Fascinated Neutrality: An Interview with Alastair Reynolds

By Jerome WinterApril 7, 2013

Fascinated Neutrality: An Interview with Alastair Reynolds

With the publication of Revelation Space (2000), the Welsh writer Alastair Reynolds became a leading light of the New Space Opera movement in science fiction. This movement refashions retro genre staples — space battles, galactic empires, super-weapons — in ways that are stylistically and narratively experimental, with a commitment to serious political and cultural engagement. Reynolds’s breakthrough novel exploited the lethal conjunction of technocratic networks of power and a mushrooming war industry in a dramatically more noirish fashion than the often sanguine and optimistic representations of technological progress found in the work of his pulp-era ancestors, such as E.E. “Doc” Smith or Isaac Asimov. Since then, Reynolds, a former research astronomer for the European Space Agency, has written nine lengthy novels and over forty shorter works that transpose onto a deeply entertaining science-fictional canvass pressing themes and issues facing the contemporary world — from the technocultural singularity, posthuman cyborgization, and memory implantation to globalization, climate change, the suppression of civil liberties, and torture. Blue Remembered Earth was released last year and began a new series whose next installment, tentatively titled On The Steel Breeze, is forthcoming. 

“There was what — for want of a better word — one might describe as a galactic war; a sudden sparking friction where these two swelling empires brushed against one another, grinding like vast flywheels. Soon, other ascendant cultures were embroiled in the conflict. Eventually — to one degree or another — several thousand spacefaring civilizations fell into the fray. They had names for it, in the thousand primary languages of the combatants. Some of these names could not easily be translated into any meaningful human referent. But more than one culture called it something which might — with due allowance for the crudities of interspecies communication — be termed the Dawn War.” —Revelation Space (2000)

THE TRUTH OF it is that I wrote the bulk of Revelation Space (in an earlier draft) without really giving sufficient thought to all the issues surrounding cosmological timescales, evolution, and alien intelligence, basically just throwing in these assumptions about dead alien civilizations and so on without going any deeper. Later on, as the book started firming up, I started thinking properly about Fermi’s paradox and that sort of thing and realized that the mechanics of the book would only make sense if there had been a kind of cosmic reset button pushed a billion years ago. So the idea of the Dawn War, and to a large extent the Inhibitors, came later in the day than they should have. I think you can see the strain marks where I’m trying to cram all this stuff into a narrative whose shape was already to a large extent predetermined. Obviously the storyline is quite “dark” but that’s as much due to the influence of the noir fiction I was immersing myself in at the time, as a conscious reaction to Doc Smith, Asimov and so on. Fact is, I’ve never really read Doc Smith — I only ever got a few pages into it.

“Sky felt a chill of cosmic awe. Perhaps he was wrong, but he strongly suspected that the maggot was talking about rotations of the Milky Way; the time taken for a typical star at the current distance from the galactic center to make one complete orbit. Each of those orbits would take more than two hundred million years … meaning that the grub’s racial memory — if that was what it was — encompassed more than three hundred million years of space travel. The dinosaurs had not even been a sketch on the evolutionary drawing board three hundred million years ago. It was a span of time that made humans and everything humans had done seem like a layer of dust on the summit of a mountain.” —Chasm City (2001)

I’m always a bit taken aback at the idea that religion plays a strong role in my fiction, but then when the examples are given, I can see where the argument is coming from. I think it fairly self-evident that these are different intellectual systems, although I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily incompatible or even irreconcilable. Science is not, in my view, a belief system at all — it is a set of methods, an interrogative toolkit which can be applied to the world as we apprehend it. At least, that’s what it should be. I don’t “believe” that quasars are distant, galaxy-like objects with high redshifts, although it strikes me as a pretty good working hypothesis. And I’ve performed measurements that would be hard to interpret in any other way. But “belief” seems to me to imply a level of unshakeable certainty that I’m not sure really belongs in science. I’m pretty sure the sun is powered by fusion, for instance, but it would be interesting to see evidence to the contrary. My stance is simple enough: science is still the best tool we have for understanding nature. And I am very happy with the idea that science and religious inclination can coexist, even in the same head. I am not personally drawn to religion but a great many people are, and there is compelling evidence (scientific evidence!) that some of us, perhaps even a majority, may have a predisposition toward faith. You can’t fight that kind of deep evolutionary wiring — it would be madness to try. What I would like to see is a broadly secular society that places a premium on the values of the Enlightenment, and yet in which there is still ample room for those of a tolerant religious persuasion. I see no need to accommodate fundamentalists and hate mongers, though.

