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Ian Watson

interviewed by Philip Madden


Graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and specialising in English and French Nineteenth Century literature, Ian Watson lectured in literature at The Jonah Kituniversities in Tanzania and Tokyo, and in Futures Studies in Birmingham, England. He became a full-time writer in 1976 following the success of his first novel, The Embedding (1973) which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award and in France the Prix Apollo, and The Jonah Kit (1975) which won the British Science Fiction Association Award and the Orbit Award. Numerous SF, fantasy and horror novels followed, and his short fiction has been short-listed for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and widely anthologised.

From 1990 to 1991 he worked full-time with Stanley Kubrick on story development for the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence, directed after Kubrick's death by Steven Spielberg, for which Ian has screen credit for Screen Story.

Ian lives with a black cat called Poppy in a small rural village 60 miles north of London.

Recent publications include: a first book of poetry, The Lexicographer's Love Song (DNA Publications, 2001,; short story collection, The Great Escape (Golden Gryphon Press, 2002,; and the novel, Mockymen (Golden Gryphon Press, 2003,


PM: What drew you to the speculative genres?

IW: Dissatisfaction with ordinary reality, perhaps. I was brought up in the North of England on Tyneside in the 1950s, and Tyneside to my mind was distinctly barren and unstimulating and downbeat. Nowadays the region hums with culture and fun, but no way did it back then, especially since post-War austerity was still hanging on. Nor do I much like the seaside -- the sea seemed to me like a waste of one half of the world. There are no coffee bars in the sea. When I left school at 16 -- because I'd finished with school and was waiting to go to university -- daftly I took a job for a while as a clerk in a shipping company in Newcastle, and what mainly kept Slow Birdsme sane till I could quit the job as soon as possible was devouring the Gormenghast books of Mervyn Peake. Reading SF and fantasy liberated me imaginatively. Although at the same time so did reading novels by Graham Greene, for example, those being mostly set in exotic locations, no matter how angst-ridden the characters are. Actually, pretty much anything seemed exotic compared with Tyneside in the Fifties. I already felt that I would become a writer, not really of fantasy or sf but of something heightened, something speculative, something out of this world, probably within the domain of mainstream literature. My attempts to write realistic fiction have always mutated within a few paragraphs into the fantastical or science fictional or surrealistic. It's the way my mind works. I can't see things in an ordinary way.

PM: Fantasy is all around us at the moment -- Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, etc; do you think it will last? Or is it a fad like the rise and fall of horror in the 80s?

IW: The rise and fall of horror in the 80s was a literary event, relatively confined. What we have now is an unending media circus. This really started with Star Wars, and now propels fantasy too. I think it's a bit harsh to call the Eighties horror literature a fad. People like Ramsey Campbell were luminous, stylish, and very evocative. That was good literature. Though in a sense you're right about fads, the sudden new vogue. Cyberpunk in SF, for example. Scarcely born, when people are already searching for the next thing, post-cyberpunk or whatever. Fads sell books (and movies). The worst fad movie is The Matrix, which is nonsense as a story, and which principally functions as a fashion movie, long black coats, sunglasses, and guns as fashion accessories. Fashion and fast fashion-change is part of capitalism. Does this mean that inevitably the fantasy boom must be superceded? Whoever knows the answer makes a fortune. On the other hand, fantasy is very intrinsic to human beings and has been so for several thousand years -- now we have the technology to do it very convincingly. The next stage may be virtul reality wrap-around live-in fantasies.

PM: Why are people so drawn to fantasy then? Is it a commentary on the age we live in?

IW: Real SF occupies much less shelf space in bookshops nowadays than fantasy sagas because, I'd say, a lot of people feel deeply suspicious of science for bringing us nuclear weapons, global warming, holes in the ozone layer, pollution, extinctions, and assorted Frankensteinish nightmares. At the same time contemporary reality seems to be a mess of terrorism, genocides, famines, disasters. Typically fantasy is about some sickness or evil which afflicts the environment but which can be fought, resisted, conquered by courage and goodness, but also by entirely magical methods. Actually we cannot survive without more and better science, and science is based on rationality, not magic (that was the alchemy that was). So at the same time nowadays popular science writing is enjoying a huge boom because of fascination with the actual wonders of physics, mathematics, biology; and it would be untrue to say that there's a wholesale rejection of scientific thinking, yet rejection is also a very powerful and fundamentally malign force, often allied with fundamentalist religion -- for example the nonsense of Creationism. Can one say that fantasy is a sort of religion and salvationism for people who don't have a dogmatic religion? I think this is a large part of its appeal, another part being escapist adventure. I don't see a lot of genuine SF as being escapist. What, escape into the tormented worlds of Alastair Reynolds, John Meaney, Greg Bear, Greg Benford? More like confrontationalist.

PM: Is the appeal of fantasy related to glorifying the past, a longing to return to a pre-industrial era? Closer to nature and a clean environment?

IW: This would be the William Morris school of fantasy. I don't think this applies to the best fantasy nowadays. It's possible to do urban fantasy extremely well, as in Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and grittily as well as beautifully even when the theme is anti-industrial. Take Sarah Singleton's gorgeous The Crow Maiden (Cosmos Books), for instance, featuring fairies and road protestors (who aim to block a new bypass by living in the trees which will otherwise be destroyed) -- it's a vivid slice of contemporary realism intercut with magical intrusions from Chekhov's Journeyanother domain. There's no sloppy sentimentality. Or take Clive Barker's Weaveworld. Such books illuminate contemporary reality rather than rejecting it into a pre-industrial paradise that never really was. There is engagement with reality.

PM: Science fiction has almost achieved literary respectability as a literature of ideas and analogy. Do you think fantasy will evolve out of swords and sorcery to a higher level? And how?

IW: I read the phrase "sword and sorcery" as a slightly derogatory term for a sub-genre of fantasy, but actually what is Lord of the Rings other than sword and sorcery, since both are essential components? Maybe this is what is wrong with Lord of the Rings. Philip Pullman has evolved fantasy to a new height by radical reinterpretation of traditional religious ideas of good and evil. Richness of original detail and some philosophical depth are the way -- as in Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles or in China Miéville too. As with all books, I would say that the important thing is not to write a book just so that yet another book can be published, but to write it because of personal vision and the desire to query and influence readers' perceptions of the world.

PM: Do you think the old subjects of horror -- haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, vengeful ghosts etc; are dead and that writers should try to create a new mythos for a new millennium, or should there be a back to basics approach, a new and fresh approach to breathe life back into a somewhat maudlin genre?

IW: Vampire fiction gained a huge new impetus from Anne Rice. Vampire fiction always had a certain amount of latent sexual imagery and impulse. Nowadays this is overt. The sheer eroticism of Anne Rice was one of the main factors in this Renaissance. But there's also the theme that vampires are an alternate intelligent species or civilisation., alt.humanity/inhumanity. I don't see anything dead about vampires (as it were). Because of the eroticism of vampires I think they will endure. Not necessarily so with werewolves! Werewolves enjoyed a bit of modernist revival with writers such as Brian Stableford and S.P. Somtow, but I don't think they have much enduring interest. Everyone should read Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo (Peter Owen, London & Chester Springs 2003), winner of Finland's main literary award, the Finlandia Prize -- it's about Trolls as an alternate sentient species who have been hiding out in the woods -- Cat-apes. There are much more interesting and original things than mad dogs. Haunted houses and ghosts are likely to have a perennial minority literary interest for people who like M.R. James, for example. There can even be a kind of reassuring comfort and charm in such writing (along with the scares) akin to the popularity of detective tales of the Midsomer Murders or Inspector Morse variety. The appeal of tradition.

PM: In your view what aspects does speculative fiction need to have in order to stand the test of time? For example, Stoker's Dracula is considered to be a classic, 'A first class book written by a second class writer' as one critic put it. How does a peculiar one-off like Dracula stand the test of time? And how do they evolve into classics?

IW: They become classics either because they're very well written or because the central imagery is original and absolutely grabs the enduring attention of readers -- it incarnates something that was latent, awaiting expression (often primed by the social conditions of the time). Thus, Frankenstein, which falls into the second category.

PM: Do you think science fiction can have a serious affect on the future by making us aware of what it could be like, did George Orwell or Ray Bradbury change anything?

IW: Nineteen Eighty-four and Fahrenheit 451 provided mental tools and imagery for thinking more clearly about dystopian threats. That is their importance, rather than any direct influence upon the future. But we do not know in what way they have actually changed things because we aren't in a timeline which excludes those books. They may have had much concealed influence which we simply do not realise. And there is not one "future." There are multiple alternative possibilities. The most likely possibilities need not be what occurs. When the Rand Corporation drew up forecasts of the future, using the Delphi methods of polling experts, they once threw in a completely off-the-wall wild card scenario, a joker -- a fundamentalist religion causing mayhem. Contrary to all expectation, that is precisely what happened. Al-Quaida, the Twin Towers. The most likely future a few decades ago was global thermonuclear warfare. Who knows if books such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach did not nudge this dominant possibility just sufficiently aside?

PM: Do you think science fiction is responsible for some of the more outlandish aspects of our popular culture -- UFO sightings and abductions, crop circles -- is this healthy? Another form of fantasy, an escape from life in the 21st century, or does it contribute to detracting the seriousness of science fiction?

IW: Well, I wrote a serious SF novel (Miracle Visitors) about the UFO phenomenon, and whilst there's a whole lot The MIracle Visitorsof codswallop connected with such topics -- as well as a quasi-religion in America concerned with supposed UFO-abductions and salvation from outer space -- there certainly seems to be a perennial phenomenon of otherworldly encounters experienced by human beings throughout the ages. What manifested itself in the Middle Ages as encounters with fairies now expresses itself, because of our modern space travel mind-set, as encounters with ufonauts. But the phenomenological structure is the same. I see this in terms of an altered state of consciousness, nothing to do with actual Little Grey Men from another star system or an alternate or future Earth. An interesting book by Bertrard Méheust only available in French Science-Fiction et Soucoupes Volantes, seems to demonstrate that many UFO encounters were prefigured fairly exactly in earlier SF pulp stories, so that's a funny kettle of fish as regards the collective unconscious. The trouble is that European attitudes to the UFO experience are basically psychological and phenomenological, whereas American attitudes are literalist.

SF writers aren't too fond of the UFO phenomenon because it does seem to bring genuine SF into contempt, but I felt obliged to juggle with this particular hot chestnut when I wrote Miracle Visitors. It does rather irritate me when I see books about galaxies and black holes sharing shelf-space with UFO material under the rubric "The Unexplained," as though the two are akin.

PM: What do you think about the fusion of science fiction/fantasy and horror into one crossed-over genre? For example Brian Lumley employs this technique in a lot of his novels. Do you think it is a possible future direction for the speculative genres?

IW: However many technical lies SF necessarily tells, it does have at its root the rational world-view of science -- the real universe, of stars and galaxies, of biological evolution et cetera. In fantasy the "rules" of magic govern existence, and fantasy is typically about the struggle to restore balance or health. Horror specialises in, let's say, entities -- evil ones; and they generally win or remain only provisionally defeated. So there oughtn't to a crossover between these three categories, but in fact there can be. Peter Hamilton's huge "Night's Dawn" trilogy very successfully, in my view, intercuts true SF and horror. In my own latest novel, Mockymen, I commence Mockymenwith a long story which uses the occult in a way typical of the horror genre, and from this I launch into an overtly science fictional narrative set in the near future. One reviewer performed a volte-face half way through the review, and from praise he shifted to fire and brimstone. Other reviewers felt that I carried out the acrobatics of narrative disjunction effectively. It excited me to do this. It was a challenge. But it does demand acrobatics. Oh yes, and my two novels in the Books of Mana series, Lucky's Harvest and The Fallen Moon, take similar liberties, fusing science fiction and fantasy into science fantasy. Actually, I wrote an article for The New York Review of Science Fiction (June 1999) entitled "Science Fiction, Surrealism, and Shamanism" arguing that what I write might best be described as SS, Science Surrealism.

Also, what excited and challenged me about writing my four novels and two stories set MockymenGames Workshop's universe of Warhammer 40,000 was that these are space operas which use the tools of SF, but the cosmos they describe is one of demonic horror hag-ridden by superstition. I'm very interested in genre intersections.

Much of my own writing is concerned by and large with the nature of consciousness, altered states of mind, new perceptions of reality -- which is what the shamans of old, the magicians, sought to achieve, generally in order to influence or control reality. My novels have dealt with such things as alchemy, paranormal states of mind, and even warfare-by-magic but written "with science fictional rigour," as one reviewer kindly put it -- because I think rationally as well as surrealistically. From time to time events happen to me which cause me to believe in magic in the sense that some events can be willed or bespoken to occur ("proclaimed," in the language of my Books of Mana). I know this from experience. This may sit oddly with my rational bias, but I'm happy to contradict myself. Our fundamental ideas of the universe may be incorrect. It would be rash to think otherwise. Science is provisional. We don't know enough. Not yet.

PM: How has the internet improved the quality, or damaged it whatever the case maybe, of speculative ficition? Do you think it provides a whole new world of opportunities for writers?

IW: Obviously it enables a lot of texts to be published (often without quality control) which otherwise wouldn't be published for perfectly good reasons. But now that print publishing is so determined by the hope of high sales figures, downloadable fiction and print on demand does allow books, which absolutely deserve to be read but which don't cut the commercial mustard as now defined, to see the light of day, or the cyberlight of screen. Electrons have also rescued backlists. If it was up to the commercial publishers, in the SF field at any rate we would become increasingly oblivious to the history of the genre, as indeed numbers of new writers are -- so the wheel gets reinvented unnecessarily. It's an old cliche, still moderately true, that SF writers cut their teeth on the short story. With declining magazine sales, and the small number of submissions which are accepted (just one per cent, at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for example), web-magazines provide an enthusiastic new outlet. The best stories will probably filter through into hardcopy print. Mind you, when I say this, I'm personally quite prejudiced in favour of print-literature, and this may be an obsolete notion, though I don't think so.

PM: Which genre will be stronger in the future: horror, science fiction or fantasy? Will they still be around or will they have gone the way of the western, into the wilderness?

IW: The western was tied to a particular narrow time and place, which was hugely romanticised.

This doesn't apply to SF, fantasy, or horror. On current trends, the answer would seem to be fantasy -- which was already thriving in ancient Greece and Rome. If our exploration of space completely falters, SF will be fantasy. How horrifying.

© Philip Madden 2004.

Mockymen is published by Golden Gryphon Press (October 2003, ISBN: 1930846215,
A UK paperback is published by Immanion Press (November 2004, ISBN: 1904853129,

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