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Interview with Paul McAuley

22 April 2014 | Tom Hunter

The starting point was the concept of introducing people into the weird and wonderful landscapes of the outer moons

Is there Life On Mars? Maybe not, but with the recent discovery that there may well be oceans on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon Enceladus, the possibility that life out there may be closer than we think is still very much the hot topic in both science and science fiction.

London Calling caught up with author Paul McAuley, winner of the Arthur C . Clarke Award and author of the Quiet War series of novels set in a near-future where mankind has begun to reach out into the solar system, about why the closer you get to home the stranger science fiction can become.

London Calling: Can you introduce the Quiet War sequence to us and tell us about the settings?

Paul McAuley: The first two novels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, are a kind of diptych that follow the lives of five people through a war and its aftermath. The first is about the slow build-up to war between colonists of the outer moons and conservative political blocs from Earth who see the mad variety of the Outers’ scientific utopias a threat. The second is about the aftermath of the war and attempts to find a peaceful resolution. In The Mouth of the Whale jumps ahead a couple of thousand years, describing what happens to one of the characters when she arrives at the nearby star Fomalhaut and discovers that other people are already living there. And Evening’s Empires, set in the ruins of the history of the colonization of the solar system, is the story of a young man who seeks revenge for the murder of his immediate family and discovers some uncomfortable truths.

LC:  A lot of space fiction is commonly set on the far side of the universe or similar, but you’ve made a conscious effort to keep things within our own solar system. Do you see our (relatively) near corner of space as having more potential for storytelling than some authors might realise?

PM: I drew a huge amount of inspiration from the images of the planets and moons of the outer solar system sent back from robot space craft: the sulphur volcanoes of Jupiter’s moon Io and the subsurface ocean of Europa; the cliffs and craters of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus’s icy geysers and vast snow drifts, and the petrochemical lakes and dunes of smoggy Titan . . . Here were actual landscapes as dynamic and hugely varied as any worlds imagined by SF writers: I not only wanted to explore them, but wondered who might live there, and how, and how living there would change them.

LC:  As a trained scientist do you usually start a new story with a scientific concept that appeals – for instance the possibility of there being life-bearing water on Enceladus? - or is it the story that comes first and then the underpinnings of science?

PM: The starting point was the concept of introducing people into the weird and wonderful landscapes of the outer moons, to find a balance between the science of how those landscapes were formed and how people could live there, and the human stories of their inhabitants: Sri Hong Owen’s jealous admiration of and her obsessive search for the strange gardens created by the gene wizard Avernus; Macy Minnot’s problems in adapting to exile on the outer moons, her reactions to their strange landscapes and strange inhabitants, and so on.

LC: We’re really interested in the idea that there might be a geek pound (similar to the pink pound or green pound) that publishers and other creative industry companies outside of the traditional genre imprints might finally be taking seriously. Is this something you might agree with, or are things really not much different than they were when you first started writing?

PM: The tropes of science fiction and fantasy have escaped into the wider world. Almost every other book aimed at the teenage market seems to be some kind of fantasy or SF dystopia, right now, and there are plenty of literary and crime authors, from Kazuo Ishiguro to Louise Welsh, who have discovered the SF toolkit is very useful for depicting where we are now, where we might be going, and how life in an increasingly technological society is changing us.

And things are definitely different and bigger in the science fiction/fantasy genre itself, and although that expansion has been mostly driven by films, TV shows, comics and games (and all the spin-off T-shirts, costumes, toys etc), many of the successful film and TV franchises – Twilight, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones – started out as novels. And while media conventions like DragonCon, London Comic Con and Comic-con International have intimidatingly hefty footprints, this August the World SF Convention lands in London and will be packed with more than 7000 authors and fans (I’ll be there – come and say hi, and get a book signed).

LC:  Was writing, and writing primarily science fiction, always your first career choice?

PM: My original career was that of a research scientist – Ph.D, post-doctoral research positions, university lecturer. But I was also writing SF on the side.  I read a lot of science fiction at an impressionable age (almost all writers start out as obsessive readers). The way SF depicted this world and others at a kind of Martian angle, and its themes of escape and discovery, appealed to a weird young kid growing up in a little Cotswold town in the age of the Apollo moon landings. Eventually my writing became more important to me than my science, and here I am. 

LC: What are you working on at the moment?

PM: I’m at the editing stage of Something Coming Through, a novel about the consequences of the arrival of a bunch of helpful aliens. It kicks off in Dagenham. I’m also working on a BFI Film Classic book about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, much of which was shot in London.

LC: And finally, you’re a long term London resident, do you have any places or venues you’re particularly fond of, especially perhaps ones more off the beaten tourist track?

PM: I’d start with the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, tucked behind the wonderfully restored station. A little oasis where you can find Hardy’s tree, surrounded by stones from graves moved when Thomas Hardy supervised the excavation of part of the old graveyard, the memorial tomb for William Godwin and pioneer campaigner for women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft (their daughter Mary, author of Frankenstein, and Percy Shelley planned their elopement here), the grave of John Polidori, an acquaintance of the Shelleys and author of the first modern vampire story, and the tomb of architect John Soame and his wife, which inspired Gilbert Scott’s design of the iconic red telephone box.  Soame’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, designed to show off his collection of antiquities and art, is well worth a visit too, as is the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, on the other side of the square. Sir Richard Owen, who once worked in the Hunterian, was the first director of the Natural History Museum and advised Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins when he built his dinosaur sculptures, now fully restored in landscaped grounds, for Crystal Palace Park, Bromley, where you can also find the last remains of The Crystal Palace. Take the Overground, bring a picnic, and marvel at the energy and ingenuity of the Victorians.

To win a set of Paul McAuley books plus a free e-book for every reader please click here

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