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Alastair Reynolds Interview

On 23rd June 2016, Jonathan Heron of the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning interviewed science fiction author Alastair Reynolds. Their conversation touched on the connections between science and the process of creation in writing, and their takes on modern blockbusters such as Interstellar and Moon. Download the recording here or read the transcript below.


JH: Al, thank you very much for talking to us this afternoon, can I ask you to introduce yourself please?

AR: Hello, I’m Alastair Reynolds, I’m a former European Space Agency scientist. I worked in the Netherlands for many years on various aspects of binary stars. While I was working as a scientist I developed a sideline in writing science fiction, and over the years that became my dominant activity, and I became a full time science fiction writer about 10 years ago. That’s what I’ve done ever since.

JH: Great, thank you very much. My name is Jonathan Heron, I’m a principal teaching fellow in IATL at Warwick University. I’ve got a background in Theatre and Performance, but currently I work in the area of interdisciplinary practice, so it’s really a great privilege to be talking to somebody with such a strong science background who is now a creative artist and has been well known to be a writer of great esteem. So my first question really is how you see the relationship between your science background and your creative process as a writer?

AR: It’s a tough one really because my interest in science and science fiction, sort of two poles if you like, both go way back into my childhood, and I’ve never really been sure whether the tail’s wagging the dog or the dog’s wagging the tail. Did I get into science fiction because I was interested in planets and stars, or was it the other way round, and I find it really hard to say even now. All I can say is that the type of science fiction I was drawn to as a child tended to be the sort of stuff where the science was given foreground if you like, the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, where the orbits were done properly and the mechanics of space flight was all worked out quite thoroughly. Dated in some respects now, but there was a concern to get the science right, and also if there were speculative elements they were also thought through quite carefully. That was the kind of science fiction that pushed the right buttons for me, and I gravitated to writing that kind of science fiction as well, where you respect the science, but also you’re trying to do fiction at the same time, you’re trying to tell a story people can relate to.

JH: Even within that process of story making there’s a kind of rigour that you’re describing there, and there must be quite a detailed rigour to your craft when you start to plan a novel or series of novels. You must be working on the creation of a new universe or working within universes that you’ve studied - now I’m interested in how you go about that process.

AR: I tend to work in quite an organic way, in that I’ve tried many different approaches to writing novels and short stories, but the one I come back to, probably because I’ve failed on all the others, is really just to start writing, with a blank page on page 1, and that’s the process of discovery where I find my way into a universe. It’s all very sketchy and undeveloped to start with as I work my way through a story, then things start becoming three dimensional. I’m not one for sitting and creating an enormous bible of facts and maps and figures before I start writing. I mean that definitely works for some people but that’s not an approach that’s ever been very fruitful for me. I’m far more of an intuitionist, I kind of creep my way into the story. I’m never really sure of where I’m going until I get there.

JH: Rather than the kind of Tolkien complete universal mythology that’s been created before the literary work.

AR: Yeah, in a way I wish I could work that way, because then you’ve done all the inventive work, and you’re just populating the imagined world with characters, winding them up and letting them have an adventure, but that’s just never really worked for me. It just doesn’t connect to the way my imagination works, which I suppose just isn’t very linear.

JH: I wonder how that might relate to working within an existing, creative world like the Dr Who worlds, in that there are certain governing principles there, or rules or patterns to be followed within that universe. Is that quite different from working in this more open way that you’ve just described?

AR: Dr Who’s an interesting case because it’s a media property, it’s a universe which is created through television shows and spin-off material, but it’s also really baggy, and admits to almost anything I suppose. I felt that if ever I was going to write in a preexisting universe Dr Who would probably be the easiest one to do, because you can almost get away with anything, you can tell almost any type of story within the framework of Dr Who. It’d be much harder to do something similar in the Star Wars universe - I’m not an expert, but I think it’s a lot more constrained and mapped out. With Dr Who almost anything goes - they’ve had three mutually incompatible explanations for the Loch Ness monster, they’ve destroyed Atlantis three times. It reinvents itself constantly, it’s open to new ideas, it’s in a constant process of discarding some of the ideas that don’t work and reinventing them. Even the imagined backstory of the Dr took years and years to develop on television. The idea that he was a time lord didn’t spring fully formed from the first episode, it took a very long time. I felt quite comfortable about going into that universe, partly because I had a genuine love for Dr Who anyway, but also because I didn’t expect to feel seriously constrained in the type of story I could tell. Obviously you have certain givens, like you can’t end up killing Dr Who..

