The Recursive Man
an interview with
Over the course of the past few years Tony
Ballantyne has been quietly building himself a reputation within the
science fiction field as a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
EB: And to end with,
what's your writing ambition?
TB: To keep getting better with every
EB: Tony Ballantyne,
thanks a lot.
© Eric Brown 2004.
is published by Tor
UK (July 2004; ISBN: 1405041390).
Order online using these links and infinity
plus will benefit:
...Recursion, paperback, from Amazon.com
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: