Graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and specialising
in English and French Nineteenth Century literature, Ian Watson lectured
in literature at universities
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
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,
and the novel, Mockymen (Golden Gryphon Press, 2003, www.goldengryphon.com).
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 me
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
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
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 another
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
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
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.sex, 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
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
IW: Well, I wrote a serious SF novel
(Miracle Visitors) about the UFO phenomenon, and whilst there's
a whole lot of
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
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
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 Games
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
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.
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
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.
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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