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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Alastair Reynolds

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF edited by Jetse de Vries.]

Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966. His first short fiction sale appeared in 1990, and he began publishing novels ten years later. Chasm City, his second novel, won the British Science Fiction award in 2002. His ninth novel, Terminal World, is due imminently. He is about to embark on an ambitious and broadly optimistic trilogy documenting the expansion of the human species into solar and then galactic space over the next 11,000 years. A former scientist, Reynolds worked for the European Space Agency until 2004, when he turned full-time writer. He is married and lives in Wales, not too far from his place of birth.


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?

Alastair

Reynolds: Everything.

It’s the only stimulus that lights up a very particular part of my

brain – and I like having that brain area stimulated! Nothing else does

it, not even media SF.


CT: What made you decide you wanted to write science fiction?

AR: I wrote stories as soon as I could hold a pen. From the beginning they were science fictional – stuff about robots and rockets and lasers. No change there, then! I never wanted to be “a writer”; I only ever aspired to be an SF writer. They’ll tear that badge out of my cold dead hands.

CT: Does your background as an astronomer influence your fiction?

AR: Probably in lots of ways that aren’t immediately obvious to me, but perhaps less than people might think. The science in my stories, such as there is, tends to come from the same sources open to any curious reader: pop science mags, newspapers, TV documentaries and so on.

CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology? Was it difficult meeting Jetse’s criteria?

AR: I thought I would find it easier than I did. I came up with lots of ideas but in various subtle ways they didn’t fit the requirements – they were either too far future, or too big a subject to cram into a short story. I was already sketching mental notes for my optimistic space exploration trilogy, so I didn’t want to “squander” ideas for the novel by shoehorning them into a shorter piece. The story I nearly wrote was about an assault on Everest in 2053, using teleoperated robots instead of human beings – the idea was that the people driving the robots would be in hypobaric chambers, to simulate the pressure drop. Perhaps I’ll pick it up again one day.

CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world? How?

AR: It’s not as influential as some of its practitioners seem to imagine but it can play a role as advocacy, I think.

CT: Overall, do you have an optimistc view of humanity’s future?

AR: Yes, broadly speaking. Looking at where the planet is now, we could

screw things up massively or we could wise-up on a species level and

actually make things better. If I had to put my money where my mouth is, I

think we’ll wise up globally but there will still be outbreaks of local stupidity.

CT: What are the challenges in writing short stories vs. novels?

AR: The main challenge for me is not to be distracted by the other form! Novels

are awfully seductive when you’re struggling with the compressed tension

of a short story, trying to pack a world into a bottle. On the other hand,

during the long slog of a novel I sometimes yearn for the quick fix of

a short story, the immediate reward of starting and finishing a piece.

Now and then I have to take a break anyway, for the sake of deadlines. On

a line by line level, they’re not radically different forms.

CT: Could you tell us more about your 11K sequence? Do you think space is the future of humanity?

AR: Yes, but not in a “we must go into space or we’re doomed” sort of argument. The “eggs in one basket” proponents seem to miss the point that in developing the ability to spread our eggs around, we also develop new and exciting ways to blow bigger things up! I just think it’ll do us good, on a sort of species mental health level. The 11K sequence, which I’m danger of talking to death before it exists, is a trilogy charting our push into the

galaxy from the solar system outwards. It’s fairly hard SF in that it strives to cleave to the view of the universe as revealed by recent data, and there’s a marked absence of some of tropes found in my other books. There’s no near-light travel, for instance, and no factionalisation of humanity. The first book begins in the 22nd century, in a time where Africa is the dominant technological power. It’s a post-climate change world dominated by massively ubiquitous but essentially benign, surveillance and robotics technology. There’s little crime and almost no wars. But it’s not a shiny, happy utopia. One of the characters is a scientist with a funding battle on his hands, for a instance. Another is a struggling artist shunned by her family. There’s still plenty of room for grudges and jealosies.

CT: Of the stories in the Shine anthology, yours I feel is the one that lets loose the most. What made you decide to use rock and roll, robots, and dinosaurs?

 AR: I’m not sure it really, 100%, was the kind of story Jetse was looking for. Truth to tell, I’d had notes for this story in my files for quite a few years. When I couldn’t kickstart any of my other ideas, I looked at it afresh and decided it might form the basis of a story about rock and roll in the future. That, in itself, is fairly optimistic since you can’t really have the support infrastructure of global rock if the world has gone to hell in a handcart – you need power for those speaker stacks! The rest of it sort of flowed from the initial premise, which was summed up in the story file under the title – later discarded – “Monsters of Rock”. I do love my bitching hard rock music, though, so it was written out of fondness, rather than – I hope – too much cynicism.

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

AR: I think that covers it!

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