Interview: Stephen Baxter
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Unassigned
Date: January 01, 2004 List Price 0.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Feature Coverage: Stephen Baxter Interview / Coalescent / Time's Eye
SFRevu: Your essay "The Moon Is Hell" (Astronomy Now, September 1998) concluded with the comment that
"the Moon may be, after all, the stepping-stone to the future. Earth is probably unique. But we can expect to find small rocky worlds like the Moon everywhere. If we can live off the land on the Moon, we can live anywhere."
What was your reaction to President Bush's new Space Initiative, in which he echoed this and a number of other sentiments that the SF community have espoused about our nearest neighbor?
Stephen Baxter: It sounds like a welcome outbreak of common sense! The new Crew Exploration Vehicle sounds like a return to the Apollo design idea: To go back to the Moon will teach us how to survive on an alien world, as well as being a wonderful opportunity for exploration in its own right. I know the Mars buffs say the Moon is a distraction, but I believe that such a test bed only three days away has been crying out to be used. I hope that Bush Junior's vision sticks longer than Bush Senior's however. I will feel lucky to have been born early enough to see Apollo, and yet live to see son-of-Apollo.
SFR: What do you think about the manned versus robotic exploration of space question? Though we often hear people say that it's not exciting unless humans are at risk, I think we underestimate our ability to anthropomorphize devices. I've always felt bad for Clarke's Hal-9000 in 2001, and yes, the cell phone in Time's Eye is one of my favorite characters, though I wish it had gotten more air time.
Baxter: Absolutely. The Pathfinder showed that, and now the new rovers. But these are substitutes for humans, and you can only do real science, especially when you encounter the unexpected, with humans there. So I'm all for sending people where possible. With the new Bush program it's interesting that sending humans back to the Moon will actually stimulate a new robot exploration effort, such as to look for ice at the Moon's poles. They work together.
SFR: In Titan, I loved the idea of taking all the old space hardware and using it up rather than letting it disintegrate. I suppose it would be cheaper to build it all from scratch, but have you talked about that with anyone in the space program?
Baxter: I did at the time I researched Titan. It's probably too late for the Saturns; they let them rust away. But when the post-Columbia task groups studied the question of a new Apollo-like craft, they actually talked about using the old museum pieces as test beds, if not flight articles! In Titan I predicted a shuttle crash about when it happened; I'd be pleased if a happier prediction came true too.
SFR: Compared to the old-fashioned Space Opera, your visions of the future are, pardon me for saying it, often somewhat grim. No bold exploration for mankind, just cobbling together pieces of old programs for desperate dashes to near worlds, or to be latecomers to greater cosmic games that we offer little to. What do you have against hubris?
Baxter: I don't accept the grimness! Read my earlier Xeelee novels for instance to see humans swooping around the Galaxy. But I do go for realism; right now spaced travel is tough and dangerous, and I don't believe there's anything wrong in showing that. You have to be brave and tough to do it. And after all, in Titan they get there in the end. And as for being grim, for an sf writer optimism is just a question of timescale. You could say that anybody writing about humans surviving more than say 100 years from now is an incurable optimist!
SFR: Comedienne Lily Tomlin once quipped, "Remember, we're all in this alone." You've said that you think we're probably the only intelligence out there, that if intelligent life with a predisposition to space faring was out there, we'd see the evidence. Ok, so do you still think that?
Baxter: I'm afraid so. It's the only answer that fits the evidence. But I hope I'm wrong, and my best reason for thinking I may be is that we're just such small creatures with limited perceptions. A lion looking at a cameraman in a game park sees a source of meat, but has no conception of the Discovery Channel. Maybe they're all around us but we're just not capable of seeing them.
SFR: If we are alone, then all this looking for a father figure in the stars isn't going to help. What do you think the chances are we'll grow up and take responsibility for ourselves?
Baxter: High. Well, we've got no choice!
SFR: Speaking of growing up, where did you grow up, and, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy? Do you remember the first book you read?
Baxter: I grew up in Liverpool. England. I was imprinted on sf by Gerry Anderson TV shows, notably Fireball XL5, wonderful monochrome space opera. That led me to the literature through tie-ins. Not sure about the first SF book I ever read – I do remember latching onto Voyage of the Space Beagle by AE Van Vogt, because it reminded me of Star Trek! And now as it happens I was involved, offering public support, to the real-life space Beagle project.