"Somewhere before the dawn of the Demarchist era, in the twenty-first or twenty-second century, not far from the time of Clavain’s own birth, a spectrum of human genes had been spliced into those of the domestic pig. The intention had been to optimize the ease with which organs could be transplanted between the two species, enabling pigs to grow body parts that could be harvested later for human utilization. There were better ways to repair or replace damaged tissue now, had been for centuries, but the legacy of the pig experiments remained. The genetic intervention had gone too far, achieving not just cross-species compatibility but something entirely unexpected: intelligence.” —Redemption Ark (2002)

My position on this is one of fascinated neutrality. Judging by what I read in New Scientist on a weekly basis, the definition of “human” is under near constant assault on a dozen or so technological, scientific, and sociological fronts. We are learning deeply unnerving things about the functioning of our brains, for instance, and in tandem with that we are getting better and better at doing things to those same brains — I’m thinking of things like transcranial stimulation, for instance, or of our increasing ability to tap into the private chatter of our minds, so that we can begin to do genuinely astonishing things like read out visual memories, or tell the neural signature of a real memory from a false one. All this stuff will continue, obviously, and is not likely to start slowing down. Very soon you’ll be able to put on your Google glasses and get augmented reality hovering just before your eyes. But how long will it be before that augmented reality starts pushing into your eyeballs, or along your optic nerve? Who wants the hassle of glasses, anyway? On a personal level, I’m something a late adopter — a bit of a technological Luddite, in some respects. And I’m certainly not convinced that individuals, corporations and governments will necessary have our best interests in mind when they start having ready access to our heads. But as a writer I can afford to play with these ideas from whatever perspective suits my mood or the demands of the story.

The glare was fading. The ship was already far above them now, picking up speed, clawing toward rarefied atmosphere and, ultimately, space. The bay, robbed of that single landmark, looked unfamiliar. Vasko had lived here all his life, but now it was foreign territory, a place he barely recognized. He was certain it could never feel like home again. But it was easy for him to feel that way, wasn’t it? He was in a privileged position of not having to go back and rebuild life amongst the ruins. He was already leaving, already saying goodbye to Ararat, farewell to the world that made him what he was.” —Absolution Gap (2003)

By the time I had begun serious work on Revelation Space, I'd had a gut’s full of that brand of science fiction which is basically just nineteen fifties mid-America transplanted into the future. That didn’t reflect the world I was living in, let alone the likely texture of the twenty-fifth century or whenever. But equally, I just thought that all these foreign-sounding names (to me, I hasten to add — I fully understand how offensive and stupid this will sound) just looked a lot cooler and more interesting on the page than yet another load of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic surnames, which is about all that a certain strain of science fiction seems capable of — even now. In 1991, too, I moved to another country and immediately started working in a large international organization, at which point my cultural horizons were broadened enormously, a process that I hope never really stopped.

“[The Fountainheads] don’t want to invade, or subjugate us, or anything banal like that, but there are things in Janus that they can exploit for their own ends: power and materials, basically, like we’ve been doing, but in a more sophisticated way.” —Pushing Ice (2005)

The thing about Pushing Ice was that it was the first big space opera/hard-SF type book that I had attempted since writing the first four novels of the Revelation Space sequence (Century Rain doesn’t really count), so it was my opportunity to come at alien intelligence from a generally different set of starting points. In fact, that was pretty much why I wrote it: I wanted to do stuff with aliens that was simply not allowed in the Revelation Space books because of the underlying premise. The main one was to look at contact between humans and aliens who are on a similar, or not too dissimilar, technological and intellectual level. That is hugely unlikely from the standpoint of evolution and galactic timescales as we understand them, but the premise of Pushing Ice allows it to happen anyway, albeit billions of years in the future, when the humans and assorted alien cultures are stuck in this cosmic flypaper. And yes, given that, I liked the idea of presenting an alien culture as fundamentally quite benevolent and friendly. But I had to make them maximally alien, as well.

I got some stick for having the Fountainheads not sound alien, in that they are totally comfortable with colloquial English, but that was exactly the point — if they are even slightly more advanced than us, they’ll have no difficulty understanding what makes us tick, and how to make us feel at ease. There’ll be none of that “take me to your master” nonsense!

"Islanders came toward the shore, skimming the water on penanted trimarans, attended by oceanforms, sleek gloss-grey hybrids of porpoise and ray, whistlespeech downshifted into the human auditory spectrum. The Subaruns’ epidermal scales shimmered like imbricated armour: biological photo-cells drinking scorching blue Pleiadean sunlight. Sentient veils hung in the sky, rippling gently like aurorae, shading the archipelago from the fiercest wavelengths. As the actinic eye of Taygeta Sank toward the horizon, the veils moved with it like living clouds. Flocks of phantasmagorical birds migrated with the veils.” —Galactic North (2006)

This is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t questions, isn’t it! If I acknowledge that I place a value on “style,” I’ll immediately be called to account by those who find my prose lacking in exactly that quality. But yes, I do think it matters. And, funnily enough, two of the big influences on me, when I was trying to find my voice, were [Samuel] Delany’s Nova and [M. John] Harrison’s Centauri Device. But I can’t hold a candle to either of those writers. I will keep trying, though, and (holding myself to ransom, again) I do think there are days when I sort of hit the mark.

 “Panoply was concerned only with matters of security and voting rights as they pertained to the Glitter Band as a whole. What went on inside a given habitat — provided those activities did not contravene technological or weapons moratoriums, or deny citizens free voting rights — was entirely outside Panoply’s jurisdiction; a matter for local constabulary alone.” —The Prefect (2008)

There are two novels of mine that are pretty clearly post-9/11 books, in that they activate and follow through themes that would not have seemed anything like as relevant or resonant before that date. The Prefect is one of them, and House of Suns is the other. I suppose one of The Prefect’s themes is the danger of sliding into an oppressive security state in the wake of some catastrophic action, whereas House of Suns is perhaps about the risk of what you might call the asymmetric response — the revenge that is worse than the original injury. Both books, too, dig into questions of torture as a mechanism for extracting information. I hope it’s pretty clear that in neither book is it effective — and in fact that the idea that some threshold of threat automatically “sanctions” the use of torture, when it was previously beneath consideration, is to me totally repellent. But those are just themes in a larger matrix of ideas. They are also big, bouncy books with (I hope) lots of fun stuff in them. I’m also not a libertarian! I think governments, on the whole, are pretty useful things — but then I would say that, being left-leaning and Welsh.

“‘It’s all right,’ I replied, sighing. ‘Look, Campion and I agree on ninety-nine things out of a hundred. But the one of the thing that we don’t agree on — all right one of the several things — is what we do with those memories that don’t fit the story. I say we keep them. Campion says delete them, so that we never give Fescue or Betony or any of the others anything to use against us. And, damn it, I see his point. However, I just don’t think than an experience is worth anything unless you can remember it afterwards.’ I gazed down at my glass, empty now. ‘To see something marvelous with your own eyes — that’s wonderful enough. But when two of you see it, two of you together, holding hands, holding each other close, knowing that you’ll both have that memory for the rest of your lives, but that each of you will only hold an incomplete half of it, and that it won’t really exist as a whole until you’re together, talking and thinking about that moment … that’s worth more than one plus one. It’s worth four or eight or some number so large we can’t even imagine it. I think I’d rather die than lose those memories.” —House of Suns (2008)

The danger, of course, in having a recurrent theme in your work is that, having identified this theme, you fall into self-conscious mannerism. Could J.G. Ballard deploy the image of a drained swimming pool with a clear conscience, once people had latched onto the drained swimming pool motif? But that said, I am fascinated by memory, by its duality of reliability and fallibility, and science fiction seems to me to be in an excellent position to investigate notions of memory in a way that is problematic for mainstream or mimetic fiction. Some of SF’s most resonant properties — Total Recall, for instance, or Blade Runner, even The Matrix — all deal with implanted or manipulated memories. Gene Wolfe’s work, especially The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Book of the New Sun (also, in its way, about memory) has been fantastically influential for me, and I hold him in enormously high esteem.

I’ve seen marvelous things, Sunday. I’ve looked back from the edge of the system and seen this planet, this Earth, reduced to a tiny dot of pale blue. I know what that feels like. To think that dot is where we came from, where we evolved out of the chaos and the dirt. And I know what it feels like to imagine going further. To hold that incredible, dangerous thought in my mind, if only for an instant. To think: what if I don’t go home? What if I just keep traveling? Watching that pale-blue dot fall ever further away, until the darkness swallowed it and there was no turning back. Until Earth was just a blue memory.” —Blue Remembered Earth (2012)

My instinct at the start of Blue Remembered Earth was not to write a book that felt utopian or dystopian, but merely plausible. Of course, these days, you don’t have go very far in the direction away from dystopian fiction to look wildly optimistic! But I don’t see the future of BRE in bleak terms. Yes, there are (and will be, in my view) quite dramatic geopolitical consequences forced on us by climate change. But the characters live through these changes over a period of decades, so for them the world always feel “normal.” They still have football championships, stock markets, industrial disputes, and so on. That’s what I wanted to get across, while also banging on about some stuff that I wasn’t seeing (to my eyes) enough of in science fiction — notions of ubiquitous surveillance, instantaneous global telepresence, realtime translation, and so on. A lot of that stuff gets shrugged away because it gets in the way of good old-fashioned thriller plotting, but I tried to take it as a given and see what sort of story I could spin. I didn’t totally succeed in playing it entirely by the rules, but I’m still happy enough with the outcome — it did, to me, feel like planting a flag in an area of the landscape not much explored, and I felt that was worth doing.

In terms of the “telescoped space opera” feel — yes, that was very much the idea, but only as a necessary first step in what I hoped (and hope) will broaden out into something much more expansive.

I don’t want to say too much about the new book, provisionally entitled On The Steel Breeze, for fear of talking it to death. But it leaps forward about 200 years from Blue Remembered Earth. If Blue Remembered Earth was about the opening up of the solar system, recapitulated through the life of Eunice Akinya, this is about the push into true interstellar space, and an expedition to an extrasolar colony. It also picks up and reexamines some of the themes in the first book — it’s almost like a critique of some of the more superficially “utopian” ideas. In this one, we find out that there is a definite downside to universal surveillance, for instance. Quite a lot of it’s set in and around Earth, though. I didn’t want it to be all stuff happening on generation arks.

Other than that, I’ve got a Dr. Who novel due out this year, which was a lot of fun and very different in tone and scope to anything else I’ve done. I’ve no idea what the world will make of it. And in the meantime — before I get stuck into the edits on the new novel — I’m doing what I always do, which is try to nail down some short fiction. I still love it.

LARB Contributor

Jerome Winter, the Associate Editor of LARB’s SF page, is a PhD student studying science fiction and contemporary American literature at the University of California, Riverside. His essay “Epistemic Polyverses and the Subaltern: the Postcolonial World-System in Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore and River of Gods” will appear in the November 2012 issue of Science Fiction Studies. He is currently working on a dissertation on science fiction and globalization.


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