’s scientists, doing science of various kinds. There’s some fairly outrageous space opera. I adore space opera, which must be the only form of literature that it’s impossible to parody. There are parts where it gets very gothic, even steampunk. There are fight scenes. There is horror. There is graphic violence. Action scenes are hard to pull off, but I felt I had to give them a go. And sex. Lots and lots of sex. I found I liked writing sex scenes. The trick is to get the balance right, between prissy and coy on the one hand, and anatomically pornographic on the other. I think I succeeded. There’s one sex scene that’s fairly crucial to the whole thing, which I must have re-written dozens of times. When people have asked me to describe the novel succinctly I sum it up like this: sex, violence, aliens, violent sex, sex with aliens, and violent sex with aliens.
How long have you been working on this series, and how far through it are you?
I wrote the first draft of the whole thing in an adrenaline rush between Christmas 2005 and Easter 2006. I was up until two or three in the morning, night after night, writing, and would still turn up to work each day fresh as the proverbial daisy. The experience was wonderful, truly enjoyable and fulfilling. I remember the sense of achievement as I reached the final sentence.
I remember my characters coming alive on the page, so that I felt that I wasn’t really writing the story, but witnessing it as it played out before me. My characters evolved their own personalities, their own behaviour. There’s one scene where I’d planned for the central married couple to have a row, and the husband would walk out. Well, I wrote that, but I couldn’t write any further. The tale was killed stone dead. I discovered that the husband wouldn’t have done that – he stayed home and faced the music. Once I’d let the character tell me what to do, the story worked itself out. I’d heard authors describing such things, but before it happened to me I thought they were being pretentious.
That was the first draft, all 125,000 words of it. Of course, that was just the start. Most people who read it hated it. Some quite violently. But a few really liked it, so I took the constructive criticism and expanded it into a trilogy, adding lots of backstory, doubling it in length.
People still mostly hated it.
So I put it back into the bottom drawer and wrote some other stuff instead. I wrote another novel, a gothic horror mystery called By The Sea. in which I try to do for Cromer what Stephen King does for Maine. I self-published it (with my agent’s agreement I must add) and the few people who’ve read it seem to have enjoyed it. I wrote a children’s book, with my younger daughter. It’s called Defiant the Guinea-Pig – Firefighter! That’s also self-published but still in search of a proper home. And I wrote a serious pop-science book for the University of Chicago Press that should be coming out next year.
All the while, this sprawling SF trilogy was working its way back to the top of the pile. Just as I was about to embark on another edit earlier this year, Andrew Burt of ReAnimus Press asked me if he could publish it, if it was still available. Andrew had liked the novel, right from its tender and shy germ years before. He ‘got’ what I was trying to do. So I did another comprehensive edit, cutting here, adding material there, and delivered the trilogy. So, it’s all written. The plan is for all three novels to come out before the end of 2012.
You’re already well established as senior editor at Nature, and long-time editor of that journal’s Futures fiction slot. How did a science-fiction slot ever find its way into such a prestigious journal?
It’ll be no surprise to you that Nature editors are geeks. We don’t talk to one another in equations, and it’s not quite The Big Bang Theory, but many of us grew up with SF before we became scientists, and then editors.
I hope you won’t mind my telling a yarn about how the Futures thing got started, as I don’t think I have told it before (you may correct me if I’m wrong). Many years ago I wrote a review in Nature of a Roland Emmerich popcorn movie called Independence Day. I noted that it started with spaceships hovering ominously over the cities of Earth, and bemoaned the fact that nobody had filmed Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which starts the same way but is much more interesting and profound than the slush that so often passes for SF in Hollywood. Clarke read my review, and faxed me – for my information – a table showing all his books and the dates when they’d been optioned by film companies. The irony was that the only one of his works that hit the screen was 2001 – which started as a screenplay. As a result of this I got to correspond with Clarke.
Roll forward to 1999, and we geeks at Nature were wondering how we should commemorate the upcoming millennium. The idea of a series of SF stories seemed to be in the air, and I was chosen to run it. It was originally commission only. So I got to write to all my SF heroes and cadge stories from them, but I needed a really big name to kick it off. The only SF author I could think of whose name transcended the genre was Clarke. I asked him for a story – and he delivered by return, bless him. That first series ran from November 1999 to the end of 2000. It was resurrected for a run mid-decade, and then went into abeyance. There was enough good stuff to make an anthology, which I put together under the tutelage of David Hartwell at Tor. I learned that putting together an anthology is far more laborious than collecting some stories and putting them together in a book.
The Futures series restarted in 2007 and has been unbroken since. My agreement with the Chief Editor was that it would be open-ended, and we’d continue with it until we got bored or an asteroid hit the Earth, whichever came first. Neither has happened, and after twelve years and more than 300 tales on I have passed the baton to my colleague, the redoubtable Colin Sullivan.
Some way along I opened the door to all comers, and we still get about ten times more stories than we can publish. Some stories come from established professionals, others from scientists who’ve decided to venture into fiction, and yet others from young people just starting out. There is an awful lot of young talent out there. One is Shelly Li, who was just fifteen when she made her first sale – to me. She’d destined for greater things, and I’m more proud than I can say to have been there at the beginning.
Describe your typical working day.
Time was when I’d commute to London three days a week from Cromer. The long train rides gave me plenty of time to think, and to write. A lot of what became the SIgil trilogy started on my little Asus Eee, back in those long-ago days before St Steve of Jobs came down from Heaven on his fiery chariot bearing the iPad. These days, however, I work from home – and keep office hours. In my office. It’s an office job.
