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The Recursive Man

an interview with Tony Ballantyne
by Eric Brown

Over the course of the past few years Tony Ballantyne has been quietly building himself a reputation within the science fiction field as Recursion by Tony Ballantynea writer of intelligent, finely crafted short stories which, although embracing the latest scientific and technological ideas, never lose sight of the fact that fiction, even science fiction, is about the human condition. Often quirky and humorous, his stories explore what it is to be human in the increasingly frenetic future that we all inhabit. In this respect, the writer he most reminds me of is the American satirist Robert Sheckley.

Ballantyne lives with his wife and children in Oldham. A full-time teacher, he works on his novels and stories in his spare time, and manages to produce a variety of work which would make many a full-time writer envious.

At the time of the interview, his first novel Recursion was just out from Tor Macmillan.

Eric Brown: To begin with, Tony, how long have you been writing, and why did you begin? Who were your early influences?

Tony Ballantyne: I've been writing as long as I can remember: I started for the simple reason that I just like writing. It gives me a great deal of pleasure. I started writing seriously, however, in my mid twenties. I realised that if I was going to do this properly I would have to be a lot more disciplined in my approach. Early influences? Larry Niven, Ray Bradbury, Diana Wynne Jones.

EB: Three very different writers. What was it about these three that appealed to you?

TB: The story, the story and the story. It amazes me how often people can talk about books and writing without mentioning this.

EB: Why SF? You wrote earlier romantic stories--but did you always want to write SF?

TB: I enjoyed writing the romantic pieces. They helped me to understand how to "do" character. When the plot of a story is reduced to boy meets girl, you've got to really think about why the two are attracted to each other. It's not as easy as it sounds, it's far too easy to become overly sentimental. I'm actually planning out a romantic comedy, very slowly. But, yes, I always wanted to write SF. The Space Merchants had a big effect on me when I was young. I'm also part of the 2000AD generation, and I think that comics influenced writers my age more than is realised. Plots and ideas surface from there in many novels and short stories written by my contemporaries.

EB: I've just read The Space Merchants and was very impressed. Have you read other books by Pohl?

TB: Yes. I think Pohl is one of those writers who, whilst their contribution is not exactly unsung, deserves far greater recognition. In my more cynical moments it seems to me that we don't recognise our writers until someone buys the film rights for one of their books.

EB: Do you think that SF has a function other than mainstream literature, or is it the same--to elucidate the human condition through drama?

TB: I think rather that SF extends mainstream literature. If there is no drama, there is no story. However, whilst I, and I imagine most people who read SF, do not claim it predicts the future, I do think that it has played a big role in getting people to think about the future. Most people nowadays have ideas about aliens, global warming, cyber crime. They may not have read the books, but these ideas have crept into the media from the genre. Even before Dolly the sheep most people had heard of cloning and had formed opinions about whether or not this was a good thing. Okay, maybe some of the opinions put around were half-baked, but even so, people weren't totally unprepared to think about this new reality.

EB: What I like about your work is the traditional elements of good characterization and story-telling combined with interesting scientific or technological situations. How do you go about researching the science in your pieces--or, for that matter, coming up with the ideas?

TB: That's very nice of you to say so. I research in two ways. Firstly, I just like to read: newspapers, magazines and the web, as well as books. I don't do it so much to get ideas as from simple interest. I will read anything: I'm forever picking up leaflets and pamphlets when out. (A recent short story of mine, "The Ugly Truth", was inspired by a children's book on how iron was made. Although I had a good idea about how it was done, the background to the process set me thinking about the essential elements of the story.) But secondly, when I have a story under way I will read around it. If something particularly catches my interest I will look deeper. For example, some articles I read in passing when researching the next novel have led to me reading up on linguistics.

EB: Do you have any theories for the popularity of Hard SF at the moment? People like Baxter, Reynolds, Hamilton are very popular--do people read them for the quality of their scientific extrapolation, or the drama inherent in the situations they portray?

