Interview: Neal Asher – The Gabble and other stories (Tor UK)

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To celebrate the paperback publication of a The Gabble and other stories Neal Asher was kind enough to answer some questions on Gabbleducks, short stories and SF, amongst other things. Neal Asher has this year has fast become one of my favourite writers. He’s an wonderfully talented science fiction writer who regularly amazes me.

I’m not sure what else to say so here we go:

Gav: It’s unusual for a short story collection to be centred on the same universe, so I’m curious what is it about the Polity that means you have so many stories to tell?

Neal: The simple answer to that is that it’s big. Starting out writing short SF stories I wanted a large canvas on which to tell them, and with each one that canvas expanded. To a certain extent I did this deliberately, but it also grew organically – in the telling. Really, Earth itself is large enough to contain just about any story you could think of, so inevitably a star spanning Polity is going to have a whole lot more room.

Gav: And this probably links In to the question above but at the start of my review I said:

“Neal Asher has an amazing imagination combined with a strong understanding of science and its potentials for evolution.”

As well as:

“I get the feeling that Neal Asher likes the idea of genetics and evolution and the possibilities that science has and enjoys how that knowledge and exploration feeds his stories. “

Does science fiction still have legs? Or is technology and science getting so advance that there is less and less to reveal and predict in SF? Or is it the case like in the books that humanity still has a long way to go its understanding itself and its knowledge?

Neal: Right now we are just entering a time in which some elements of past SF stories are becoming reality. We have laser weapons, we have Star Trek communicators, we have video telephones. But that doesn’t mean all these things are dead for the purpose of story telling. An old idea becoming reality, or the SF love of the new shiny idea, doesn’t necessarily make old ideas obselete, often it’s quite the reverse. Really, SF still has legs and a long way to run on them, it’s just that some of the signposts have changed and the legs are wearing new trousers.

Gav: The bad guys seems to be the insect-like Prador rather than the Polity AIs that run humanity. I’m curious as to which is more alien in your eyes? Both to me are scary, but somehow the AIs seem more compassionate?

Neal: Rather than grabbing up the new shiny thing in SF (singularity) I’ve gone a slightly different route with my AIs. They are a product of us, really only development of us. They are, using that favourite description used by the wannabe academics in SF, the post humans, and as such, they are much more like us, much more recogniseable than the alien and predatory Prador. Because of this they seem more compassionate, more human, but really they are colder even than the Prador, and would dump the human race in a second if that served their purpose. And, just like humans, there are also nasty Ais. But I also have to add that in my books the Prador are a nasty product of evolution; they are all the same and not bad guys through deliberate intent – effectively there are no Prador good guys. The real bad guys in my books (with the potential to be good) are usually human – aren’t they always?

Gav: You seem to have a soft spot for the Gabbleducks. Can you explain a little bit more about them and if they appear anywhere else in the books you’ve written?

Neal: I’ve always got a soft spot for my monsters, be they alien or human. Gabbleducks, which also appear in the Cormac series from The Line of Polity onwards, stem from me wanting to create something monstrous, mysterious, and even humorous. They are the kind of creature you’ll more likely find in a fairy tale than a zoology book: a troll, snark or, of course, a jabberwock. But just like Mr Crane – the big murderous android seemingly made out of brass in the first Cormac book, Gridlinked they grew in the telling. The result with Mr Crane was the third in the Cormac series, Brass Man. The result with the gabbleducks has been the short stories you’ve read in The Gabble stories acquainting us with the horrific idea that they were an intelligent race who, in an act of racial insanity, sacrificed civilization and intelligence – and further, the book I’m presently writing: Gabbleducks.

Gav: You’ve included some authors notes to place the stories. They read like fan treats. Are you a big fan of any other writers and if so can you think of any treats you’d like to see from them?

Neal: I like providing these treats. In my other books I usually start every chapter with a paragraph extracted from some fictional Polity work, like ‘How It Is’ by Gordon, ‘Quince Guide’ compiled by humans, Anonymous or ‘Modern Warfare’ lecture notes from EBS Heinlein (little hat-tip there). I enjoy writing them and they simultaneously enable me to step back from the story and fill in some background.

Am I a big fan of other writers? In the acknowledgements for The Skinner I wrote, ‘Thanks to all those excellent people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny, and who have kept me spell-bound for most of my life. All their names are too numerous to list here, but they have been a continuous source of pleasure to me and a huge influence on what you find between these covers.’ That quote generally covers most of the old greats, but my fannish attitude to SF hasn’t gone away now I’m writing it. As for treats I would like from writers still producing … I just want them to hold on to the sensawunda that got them reading SF in the first place, and give me that, in their books.

Gav: Short stories are seen by some as a dying market but lots of writers enjoy doing them. Most of the stories have appeared elsewhere before being collected. Did you have in mind at some point you’d be able to collect them or did you see them as individual pieces that could appeal to both fans of the books and those new to them?

Neal: Though it might have been at the back of my mind that my short stories could be published in a collection, that wasn’t the aim when I wrote them. I just carried on as I did at the start, writing for short story markets (magazines like Asimov’s,) when time permitted because I simply like writing short stories. It came as a pleasant surprise when publishers wanted them for various ‘Year’s Best’ collections but, later, not so much of a surprise when my previous editor at Macmillan, Peter Lavery, told me that we ought to do a collection. It was about the right time for me, being fairly well established. The short story market, I feel, is not a dying one, just a very limited one. They don’t sell that well unless there’s an established market for them.

Gav: Your work has several different strands to it now. If someone picked up The Gabble and want to explore more where could they go next?

Neal: Next go to the one-offs or those that, though starting off a series, do stand alone. The one-offs are: Cowl (time-travel and not set in the Polity), Hilldiggers, The Shadow of the Scorpion, Prador Moon and Africa Zero (two novellas).Those starting off a series but which are self-contained novels are: The Skinner and Gridlinked. It’s also worth adding that I’ve recently submitted a new novel to Macmillan called The Departure – double meaning here since the book is about the departure from Earth of the main character, and the book itself is a departure from the Polity.

Gav: And finally, I hope that you’re still writing short stories, where can we find some more? and do you think you’ll have enough for a second collection of Polity tales in the near future?

Neal: More of my short stories can be found in The Engineer ReConditioned, and a short chapbook called Runcible Tales. Time permitting I will write more short stories and submit them to various magazines and then, when I have enough, maybe collect them together in one book. But ‘time permitting’ is a movable feast. I’m writing Gabbleducks, want to write a book about Crete and also want to take another look at four fantasy books presently languishing in my hard drive. So yeah, sometime, though maybe not in the near future.

How cool was that? I’m now very excited to hear about The Departure and Gabbleducks and I have a bit more catching up to do. But if you haven’t read The Gabble and other stories, do, it’s amazing and if you need more convincing I’ve written a review to persuade you some more.

Thanks Neal for taking the time to do it.

And if you’re in the UK and are lucky you can win one of five copies of The Gabble and other stories by keeping your eye out for post to win a copy in the next couple of days.

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