An Interview with Paul McAuley
Carter: Your earlier books seem to me to have been more sf-nal
and 'widescreen' than more recent novels, and Cowboy Angels seems
to mark a return to that style; was it a conscious decision to (a) move
towards more near-future, Crichton-esque thrillers, and (b) to return
to a more sf style/content?
Paul McAuley: I've always been too restless
for my own good, I guess. I started out by trying to rewrite and redeem
space opera, moved towards more tightly focussed novels with Pasquale's
Angel (a noir set in a steampunk version of Renaissance Florence)
and Fairyland, briefly returned to 'widescreen' SF with the Confluence
trilogy, and then turned back to the near future with The Secret
of Life, Whole Wide World, and White Devils. At around
that time I was getting more and more interested in thrillers: Whole
Wide World is a police procedural set just a little way in the future,
after terrorists have attacked the hardware that supports the Internet
and the rest of our information-based technology (it was written in
2000). And along the way, I've written two straight non-sf thrillers,
Mind's Eye, and Players.
As for Cowboy Angels, and a return to SF, the answer to this
involves a little publishing history I'm afraid. Stay with me. There
are lessons to be learned about the kind of boxes genre fiction must
fit into these days.
Angels (or Look For America as it was known then) was supposed
to be the second book in a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster,
the first being White Devils. I had thought that White Devils
was near-future SF - it is part of a thematic trilogy that includes
Fairyland and The Secret of Life, both published as SF
- but S&S decided to market it as a near-future thriller, and I
went along with it because all kinds of marketing and publicity was
promised. I began Cowboy Angels in 2003, straight after I turned
in the final draft of White Devils, but when I submitted Cowboy
Angels to S&S in 2004 they weren't too happy because, according
to them, my brand was now that of a thriller writer, and as far as they
were concerned Cowboy Angels was clearly SF (parenthetically,
a synopsis of White Devils had been turned down by my former
publisher, HarperCollins, because it was too SFish; it was a very confusing
time). So I was persuaded to set Cowboy Angels aside, and wrote
another novel for them - Mind's Eye. But I felt that Cowboy
Angels was important (if only to me), and didn't want to see it
slide out more or less invisibly somewhere down the line, and I also
had a couple of SF novels I wanted to write, so I took it back from
S&S and sold it, with those two SF novels, to Gollancz.
All of which shows that I don't really pay enough attention to my career,
in terms of marketing and sales and 'brand', as my publishers no doubt
wish I did. What I'd like to do is write both SF and thrillers, and
think that the Only Way Forward is to do that under different names.
SC: Will future books
be less 'thriller' and more sf?
PM: The next two books due from Gollancz
are set on various moons of the outer planets, and are definitely SF.
Hard SF about a war over the direction of human evolution. But (see
above) I have ideas for at least two more conventional thrillers, too.
SC: How far ahead do
you plan your novels, i.e., how many novels are currently queuing up
in your head to be written? Can you give us a few 'teaser trailers'
PM: The two novels I'm working on right
now are loosely based on a series of stories that began with 'Second
Skin', which was published in 1997. So I guess you could say that the
novels were ten years in the making. I have plenty of other ideas. Ideas
are cheap. It's making them into something useful that's hard. Most
of them are too vague to be set down here, and I want to keep the rest
to myself for superstitious reasons.
SC: Cowboy Angels
is by far the most violent of all your books so far, and in this, as
well as in its political edge, has some real similarities to Richard
Morgan's novels -- have you read and, consciously or unconsciously,
been influenced by his books?
PM: Violence is as violence does. What
violence there is in Cowboy Angels is certainly up close and
personal, so it is perhaps more noticeable than violence in most other
novels - my own, and other people's. It was a deliberate aesthetic choice,
not only because of the form of the plot and the world the novel inhabits,
but because I want the reader to understand the cost to the hero, Adam
Stone, and contrast his reaction to that of Tom Waverly, his friend
and nemesis. Adam Stone is still affected by death; Tom Waverly pretends
not to be. He makes fun of it. He dismisses it. And that's why Stone
is the hero, and why, in the end, Tom Waverly is a tragic figure.
