Neal Asher Interview

Conducted by John Berlyne

Neil's official site: bibliography, covers, future history chronology, thoughts: 

SFRevu: Can you tell us a little about your background? Where are you from? Are you a writer whose background features heavily in their work?

Neil Asher: I was born in Billericay in 1961 and have lived in Essex all my life. Unlike many writers I have read about I am not university educated but rather self-taught, though I guess having a father and mother who were a lecturer and a teacher respectively has had some influence on me (the best thing a teacher can teach is how to think). They are also SF readers and it was through them I was introduced to the  genre. As I have written elsewhere: since childhood everything has been of interest to me (writing, drawing, electronics, biology etc), but at some point in my teens decided I must concentrate on one thing only so as not to be a 'jack of all trades and master of none'. Writing SF works for me because it is inclusive of so much else - you must have some understanding of technology, biology, human nature, and have some creativity.

On the one hand I could say no, my background does not feature heavily in my work as I've never been in space, never fired a pulse-gun nor been pursued by a psychotic killing machine. On the other hand I think it true to say that for every writer's his background features heavily in his work - where else does it all come from? (You know, looking at that last sentence makes me realize how desperately the English language needs a non-gender pronoun covering his/hers him/her etc)

SFR: Who and what are your favorite authors (genre & non-genre), books (ditto), influences? Who are your favorite contemporary genre writers?

NA: My influences are spread far and wide in the genre as I've read huge amounts of SF in my life. Go from A for Aldis to Z for Zelazny and you'll cover all bets. Right now my favourite writers are (defined as those whose books I'm prepared to buy new from Ottakars) Iain M Banks - though I have to say that  I'd only buy his SF books and that the last one I didn't like - Terry Pratchett, Sheri Tepper, C. J. Cherryh, Peter Hamilton, Minette Walters (hugely impressed with her stuff), and ... there are others, but I'll stop there. Other influences include film and television, my favourites presently being Blade Runner, Excalibur, Aliens, Babylon 5, Gladiator, Terminator ... you perhaps get the general theme.

SFR: Can you tell us a little about your publishing history prior to Gridlinked? Are you more comfortable writing novels or short stories? Now that you have been picked up by a major publishing house, will you be abandoning small press work? You have written (so far unpublished) fantasy stuff. Which genre are you most comfortable with and why?

NA: I sometimes get confused about the timings here. I started writing in my teens, though in the beginning I was not so fanatical about it. For a long period I worked on fantasy: one longhand book which is gathering dust somewhere, then a trilogy plus the first book of a second. In my twenties I discovered the small presses and writer's postal workshops, went to evening classes to take an English A level (mainly to prove a point to myself) and my first SF short story was published by BBR in '89. All the way up this hill it has been one step at a time through piles of rejection letters: first a story here or there, then numbers of short stories taken by editors of magazines who liked just about everything I produced, serialized novellas, a novella published for a one-off payment by Club 199, then Tanjen publishing a novella then a short story collection, reviews becoming better and better ... All through this period I was banging off synopses and sample chapter to the big publishers (plus copies of said reviews) and of course finally one of them hit. I very much like the fact that I was taken on unagented and have since proven my abilities. The speed at which I more than doubled the size of the Gridlinked worried my publisher (he thought it might be padded crap), but he was delighted to discover it was better than the original - a story he apparently dines-out on. Now I'm in the editing process for the 'The Skinner' - a book he's been quite harsh with, simply because he wants to get absolutely right a book he considers might be a minor classic.

SFR: Where do the ideas behind Gridlinked comes from? The world of the novel is full of wonderful future tech concepts, what is the fascination with this? And with Edward Lear? How do you go about this type of world creation?

NA: A lot of the ideas in Gridlinked are standard SFnal ones - FTL drives, matter transmission, AI, androids - but I like to think I've put my own spin on these and introduced plenty of my own. The fascination with these stems from my reading and ... well, because I have a fascination with these. As to Edward Lear, I'll have to come clean about that: runcible appeared in some of my earlier work probably because it is similar to ansible - the instantaneous communication device (Aldis, I think) - and I built on the idea over time. Why I did so comes from a fascination I have with poetry, fiction, etc which leans to the whimsical/fantastical. I've no doubt that a Snark will appear in some future work - but probably as a cybernetic organism that needs to be hunted down. World-creation is complex: you create the world in which all your ideas and your story can fit, and the story and the ideas also create the world. I'll not go deeper than that as I've been discovering (in another interview) that more you try to nail-down the hows and whys the more they turn into fog.

SFR: It seems to be a very violent novel (the body count is huge!), did you set out to write such a violent book or do you blame your characters for their actions.

NA: Oh, it's all their fault. Let's be frank: I'm writing what I and many other people like to read (watch also). And for those who might frown upon this and say it should be stopped: I hate censorship and would throw more weight behind the argument calling for it to be removed. It is wrong. It is another mishandling of power that takes responsibility away from the individual and in effect makes individuals more irresponsible. I wonder just how many really scientific studies have been made of the effects of TV violence on the individual. None I would warrant, simply because it would be impossible. For one thing there is no possible control group for any experiment or study. All that has really been done is the kind of statistical analysis that comes up with the result that 'those who watch television violence are more likely to commit violence than those who do not watch it' which is a ridiculous statement. It can be taken to mean that violence on television makes people more violent. It can also be taken to mean that violent people are more likely to watch violence on television. Both interpretations render the analysis meaningless. But how about a reversal? There is a school of thought that believes TV violence to be cathartic, and that the people who watch it are likely to be more relaxed and less inclined to violence than they might have been. In Jung Chang's Wild Swans she describes China, during the cultural revolution, as a pressure cooker without the relief valves of spectator sports or violent films. Now there, I think, is a woman more fit to judge morality than the PC lunatics who consider they have the right.

