Neal Asher

Neal Asher
Neal Asher is a great British treasure.

The first book of his that I read was ‘Gridlinked‘ and within the first two pages, I knew I was hooked. On the book and on the author.

He has a lean yet detailed style coupled with breathless pacing: his books are all page-turners. I’ve spent countless nights lost in the worlds he’s created, all of them richly and sometimes grimly detailed.

I now pre-order everything he writes and wait impatiently for it to turn up. When the book arrives, I read it within two or three days and then feel that withdrawal sadness of the story being over.

I have no doubt that if he wasn’t working within the SF genre, he’d be acclaimed as a great popular writer. As it is, the snobs of the literary world only honour SF writers by pretending they’re not really writing sci-if, as they’ve done with Vonnegut, Russ, Ballard and Dick. The snobs believe “proper” authors don’t tackle genre fiction. What utter rubbish!

I emailed Mr. Asher totally out of the blue and cheekily asked him to do an email interview. To my immense surprise, he agreed and replied to my questions very speedily. Lovely!

And now, the interview…

1. In a couple of interviews I’ve seen, you said that you consider your work to be “Schwarzenegger fiction.” Are you saying this in a post-modern sense or do you actually think your work isn’t “great literature?”

When I say I’m from the ‘Schwarzenegger school of SF’ I guess I’m trying to distance myself from those in the writing world who consciously try to create ‘literature’.

Readers can be assured I’ll not bore them with my attempts at stunning prose and mind-numbingly deep insights into the human condition, nor will I try to escape the SF label because obviously SF isn’t literature don’t you know?

My primary aim is to entertain. I want readers to come out the other side of my books feeling as if they’ve just watched Terminator or Total Recall for the first time. I’m offering them an escape from everyday life, not analysis of it or prose they have to labour through.

Whether or not my stuff is ‘great literature’ I don’t believe can be decided now. Who decides that anyhow? Small committees of out-of-touch academics and self-promoting critics? The same sort probably who denigrated Charles Dickens for his penny dreadfuls, and William Shakespeare for catering to plebs who just wanted plays containing plenty of royalty, murder, sex and ghosts.

2. Will there ever be a sexually explicit orgy in a Neal Asher book? With tentacles?

Only if the plot requires it, and then I’ll probably get that prize (can’t remember what it’s called) for the writer of the worst sex scene of the year.

3. You’ve worked for twenty years to become an overnight sensation. What made you persevere all those years when a man of your obvious intelligence could easily have given up and got a straight career job?

If I’d known how difficult it was going to be, I might never have started.

By the time I began to find out, I’d utterly committed myself and was too stubborn to give up. Many burning boats lay behind me but, over that period, I did seem to be making headway even if with only a nice rejection letter one year followed by an acceptance the next by a small magazine offering only a free copy as payment.

Anyway, a straight career job would have been boring, and if it had all been about money I wouldn’t have chosen to write SF anyway. Writing is something I like doing, and something I’ll do till I die. A lack of success probably would not have changed that.

4. I love all the little future history flourishes you incorporate. Will you ever actually write a full version of ‘How It Is?’

I’m steadily building an encyclopedia of all those little pieces (Quince Guide, Speeches by Jobsworth, a chronology too) and use them as a reference when writing another book. There’s always the possibility I could produce a full publishable reference work, but I prefer to concentrate on the next novel or on more short stories.

5. When I first started reading ‘Gridlinked,’ it was like being hit by a train. I hadn’t experienced such a gripping opening in SF since ‘Neuromancer‘. How important is it you to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck? Would you ever write in a more reflective, meandering style?

Thank you very much. Refer back to my answer about ‘Schwarzenegger fiction’. I write what I like to read, which is the case with most writers, and the minute anything I’m reading starts to meander I start skipping paragraphs.

This is not to say that everything I write must contain at least one violent death every couple of pages, but I want to make it interesting.