SFR: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
Baxter: Yes, I used to make up tales for my kid sister. Then I moved to trying to draw comic books, and writing SF stories as best I could. I got key advice from a teacher, a professional writer, who encouraged me to be professional about the whole business from the beginning.
SFR: How did your first short story sale, (The Xeelee Flower: Interzone 1986) come about? Had you written much before that?
Baxter: I had about twenty stories in the can – some in retrospect not so bad – and I'd ploughed through a complete novel. For a while I aimed for simple 'gadget-and-jeopardy' stories, just to get something sellable. I came up with the idea while doodling watching a dull late-night soccer game. I'd been submitting stories for years but was pleased that Interzone had come along as a stable market.
SFR: Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Or failing that, who among your characters would you most like to be? Reid Malefant?
Baxter: No favorite book; I always try to look ahead to the next one. But The Time Ships was a big breakthrough for me. Yes, I like Malenfant; I like his doggedness in the face of an impossible universe, time after time. Kind of a Philip K Dick character, I like to think. But I also like Michael Poole of the Xeelee stories, an engineer who doggedly achieves great things, and Natalie York of Voyage, who doggedly gets to be first on Mars. Dogged, that's me!
SFR: Of all the people who've worked collaboratively with Arthur C. Clarke, you're the only one whose co-authored works give me a real "meeting of minds" feeling. Your latest collaboration, Time's Eye, combines themes from each of your universes and I'm very much looking forward to its conclusion in the next book. When did you first meet Arthur C. Clarke? How did you come to work with him on writing projects?
Baxter: I met Arthur over ten years ago when he came to England for the Clarke Award ceremony; I was nominated for my first novel. He was very kind about Time Ships and we made email contact that way. Later I interviewed him for a British magazine, and in the process came up with an idea for a collaborative story, a sequel to one of Arthur's early works. That went well, and later Arthur produced the outline for Light of Other Days, sought out a collaborator, and picked me. It's very cool to work with somebody whose work utterly dominated my life when I was a teenager.
SFR: In a CNN interview you said that working by email you "…could kind of forget that it was Arthur and imagine he was one of my writing buddies." Who are your writing buddies? Are you part of "The New Space Opera?" Who do you count as like minded souls?
Baxter: Buddies – mostly the British writers of about my age, like Paul McAuley, Kim Newman, Peter Hamilton, Eric Brown (with whom I collaborated), Ian McDonald. All like-minded souls I would say and we see each other quite a lot; the UK SF scene is small and concentrated compared to America I think. 'The New Space Opera' – I don't really buy this; 'space opera' as a term is now so over-used it doesn't mean anything much I don't think. And I don't see myself as part of any 'movement'. I like to think after 20+ books I've found my own voice!
SFR: Does the future look like you expected? Does Science Fiction have a prognosticative role or does it only provide a stage to talk about the immutable human condition.
Baxter: I'm not sure I accept your either-or! SF is not futurology, but it does train the mind to at least think about the possibility of change in the future. When developments such as cloning come along, the sf of the past is very useful in shaping the way we react, I think; we can at least anticipate the consequences. And who says the human condition is immutable? Not in my books it isn't'!
SFR: You studied the early Science Fictions authors, like Wells, and have even carried his thinking forward in Time Ships, where you examined the consequences of governments getting hold of the Time Machine. Does technology necessarily empower the state and control the individual, or can it empower both to maintain a balance of freedom?
Baxter: Again I'm not sure I accept your either-or. Technology changes everything, all the rules, and it stays changed. The invention of the printing press, say, with the mass literacy that followed, totally changed the relationship of state and individual. Maybe the Internet is doing the same now.
SFR: Would you like your writing to change the way people view the world?
Baxter: Yes, in the sense of giving perspective. SF has educated people about our place in the universe, even if only in a simple way; far more people today know that the stars are suns, say, and are very far away, because of sf (mostly media) than any formal education I'm sure. All my work is about change, and the consequences for us; if people start to accept that the future will be an alien country, that's great.
SFR: Is the sequel to Time's Eye finished? When will it come out?
Baxter: Not finished. It's called Sunstorm. I believe it will be out from Del Rey in January 2005.
SFR: What's next?
Baxter: I'm also working on a series of solo novels called Destiny's Children beginning with Coalescent out last year; the second of those, Exultant, should be out by the end of 2004.