SFR: Madness in various forms seems to feature - Dragon is thought to be insane and Pelter is a psychopath - it could easily be argued that Mr Crane is the Golem version of crazy. Any comments on this? Or on any of the other themes prevalent in the novel?

NA: I could tell a sweet rose-petal story of a future in which everyone is loved and lovable, then, unable to complete the first paragraph having shrivelled up to the size of a pea through boredom, I would return to the themes I love. Read any writing manual and the instruction will be 'conflict conflict conflict!' But I guess I took that too literally and thought conflict only involved big guns, psychotic aliens and killer androids ON EVERY PAGE! This reminds me of the Tanjen poster produced for 'The Engineer': Mysterious aliens ... Ruthless Terrorists ... Androids with Attitude ... Genetic Manipulation ... Punch-ups with Lasers ... Huge Spaceships ... What More Do You Want??????? (sic) Anyway, I like my villains villainous and my heroes heroic. I don't want to be dropping paragraphs in there telling how Pelter (for example) was abused as a child and bullied at school and that all he really needs is someone to love him. I'm of the school of thought which says "Screw the psychology. Hang the fucker!"

SFR: Would you like to live on a Polity world?

NA: Yes, simply because the far future visualised here is the ultimate meritocracy, the medical technology is such that ennui is the greatest cause of death, and there is some much to see and know. Of course, I wouldn't want to work for ECS - that'd be dangerous.

SFR: There is another book on the cards that is to be set in the same setting as Gridlinked. Will it feature Ian Cormac? Can you tell us a little about it?

NA: I was signed up for a three-book contract with Pan Macmillan. The Skinner (presently deep in the editing process) is set in the same future, but in one of the weirder backrooms. This novel has as its basis two short stories published in 'The Engineer' collection (Spatterjay and Snairls) and does not feature Ian Cormac. The technology is there, but the overriding theme is of a particularly strange and vicious planetary ecosystem and its effects on the resident human population (leeches that impart immortality with their bite, homicidal whelks, murderous crustaceans - oh, and psycho aliens, a policeman who has been dead for seven hundred years and still won't give up, hornet Hive minds... ). The third book, which I am working on between spells of editing The Skinner, is called 'The Line of Polity' and is a follow-up to Gridlinked. This book will have Cormac, more about Dragon, Shuriken, and probably the odd disposable psycho. It is interesting that with all I've learnt over the last year that, upon reviewing the original plot and the first thirty thousand words of Line (written a couple of years ago), I dispensed with most of it and started again. It wasn't good enough.

SFR: Tell us about your writing routine.

NA: Unfortunately I am not yet able to give up the day job, and in my case that is contract grass cutting through the summer. This works for me (I used to be a full-time engineer/toolmaker) in that I graft like buggery through the summer then have time, and sufficient funds, to write during the winter. I get up at the same time as my wife, go for a run, shower, sit and drink tea while filling in a page of my journal (the warm-up), then when she has gone to work I turn on the computer and just get on with it. If I am only writing something new (rather than editing, replying to emails, adjusting my website, filing my toenails) I read through what I wrote the day before then carry on. Like this I produce an average of about two thousand words a day. Sometimes I might only produce five hundred, but my record has been just over seven thousand. Of course, as the book increases in size the daily word-count goes down and down as I move back and forth through it, deleting, changing, adding etc to more firmly tie the story together.

SFR: How do you rate the current state of British SF talent? Do you see the genre changing over, say , the next ten years?

NA: The talent is there, just as it has always been. There are some excellent writers about, but beyond that I don't know what to add, other than whether or not they get published is an entirely different matter. Over the next ten years there will be more changes in the types of SF written than in the previous ten, simply because SF reflects current technological advancement and technological advancement is on an exponential curve. More people, I feel, will be reading SF because right now we have a whole generation who are reading and writing a lot more than previously (emails, text messaging etc). This generation is inclusive of those who, without computers and mobile phones, would never have written or read more than a road sign after leaving school. Factor in that their reading is being brought about by said  technological advancement ...

SFR: And finally the old chestnut!! - what advice do you have for the budding writer?

NA: Alright: If you want to earn a fortune, become an estate agent or solicitor. But if you want to he a writer: Buy books on English usage and constantly strive to get it right. If you're a writer, then write, don't agonise about your art. Join postal workshops, writer's circles, and accept valid criticism and learn by it, don't fall wounded on the pavement. When you've sent something off, don't sit with your thumb up your bottom, start work on something else. Keep a journal and write in it every day - be strict with yourself. If you feel that something you have written is not good enough, don't try to justify it, improve it. Please don't use writing for catharsis - unless in your journal - as there's nothing quite so boring and depressing: no one wants to read about the trauma of your recent divorce. Ask yourself who you are writing for - if yourself, then put it in the journal. Stick to the rules of submission: double-spaced on one side of an A4 sheet, one-inch margins, cover sheet with title, word count, name and address, a brief covering letter and return postage. Never think you having nothing more to learn, never give up, and never become arrogant with success. And finally, what the hell are you doing reading this when you should be writing?

SFR: Thanks Neal!

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu