When Paul McAuley talks about science fiction, people sit up and take notice. His debut novel won the Philip K. Dick Award; since then, he’s gone on to win an Arthur C. Clarke Award, a John W. Campbell Award, a British Fantasy Award and more. He took a break from writing all of these award-winning SF novels to talk about finding inspiration in the unlikeliest places: studying Paleolithic artwork, riding along on police raids and even reading maps of the moons of Jupiter.
Sci Fi Bookshelf: What was the inspiration behind Gardens of the Sun?
Paul McAuley: In 1996, I wrote a short story, ‘Second Skin’, about an assassination attempt on a gene wizard, Avernus, on an insignificant moon of Neptune. More stories followed, sharing a common history and set on various moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and in the Kuiper belt. I became increasingly fascinated by the planets and dwarf planets and, especially, the moons of the outer Solar System. The Pioneer and Voyager probes had shown that these were far more diverse and dynamic places than previous thought; the Galileo and Cassini/Hyugens probes provided incredibly detailed maps of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and revealed all kinds of unexpected wonders, too. All of this was incredibly inspiring. The moons of the outer planets became, for me, places, landscapes, venues for human drama. The short stories compiled a piecemeal history of the aftermath of a war between the major political players on Earth and the colonies of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Two linked novels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, revised and rationalised that history, and incorporated many of the latest discoveries about the outer Solar System into their narratives.
SFB: Reviewers often praise your well-drawn characters as well as your intriguing ideas. Do you feel that ideas or characters are more important to a compelling science fiction story?
PM: I start with an idea or a situation (or more usually, some kind of interaction between two ideas), but the characters are the way into the story. It couldn’t exist without them, and very often they push it into unexpected directions.
SFB: What’s been your most memorable “author” moment so far; good, bad, or otherwise?
PM: One of the nice things about being a novelist is that it can give you, in the name of research, a pass into places and experiences that are a little out of the ordinary. I wrote a more or less straight crime novel, Players, set in Portland and southern Oregon, and was able to hang out with various members of the Portland police for a day. They were incredibly accommodating. I got to visit the police headquarters and ride around the city, and at one point found myself in the middle of a raid in a downtown hotel. For another novel, Mind’s Eye, I was able to visit one of the storehouses of the British Museum, and examine a piece of mammoth ivory into which had been carved the images of two swimming reindeer – a fantastic connection with the mind of the unknown Paleolithic artist.
SFB: Since your first novel won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1988, there have been a number of changes in science fiction and publishing in general. What do you see as the biggest change for science fiction, and where do you see it going in the future?
PM: Undoubtedly, the biggest change is that, in terms of numbers of authors and books, science fiction has been overtaken by fantasy. But at the same time, science fictional themes and tropes have diffused out into so-called mainstream writing. The future – and especially the potential catastrophes that lurk out there – no longer belongs to science fiction. It belongs to everyone. Science fiction has to adjust to that. It has to shape up, stop looking inward, and engage with the world, or it’s going to shrink and evaporate like spit on a hot stove.
SFB: Do you have any advice for new science fiction authors getting started today?
PM: Writers learn how to be writers not just by writing, but by reading. All writers started out as readers, and they all read a lot, and still do. Develop an eye for the good stuff. And don’t just read within the genre. There are all kinds of great writers outside it. Find the ones you like and read them too.
The advice when I started out was to build your reputation by writing short stories and hope to use that to snag a book contract. Short stories were once the engine room of the genre. Writing them is fun, and quick. You can make all kind of mistakes and figure out how to avoid them the next time. And when you get a few published, they’re proof that you can write stuff other people are interested in. But you don’t need to start out as a short story writer, these days, and work your way up to being a novelist. Editors are hungry for new talent. So if you have a great idea for a novel, and can convince an agent to represent you, that’s a good route too. Stephen King wrote a book, On Writing, which has some very useful advice about starting out, and developing good writing habits, and finding an agent. Read that.
SFB: What are you working on next?
PM: Right now, I’m deep in the first draft of a new novel. It’s related to The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, but very distantly. I’m discovering something new about it every day.
Paul McAuley’s blog, Unlikely Worlds: