Weidenfield and Nicolson
Red. This comes from an adolescence coloured by Liverpool FC, and a childhood of Captain Scarlet, which taught us all about the significance of colour. Red is the leaders' colour as I recall. The fact that most of my HarperCollins book covers have been orange is another issue. Have you ever been tempted by the novelisation and tie-in market?
Not really. Now I make enough from my own novels to pay the bills, and when I started and that wasn't possible I held onto my day job. I'd hate to use up all my creativity on somebody else's ideas. Of course there are exceptions... I did some stuff for Games Workshop, and I was asked to pitch ideas for an X-Files novel. I thought that would be interesting, not to mention good exposure. I came up with the Nixon’s-Secret-War-With-The-Martians idea that I eventually wrote up in my Interzone story 'Marginalia', where I turned it into a kind of alternate-history pendant to my novel Voyage, which was itself alternate history... and so on. The X-Files people never responded, to my idea or a host of others; very picky.
I got the basic idea from a Horizon programme some years ago on the hypothesis that mammoths may have survived, as dwarfed island populations, into historical times. My first notion was a story about modern adults finding the mammoths on some remote Siberian island. Malcolm Edwards, then at HarperCollins, suggested maybe this would be a good young-adult piece, so I slanted it that way, with teenagers as the viewpoint. I was keen to get hold of that market; lock'em up for life. But nobody got very excited. Some years later I came up with the notion of writing from the mammoths' point of view, a la Watership Down, Garry Kilworth, and that struck a chord. It eventually sold to Orion as a series of three books. I’ve tried to follow the Heinlein approach that 'juvenile' fiction should be the same quality as the 'adult' stuff, but just with younger characters – in this case mammoths. Of course there are compromises in the technique; a mammoth that could talk as we do wouldn't be a true mammoth. Nevertheless it's been an interesting experiment to try to get into the heads of basically alien creatures. I based my mammoths on the science of them, and their close relatives the modern elephants. They don't have magic powers or wear clothes or any of that; they communicate as the elephants do with rumbles and stamps and so on. They are/were a very old species, and I've given them an awareness of that, and so there are plenty of authentic Baxter themes in there I think, the destiny of life, huge geological changes, etc. I had a lot of fun in the second book (out in Jan 2000) set back in the Ice Age; what a landscape that was. Overall it's sold well, and has had good reviews, but is mostly to be found in the sf section; Orion say they are considering a 'children's' paperback edition to target that market. I suspect some fans of my harder stuff won't like the mammoths. But I've always diversified, done different stuff; with all respect to the masters of the long series like Terry Pratchett, the thought of doing the same stuff over and over forever drives me crazy.
Maybe in the future. By the time I came to put together my collection Vacuum Diagrams I'd completed four novels against that background and a book full of shorts, and I felt I'd painted myself into a corner. I suspect my experience of a future history is typical of a lot of writers. The Xeelee series started out with the first story I sold, 'The Xeelee Flower', to Interzone in 1986. the Xeelee then were just convenient off-stage aliens to prop up an action plot. The next story I wrote was about humans in the far future being defeated by superior aliens... And I realised that if I made them the Xeelee too I had the beginning and the end of a cosmic saga. For the next few years it really helped me to have this common background to support (some of) my stories, as I was learning my way: common vocabulary, settings, characters; the background seemed to help fertilise and shape ideas. But after four novels it all began to close up, and it got claustrophobic and restrictive. Enough was enough. I did try to set up a new universe with my 'Saddle Point' stories, mostly in SF Age. But I'd moved on; the stories emerged like chapters of a novel (which is what they’ve become; they will be incorporated in my second Manifold novel Space, due in Aug 2000). But the Xeelee stuff is my most popular among many readers – the Japanese love it all, more than anything else I've done. So maybe I'll go back to it in the future, but it would be some locale a long way removed from the main thread of the existing material.
Yes. The publishers are keen for obvious commercial reasons to have sf which is as accessible as possible to as wide a range of readers as possible. It's possible to be snobbish about 'dumbing down' the genre, but I've come to believe it's a worthy goal to write a novel which is authentic sf, dealing with the classic themes, and yet accessible to somebody for whom this is their very first sf novel. And a good way to do that is to start from the familiar, the near-future, the here-and-now, and move on from there. It's actually more of a challenge to write a book like Time which deals with the destiny of humanity and the fate of the universe and all that stuff within such a framework – accessible to the general audience, but still authentic sf. Maybe one day I'll get it right!
Lots of things. In a way it's my life story. I was 11 when Apollo 11 landed, and naturally I swallowed all the techie optimism of the time that this was just the beginning, that we'd have bases on Mars by 1980, just as NASA was seriously proposing at the time. The downturn of the space programme coincided with my own adolescence, as if everybody was growing out of childish things at the same time as me, and, as we waited long years for the Shuttle to fly, I got disillusioned with the whole thing. What got me going again was a chance find of an article somewhere about NASA's lost plans for those wonderful 1980s Mars missions – which, of course, inspired Voyage. There is a lot of resonance in such material for people of about my age, I think – in America particularly where they all seem to know all the details of NASA funding cuts since 1966. But as I worked through Voyage I found there was a lot of opportunity to spin further stories out of the same material. Alternate histories often spin out of easily identifiable key events, like battles, where small changes could clearly have large outcomes; the space shots were so fragile that there are a lot of ways they could have turned out. And I also got caught up again in the wonder of it all. The Moon really was a wonderful place to visit, but they played down the awe factor in order to reduce the perceived risk. Big mistake. I got to meet Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke in London this year, and I interviewed him for New Scientist. After 30 years I don’t think I managed to ask a single original question, but he was very clear and articulate about his great adventure.
I'm not sure I've changed. The Xeelee stuff was pretty pessimistic; humanity never figures out what's going on, and gets cosmically defeated. I like to say that optimism and pessimism are a question of timescale. If I say mankind will be extinct in five years, that’s surely pessimistic. If I say we'll last for five million years, you might call me an optimist – until you remember that the universe will last trillions of times longer than that, perhaps even forever. I would say there are reasons for hope in the world around us – I grew up believing I'd never grow old, that the nuclear war was bound to consume us all one day, and that threat (at least globally) seems to be receding. But there are reasons to worry also; all the trends – population, food production, water usage – seem to me to be pointing in the wrong direction, and we're getting no smarter about dealing with it. The next century is probably the bottleneck. If we can get through that – and start reaching out off-world – there's no limit, I don’t think. But personal factors also change. I went through a huge stab of pessimism when I turned forty; all the morbid jokes and advice about old-folks' health regimes (and my first prostate exam) really got to me, and I think I got a clear sense of my own mortality for the first time. On the other hand I think I’ve come through that; there are after all more important things than an individual. So in Time the human race is once again doomed – but we sacrifice ourselves to remake the universe, making it a better home for races to come, our metaphorical children.
I think the ISS is a total waste of time. It's an orbiting white elephant. In fact flying a white elephant would make more sense; at least then they could study the effect of microgravity on albino pachyderms. ISS will consume billions and decades of effort in space, and for what? – for nothing they couldn’t already have learned from the much cheaper and more effective Mir programme. But NASA has been campaigning for decades for a station – even though they got to the Moon without one – and now they’ve got it. In the recently threatened cuts to NASA's budget, tragically, it was good unmanned science stuff that got hit, not the Station. I think humans in space should go somewhere; the astronauts say that after about three weeks on the Mir you want to go someplace, rather than 'looking at stars, pissing in jars', as they put it. There are the asteroids, and Mars, but I'd advocate going back to the Moon. We know we can get there (relatively cheaply now), it's only three days away, doesn't wander around the sky relative to Earth, and while it's not perfect as a destination it is a place we could go learn to live off the land – especially if it has water, and there are a number of ways it could actually prove to have a lot. The ideal is to send humans, I think, for the sense of wonder, and not to mention much better science. But they need to send poets, and artists, and even sf writers. So I would scrap ISS and spend the money on a manned Moon base, and a whole slew of unmanned probes to more remote destinations, pending the day we can get humans there effectively. Personally I would sign up for a week in Earth orbit, or a longer stay on the Moon; the only way I'd suffer months in microgravity enduring Nazi-doctor types watching my bones leach away would be if there was some genuine purpose - how about a flyby of Mars?
I’ve been an sf reader since the age of 10 or so, counting the grown-up stuff, and I followed younger stuff before that, as long as I can remember, back to Fireball XL5. But I only began coming to cons after I'd sold a few stories. I was introduced by a genuine fan from my workplace at the time, and it turned out to be a good way to meet everybody. Now each year I'm usually at the Eastercon and the Worldcon at least, generally other cons too, and I’ve been to cons as a guest and a paying participant around the world: Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Japan... I don’t suppose I'd call myself a 'fan' in the sense that my interest has always been primarily the literature rather than the subculture, and now I meet people at cons as a writer meeting readers. But fandom, and the cons, and the wider genre audience, is an extremely informed and valued support base for pros like me.
Probably Gary Wolfe who reviews for Locus. He brings to his pieces a deep understanding of the material, including my own, and while he doesn't always give me rave reviews you always get a sense that somebody smart and perceptive and basically caring has read the stuff.
Very difficult. I worked on the scenario for BBC's Invasion Earth, and I wrote an episode of Space Island One for Sky. I think sf is very badly treated by the telly people in this country. Nobody involved seems to have read or even watched a lot of modern stuff, they simply don't understand the point of sf in the first place, and they are so terrified of frightening away the audience they dumb it all down horrifically, which brings in bad reviews and ratings, and... But I remain in there fighting. If people like me don't, who will? The radio adaptation of Voyage was wonderful, sympathetic, very well done. Now I’m pitching a telly adaptation of Time to the BBC – set in a small English village! I kind of hope that the backlash against Star Wars, and smarter movies like Matrix, will push TV and movie sf ahead a little way; as Fred Pohl says most of it is excellent sf for about 1926.
I was one for a while; I completed a PhD in aeronautical engineering. But it wasn't for me; the detail tended to drive me crazy, I like research, but the bigger picture and wider aspects appeals more, not to mention communicating what I find. So after that I tried teaching – only to find no money or respect and maximum stress – and then about ten years in industry, working my way (not always consciously) towards a writing career, which if you'd asked me at age about 15 was always my goal, but which I thought was probably unreachable until it started happening.
Kim Newman can forget it.