Alastair Reynolds’s Inhibitor Universe has made space opera rather exciting again. His new novel, The Prefect, is a prequel to the universe and a rather splendid book to boot.
I felt that there were two cultures present – one”old-fashioned” one and one like the Culture, though darker. Are you aware of the two cultures or does this arise from your own influences?
Not sure about this one. Clearly, the book’s set at a particular time in the future history – the golden age is in full swing, almost anything’s possible. In the Glitter Band, pretty much anything goes – and some of the micro-societies would indeed be very much like The Culture. Set against this, you’ve got the austere world of the prefects, which seemed to me to provide a nice contrast – you’ve got the rich, super-powerful immortals being policed by a handful of mortals who don’t even have the means to defend themselves. I suppose I was thinking of that dying breed: the Dixonesque British bobby with his truncheon and whistle, hoping that his uniform alone will carry enough authority to get the job done.
You have a running conversation about the artificial consciousnesses and whether they are real. Was this conversation designed to explore the various idea and experiments or is it an internal working out of your own position?
Very much the latter. I tend not to come to my books with fixed opinions on matters like that; it’s more a case of playing out the ideas on the page and seeing where I end up. Sometimes I’ll convince myself of something, but as often as not I’ll be just as two-minded at the end of it.
What is the relationship between human and Artificial Intelligence and what responsibilities do you feel creators have to their creations?
Artificial Intelligence has one meaning for SF readers and another for cognitive scientists, I think. AI in the SF sense, which is essentially HAL9000 or Neuromancer, a machine that can talk back, and perhaps even scheme and manipulate – hasn’t happened, and in fact it may never happen. AI in the real-world lab sense might be the term applied to a robot that has a clever set of algorithms for avoiding bumping into things. So I think we have to be careful to differentiate these meanings. I don’t believe we have any “responsibility” towards our creations, in the sense that I don’t regard them as anything more than inanimate lumps of metal, plastic and circuitry. Certainly no more than we have responsibility towards cars, or laptops – things that we cheerfully trash and recycle. I don’t think AI in the transcendent SF sense will happen in my lifetime, no matter what the doom-mongers of the Singularity would have us believe.
As an astronomer, do you still have a sense of wonder at the universe? What challenges do find writing sf as a scientist?
Things have changed me for since I stopped working at ESA – I’m a writer now, and astronomy is just an occasional hobby. I don’t think I ever had the classic sense of wonder about the universe, on any scale – I did have a sense of almost mindblowing hugeness and complexity, and I’ve still got that.
I firmly believe that being a scientist – or having been one – only makes about 5% difference to the kind of SF I write. For me it’s less about stuffing science into SF, than about trying not to let wrong science slip through. I don’t even succeed on that level, but I am trying.
How easy is it to imagine the post-human? What gave you the idea of the Exordium?
There’s a long tradition of posthumans in SF, and I’m only adding a few filigrees and twists to that. What it boils down to is that when I’m writing a book – particularly in the second or third draft – I try to keep my eye open for second-hand furniture and see if I can tart it up a bit, or throw it out for something new and shiny. Assumptions creep into SF over the course of time, often for very good, soundly examined reasons, but I think it’s good to take a step back now and then and see if we can do without them by rearranging the apparatus. That can be whether your thinking about posthuman clones, or aliens, or spaceships – the process is the same.
Exordium was a technology introduced in Redemption Ark, which I revived (or pre-vived) for The Prefect. The hardware came first, then the name – which I got from that 60s pop song, In the Year 2525: Exordium and Terminus.
What made you put such a mix of genres in to this book? Were you ever aware of doing anything different in the hoo-ha over New Space Opera a few years ago?
Beginning with Chasm City, I began to tip my hat towards noir and detective fiction, a thread that continued through some of the other books, especially Century Rain, and The Prefect is just an outgrowth of that, albeit with the noir dialled almost down to zero and the gothic touches of the earlier RS books stripped nearly entirely away. To a degree, I think we’re all at the mercy of the story-generating engines lurking at the backs of our brains – mine seems to stamp out detective/thriller ideas more often than it stamps out, say, ideas for pure hard SF stories or
elegant psychological vignettes.
Who are your influences?
Within SF, the usual suspects, I’m afraid: Clarke to the largest degree, Asimov somewhere behind him, then Dick, and all the hard SF writers that emerged through the sixties and seventies, from Niven through to Varley, Vinge, Bear and Benford. Cordwainer Smith is my favorite dead guy. My favorite contemporary SF writer is Gene Wolfe – I don’t think you can beat him. I also like Connie Willis’s stuff – about every other book of hers is genius. I’m not big on fantasy, but I like Mieville and some of the other literate types. In horror, I like Lovecraft, MR James, Ramsay Campbell, and especially the short fiction of Stephen King – I’ve got less time for his novels, though. On the edges of genre, Chris Priest, Mike Harrison, and lately the excellent David Mitchell. I read tons of crime. My mainstream tastes are pretty middlebrow, I’m afraid: Ishiguru, Pat Barker, that kind of thing. I’m big on historical fiction: Patrick O’Brian, Forrester, etc. Forrester, I think, was a wonderful and economic stylist.