Friday, March 20, 2009

FEATURED AUTHOR: Alastair Reynolds

By staff writer Craig Harvey

Alastair Reynolds hit the scene with the amazing Revelation Space. It was a dark, cold and gothic setting of mankind's future into the unforgiving blackness of interstellar space. This was hard science fiction at it's best. No faster than light travel, making trips between star systems very lengthy voyages spanning decades or centuries. Man himself adapting and evolving to colonize new and strange worlds, most of their enviorments hostile and desolate. We were not alone, but intelligence other than ourselves was scarce. Mostly dead civilizations were all that were found. There were alien forces at work however, that would give humanity it's greatest and most desperate challenge for survival. This series is still ongoing with five books and numerous short stories.

Alastair has released several stand alone novels that are seperate from this Revelation Space series, "Century Rain", "Pushing Ice", and now his most recent work "House Of Suns." This novel is breathtaking in scope, spanning millions of years on a galactic scale, and has to be his boldest, most awe inspiring science fiction novel to date. It is the story of two humans (two clones actually) Purslane and Campion. They are the offspring of Abigail Gentian who cloned herself and sent her "shatterlings" into space to categorize and observe (as well as help) civilizations across the galaxy. With no faster than light travel, they observe the rise and fall of humanity across time. There other "lines" that do the same thing and they meet every 200,000 years to share information. However, someone wants to put an end to the Gentian line and this is where the action really takes off. Trust me when I say, that this is science fiction on a scope yet unheard of. Movement had the pleasure of an earlier interview with Alastair a few years back, and he was kind enough to answer some of my in depth questions once again. (At the time of this interview, House Of Suns has been out a while, Alastair was not able to do the interview when I originally sent it to him several months ago due to work related issues). He is now working on a new novel entitled "Terminal World."

1. First congratulations on your latest book House Of Suns. It's great. My brain kind of hurt a bit after reading it (in a good way) because of the vast scope of space and time that is experienced within the story. Does writing a novel that encompasses such a huge scale pose difficulties for you? The challenge of imagining what humanity will be like millions of years in the future seems like an extremely daunting task.

"There are challenges, certainly, but at the same time it's an area of SF that has always excited me, so it's as much about fun and freedom as anything else. You'll note that the foreground characters aren't really all that different to us; it's the background ones who are stranger. Really, though, I didn't find HOS to be any more or less hard to write than any of my other books. The real problems are never the ones you anticipate at the start, anyway - they're the ones that sneak up on you."

2. The ending of House Of Suns screams for a sequel (or series of sequels). Hopefully we will be seeing one in the future?

"No firm plans, but I wouldn't rule it out. I hope it doesn't scream for a sequel in the sense of being incomplete, as that was very much not my intention; to my mind it's a story unto itself, and while the ending is relatively open, there's also a sense of closure for Campion and Hesperus."

3. The Priors (in House Of Suns) were actually an alien race that came billions of years before us, but that was the only evidence of another intelligence arising in the Milky Way correct? Do you really envision the galaxy that empty or a more probable chance of life now that we are finding extra solar planets quite common?

"Correct. But that's just an assumption I settled on for HOS. As you're aware, the RS books take an entirely different tack. It's all about exploring the most interesting or appropriate angle for the work in question. I think the whole "how common is life" thing is still a very, very open question. We are indeed finding lots of extrasolar planets, but most of them are not in the orbits we were expecting. We'll get a better picture when we have the means to detect Earthlike planets in Earthlike orbits. At the moment the most fruitful technique is biassed to find massive planets in short-period orbits, so it's not surprising that we're turning up so many oddball planets."

4. I wanted to ask a bit about distance and time in House of Suns and Pushing Ice (which I will get to a bit later) mainly relativity as to the view of the space traveler. In House Of Suns Purslane and Campion traveled 62,000 light years real time at near light speed but you stated that around 3,000 years passed ship time correct? Granted both were in status so no time passed for them. Now in the novel Pushing Ice, the crew of the Rockhopper stranded on the Janus probe traveled near the speed of light to the alien artifact some 200 plus light years away, but was then accelerated even more from the artifact they thought they were heading towards originally to an even further destination. 1. The Janus probe never actually went superluminal correct? 2. If not, the relativistic effects were described as only decades even though they traveled, I assume thousands or millions of light years further? 3. But in House of Suns the 62,000 light year
trip took 3,000 years ship time. Did I miss something? How do you calculate the relativistic time scale for ship time?

"I calculate relativistic effects using the standard equations for time dilation (actually I don't; I've got a table of values for various fractions of c, but I have done the math in the past). You're right that there is no superluminal travel in PI, even though some readers seem to have misunderstood that aspect of the novel. In PI, we can assume that Janus was accelerated much closer to c than Purslane and Campion ever got, with a correspondingly higher time dilation ratio. The closer you get to c, the less time passes, so the ratio between shiptime and planetary time can become arbitrarily small."

5. Also, the wormhole left behind by the priors (In House Of Suns) enabled superluminal travel between galaxies, but what about between the stars in the milky way? If they could travel that far, why did they not use them to travel between star systems in the galaxy itself?

"I hope I covered this: they can deal with the relatively short timescale of galactic travel, but intergalactic travel was a step too far for them. And, although I didn't go into it, we could also speculate that the technology could only be practically applied on a galactic timescale, kind of analogous to the way that we don't use rockets for inter-city transport."

6. One more tech question. In House of Suns the ships used by the line were quite large, many kilometers to be exact. You mentioned that the ships could enter a planetary atmosphere even though they could not land. Is that possible for a ship so large? This might not be the best example but in the film Independence Day (again, not a great sci-fi flick by any means) they had similar type ships and I read on one astronomy site that ships so huge would set the atmosphere on fire because of the amount of friction it would cause. Unless your ships had some way around that? Maybe this site was incorrect? Sorry to bombard you with scientific issues!

