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Neal Asher

interviewed by John Jarrold

John Jarrold: You're best known for your Polity novels, many of which feature the Polity agent Ian Cormac. Where did the Polity and Cormac originate?

Neal Asher: When I began writing I started with the inevitable fantasy trilogy and ground away at that for many years before Gridlinked by Neal AsherI discovered the small presses and a writer's postal workshop. I decided to have a go at doing some short stories. My first Polity story (sort of) was one called "The Gire & The Bibrat" published in the first issue of Tony Lee's Premonitions in 1992. Thereafter, in other short stories, certain themes, ideas and characters began to reoccur. In one story I would have a character called Horace Blegg travelling by runcible, in another he would be refered to as 'Agent Prime Cause' and be directing Polity agents against an alien enemy called the Prador. Another story was about a xenobiologist called Erlin investigating the ecology of Spatterjay. Nanomycelia would feature in many, Polity agents, AI rulers etc. When I decided to put the fantasy trilogy aside, since writing additional books in that series would be a waste of my time without the first ones being published, and write a straight SF novel, I chose the setting of these stories. I wanted a universe/future chronology big and varied enough in which to set many tales. I had a few to choose from as other of my short stories were similarly linked, but the Polity seemed the best choice. As such, the Polity grew organically through the telling of those stories. Ian Cormac put in his first appearance in Gridlinked -- a kind of summation of many of the heroic characters I'd previously described.

JJ: And when and how did you start writing?

NA: When I was about fifteen or sixteen I'd been reading masses of science fiction when an English teacher, in one lesson, asked us to write short stories. I'd been overdosing on EC Tubb's Dumarest saga and wrote something about a character having his brain taken out and installed in a computer. Totally derivative of the Cyclan in those Tubb books. The teacher complimented me on that and said I should do more. Little did she know! Over the next few years I dabbled in writing, but it was one of many interests (drawing, sculpture, electronics, chemistry, biology). A few years later I realised that I had a choice to make: I could be a Jack of all trades and master of none, or I should concentrate on one thing only. I chose writing because it incorporated all my other interests, most especially my love of those lurid SF & fantasy book covers, on one of which I decided I wanted to see my name.

JJ: Your recent novel, Cowl, moves into a new universe. Do you intend to write further novels in that universe?

NA: I honestly don't know. Cowl grew from a novella I'd written some time ago -- one I knew at the time should be on a larger canvas. But when I look at all my short stories and Cowl by Neal Ashernovellas I see that every one has the potential to be a book. If there is sufficient interest ... perhaps I will. At present I'm concentrating on bringing the Cormac sequence to a conclusion, interspersed with a few other books that stand alone. Another time travel one might be one of them, but not yet.

JJ: And does time travel, used in Cowl, particularly fascinate you?

NA: It does. Another of those interests previously mentioned came from a family holiday on the Yorkshire coast where me and my brother spent most of our time searching for fossils on a bleak beach. The cliffs behind the beach were mud and stone and being steadily eroded by the sea. A prehistoric seabed was being washed out. I learnt a little then and very much more since, and my awe at the sheer scale of Earth's prehistory has never stopped growing. The lump of stone in your hand was a living creature two hundred million years ago. Dinosaurs roamed for a 170 million years. Billions of years passed before we even looked up at the sky. There's that comparison: if Earth's history were translated into a day, then we appeared only in the last two minutes. So, knowing all that, books like Silverberg's Hawksbill Station had added fascination for me. But there's not enough like that around. I wanted to impart that sensawunda (in itself what drew me to science fiction in the first place) I feel at the awesome reaches of time passed, and to pass.

JJ: Tell us about your latest novels, Brass Man and the forthcoming Voyage of the Sable Keech.

NA: Brass Man continues the Cormac sequence, follows on from The Line of Polity and comes out next April. That book Brass Man by Neal Asherhad its inception from all those people who turned round to me after reading Gridlinked and said, "I really like Mr Crane!" I did too and decided we needed to know more about him. There's also more about Jain technology, Dragon ... and plenty of gratuitous violence, large explosions, and flesh eating monsters. It also introduces certain themes and ideas to play out in future books. Lots of threads are starting to come together now ...

The Voyage of the Sable Keech follows The Skinner. I bring back characters from the original book: Janer, Erlin, the Old Captains and everybody's favourite: Sniper. The Sable Keech of the title is a massive ship named after a character in the original. Aboard it reifications seek resurrection, whilst in the sea underneath many nasty things are stirring.

JJ: Who influenced you as a writer?

