Simon Morden, author of Equations of Life (reviewed in issue three of Dark Matter) talks to Dark Matter. This interview was via email, so the interview is in text only.
Hi Simon, thanks for talking to Dark Matter. How does a genuine rocket scientist end up writing science fiction?
It’s a long story, though I’m guessing that I’m not that unusual. I started reading SF when I was nine or so, and pretty much exclusively SF and fantasy shortly after that. Having your head filled with spacemen, flying cars, jet packs and aliens, tends to subtly alter your life-choices: so I ended up as first a geologist, then a geophysicist with a special interest in meteorites. So that’s one side of it. The other side came from being introduced to Dungeons and Dragons at an impressionable age – like a lot of folk, I began as a player and ended up DMing my own campaigns. All that world-building and character-creating meant that I was pretty much ready when the angels alighted on my shoulders and whispered “You want to be a writer. You want to be a writer.”
Did you always have an inclination to write or was that fairly recent?
As you know, Bob, some writers emerge from the womb holding a pen and a sheaf of lined paper. Others… well, I guess we’re kind of late developers. I’ll tell you how it happened: I was writing up my PhD – seriously hard science – and I just started noodling this high fantasy plot, simply to throw the day job into sharp relief. And I finished both roughly at the same time. Fortunately, the thesis was better than the novel, which is busy turning into coal somewhere in a drawer.
So, that was me, aged 21. But I’d got the bug, and I was going to spend a lot of the next decade scribbling uselessly away in notebooks, and later, clattering on a keyboard. But it paid off. Eventually.
Has anyone particularly influenced you to take up writing? How?
This is where I get to point to those couple of thousand of science fiction and fantasy books on my shelves, representing the output of hundreds of authors written over the better part of a century, and say: it’s their fault. They made me do it. Seriously. I’ve got stuff by Verne and Wells, Huxley and Orwell, Tolkien and Lewis, Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury, Heinlein and Silverberg and Delany, Niven and May and Card, Russell and Smith and Lawhead, and now Baxter and Reynolds and Macleod. It’s all good.
What writers and/or media have influenced your writing most?
Every time I get asked this, I end up changing my mind. Bradbury always goes to the top of the list of course – even though I don’t write anything like him, I am inspired merely by the fact that Ray Bradbury exists. What I’m really interested in are story-tellers: people who can just sit you down and transport you to another place. Easy to say, difficult to do. I remember being hugely impressed by Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles/Intervention/Galactic Milieu stories. She must have a mind like a steel trap. Neil Gaiman and Michael Marshall Smith can do it too.
But you said media, which allows me to get excited about stuff like Thunderbirds, Doctor Who, Star Wars (the original trilogy), Quatermass, and those fantastic fifties SF films: This Island Earth, When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Blob! With Steve McQueen! Anything using Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion models! I’m going to have to lie down in a darkened room in a moment. B5, Star Trek, Farscape… and games! I haven’t even mentioned Call of Cthulu and Gamma World!
Equations of Life hints that you are a genuine SF fan as well as writer. Please share your journey into SF geekdom.
The thing they say about greatness is true of geekiness. I was born geek: I never even fought against it by wearing suits and running off to become an accountant. I am, and always have been, one of us.
Do you read or watch much SF, fantasy and horror?
The question sort of implies that there are books and films out there that don’t contain SF, fantasy or horror. If there are, I haven’t seen them in a looooong time. I do make sure I keep up with the news, and developments in science and technology because in my line of work, that’s important. I don’t even get that much time to read these days, because I’m supposed to be writing. Books don’t make themselves, you know.
You studied science and yet your career has gone in a different direction. Did you follow the available work or did you choose to change direction?
My timing sucks. I’ve got the best job in the world – Post-doctoral research assistant – and my supervisor retires, I’m left being the only person in Europe doing what I do, and it’s the middle of a recession. The money just dried up along with the post. You do what you do to make ends meet, and after a series of really unlikely jobs, I became full-time carer to my kids. The first five years weren’t so good for writing, but once they’d both gone to school, I was able to devote more time to it while still being free to do all the dad stuff.
