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Paul McAuley and Jack Womack:
a double interview

Jack Womack: When writing a science fiction novel that actually employs real scientific possibilities as the plot drive, how do you settle upon a realistic supposition as to when what would be really possible in the real world as opposed to simply scientifically possible, or even probable? I think a good example here would be the scramjets, which I gather are theoretically buildable now, or will soon be -- what would enhance the probability that Virgin, say, will find this the way to go?

Paul McAuley: As far as I am concerned, construction of a future in which technology has advanced along several fronts, including those important to the plot, is a lot more empirical than I hope it seems to be. I don't sit down with a large sheet of paper and lots of coloured crayons and graph everything out (although I did do quite a bit of research on Mars, of course), and I don't do a lot of thinking about things which are outside the purlieu of the novel (I don't know what TV programs are like, for instance, but then, Mariella doesn't own a TV), although I do try to be receptive to stuff which is floating around in the media I use. And I do try and get the feel of a cohesive future, which is why there are both scramjets, which can get you across the States from coast to coast in less than an hour, and an advanced propulsion system which gets everyone to Mars in a reasonable time.

JW: Mariella is quite adjusted to life in the U.S., but the place clearly still baffles her in many ways (as it does some Americans, too, granted). As I read I kept remembering D.H. Lawrence writing of the West, and how he was both drawn into an aesthetic confrontation and absolutely terrified by the size and emptiness of the place. How Martian is the U.S., still, to someone, say, from Scotland/Britain?

PM: The odd thing is that the obvious stuff -- landscapes, cityscapes, the interiors of suburban homes -- is very familiar from movies and TV. I don't think it is possible to have the same aesthetic reaction as D.H. Lawrence nowadays because the expectations generated by familiarity with mass media images bleeds into the reality you confront. Even so, the sheer scale and emptiness of the American South-West does remain genuinely strange to someone brought up in the close horizons of Britain -- you can see that strangeness feed back into images in movies set in those spaces by non-native directors such as Paris, Texas and Thelma and Louise.

I lived in Los Angeles for two years -- a city that's weird and replusive to many Americans, but one which I still love -- and found that while the streetscapes, with their cateneries of overhead wires, giant billboards, and, yes, palm trees, were just as depicted in the movies and TV (The Rockford Files gives a great picture of LA's surface streets; Jim hardly ever uses the freeway), little things kept tripping me up. Salad served before the main course, not with it, using your knife to cut up food and then setting it down for the rest of the meal, and of course, the tea question. Mariella's story of the flavoured tea actually happened to me, and a good deal of her experience and reaction to the States echoes mine.

JW: I very much liked Mariella's tea remembrance, and I suspected there was some overlap between your experience and hers. I don't believe I've ever offered you tea chez Womack (sticking generally to proferring savoury sips of Red Death and other exotic cocktails, et. al). Valeria (lovely wife of JW) will be happy to make you tea Russian-style next time you're here -- of course, that means holding a sugar cube between your teeth while sucking the tea through it. Purty sweet.

While I think living there would change me in potentially unnerving ways, I very much like visiting Los Angeles; precisely because the view of it filtered through media is so wildly different from the reality, which is far more deeply peculiar, and enjoyable, than can possibly be guessed from a distance. The Rockford Files really did give a better idea than anything else, now you mention it. When people in the U.S., especially New Yorkers, disparage LA, it's usually because they know only the Special Celebrity Edition. Or they had a run-in with LA's Finest.

PM: Of course, seeing cops with guns was a little unnerving at first -- especially at breakfast in the local Copper Penny. But only later did I realise that what LA's Finest really wanted was tanks. And helicopter gunships. The last time I was in LA, I was driving around Mr Kim Newman and a Local Writer (his ancient Plymouth was so loaded with books it couldn't accomodate the three of us) who complained about all the New Yorkers who had moved to LA, beeping their horns at intersections. Perhaps this partly accounts for New York's new relaxed air -- all the impatient citizens are now causing hair-trigger traffic incidents on the West Coast.

