Improbable Interviews: Eric Brown
Eric Brown is one of the UK’s leading science fiction writers. Since making his first sale to Interzone in 1986 he has published more than 50 books. His novel Helix Wars (2012) was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and two of his short stories have been honoured with the British Science Fiction Association Award. Murder By The Book (2013) marked a departure, being the first Langham and Dupre Mystery, a crime novel set in the 1950s. His latest titles are Jani and the Great Pursuit, the second volume of a Steampunk series set at the height of the British Empire, and Murder Take Three, the fourth Langham and Dupre novel. He writes a regular SF review column for The Guardian.
Eric Brown has written the story ‘The Ice Garden’ for Improbable Botany, the new anthology I have edited. Here we talk about all manner of things, from fantastical flora in fiction, and why Eric has recently turned to crime.
Gary Dalkin: ‘The Ice Garden’, your story in Improbable Botany, has something of an old fashioned feel to it. Although clearly taking place in a world of mobile phones, it evokes an earlier period in British science fiction. The characters are so polite, formal, gentlemanly. The setting itself is of an earlier time. Is the sense of continuing a tradition something which especially appeals to you? The story has certain elements in common with your novel The Kings of Eternity, which of the novels of yours that I have read, I think is the best.
Eric Brown: These days I read a lot of fiction set in thirties, forties, and fifties Britain. I’m attracted to the mores and manners of that period, to the prose-style, and to the fiction. I’m writing a series of crime novels set in the fifties at the moment, and I find that the best way to research the period, even better than reading non-fiction about the fifties, is to immerse myself in the fiction of the time. Perhaps as a consequence of this, my writing, my prose, is beginning to reflect that earlier fiction. (Also, I must admit that I find some modern prose too slick and not to my taste, whether that’s in SF or crime.) And also, I like the strange feeling in some of my SF – principally The Kings of Eternity, which you mentioned, and the Starship novellas, as well as some stories – that is created by the anachronistic juxtaposing of a future setting (more so in Starship) against perceived ‘old-fashioned’ prose-style and values. (Jack Vance did this in so much of his work, a futuristic setting rubbing up against the almost Jacobean, or Restoration, manners and mores of his characters and societies). So perhaps the above is my long-winded way of saying yes, I suppose it is my continuing a tradition.
Gary Dalkin: Speaking in terms of traditions, there is one, not extensive, but it exists, of exploring strange botany within speculative fiction. We could go back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and trace a line through John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, right up to the mushroom people of Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch. We might even take in The Little Shop of Horrors on the big screen, and on the small screen, a Doctor Who story like ‘The Seeds of Doom’. Yet overall this remains a relatively small set of stories. Do you see a rich territory ripe for future fictional exploration, particularly give the possibilities opened up by genetic engineering? Are authors missing out by generally not considering the intersection of fiction and flora?
Eric Brown: You’re right, it’s a ripe and fecund branch worthy of future exploration, which would bear much fruit and maybe even vast blossoms. Sorry. Earth-bound tales exploring the genetic engineering side of botany would be one avenue to explore – the other, which I’m drawn to, would be xeno-botany set on alien worlds: this would offer real, wide-screen scope for stories. Keith Brooke has done a series of extraterrestrial flora stories, but to the best of my knowledge they’re thin on the ground. (I’ve used exotic, alien flora in various of my own tales, but they’re mainly alien window-dressing, to heighten atmosphere, and don’t really explore the science, or extrapolate from the science, of xeno-biology.)
Gary Dalkin: Is this because you generally prefer ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ science fiction? You once said in an interview with Keith Brooke that ‘hard SF leaves me cold because I don’t like reading pages and pages of science or scientific extrapolation at the expense of characters and emotion.’ Is that still the case – certainly your work is frequently powerfully emotional, often evoking what seems to me a very English sense of melancholy. Would that be a fair statement?
Eric Brown: Yes, very fair. I think I’d find Hard SF difficult even if it did have excellent characterisation (which some of it does). I’m just not that interested in the ins and outs of technology and science: I don’t read mainstream fiction to be told how a TV works. I’m interested in how people and societies are affected by ideas that stem from technological and scientific innovation, but I find that so often in SF, technological explanation gets in the way of psychology… Also Hard SF dates so quickly, so if it contains no real human beings what we’re left with, years down the line, are Hard SF novels with cardboard characters and outmoded ideas; novels which are nothing more than curiosity pieces – like Asimov’s, for example. I find that the older I get, the more I want to read about human beings and how they interact. I’m glad you think my work powerfully emotional – that’s what I often try to achieve. I much prefer Soft to Hard SF – though my favourite term is Quiet SF.
Gary Dalkin: I remember reading your first novel, Meridian Days, shortly after it first came out, and it certainly had a quietly powerful impact. It really struck a chord with me, especially against a lot of rather more gung-ho Hard SF – perhaps because we’re both Yorkshire men of a very similar age. So I think Quiet SF is the prefect description. Anyway, it seemed to immediately fit into a lineage along with the works of say, Michael Coney and Christopher Priest and establish you as a writer to watch.
There’s a certain haunted melancholy to your best work. Something of loneliness and isolation, of loss and the irrevocable passage of time, yet combined with a sense of beauty and of wonder. It’s not something I often see in American SF, but it’s there in the closing passages of Shelley’s Frankenstein, in Wells’ beach in the far future in The Time Machine, it’s there in the vast cosmic visions of Stapledon and Clarke. Do you think this sensibility is something particularly British, something you recognise in yourself as a writer and as a person, and if so, where do you think it comes from? Is it some essential part of the British character?
Eric Brown: I wonder if it’s an essentially European sensibility? Could it be that as we inhabit an older civilisation, are surrounded by constant reminders of human-made history, this imbues us – perhaps on a subconscious level – with a certain melancholy, a reminder of our insignificance in the grand, cosmic scheme of things? I wonder if the beauty and wonder comes form our having to make the best of the situation… I don’t know. I think I’ll leave that one to the philosophers. It’s odd that you should mention the beach scene in Wells’s The Time-Machine. To me, it’s one of the most affecting images in all SF, and I was knocked out by it when I read the novella when I was sixteen. I still use the iconic image of the swollen sun in my work – it’s always cropping up! As to my own work, I’ve often written about loneliness and isolation – it’s a great theme, a great sympathy-hook, and can be a great driver of narrative (the striving against isolation, the quest for redemption): though perhaps I’m not using it so much these days.
Gary Dalkin: Right from Meridian Days your work has shown a fascination with artists and writers. You’ve written about fictional writers in, for example, A Writer’s Life and The Kings of Eternity, as well as in your new Langham and Dupré series of mystery novels, and used real writers such as H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, and Jules Verne as characters in your work. The question is why? Is it something as simple as following the old adage to ‘write about what you know’?
Eric Brown: I suppose a part of the attraction is that I know about writers and artists, so therefore I write about them – but I’m fascinated by writers and artists, the process of creation, and how these people relate to the world. I know, or have known, a lot of creative people, and find the creative process and the ‘artistic’ way of looking at the world – or rather at one’s relationship to reality – a perpetual source of interest and of ideas for drama. I think that even when writing about other people, you’re really writing about yourself. And I’m pretty sure that the process of creation, in my case, is not so much about my making sense of the world, representing it in a way that other’s might recognise, as making sense of my inner self and my emotional reaction to the world. I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious, and I think that my best work (The Kings of Eternity, Kethani, The Serene Invasion, Starship Seasons) was largely dictated to me by what was going on in the sub-strata of my head. I’m constantly amazed that when I sit down for a shift at the PC, two hours later there has emerged on the page things that I never consciously realised I’d be writing about. That’s the old subconscious at work.
Gary Dalkin: Which leads me to wonder, considering that your stories are very much proper ‘stories’ in the traditional sense of having a plot and a clear beginning, middle and end, how much of a planner are you in your writing, as opposed to letting your subconscious have free reign and following where it will? I’m particularly curious because your Langham and Dupré novels are mysteries, so do they perhaps require a different approach, one requiring more detailed planning in the construction of intricate plots? And why start writing a crime series now, after 25 years writing science fiction? Is it something you’d long wanted to do?
