Wednesday, January 15, 2014

An Interview with JOHN MEANEY

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John Meaney is the author of the now-complete Ragnarok science fiction trilogy and more. His latest novel, Resonance, was published in December 2013, and I thought this would be a perfect time to get in touch and ask him about his work, the trilogy, and more…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is John Meaney?

Just some weird bloke, you know?

A little grey-haired geezer who might surprise you by dropping into box splits at fifty-six years of age. Runs up mountains and lifts big, rusty weights. Pounds the crap out of heavy punch bags. Survived over forty years of martial arts training, despite or because of starting out as a podgy, asthmatic couch potato. Didn’t feel he'd accomplished anything until twenty-five years after starting, when he left the elite shotokan dojo of the late Enoeda sensei (as the least of the students) and realised what he’d been through.

As a young guy he dropped out of his original physics degree in his final year, due entirely to a philosophical crisis, and wrote unpublished fiction before getting his head together. He passed up the chance of finishing the degree and took a programming course instead, leading to his first computing job. At the same time, he studied all the higher-level physics and computer science modules that the Open University offered and gained his degree with the OU. Recognised as a physics graduate by the Institute of Physics, he later gained an MSc (with distinction) in Software Engineering at Oxford University. Despite being a working-class boy raised in Slough, he thinks that Oxford rocks.

He worked for three IT departments in the South East during the 1980s, was a senior consultant for a Very Large Software House during the 90s, and worked for an IT training company before becoming a freelance trainer and consultant, so that he could manage his time for writing books. Bizarrely, his most interesting computing assignments came after selling his first novel, and involved frequent travel to the US and Europe, and a couple of trips to Asia.

He lives in Wales, laughs a lot, and hardly ever takes himself seriously.

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I thought we’d start with your fiction: Your latest novel, Resonance, was recently published by Gollancz. It’s the third in your Ragnarok series – what can fans of the series expect from this final book? How would you convince a new reader to check out the series?

In the first book’s prologue, you meet resurrected humans in crystal bodies, waking up on the Moon and staring up at space. One of the stars in Orion’s belt has changed colour, which means that a million years have passed since the humans lived their original lives. And the mysterious Kenna, their leader, makes it clear that the final battle, Ragnarok, is imminent.

After the first two books, readers know that a darkness has subtly influenced selected individuals across millennia of human history, starting in what we now call the Viking Age, and significantly during the twentieth and twenty-seventh centuries. And they’ll know that the darkness commenced its voyage from the far side of a cosmic void that’s one hundred and fifty million lightyears across, and has been heading for our galactic centre for at least that number of years.

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They’ll also have been following the intricate links between the various timelines, both overt and covert, obvious and subtle. If the readers are astute, they’ll have paid particular attention to surnames, since a passing character in one timeline may be the ancestor or descendant of someone they know from another century.

What I’ve promised is Ragnarok, or Ragnaroekkr, as a galaxy-spanning battle that follows on from the previous machinations. And with luck I’ve delivered, with billions of resurrected humans following the nine leaders whom you may (or may not) expect. (One of the subtleties is that everything comes in threes and nines, primarily nines, matching Old Norse memes, including their cosmology.)

To the new reader, the good news is that you don’t have to wait for the ending! Try the books if you like multiple-timeline stories: there’s a 27th century timeline that forms the spine, comprising every second chapter, set in the Pilots future that features in four of my other novels. Cities where quickglass buildings alter their shape, including room furnishings, at will. A city-world in the golden fractal continuum that underlies this universe. Political intrigue within and across the universes.

The 20th century timeline features a Jewish physicist whom you first meet as a student in 1920s Zurich, before she escapes Europe to work in Bletchley Park and later for its intelligence-community descendant, one of the few who can perceive the darkness. Her conflicted Russian counterpart is an agent of that same darkness.

Among the Norse, a young warrior originally called Ulfr will also face the darkness, and in many ways become the enemy, while his actual enemy Stigr, the one-eyed poet, is his darkness-controlled nemesis. In total there are five important timelines running through the trilogy, with some others added painlessly as we go along .

