Talking Heads – Adam Roberts interviewed

Adam Roberts’s first novel was Salt which was shortlisted for the Clarke award. He has published several novels, parodies and studies of sf since then as well as having a job as a Professor of English.

Given your day job, what interests you in writing sf or parodies of recent films?

I write the parodies because they’re fun to do, and because I get paid. I only write parodies if I’m commissioned to do so; I don’t knock up a parody on the offchance and then approach a publisher. At the same time, one thing that my day-job tells me is that most of the greatest masterpieces of western literature are parodies; it’s a very ancient and very distinguished form of literature… Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes Don Quixote, Pope’s Rape of the Lock, Byron’s Don Juan, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Alice in Wonderland, about a thousand key texts of the twentieth century … the list goes on.

How easy is it to reach the differing audiences of sf and genre, from books to films?

Alas I have no experience of sf films, except the bum-on-a-seat experience that everybody has. SF films earn silly money. Sf books earn tiddly money. That’s the main difference.

In Gradisil you suddenly switch into an approximation of text language. What made you make the dramatic change in language and then revert it?

I hope it’s not a ‘sudden switch’; it wasn’t meant to be. The action of the novel stretches from 2043 to 2131; that’s quite a long time, the sort of period that’s sees actual changes in human society and culture. I map out the technological changes and advances you’d expect across that time-scale; and the political and demographic changes too. It made sense to me that language would also evolve over that period–it’s certainly changed a lot in the last 90 years. The book is in three sections: the first is in standard English; the second, forty years later, includes a few linguistic changes (words today spelt with a ‘ck’ are spelt with a ‘k’ … ‘bak’ instead of ‘back’… and a few other things). The third section carries that on, and adds a few more indicators of the evolution of language into the mix. I researched the ways in which language has changed over the last millennium or so, and then put in what were, in the end, fairly token stylistic gestures by way of speculating how changes might extrapolate into the future. I’m a bit surprised, actually, how puzzled people seem to be by it. The idea that language use evolves is hardly an outlandish one. If a novel that covers a long time span builds in technological changes nobody bats an eyelid (‘Your novel starts in 2000 … why did you insert this dramatic change of having a Mars base in 2100?’)

Revenge tragedy runs through some of your novels. What interests you in the motif?

That’s a deep question. I daresay it’s something psychological. I’m a mild-mannered, emotionally repressed middle-class white Englishman. If I were Hamlet, I’d probably mumble vaguely passive-aggressive things to the murderer of my father and leave it at that. Fiction gives me imaginative space to explore the state of mind, I suppose.

You argue that the natural state of the novel’s ending is happy. Can you elaborate on this and why have you recently focused on the return to the stable family relationship?

My argument is that the form of the novel is determined by its history, which is as a family-oriented comedic bourgeois artform in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. It’s perfectly possible to write tragic novels; some very effective tragic novels have been written. But I’ve come to think that tragedy kind-of goes against the grain of the medium. Why I have focussed recently on the return to the stable family relationship is probably autobiographical. I used to be a very doleful and unhappy man. Being (now) happily married and, especially, fathering my daughter has made me pretty consistently contented, for pretty much the first time in my life. I recommend it, actually; fatherhood. How does the song go? “I was miserable in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I’m considerably happier now actually …”

You argue that sf is a reaction to Science and Jose Monleon argues that the fantastic is a reaction to the Enlightenment. Given the current speed of change, does this still hold true and where does genre go with the current pace of change, scientifically and philosophically?

I could answer this question with eleven thousand densely argued words, or I could just skip past it … It’s surely almost axiomatic that science fiction is in part about mediating our relationship (excitement, anxiety) with science and technology. Insofar as science and technology still play a vital part in twenty-first century life sf still has its relevance. I don’t know Jose Monleon’s book. What is it?

Both Gradisil and Land of the Headless deal with varying types of oppression, either religious or political. Does this come from a contemporary theme? Does sf always deal with the contemporary?

That’s several questions portmanteaued into one. I do tend to write about religion a good deal; I think because it seems to me that religion is very like sf/fantasy in interesting ways. Religious belief rests upon a set of more-or-less coherent but unverifiable, effectively fantasy premises; it’s a form of worldbuilding. My atheist and materialist (dialectical materialist, as it happens) biases inflect that interest through social and perhaps monolithic forms. Is it contemporary? That seems to me to be asking: are we still living in a world in which monolithic oppressive religious and political dogma dominates the life of billions? Vote now by pressing the red button.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with Jules Verne? How can you deal with him as an influence?

I read a good deal of Verne when I wrote my History of SF. One of the nice things about him is that, rudimentaire though my French is, even I could read him in the original: he writes clear, accessible prose, direct storylines, big machines, heroic characters, happy endings. Everything that I didn’t do. Opposites attract, you see, and his work attracts me. I’m a very minor English photographic-negative of his very large French brilliance—for how can you not like Verne? Then, Eric Brown and Mike Ashley were putting together an anthology of Verne-themed short fiction, The Mammoth Book of Jules Verne Stories, each based on an original Verne title. All the most famous titles were bagged, so I wrote a John-Updike-stylee 21st version of Hector Servadac. I finished the story and it was published in its Mammoth form; but it wouldn’t leave me alone. So I continued writing it, until I’d written a short novel.Violá, as they say: Splinter.

Each of my novels so far has been, really, an attempt to wrestle with the specific influence of an sf writer whom I admire: Le Guin and Herbert in Salt, Gene Wolfe in On, Ballard in The Snow, Heinlein and the whole hard sf tradition in Gradisil, Jack Vance in Land of the Headless. Sometimes the wrestling results in some odd distortions and inversions, but I’d say the originals are still pretty obvious in all those books. Beyond that, and speaking more generally, the big influences for me, in terms of prose writing, are: Dickens, Proust, Tolkien, Nabokov, Dick. An odd fivesome, there. But that’s what you have. Dickens’s energy and inventiveness; Proust’s command of form and character; Tolkien’s worldbuilding and instinctive command of narrative; Nabokov’s prose style and Dick’s conceptual brilliance. Plus, with Dick, the unique factor X that came from being an unashamed hack writer working rapidly and (in some ways) raggedly in a hack idiom … but doing so with flashes of genius. Those five are the ideals.

Your first novel came out in 2000 with the bog wave of British genre writers. Did you ever feel part of the movement?

“Bog wave” is excellent. That really captures the feel of it; marshy, brown, liable to preserve the sacrificed corpses of certain writers, with leathery ropes around their ankles and meals of grain and seed still in their stomach, for several thousand years … UK SF is a fairly narrow world and you bump into most people in it from time to time; but I’m a little too eccentric (in several senses) and probably a little too unlikely to be part of the cool gang. Not cool, you see. A couple of the writers who started getting published around 2000 or just before are very good friends of mine; Roger Levy for one, James Lovegrove for another, but we’re no movement.

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