This interview, conducted by Mark Chitty, first appeared on The Speculative Scotsman website in 2011. My thanks to Mark Chitty and Niall Alexander.
MC: If I may, I’d like to start by talking about The Kings of Eternity. You mentioned in my last interview with you in 2010 that you had “…been writing the novel, on and off, for ten years, and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.” It certainly was a great novel, and from the reviews I’ve seen from around the internet I’m not alone in that. Both Mark Yon and Rob Bedford over at SFFWorld.com named it their favourite science fiction release of 2011. How have you found the reaction to it?
Thanks for your kind words – I’m pleased you enjoyed it.
To my delight, the reaction has been uniformly excellent. I don’t think I’ve come across one bad review… yet. When one of my books is published I’m pretty resigned to reviews running the gamut from good to bad and everything in between. When a book goes out there, I know that some people will love it, some hate it with equal passion, and many people won’t give a damn either way. The response to Kings is especially rewarding as of all my books it’s the one I’m most pleased with. I loved writing it, I loved rewriting it, and, when I dip into it very occasionally, it’s the novel that picks me up and carries me along – it’s almost as if I didn’t write it. It’s certainly the novel that means the most to me, of all my stuff: I identify with the characters, their predicaments, and the sentiments expressed. Because I wrote it over such a protracted period – over ten years – I think it had time to mature, and I certainly had the opportunity to go back to it again and again and tinker, fix, cut…
MC: I believe your next novel due out, The Devil’s Nebula, is a venture into a shared world setting with Abaddon Books. Can you tell us a little about the novel?
The Devil’s Nebula is about a small starship, ostensibly a salvage ship, and its crew of almost-criminals in a future fascistic, human empire. They sail close to the judicial wind, keeping just to this side of the law – until they land on a world within the out-of-bounds territory of the alien Vetch, searching for art treasures. Caught by the Terran authorities, they’re given an ultimatum: face the death penalty, or take your ship beyond Vetch territory to the Devil’s Nebula, in search of a colony ship that left human-space a century earlier… It’s out-and-out space adventure, of the type I love to read, set in a universe where an evil alien life-force, the Weird, are bent on invading our universe through portals from another dimensions. It’s a space opera with Lovecraftian overtones.
MC: How did you find the process of creating such a setting knowing that other authors would be writing within it at a future date?
That will be one of the delights of the project: setting up the background – the ground-rules, if you like – and seeing where other writers will take it. I’m looking forward to reading the novels in the series and taking inspiration from them, borrowing ideas maybe, riffs, and hopefully writing more in the series. It has great scope for many fascinating adventure stories, of many types, and I’m fascinated to see where it goes. The first novel, while complete in itself, sets up the series, leaving many ideative avenues for others to explore.
MC: After The Devils’ Nebula we’ve got Helix Wars to look forward to, a sequel to your 2007 novel, Helix. Is there anything you can say about that yet, and why the choice to return to that setting?
Helix Wars is set two hundred years after the events depicted in Helix. Humankind has settled on New Earth, the colony is thriving, and the alien Builders of the Helix have conferred upon humanity the mantle of Peacekeepers – the monitors of the six thousand-odd alien races who inhabit the Helix. However, the Builders ceased communicating with the human colonists around a hundred and ninety years ago, retreating into virtual quiescence. The humans have been going it alone for that long and successfully keeping the peace between the various races – until now. On the circuit of the Helix below where New Earth is situated on the fourth circuit, an alien race known as the Sporelli has invaded the peaceful world of Phandra and the neighbouring world of D’rayni, and the central character, Jeff Ellis, is caught up in the conflict when his shuttle crash-lands on Phandra and he is saved by the elfin, pacific natives. What follows is a story of personal loyalty – as Ellis attempts to save the life of the woman who saved him, when she is kidnapped by the Sporelli – and the destiny of various races on the Helix.
The Helix is a vast playground, and it was great to return to it. I’ve had great fun writing this novel – I love SF adventures featuring humans and aliens, exotic settings, fabulous inventions, crash-landed starships, strange cults… I can see myself (if my publisher so wishes) returning again and again to the world(s) of the Helix. The amount of fun I can have there is never-ending.
MC: Any further novels planned, and if so can we get a sneaky bit of info on them?
