Dreaming differently – an interview with Simon Morden

The Lost Art jacketSimon Morden holds degrees in geology and planetary geophysics but that didn’t stop him from writing fiction. His first novel was Heart (2002), a contemporary fantasy with Arthurian undertones. His latest book, The Lost Art (2007), is an sf novel with strong fantasy undertones which I rated highly as a really good, thoughtful read when I reviewed it for sfrevu which deals with science, faith and humanity in equal measure. He was the editor of the BSFA’s Focus magazine and was a Clarke Award judge in 2006.
Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?

I was horribly precocious, and could read pretty well before I got to school. Having managed to exhaust all the reading schemes by the time I was seven, I was let loose in the library: there was one book with spaceships on the front – I’m pretty sure it was a Sector General story. I never really looked back from there.

What do you read these days?

I keep telling myself that I’ll get around to reading ‘proper literature’ when I pass my eightieth birthday, but frankly, who am I kidding? Thirty nine more years is going to be too short to read all the SF, fantasy and horror goodies I’ve missed or have yet to be written. And honestly, I don’t get that much time to read – I’m busy writing, looking after my two kids, teaching part-time at their school and attempting to repair the house.

A case in point: people are saying The Lost Art has similarities with Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I’m reading it for the first time, now, and it was published in 1959.

Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

I don’t think it occurred to me that I could be a writer until quite late on: seventeen or so. Yes, I made up stuff – a very rich interior life, as the psychologists would say – and it was all genre, but it was more directed towards role playing games. I discovered Dungeons and Dragons through my interest in wargaming, and I was hooked instantly: I could be in stories like the ones I read. I started designing my own scenarios, and adding in history, geography, ecology, and ending up with some serious world building – a bit like I do now. But that’s Morden’s First Law of writing: nothing is ever wasted.

Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?

I am the Boy that SF built. I studied geology and geophysics at university because I was inspired to be a scientist by the books I read. There’ll still be a part of me, though, caught up in Middle Earth. Which, I suppose is why when I write, I write not only genre, but a blend of genres: many of my short stories don’t fall neatly into the SF or fantasy or horror categories but straddle the boundaries between two, and sometimes all three. Of
my longer works, Another War was Lovecraftian horror meets SF, Heart was a fantasy/horror hybrid, and The Lost Art is SF that embraces fantasy conventions.

In other words, why would anyone want to tell non-genre stories?

Who is your ideal reader?

Someone who’ll pay money to read something I’ve written… but seriously: someone who wants to be entertained, who wants to be taken in and marvel at the shiny jewels on every page. I do try and ensure the plot bubbles along, that the characters are people that the reader will care about, that the scenery is solid and doesn’t wobble when poked. Essentially, my ideal reader is someone who loves stories, loves the very idea of
storytelling. And it’s a contract between reader and writer – if you suspend your disbelief, I’ll give you something worth suspending it for.

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?

It seems to me there are two sorts of writers: those who plan, and those who don’t. Some writers feel that having a plan stifles creativity, and some stare with horror at a blank page. I’m one of those who just starts and sees where I end up. It’s as much a journey for me as it is for the reader – often I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, and it’s very exciting! Sometimes I get an idea of where I’m going and how I’d like
the story to finish. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes, well, I end in up in the most surprising of places.

I do try and write every day – it keeps the momentum going, and I get crabby if I haven’t written for a while. It feels like the story is fighting to get out, and I’m the only one who can release it. That’s a bit metaphysical, and probably daft with it, but that’s the best way I have of describing the process.

Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?

The usual answer is the story I’m writing at the moment. I’m so caught up in it, having ideas and visualising what might happen. But stepping back and looking at what I’ve already done, I’m very fond of my first published novel, Heart – a contemporary fantasy that borrows heavily from Arthurian legend. It was very different from anything I’d written before. The plot is intricate, multi-stranded, intense and brooding, and the
characters, especially my German detective Torsten Neubauer, became alive in a way I’d never anticipated they could. Sadly, the publisher’s long since gone bust and the book’s out of print. But I do have the rights if any publisher out there is interested!

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?