JH: Well not unless you bring him back. One of the things we’ve thought about in trying to get local public or student groups to engage with our research and practice, is the way in which theatrical but particularly television and film depictions of other solar systems and exoplanets might help us engage people. Dr Who’s a great example, but I’m thinking are there any particular examples that you’ve found quite evocative from the history of cinema? We were talking about things like Forbidden Planet, which is a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and that lovely retro period of filmmaking which now is so popular. I wonder if there are any particular favourites you have, or films that you think are quite interesting either from an aesthetic or scientific point of view?

AR: Well you’ve nailed it really with Forbidden Planet, because that’s one of my particular touchstones, it’s one of the first science fiction films I ever remember seeing. I think it was on a wet Wednesday night in 1975 or something like that, it was on BBC2 science fiction week they showed Forbidden Planet and I’ve been enchanted by it ever since. As you say it does have that retro charm. The other thing about it is, it’s so well made that it actually stands up pretty well today. The matte work is just beautiful, there’s a bit in the film where they go into the Krell machine, this 20 mile wide supercomputer type thing that the humans are exploring. It’s all done with matte works, they’re walking across these corridors that span these enormous gulfs that stretch to infinity, and it’s so well done. You can see that echoed in the climatic fight scene in Star Wars with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in the power shaft or whatever it is. You know, there are so many echoes to Forbidden Planet that show up over and over again in Science Fiction. In terms of the way it portrays the planetary environment, I suppose it’s really just a green sky with a cloud floating in the atmosphere, there’s not really any science in it as such. The way that exoplanets and other solar systems were handled in science fiction has been very cavalier over the years. Sometimes you don’t even really sense whether the film makers or the television makers are even clear about whether planets go around stars at times, the science is so vague.

JH: Do you have any strong views about more recent blockbuster sci-fi films like Inception or The Martian? Do you have any views about the depiction of science in those pieces?

AR: One where I felt it was getting there in that there seemed to be an attempt to really think through the scientific underpinnings of the imagined world was Avatar. What you saw up on screen was one thing, but then there some big glossy, coffee table books of the world of Avatar and it was clear that the filmmakers, not surprisingly because James Cameron has a Physics degree or something like that, have always had a concern to shore up the science fiction ideas with a facade of respectable science. Even the things like these gigantic floating mountains on the planet in Avatar, Cameron had come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation involving natural superconductors and things like that. There was a kind of attempt to think it through. I believe that was one of the first portrayals of a moon as a habitable world, it’s a moon orbiting a much larger planet, so all the action of Avatar actually takes place on the moon. I think in the subsequent films which he’s making I think we’re going to see some of the other worlds in that solar system. So, for me that was the step change in a way, it was a film that was clearly influenced by some of the imagery at least that was coming out of the exoplanet studies.

JH: Films like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which has I think, is it Kip Thorne, the name of the physicist who advised him on it, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian are clearly forms of mass media aren’t they? I mean they have such an impact on the popular imagination. I have a question there about accuracy, because Hollywood now increasingly relies on digitisation when visualising, these films are so broadly disseminated usually now through devices, people could be watching them on their iPads or on their phones, and that collective act of cinematic or theatrical collectivity that we would imagine or associate with something like Forbidden Planet is almost lost although there’s still a place for large scale iMax cinemas. I just wonder whether you have any concerns about either what’s happening to scientific accuracy within that process or whether this is a great thing, or whether this is a huge dissemination, global dissemination of artistic works that are getting people engaged in any form of science and therefore we shouldn’t be worried about what kind of science?

AR: It’s a mixed bag, I saw Interstellar, and I read all the build up to it in the press, where they talked about Kip Thorne being involved in the scientific ideas. I was funny in a way, because Kip Thorne was also the scientific advisor on Contact, which was a film from 20 years ago, with Jodie Foster, which also has Matthew McConaughey in it. There’s two films with Matthew McConaughey involving wormholes and Kip Thorne..

JH: He’s the go to wormhole actor..

