Why Limit Yourself?

This interview was done via mail during May and June of 1998. Unless you have read the previous two interviews yet, you might want to do that first. [February 1998] - [April 1998].

If there are any spelling errors, they are, as ever, all mine.. Juha

Andy Darlington tells of an early novel-length collaboration with you and Mike Moorcock, as "rambling inchoate, highly colourful Space Opera'. Do you remember much of it and do you recall why wasn't this published?"

It was 30,000 words, and so classes as a novella, not a novel. We offered it to Ted Carnell, hoping he might use it in New Worlds' sister magazine Science Fiction Adventures and when he turned it down we sort of assumed it was probably unpublishable and left it aside. Its title is DUEL AMONG THE WINE GREEN SUNS, a borrowing from Norse poetry of the Viking era which talked about 'the wine-red sea'.

In 1995 The Time Centre Times, the journal of the International Michael Moorcock Appreciation Society, got what they thought was the original manuscript from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. However when the editor John Davey approached me for permission to publish it became clear that all he had was the first 7,000 words. I found that I still had a file in which was a carbon copy of the later chapters, but this still left about 5,000 words missing. Furthermore someone had re-paginated the surviving manuscript, suggesting that further material had been removed. Neither Mike nor myself could explain any of this or remember what was in the missing section, so I wrote a new linking chapter to allow the plot to make sense (inasmuch as it ever had) and the TCT published it in three parts, under the name Simon Barclay.

I must say I got a great pleasure from reading it after all those years, and it wasn't nearly as bad as I had assumed! Certainly it abounds in ideas and undisciplined energy. Written in 1961, it also throws in what is now called 'cyberspace' or 'virtual reality'. Silicon chips hadn't been developed then; computers were still large. In order to be able to simulate a whole social world inside an ordinary sized cabinet we had it run on 'electron resonance plates', whatever they might be.

Robert Sheckley once asked: "..if I suddenly get three ideas which cross and synthesize into a story, is this something I've done? To me, it's something that's happened to me. I am the recipient of the story I can write, but I haven't planned it." Does this sound familiar? Is it possible for anyone, anywhere, to be original and not derivative, considering the amount of books written and ideas thought? It makes me think that perhaps we all live in this big "City 5", outside any truly new input..

My answer to Sheckley is: 'Yes, it is something you have done, but you did it at another time.' Getting an idea, or ideas, that can synthesise into a story, isn't a free lunch: it's the result of mental work you did earlier, though you may not even remember it. This enables things to 'click into place' at a later date.

For the second part of the question, as the medieval scholastics had it, nothing comes out of nothing. Everything is derived, but originality consists of new ways to put things together. That's how the world manages to be continually creative. However these things possibly go in cycles, and sometimes I think sf might be on the downturn, simply because some of its central themes have become commonplace. Thanks for picking up one of the understated themes of City 5. I used the same image in "Escapist Literature." We all live under a dome, so to speak, and the dome is the 'noosphere', that is to say, the ideas and attitudes current in society.

You seem like you have a great belief in technology, yet your own books often have really quite nonexistent (some would call them impossible) technologies in them. Does this invention make the process of writing more interesting to you, or are there perhaps other reasons for this?

Why limit yourself? There used to be (probably still is) something of a divide among science fiction writers. I remember meeting a young American writer who asked me, 'Do you write fantasy or clank-clank?' He proudly announced that he wrote clank-clank. Clank-clank is hard science fiction based on known science, with some extrapolation, of course. All I can say is, today's known science is tomorrow's phlogiston. Clank-clank tends to look distinctly dated in only a few decades time. How many science fiction writers predicted the level of minituarisation of electronics we have today? I know of only one example -- a short story in a British magazine by someone I've never heard of since as far as I know (having forgotten both the name of the author and the title of the story). Progress in electronics meant more and more gigantic machines.

To answer the question more directly, yes, it makes it more interesting. I always try to make future technologies self-consistent, even when, as in STAR WINDS, they are based on wrong premises.

One of the most common complaints I hear of your work is that they depict impossibilities as reality. Have you any ideas why these days there is such a desire to keep to the usual, the non-threatening, even bland and common ideas instead something new and different? Or perhaps it has always been so..

I refer to my remark above in this connection. I stand to be corrected as I haven't really kept up my reading lately, but from what I have read I distinctly get the impression of a 'closing in' of mental horizons. That's why I spoke of a downturning of the cycle. Worse, there's a preocupation with topical or even fashionable themes, even when the writer is trying to do something mind-blowingly large-scale. All this was inevitable, really. Everything was much fresher when the vistas science had opened up were new. Now it's hard not to be stale.

Have you been the subject of 'literary typecasting'? Meaning, do editors tell you often that what you write isn't what they expect from you?

Sometimes an anthology editor will ask me for 'a story like you used to do in New Worlds in the seventies'. However I've also had it remarked how different my novels are from one another.

You said you read at least a few books for research purposes when working on THE GRAND WHEEL. Do you do a lot of research for your books? To me it seems your books would be difficult to research. Or is it just following your interests, reading a lot of 'theory', non-fiction and getting ideas that way?

No, I don't usually do any research at all, I use what's already in my head. But in THE GRAND WHEEL I used card playing and the Tarot, neither of which I knew anything about, so I read up on those.

The vast majority of your short-stories have a bleak, cynical ending, while the novels are far more optimistic in their resolutions. Is there a conscious reason for this?

It's due to marketing. I grew up with the science fiction of the forties and the fifties, much of which used downbeat endings, and it never occurred to me that many regard these as emotionally unsatisfying. To me they're not. So my predilection for these proved an additional handicap when I began writing myself.

However in a short story you can indulge yourself to some extent. Novels are different. I've always written them in the past from an agreed outline, and if you want to get an advance on an outline the editor is going to want an upbeat resolution.

Have you read "Gnostic Endings"? The original version ended at what is now labelled Ending A (though for some arty reason I still called it "Gnostic Endings"). Editor David Pringle said this was much too downbeat, would lead to loss of sales, and would I modify the ending to make it upbeat. Momentarily I was nonplussed as to how to make the annihilation of the only arising of life in the entire universe upbeat. So I added multiple endings to give the reader a choise as to what really happened.

I asked you earlier about the creating of a future society. Another problem commonly faced in sf is the creation of aliens that do not overtly resemble humans. Is the process just as easy as in describing a new society for you?

I remember John Clute, when he was reading for Interzone, getting exasperated with what I was submitting and saying, 'Look, what I want from you is aliens. That's what you do best.'

No, it's not nearly as easy; it's the tough problem in science fiction. There are some really hard questions here. How do you imagine an intelligence which is basically different from human intelligence? For that matter, can an intelligence evolved on another planet be fundamentally different from the human? So it comes about that imagined alien races really are more like foreign human cultures.

I've toyed with the idea of a matrix for constructing alien minds. It occurs to me that if the galaxy proves to be bursting with intelligent life and it becomes possible to study it, 'xenologists' will come up with a 'culture calculus'. Thus human cultures will be analysed as having a certain number of variables, reducible to a smaller number of basic drives. Alien cultures will be analysed the same way, the main interest lying in whether the basic drives vary from race to race.

I advise anyone who has not done so to search out a copy of Olaf Stapledon's STAR MAKER, first published in 1937. This is perhaps the most ambitious treatment of alien intelligences, though Stapledon is obviously following some kind of 'matrix' of his own. I read it in my mid teens and did not obtain my own copy until recently. I was slightly shocked to discover the extent to which my story "The Exploration of Space" resembles material in Chapter 15; though as I can trace the mental pathways by which I arrived at everything in the story, I don't think this is a case of unconscious plagiarism.

What was the connection between GARMENTS OF CAEAN and PILLARS OF ETERNITY and was there a particular reason for this?

I was unaware of any particular connection between them except for a similarity of atmosphere and colour, which I think of as vaguely Vance-like, owing something too to Cordwainer Smith.

[the editor believed the hearsay that these two were related novels, probably due to the fact that they were published together in a 1989 omnibus edition..]

Do you enjoy playing games? If yes, any particular ones, or types?

I just can't get interested in games, not even the intellectually fascinating ones like chess, which has figured so much in science fiction. In fact the very mention of the word 'game' afflicts me with tedium. I recently heard chess described as 'the greatest misuse of human intelligence deviced', so there are obviously others who feel the same, though I wouldn't go that far.

Garry Kilworth said: "I wouldn't know where to start on a galactic-scale novel, let alone a cosmic one. I imagine you have to step back a thousand miles and move characters like chess pieces. You have to work from above, like god, and stay in control." This sounds to me like a description of what you do, when you mentioned in the Arena interview that you, as an exercise, move your perspective a thousand years into the future and look back. Would you consider writing a game and do you think the above is true?

Yes, the trick is to remove yourself from the immediate present and location, while still remaining aware of what's around you. The old word for it is 'detachment', though at one time I used to call it 'abstraction'. However I wouldn't describe this as a game.

Do you think it's true what some people say about writing being "a way of controlling the chaos of existence"? Mostly I'm curious about this since quite often in your stories a chaos erupts and brings forth a change.

I don't think of it that way. If you're thinking of the 'chaotic eruptions' which are used as plot devices or climaxes in e.g. THE GRAND WHEEL and THE FALL OF CHRONOPOLIS, these are logical developments that the story postulates.

Space; one of your main interests. Have you though about why it is such an important subject to you, and do you know where it started?

It has bothered me that this seems to be an obsessive preoccupation in my fiction. I think my interest in the subject was planted at a very early age, when I learned of other worlds separated by vast distances of vacuum.

The notion of the void was a huge puzzle to the ancient Greeks. Was it non-existence, or could it exist? Despite the impressive-seeming descriptions of general relativity and quantum mechanics, I think it's just as puzzling today. What is the relation of space to matter? Which has primacy?

The speculations I mentioned in the postscript to THE ZEN GUN, which I also incorporated in the novel, are my attempts to get to grips with the subject, though of course they are somewhat vaguely thought out. Still, I did anticipate what's now called 'charge-parity conjugation' on the strength of them.

Was Ballard an influence to you? Despite the sometimes very dissimilar approach to writing, there seem to be some thematic similarities in your works; namely stories about both time and space. His "Report on an Unidentified Space Station", for example, would have fit perfectly alongside the stories in KNIGHTS OF THE LIMITS.

Well, I used to think of Ballard as a mature writer pulling off with suave aplomb what I would like to be able to do. But I'm not aware of being directly influenced. I never managed to quite work out just how Ballard created his miracles.

At some time in the sixties Mike Moorcock, myself, Jim Ballard and a very reticient friend of his whose name I forget started meeting for a lunchtime drink. Jim and his friend had obviously worked out some ideas about life or human nature, opaque to Mike and myself. I remember Jim's friend turning to him and commenting, 'That's very spinal.'

You've written some collaborations. How does your slow method of writing work when writing with someone else?

I don't work slowly all the time, mostly when there's some particular effect I want but can't work out how to do it this decade. Particularly when I was working in the juvenile field, when I would often have to write a story for tomorrow or even for today, well, you learned to work fast. I'll quote Mike Moorcock again, a 500% professional: 'Whether in Marrakech or Wapping, storytellers working for a day's pay in the day's market learn to do it fast, do it good and do it often...it is largely an anonymous industry, where failing to keep your readers' immediate attention soon loses your living.'

I recall once when the pressure was on knocking out two episodes of "Jason Hyde", almost 5,000 words, in two hours. Believe me, there are writers who can do that all the time, though I'm not one of them.

There are various ways to collaborate. One is to sit facing one another across a table, each with a typewriter, talking or arguing your way through and sharing the work. That can be very quick and effective. But if one guy is faster than the other he turns out to have written most of it. Mike and I often used to work like that. But as he is incomparably faster than me...

Another way is when one collaborator expands, finishes or rewrites a story written or started by the other. Or else they'll agree from the start to collaborate, work something out, write sections separately, consult again, and so on. In both these cases it doesn't matter if one is slower than the other. He just has to put in more time!

I've also known a novel co-authored on one typewriter, whoever has time sitting down and taking up where the other left off. This was GUNNER CADE, by Cyril Judd -- i.e., Cyril Kornbluth and Judith Merril.

