Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s the UK science-fiction scene was reinvigorated by an influx of young writers whose short fiction started appearing in Interzone magazine, and in anthology series like Other Edens, Zenith and, then going through one of its occasional revivals, New Worlds. These writers included the likes of Eric Brown, Nicola Griffith, Stephen Baxter, Charles Stross and one Simon Ings, an author who, apparently effortlessly, managed to combine striking innovation with the slickest literary style (it’s no surprise that Ings has collaborated with one of British SF’s most stylish authors, M John Harrison). Ings went on to write novels ranging from smart post-cyberpunk thriller Headlong to the quirkily different fantasy City of the Iron Fish. This year UK publishers Gollancz are re-launching Ings’ backlist in what they describe as ‘a collectable set of paperbacks designed by award-winning illustrator, Jeff Alan Love’ – the same artist responsible for the striking cover to Ings’ new novel Wolves (Gollancz, January 2014).
KEITH BROOKE: Your novels show a clear career path over the course of fifteen years or so, moving from genre heartland (be it SF or fantasy) to psychological, literary thrillers. With Wolves you’re back in SF with a novel that leads us into a near future on the brink of collapse, with reality increasingly overlaid with augmented reality veneers. Is that a fair overview? Is this return to SF a deliberate move, or merely the sign of a writer following the muse?
SIMON INGS: Well, much as I would have liked to have followed a grand plan, I’ve pretty much spent my life scrabbling around looking for venues that won’t completely misrepresent me to an audience. I’m not slagging off publishers here – I do think I’m a genuinely hard sell. I tend to write difficult, read-em-twice books – and then stick guns in them. With readers gobsmacked and driven up the walls in roughly equal measure, necessity has meant that I have pretty much hurled myself down whatever rabbit-hole has presented itself to me at the time. And because I find writing hard, I counter that by trying not to repeat myself. It completely foxed me that some people thought my last novel, Dead Water, was a work of science fiction. I didn’t mind – I was just disconcerted, as though I’d spent a day walking up a hill only to find myself within earshot of that morning’s campsite.
Wolves feels to me a very different sort of science fiction to the backlist, setting up a different kind of relationship between itself and the genre. Did I want to write a science fiction book? Sure – I couldn’t see any way else to write about our latest attempts to augment and supplement and control the senses. But am I “returning to the genre”? Not on a conscious level, no. Aside from anything else, you can’t step into the same river twice, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since I flounced out of the tap room – what, a dozen years ago? More?
KB: While your publishers are clear that this is a work of science fiction, it’s more the kind of SF that sneaks up on you. This is a near-future that deliberately avoids gimmicky ‘look at my nifty future setting’ touches; for example, while the augmented reality becomes increasingly important, it does so only towards the end. The results are dramatic – this really is wonderful SF – but the build is subtle, and it’s SF unlike the vast majority of SF being written today. Did you set out to write fiction that challenges its own genre in this way? Do these labels even matter?
SI: That’s generous of you – thanks. Well, this is one of those cases of the content dictating the form. A few years ago I more or less lost my shirt, doing some very junior-level work at a couple of tech startups. I wanted to write about that environment – the heady experience of being encouraged to death. But when I tried to tell a straight story, I found myself in dot-com satire territory, and I didn’t feel at all comfortable there. It seemed to me a more natural thing to study my material through science fiction glasses – to write about the present as if it were the future. That’s pretty much all I do in the book that’s science-fictional. The rest is memoir. Science fiction is a set of tools, after all. The better you get at building something, the fewer tools you actually need. As for Wolves being SF unlike other SF – well, isn’t that the point?
KB: I was particularly intrigued by your approach to setting in Wolves. On the finer level, the sense of place is very precise: your suburban housing estates and your decaying hotel are beautifully drawn; the scenes set in Michel and Hanna’s seaside cabin retreat take place in one of my favourite places, albeit unnamed in your novel. Yet, you don’t name the places; your capital city reads like London, but there are elements that are clearly not London. What’s the reasoning behind this approach?
