[GUEST INTERVIEW] Eric Brown Talks with Keith Brooke About the Fermi Paradox, Aliens and the Future of Publishing
Keith Brooke‘s first novel, Keepers of the Peace, appeared in 1990, since when he has published seven more adult novels, six collections, and over 70 short stories. For ten years from 1997 he ran the web-based SF, fantasy and horror showcase infinity plus, featuring the work of around 100 top genre authors, including Michael Moorcock, Stephen Baxter, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, Vonda McIntyre and Jack Vance. Infinity plus has recently been relaunched as an independent publishing imprint producing print and ebooks. His novel Genetopia was published by Pyr in February 2006 and was their first title to receive a starred review in Publishers Weekly; The Accord, published by Solaris in 2009, received another starred PW review and was optioned for film. His most recent novel, Harmony (published in the UK as alt.human), is a big exploration of aliens, alternate history and the Fermi paradox, published by Solaris in 2012. Writing as Nick Gifford, his teen fiction is published by Puffin, with one novel also optioned for the movies by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s Caveman Films. He writes reviews for the Guardian, teaches creative writing at the University of Essex, and lives with his partner Debbie in Wivenhoe, Essex.
Eric Brown: So far this year you’ve published two books. Or is it three? First there was Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-genres of Science Fiction; then there were Harmony and alt.human. Would you care to explain?
Keith Brooke: It’s actually only two books! Strange Divisions and Alien Territories is a non-fiction book about SF, published by Palgrave Macmillan in March. Harmony and alt.human are a single novel, going by different titles for the North American and UK markets.
The novel’s title, ever since I had the first ideas for the book, was always going to be alt.human. It’s set in an alternate version of our universe, and it’s about what it is to be human, and what our place might be in a universe where we’ve always been surrounded by aliens, and that title seems like a pretty good fit. My publishers liked the title, and when they presented the book to UK bookshop reps the response was very positive. When they made the same presentation to US bookshop reps the response was mixed: they loved the cover, loved the book itself, but didn’t think the title would work in their market. It didn’t take me long to come up with the alternative title Harmony, and I’d have been happy to change to this: the novel follows a ragged bunch of humans seeking out the legendary city, Harmony, as a refuge from alien persecution, so the title works well. However, while the new title went down well in the US, UK buyers wanted to stick with the original.
It came down to a pragmatic decision: we went with whatever got most copies of the book into bookshops. It’s a bit cumbersome for me – whenever I talk about the book I have to explain the two titles; try doing that in a 140-character tweet! – but if it gets my book out there in front of potential readers then I can deal with that.
Keith Brooke: In part, I think I hit the point where I stepped back and took a look at my writing career and started to question why there were certain topics I hadn’t explored. Aliens was one of these: apart from one or two short stories, the only time I’ve tackled them has been in my collaborations with a certain Eric Brown.
So why hadn’t I written about aliens? I think the main reason was that I struggle to take them seriously. It’s not the concept of the alien that causes me problems, but the execution of it. At one extreme, if you try to portray the genuinely alien, how can you give a human reader enough of a handle on the character to both understand and care? And at the other, well, we have aliens who are little more than humans in rubber suits.
Why now? Partly this sense that there was something big I’d been shying away from, and partly simply that I had a cool idea. But the dilemma remained: if, as a writer, I couldn’t sustain belief in my aliens for the duration of a story, how could I expect my readers to do so?
EB: How did you set about making your aliens convincing?
Keith Brooke: The nature of the idea dictated that Earth would be occupied by a huge diversity of alien species; not only sentient species, but all the pets, parasites and passengers they might bring, too. And yet it still had to be recognisably Earth.
Right from the outset there was compromise: if Earth had really been occupied by aliens throughout our history, as the story required, would humankind ever even have evolved, let alone evolved as something recognisably human? For the story to work, my premise had to be that we did evolve, so I had a world populated by aliens, with humans the downtrodden underdogs, living in the interstices, segregated and curfewed.
