Interview: Adam Roberts
by Ernest Lilley
Adam Roberts Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0702ARI
Date: 26 February 2007
Links: Author's Website / Gradisil Review (Mar '02 SFRevu) / Show Official Info /
Adam Roberts: Actually, no: my very first novel Salt, way-back-when, was shortlisted for the Clarke. That year the prize was won by an author, I don't know, you may have heard of him...China Mieville ... don't know if his name rings any bells …
SFRevu: Though Gradisil came to our attention thanks to Lou Anders of Pyr, it was originally published by Gollancz in the UK. Who's your editor there and how was the book received in the UK?
Adam: My editor at Gollancz is the estimable Simon Spanton, a brilliant editor and also (I'm happy to say) a friend of mine. Didn't you guys interview him a month or so back?
Gradisil came out March 2006 and was received as most of my novels have been received; which is to say, some reviewers and readers have really loved it, and some have hated it. My writing seems to divide readers sharply. I remain uncertain whether that's a good thing or not. I'm SF marmite. Mind you, you may not have come across marmite....
SFRevu: I'm sorry to say that Gradisil is the first book of yours we've encountered. Fortunately, we liked it. Is it the best you've done, and which should we read next?
Adam: Is it the best I've done? I think it is, but I do believe that authors are very poor judges of their own work, or at least that judgments like that are the readers', not the author's, business. As writer I'm way too close to it to be able to assess how well a novel works. Specifically, as writer I'm trying to tell a couple of stories, develop certain characters and do some worldbuilding, but I'm also trying to do new things with style, novelistic form, to work-in theme and symbol, to construct interesting aesthetic patterns on several levels. Most readers, I'd say, are interested in the first three of those things; whereas there are writers who are interested predominantly in the last few. That can warp your sense of what you''ve done. Finnegans Wake is a marvel, but it is all-but unreadable. And what use is a novel that's unreadable?
What should you read next? Of my books you should probably pick up Stone (2002), which is the novel from my backlist that's probably had the broadest range of positive responses: a mashup Jack Vance/Iain M. Banks galaxy romance about the cosmos's last serial killer imprisoned within a star, who is hired, by whom he knows not, to murder the population of an entire planet.
But, you know what? Even better advice under the "what to read next?" rubric would be to browse Pyr's catalogue. They're putting some really amazing titles out there. Personally I'd especially recommend Ian McDonald's sizzling Brasyl, and Justina Robson's superfun Keeping it Real, both fantastic books. Plus, that way, you'll be keeping current.
SFRevu: On your site, you mention a previously unknown work: "The Palgrave Critical History of Science Fiction" (2005). What prompted you to do it and what was/is it all about? Just how far back do you think SF really goes? (By the way, we'd actually requested one a while back, and I'm sure it will show up...soon.) (See: The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts / www.sfrevu.com/php/Review-id.php?id=3706)
Adam: One of the things I teach at Royal Holloway, University of London is SF; so being a critic of SF goes with that territory. When Palgrave approached me to write a history of SF I jumped at the chance: it finally gave me the excuse to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge of the genre. Like a lot of fans I'd read pretty widely, but in a scattershot manner and mostly in the twentieth century. The Palgrave history goes right back to ancient Greece.
What is it all about? It argues that whilst fantasy in the broadest sense has always been a part of human culture, science fiction as such starts at around 1600, and its development is all tangled up as much with the Reformation as with developments in science and technology. It's a bit more complicated than that. They didn't send you a copy yet? Tch. A paperback is coming out later this year. I'll make sure you get one of those.
SFRevu: We were going to crib the picture of you from the "What an Adam Roberts looks like...more or less" link on your website...but wait a minute that's not you. Unless you're really Kiefer Sutherland doing a promotion for 24. How long have you had this delusion? Just how much 24 have you watched?
Adam: I'm English. We English really don't do handsome. The truth is I look like a cod with a sandy hairdo. My sister thinks I look a bit like Kiefer Sutherland, but, honestly, I don't. A more accurate image of me on my website is the one drawn by my daughter when she was three. Although, then again, in that one I look a little like Hitler.
SFRevu: Do you watch much media SF, drama, or whatever? Do you game? Is media what came after literature? Is reading doomed?