Really, though, my office is in my head. It is there that I think about the manuscripts submitted to Nature, and deciding which of the deluge might be a good bet for publication. It’s not rocket-science, mainly because it’s mostly done by instinct. The hardest part is rationalising your choices. The Chief Editor once characterised it as choosing a few drops of water from a firehose.
You live in a small seaside town in north Norfolk (one of my favourite places) – what are the attractions of that environment for you?
The main attraction is that I get to walk the dogs lunchtimes on the beach. Just fifteen minutes walk from my house is the most glorious beach that’s virtually deserted, even in the summer. When the sun shines it could be a tropical desert island. Of course, the sun doesn’t shine that often, so the days when it does are extra special. But even stormy winter days have a rugged grandeur. I find I much prefer small towns to large cities. Cromer is the right size – not so small that it effectively disappears outside the tourist season, not so large that it becomes anonymous. People know one another. It’s old-fashioned in a comforting way that cities aren’t.
As well as writing and editing, you’re a keen musician. What does that offer that writing doesn’t? Are the different forms of creativity part of a single spectrum for you, or very different things?
For many years I have been a keyboard player in rock and blues bands, specialising in Hammond Organ. I enjoy playing live, not having the patience to do much home recording – though lately I’ve been having lots of fun exploring GarageBand on my iMac. I was quite ill recently with depression – it gets me from time to time – but even in my darkest times I’d go to band rehearsals once a week. I can honestly say that these stopped me from going completely round the bend. Music seems to occupy a different part of my brain from writing. When I am stressed, I play music, and I can feel my brain reboot itself, getting rid of all those worries and niggles with which one is plagued
Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
Gosh! There are so many. One thing I’ve discovered while editing Futures is that there are lots of authors out there, some with a sizeable canon of published books, many of whom I have never heard. I shall not embarrass you by mentioning anyone too close to (your) home. I’ve already mentioned Shelly Li, but there are other writers, many of whom have made sterling contributions to Futures and should really be better known – John Gilbey, Julian Tang, Sue Lanigan, Gareth Owens, Deborah Walker, Jeff Crook, Polenth Blake, Ken Liu (who’s just won a Hugo), Ian Whates, Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai, Martin Haynes – loads more. And there are some authors who’ve been at it for ages who deserve more recognition than they usually get. People such as the late Barrington Bayley. And Ian Watson, whose novels such as The Embedding and Chekhov’s Journey tend to remain in the mind long after you’ve read them.
There are also authors writing SF in English who come from far outside the usual Anglophone orbit, particularly in the Middle East and Asia – China, Singapore, Japan. I set up a Facebook page for Futures that now has more than 3,800 subscribers – many of whom come from the Arab world and India. It has more readers in Cairo than London; more in Tunis than Los Angeles. We recently published our first story from a writer in Iran.
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Write every day. Writing, like any other skill – whether it’s playing football or the piano – improves with practice. It doesn’t have to be a chapter of the Great Novel. It could be a poem, a few random lines, or even a shopping list. Having a blog and maintaining it is good practice. Most writers I know keep office hours – they don’t sit around waiting for the muse to strike.
So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
Writers will make a living the way they have always done – by doing something else as a day job. As for the future of publishing – well, as someone once said, prediction is very hard, especially about the future.
I’ve been in the publishing industry as an editor and a writer for a quarter of a century and the changes have been immense. Back then hot metal still existed; ‘paste-ups’ involved paste; and we took ‘copy’ to people called ‘typesetters’ – who were among the first casualties of the digital revolution. The very term ‘typesetter’ now seems like some arcane and bucolic pastime of an earlier age, like grummet-nadgering or lummock-woggling. Now we work completely within the digital environment. Traditional publishers are having to diversify or die. Agents are becoming publishers. Heavens to Betsy, AUTHORS are becoming publishers. So what does the future hold?
It’s hard to say, but the music industry might be a model. Diversity will be the key. In music, there are still record companies and CDs, which survive next to downloads and do-it-yourself. In publishing, there will still be books, made of paper, for many, many years to come. Except that they’ll be printed on demand – doing without warehouses full of unsold stock is a no-brainer. And the eBook is here to stay. The ecology of publishing is already much more diverse than it once was. The main effect will be that people won’t concentrate on just one task, such as writing, marketing, printing, typesetting or being an agent. Everyone will have to be at least passable in more than one of these tasks to make a living.
Have you any more fiction in mind?
Not as yet. I’m simply basking in the utter amazement that some of my fiction has been published; that people seem to be buying it and enjoying it; and that it has cover art by someone other than me. (Which is itself interesting – seeing one’s own words translated into pictures by a mind other than one’s own is fascinating. Clay Hagebusch is doing a fine job with the Sigil trilogy.) Really, it’s all a matter of confidence. Now that I know people like my stuff I might try some more. Though I can’t imagine what. Perhaps, like Clarke’s Star Child, I’ll think of something.
Any other questions you’d like to have been asked? Feel free to add and answer them, and I’ll pretend to have asked them.
Who put the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine?
I am often asked that – all I can say is that it wasn’t Mr Murphy, who was just as mystified by the nembutal that appeared in his overalls.
Henry Gee got his first degree in Zoology and Genetics at the University of Leeds, and his PhD in Zoology at the University of Cambridge. In 1987 he joined the staff of Nature on a three-month contract. He is still there. He has written quite a few books, mostly non-fiction. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England with his family and numerous pets.
The Sigil trilogy is published by ReAnimus Press.