Stealing Light (review)
Many thanks for taking the time out of your undoubtedly busy schedule to answer a few questions. First off, could you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write – and why science fiction?
I started writing when I was about fourteen, then took a break until my mid-twenties. I can’t remember when I started reading SF, but it was pretty young, I think. Marvel comics too. Your brain’s still forming important neural connections until you’re something like 21, so if you pick up a serious interest before that it can end up hardwired into your brain and personality. SF is now a fundamental part of who I am and the way I view the world. It’s definitely the cognitive dissonance that did it for me back then, the sense of having your sense of reality jarred by some seriously mindblowing idea.
Some of the books I read back then came from my Dad, who was a journalist for Glasgow newspapers for many years, and since he shared a desk with the guy who wrote book reviews he brought home a lot of SF for myself and my older brother, since none of it ever got reviewed in the papers. I read Heinlein and Asimov, and they were definitely part of that process of self-induced indoctrination, but so were writers like Harlan Ellison and JG Ballard, even though I didn’t always understand what I was reading when I was younger. My brother read a lot of sf too – his bedroom was literally wallpapered with pages taken from SF Monthly, an enormous fold-out magazine from the mid-Seventies filled with amazing illustrations by people like Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington (http://www.sfcovers.net/Magazines/SFMB/tnpage01.htm). I definitely nicked some books from him.
I came back to the idea of writing in my mid-twenties after a desperately abortive attempt at being a rock guitarist. Let’s just say it didn’t work out, and a damn good thing too. Most of the budding musicians I met back then were endowed with levels of self-delusion that utterly beggar belief. I came close to a fist-fight in a rehearsal room as the result of what might loosely be termed ‘musical differences’ and realised I was wasting my life with would-be bands that always broke up before even so much as playing a gig. After that particular incident it occurred to me that if I tried writing again, I didn’t have to deal with anyone but an editor. It seemed so deliciously simple. I stopped playing music for good there and then, wrote a short story within twenty-four hours and sent it to Interzone. It didn’t sell, of course, but I just kept writing and writing and joined a writer’s circle just after scoring my first short story sale in 1990.
That was the first epiphany. The second in the early 00’s when I decided to make getting a novel published my absolute top priority. I resolved to keep working and working until I damn well sold a book or died in the attempt. I started up my blog as a way to chivvy myself along – and rapidly sold Angel Stations, to my considerable surprise.
What books and authors have influenced you and your writing?
Where to start? Dick, Ellison, Ballard, (the other) Gibson, Sterling, Neal Stephenson … and about a thousand others. Or rather, they’ve inspired me to write, but I don’t know whether any of them have influenced my writing style.
I would also have to say that certain publications influenced me – I used to jones like crazy for my issue of Interzone to come through the front door back in the Eighties. Interzone was one of the few things that made that grim and grey decade bearable for me.
Do you still find time to read, and if so anything in particular?
I read a lot more now since I got a Sony Reader. There aren’t too many English-language books for sale where I’m living these days. One of the drawbacks is not everything I want is available electronically, but I’ve been reading a combination of bought texts and stuff freely given away on sites like Tor.com and elsewhere. In terms of SF, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Robert Charles Wilson, whose Spin is utterly outstanding. I highly rate Anathem. Stephenson’s stuff sometimes really screws with my head – and my patience – but he’s one of those writers with whom if you just persevere, you find yourself diving headfirst into a series of gloriously demented headfucks and eyeball kicks. Cory Doctorow’s books also just seem to get better and better. Sometimes he misses, but mostly he hits the mark.
Otherwise I’ve found myself rediscovering short fiction in the forms of anthologies, particularly a few of those edited by John Joseph Adams. Short fiction works *very* well on ebook readers. I’ve also been reading a fair bit of non-fiction – stuff about Iraq seems to have featured greatly in my diet. I recommend Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast in particular. Bonkers stuff, and all true. Non-fiction about current ideas in science also features quite a bit in my diet – a good source for ideas.
How do you go about your writing – are you a meticulous planner, make it up as you go or somewhere in between? Do you have a regular routine when you’re writing?
I’m pretty disorganised and not nearly as disciplined as I’d like to be, but I still try and get a certain amount done each day. I’m mentally and habitually messy. The writing’s been a tiny bit fallow recently, because I’ve been working out a plot for the next book, and ideas tend to come when they want to, not when I want them to. It’s frustrating waiting for an idea to fully germinate, but it’s finally starting to move along where the next book is concerned..
