A Q&A with Paul McAuley

Evening empireLast month saw the publication of the excellent Evening’s Empires, the latest novel from Paul McAuley. If you missed our first chapter extract you can catch up here, and below we have a question and answer session with the man himself.

You started out writing your novels on a typewriter; now you use a computer and can find‑and‑replace, easily move text about, etc. Is this a 100% positive development or did using a typewriter force you to be more disciplined in your writing?

I started out hunting and pecking on a manual typewriter, and then graduated to an electronic machine before finally making the move to word processing when writing my second novel, Secret Harmonies, back in 1988. I think that I was a little slower on a typewriter – if nothing else the mechanics of returning the carriage at the end of every line, inserting new sheets of paper, and so on, saw to that. With word processing, you can just keep going, if the flow is with you. But when I’m writing first drafts on whatever medium of composition, there are always long pauses between passages, paragraphs, sentences . . .  So in the end I doubt that writing a first draft is really significantly faster now than it was then.

The huge advantage of word processing is in revising.  Not only because you can reshape sentences on the fly and move blocks of words around, and so on, but also because you don’t have to retype everything. I typed and retyped my first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, three times, from beginning to end (and if there were more than five typing errors on a page in the final draft, I retyped the page). I’m very glad not to have to go through that again. And it’s nice to be able to limber up by very lightly revising the last of the previous day’s work before launching into the unknown.

I still retain a few habits from my typewriting era. I keep folded pages of scrap paper beside my keyboard, on which I try out the shape of sentences or jot down notes. I always print out at least one draft and revise on the page rather than on the screen. And the years of pounding the keys of a manual typewriter mean that I’m hell on keyboards. I buy the sturdiest I can find, but usually wear out at least one before I wear out the computer.

When you started your career, Gollancz was a hardcover house and paperback rights were sublicensed to paperback houses – what are your thoughts on the evolution of the industry to ‘vertical publishing’?

Integration of hardback and paperback publishing was an obvious and logical move, I guess. Not every hardback became a paperback, two or three decades ago, and the transition between hardback and paperback could take much longer than a year. Now, everything flows through on a steady and predictable schedule, although it does mean that paperback publication is less of an event: my first taste of publishing champagne was not for the publication of my first novel as a Gollancz hardback in the coveted yellow jacket, but to celebrate the purchase of its paperback rights.

But I think vertical publishing was in part created by mergers and takeovers of imprints and publishing houses, which means there are fewer markets for authors. The nightmare future scenario for publishing houses is that Amazon will become the only place to sell books.  The equivalent nightmare for writers is that they’ll be no more than a tiny cog in a vast Random-Penguin-Orion-Harper-Simon&Schuster-Collins style content-devouring megacorp.

One interesting consequence of the ability to publish ebooks quickly and fairly easily has been a resurgence of what used to be called the paperback original, once a staple of genre publishing. Most of them self-published at the moment, but there are all kinds of opportunities for both writers and publishers.

How have the changes in technology (word processing, online bookselling etc) affected the way you write and the way you’re published?

The internet has hugely changed the way I work. And not just because I can now zip off manuscripts as attachments, rather than box and weigh them in at the post office. I was working in universities when I started out as a writer, and had free and easy access to academic libraries – a huge advantage for research. Now, although I can’t find everything I need on the web, it’s so much easier to do basic research at my own desk, or to find the right people to ask an impertinent question. The interconnectedness of Twitter is especially good at returning answers, or leading me to stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise found (some of it is even useful). And of course it’s a lot easier to reach out to readers, and for readers to reach out to you. I’m not especially adept at self-promotion – I have a very old and vestigial web site, and blog rather erratically – but have learnt a lot from the rising generation of writers, to whom it comes naturally.

How much have scientific advances changed your writing, and the writing of SF in general?

One of the main inspirations for the Quiet War novels and stories were images of landscapes of moons and planets taken by robot spacecraft, which have shown that the solar system is far stranger, varied and more dynamic and active than we thought, thirty or forty years ago. And in general, I do try to keep up with what’s happening elsewhere, especially in the rest of the astronomical field and biology, although science is advancing on so many fronts that it’s impossible to keep up with everything. The same goes for technology.