And everything links together. I made it happen.

To the long-term reader, here’s something which appears to make folk smile: the Ragnarok trilogy spans a far greater period than my Nulapeiron trilogy, whose mere 1400-year duration is buried deep within the Ragnarok timeframe. In Resonance, the final Ragnarok book, some of the key chapters take place on Nulapeiron...

I haven’t just linked a tangle of timelines together in one trilogy. I’ve linked every single short story and novel that I’ve ever written in the Pilots universe, that’s twenty years of my life, all coming together in Resonance. And in a way that also works, so I’m told, for someone who’s not read any of that other stuff.

Spacetime is big. We are thin ghosts in a universe whose greatest density of stuff consists of something whose properties we don’t know and which we cannot see, hence dark matter and dark energy. For dark read invisible. And this is the universe we really, really live in.

My goal has been to write an exciting story that hints at the cosmic context which is all around us, all the time.

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What inspired you to write this series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

The general mental process involves a foreground/background duality. Fragmented visual images of particular scenes come to me, and set up a tension against a more abstract visualisation of – typically – weird but real physics.

For the latter, I mean concepts like the absence of timeflow, of past-present-future, from any of the equations that are considered fundamental. Time appears as a geometric dimension, not something with flow. And photons can travel a billion lightyears in a vacuum, can be created and destroyed with a lifetime that is literally zero in duration. Or they can be slowed down passing through a medium, and begin (after perhaps a billion lightyear journey that was instantaneous) to experience time.

This is John’s brain on physics...

More normally, one of the particular human images that came to me was Ulfr, a young Viking, walking into a village to see one of his friends tied to a post while the other villagers throw axes at him. I know where that came from.

ColumP-NordicGods&HeroesWhen young, I read poet Padraic Colum’s Norse tales for children. A decade later, I read more deeply, and was struck by a particular paradox: gay Vikings (not a term you meet every day: stereotypes are insidious) were often punished in exactly that manner – tied to a post and used as a target for axes – while Loki and Odin were themselves practitioners of dark magic, called seithr, being shape-shifters and gender-changers. The Trickster and the All-Father both belonged to the dark side, at least partly, unlike Thor and his mates.

I use different spellings for the mythological names in the books, incidentally, partly because I got all geeky about Old Norse, partly to distinguish what I was writing from, let’s face it, the Marvel universe. (I’m not knocking Marvel. When I turned my beard into a goatee a few years back, I went round saying: “The truth is... I am Iron Man.” My extended family know I’m strange.)

Likewise, scenes from Gavriela Wolf’s student life in 1920s Zurich just popped into my head, but I can work out where they came from. Once, on one of several week-long business trips to Zurich, I wandered around inside the ETH, the university where Einstein studied and taught, at night when everything was deserted. (Because I could.) And in that mental landscape appeared distorted images of things that happened during my own student days in Birmingham.

Then of course there are the images with no obvious roots: humans of living crystal awakening on biers; Pilots flying through a golden universe with physically fractal dimensions; the glorious image of Labyrinth, the infinitely complex city-world I can scarcely imagine: depicting my mental image in detail would have been impossible, but it was mind-blowing.

Welcome to John’s brain on physics and fiction...

The trick is to be able to place all of reality subtly out of focus, any place, any time.

If you want to be weird, that is.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

When I was five and eligible to join the local library (in north-west London), my mum took me to sign up and take home my first books, including the story of a young boy who hid behind some wooden crates before sneaking on board a rocket to the moon.

And hats off to television… It’s a huge time waster for adults with unfulfilled dreams, but Supercar and Fireball XL5 and Torchy the Battery Boy laid down some of the basic circuits in my brain. I was six when Dr. Who first aired, and boy do I remember it. I read my first Marvel comics at the same time: for me, the Golden Age of Comics is, well, six.

Two years later I was reading Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, and my fate was sealed.