AR: Yes, it’s weird. I found a slightly frustrating experience when I went to see it because they have a set piece where they travel to this other solar system via this wormhole, which is fine within the parameters of the film, I had no problem with that..and then they end up in orbit around this black hole, or something like that. I think it’s the bit where they have to go down to do something on the surface of the planet, and the crew who go down to the planet will experience time passing at a vastly different rate to the people who stay aboard the ship. The time ratios just made no conceivable sense, I mean it was just nuts, absolutely nuts that you would have that kind of time differential, unless you’re talking about incredibly strong gravitational fields or incredibly high velocities. It just doesn’t work within the way that that film was structured, it just doesn’t make any sense, but then again you think yes, but can I think of any other film which has actually embodied time dilation within the storyline, and I couldn’t, so I thought well at least they’ve actually got time dilation out as an idea. They play with it and they show that you can go away into space and you can come back and find that a vastly different amount of time has passed on one ship than the other. In that sense it was laudable, but I was frustrated by the nuts and bolts of the actual numbers that were involved.

JH: I think that those sort of films become quite philosophically interesting, although the work that they’re doing is maybe more theoretically interesting than technically interesting. You know Christopher Nolan’s films also include things like Memento, and several Batman films, but I was actually about to comment that he’d also done Inception, which operates at multiple layers of consciousness in the same way that Interstellar operates at multiple layers of planetary activity or quantum activity. What’s quite interesting also about another filmmaker in the same mode who happens to be David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, is that he has films that occupy that kind of philosophical science fiction space, like Source Code and Moon. Moon recalls that history of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s the loneliness of space travel, and that’s something we also associate with films like Alien - until you’re visited by new creatures, it can be quite lonely. So it seems to me that from a philosophical point of view in these films, something happening around time and the humans’ experience of time seems to be something that you also write about. These huge periods of duration, and how one captures those in a literary form, is something you might want to share with us?

AR: Well, science fiction gives a big toolkit for exploring various aspects of the human condition. One of the unique attributes of science fiction is that it can give us a semi-scientific rational for exploring the impact of time on people, on human beings. Not just living through enormous spans of time, which is something that science fiction can dramatise because you can have very long lived characters who have a Methuselah like outlook as they see great events of history passing before them. As in the film Bicentennial Man from Robin Williams which was adapted from an Isaac Asimov short story, where you have the robot who gradually becomes a human being because he supplants his robotic nature with organic components, but he lives to be 200 years, where he sees the fall and rise of civilisation. That’s something that science fiction can do, but the other thing it can do, which I find very stimulating, is to play with the big tectonic ideas about space and time that were set loose 100 years ago by Einstein. The idea that space and time morph into each other, but also the perceptions of time and space that we’re born with are really only crude approximations to the way space and time actually behave. In fact, the way the universe behaves is hugely counterintuitive, so you have the notion of clocks running slowly on spaceships, or time running slower at the surface of a black hole. I find this stuff intrinsically fascinating, but also very rich material for dramatic moments in fiction, because you can put your characters in extremis. You can put them through the hoops of Einstein’s theories, you can have lovers who get separated and they meet when one has aged 100 years more than the other, that sort of thing, or you can have people stretched across the universe with enormous time differences. I find it endlessly stimulating, because fundamentally it’s a realistic treatment of the way the universe behaves. It does give science fiction a slight edge - it’s not a fantastic metaphor, it’s a realist metaphor.

JH: That’s fascinating, it makes me think of a recent play. I don’t know if you saw Nick Payne’s play Constellations, but Constellations deals with multiple universes as it happens to one couple, and it sees every possible permutation of their relationship playing out on stage. It’s actually quite a simple bit of stagecraft, in the sense that there are two people on stage and lots of different things happen to them, but the craft is in the writing and in the acting, it’s an extraordinary piece.

AR: The Einsteinian revolution is only one half of the story isn’t it, because then you have the quantum mechanical revolution, which is still playing out, and that opens up the idea of alternate worlds, multiple realities. We still don’t really know how seriously we should take all these ideas, but the fact that they’re still being argued about is endlessly fascinating. It’s something else you can bring into the arena of science fiction, you can play with in a very stimulating way.

JH: Yeah, and I think that’s an obvious meeting place for artists and scientists, because you’re dealing to some extent with multiplicity, and that’s always certainly from an artistic point of view been fascinating. Thank you so much, I think we’re about at time.