Paul McAuley is the author of more than twenty novels, several collections of short stories, a Doctor Who novella, and a monograph on Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, published by the British Film Institute. His fiction has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Sidewise Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. After working as a research biologist and university lecturer, he is now a full-time writer. He lives in North London with his partner and is occasionally haunted by a cat.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: Congratulations on the publication of your newest novel, Something Coming Through (2015), which is set in a future in which humans have made contact with the alien Jackaroo. A number of your short stories, starting with “Dust” (2006), inhabit the same imagined future. Did you originally plan this as a series? What prompted the shift from short stories to a novel-sized tale?
Paul McAuley: I had to wait until I had a novel-sized idea. Or rather, two novel-sized ideas. Something Coming Through is an introduction to the Jackaroo and how they have intervened in human history; Into Everywhere digs into the nature of the Jackaroo and the consequences of their help. The stories were my way of exploring various smaller human-sized ideas about how alien intervention would change us. Slowly, I realized that I had something much larger on my hands.
The stories were written while I was writing the four Quiet War novels. Those also came out of short stories–some of which were written while I waited for Cassini to reach the Saturn system and start beaming back close-ups of its moons. So while I was writing one thing I was thinking about the next thing, experimenting with it…. After all that, I think it will be fun to write something that isn’t based on something else.
AZA: I love the notion of people being infected by alien memory fragments, or eidolons, and experiencing “ecstasy of expression” even when they don’t know what they’re expressing. Is this partially a commentary on how you see contemporary culture?
PM: I was thinking more of religious ecstasy–speaking in tongues or being ridden by a god, crossed with channeling other voices in séances. The first isn’t in any way equivalent to the second in terms of what the participants feel (and, perhaps, in authenticity), but the affect is similar. And because both are rooted in something outside of ordinary human comprehension, I think the parallel with attempting to understand something completely non-human is obvious.
AZA: Something Coming Through is made up of two parallel narratives: Chloe Millar’s investigation on Earth and Vic Gayle’s on the planet Mangala. What made you decide on this structure, and how did you balance the narratives?
PM: When I first planned the novel, it was going to be told only from Chloe’s point of view, set in and around a near future London that had been changed, as it is in the finished work, by alien intervention and a variety of calamities. I would have ended with Chloe heading up and out to one of the Jackaroo gift worlds, with an implied sequel set on that world. But then I realized that writing two novels to complete the story wasn’t necessary, and Vic stepped in. The only trick to balancing the narratives was controlling how information was revealed in them, and working out where they came together–where Chloe’s story caught up with Vic’s.
AZA: Will the Jackaroo stories be assembled in a collection, like you did with the Quiet War stories in Life After Wartime (2013)? ?
PM: Possibly. Although one (“The City of the Dead”) is already available as an ebook. And that story, and “The Choice”, are both in my collection A Very British History, which was published only a couple of years ago. So I may have to write a few more….
AZA: Is The Quiet War series finished or might you tell more stories in that universe?
PM: As far as I can tell, it’s done. A few of the short stories in the ebook collection Life After Wartime are set in the thousand-year gap between the two pairs of novels, but I prefer to leave the rest as it is.
AZA: Between 1987 and the early 2000s you were a prolific book reviewer. Did you stop reviewing to focus on writing fiction, or where other factors involved? Do you miss it?
PM: I burned out, basically. At the end, I was reviewing five or six books every two months. Which doesn’t seem like much if that’s all you’re doing, but I was doing a lot of other stuff too. I did go on to write some reviews of crime films and a few crime novels for the magazine Crime Time, and I still write the odd review for my blog and elsewhere, so I haven’t completely given it up. But I write fiction quite slowly these days, so yes, time is limited.
AZA: Back in a 2005 interview you commented that “All the tropes we’re using now come from science fiction’s deep history. Since cyberspace, I don’t think there’s been a brand-new trope, with the possible exception of the singularity.” Ten years later, do you feel the same way, or have writers created innovative “post-singularity” tropes in the last decade?
PM: The science fiction genre always hopes for something new. And I hope that even as I type this, a blazingly inspired writer is working on something that will amaze us all–some new trope that will open up all kinds of hot metaphors for, say, how we use some new kind of technology and how it uses us. But I have no idea what that technology is, or what that trope might be. And anyway, it isn’t always the newness of tropes that’s important. It’s also what you do with them. And what’s very interesting at the moment are the ways in which writers from what we call the mainstream–“literary” fiction–are using the science-fiction toolbox. It’s becoming clear that toolbox contains stuff that is essential to understand the happening world, and writers both in the genre and outside it are using that stuff and mixing it up in some very exciting and interesting ways. The question is, do we need to validate it and give it a taxonomic handle by conjuring up a distinctive trope, as the New Wave in science fiction validated its experiments with “inner space”? Maybe. But I’m not certain it’s necessary.
AZA: In December 2014 you mentioned you were working on a BFI Film Classic book about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Do you have an inner film critic/historian that’s trying to get out?
PM: I’ve always loved films. And as I noted above, I’ve done a small amount of film reviewing–enough to make me realize how different it is from reviewing books. But the book on Brazil was not so much the emergence of a hidden desire to expand on that so much a lucky right-place-right-time kind of gig. And the actual structure of the book was more academic than reviewing: it was a little–just a little–like writing state-of-the-art reviews of what was then my little corner of scientific research. Digging deeply down into the film and trying to find a way of contextualizing it was definitely a good education in the practice of film history. A lot of fun, but also a lot of work. I now have even more respect for people who write full-length critical works than I did before.
AZA: Something Coming Through is your 21st novel. You’ve also published scores of stories and hundreds of reviews and you’re a dedicated Tweeter and blogger. What’s your daily routine like, and how do you manage to be so productive?
PM: I’m about half as old as dirt, and have been writing a long time. So there’s that. Also, I try to sit down in front of the computer at around 9:00 am every day, and write until I’ve written enough. About 2000 words if it’s a first draft, sometimes more, sometimes less. Do that every day, and in two or three days you have the first draft of a short story; in 60 days you have the first draft of a novel. If everything goes according to plan, that is. Often it doesn’t. Something Coming Through had to be restarted when I realized that I needed Vic Gayle’s narrative, for instance. And after the first draft, there’s the re-writing, and the re-rewriting. That can take much longer than nailing down the first draft, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the fun part. It’s where I find out what the novel is really about.Or at least, what I think it’s really about. The final judgment is always the reader’s.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, which received a starred review from Library Journal, and the forthcoming Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg (2016). Alvaro’s short fiction and Rhysling-nominated poetry have appeared in Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Buzzy Magazine and various anthologies. Alvaro’s reviews and essays have been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and elsewhere. Alvaro currently edits the Roundtable blog for Locus.