SI: Because augmented reality – at least from the inside – is this ridiculously fast-moving commercial field, I was terrified of writing something that would turn out be dated by the time it was published. The other worry was that what I found interesting about AR would turn out to be mere sideline to whatever public conversation was going on at the time. All these anxieties! Looking back, I see that none of them were particularly legitimate.
But they led me to the idea that if you’re going to write about a technology that’s going to manipulate reality – well, you should just put your money where your mouth is and manipulate reality. Abstracting the problem enabled me to concentrate on it, in a way I couldn’t have if I was having to factor in that month’s Wired or Techcrunch headlines the whole time.
The happy consequence of that is a fictional world that, from the get-go, even in sequences set in the Seventies, feels filtered, pre-mediated, manipulated in a way that has the reader on their mettle, wondering like Dorothy where the hell Kansas has got to.
KB: In Wolves we see lots of applications for, and reactions to, augmented reality. Particularly striking is the way you portray the shift from AR as novel toy to something we take for granted and, perhaps, couldn’t imagine being without (who would be without their smartphone nowadays, and yet how recently have we gone through such a dramatic shift with that particular piece of tech?). How far are we from a world where AR is as normal as Facebook and YouTube? Should we be scared or excited?
SI: Well, in the introduction to one of the most turgid sf books ever written, Limbo 90, Bernard Wolfe says this tremendous thing: that when you write about the future, you’re actually writing about what would happen if the present moment were to persist forever. That’s why sf generates so many dystopias: because were change to be arrested – genuine, unforeseeable, the-world-is-bigger-than-you-are change – of course the present moment would spin into nightmare. So should we be afraid? That’s the wrong question. There are things to fear in every present moment. But we haven’t got a clue yet what they’ll be in a few years’ time. And they, too, will pass.
Coupled with good, sub-millimetre-scale digital registration of the world in real-time, AR can turn your environment into a gestural space in which your performance governs your access to resources. Bruce Sterling is all over this, of course. His example is: the bathroom door has no handle. God help you if you don’t know the gesture to unlock the door. And God help you if, while you’re in the bathroom, someone changes the code.
That said, there’s a huge buy-in involved with AR. There will have to be massive inducements for us ever to want to manipulate our senses to such a degree. So we may simply be hyping ourselves into a state of recreational paranoia here. The weak point in Bruce’s story is that bathroom door. What’s it made of? Sheet steel? No, if that door was really determined get in your face, you’d just kick the bloody thing in. Obviously.
KB: You’re editor at New Scientist‘s magazine of future speculation, Arc. Tell us more about that publication and your ambitions for it.
SI: My main and overriding ambition is to get the word out, so thanks for asking! We’re the best-paying and, when the wind’s blowing in the right direction, the biggest science fiction magazine in Europe, very loosely based on the old Omni model, combining opinion and features and stories to explore the future.
Now, while all that’s true, there’s a certain amount of Great and Wonderful Oz going on here, because once you’ve been dazzled by the big names, the Atwoods and the Sterlings, and a whole slew of young literary writers who get science fiction and by God can write circles round the old guard, you may just notice, out the corner of your eye, that behind the curtain there’s only me running the thing – part-time at that. You know those quarter-mile-long container ships that at a push can be helmed by just one deck officer? Well. It’s like that. So my ambition is we scale to the point where I can do my real job, which is to bring better and better people into the magazine, and can delegate the production and marketing to others. Because, bottom line, there are only so many hours in the day.
Anyway, we’re at http://arcfinity.org. (You see what I did there? That royal “we”?)
KB: You also write reviews and other features for New Scientist, the Guardian and other publications, not to mention your science book The Eye: A Natural History. What job title do you have on your passport, and how would you expand on that to outline where you are in your career(s)? How do the strands of your professional life interact?