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How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

Let me put it this way. I would never encourage anyone to become a writer. But if someone absolutely has to become a writer, then – provided they’re polite and honourable – I’ll do whatever I can to help. (Although, let’s face it, the best help is simply an instruction to knuckle down, write every day, read as much as you can, and live your life.)

As a profession, writing sucks. In fact it barely passes the definition of a profession, not when the average annual earnings for writing come to four thousand quid. Why do writers even bother to produce books for publishers? Oh, only because we have to. There’s a devil riding our backs, didn’t you know?

I could have earned an awful lot more by making different career choices at many stages, starting long before I got published, and staying full-time within the computer industry. One of many examples: when I received news of my first ever book deal, in 1996, it was via fax to my hotel room at Worldcon in Los Angeles. During that same trip, a computer industry contact offered me a job in San Francisco. But I had a book to finish…

On the other hand, consider the pop-psychological advice on how to spend money on yourself. Given a choice of a material item (which you’ll soon take for granted) or an experience, always choose the experience. It stays with you forever, and the joy can be fresh every time you remember.

No computing job could compare with the triumph of selling my first book.

As for working practices, I realised a long time ago that I needed to be able to trigger the right mental state at will. I wrote my first two novels on a busy commuter train, working long days for Europe’s largest software house, and training at one of the toughest dojos in the world. Cue music…

I write to movie soundtracks, particularly Hans Zimmer’s work, just as Anne McCaffrey used to. It was a strategy that worked for her, and when I tried it, it turned out to be perfect for me as well.

I also use a colour scheme (normally on a dedicated machine) that looks radically different from anything you’d see if I were performing any other task on a computer. My dedicated writing machine is permanently disconnected from all networks.

By preference, I write first thing in the morning, before any other major tasks.

Research-wise, I don’t do anything radical. For deep background on the next book, I read a dozen or fifteen books in one field I didn’t know, a couple of years ago while still in the middle of the Ragnarok trilogy. But that interest spins partly from a foreign trip made decades ago: hands-on stuff. When it comes to cities on Earth in anything like the present day, I use locations I know, at least in passing. Travel is a wonderful thing.

For Ragnarok, I did no directed research in advance. Rather, it came from my existing long term interests, from the Norse mythology to the Bletchley Park codebreaking and the dark-matter physics. While the trilogy was in progress though, I did have to dive in deeply, reading dozens of books, many obscure, as the bibliographies at the end of the books indicate.

It’s hard work. It’s supposed to be.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Aged eleven, and for three years afterwards, I found that my English teachers would accept short stories in lieu of essays for homework assignments, and I can remember some of them still. One featured a meditation on infinite reflections in a barber-shop mirror, foreshadowing my interest in recursion, meta statements and paradoxes. Another, supposed to be an essay entitled “The Salad Bowl”, turned into an assassination thriller set in a botanical garden. They were the beginning.

The year after that, a different English teacher poured scorn on the idea of submitting science fiction instead of essays. Her discouragement might have been as important as the earlier encouragement. Sod her, in other words.

The realisation that I wanted to write professionally occurred while I was a physics undergraduate. That was painful, because when you write for publication it begins with rejection. Fifteen years later, of course, that becomes sheer joy, when publication happens.

In my case that was a short story called “Spring Rain”, published in 1992 in Interzone, then edited by David Pringle. That man started the career of a huge percentage of British writers. And we are very, very grateful.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

The genre… Ask most people whether they like science fiction, and their answer will be based on Dr. Who or Star Trek, or a movie based on a game. Elements of written SF bleed out into the greater cultural awareness, but the process is subliminal. From the outside, the genre is misunderstood, as it always has been.

I don’t think this matters. When John le CarrĂ© was asked about the changes made to his story for the Tinker, Tailor movie, he pointed out that most people don’t read. Insisting on some kind of purity is irrelevant.