"We're so far into the realms of super-science that I think the answer is that a ship could be as large as you like, provided it's equipped with the right kind of magic gravity nullifiers etc. And I've never heard of the setting-the-atmosphere on fire thing. The ships in HOS can generate fields, of course, so their hulls wouldn't necessarily be in contact with the air. And they wouldn't have to come in so fast that they caused catastrophic effects to the planet."

7. Your previous novel Pushing Ice was said to be a stand alone novel. Again, with all the open-ended possibilities within the story, it also begs to have a sequel. Are you going to continue this story line or leave it as is?

"Again, there may be a sequel one day. My position is that I want to write one, but there are other books I want to write first."

8. You have many strong female lead characters in many of your books.. Do you find it easier or harder to write a female vs. male lead character?

"I just kind of go with the flow, in all honesty. I don't think one's harder than the other. The problems tend to arise when a character gets stuck in the wrong gender early on in the story, and I don't recognise it. Sometimes all kinds of problems can waft away as soon as I realise that he ought to be a she, or vice versa. That sounds like a very simplistic, haphazard approach, but no one hands these things down to you on a stone. It's the same with viewpoint."

9. Now the question I am most interested in. When is the next Revelation Space book coming out? The last book "The Prefect" was a wonderful detective story that really took some interesting turns and answered some major questions about the Glitter Band. You have a vast universe in which to play in with so many unique character types that the story possibilities seem endless.

"There'll certainly be another one, but again I wouldn't want to say exactly when it will happen, or exactly where in the future it will slot. I don't want to fall into the trap of explaining too much, but at the same time I'm mindful that there is still scope for new stories there. Thanks for liking The Prefect; I enjoyed that one and I'd like to do more with Dreyfus and his associates, but it might not be for a book or two (or three)."

10. Any chance of another mission to "the spire" from the novella Diamond Dogs? It would be interesting to see another team try to crack the mystery of what it is and who built it. How about Dr. Trintignant? Now there's an interesting fellow.

"I think I'm done with The Spire, and probably also done with Dr T - but who knows? I certainly don't..."

11. Your stories are what I would say are some of the hardest and best Sci-fi out there. You go to great lengths to keep it within what is possible while letting your imagination create amazing futuristic visions. Did you ever consider writing more of a space opera that was more light hearted? Full of superluminal starships, alien civilizations and epic stories? Kind of like you do now, just escape the laws of physics and have fun? Or would that difficult because of your background in physics and astronomy?

"I think House of Suns *was* that book, to be honest - it's very, very far from nuts and bolts hard SF. The new one, Terminal World, might even be further in that direction still. I don't think I could write a balls-to-the-wall Star Wars type space opera in which *everything* is possible, but that doesn't mean I won't do "fun" stuff in the future. But as it happens, the book (or rather sequence of books) that are firming up in my mind at the moment are much closer to pure hard SF than almost anything I've done to date, although I hope that they'll still have a fair measure of surprise and sense of wonder in them."

12. How do you feel about our current space program? Do you feel we are making any headway at all? We keep sending probes to Mars for signs of early life, do you think it's a dead end? Mars is a never ending fascination with Astronomers. They don't want to give up the search even if it seems to be futile.

"I'm still pretty excited about space and our exploring of it. I'd wish we were a bit further on with manned spaceflight, but there's no escaping the technological challenges, which are enormous - far more so, I think, than most people realise. Just building a rocket engine is astonishingly difficult. The fact that we did it 50 years ago doesn't take anything away from that for me.

Mars is anything but a dead end. I don't think we'll ever stop peeling back the layers of mystery there. It's going to be a fascinating few decades."

13. On the flip side as I mentioned earlier, the hunt for extra-solar planets seems to be a huge success. How long do you think it will be before we discover a terrestrial size planet such as Earth or Mars? Or better yet, one with Earth-like conditions?

"I think we'll find a terrestrial-sized planet in the next decade, and we'll have a low-res image of an Earthlike planet (with oceans, landmasses etc) within 25, if there are any out there, of course."

14. Speaking of Earth, not much is mentioned about it in the Revelation Space series. Any chance of a visit there in any part of the time-line? Perhaps during the golden age?

"No, I decided early on not to bring Earth on stage. It's pretty much iced over and under-populated for most of the sequence; the action has moved elsewhere in the solar system. I did this deliberately as I'd read far too many SF novels where the action shifts to Earth and all of a sudden the carefully engendered sense of disbelief crumbles away. I'd always end up wondering - have they still got Wales? Does it still rain? Are there still pubs and carparks and seaside pavilions? I didn't want to engage with any of that, so I didn't."

15. You seem very interested in detective stories as shown in "The Prefect" and the novel "Century Rain". Did you ever consider just writing a 1920's noir style detective novel void at all of science fiction? Or any other type of genre at all? You could do fantasy well I think, considering the Palatial virtual reality simulator that Abigail uses in House of Suns.

"I'm a big fan of detective and crime fiction, yes, but I certainly don't have the chops to do a non-SF crime novel. I can't see myself ever doing anything much resembling high-fantasy, either - the sequences in HOS are more of a piss-take than anything else. If I was going to do a fantasy, I'd try and carve out my own niche, getting as far away from wizards and dark lords as humanly possible. But I probably wouldn't bother, as I'm not terrifically excited by fantasy in the first place. I like some of the weirder stuff out there, but most of it doesn't rock my world. If I'm going to read about people hacking each other apart with swords, it might as well be a historical novel, I figure."

16. Well, that's about it other than what's currently playing in your cd player or Ipod?

"On a bit of an Arcade Fire kick at the moment, among other things."

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