An Interview With Neal Asher (Dark Intelligence)

Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher


You may not know but I’m a huge fan of Neal Asher’s work especially this Polity Universe. So much so his publisher in the UK, Tor, invited me to write an introduction to it. I wrote 1200 words and could have easily written 1200 more. If you’re interested in thought-provoking but fun space opera please go check out the link.

I was also lucky enough to score interview with the man himself to talk about his new book Dark Intelligence and the return of Penny Royal.

Gav: Could you describe Dark Intelligence in five words or less? 

Neal: Transformations, vengeance and super-science.

Gav: Penny Royal has appeared in the short story ‘Alien Archeology’ and The Technician what makes him a character you keep returning to? 

NeaI: have a bit of a fascination with powerful and morally questionable characters (that’s not a bit of an understatement of what Penny Royal is). But it also seems that I agree with my readers on this. A previous example is the Brass Man, Mr Crane – I liked him, the readers liked him, so I resurrected him and dedicated an entire book to him. Much the same has happened here.

Gav: Transformation is a theme which runs through your work in the Polity was there a reason behind putting in front and centre in this trilogy?

That came about during a back and forth with Bella Pagan. I was all set to call it the Penny Royal trilogy but, as she pointed out, only those who have read my previous stuff will have any idea what that is about. New readers might well be picking up editions of the Herb Garden. Initially the title of the first book was to be Isobel, then it became Transformation, but then thinking about overall themes I realized that transformation was it for the whole trilogy. Each book is very definitely a transformation. The title of Dark Intelligence came about during that exchange with Bella – not quite sure how, but it fits perfectly. Now, of course, there’ll be a similar discussion about the other books, which are provisionally titled Factory Station Room 101 & Spear and Spine.

Gav: You left the Polity for a trilogy of books in the The Owner Series and now you’ve returned to the Polity. How did it feel to come back? 

Neal: It’s a fact of life for a writer of serial books set in the same future (or set around the same town with the same cops if you’re writing a police procedural) that you can get stale. But try to do something different and you can get pilloried by your fans. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I took that risk with The Owner Series (wasn’t too much of a risk because most of the staples my readers like were there) and, afterwards, returning to the Polity, felt refreshed.

Gav: And I guess following on from that how do you balance writing about something familiar with keeping things new and exciting for you as you write?

Neal: In one respect, see the answer above. But it can be difficult when working with the constraints of everything you’ve written in previous books. When I wrote The Skinner there was only Gridlinked to reference so I let my imagination run riot – it’s probably the book I enjoyed writing the most. There’s also a point you reach when you realize that it has become the day job. Yes, it’s one of the best jobs in the world, but still the day job. New and exciting occurs when I push my imagination, when I twist and expand things and try to go outside expectation. For example, man shoots another man in the head, blowing his brains out. The victim falls to the floor dead. That’s nuts and bolts writing. When the victim sits up and goes, ‘Ouch, that smarts,’ and grins, then you’re getting more into the kind of territory I like. Even more so if his brain drops out of his skull and crawls off under a nearby table.

Gav: You started a lot of chapters in earlier books with extracts of ‘works’ which often had some bearing on the events which followed, something I really enjoyed, but you’ve not that done that this time, you also start Dark Intelligence with a first person narrator is there a reason behind the change of style or is it just an evolution of you as a writer?

I have used first person narrator before (Hilldiggers) so it’s not a major change. It’s a good way of getting right inside the skull of your character. However I find it stifling just to stick with that when I want to deal with other aspects of the story so I also use third person. As for the chapter starts – those little excerpts from ‘How It Is – by Gordon’ and the like – I just didn’t want to slow things down with them this time. It is also the case that having done so many of them I’m noticing a tendency towards repetition.

Gav: Following you on twitter, even if someone hasn’t read your work, it becomes pretty obvious you keep up with field of biology, which immediately evident in your novels. Is something you do for purely research purposes or it is a wider passion that feeds into your work?

It’s both. I’ve always been interested in what’s going on at the forefront of science. When I decided that writing was going to be what I would pursue properly it helped that it was inclusive of all my other interests. Now I try to make it part of the discipline by reading 5 or 10 science articles in the morning as a mental warm-up before I start writing. In these latest books you’ll see how that has impinged what with the use of meta-materials, matter printers and that all-time favorite of mine the grotesque parasite.

Gav: I think I’m right in saying you’ve finished the story, if not all the edits, for the next two books in The Transformation and that leads me to two questions; did it make it more relaxing to know you could go back and fiddle with earlier bits the closer you got to the end? And secondly, how does it feel getting to the end of a big project, does it get any easier knowing you’ve done it three times before? 

I started out aiming to write a trilogy and wrote all three books in one hit, to first draft, because that way it was easier to sort out the inconsistencies. I didn’t want to put myself in the position whereby something I’d written in book one made it impossible, difficult or overly complicated to resolve something in book three. I also wanted the option to add stuff to the first book to make the resolution at the end more logical, or natural. So yes, it did make it more relaxing to be able to go back and fiddle. Getting to the end of a big project like this is still hard because it has to have a satisfying ending to all plot threads and the overall story. However, it is easier having done it before because of simple experience. I’m now not afraid to make major alterations, to rip the thing apart and stick it back together in a different shape, because I know I can.

Gav: Finally, 2015 is the date travelled to in Back to the Future and it’s not what was expected in 1985. Do you think we’ll be brave enough to start transforming ourselves in the near future?

Yeah, I just saw a thing on Facebook about people’s predictions of what phones would look like by now, and only one of them got close. As for transforming ourselves, that’s already happening. We have bionic eyes and thought-controlled prosthetics now, we have brain implants like those used to kill the tremors in Parkinson’s sufferers. I would bet that within the next 10 years some of this stuff will have moved out of the realm of just medical science. Even I am about to transform myself into an SF writer cyborg by having refractive lens replacement. It’s happening.

Thanks Neal. 

PS: I’ll have a review of Dark Intelligence up in the next couple of weeks.