JW: "Research is research," true as you say; but should scientists wholly disassociate themselves from the real-life potentialities of their research? The possibilities for totally accidental trauma and mischief arising from social incompetence are increasing exponentially I should think.

PM: I don't think they should hide in their labs. Indeed, somewhere or other Mariella Anders deplores that kind of behaviour, which she sees as the refuge of the scoundrel and the second-rate. The best scientists are almost without exception enthusiastic and effective communicators; Einstein wrote a popular book about relativity, for instance, and there's been a welcome explosion in popular science books in the past ten years, the best of them written by practising scientists. But this is a two-way street, and there has to be a corresponding willingness in society to understand how science works as well as what it promises. In Britain there's a lamentable tendency to dismiss science and scientists as something which doesn't impinge on the real world, a very dangerous point of view that could well lead to censoring of good as well as bad science, if scientists were forced to justify the utility of their work before they began it.

JW: The same tendency exists over here, needless to say (the Oxonian kind of dismissal to which you referred in the narrative being specifically British, true) and when science and scientists do begin to impinge on the real world, i.e., when they start pointing out that well, maybe there's something to this global warming situation after all, well, Congress can just pass a law saying there's now.

It seems to me that in the U.S., scientists are often forced (or, more likely, are trained) to justify the utility of their work before beginning it. Or at least come up with some entertaining (or morally worthy) proposal with which to enchant, and subdue, the funding rabble.

PM: Didn't one state (I think it was Kansas) once pass legislation adjusting Pi, that annoyingly irregular and infinite fraction, to exactly 3.0? Perhaps taking Yankee pragmatism a shade too far.

Justifying the practical worth of research is now also a British thing. When I quit science the box for justification was just one line long, but I bet it's longer now.

JW: I very much liked The Secret of Life and as you know hard science fiction novels are not the ones I usually go for; but your characters, especially Mariella, all seem to live in a real world, The Secret of Lifeand live not easily at that. Why do you think in harder science fiction novels is the interior lives of the characters so often overlooked or ignored by their authors, even today? It can't simply be terrible writing in every case. Are some writers more empathic with nuts and bolts than with people?

PM: It's a general problem with genre, isn't it? That as long as the idea (in sf) or the puzzle (in mystery novels) is good enough, it can carry all manner of wooden or implausible characterisation. And I do think that while there are some genre writers who can just about get by on the strength of their ideas (Agatha Christie and Arthur C. Clarke spring to mind), there are many genuinely terrible writers who bolt on characterisation as an afterthought (too many to mention here, and mostly in sf, alas, which now lags a long way behind mystery writing). Whenever I come across a version of that tired cliche scene in which a character admires herself in a mirror I generally know that the novel in question isn't going to hold my attention. What you can't do is reread these books -- once the idea is followed to its end, once the mystery is revealed, there's nothing left. The best genre novels can be reread because they have substance and depth, whether in the interior lives of their characters or in the passion the author infuses. The Secret of Life was an attempt to have it both ways -- a scientific mystery which develops into a moral problem which affects Mariella on a deeply personal level.

I think this brings us to Going Going Gone, which is not only a deeply felt novel in which the hero must finally make a deeply Going Goine Gonepersonal choice, but is also the end of a sequence that represents more than ten years of work. Are its lovely elagiac last pages the place you were always aiming towards?

JW: I assume you mean the section, "In the New World," wherein all my people are seen again as they would be, were they actual individuals and not simply various aspects of myself. I did always want to tie everything up, as in fiction I can obtain a kind of perfection that is utterly unattainable in life; and as the overriding theme in all the books is the attempt to remain hopeful in the face of often-impossible situations, I wanted to make sure that as many of my people as possible came out kind of all right, considering. The actual structure of that final chapter I only came up with in late fall, 1999.

PM: Going Going Gone contains more than one strand of alternate history, including a memorably dark portrait of the Kennedys as the ultimate dysfunctional family. It seems a lot more felt than a mere cheap shot or pomo dismantling of myth -- do you have a sense that American history has somehow taken the wrong turning, of a missed chance that darkens or smudges the contemporary American landscape?