TB: I think the popularity of Baxter, Reynolds and Hamilton is due to the fact they write a very good story. Saying that, fiction with a solid factual base does seem to be very popular at the moment, not just Hard SF, but historical adventures, techno-thrillers, the Birdsong and Atonement sort of war story. Maybe we're moving back to the Victorian idea that
entertainment should be educational too and we should all try and improve ourselves.

EB: Where would you place yourself in the Hard SF/Soft SF dichotomy? While your first novel Recursion is undoubtedly Hard SF, many of your shorter pieces have been character driven.

TB: I don't think that's so much my decision as the stories themselves. Once I have the basic plot and the characters worked out, the stories tend to make their own way. Recursion was based around a Hard SF idea, but the plot ended up being significantly skewed by one of the characters. In that sense, the plot was undoubtedly character driven.

EB: Do you think that the explication of big, high concept, Hard SF ideas in novels and short stories preclude serious attempts at believable human characterisation? (Does the scale of the idea dwarf the day-to-day events of human activity, making the two hard to combine in the same novel/story?)

TB: Chris Beckett says that in SF the world itself can become a character... He makes a good point. Speaking personally, I find it's sometimes all too easy to get caught up in the technology and end up with a story that has no characterisation. Then again, if you are left with a readable story, is that a bad thing? I feel that SF writers (and readers) are still hung up on the idea that what they write is not proper 'literature'. Who cares? One of the strengths of SF is the way it crosses genres: Crime, Comedy, Historical. Literature is just another genre that SF can dip in and out of as appropriate.

EB: I agree with your point about 'proper literature'. I think the minimum requirement of a story is that it presents believable characters. Sometimes, SF shirks this responsibility. (I'm thinking of writers like Clarke and Heinlien and Asimov. You might enjoy them when you're young, but if you come back to them in later life, you see how poor they are.) Anyway, my question: where do you see Recursion in the role call of recent SF novels--would you cite writers like Baxter as an influence? If not, then who?

TB: Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury were all early influences. Larry Niven too. I particularly liked the way his plots were so logical. After that came writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Martin Amis. Characterisation inspiration came from Diana Wynne Jones and David Nobbs. Where do I see Recursion? A lot of reviews have quoted Dick as an influence, which I found surprising. I've read and enjoyed Dick but never saw him as a big influence. Then again, I can see the connection...

EB: Tell me something about Recursion: where did the idea come from; what you hoped to do with the book.

TB: I had the idea a long time ago. I wanted to give an answer to the short story the "Sixth VNM" that appeared in Interzone 138. I actually had a stab at in the short story "Single Minded", but I always felt that story never had the chance to develop properly. It seemed to be something more appropriate for a novel. After that I just tried to extrapolate from the situation I had. One big theme was personal responsibility. In the past people believed in God. One of the things I wondered about was if people would believe in themselves, or do we need to look to a higher power for a guide, be it religious or AI.

EB: What are your writing habits?

TB: I write one hour every night between 8 and 9. I have a very understanding family that allows me to do this. I'm fortunate enough to be very disciplined, I can just sit down at the keyboard and type. All those hours soon add up.

EB: And what's next?

TB: I've just about finished Capacity, a loose follow up to Recursion. I'm very pleased with that novel. After that will come Divergence, which has all the answers (although they are there in the first two books if you know where to look). I'd also like to get back to some short stories.

EB: Speaking of which, I can't finish the interview without asking about one of my favourite short stories: your "Teaching the War Robot to Dance". Tell me about it--where did it spring from; what inspired it; what are your own feelings about this story?

TB: Of the stories that I've written, it's definitely one of my favourites too. It was inspired by reading a biography of Monet, of all things. Without wanting to give away too much about the plot of the story, I was struck by a quote of Monet's where he claimed to try to paint what was actually there, and not to ascribe his own emotions to figures.

EB: And to end with, what's your writing ambition?

TB: To keep getting better with every book.

EB: Tony Ballantyne, thanks a lot.


© Eric Brown 2004.

Recursion by Tony Ballantyne
Recursion is published by Tor UK (July 2004; ISBN: 1405041390).

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