The novel contracted for after Helix Wars is The Serene Invasion. It’s an idea I’ve had for years, and one I’ve wanted to write for ages. And it might be the most difficult I’ve ever tackled. The background is that an alien race, the Serene, come to Earth and abolishes the act of violence, our capability for violence, for the better of the human race. The novel will follow the consequences of this over the course of approximately forty years. It will focus on three or four characters and chart not only how their lives have changed, but how society and the race as a whole have been transformed. I want to write a novel of character, like Kethani, and a big novel of ideas. Sometimes I’m daunted by the task I’ve set myself. I’m confident of depicting the characters to my satisfaction, but it’s the societal examination of the premise that will be a big challenge.
After that… As I mentioned earlier, I’d like to do another Weird Space novel. And I’m always working on short stories. I’ll be writing a novella soon with Keith Brooke, and finishing off my Salvageman Ed story cycle, which very possibly will be appearing as a book in France before anywhere else.
I have a collection (Ghostwriting) of my horror stories due out soon, as both an e-book and a real book, from infinity plus books. I’ve just had a proof copy through, and it looks great. It contains my eight horror/ghost stories to date – though they’re not bloody, gory, macabre tales, rather examinations of characters in stressful/horrific situations. Depending on how well Ghostwriting sells, infinity plus books might also do my e-book SF collection, The Angels of Life and Death, as a pod book.
I wrote a crime novel last year, set in 1955 – it’s still doing the rounds – and I’d like to write further novels about the central character.
All in all, what with moving up to Dunbar in Scotland earlier this year, I’m more than a little busy.
MC: You’ve recently had some of your older novels and novellas come out through the ebook imprints Infinity Plus Books and Anarchy Books. Have you updated any of these, and are there any plans to get the remainder of your backlist out via this format?
I’ve not updated anything that’s gone into e-book format, other than correct of few errors or typos and things. Most of my longer work is available in e-books, I think – with the exception of my two Web books for children, Untouchable and Walkabout. Solaris brings out e-books all my novels; PS Publishing brings out all the novellas I’ve done for them as e-books (or will do soon); and Anarchy Books do the Virex trilogy.
MC: Speaking of ebooks, the success of the Kindle and other devices has brought a flood of self-published books to the market. What are your thoughts on the ease in which books can be published like this, especially with many of yours available in e-versions only?
Well, it does mean that the market is flooded with unedited material, so it’s harder for the reader to wade through the dross to find the good stuff. And, I suppose, that means my e-work will be buried under the flood. But I’m not complaining. I often wonder if, had the internet and e-publishing, and POD, been around when I started writing thirty-odd years ago, I might have gone down that road to start with. What I did was put all my unpublished – and unpublishable work (some twenty-odd novels and three hundred short stories) – under my bed, where it didn’t get edited, or read.
I’ve read three authors recently who self-published their stuff as e-books, sold – or had downloaded – millions, and achieved real publishing deals as a result – two Americans and a Brit. All three books were of low quality, and I despise the respective publishers for jumping on the band-wagon.
I still think Alfred Bester’s dictum should be seriously considered by every writer (and I’m paraphrasing him here): Write a million words, and only then try to sell.
MC: You mention that you’re always working on short stories, and you’ve had some collections of these out in the past (Kethani, The Fall of Tartarus). I like the idea of these collections that focus on the same setting and/or characters, and I’m aware that you have other short stories and novellas that fall into this category (the Starship stories, Salvageman Ed). Can you see these being collected either as a print or ebook edition in the future?
Ideally I’d like to see them as print books. PS Publishing is doing all four Starship novellas in one volume – so it’d be lovely to see a mass market paperback of that. It’d work, as in total it’s around 120k, and reads like a novel. As for the Salvageman Ed tales; they stand at 70k at the moment, and are almost finished, and it looks as if they’ll be coming out in France as a print book from the people who publish the Bifrost SF magazine, where some of the tales have run.
MC: Finally, where would you recommend a new reader to your work to start?
Mmm… that’s a difficult question, because it depends what the reader likes. For readers who prefer space opera, I’d recommend Helix, Penumbra and Engineman; for those who like more quiet, introspective, character-driven SF I’d recommend The Kings of Eternity; Kethani; The Fall of Tartarus; and the Starship novellas, and the novella Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, featuring G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Rice Burroughs on the red planet. Then the Bengal Station trilogy (Necropath, Xenopath, and Cosmopath) combines both space opera and character – in fact, in terms of characterisation, I think Vaughan in those books is my most successful creation, in that I managed to achieve – I think – exactly what I set out to do in starting with someone who had very little to live for, was a nihilist, and through his experiences over the course of the three books came to some degree of happiness and contentment.