I sometimes tell people I ‘guilt’ myself into writing. When I start to feel guilty about not having done anything, that’s when I start getting work done. And however messy my habits may be, I do get it done. I tend to plan stuff out quite heavily, however – the outline for Stealing Light was close on twenty thousand words. Most outlines I write are at least several thousand words long. Now there’s diagrams as well. Big, scary diagrams. I can’t write anything now unless I know precisely what’s going to happen at every single step of the story from beginning to end.
Along with some other published authors, including Hal Duncan and Mike Cobley, you’re a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers Circle. Has being a part of this helped you in your approach to writing and editing?
I think it’s helped a great deal. I think writer’s circles are very useful both for giving yourself a social context for your writing when you’re still in the early learning stages, as well as figuring out how to put words in the right order along with a bunch of people of a more or less equal level of skill. What also helped was that the GSFWC liked to style itself as an ‘anarchist collective’ in the sense that nobody was really running it except whoever felt like it at any particular time, although in reality that naturally devolved to a single person who took on certain necessary duties. Although it certainly helped me a great deal, I’ve noticed that when people start to sell and develop a career, they’ll increasingly show stuff not to the whole circle, but to a smaller group comprised mostly of other pro’s.
In a sense, what makes you a better writer is learning to internalise the various members of a writer’s circle until you can literally anticipate their objections in your head while you’re writing alone at home. When you get to the point where you know exactly what somebody would say about a particular sentence you’ve written, and understand why they would say it, that’s when you’re really getting somewhere.
Angel Stations and the two Shoal Novels, Stealing Light and Nova War, are Space Opera – do you favour this specifically or do the stories you want to tell naturally fit this sub-genre?
I love space opera, but I love lots of different types of sf too. Starting fairly early in your career you have to pick one genre or sub-genre and pretty much stick with it, because that’s what the market expects. That’s fine, because I really enjoy writing space opera, and I hope to be writing it for quite a long time. But one of these days I’m going to have to take some time out to do something different. Almost certainly sf, but not space opera. Maybe under a pseudonym.
(LS) I read your debut “Angel Stations” pretty much on publication after some great reviews made me order it “unseen” from the UK and it made me a big time fan. The novel is quite an ambitious one with several shifting POV’s and action that moves between a relatively familiar Earth and an alien planet. I think that everyone who loves your Dakota Merrick series should give it a try since it fits comfortably in the “New Space Opera” niche, though it has some “near future” vibes too; how would you describe it to someone new to your work?
As a first novel, really. I was trying out ideas in Angel Stations I’d had stored in my head for years. If I’d describe it as anything, I’d call it ‘almost too ambitious’. I had enough in there for a trilogy, although I should say I don’t see myself returning to that particular world. I’m having too much fun inventing new ones. But novels like Stealing Light certainly built on the experience I gained from ‘Stations.
(LS) Your second novel “Against Gravity” is a very different one both from Angel Stations and the current series; it is set mostly on Earth with some action in the Solar System and it is both a personal journey and a political undertone. From the striking beginning “It began on the day when Kendrick Gallmon’s heart stopped beating for ever” to the superb open ended finale, “Against Gravity” is a page turner following Kendrick’s path of revenge and coming to terms with what happened, as well as the backstory that seemed a real possibility when the novel was published though it has receded somewhat today. Would you write this novel in the same way today or would you change the geopolitical setup?
I don’t think I could write any of my books the same way if I had a second chance to do so, because you change over time as a writer. It’s partly based around the notion of the dissolution of the US, and that might happen in ten years time, or a hundred, or a thousand. Nothing lasts forever, especially not nations on that scale. Technology and history will bring change eventually; it might be violent, it might be peaceful, it might be so gradual a shift that only historians would be able to discern the fact long after it had taken place. That part of it, I think, would almost certainly remain the same, and that view of the US was influenced by the observation that almost no one predicted the collapse of, for example, the Soviet Union. Some of the biggest historical shifts are ‘black swan’ events that only appear inevitable with the benefit of hindsight. And besides, it’s a great source of story conflict.
(LS) What is about augmented people (Elias, Kendrick – even though against his will, Dakota) that fascinates you so you make them the focus of your novels?
I think Against Gravity and the use of implant technology, certainly, was at least partly influenced by a UK writer I hugely admire called Simon Ings, although this didn’t occur to me until I’d actually finished writing Gravity. Technological augmentation seems a fairly reasonable step forward for human beings, though in reality I suspect it may be rather more subtle and less physically intrusive than what I’ve described.