Even when describing the backdrop I’ll always put in something to smack the reader in the eye. Long paragraphs of beautiful prose describing rolling country or a character’s emotional angst are not for me.

6. In the early days of SF, the baddies were invariably poorly disguised wily Orientals or vicious Africans. In the mid-period, they were after our women and had gills. In 21st century SF, we often seem to be battling our synthetic children. Is a Vingean singularity inevitable or just a great premise for cracking adventures?

I think it a great premise for creating godlike beings or super-science ‘indistinguishable from magic’, which are both staples of SF. I don’t think it inevitable, but then nothing is.

As has always been the case, SF is pretty poor at predicting the future. Personal computers, the Internet – yup, we missed them (Arthur C. Clarke’s prediction of satellite communication is often cited as such an SF prediction, but it was really a scientific article, more of a proposal, in the magazine Wireless World).

The Vingean singularity is presently in vogue, and future generations of SF writers will probably start taking it apart. In my books I contend that the AIs decided they didn’t want to go there since they were having too much fun.

7. Could you please peruse this rant. What are your thoughts? Am I insane? Is it all pointless anyway?

Does anything have a point? On the whole I’m optimistic about it all.

The impression we get nowadays that the world is going to Hell in a handcart, but it is an utterly false impression provided by a more efficient media. If there had been a tsunami a two hundred years ago (maybe there was) only a few people in Britain might learn about it after a few weeks or months. It happens now and it’s on our screens at once.

Our news services present horror to us with an immediacy never before known and, let’s face it, the reporters are not out there looking for nice fluffy human interest stories to stick on CNN or BBC News, are they? The reality though? Yes, terrorists are blowing themselves up and flying planes into office blocks, war mongers are at work out there, rape and murder abound, and people are starving and dying of horrible diseases.

However, all of the above have always been with us, yet human technology ever advances and improves the human condition. I shan’t bother to list the benefits – if people can’t see them that’s because they don’t want to. There will be setbacks, wars, possibly nuclear terrorism, maybe global disasters and near crashes of our civilization, but the knowledge base will continue to grow, and the technology and its benefits continue to accrue. We may not be going to the stars this millennium, or ten more down the line, but we will.

8. And the same with this article by Charles Stross. Is it all the tea? Why are Brits ruling the SF world? Is this the Nouvelle Vague of Brit SF?

Because a bunch of good authors in Britain started getting published at about the same time? All the speculation about the zeitgeist is a bit daft really. I very much doubt if a different ‘spirit of the times’ would have prevented me or others from loving to read and write SF. Just watch, a few years from now a bunch of excellent American SF writers will start being published, and similar speculation will abound.

9. Although your work is commonly labeled ‘hard SF‘ it’s full of deep characterization, hence the stories don’t feel plotted, they feel like they’re unfolding by magic. Even in ‘Brass Man,’ you manage to let the reader inside Mr. Crane’s head. Do you consider yourself a great character writer? If not, why not?

I have to admit I don’t analyze it that closely. I’ll let others decide. Currently opinions conflict, with some saying I write cardboard cut-outs and others saying I produce excellent characterizations. My stories are plot-led, but the characters are not discounted by the plot. Um, I just don’t know how to answer that.

10. I notice that with your ‘Cowl’ and books like Baxter’s ‘Evolution,’ time itself becomes a major character in the narrative. The wonder often is factual rather than fictional. Would you ever consider doing science factual writing? A book of stuff like this article?:

I’m a published science fiction writer, which means I can tell an engaging story and am not ignorant of science, but that doesn’t quality me to write science fact articles.

The above piece was really just opinion which lay more in my area since I was bemoaning the misuse of the word ‘organic’ and all the ignorance that surrounds that misuse. Again, I could put together a collection of such articles but at present the books and stories are more important to me.

11. I note that you’re a Niven fan. Does this mean that your fantasy writing is in any way related to his ‘Magic Goes Away‘ concept of logical fantasy or is it more traditional / magical?