Without wishing to label any of my peers as equally talentless hacks… writers who I admire and who inspire me: Ray Bradbury is a writing god, a superlative storyteller who gets right under the skin of the characters. Something Wicked This Way Comes is almost perfect in the way it balances light and dark, and if I had one tenth of his talent, I’d be happy. Michael Marshall Smith and Neil Gaiman are also part of that storytelling stable: their steely-eyed squint at what might be is a trait to be coveted.

How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

It’s difficult to answer this question without looking back at to what I thought the future was going to be when I was a kid. I grew up, almost literally, in the shadow of the nuclear holocaust. My house was stuck between Aldermaston, where they built atomic bombs, and RAF Burghfield, where they armed them. Greenham Common was just down the road. If war had broken out, my atoms would have been some of the first in the stratosphere.

But it didn’t happen. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed. The EU have integrated former communist countries into a partnership based on trade and co-operation, not fear and armaments. I live in a future that my parents would never have dreamed of forty years ago.

I’m a father myself now: what makes me hopeful is that people of goodwill, of all colours, creeds and political persuasions, want to work together to make the future viable for all of us, and that’s certainly what I’m raising my own kids to be part of. What makes me fearful is that it might not be enough.

Does writing have a role in shaping people’s worldview?

Yes, but only indirectly. My creed on this is if you want to preach, find yourself a pulpit: preaching doesn’t belong in fiction. However, the inherent power of the story can have a great effect on very many people. I remember after I read Lord of the Rings for the first time, aged 13, that I wanted it to be true – not just in a ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant if’ way, but a deep yearning for things that ought to have been.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example: how do you get a white, middle-class kid in white rural South-East England to understand about the injustice of endemic racism? You tell a story about it.

What are you currently working on?

Currently in the pipeline is Silver City Lights, an old skool cyberpunk novel: guns, gangs, rogue computers and a wonderfully acerbic hero who does the right thing despite his best instincts. It’s all very urban and gritty, and enormous fun to write.

In the Lost Art, you deal with the balance of science and religion. How do you view the current position? Can the two be reconciled given the current position of scientists like Richard Dawkins and Creationism?

The current position is pretty much as it was historically – amiable companions, each with a different focus. Only occasionally was there a big bust-up, and to be fair, that was mostly down to poor theology rather than bad science. During the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic church had prohibitions against human dissection and heliocentrism. But you can contrast this with Protestant northern Europe during the same period, where many
of the scientists were also priests and monks. The Vatican currently has a thriving Astronomy department, and people like Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorn hold degrees in both theology and particle physics.

As for Young Earth Creationism, I hold no truck with this aberrant 19th Century heresy: it brings the whole Christian faith into disrepute. However, I know atheists who cringe every time Richard Dawkins makes a pronouncement in much the same way I do when a creationist holds forth. Both positions are very much a fringe activity, but because of the heat it generates, the media focuses on it and ignores the rest of us who quite happily accept a four-and-a-half-billion year-old Earth yet still somehow manage to face going to church on Sunday.

The Lost Art got me as a very human book when all comes to it. Where does the human come into faith of any sort?

Faith without a human context is sterile. Whether it’s the faith of a child in their parents to love them, or of a religious believer in their religion’s teachings to save them, or a society in scientific progress: without a community of belief in which to work out that faith, it becomes nothing more than a thought-experiment. Sometimes, people attack faith as no more than wishful thinking – and sometimes that’s true. But because
the stories we tell each other so often involve faith, it can not and will not die. What we believe in will direct the course of our lives, for good or ill – so whatever we put our faith in, we need to choose wisely.

Should children’s literature be didactic or should it encourage the reader to think?

I’m not a fan of stories which are written front-loaded with message; such stories are often poorer because the message takes over and leaves the characters are mere mouthpieces of the author, which is never a good thing. That’s not to say that children don’t learn loads from reading: what it might be like to be a princess, or a pirate, or a robot, vicariously feel hate or love, experience the depths of despair or the heights of joy, to conquer a world or lose one. That’s what we should demand of our literature: it should not just make us think differently, but it should make us dream differently.

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