And in a strange turn of events, I’m back doing the science stuff, except I’m teaching 10-11 year olds how to build rockets and hovercraft and aeroplanes.
How much do you think your writing owes to your previous study of science?
It’s not so much what I write as how I write – I’ve only ever used geology as the plot in one short story. Being a scientist makes me determined to try and get the science right, even the stuff I’m making up. How does that work? The real world and the made-up world theory has to mesh, and there has to be an actual basis for believing that it might be possible. And then I have to follow the science to its logical conclusion: if I can do that, then I should be able to do that, that and that. As you read through the Metrozone series, I hope I’ve done that. Please tell me if I’ve screwed up somewhere.
In this day and age many people find themselves redundant or having to change tracks, even put their dreams on hold, in order to earn money to pay the bills. Is there anything you’d like to say to them?
Dreams are funny things. Part of me thinks, I could have been a famous space scientist at a leading university, and I’d be called Professor Morden, and I’d be winning the arms race of letters-after-my-name with my older brother, who’s not only just got a doctorate but is a reverend to boot…
On the other hand, you have to be a responsible member of society and pay your way. No one owes me, you, any of us, a living. That’s a critical lesson to learn. However – the keys to success in artistic endeavours like writing, painting, music, movie making are talent, luck and persistence: pick two. Also, the harder you practice, the luckier you become. No one said it was going to be easy, right?
What do you do to relax?
I read, obviously. It’s an unalloyed pleasure for me, and it’s a shame I don’t get to do it as much as I used to. I’m also a bit of a fiend for the turn-based strategy computer games like Civilisation and the Total War series. You know, stuff that allows you to carve out an empire in the face of impossible odds and powerful enemies, leaving you the sole ruler of all you survey. And swimming. A series of unfortunate accidents has meant that I can’t do high-impact weight-bearing exercise without bits dropping off me, but swimming and cycling I can do just fine.
How does this influence your writing?
In several, ill-defined and nebulous ways. Firstly, I want to write stories that I’d want to read. It’s vaguely narcissistic, but I’m not sure that keeping one eye on the commercial aspects of your work as you’re actually creating it is a good idea. Do it first, then see if anyone will buy it.
Secondly, the exercise means I don’t keel over with a heart attack or have to reinforce my writing chair with extra bits of metal or bricks. Which is also important.
Thirdly, the computer gaming stuff lets me appreciate the importance of logistics and infrastructure, which are fundamentally uncool but entirely necessary to any culture or civilisation. For example, you can’t just pitch up anywhere and have a war without having planned for it first. I’m pretty certain Sun Tzu said it more succinctly, but for a writer it’s important to be reminded of all that off-stage stuff that happens just so your protagonist can get to where they need to go, and have them fed and dressed by the time they arrive.
How does your Metrozone series, and specifically Equations of Life, differ from your previous writing?
It’s difficult to overestimate the effect that something as simple as point-of-view has on a story. In the past, I’ve tended to write a fairly loose third-person POV: in both Heart and The Lost Art, I used multiple POVs and the action is spread out over weeks and months. All three of the Metrozone series are written in a very tight third: the camera is on Petrovitch’s shoulder the whole time, and it’s pointing only where he looks. He’s in every single scene, and the one person he can’t hide from is the reader. You go to sleep with him, and you wake up with him. You run and bleed and swear with him. And because the novel-time is only a matter of a few days – the same with every Metrozone book – it’s an incredibly intense experience. If you read them right, you can actually do it in real-time! That’s something you can’t say about War and Peace…
What would you like to tell readers about the Metrozone series without giving away huge spoilers?
The London Metrozone was created as a defence against the Armageddonists – religiously-inspired nuclear-armed terrorists – by throwing up a wall of concrete, barbed wire and watch towers along the line of the London Orbital motorway. As the countryside emptied, the city filled up. England as a political entity vanished overnight. Ireland and Wales ended up almost entirely depopulated, and the rest of Europe became a disaster area. Refugees washed across borders like so much flotsam. Eventually, all the Armageddonists get caught, but the repercussions are terrible. So that’s the Metrozone – the last city in England, twenty-five million traumatised people kept behind a barricade.
Then there’s Sam Petrovitch, who’s running in the opposite direction, east to west. He dragged himself up on the mean streets of post-Armageddon St Petersburg, and eventually he pitched up in the Metrozone. He’s brilliant, friendless and cocky, and has rather a lot to hide.
Throw in the Yakuza, the Russian Mafiya, a corrupt police force, the Grand Unified Theory and the most ambitious computer project the planet’s ever seen, and you just know it’s all going to end badly.
Most writing gets put in a pigeon hole as SF, comedy, action, etcetera. If you had to choose which pigeon hole to put Equations of Life, what would the label be?
It is unashamedly science fiction. You could, if you wanted, call it a near-future thriller, but that’s kind of missing the point. It’s SF. It loves being SF. It’s magnificently trope-heavy and stands on the shoulders of everything that’s gone before. Even the cover is SF. Not that non-SF readers won’t enjoy it – if you like the Clancy, Crichton, Ryan stuff where things blow up and get shot at, it’ll be right up your street – but there are extras for the SF fans.
You spoof so much SF, fantasy and horror in Equations of Life. How intentional and how hard was it to work all of these spoofs, some of them one-liners, into the story?
There are a great many pop culture references scattered throughout the Metrozone books – most of which, apart from the Monty Python ones, are SF related. And one day, I’m going to go back over the manuscripts and write them all down. The problem is, I use phrases like “nuke them from orbit”, “you shall not pass”, “there is no spoon”, “use the force” and “I for one welcome our new … overlords” without even thinking of their provenance. I even pick up stuff from other people: I’ve never played Portal, but even I know that the cake is a lie.
So when Petrovitch uses them, it’s only partly deliberate. Which means sometimes it’s meant. One thing that does bug me about stories set in either the present or the near future is the often complete lack of a shared culture and history. It’s as if one of the characters has a toothbrush moustache and no one says, “Dude, you look like Hitler.” The Metrozone and everyone in it knows everything that happened up to my alternate-future break point of 2000. They have the internet and a wide variety of news providers. They go to the movies and they read books.
It means Metrozoners are a savvy lot. They’re like us in lots of ways.
I particularly liked the reference to traditional, non-stair-climbing daleks. Did you intend to refer to any other SF with this comment?
No, daleks were exactly what I had in mind. When I was a kid, it was Jon Pertwee, followed by Tom Baker, and there were some absolutely terrifying monsters. Okay, the scenery wobbled, the sfx were rubbish and there were a lot of blokes in rubber suits – but I was a child. It didn’t matter. You believed in it all. The cybermen never had the stair problem. The dinosaurs hung out in the underground. The spiders from Metabelis Three had eight legs, and could crawl along the ceiling. But the daleks were the scariest by far. Except they could be thwarted by running up a flight of stairs.
Now, the hovering dalek… fantastic.
In Equations of Life, Japan had sunk beneath the sea. This seems scarily prophetic at this point in time. How do you feel about that feature of Equations now?
Um. Yes. It’s not like Japan hasn’t had either big earthquakes or tsunami before. Tsunami is a Japanese word, after all. But the only reason Japan’s there at all is because the Pacific plate is diving under the Asian plate, and the resultant volcanism produces a chain of islands. If, for some reason, the mechanics changed – it doesn’t have to be the Big One that Tokyo is expecting – like a new plate boundary forming in the Japan Sea, or just a cessation of activity with a resultant cooling and sinking of the crust, then it could be curtains for the whole archipelago.
So that’s the science. There are earthquakes all the time in Japan. It’s a believable scenario, in the same way it would if I’d described California falling into the Pacific. Then just before the book came out, there was a massive quake off the north-east coast and it killed a still-unknown number of people.
