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The Human Element:
an interview with Eric Brown

by Amandine Xavier-Peyroux

Helix by Eric BrownI interviewed Eric Brown while he was holidaying in the small town of Bédarieux in the south of France, towards the end of May 2007, shortly before the publication of his novel Helix. After a leisurely lunch in the garden of a friend's house where he was staying with his wife and daughter, I questioned him about science fiction, his work within the field, and his forthcoming novel.

Brown is a quiet, reserved Englishman in his forties, known in the SF world for his short stories which have appeared in many markets including Interzone, and for his novels including the Virex trilogy set in New York in 2040. What brought me to Brown's fiction many years ago was his concern for story-telling and character: in many ways his work reminds me of an older generation of English writers, namely John Wyndham, Michael Coney and Richard Cowper. I began by asking him if he was overtly influenced by these authors.

EB: Certainly Coney is a big influence. Although I read everything by Wyndham and Cowper and liked their work, it was Coney who spoke to me. Something about the way he combined interesting characters, neat ideas and well-worked out plots appealed to the craftsman in me. I still favour craft over ornate style: I dislike pretentiousness in fiction, and fortunately there's little of it in the SF genre. The mainstream is full of it; not only intellectual pretentiousness but literary - flamboyant prose style merely for the sake of it. Coney's style was economical - but it was his story-telling ability that first hooked me. I'm a great believer in the idea that it's the duty of a writer to tell a good story without boring the reader.

AX-P: Your first novel, Meridian Days, shows the influence of Coney very plainly.

EB: It certainly does: a colony planet, coastal setting, love interest, mystery and intrigue, artists... It was also influenced by Ballard's Vermilion Sands tales, the enclosed micro-cosmic world of an artists' colony. But it was an early work.

AX-P: In many ways I see Meridian Days as atypical of your work. Your second novel, Engineman, set an example you were to follow in many other works.

EB: You mean I found a formula and repeated myself!

AP-X: By no means - I mean to say, Engineman is a novel of extrasolar adventure featuring a cast of very likeable characters, an interstellar mystery, an alien world to explore, enigmatic extraterrestrials, and a climactic meeting with these aliens which proves epiphinal to the The Fall of Tartarus by Eric Brown human race. It could be said that Penumbra follows the same pattern, as does Bengal Station, along with your children's book Walkabout: the same themes crop up again in many of your short stories collected in Deep Future, The Fall of Tartarus, and Threshold Shift.

EB: I'm a sucker for alien adventures - and the idea of exploring a new alien world... isn't that one of the bedrock tropes of the genre? The scenario does lend itself to writing fantastic adventure stories. But - and this is important - no matter how thrilling the adventure - if the reader doesn't care about your characters, doesn't believe in them and to a certain extent identify with them, then no amount of big ideas or plot trickery will keep them turning the pages.

AP-X: For all the grand scope of your adventure stories, then, you concentrate on individuals, their plights, and how their lives are affected by scientific and technological change.

EB: That's right. I'm not a fan of hard-SF, with its concentration on big ideas to the detriment of the human element. (And I'm generalising a lot here - there are many writers out there managing to juggle big ideas and great characterisation.) If I lose sight of my characters in a novel or story - what they want, how they're feeling etc - then I feel I've lost interest in the project, so how can a reader be expected to continue reading?

And, to be frank, I doubt the durability of hard-SF that is principally about ideas. As I see it, a novel that concentrates on telling a story extrapolating from the known science of today can only date itself - so that ten, twenty, fifty years down the line it'll be seen as a moribund artefact, with ludicrous guesswork about science and technology, without even the back up - or safety net - of characters the reader might care about. I mean, look at much of the SF published in the so-called Golden Age - it's absurd, unreadable. A lot of hard-SF published today will fall into the same abyss... That's not to say that mine will last - and a lot of SF purists might accuse me of abnegating on the role of SF; that is, to promulgate a future from sound scientific principles, using cutting edge data to produce hard-hitting, mind-bending fiction.

AP-X: How would you react to that accusation?

EB: Guilty as hell. But to be honest, I'm not the slightest bit interested in science or technology for their own sake: what interest me is how they might impact on the human condition: and I'm not sure I need an acute scientific understanding to be able to tell the tales that I do. Others might disagree, though.

New York Nights by Eric BrownNew York Blues by Eric BrownNew York Dreams by Eric Brown

AX-P: Can I say something about your characters? Many of them are loners, searching for something: love, enlightenment - often through the catharsis of art - and, dare I say it, something spiritual. But I also get the impression from your writing that you're trenchantly secular. Can you say something about this?

EB: Right on all counts. I believe in no god, and perhaps that does leave a hole which you might say I'm striving to fill. And I think my characters are similar, which is why they are searching for something ultimate: whether that be through love, or some epiphany through artistic creation.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a god. Who am I to claim this? I have no idea. What I detest, and cannot bring myself to believe in, is religion: it seems obvious to me that every religion is merely a set of ideas brought about by the vested interests of those in power or those who desire power. Through historical precedent it comes to pass that religious leaders state that you can't eat pork, or use electrical equipment on Saturdays; that you must pray so many times a day, and keep your women covered, and proscribe certain sexual practices, and a hundred and one other absurdities. As if a rational creator could give a damn about such trivialities. It would be fine if the religious kept their beliefs to themselves, but when pious bigots in the east and west claim that others are wrong for living in certain ways... Take the religious proscription against homosexuality, for example. The fundamentalist views of religious practitioners blight the lives of individuals. It's very sad.

AX-P: Your characters, certainly in your early novels and short stories, were despairing souls, I might even venture to call them nihilists. They found redemption either though love, or as you say through some epiphany via their art.

EB: I think that's true, though only true of my early work. My more recent work features more fulfilled, happier characters.

AX-P: Why do you think this is?

EB: Well, a few years ago I married, and now have a daughter, and I'm certainly a happier person for it, and one's personal circumstances certainly alter one's perceptions, and subsequently one's fiction.

AX-P: But some of your characters are still striving... I mean, I find it very interesting that you believe in no god, and that again and again in your novels humans are placed in situations where they have history-making encounters with aliens. Engineman, Penumbra, certain stories in The Fall of Tartarus sequence (those which feature the Church of the Ultimate Sacrifice); Bengal Station, and recently your Kéthani series - and then Helix... Might I almost make the observation that in the works of Eric Brown, god has been replaced by the extraterrestrial?

EB: I've never thought of it like that before. That's... amazing, very interesting.

AX-P: In Engineman, Mirren meets the Lho-Dharvo, and learns the Truth; a similar kind of Buddhistic truth is promulgated in Penumbra, where Bennett encounters the Ahloi. In Bengal Station, Vaughan confronts the Vaith. In the Kéthani series, an alien race comes to Earth and confers optional immortality upon the human race. When individuals die, they are taken to the Kéthani homeplanet and resurrected; they can then either work as ambassadors of the Kéthani, spreading the word to the many other races among the stars, or return to Earth. In many ways, the aliens you write about fulfil in people's lives the role of God or gods... They provide salvation, or at least the hope of such.

EB: The God shaped hole. Yes, you're right.

AX-P: Which brings us on to Helix, which again has wise aliens conferring their wisdom - and more - upon the flawed human race. Can you tell me something about this novel, its genesis, its place alongside your other novels?

EB: I had the initial idea for Helix many years ago. It came about when I was having dinner at a friend's house. On the table was an old oil lamp with an oblate glass cowl, and around this cowl was wound a glass piping or beading, describing a spiral. When the wick was lit - and after a few glasses of wine - it struck me that the flame might be a sun and the beading some kind of space station. I forgot about this for a couple of years, then it struck me again in early 2002 - what if the spiral was not a space station but a helix, and the helix was made up of thousands and thousands of worlds. This initial premise intrigued me, and it lodged in my head. The idea provoked questions: who, why, where, how... The obvious answer to the first question was that the helix was an alien construct, but as to why they would build such a vast system... The rest flowed from there. I've always loved crashed starship stories - there's a sub-genre of crash-landing tales within SF - and so I had my ship crash-landing on the lowest, and coldest tier of the helix, far from the sun. All the crew had to do then was make their way up the spiral, to a more habitable world, on the way encountering alien races, having adventures, and of course learning the truth behind the construct.

Helix was the first novel I wrote an extensive, ten thousand word outline for, and then a couple of sample chapters. All the others have been written from beginning to end and then submitted for consideration. Helix is also the longest book I've done, at a little over 125,000 words. Personally, I think it's my best, but then it's my latest, so I would think that.

AX-P: What struck me when reading the proof copy was how you've managed to write about a vast alien construct but keep the reader interested in the individual plight of the various characters, both human and alien.

EB: I didn't want to get into the science of how the helix was constructed. Some hard SF writers would spend pages and pages going into the engineering - to be honest, I'm not interested in how it was done. It's there; aliens built it, with technology we couldn't even dream of at the moment. Let's leave it at that and get on with the story.

AX-P: I was intrigued by the aliens. You - and this is true of all SF writers who write about aliens - had to tread a fine line between making the aliens seem realistic (that is, alien) and yet comprehensible to the reader. I felt you achieved this, though of course you had to resort to a certain amount of anthropomorphism.

EB: It's impossible not to do so. I wrote entire chapters from the viewpoint of a lemur-like race, and I wanted the reader to identify with the plight of the alien characters. So I had to anthropomorphise them. It's the perennial dilemma of the SF writer. It's a trade off between realism (because when we do finally meet aliens, they're most likely going to be totally incomprehensible) and the desire to tell a compelling tale. Anthropomorphism is okay - but just don't make your aliens cute teddy bears.

AX-P: For a long book, Helix reads very quickly.

EB: That's a relief. I always cut a lot after the first draft is complete, going though it again and again for dead wood. I know that A.E. van Vogt is out of fashion now, but when I began writing in my teens, I read something by him that always stuck in my mind. He was talking about hooking the reader, and writing methods, and he had a peculiar means of constructing his stories in eight hundred word sections, and the important thing in each section was to make it obvious to the reader what the central character wanted, and that by the end of the section he/she either got it, or didn't, either of which scenario provoked an ongoing situation which provided the story with a velocity and dynamic. Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say I follow that to the word - certainly I don't write in eight hundred word scenes, but I do like to have the reader know what it is the characters want, or need, and have them get it or not by the end of the scene. This is a great method for complication and recomplication, development and eventual resolution ... I think it makes for a narrative that reads pretty speedily.

AX-P: You're recently started reviewing SF for the Guardian newspaper. Can you tell me how you find this experience?

EB: Tiring, mainly. I'm a slow reader, and I do four books a month. What is interesting is the variation in quality. Every month I read a book I'm enthusiastic about, one or two that are enjoyable reads, and a stinker. It seems always to work like that. Of course, the drawback is that it's a round-up column, so I have only eight hundred words to cover four novels. It's hard to do justice to a book in two hundred words; all I can do is give a flavour, and my opinion, for what it's worth.

AX-P: What is your latest project?

EB: I'm rewriting the first Bengal Station book at the moment. It was first published a few years ago in the US, but drastically shortened. I'm rewriting it, reinstating some of the dropped scenes and adding others; I'm also working on the second book in the series and outlining a third. In between times I'm writing a series of stories about Ed, Ella and Karrie, who work on a salvage starship in the 23rd century. The first story in this series will appear in Pete Crowther's robot anthology from DAW next year.

AX-P: Good luck with these projects, and thank you so much for agreeing to do the interview.

EB: My pleasure.

Eric Brown's latest novel is Helix, published by Solaris. His collection with Keith Brooke, Parallax View, containing a new novella, was published earlier this year by Immanion Press. Next year Solaris will be bringing out his fix-up novel Kéthani. His website can be found at:

© Amandine Xavier-Peyroux 2007.

Helix is published by Solaris (June 2007; ISBN 1844164721).

Helix by Eric Brown
The Fall of Tartarus by Eric Brown
Approaching Omega by Eric BrownMammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures
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