Adam: I watch enormous amounts of TV, and see as many films as I can. I used to game, but games are the most time-consuming pastime I know (apart from writing novels; and creating animated movies) and when my daughter was born five years ago gaming was one of the things squeezed out by the increasing pressures of not ignoring my family altogether, of holding down a day-job and of continuing to write. Is reading doomed? No; its pleasures are so profound and multifarious there will always be a significant minority of the world's population who will read. But it's a simple fact of the world today that media SF has taken over from print SF as the dominant form of the genre. This, as it happens, is something I talk about in my Palgrave book. SF and Fantasy books sell to fans, and make small sums of money, or in some cases lose their publisher small sums of money. SF and Fantasy films dominate the box office … the only film in the top ten grossing films of all time that's not SF is Titanic; otherwise it's all, like, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jurassic Park films. Go here: imdb's All Time Gross Boxoffice Films and you'll see that, assuming we call Finding Nemo and Lion King (with their talking animals and fantastically rendered environments) 'Fantasy', then, going down the chart, you don't hit another non-SF, non-Fantasy film until you reach The Da Vinci Code at number 21. And it would be stretching things to call that a 'realist film'.
The point is that people love SF and Fantasy—on screen. And I think this has changed the logic of the genre. The most culturally ubiquitous SF has been visual SF, and almost always worked through by a 'visual spectacularism' predicated upon special effects, the creation of visually impressive alternate worlds, the realisation of events and beings liable to amaze. In part because of this, I think, SF has become less centrally a 'literature of ideas' and become much more to do with images: I'm talking about both conventional poetic or literary images, but more strikingly potent visual imagery that penetrates culture more generally. It is in the nature of images that they cannot be parsed, explicated and rationalised in the way 'ideas' can. Accordingly there is something oblique about the workings of the best SF of the later century; something allusive and affective that can be difficult exactly to pin down. My favourite SF films are not necessarily the most mind-expanding, but they are the most beautiful: 2001.
Literature can respond to that in a number of ways. It could, for instance, circle its wagons, retrench, refuse to accept (or loudly deplore the fact that) the world has changed and carry on writing Golden Age SF. Or it could expose itself to new possibilities. Personally, image and metaphor are absolutely central to the way I try to write. I tend, in other words, to align SF with poetry. Which is to say, it seems to me that the key moments in the SF of the last half-century have been in essence poetic moments. It's the resonance and mystery as well as a the beauty of a poetic image is what makes luminous (as it might be) an ape throwing its bone into the sky to metamorphose into a spacecraft; or the star-drenched sky of the final paragraph of "Nightfall"; or Wyndham's unsettling Midwich children; or Carrie-Anne Moss suspended in mid-air kung-fu as the camera sweeps all the way around her; or the eerie silences of the first two books of Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt. There are many hundreds of examples from the best SF, and they all work precisely the way poetic images work. It's one of the best ways written SF can learn from the success of the genre on the screen.
SFRevu: As a small child, growing up in Kent, did you read much SF? Do you remember a special moments when you realized that it was really good stuff?
Adam: I barely read anything except science fiction. I grew up, first of all, in South London (my family moved to Kent when I was nine); but in both places I was plugging religiously through anything SF I could lay my hands on, from the awful (there seemed to be a lot of Perry Rhodan novels around when I was a kid) to the great: Asimov, James Blish, Heinlein, Christopher Priest ... Priest was my 'really good stuff' moment, actually: sitting in my Canterbury bedroom reading Inverted World and Indoctrinaire and Fugue for a Darkening Island and thinking, you know, wow. Just, 'wow!'.
SFRevu: Assuming the previous question got a yes...are you over it now, or do you still think there's really good stuff being written, and if so, by whom?
Adam: My tastes are much wider now, but I still read SF all the time. Absolutely there is still really good stuff being written. Most of the best writers working in any kind of genre at the moment are writing SF.
SFRevu: Do you write for yourself or some hypothetical reader?
Adam: Well, the actual process of writing for me is an elaborate process of self-distraction — I always have music on, usually loud and guitarry, when I write — because if the self pokes himself in he'll tut and shake his head and the whole process will freeze and writer's block will creep along my arms as I fret to make each sentence perfect before moving on to the next... So the self is a hindrance rather than an asset, at least until the revision process begins. And secondly, being a professional writer is about mastering a craft, not about ego-glorious Romantic self-expression. Much of what I write, stories, parodies, this and that, is commissioned by specific people. So, in those circumstances, I write for them. If you hired a carpenter to build you a walk-in closet, and he instead built you a twenty-foot contorted wooden sculpture in the garden 'because the muse told him to', you'd be pretty annoyed with him. Writing's not so different.
SFRevu: Fantasy seems to be running roughshod over SF here in the US, though less so in the UK. You lot went and started the whole thing off with Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and all those others ...yet now you're writing sensible stuff while we're running amok with elves. Why is that?