JW: American history has taken the wrong turn at nearly every opportunity, it seems to me, save for the efforts of Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. When I first developed my notion of a parallel world that would be like ours, but potentially far worse than the world that eventually becomes the world of Dryco, I simply posited a place where none of the three would have had any effect on U.S. history. Historians tend not to favor the Great Man theory (pardon obsolete terminology but no one has formally put forward the Great Person theory, though they should) but in the U.S., homeland par excellence of rugged individuals, I think that more often than not it applies, though not always in the ways one would think. For example, while I think the economy during the last twenty years would have run along the same lines as it has run, roughly, with or without Reagan, the current nasty division between Republican and Democrat that resulted in our recent electoral escapades would not have existed without him.

PM: There's also a hectic trip through a slice of what Gibson has called the Gernsback Continuum -- a teeming futurescape of gleaming skyscrapers and a myriad forms of transport. Here we are at the brink of the science fictionally important year of 2001, and we don't quite have the future all those lovely garish Gernsbackian pulp covers promised. What do you most miss from the future we didn't get?

JW: I miss a world with leisure time and the ability to afford leisure, during aforementioned time. Also, furniture you could wash with a hose. While reading The Secret of Life I kept thinking about those scramjets, and what a great idea they were, and how in 2027 more than likely I'll be standing in the same place at the baggage carousel at JFK waiting forty minutes for my luggage to show up, following the usual miserable six hour flight from (fill in the blank).

PM: The trouble is that by 2027, even with scramjets, the wait for baggage may be as long as the flight itself. And while the new European Airbus will be something like twice the capacity as a 747, with a shopping promenade and an observation deck, I bet the leg room in Economy with still be blood clot-inducing. That progress is not linear is a common category mistake in science fiction -- something on which you play some lovely riffs, such as the hectic journey Walter makes across Eulie's futuristic New York. There's a great book, The Victorian Internet, which illustrates this point perfectly, pointing out that electrical telegraphy brought about the same kind of social changes that the Internet promises to do. And of course, famously, the Victorians had a postal system with multiple deliveries a day, which mean that postcards performed much of the same functions as emails.

JW: The Victorian Internet is a delightful book. Of course, you all still have two mail deliveries a day over there, and we haven't had that over here since I was very young (and we're now talking, jeez, forty years ago), and they still burned raked leaves in the gutters or back yards in autumn, the scent of which being the thing I think I miss most about the past we did get.

The older I get, the more I realize that everyone carries inside them the years they most enjoyed, and those are the years in which part of you always lives. Even though it's 2001, and by all rights I could or should be taking the Pan Am shuttle to the space station, my formative mind still lives in 1975, and is still dismayed by the hideous design of digital watches.

This also leads me to understand that things change the most in the second half of each century, because the people in charge during the first half are still living in the century previous.

PM: Not just the people in charge -- I think we're going to take many more years to work off the Twentieth Century. Currently there's a tremendous fashion-industry nostalgia for the '80's, for God's sake. Perhaps only when the first true 21st Century generation grows up -- around 2020, say -- will we begin to see real changes. Which fits in nicely with my notion that as far as pop culture is concerned, each decade actually begins in the middle of the calendrical decade and ends a couple of years after. The '60's in Britain began in 1964, for instance, and ended in 1973. In that sense, Going Going Gone is a very apt book for the present time, where we're too busy looking back to see where we're going. Is this a theme you're going to follow up, now that you've put your series behind you?

JW: It's not something I'd specifically thought about, but it resonates wildly. I totally agree with you about when decades really begin and end, although sometimes decades end abruptly earlier; the 80s ending in October 1987, for example, and the Roaring Twenties crashing to a close in the same month, in 1929.

The 60s in the U.S. began in 1964 too, when the arrival of the Beatles finally broke the mourning period following the Kennedy assassination. I remember both quite well, and recall that even as a seven-year old, the difference in the vibe of existence between pre-Dallas, Dallas ongoing, and post-Ed Sullivan Beatles as being almost palpable. The auric presence of adult mentalities, I suspect, rubbing off.