Things are changing so quickly and unexpectedly it’s hard to write about the happening moment of the present, let alone speculate about the next ten years. But as far as I’m concerned prediction is the least interesting aspect of science fiction. I’m more interested in the possibilities suggested by the present, and those are many, and hugely various and exciting.

Is there a new generation of SF writers , and are there any you particularly admire?

There’s always a new generation of SF writers.  Or so one hopes.  Drawing from a huge number of writers who have started publishing stories and novels around about the start of this millennium, some of my personal favourites include Lauren Beukes, Kij Johnson, Ken Liu, Kelly Link, M.J. Locke, China Mieville, Hannu Rajaniemi, Adam Roberts, Justina Robson, Robert Shearman, Lavie Tidhar . . .  It’s hugely incomplete, as a list of new, good writers.  I used to read everything on the SF shelves in the library, back in the day when I read very little other than SF.  And I used to read an awful lot of new SF when I had a regular review column in Interzone. Now I read a lot of the other stuff, so I shouldn’t be mistaken for any kind of expert, even in a dim light.

Are there any authors from the golden age of SF (Basically, on the SFGateway), who you think have influenced your writing?

I’m sure there are a ton of absorbed influences I’ve forgotten about, but the writers I thought important when I was reading my way through the SF canon are no longer as important to me now.   Asimov springs to mind; also, at the risk of starting trouble, Heinlein.  And those I still admire – Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke – aren’t necessarily obvious influences.  Out of them all, Cordwainer Smith is probably my main man. But one still finds oneself arguing with the canon.  Evening’s Empires is partly about that – the drag-anchor of the past.

Which of your books do you think will still be most scientifically accurate in 100 years time?

Any that mentions that the Earth goes around the Sun.

Which of the other authors around at the moment have got it right?

You mean science, or life in general?  I’ll assume the former, as none of the writers I know haven’t evolved the zen sensibility of the Dude.  If they did, they wouldn’t be writers.

If you want science done right, there’s Kathleen Anne Goonan, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, Hannu Rajaniemi, Al Reynolds, Joan Slonczewski . . .

But it’s not just about getting the science and technology – it’s how it is used, and how it changes us.  William Gibson is almost always on the money in that regard. Also, Terry Bisson, and Eileen Gunn.

Which of your books would you most like to see as a film, if budget was no problem? And who would you cast?

I’d like to see The Secret of Life or Red Dust filmed on location on Mars.  That would set a record, budget-wise.  But if it’s epic you’re after, then it’s Confluence, which would need every kind of scenery New Zealand has to offer, and has epic battles between giant machines, vast cities populated with dozens of humanoid alien races, huge spaceships, Mars (again) . . .  And it’s in three parts, too.  I’d also like to see my alternate Renaissance novel Pasquale’s Angel done as a 1940’s noir, with Marlon Brando as Leonardo.  How hard could it be to clone Marlon?

Does your background as a scientist make it harder to write as you feel you have to be accurate? Or are you happy to throw caution to the winds if it fits your plot?

I’ve been known to violate known laws for the sake of the plot – after all, I’m not writing a textbook, and science fiction would be pretty dull if it didn’t indulge in reckless speculation.  And ‘known laws’ have been known to change. Right now, NASA is sponsoring research into violating the faster-than-light speed limit.

But although I gave up my lab coat almost twenty years ago, I am still intensely interested in the scientific exploration and explication of the actual world – the actual universe.  Which as it turns out is far stranger and more various than we thought, when I first started reading SF.  No one knew, back in the 1960s, that there was an ocean under Jupiter’s moon Europa, or active sulphur volcanoes on Io, or shepherd moons doing intricate dances in the gaps in Saturn’s rings, or lakes and rivers of methane and dunes of frozen petroleum on Titan . . .  That we have mapped the moons of Saturn, using images taken by robot spacecraft, actually frees the imagination.  I don’t have to fill in the blanks with guesses, and can instead concentrate on who might live there, and how, and how living there would affect them.