One thing I really wanted to achieve was a sense of scale. I wanted things happening on a galactic scale way beyond the comprehension of my human characters; and set against this I wanted real human stories. In my head, I had the analogy of surfing: a surfer doesn’t have to understand the mathematics and physics that dictate the shape and behaviour of the waves, a surfer just surfs. Applying this to my story, the humans could never understand the complex currents that controlled events on Earth, leading to their persecution and possible genocide, but we’re a smart and adaptable species: we can understand enough to survive and adapt, we can ride those waves.
My aliens? I took the same approach. Even for characters central to the story, we only ever skim the surface: we can observe and predict their behaviour without ever really getting inside an alien head. I like to think my aliens got close to achieving that – aliens that are convincing but still genuinely alien – but the fascination is still there, and I expect to come back to the subject soon.
Keith Brooke: One of the big ideas behind the novel was my take on the Fermi paradox. While much SF on this topic explores possible explanations for the conundrum (if aliens are out there, the laws of probability dictate that vast numbers of civilisations will be far more advanced than ours, so why have they not left a mark on the universe that we can detect?), I started to think about an alternate universe where they are out there, they always have been, and they’re all around us. For me it’s the ultimate in alternate history: if we go right back to the beginning of humankind and… all around us: aliens.
EB: In this novel you’ve tackled aliens, the Fermi paradox and alternate history. Are there any other sub-genres you want to tackle?
Keith Brooke: Undoubtedly. Somewhere on Adam Roberts’ blog he has a list of SF’s sub-genres, with notes for each on whether or not he’s written a story that fits. Aliens, the Fermi paradox and alternate history were certainly on my SF sub-genres bucket list. Another was time travel: how to write something fresh in such a heavily-trampled field? I’ve just finished a time travel novel for teenagers, which was a lot of fun; so that one’s ticked off now. Space opera is one area I’ve not really explored; it’s a bit like aliens were – I’d like to, but I’m still waiting for that big idea that will be so compelling I just have to write it.
Aliens are still unfinished business for me, at the moment. It’s by no means a case of writing my aliens novel and moving swiftly on. I think a critical point for me was when I was working on a novelette that was published in Postscripts a year or so ago. Unusually for me, I stuck on the story partway through – that thing of not quite believing in the aliens I was writing about. Coincidentally, I’d been asked to write a chapter on language in SF for an academic linguistics book. That was the key: how can we ever understand the alien if we don’t have the language to do so? This gave me a fresh perspective on my character, and the aliens he was working with, and the story flowed again. That gave me the boost I needed to get down to serious work on Harmony when I’d finished the novelette, but there’s still a lot more to do.
Keith Brooke: A few years ago the Literature department at my local university asked me to create a new course on writing science fiction. At the time, I think it was the only course of its kind in the country. Given that the department didn’t have many creative writing courses available, I realised that while some of my students would be SF readers, many would be new to the genre, taking the course simply because of the creative writing element. I took the approach that, in order to write SF, my students should have an appreciation of the scope and history of the field, so my course interwove some pretty intense story brainstorming and workshopping with a sweep through SF’s history and sub-genres.
One day I ended up going for coffee with an editor from Palgrave Macmillan who happened to be on campus to see a couple of our academics she was publishing. She knew of my course, and that I’d used some Palgrave’s books in my teaching. I still don’t know how much it was an innocent coffee or whether she actually planned it to see if I had any ideas, but the killer question from her was “What book that hasn’t been published yet would you like to use in your course?”
My quick response was that while Adam Roberts’ History of Science Fiction (published by Palgrave) was excellent for the… well, history, it’d be great to have a companion volume that looked at the field by its sub-genres. And wouldn’t it be really cool if that book had each chapter written by a top author known for his or her work in that sub-genre? I didn’t realise I was pitching a book idea, but by the end of that quick coffee that’s exactly what I’d done and I’d agreed to get her a full proposal some time in the next few days.
EB: How did you select the contributors, and the topics to include?
Keith Brooke: With over twenty years as an author, and many years running infinity plus, I’ve built up some pretty good contacts: if I don’t know someone personally, I’m bound to know someone who does. It was really just a matter of settling on the sub-genres and then picking the best person to write about each. In most cases, the first person I asked agreed straight away. We ended up with a dozen contributors, including Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Paul di Filippo, James Patrick Kelly and more, and Michael Swanwick wrote an excellent foreword.
Which sub-genres to choose was in some ways easy, but in others quite a challenge. While there were obvious ones to include, such as hard SF and space opera, I had to squeeze some out in order to keep the book down to manageable size. A book like this is never going to be comprehensive – it’s not an encyclopedia – and I took the view that the key thing was to get good contributors writing good chapters, rather than pursuing some box-ticking exercise that might distract from this remit.
Of course, I’m very aware that any attempt to map a genre by splitting it into sub-genres is a flawed approach. I’m also aware that any approach you take to try to sum up and delineate a field will come with its own bundle of issues. I’ve never argued that the sub-genres approach is the only way to look at SF, or even the best way, but I do think it gives us a fascinating perspective. I was also intrigued by the idea of getting professional authors to write a book for an academic publisher. I was delighted when a review at Amazing Stories said, “I wonder if I am the first reviewer anywhere to describe a non-fiction book about science fiction as a page turner and to mean it seriously.”
Keith Brooke: The infinity plus website ran for ten years, and is still available online as an archive. It published something like 2 million words of fiction from most of the writers active in the field at the time, plus a large number of interviews, reviews and other features. I suspended operations in 2007: I’d had health problems and the whole thing was just too much. More recently, I started experimenting with the emerging ebook market. I put out a few collections of my own stories, and then started talking to other writers about the possibilities. It made sense to use the infinity plus label for this new venture, and before I knew it I was running an ebook publishing imprint that so far has produced more than 40 books from a variety of excellent authors, and has shifted around 30,000 copies in a year and a half. This year, things have come full circle, and for a few of our titles we’re producing print editions, too.
EB: What do you think is the future of publishing: Ebooks or ‘real’ books, or both?
Keith Brooke: In the immediate future, definitely both. While ebooks have taken off, there’s still a large audience attached to physical books, for a variety of reasons. We’ve clearly made this judgement at infinity plus by moving into print editions.
In the longer run, who knows? I’m convinced that most writers should be taking a portfolio approach. I really wouldn’t want to be self-publishing books like Harmony, where the key is to get good distribution into bookshops; but for books like short story collections, where the big commercial publishers rarely stray, self-publishing and small press publishing can still find significant audiences. Right now I’m being published by big commercial publishers, smaller independents, by my own imprint alongside other authors, and through straight self-publishing. Whichever direction publishing follows, I’m doing all I can to be well-placed to continue finding an audience for my work which, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about.
Keith Brooke: My partner Debbie often reminds me that while most people have one job, I have several. Admittedly many of them are part-time, but yes, I do pack a lot in: writing fiction for adults and teenagers; a demanding day job running a university website; lecturing; running a publishing imprint; editing; academic writing and editing; book design; reviewing for the Guardian; and probably lots more.
One thing I’ve learnt is the importance of making the most of any writing opportunity. I’ll write at home, at work during lunchbreaks, in pubs and coffee shops, on trains and planes, at friends’ houses, in hotels… anywhere and any time I can. When your writing opportunities are so scattered, it’s easy to lose momentum. If I’m forced to take a few days away from a story, when I return it’s a struggle to get immersed again, to get it all in my head. So what I do in those few days is take every opportunity: fifteen minutes reading through the last few pages, doing a bit of light editing – that can make all the difference, so that when I get a longer writing session again I can hit the ground running.