Have I been influenced by Richard Morgan's work? No. I think that the
fourteen novels and sixty-odd stories I published before writing Cowboy
Angels had a far greater influence on it than anything by anyone
else. I feel that all of my novels have some kind of political edge,
even if it isn't as overt as in Cowboy Angels, White Devils,
Fairyland, and some of my short stories. And I think that anyone
who reads both White Devils and Cowboy Angels will find
that both have the same angle of attack.
However, it occurs to me that there is a kind of six-degrees-of-separation
link between me and Richard Morgan. Cowboy Angels is in part
about war across a range of alternate histories, so you could say that
it has been influenced by, amongst others, Fritz Leiber, Barrington
Bayley and Keith Laumer's Imperium series. And one of Keith Laumer's
perennial themes was that of supermen, usually loners, able to transcend
and manipulate the world of ordinary mortals. From what I recall of
Richard Morgan's first novel (the only one I've read, so far), it also
featured a loner superman transcending and manipulating ordinary mortals,
but of course it is quite possible that he's never read any Laumer -
there are only a few strong themes and tropes in SF, which makes the
game of 'spotting the influence' both very easy and extremely treacherous.
SC: You've carefully
set Cowboy Angels not just in another universe, but 20 years
back in time; is it a deliberate commentary/satire on contemporary (interventionist)
US politics and the cult of the 'individual' there?
PM: One of the reasons for setting Cowboy
Angels twenty-three years in the past is that the advanced technology
of the Real, which has developed a method of travelling between alternate
histories, doesn't have to be too different from our own present technological
level. I didn't have to introduce all kinds of distracting and pointless
futurism. Also, I lived in the US for a couple of years in the early
1980s, so I think that I have a fair idea of the cultural and political
feel of that place and time.
Cowboy Angels is certainly influenced by the current situation
in America, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (I believe I mentioned
that I started writing it in 2003), although it isn't a direct satire
on Bush and other inhabitants of the White House Bubble. As my friend
Jack Womack has put it more than once, it's currently impossible to
either improve on or keep up with reality. American foreign policy since
the Second World War, and in particular the role of the CIA in attempts
to prop up unsavoury regimes and roll back the Communist Hordes, are
equally important in informing the story and atmosphere. I had a lot
of fun researching the CIA's Black Ops, and turning that information
to my own fell purposes.
SC: Researching CIA
Black Ops sounds like a special kind of fun - what are your "favourite"
examples of them?
PM: Many of the CIA's Black Ops had tragic
outcomes, but quite a few were frankly bizarre. The plan to supply Castro
with exploding cigars is well known. There was also a plan to spray
Castro with an LSD-like drug before he gave a radio speech, and plans
that played on the fact that Castro loved scuba diving: a gift from
a friendly attorney of a brand new wet suit, its breathing apparatus
dusted with tuberculosis bacilli; planting a specutacular seashell boobytrapped
with explosive in a spot where Castro dived. G. Gordon Liddy and former
CIA agents working for Nixon's reelection were caught during the Watergate
burglary, but the Nixon campaign planned numerous black propaganda operations
against the Democrats, including publicising fake Democratic political
events to make people angry when they turned up and found no party or
free beer, and planting provocateurs with bizarre 'quirks' in anti-Nixon
rallies to make it appear that his opponents were crazy Communist freaks.
Don't forget that George W. Bush's father was once head of the CIA...