If you study the work of any author closely, you’ll see certain themes or ideas recur in their work. That’s because once they’ve worked out one set of implications derived from a particular idea, they might come up with a whole new bunch of implications from that idea. Basically, I hadn’t finished with the idea of implants when I finished Against Gravity. I think the reason they extended into Stealing Light was because for one very brief moment when I was still outlining ‘Light, it occurred to me to set it in the far future of Against Gravity. I decided against that within seconds, but from that moment the idea of an implant-equipped navigator stuck with me. Besides, it gave Dakota a certain uniqueness within her environment that allowed her alone to communicate with the derelict starship, so in another sense the requirements of the story drove the decision to use implants as well.
(LS) In a follow up to the previous question, how do you see this developing in our future? Do you think “augmenting” people will be possible soon? Acceptable to society at large?
That’s a tricky one. The first augments will undoubtedly be the disabled, which Anne McCaffrey saw coming a long time ago. A lot of us are already augmented – people have heart implants, or artificial limbs, you name it. I have a plastic lens in one eye. According to some, like Hans Moravec, a lot of us already are augmented.
You might even argue that in a world of internet technology and mobile phones, we’re all augmented. There’s no real reason augmentations have to be physically implanted in one’s body. I think we’ll see a kind of common technological telepathy coming into play over the next fifty or so years in the form of wearable or skin-contact telecommunications technology. Our children’s children are going to learn to think in a very different way from their grandparents. I find that notion endlessly exciting.
Without giving away too much can you briefly outline Nova War?
It leads on immediately from the end of Stealing Light, with Lucas and Dakota captured by a Bandati Hive. They’re out in the wider universe now, learning all the stuff Trader and the Shoal never wanted humanity to know. Their presence, along with their Magi ship, is enough to trigger war between rival Hives who want to grab the power the Magi ship represents. One Hive sides with the Shoal, the other with a previously unknown FTL-enabled species called the Emissaries who’ve been at war with the Shoal for a long, long time.
One of the things that struck me about Nova War was the alien species and societies that were present. I found them very believable and they gave an excellent viewpoint to aspects of the story. Where do you start when creating these and how easy/difficult is the process?
I wish I knew how to tell you because sometimes I find myself wondering just where this stuff comes from. I wrote a new species for Empire of Light and thought, ‘where the hell did that come from?’ I found with the Bandati that one idea kicked off another. The Bandati towers were inspired by photos I saw of Ethiopian termite nests which are like mud chimneys, sometimes reaching several metres in height, Once I’d thought of sticking ledges all over the Bandati version of the towers, I found myself developing a whole reproductive cycle for them that didn’t even get into the book; one idea generates another, and that generates another. I figured if the eggs are on the ground, when they hatch, an individual’s standing in his society is determined by how high he can fly, and therefore which tower platform he reaches first. Say each platform carries certain foodstuffs that trigger certain genetic changes on ingestion, and the social role of the individual is thereby fixed. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘high flyer’.
With Nova War, I definitely deliberately set out to come up with the most batshit ideas possible. I wanted to give readers as many ‘wtf’ moments as I could possibly manage. Hence the hungry restaurant. I just loved that notion of a living restaurant that’s perpetually on the edge of eating its diners. I’m so damn proud of that. I think I was channeling Douglas Adams there.
(LS) When reading the Dakota Merrick series which is just superb sf, new space opera at its best, I was struck by the many references to the genre. Freehold is the obvious one, maybe not quite what Heinlein intended but an homage nonetheless, while the Uchidans are probably the next obvious example, but I thought a lot of other names, places and even species are a twist on old and new offerings in the genre. Was that intentional and how do you see the “big picture sf” or space opera if you want, through the whole sff genre perspective?
The references were partly intentional, and partly an unconscious regurgitation of everything I’ve read in my entire life that affected me in any way. It’s very hard to be genuinely original – not that I don’t try. But I was aware that I was treading on familiar territory, and in a sense I felt freed by being able to deliberately stick in references throughout Stealing Light, particularly the very deliberate nod to Iain Banks (the reference to The Wasteland’), and a couple of other bits and pieces where I was winking heavily to the reader. The Freehold started off as a kind of Heinleinian nod, definitely. but I’m greatly inclined to believe that any society riffing off of that particular set of values is likely to end up extremely marginalised, as the Freehold do. A bunch of guys telling you’re they’re always right and under the delusion of super-competence are going to be nothing but trouble. That kind of unwavering self-belief is also one reason the Freehold are perpetually losing ground to the Uchidans. They need to wake up and smell the coffee, but simply can’t.