Any thoughts about sf movements? Your name is often associated with some, especially the New Wave, and I'm sure a case could be made that some of your fiction has elements of Cyberpunk. There is also a wicked take on libertarian sf in your "Integrity" and so on. Would I be correct in sensing a certain detachment and even opposition to these?

These are slogans rather than movements, and as you say I feel detached from them. I agree with John Brunner that anyone who really knows the science fictional field will not find anything startlingly new in the stories labelled 'cyberpunk', though I would like to remark on what is possibly an exception -- Bruce Sterling's "Spook", an absolutely astonishing description of 'managed consciousness'.

Have you had much contact with fandom? To what degree do you think it is responsible for the health (whatever it may be at any given moment) of the genre?

From a lifetime perspective, yes, but it's been intermittent, starting from when I was about sixteen.

A very important fact about the science fiction genre is that it's a community. Both fans and writers feel the need to get together. I'm sure this has been crucial for the development and vigour of the genre. In the sixties and seventies, for instance, I think I got to know almost every professional British sf writer, as well as all the American ones who came over. I don't know if any other literary field has this same sense of common understanding, but I doubt it.

Did your experience in RAF have any impact to your interests and perhaps world view? I tend to read a lot more into stories than probably intended by the author, but, for example, I associate "Tommy Atkins" with these times, soon after the war.

No, I don't think so, except to give me an experience of a military organisation, itself a fascinating side of human nature. (Also an extra insight into the British class system, itself embedded in a quite atrocious way in the armed services.) I am rarely expressing attitudes of my own in a story. Politically, I don't really have any. I consciously wrote "Tommy Atkins" in the form of an anti-war story, but it's real theme is the same as in SINNERS OF ERSPIA: the malleability of the human mind. How it is that an adult, apparently sane man can, on the orders of his rulers and the officers they set over him, put on an uniform, take up a gun, and run on to a battlefield with a 99% certainty of being blown to bits or mown down by machine gun fire? What happened to his sense of self-preservation? Even worse, how can parents willingly send their own young sons out to almost certain death? So the scene is an endlessly extended World War I, when patriotism reached its most insane proportions.

Fascism, all types of fanatics - Hitler in particular - seem to play a distinctive part in both your fiction and non-fiction. Any thoughts about the current surge of near-fanatical nationalism in Europe? It makes me think that perhaps this is a human condition, or instinct we are all born with; to fear and to attack that which is different, and that only through the current social attitude have we learned to keep it in a leash.. in some cases, that is.

I think I referred to in a previous interview to the naivety of many who are politically minded, and seem to think that the past is dead and buried and will never repeat itself. Despite its always having repeated itself before!

It would be surprising if there weren't an instinctive hostility towards other human groups in our nature. We are territorial animals: it's in our genes to challenge outsiders. In our pre-human past, and very often in our human past, survival depended upon it. But in a large scale society it is a destructive instinct, along with several others, and needs to be curbed.

Liberal-minded people who have been so influential in our time don't seem to understand that a large, peaceful, safe society is not a natural state of affairs. It has been constructed, like a building, and if it is not maintained it will collapse. Rather, they put abroad some loopy notion that human impulses are all benevolent.

This is why I have never been impressed by the anti-imperialist stance that everyone now is more or less required to adopt (and which was succesfully disseminated, of course, by one of the greatest empires). Historically, a powerful, solidly established empire is the safest place place to be. Empires keep order, sometimes for centuries, and force peoples of different nationalities and religions to live peacefully alongside one another whatever they might feel about it. Of course, how they came to be empires is a different matter.

As for Hitler... I've noticed that if you show any interest in the character of Hitler or indeed in the whole Nazi phenomenon you are looked at with suspicion, apparently on the assumption that interest equals approval. It's all part of the political funk that besets the modern world, a wish to believe that it didn't happen, because if it did happen, well, what does that say for human nature, and we know human nature isn't like that, human nature is nice. So Hitler is represented as a shambling neurotic lacking intelligence or ability, which he certainly couldn't have been.

So who was it said, 'Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it'?