Geological processes don’t care about us, our hopes and fears, our families, our homes, or anything about us at all. Their occasional vagaries are the price we pay for living on a habitable planet. There’s no particular reason for me to be embarrassed about that part of the book – over and above anything else: I trash the Irish Republic, the UK, most of Europe, Russia, and turn the US into a theocracy. All the same, I much prefer reading about it in a book I made up than watching it happen for real.
Equations of Life seems to belong on the big screen in a special effects blockbuster. Given the choice, who would you cast?
I’d give the principle roles to unknowns. They’re supposed to be kids. Finding someone small and Slavic to play Petrovitch shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Madeleine is two metres tall: there aren’t many actresses like that. But then I had a thought, and you do get women basketball players who could fit the role. And they’d be athletic, too, rather than some wispy supermodel. Acting lessons are going to be easier than growing lessons.
It’s a very international cast, too: the only major part for an English actor is that of Harry Chain. Otherwise we’ve got Chinese, Ukrainians, Russians, Japanese, Nigerians and Americans. I’d be much happier if they were played by actors from those countries.
Though getting George Takei to play Oshicora would be all kinds of awesome…
On your website you talk about the roller coaster ride that is the aftermath of submitting your work for publication. What is the roller coaster currently doing?
It’s … not horrible, but I ought to be handling it better. At the time of writing, Equations of Life is out, Theories of Flight is imminent, and Degrees of Freedom is due 1st June. It so happens that the US paperback of The Lost Art (different publisher) is out in June too. I could spend all my time worrying about how they’re doing, and I probably spend too much time as it is fretting over it. There’s very little I can do, really. I’ve written the books I wanted to write, my publishers were happy with them, and I’ve done all the edits and corrections. I make myself available for interviews such as this, and go to Cons for readings and signings. It doesn’t stop me worrying, though.
What is within my control, of course, is what I write next. That’s what’s important.
Do you have any hints for first time authors in dealing with this part of the process?
Enjoy it? Seriously, you’ve done the hard work getting your book accepted by the publisher. You’ve done the rewrites and the editing, you’ve struggled with the back cover blurb, and now your book is on the shelves. You don’t want it to sink without a trace in amongst all the other books that get published that month, so some good reviews on the internet and in print will come in handy. Anything that’ll raise your book’s profile – so an interesting blog post, a different angle for reporters to hang a story on, a book store signing, maybe even get interviewed on radio – it’s all good.
It does take the author out of their comfort zone, though. I suppose that’s what I’m getting used to!
I have heard complaints about how little genuine SF is currently being published, especially in Australia. Any thoughts?
It’s a tricky one, this. I can’t really comment on the Australian situation specifically (though I have been to WA, for five weeks some twenty years ago. I’d love to visit again), but at some point science fiction got overtaken by fantasy as being the biggest genre seller worldwide. Then you have the phenomena of Potter and Twilight, who skew the figures so completely that my own publisher (Hachette) has to produce two sets of accounts, one with Stephanie Mayer, and one without.
I can’t blame publishers for looking for more fantasy, and more specifically urban fantasy, because it sells by the bucket load. Anything with a goth-girl and a full moon on the cover has a ready-made audience, in the same way that anything with a massive spaceship did, back in the seventies and eighties.
These things are cyclical. Our turn will come again. And science fiction is almost mainstream these days – we all live in an SF world. But I still think that good SF books are still being written and published today – take a look at the Clarke shortlist for a year-by-year snapshot. Now, we can have a discussion about whether China Mieville writes SF, or whether Tim Power’s Declare was eligible, but I like to think that SF is a broad church. The Metrozone series is old-school cyberpunk, but it contains a fat strand of both politics and religion along with the science. Still SF, though.
I understand that Orbit are launching a Australian-based imprint, that will hopefully not just publish overseas authors, but nurture homegrown talent too. My only advice is write stuff that’s too good to turn down.
Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.
Visit Simon’s website at www.simonmorden.com