SI: My career, so-called, is pretty much shaped by who will give me money to pay the rent, coupled with my constitutional inability to follow simple instructions. A man in a pub (an editor at Penguin) says he wants a biography of Alexander Luria, and I go off and in fairly short order find myself embarked on a five-year project to write the history of Soviet life sciences for Faber and Faber. Only I’m late delivering because Arc came along and I ballsed up my marriage. Meanwhile two artists from Amsterdam want me to write a story about bees. Honestly, where do you begin to unpick this mess? I just get up in the morning. Most mornings. I suppose the overriding conceit, if you like, is that literary fiction should wake the fuck up to the prevailing culture, which for a long time now has been richly informed by all manner of scientific insight. I chip away at both sides of this cultural Berlin Wall, as best I can, and with what energy I can muster. Oh God. I’m going to die in a gutter somewhere, aren’t I? Ask me another question.
SI: Well, as of yesterday, I spend the week in the offices of New Scientist, either on Arc or on the main magazine’s books desk. I write in the mornings, the evenings, the weekends. For quite a while I had the luxury of writing full-time. But it was a dreadfully dull existence, and I don’t recommend it. I’m much happier, more stimulated, and much, much more productive now that I’m squeezed for opportunities to write. I don’t write many words a day, but I do put the hours in. It’s the old Chandler formula.
I used to climb, I used to run. I don’t exercise any more. Have you seen inside hospices lately? My plan is to work myself into a nice healthy cardiac infarction at some sensible age. Do not resuscitate.
KB: Publishing is going through some dramatic changes. Rather than re-release your backlist yourself, as many authors are currently doing, that backlist is being re-published by Gollancz, alongside your new novel Wolves. Given your position as both editor and author, do you have any insights or speculations you could share about where we are heading? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
SI: First off, all the old publishers will die. This is not the tragedy it seems, because what’s dying, really? Their intellectual property will survive. And no-one’s really going to lose their shirt because publishers are heavily into bricks and mortar: there’s a lot of warehousing they can sell. Next, everyone who works in those businesses will find or create employment for themselves in small companies producing beautiful print editions. The headliners will be editions of works thrown up by the internet, but the appetite for physical totems can only expand, the more virtualised our culture, so collectible editions of less viral works will do just as well. (Did I mention Arc is getting a hardback print edition?) The economics of handsome small-run editions is ridiculously good: it’s a massively underserved market.
Writers will learn to manage without advances. Again, no tragedy: for most of us those advances were more trouble than they were worth anyway. (This never happened to me, but a biggish but unearned advance can kill a career stone dead.) They will use the internet to develop their audiences, and in a much calmer, cleverer, more collected manner than they do now. (Egotists and loud-mouths will persist, but when don’t they?)
Book sales will continue to rise, and our shelves will become prettier and prettier as print technology advances, offering us ever more extraordinary totems.
Amazon will sell more and more Kindles, the ebook will swallow the paperback, and angry authors of a certain age will predict doom for the industry every month or so on Radio 4 and breakfast news. But then, they always did.
KB: What next, after Wolves?
SI: Well this history of Soviet life sciences is occupying all my time at the moment. But once I have the time, I want to write a another science fiction novel. It’ll be about gender, about alien invasion, about transhumanism. And I’m going to leave out all the information – write it absolutely “from the inside”, as it were. No pay-off. No easy, distancing information dumps. No “this was all a dream” pat on the head in the last chapter. I’m going to take the reader into a strange and frightening place and I’m going to leave them there without maps, without supplies. Fuck em and their mother.
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 Harmony (published in the UK as alt.human) is a big exploration of aliens, alternate history and the Fermi paradox and was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. His latest books include new editions of Parallax View, a sort fiction collection co-authored with Eric Brown, and the Expatria duology. He also edited Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the Sub-genres of Science Fiction, an exploration of SF from the perspectives of a dozen top authors in the field. He writes reviews for The Guardian and Arc, teaches writing at the University of Essex, and lives with his wife Debbie in Wivenhoe, Essex.