Adam: That's a real big question you're asking, there. Long answer short, then shortened some more, and finally boiled down to the point where it becomes impossibly over-condensed, would have to do with the difference between a literature of the fantastic that refracts the actual world back to us in informative or beautifully-strange new ways, and a literature of the fantastic that provides nothing more than wish-fulfilment escapism. You think there's any reason that America, in general, wants to, you know, escape an unpleasant reality right now, and fly away to a magic land where they can ride dragons and slay evildoers with swords and so on?
SFRevu: Does being a science fiction author hurt your credibility as an academic teaching at a University in the UK? Or don't they know that nobody respects science fiction?
Adam: I get the best of both worlds. I get to call myself a writer without lying, but my co-workers don't feel envious or bitter about me because they know I'm only a writer of SF.
SFRevu: I have to say, you've got a lot of impressive academic stuff in your CV. Though I think the one that caught my eye the most was the very last bit, a conference paper titled: 'Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos: holocaust fiction' from the one-day conference 'Death and Technology', Birkbeck London 2003. Ok, I'll bite. Sounds lovely. What was that about?
Adam: In brief: Wyndham, whom everybody agrees was a deeply humane and lovely man, wrote a seriously spooky book in The Midwich Cuckoos. What happens at the end of that novel is that a sane, normal man kills dozens of children in order to safeguard 'society' and keep it pure. His action is coded as 'heroic'; but it's a pretty strange and savage way to end a novel—killing children. Now, this happens in a book written barely a decade after the second world war, a conflict in which the Nazis (of course) specifically murdered hundreds of thousands of children in order (they said) 'to safeguard society'. My paper is an attempt to excavate some of the ironies and potencies of the novel, in that context. I'm not, by the way, arguing that Wyndham was a closet genocidist, or anything like that; in terms of the novel, the children clearly are an actual threat. But the context in which a book is written and into which it is received shapes the ways we interpret it. In World War II, Wyndham took part in the Normandy landings and was part of that wave of allied troops that swept through northern Europe and liberated the death camps. I don't know whether he was in any of the British companies that did liberate camps, but he must have been aware of the holocaust earlier than most. I take The Midwich Cuckoos to be a fable in part about the trauma of that monstrous event. Characters in the book talk about the children as 'a racial danger of the most urgent kind' and say things like 'it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children ...' In one way, the film version of the book, Village of the Damned, is more interesting about this. Wyndham's children have 'browned complexions', 'dark golden hair', 'straight narrow noses' and have a 'foreign' air about them. But the film, by recasting these children not as semitic but precisely as little white-blond Aryans, foregrounds by a kind of inversion exactly the holocaust context of the novel. Or that's what I argue.
SFRevu: In Gradisil you seem pretty adamant about the importance of getting out there in to space. Is that a minority opinion in the UK? I mean, aside from strapping Robin Reliants onto the side of homemade space boosters (See: TechRevu: Top Gear Shuttle Launch Goes ShuttleCocks / http://www.techrevu.com/php/Review-id.php?id=1408) does the UK even have a space program? Aren't cute robots better than stoic astronauts?
Adam: Robots are better than stoic astronauts for many things. But I do believe we need to start thinking longer term. Species-survival means, at the very least, not keeping every single last one of our eggs (metaphorical eggs, but, actually, no—literal human eggs too) in this one, narrow, meteor-plagued basket. We need to spread ourselves around a bit. Robots can't do that for us; we have to do it ourselves.
Is there a British space programme? No, not really. We sent a small satellite, Beagle 2, to Mars, but it crashed and died. We're planning to send a small satellite to the moon by 2010: ... but it's not much to write home about. I heartily wish we were doing more.
SFRevu: Should we go back to the Moon, or take the expressway to Mars? Or clean up the mess down here first? Which, why, when?
Adam: I'd like to see both the Moon and Mars; and, in fact, I don't see how we can do the latter without the former. Actually, I don't see that living and working on Mars is going to be materially easier than living and working on the Moon, and in one respect (the long-long journey to get back to Earth in case of emergency) it's much harder. So, probably the moon.
SFRevu: What's next?
Adam: My next Gollancz novel is called Land of the Headless, and it's coming out over here in the UK in June. It's about these headless people, about this land, and, you know. Stuff. After that I've got a novel coming from the excellent new press Solaris, called Splinter: it's about Jules Verne, and contemporary California, and the end of the world. It should be out in August.