EB: What kind of writer are you?
Keith Brooke: I like to think that I’m hard to pin down. I write what interests me. I like to try new things. I love writing novels, but at the same time I love to write short fiction because there’s a quicker reward and you can switch quickly from one thing to another. Over the years, agents and editors have encouraged me to focus, to develop some kind career plan. Much as I might agree with them and decide to do that… well, I get an idea for a fresh take on the Fermi paradox and I just have to start writing about aliens, which has never been part of any plan!
EB: Yes, how do you feel about that career plan thing? One thing about your work is that you never write the same thing two books – or stories, come to that – running. You ring the changes. This is anathema to ‘career plans’ – but it does give you artistic creativity and licence. But how do you feel about that? In other words, if you had compromised and written more of what publishers required, you might now well be better known – but for books that you didn’t particularly feel were ‘you’.
Keith Brooke: Oh, I had a huge opportunity early in my career to do exactly that: if I was willing to write a sequel to my first novel a major US publishing company was willing to put a lot of weight behind promoting the books. But my first novel was military SF and at the time of the offer I was working on an idea for a big fantasy novel about the death of magic (that fantasy novel without much fantasy was eventually published as Lord of Stone). My agent said that if we’d got such a good offer at the first try in the US, then others were bound to follow, with fewer restrictions. I think that was pretty dumb advice from an agent, and as it turned out it was ten years before I had a US edition of that novel, but it did play to my desire to write the story I wanted rather than the story the market dictated.
Looking back, I have mixed feelings. I love that I’ve written so many different kinds of stories over the years. But would I have had a bigger audience for my writing if I’d accepted that offer? It’s hard to say, of course, but what I do know is that I’m very happy to be writing what I am right now.
EB: Who are your favourite writers – SF and mainstream, and other – and why?
Keith Brooke: In SF, I’d pick out the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ian McDonald and Garry Kilworth. I’m particularly please to have published Garry’s most recent collection, Phoenix Man, as I love his work, particularly his short fiction. Beyond the genre, I love Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, William Boyd and a bunch of others. I have mixed reactions to writers I hold in such high esteem. I’ll nearly always come to a point in one of their books where I stop and think to myself one of two things: either “Wow, this is so good, I really must stop reading and start writing, and try to do something even half as good”, or “Wow, this is so good, I’m just going to carry on reading because if they’re this good what’s the point of me even trying?” I always do end up trying, of course.
Keith Brooke: There will definitely be more aliens – as I said, this is unfinished business for me. That Postscripts novelette is still calling to me: I have notes for a companion piece, and once that’s written it’s inevitable that I’ll pull the two together and continue the story until I have a novel. There’s a novella I’m working on with that Eric Brown chap – more aliens!
And then – and this illustrates how I flit from topic to topic – the other area that currently fascinates me is near-future extrapolations, where high-tech social-media-rich augmented realities meet gritty realist dystopian environmental decay. Recently I’ve had stories in Nature and Lightspeed that explore this, and I have plans to write more, interweaving them into a kind of mosaic novel – an odd hybrid that is exactly the kind of book for which the new publishing landscape provides niches. Right now I’m putting some notes together for my next teen novel, which explores the same kind of territory, only two or three decades further into the future.
Also, we have some excellent books due from infinity plus, including a collection from Nir Yaniv and Garry Kilworth’s autobiography.
So yes, flitting from subject to subject, trying to fit a million things into the day. That’s what’s next for me. With aliens. Definitely with aliens.
Eric Brown sold his first book in 1990, the collection The Time-Lapsed Man and Other Stories, and has since published over forty books – novels, collections, novellas and children’s books. He has published more than a hundred short stories, and has won the BSFA story award twice, in 2000 and 2002. His latest book is The Devil’s Nebula, and he writes a monthly SF review column for the Guardian. He lives in Dunbar, Scotland, with his wife and daughter.
Filed under: Interviews
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!