As for judging the state of the genre as We True Readers perceive it… I’m too aware of the books I haven’t read, the authors whose works I’m unfamiliar with, to form a judgement or want to. I will say that it’s a mature genre, which offers different challenges to writers compared to something new.

By that I mean, once there were the Three Big Names in our field. Now, no one could occupy a similar position. No space opera will ever have the impact of Foundation. Not unless someone breaks new ground to the extent that the genre itself is reborn.

As for my own work, that is seriously for other people to judge. I know that I’ve written each book to the best of my ability at that time. That’s all I can do. And of course, reading a book is a deeply personal experience, just like the writing.

Meaning and significance are decided subjectively and individually.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

All I can say about the next book is that there will be one.

For most writers, and probably most people engaged on projects of great personal significance, public discussion of goals is the wrong way to go, while the optimum approach is to keep everything locked up in a mental pressure cooker. Keep pressurised until done.

That’s only a generalisation: Charlie Stross can discuss details of a new project in detail with his friends (it’s an honour to hear them), and people who know Larry Niven say that he’s the same. It works for them, clearly.

If I were writing more science fiction, which is going pretty well for me, I’d feel no need to be mysterious or guarded… but in fact I’m jumping to a totally new genre.

I’ve nailed the first draft of something very new, having previously thrown away a 65,000-word prototype. I’m taking it seriously.

Really seriously.

For a sedentary occupation, writing can feel a lot like a white-knuckle ride.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’ve just finished reading the latest George Pelecanos thriller, immediately preceded by the latest C.J. Box. In the past month I’ve ripped through a lot of fiction, including Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, two Harlan Cobens, an early Robert B. Parker for the umpteenth time, and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. At other times my fiction reading drops right off, but not for long.

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Non-fiction-wise, I’m currently reading Brian Clegg’s Dice World, Alfred Ayers’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Nick Lane’s excellent Life Ascending. Plus some heavy-duty computer science stuff, because I can.

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What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I was Stephen King.

More precisely, I once spent several hours being Stephen King.

To add some extra precision: when I was learning advanced hypnosis from Paul McKenna, I used a technique called Deep Trance Identification… with trusted hypnotists around me. It’s method acting taken to its extreme, because it involves deep, deep trance, to the extent that your facial features and voice alter totally, as you become convinced you're someone else.

The purpose is to gain insight into an individual’s talent. It’s also a controlled form of deliberate, temporary psychosis. I went so deep, I think I freaked out one of Paul’s assistants. But it was very interesting...

Afterwards, I had to leave the course venue and sit in a lonely graveyard for two hours to recover my own identity. If I ever did.

I should add that I’m a clean-living, teetotal vegetarian – the most mind-altering substance I would ever imbibe is coffee. I’m one hundred percent a rationalist (and hypnosis is a straightforward neurological phenomenon – a trance state is obvious when measured with even the crudest EEG – and mainstream medicine, used every month by the NHS for surgical patients who are allergic to anaesthesia).

But shhh… Don’t tell Mr. King. He’s got a phobia of therapists and hypnotists, though I can’t imagine why. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not as if someone could, like, enter a strange trance and steal his soul. Surely he couldn’t believe that?

Ha, ha, ha...

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Wouldn’t it be nice if “world peace” were a realistic answer?

Within SF fandom, I’m enormously honoured to be Guest of Honour at two conventions: Confetti in Gothenburg, Sweden – having been a guest at Fantastika in wonderful Stockholm last year – and the British national convention (Eastercon) in Glasgow, both happening in April.

In my fifth decade of martial arts training, I have fitness goals that are important to achieve this year, but the real joy is simply the continuing hard work of running, lifting weights, bodyweight exercises, bag work, solo drills and sparring with my equally mad mates. I look forward to every single training session, six a week at least.

In computer science, I’m looking forward to teaching another in an annual series of graduate training programmes that I enjoy immensely. A total blast.

And, oh man, the writing… Finishing the new book and finding out what happens next.

I can’t wait.

*

Resonance is out now, published in the UK by Gollancz.

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