SC: Bob Dylan regularly
crops up in Cowboy Angels -- are you a fan of his? Do you listen
to music while you're writing, and if so how much does it shape the
PM: I'm a fan of Dylan and all kinds
of music that now falls under the rather artificial rubric of 'Americana',
and of the music from the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s. One of
the strands of thought that informed Cowboy Angels is Greil Marcus's
idea, closely argued in his book Invisible Republic, of a lost,
weird America that's chronicled in the music of Bob Dylan, the Band,
Dock Boggs, and many others. If you go to the US now, you won't find
that weird America any more; everything has been homogenised by mass
culture and commerce. There are no hidden corners, no place that isn't
connected with all the rest. It's gone. All gone. Exurbia'd, Gap'd and
Starbucks'd out of existence. In the early 1980s, it was still there,
just, which was another reason for setting the novel in that period.
The music of Dylan and others provides a kind of ghostly soundtrack
to the novel, a sign of things lost, things that need to be restored.
I listen to music when I need to get a certain rhythm of work going,
but beyond that it doesn't have any input to what I actually write;
what musical influence there is in Cowboy Angels comes from what
I listen to when I'm not working.
SC: Cowboy Angels
seems eminently filmable to me: have you had any interest from Hollywood
(or elsewhere!) previously?
PM: It's being marketed to various producers
in the US right now. Like just about every other novel, of course.
SC: I notice from your
blog that you're a fan of Smoke magazine in particular and London in
general, so as a London resident myself I'd like to ask: what's the
best thing about London?
PM: Its deep history and kaleidoscopic
culture. Which sounds like two things, but if you think about
SC: Can you recommend
something unusual to see or do in the capital?
Postman's Park in Little Britain (behind St Bartholemew's hospital,
which by the way is near one of the oldest surviving churches in London)
has a collection of late Victorian plaques memorialising people who
died heroic deaths while saving or attempting to save someone else.
Every one of them encapsulates a poignant story.
SC: Can you complete
PM: I've done it. Don't know if I could
do it again.
SC: Who/what are your
current favourite writers/books both in and outside the genre?
PM: Off the top of my head, no special
- Don De Lillo
- Daniel Woodrell
- Cormac McCarthy
- Ann Tyler
- Jack Womack
- James Gleick
- Stephen Jay Gould
- Jared Diamond
- Christopher Fowler
- Kim Newman
- Alastair Reynolds
- Robert Reed
- Elmore Leonard
- Paul Watkins
What else? William Gibson's new novel is one of his best. Jon Courtenay
Grimwood's ambition shows no sign of failing. I've just reread several
of Stephen Baxter's novels, and deepened my respect for his mastery
of science-fictional tropes, and the grand sweep of his future history.
Mostly blokes, it seems. Oh dear. Well, I wish Pat Cadigan would write
SC: Would you like
to write a joint novel? With anyone in particular?
PM: I've written a couple of stories
with Kim Newman. The odd thing is that what comes out isn't a hybrid
of my stuff and Kim's stuff, but something else. I don't think we could
manage a novel, though. The back-and-forth involved in writing a story
takes long enough as it is.
SC: What's your writing
routine? Do you write everyday, rain or shine?
PM: I write most days. I've been trying
to take weekends off, but it doesn't always work out. Monday to Friday,
I start at 9.00 am and keep going until I'm done.
SC: What do you enjoy
doing when not writing?
PM: The contemplation of the ideal that
I'm going to muck up as soon as I start writing again.
SC: Have you ever had
a beard or moustache? Can we see a picture?
PM: If I ever had grown a beard or moustache
you certainly wouldn't be getting a picture.
SC: Do you miss being
a working scientist?
PM: I miss having a lab, and the back
and forth with like-minded people (although of course I'm now engaged
in a different kind of dialog, and I still get invited to science conferences
once in a while). I don't miss the paperwork, though, or the endless
struggle for funding. Or the responsibility, if I'm frank.
SC: Do you think there
will be a Vingean Singularity? If so, when? Are you tempted to write
PM: No, I don't. So no, I'm not.
As far as I can make out, the Vingean Singularity assumes a homogeneity
of intelligence and purpose that may pertain only to theoretical rather
than actual conditions. If true AI is developed, we'll probably get
something more like the internet than the mind of God. And even if we
do get the mind of God, She may well be indifferent to us, and vanish
with the equivalent of 'So long and thanks for all the fish.'