(William) Gibson and I have talked off and on about this for years, these coeval timestreams -- one in the mind, one in the real world -- especially when we think about a large part of our childhoods having taken place, in a very real sense, in what he calls The World Before Television. In the same way that it sometimes seems to me that I grew up during the Depression, and WW II (thanks to my living with my grandparents, for all intents and purposes). Do you sometimes feel as if you have an almost direct recollection of the war there, and of, say, rationing?

PM: Very definitely. Like you, I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, for which WW II had a real childhood presence (and in my case, so did WW I: my grandparents lived next door, and my grandfather had never really gotten over having been a prisoner of war in WW I). While I don't remember rationing, it was not quite over when I was born, and it wasn't until the early 60s and, yes, the Beatles, that the greyness of post-war austerity finally seemed to lift. How we envied you your ranch houses, and self-cleaning kitchens, and spaceship-sized cars, and oven-sized TVs!

JW: In writing Going Going Gone, I think I was trying, somehow, to give a more immediate sense of the feeling, emotional -- physical -- as well as intellectual, of being aware of two times, simultaneously; it's very difficult to get across.

PM: The whole novel does seem haunted -- and not just by the shade which beckons to Walter like the Ghost of Christmas Future. I am right in seeing a loose relationship between Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic and Going Going Gone, which seems to take place in one of the ghostly could-have-been Invisible Republics of America?

JW: Invisible Republic influenced me, and therefore influenced Going Going Gone. Marcus's book came out while I was very ill with TB and it was one of the titles I read and reread in the isolation unit. It led me to fully soak myself in the music of the 1920s and 30s of which he wrote, and that in turn led me to more fully appreciate where I had come from, and how far I'd come from there while still not traveling that far.

I was haunted by memory that year, in 1997: the memory of events recently transpired, and of the memory of roads not taken, and of actions not carried out in my own life. Memory crushed me, as to some degree it crushes Walter; only he has separated himself from his memories almost as successfully as he has separated himself from his color; but both are still there.

The Burroughs quote with which the book opens helped me a lot; actually, when I read it about four months after he died, and I thought it important enough to put in there, and to requote under the entry for Isabella at the end.

These things inform this particular book deeply, though on a very subtextual if perceivable level, and as with all my books, I guess what isn't said is as important, or sometimes more important, than what is said.

PM: I think it certainly does burn through in the passages about Walter's record collection, a mixture of obsession and curatorial sadness for a past so thoroughly lost; he is so haunted by the past that he has turned a room of his apartment into a shrine or mausoleum. As you point out, this is informed by your own recent experiences. Do you feel that part of the problem with genre writing is that not enough authors put anything at all of themselves into their work? It might explain why workshops and writing courses are so popular, and why technique is valued over all else, the kind of preadolescent uncomfortableness with raw adult emotion, and the substitition of sex scenes for love.

JW: I think that this is a problem with most fiction writing. I have never been able to keep myself out of my work, really; if anything accounts for the extremes of reaction to my books -- love 'em or leave 'em -- I suspect the intense emotions of my characters (and the visceral response of readers to them) may play an even greater role than difficulty (nay, at times obscurity) of language.

PM: I think you give more good language than most; I can't think of many who work so hard to keep merely ordinary sentences at bay. Walter's bebop groove is marvellously sustained. Do you consider voice to be as important as narrative?

JW: Horse and carriage. It's like jazz, I guess. If you can't hear it before you write it, you'll never write it right.

PM: Well, exactly. And I think it's worth pointing out that all seven of your novels (the six in the Ambient series, and your Russian comedy, Let's Put the Future Behind Us) are told in the first person, and always a different person. I'm coming to believe that the way out of the genre trap of moving a novel forward by simply piling on plot and special effects (fun though it can be, but it plays only to the genre gallery) is to get the voice or tone right before you begin. Yet you seemed to grasp that from the first, perhaps because you came upon science fiction from the outside in.


This interview first appeared, briefly, on the HarperCollins website.

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© Paul McAuley and Jack Womack 26 May2001