Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview: Neal Asher

I managed to catch up with science fiction author Neal Asher after his return from Crete where he has a holiday home. We talked about the release of his newest novel, The Departure, his forthcoming titles and his views on ebooks. There's also a sneak peak at the blurb for Zero Point, the next novel in the Owner trilogy, so don't miss out.

KJ: Hi, Neal. I know you are currently hard at work on the rest of the Owner series. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

NA: I was born in a small town in Essex called Billericay in 1961, the child of parents who were a primary school teacher and a lecturer in applied mathematics. Being a product of our seriously screwed-up comprehensive education system, I left school with just a couple of ‘O’ levels and a scattering of CSEs. I obviously loved reading weird stuff from an early age since I still remember, when learning to read, being bored by ‘Janet & John’ but fascinated by a book called ‘A Wasp Without Wings’ (it was an ant, so the oak tree told it) and then seemingly without transition reading Lord of the Rings, and books by E C Tubb and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I also had numerous interests: biology, physics, chemistry, art and writing, and in my teens (I think) chose writing as my main interest, thereafter learning as much as I could about it, including taking an ‘A’ level English when in my twenties.

Meanwhile I started work, training as an engineer, and going on to do numerous manual jobs, and from the ’87 storms going self-employed doing council grass cutting, tree-work and much else besides. During this time I wrote a fantasy trilogy plus the first book of another trilogy, briefly had an agent for them but no luck, started submitting stories to the small presses and gradually worked my way up the writing ladder. All this time I had also been perpetually submitting synopses and sample chapters to the big publishers and by the time Gridlinked and The Skinner hit I already had numerous short stories published in the small presses, along with a collection of those stories and a couple of novellas.

Also, while all this was going on, I hooked up with Caroline and we married in 2000. I packed up my day job in 2001 to concentrate on writing and now, in total, have had about 20 books published, live seven months of the year on Crete, and hope to have published at least 50 books before I turn up my toes.

KJ: How would you describe your books to someone who is completely new to them? What would be the best novels to start out with?

NA: Space opera is the relevant label, though there is a lot of biological stuff in them, some of them are set on the surface some planet or other, and I have published one time-travel novel. The books have plenty of high technology, action and violence, weird life forms and ecosystems and nicely convoluted plots.I aim for entertainment and try to hit the reader with a bit of sensawunda.

KJ: Your latest novel, The Departure, came out in September. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

NA: In my collection The Engineer (updated version being The Engineer ReConditioned) I told some stories featuring a character called ‘The Owner’ – a ten-thousand-year-old super being who owned worlds and swanned about in a space ship the size of a moon. I decided I would like to tell the story of how he came into being and set to work on that. He arises from a near future dystopia. Here’s one of the blurbs:

Like Wellsian war machines the shepherds stride into riots to grab up the ringleaders and drag them off to Inspectorate HQ for adjustment, unless they are in shredding mode, in which case their captives visit community digesters, or rather whatever of them has not been washed down the street drains.

Pain inducers are used for adjustment, and soon the Committee will have the power to edit human minds, but not yet, twelve billion human being need to die before Earth can be stabilized, but by turning large portions of Earth into concentration camps this is achievable, especially when the Argus satellite laser network comes fully online…

Alan Saul has taken a different route to disposal, waking as he does inside a crate on the conveyor into the Calais incinerator. How he got there he does not know, but he does remember the pain and the face of his interrogator. Janus speaks to Saul through the hardware implanted in his skull, sketching the nightmare world for him. And Saul decides to bring it all crashing down…

KJ: The novel is a departure from the familiar Polity universe which fans have come to know and love. This has led to some very mixed reactions. Was this an intentional choice and do you think tackling a new setting provides more of a writing challenge/opportunity?

NA: As I said above: it’s another string to my bow. Too many writers end up trapped in a small niche by the demands of their fans and by fear of failure, and being trapped often end up failing because their own boredom with their niche begins to show through. You have to try something new else become stale and formulaic. Yes, it was an intentional choice.

Those ‘mixed reactions’ stem from the dislike fans have of change, and from the politics in The Departure. However, politics is unavoidable if you’re creating a near-future dystopia, for I needed to give a plausible depiction of why it existed. Unfortunately many people did not like to see an extrapolation of the dogma they adhere to, while others, less narrow-minded, looked around at our world and saw just how close to the truth that extrapolation was. It was a book that polarized opinion but, as is usual, the tribal ideologues were the noisiest.

KJ: The Departure is set in a very bleak and disturbing world which makes Orwell’s 1984 look almost like a utopia. Why did you choose to go this route? Did 1984 feature as an inspiration?