Eric Brown: When I began writing many moons ago, I was a great planner. Everything had to be meticulously worked out in advance. That was because I was uncertain of my ability, and had no, for want of a better word, ‘architectural’ technique. With years and wordage, I’ve developed technique, and my subconscious, informed by my technical know-how, has taken over. Now I have a slight outline in mind when I begin, but I follow my subconscious. The odd thing is that, yes, you’d think that the crime novels would take more plotting, but paradoxically that’s not the case. I have a situation, a murder, perhaps a twist or two, a cast of suspects, and the detective and his accomplice(s). I start with little notion where the story is going, and it writes itself. That said, the crime novels need more rewriting than the SF. I find I need to go back and ‘plant’ things, clues in dialogue, red herrings, verbal misdirections. In a way, writing a crime novel is more like compiling a crossword puzzle. Why did I start writing whodunits after twenty-five years of writing SF? Well, I’ve always loved cosy crime – I was turned on to reading at the age of fifteen by Agatha Christie – and a few years ago I had an idea for a crime novel that had to be set in the fifties (for DNA reasons). I loved writing the book so much, and liked the characters and the era, that I decided to do another. They sold, and I’ve just completed the fifth. They’re a great antidote to writing SF. I’ve written elsewhere about the literary freedom of writing mainstream, as opposed to SF. I can use simile and metaphor, which I can’t in SF, and write eccentric characters, again which I can’t in science fiction.
Gary Dalkin: That’s fascinating. Could you go into why you can use simile and metaphor and create eccentric characters in your crime writing, and explain what the barriers are to doing the same in science fiction? Are there any other freedoms the mainstream opens up which are difficult or impossible in SF?
Eric Brown: You don’t come across many similes in SF because when a writer likens something to something else, the object he or she likens it to must be familiar to the reader. If that object is familiar, of this world and of this time, then the writer immediately undercuts the sense of futurity he or she is attempting to maintain, and so loses reader credulity. In the crime novels I can write eccentric characters, but they don’t often appear in my SF because again I’d be in danger of undercutting the reader’s sense of futurity. I think this is because eccentric characters are only eccentric in relation to the environment they inhabit, and as science fictional futures might be described as ‘eccentric’ in themselves, it makes the job of writing eccentric characters which are eccentric in relation to their settings very hard. These characters can only be ‘odd’, eccentric, in relation to the setting the reader knows best – the here and now… which again undercuts that sense of futurity.
Other freedoms are the obvious things: you don’t need to create a new world (or universe, or future) from scratch: the world you’re writing about is instantly familiar to the reader (even if it is 1955). I can concentrate on character – make character a primary concern – whereas in SF it can be secondary behind setting, or even tertiary behind setting and idea. (There are times when I’ve been writing SF when I find the setting is so vast that it almost dwarfs the characters. I found this in Helix. And what I mean about the setting being ‘so vast’ is that I find myself describing the setting – or even thinking about it – to the detriment of the character building)… Also, in the crime novels, I don’t have to deal with Big Ideas: it’s enough that the ‘idea’, as it were, is the twist, or the murder method, or the denoument. It’s great to write crime novels, but I like to vary them: I alternate between the genres, and this keeps me fresh… I like to think.
Gary Dalkin: Yes, eccentric characters in SF to tend to undercut the established reality of any setting a writer has established, so perhaps tend to lend themselves best to satire or comedy – there’s little shortage of eccentricity in, say, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Of course there are plenty of science fiction crime stories, from Asimov’s The Caves of Steel through to a film like Inception. It seems like an interesting but tricky hybrid to pull off. Would you say that, to combine the genres a writer must be even more careful than usual ensure that the reader knows exactly what is and isn’t possible in a given future world? That the crime aspect has to work both within the technological boundaries of the imagined world but also sociologically, that is, with a particular imagined legal system? It wouldn’t be very satisfying if a crime was solved by applying a previously unmentioned piece of technology, or the story hinge upon an hithertofore undisclosed aspect of some future society’s law.
Eric Brown: I think you’re right. Whenever you write SF, of whatever sub-genre – SF-crime, space opera, planetary romance, satire, dystopia etc – you must be careful to let the reader know the ground rules. You must play fair with the reader. I’ve written three crime-SF novels, to the best of my knowledge – the Virex trilogy, set in New York in the 2040s, about a pair of private eyes. Thinking back, I recall having to carefully set up the world, and the technology – in this case virtual reality – to make everything work. And you’re right – perhaps an exception to my rule about eccentricity in SF is in comedy, like Hitch-Hiker’s Guide… and Red Dwarf. (I wonder if that’s why I didn’t care for either – especially Red Dwarf: I tried to watch it again and again, but its parochialism, its retro-anachronism, constantly put me off. I just didn’t believe it.)
Gary Dalkin: I didn’t believe Red Dwarf either. Perhaps the humour itself springs out of mocking the very world building which is essential to taking the genre seriously. I thought it interesting that the writers seemed to deliberately undermine any sense of story logic, in that each series would very obviously ignore the cliffhanger on which the previous series had ended. It was almost as if they were saying that on no level should anyone take anything about their work remotely seriously.
At the opposite extreme, having just mentioned Inception, it brings to mind a criticism that is sometimes levelled both at that film specifically, and at Christopher Nolan’s work in general – that it lacks humour. Or perhaps Nolan realises that laughter can be the enemy of suspension of disbelief. But to move on, you are a very prolific writer. A survey of your website reveals that you’ve published at least 27 novels for adults, 11 for children, 13 novellas, 11 collections of short stories, as well as various other works, including two volumes as editor. There are other stories you’ve written which have yet to be collected, and presumably other novels which you’ve already written which are due to be published over the next year. Could you say something about your working habits – I think it would be an inspiration for others who are looking to become professional writers – and, given your output, do there ever comes times when the ideas simply don’t come? If so, what do you do to get the words flowing again?
Eric Brown: Once I’m working on a project I start and don’t stop until it’s finished. (Twenty years ago I’d write three two-hour shifts a day, finish at nine p.m. and go to the pub, day in, day out, including weekends, until the hundred thousand word first draft was in the bag, which usually took a fortnight or a bit longer. I was single then. After that, I’d leave the book for a month, come back to it and take a couple of months to pull it to pieces and rewrite). These days I do two shifts a day and don’t write at weekends, and I never go to the pub. A book takes a month, and a couple of months to rewrite. I once feared the blank page, or rather the daunting task of filling three hundred of them, but experience – doing it a lot – has got rid of the fear.
I no longer really plot a novel, but sit down with a vague outline, a setting, and a cast of characters, and start writing – and the subconscious takes over. I never run out of ideas – the sub-con will produce them, once I’ve started writing – and I don’t believe in writer’s block. Of course there are patches of novel that are sub-standard, first time round, but novels and stories are modular: in the rewrite, I take those flawed bits out and replace them with passages that work. I suppose some writers, and beginning writers, might be tempted to stop when they hit these passages – but don’t give in to the impulse: write through the rubbish, and you’ll come through the other side and start writing stuff that works again.
These days, writing isn’t the difficult thing, but getting novels sold for decent money. I wish I could leave that to my subconscious!
Gary Dalkin: To get decently paid for writing, that would be like the 90s all over again! Finally, you’ve already mentioned which you consider to be your best novels – The Kings of Eternity, Kethani, The Serene Invasion, Starship Seasons – but you are also a remarkably prolific writer of short stories. For a reader who has just discovered your short fiction through Improbable Botany, which of your eleven collections would you recommend they read first, and if you could pick just two or three stories, which would you say are your very best?
Eric Brown: That’s the hardest question you’ve posed so far! I’m afraid I’m going to mention more than just ‘two or three’ stories!… I’ve had to look back at my tales and remind myself of my favourites. As to which collection to try first… I’d like to think they were all very different, and my writing style has certainly changed over the years, since my first in 1990, The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories. I was leafing through Blue Shifting earlier, and found myself reading “Epsilon Dreams”, which I’d forgotten: it was as if I were reading something by another writer. I did enjoy that story: I think it combined a tight plot with decent characterisation. “The Time-Lapsed Man” is a particular favourite of mine, because of the idea – probably one of the few original ideas I’ve ever had! The fix-up novel Salvage contains two tales I’m proud of, “Laying the Ghost”, and “Cold Testing”. Some of my favourite tales are collected in another fix-up novel, Kéthani. I particularly like: “Thursday’s Child” and “Onward Station”. So perhaps the answer would be: start with Kéthani!
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