The Skinner by Neal AsherNA: My stock answer to that is in the acknowledgements of The Skinner: their names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny. Like many, my first influence was Tolkien. I remember a teacher reading The Hobbit to a class I attended and, when I first went to library, the first book I picked up was The Two Towers. My parents passed EC Tubb's The Winds of Gath, Kaolin, Derai on to me, and I went on to buy all the subsequent books in that series up to about 24, when I gave up because Dumarest had still yet to find Earth. I read CS Lewis then, Edgar Rice Burroughs (not Tarzan) then moved on to reading much else: Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt, Herbert, Tanith Lee, Shaw, Heinlein, Harrison, Moorcock ... in fact, think of a genre writer and I've probably read 'em, because at one time I was polishing off an average of ten books a month. In later years it was Banks, Bear, Donaldson, Gemmell, Julian May, Tepper ... again: you name it. All these have affected me and I'm loath to select any out as a special influence. However, I hugely admire Zelazny's writing, and I must fess up about the Banksian influence on my drones and AIs.

JJ: What are your other influences, in music, film and so forth?

NA: I'm not musical person I'm afraid as I like the quiet (much to my father's disgust -- him being a jazz musician), but I am one of the thirty-five million who possesses a copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. I probably grew to like that group because, while working with my eldest brother he gave me lifts to work and Floyd was forever on his tape player. I guess that could be influential, it being sufficiently weird, but really, I don't think music is an influence. Films however are a different matter:

I don't think any SF writer's film list will be complete without Blade Runner, which I loved. Thereafter, in no particular order: Alien, Aliens, Krull, Total Recall, Excalibur, Terminator I & II, The Haunting (old version), Dune, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Die hard I & II, Black Hawk Down, Pitch Black, The Last Samurai, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings ... like all these lists, this is subject to perpetual change. Who knows what effect all those Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies had? What about TV series like Callan, Dangerman, and of course Doctor Who and Blake's 7? I really like Babylon 5 (excellent story arc), Band of Brothers, 24 and I'm quite getting into this new version of Battlestar Galactica. Stargate was pretty cool as well, though the producers could have asked before nicking my runcible idea (arf!).

JJ: Do you enjoy writing more at novel length or short stories? Why?

NA: I prefer writing short stories because I can play with all sorts of strange ideas on a limited canvas and sometimes the buzz of creation will last from beginning to The Line of Polity by Neal Asherend, and it's all over within a week. In writing a novel that buzz does occur, but then it goes away again and I just have to continue grinding away until the next hit. And it ain't all over in a week. The wider canvas gives me a chance to explore some things at length, which can be great fun. There's also nothing quite like holding that finished book in your hand. But what was that saying about inspiration and perspiration? Novels are hard work. However, short stories don't pay the bills.

JJ: What are your plans for the future (if any!)?

NA: The Voyage of the Sable Keech completes my second three book contract for Macmillan. I've handed it in and Peter Lavery will shortly be ripping into it with his scary pencil. He has asked me if I've any thoughts about another three books. Well, the due date for Sable is actually five months away, so I'm a little ahead of the game, and supposing another contract might be offered I've started on the next in the Cormac sequence. This book is provisionally titled Polity Agent and I'm 90,000 words into it. In this I answer some questions: who and what is Horace Blegg, why was Dragon really sent to the Polity, what is Dragon and the Maker's (Gridlinked) relation to Jain technology, and why, when throughout the Polity's expansion no Jain nodes were discovered, did one end up in the hands of Skellor when it did? Other possible books are Orbus -- following the adventures of a character from Sable -- Hilldiggers -- a standalone (the hilldiggers are spaceships named after what their weapons can do) -- and another Cormac one ... I'll leave it up to Peter to decide what he might like next and what order of publication. I also intend to turn out some more short stories for the likes of Asimov's, and I've also been approached about doing a collection of three novellas. I really need four hands and two keyboards.

John Jarrold has run three SF and Fantasy imprints in London since 1988: Orbit, Legend and Earthlight. Since 2002 he has been working as a freelance editor and book doctor, and is now also representing several authors as a literary agent. His website is at: and he is interviewed elsewhere on this site.

Neal Asher has been an SF and fantasy junkie ever since "having my mind distorted at an early age by J R R Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs and E. C. Tubb." The author's fifth book, Brass Man, will be out next April from Tor Macmillan, and his sixth book, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, is with the publishers.

© John Jarrold 2005.

Brass Man by Neal Asher Cowl by Neal AsherGridlinked by Neal Asher
The Line of Polity by Neal AsherThe Skinner by Neal Asher

Neal Asher's novels are published in the UK by Macmillan/Tor UK.

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