NA: No, 1984 was not an inspiration; I took my inspiration from what seems to be the steady march towards totalitarianism in Britain and Europe. It was written in the shadow of steadily increasing state control and interference in our day-to-day lives, the destruction of real science and its replacement with ‘post-normal science’ and the increasing sacrifice of power by our leaders to bureaucrats. And it was published just before we saw democratically elected national leaders in Europe being ousted and replaced by EU ‘technocrats’ (as they are wrongly labelled). My hope is that the EU and other unelected supranational organizations like it, whose instincts seem totalitarian, come crashing down, and that the future depicted in The Departure doesn’t come to pass.It is a small hope.

KJ: The Departure is the first novel in the Owner Trilogy. Can you tell us a bit about the forthcoming titles and when we can expect them to be released?

NA: The next novel is Zero Point and should be coming out in maybe August or September next year. With this, and the ensuing Jupiter War, I’m much more back on home territory for the trilogy is about Alan Saul, ‘The Owner’, leaving Earth. More of these books is set beyond Earth and there’s more of that‘space opera’ and ‘sensawunda’. Again the title has a double meaning. The Departure was Saul departing Earth but also I departed from the Polity (which doesn’t mean I’m not going back to it), while Zero Point takes a look a zero-point energy and the Alcubierre drive, but is also related to the ‘year zero’ beloved of a nasty individual by the name of Pol Pot. Here’s the blurb:

Now free of Earth and out of danger, Alan Saul explores his expanded mind and reflects on a route to immortality opened by Hannah Neumann, and upon the newly revealed secrets of Argus Station. The ghastly experiments in Humanoid Unit Development may have resulted in something numinous, while a madman might hold the keys to Interstellar flight…

The warship the Alexander still sits in its construction station in Earth orbit and, more immediately, Argus Station is hurtling towards the red planet, with whomever, or whatever trashed Earth still aboard. But VarDelex is retaining her grip on power in Antares Base on Mars, and has a plan to take it from danger…

Breaking out of their sectors, the billions Zero Asset citizens of Earth no longer face extermination from orbit, for Saul has all but annihilated the Committee by dropping the Argus laser satellite network on its infrastructure of control. The ZAs are free, for the shepherds, spiderguns and razorbirds are somnolent, govnet is down and Inspectorate HQs are smoking craters…

However, scrambling from the ruins, comes Serene Galahad, who has the means to act, decisively and ruthlessly, before the remnants of Committee power are overrun by the masses. And the agents of Earth, determined to exact their vengeance, are closer to Saul than he knows.

KJ: You’ve recently tried your hand at self-publishing some novellas on the Kindle starting with The Parasite. Has this been a success and do you see yourself publishing more novellas/short stories in this way?

NA: It was a success in that I’ve had quite a few sales, but I still love paper books. Certainly I’ll publish more on Kindle, in fact I have my very first novella, Mindgames: Fool’s Mate, lined up and ready, but I will be concentrating on the books for Macmillan because I know which side my bread is buttered on. Maybe, as and when I get free time, I’ll put out more novellas as e-books, and maybe they can be collected and issued on paper.

KJ: Any thoughts on the whole ebooks vs. printed books debate? Which do you prefer and do you own an ebook reader?

NA: I prefer paper books because I’ve been reading them all my life, but I can see the utility of e-readers especially when, for example, I pack a suitcase with books and weigh it. Inevitably e-books are going to take over and publishers are even now facing the problems the music industry faced. How it will all pan out, what with piracy and so-on, I don’t know, but what I do know is that no matter the medium, people will always want good stuff to read and they won’t get it if the writers aren’t paid. This is, I guess, why I just haven’t yet made up my mind about the DRM debate. No, I don’t have an e-reader, yet.

KJ: Who are your favourite authors? Any that inspired/influenced you as a writer?

NA: That question is always a difficult one to answer. In the acknowledgements of The Skinner I thank all those wonderful people from Asimov to Zelazny, since I’ve probably read most of them. If you search ‘Neal Asher Top Ten’ you’ll find a couple of lists – one being SF and another being fantasy – but my likes and dislikes change all the time, and when I start compiling lists they get very long and I always forget something. If you check out my blog and look for my book collection (which is buried deep) you’ll see the books I retained, and often there you’ll see reviews of books I’ve enjoyed too.

KJ: Anything else you’d like to add or say to your fans?

NA: If you like my stuff then say so, loudly. And I’ll keep writing the books if you keep buying them!

KJ: Thanks, Neal.  I definitely can't wait for the next installment!

You can find out more about Neal and his novels over on his blog or follow him on Twitter.

My reviews of Neal Asher's novels:


  1. Thanks for the great Interview. I will definitely have to pick up one of Neal Asher's books!

  2. Looking forward to the next Owner book. :)

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to answer questions I'm sure you've answered a thousand times before. It was fun picking your brain.