I’m really a fan of Niven’s ‘Tales of Known Space’ books and stories – Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton, The Pak etc – the super-science, the massive alien artifacts, the transformation of humans, immortality.

My fantasy writing relates more to Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Even then, when writing those fantasy books, I tied the powers unleashed to science. No magical sword, but a sabre sharp as an old carbon steel ham knife, monsters created in dank laboratories and an arch villain wielding power obtained throughout an endless life of research.

12. When will we see your fantasy work issued? Surely there are publishers queuing up for it now?

No queue forming yet. Peter Lavery at Macmillan has shown an interest, but is more interested in what I’m producing now. Really, if I did want to get those books published I would need to sit and work on them for a long time, since I wrote them more than ten years ago. Also, I’m building a reputation as an SF writer and to turn away from that now to sort out those fantasies might be detrimental. Better to ride the horse I’m on now rather than try to climb into another saddle. However, in time I will return to them … just not yet.

13. Gabbleducks and hooders, the fantastically inimical Spatterjay – you have a Carolian sense of the macabre and grimly silly. Ever thought of writing some really terrifying kids books? C’mon!

I considered doing such. I have the beginning of one in my files about a mechanical knight called Sir Mech and his mechanical horse called Cogwobble. Again another project set aside for the future, along with the TV and film scripts, and the contemporary novel about farmers growing GM cannabis in Essex. But children’s books? With the stuff I’m doing now I can let myself go and write what I want. Children’s writing tends to come under the scrutiny of the politically correct, and I’m damned if I’d want some interfering prick telling me what I can and cannot write.

14. What’s the last new record you bought?

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on CD. Probably a rather predictable purchase for me.

15. Tomorrow you are made King Of The World. What would you do to make it a better place?

That would be utterly dependent on the amount of power I could wield.

Right, you lot, stop killing each other, or trying to force your beliefs on each other. Throw away all your guns and bombs and redirect all military spending into space exploration and developing re-useable resources. Everyone is now accountable for their own actions, including politicians and lawyers. This means that if you trip over a hole in the pavement, tough. It also means that if your lies lead to the deaths of thousands, I have a gibbet prepared for you. Etcetera.

16. Would you like to write a Dr. Who script? Been approached?

I would like to write one, but they wouldn’t be able to show it before 9.00PM.

17. Someone in Hollywood sees your statements about ‘Schwarzenegger fiction.’ Arnie himself rings you up and asks you to pen his next SF blockbuster. Yes or no?

Yes, just so long as there’s a suitably large advance involved. I’d probably suggest he takes a look at The Skinner and specifically at playing the part of one of the Old Captains.

18. Name five contemporary authors (non-SF) everyone reading this should read.

Off the top of my head: Richard Dawkins, Minette Walters, Bill Bryson, John Hersey, Philip Caputo.

Dawkins, because everyone should read ‘Selfish Gene’ (As you have yourself) to gain some real understanding of what they are.

Walters simply because she tells a bloody good story.

Bryson for his humour, and the English books.

Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ because we all need to be reminded.

And Caputo’s because ‘Rumour of War’ is one of the best Vietnam war books I’ve read.

But this list is just a ‘now’ list. It would have been different a year ago and will be different in a year, or even tomorrow. Lot of books out there, and many of those I’ve read and I’m just not remembering right now.

19. Ditto for SF authors?

Alastair Reynolds, Robert Reed, Richard Morgan, Iain M Banks, Ted Chiang. Every one of these has written absolute winners, respectively: Chasm City, Marrow, Altered Carbon, Use of Weapons, and Stories of your Life and Others.

20. If you ever do a Jeff Wayne-type thingy for one of your books, can I do the music? 🙂

Of course you can. It would be nice if someone could also create an AI Richard Burton to do the voice-over!

I’d like to thank Mr. Asher again for taking the time to answer my often rambling and vague questions. He’s a top bloke! 🙂