(LS) Another topic of the series regards the dangers of technology and the price of progress. Do you think that ftl travel at the cost from the series is worthwhile and could allow an equilibrium to develop or is a Nova War inevitable?
Difficult moral dilemmas are great to play with in a book, and in Stealing Light I was trying to figure out just what the right thing to do would be under that particular set of circumstances. In all honesty I still don’t really know the answer. I firmly believe that none of us really know ourselves until we find ourselves in the kind of difficult, possibly life-threatening situation that can test your core values. It can be being caught in a war, or jumped by muggers, or having to help somebody who’s had an accident. I also suspect that in real life, there are some situations where any outcome is a bad one, that somebody’s always going to get hurt, and I wanted to reflect that in the story. Trader certainly thinks a nova war inevitable, and it’s that belief that leads him down a very dark path in Nova War. Think of the Dakota books as me trying to figure out the answers as I go along. Dakota tries to do what she thinks is morally right, but again … the best laid plans, as you’ll see in the new book.
The events of Nova War lead to a very interesting point – what can we expect from the next book in the series, Empire of Light?
Empire goes slightly back to the format of Stealing Light, in that much of the action is focused around a single mission on one ship. There are very clear consequences to the events at the end of Nova War that I try to address. Saying anything more might give too much away.
Will you be doing any signings or appearances for the Nova War release? If so, where will these be held should anyone want to go along?
Not for Nova War, since I’m currently living in Taipei in the Far East (Good food, and everything’s dirt cheap). But I’m aiming to be back in the UK next year, at which point I (and my wife) will immediately feel poor again. If I did do anything, it would probably be down south somewhere like London, assuming my editor thought it was a good idea. But I do enjoy conventions. I’d like to make it to next year’s Eastercon, so I’ve tentatively – tentatively – pencilled that in, depending on various hard-to-predict circumstances. So I can whine at everyone about how expensive everything in Britain is.
Recently both you and your publisher, Tor UK, put up two possible designs for the book cover of Empire of Light in what I thought was an great move and one to get feedback from the fans who would end up buying the book, sometimes based on the cover alone. What did you think of this idea and are you pleased with the feedback received from it?
It was my editor Julie Crisp’s idea, and I thought it was a great one. I was really pleased so many people voted in just a day or two. I might have kept it running longer, but it was pretty obvious from very early on just which one was going to win by a very, very wide margin. .
What do you think your strengths are as a writer and storyteller?
I’m terrible at analysing my own writing – I’m sort of ‘blind’ to it, in a sense. I sometimes think it would be nice if I could be hypnotised to not recognise my own stuff when I read it so I can know what I think of it. But apparently my stuff makes people want to turn the page, and turn the page, and turn the page, and that’s pretty good. I like being able to write stories that make people just want to keep reading all night until they’ve finished, as some people have told me they do.
And any weaknesses or areas that you feel you need to work on or improve?
As long as I keep getting better, I’m happy. I’m constantly trying to improve my writing. I think if you slack off and just coast, you’re doomed creatively. Even though like I say I’m rubbish at being objective about my own stuff, I do try to be regardless and perhaps I’m getting better at it.
Regular readers of your blog will know that you’ve been looking into different projects for the future away from your typical output. Are these going to be a complete change of scenery or are you still looking at genre-related stuff, for instance fantasy?
There are several good ideas on the back burner that like I said earlier I would love to work on, but my main priority right now is my stuff for Pan Macmillan. What I’m doing is writing up rough notes and outlines and allowing myself a day or so a week to spend on them. It’s stuff I might one day write concomitant with the spacier stuff, or it might just end up in a drawer. I’m sometimes greatly tempted by fantasy, but not of the sword and sorcery variety – I could never get into it. If by ‘fantasy’ you mean Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ (one of my all-time favourite books), or Harlan Ellison or Lucius Shepard or Paul Di Filippo’s stuff, then yes. Or even Jonathan Carroll, another favourite writer – not that I could hope in a million years to write anywhere near as well as any of those guys. Not worthy, etc.
I do like the idea of doing some kind of incredibly far-future science fantasy, I must admit, although I have zero ideas for stories in that style. What can I say? I’m like every other writer, with a million and one ideas bursting to get out of my head, and only so much time and energy to write them.
Anything else you’d like to add?