There's something else interesting about the ideological war that has occupied our century. Nazism and communism had something else in common besides being totalitarian. Both had the programme of creating a new, superior type of human being. The communists sought to do it by means of social engineering, the Nazis -- more correctly, probably -- by biological means. Were the Nazis still around, there would be no question of ethical committees overseeing genetic research. They would be eagerly setting about modifying the human type.

I think the significance of this tends to be overlooked by us in liberal democracies. In perspective, it might be seen as the key idea of the twentieth century. We should also remember that new political ideologies are going to continue to arise in the future, and some of them might seem weird and even repugnant to us.

Humankind is often given a special position in the "grand universal scheme" of many a sf story. Your own STAR VIRUS had us as the virus of the title and SINNERS OF ERSPIA depicts us as a freak of nature, unlike the majority of the stories. It seems like we are often given the position your many characters have; we are the underbelly, the mobsters of the universe, but we bring forth a change. Do you think this may be just a sort of a reverse wish-fulfillment or is there perhaps some deeper vision of human nature behind?

I'm really only following a traditional theme in those two books: man triumphs exactly because of those qualities which more disciplined races see as weaknesses. I expect it comes from the American belief in the cussed individual. The British have it in more genteel form: the tradition of the eccentric. [..]

Would you have a drinking story to share ?

All right, I like to tell this one. There's a university in the adjoining county to where I live that, at the time I am speaking of, had a science fiction club. I'd visited them a couple of times, and they asked me if I could give a talk. It was rather short notice, but I said I had a talk already prepared if they could provide an overhead projector (it was on the Tarot, and I had transparencies necessary to the talk).

Wisdom comes with age, though not much, but in those days I would often, er, forget to eat for quite long periods. I arrived at the convention about 10 am with an empty stomach and immediately swallowed a couple of pints of amber 'breakfast' just to set me up. Looking around me and gauging the atmosphere, it suddenly struck me that the talk I had intended to give would be useless, as it could not be understood by anyone unacquainted with occult philosophy. So I thought, 'I'd better go and sit down somewhere quiet and think up another approach.'

Just then one of the convention organisers arrived at the bar. He was about the tallest person I have ever seen, and as I am five foot three (don't ask me what that is in metric) I had to direct my gaze at the ceiling in order to talk to him face to face.

"We don't think we can get an overhead projector, Barry," he said.

"Oh," I said. Fine, I though, no projector, no talk. So with that off my mind I proceeded with the serious business of talking to acquaintanses old and new, and pouring the greatest blessing from the ancient land of Khem, the product of John Barleycorn, down my throat.

If memory serves I did not stray from the bar for the next five or six hours, and by mid-afternoon was fairly smashed. At that time the same lanky stratospheric person intruded.

"We're ready for you now, Barry."

Too anaesthetised to feel appalled as I should, I followed him to a side hall which was full of people waiting for me to do my stuff. I had to walk the full length of the hall to get to where the projector was set up, wishing they wouldn't clap like that. Well, I did my best, you've got to give me that, but the truth is I was pissed, far more pissed than I usually am when I give a talk. Furthermore these little transparencies were the size of cigarette cards, and apart from the difficulty of trying to arrange them into the requisite patterns, I kept dropping them and having to crawl around the floor to retrieve them. People walked out in whole rowsful, and I didn't get much of a clap at the end, still I managed to go the full hour, and one or two people were nice enough afterwards to tell me they'd found something interesting in what I said.

It was a good thing, though, that the exit was at the other end of the hall and not nearby, or I think I might have walked through it early on. Afterwards I rejoined Pete Gillighan at the bar. "Well, I made a mess of that, " I said.

"Yes, you did," he said.

But this isn't the point of the story. I met Pete again a few months later and he told me what had happened after the talk. He had bought a stack of books to the bar and asked me if I would sign them. What he failed to make me understand was that only the top three were actually mine. Emitting a continuous stream of drunken chatter, ignoring all his protests and attempts to stop me, I signed the whole stack from top to bottom. So Pete has a collection of books signed by me, but not written by me. Could they ever be worth something as collectors' items, do you think?

And so, as Kafur the eunuch ended the tale of his castration, may peace be with you.


interview copyright 1998 by Barrington Bayley

questions by Juha Lindroos

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