Are you basically an optimist or a pessimist about the future of humanity?
Do you agree that SF tends to be more negative than is strictly necessary
about the future because dark futures make better stories?
PM: It's certainly easier to write about
dystopias than utopias. But not, I think, because utopias are of limited
interest because they embody a personal vision of rightness (although
they do) and by definition have no dramatic possibilities (although
they don't). The fact is, dystopias offer a wide variety of human experience.
They offer debate. They offer drama and conflict. And they offer the
possibility of utopia without the need to start making diagrams
of the plumbing.
SC: What's your perfect
meal? Would you cook it yourself or go to a restaurant? Can you cook?
PM: Oh, I can cook up a storm, but right
now lemony chicken and pork with bamboo shoots from Young's would hit
SC: And what would
sir like to drink with that?'
PM: Tiger beer. Or green tea.
SC: What would you
really like to see invented?
PM: If you mean actual, fully-working
technology, then the ability to manipulate gravity.
SC: Who's your favourite
sf writer of out of The Big 3 (Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein)?
PM: All three have different virtues.
But I find that I can't reread Asimov, and while Heinlein had far more
influence on the shape of the genre than Clarke, Clarke thinks bigger,
and has that wistful irony characteristic of British SF.
SC: Do you have a personal
philosophy that you try to live by, or are you making it up as you go
PM: Do as you would be done by. Don't
miss deadlines. Don't make promises you can't keep.
There are miles to go before you sleep. Don't follow leaders, watch
for parking meters.
SC: If you could do
any job you wanted - anything at all (except writing!) - what would
PM: Is there any better job than
writing full time? When I was a kid, I wanted to be an engine driver.
Or an astronaut. I'm too old to be an engine driver now (and there aren't
any mainline steam trains any more). And I can't speak Russian, I'm
not an American citizen, and I'm not a millionaire, so being an astronaut
is out, too. For now.
SC: Which is your favourite
PM: High summer in the northern hemisphere
SC: Would you like
to be one of the first space tourists?
PM: I'd like to be a space tourist once
the technology is as safe as the average ocean liner.
SC: What were the last
three DVDs that you watched?
PM: Ace in the Hole, dir Billy
Wilder; Right At Your Door, dir Chris Gorak; and a couple of
episodes of The Rockford Files, Season Four.
SC: What were the last
three CDs that you bought?
PM: The Hissing of Summer Lawns
- Joni Mitchell; Winemucca - Richmond Fontaine; and Kentucky
SC: Circuses - good
PM: Never trust a clown.
SC: Does the TV show
Big Brother have any value to society whatsoever?
PM: I thought the first season had a
look-at-the-humans-in-a-zoo interest, but now, apart from acting as
a low-security holding pen for wannabes, no.
SC: Obviously infinity
plus is your favourite website, but are there other websites
you regularly frequent and recommend -- for whatever reason?
Boing always has something interesting on it. The Jet
Propulsion Laboratory's website is full of fabulous wonders. And
I suppose I should mention my blog, Earth
and Other Unlikely Worlds.
SC: Is your wristwatch
digital or analogue?
PM: I do still wear a wristwatch as I
don't own a mobile phone. It's analogue.
SC: You don't own a
mobile phone? But...but...but why not?
PM: I don't own a mobile phone because
I work at home, and when I go out I like to go off the grid.
SC: Were you sad to
see Concorde retired?
PM: Yes, for two purely selfish reasons.
First, I never had the opportunity to fly in one. Second, I used to
see the British prototype of Concorde, piloted by the redoubtable Brian
Trubshaw, flying over my school. So its retirement is not only part
of the end of the hopeful technocratic era of the 1960s (remember the
promise that electricity would be so cheap that it wouldn't be worth
metering? remember Apollo, and cross-Channel hovercrafts?), but it's
also a farewell to a part of my childhood.
© Stuart Carter 2007.
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: