Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Interview: Andrew Skinner

When I first came across the news that South African author, Andrew Skinner, had signed on with Solaris to publish his debut novel, Steel Frame, I immediately jotted down the details in my reading journal, circled it twice and wrote "ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR" in big red letters. That was a bit more than a year ago and Steel Frame is finally being released this month. I jumped at the opportunity to ask Andrew some questions about his work, inspiration and experience writing science fiction as a South African.

Hi Andrew, thanks for agreeing to this interrogation. Err... interview. I meant interview. Let's start with the obligatory life story. Could you tell us a little about yourself. Who are you really? What keeps you up in the dark of the night?

AS: Sure! Thanks for having me.

I am a nerd from smalltown South Africa; coalfire country, with huge mining headgear, chimney-tops and walking dragline machines always on the horizon. I’ve ended up in Johannesburg, somewhere a little madder and a lot bigger, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my awe of industry.

I’m busy doing my PhD in archaeology, researching ancestral memory in places written histories don’t reach. Like any good grad student, that spiel about humans basically being cucumbers with anxiety resonates a little too closely for comfort.

You work as an archaeologist and anthropologist. How does that influence your writing?

AS: It’s tricky to say what seeps through and what doesn’t, but there were a few choices I made in Steel Frame that probably say a little about where I come from. You could call archaeology ‘object-orientated’ - we infer human behaviour from the material traces people leave behind, and I wanted to work that kind of logic in where I could, especially considering my chosen sub-genre.

Mecha is a great format to explore objects as characters, and you’ll see that in the machine called Juno, in some ways the titular ‘steel frame’. It’s old, and that means that it has a very different shape to the machines and environments around it – it comes from a different time and place, after all, intended to do things the characters in the present can only guess at. As the humans in the story begin to find themselves out of their depth, Juno shows itself to be the right kind of monster for the moment.

The threat in the story is similar; it’s slowly revealed by the shapes it takes, and by the objects the characters encounter in its wake.

Your debut novel, Steel Frame, is out this month. Can you tell us about it?

AS: It follows a small group of jockeys – each the heart and soul of a shell, the huge machines that wage corporate wars across battlefield skies on a hundred different worlds. Each of them disgraced, war criminals and deserters, now offered a shot at freedom.

But there’s a catch – they need to ply their trade in an endless sea of storms, somewhere on the fringes of settled space. A place NorCol, their new employer, barely understands. They’re here to wrestle the company’s competitors for whatever might be hidden in all the cloud and chaos.

They soon come to realise that the storms were made. That there’s a reason you can’t see past the wash and interference.

At the start, you meet Rook, one of the first to understand what the companies have gotten themselves into. Her shell is an ancient Juno, part of an abandoned experiment to see if machines could be made to think for themselves. It’s another prisoner, in a way, and something with scars just as deep as hers. Together, it’s all they can do to keep from being dragged into the dark.

The Steel Frame features giant war-machines duking it out. Where did you draw your inspiration from? Is it the influence of childhood cartoons or more modern blockbusters?

AS: The influences are all over the place. Obviously, Steel Frame has anime in its heritage; the weirder elements owe a lot to Evangelion, and the aesthetic was heavily shaped by Knights of Sidonia and Last Exile, among others.

At the same time, I wanted to capture some of the feel of Ridley Scott’s extended Alien/Blade Runner universe. I love that portrayal of frontier space, and humanity tripping over things in the dark; that bleak and relentless treatment of emergent AI.

Obviously, there’s no getting away from Pacific Rim..

If you had to sum up Steel Frame in just 5 words what would those be?

AS: The steel frame remembers (everything).

I'm always excited to see speculative fiction from South African authors. South Africa has such great genre talent, but it seems that it's extremely difficult to find a market locally. What was your experience with getting your work noticed?

AS: It was pretty obvious, early on, that I had no prospects with mainstream local imprints. I watched for open submission periods, checked websites and social media, but they always made it clear that they weren’t interested in genre. Whether or not that’s a ‘market’ thing, I really couldn’t say. If barely anyone’s publishing local genre, how do you speak to the state of the market?

On the indie side – my first submission was to a small press, but the company went under after ~18 months in operation, not even long enough to get back to me. A friend of mine had a similar experience with another press, not long after publishing their work.

(Shout out to Sera Blue, a small press here in Joburg, who are doing some spectacular work, hauling out new titles on a literally weekly basis. They’re carving themselves a niche, whatever the ‘market’ may say, and it’s pretty amazing.)

In my case, I decided to go the most traditional route possible. It was the process that I could research in most detail (there are plenty of articles on how to find an agent overseas, but next-to-nothing on navigating the local scene), and it worked out for me. In Jamie Cowen, my agent, I found someone who was willing to deal with the distance, the grainy Skype calls, and fleshing out details over email. He’s also been massively understanding about my general anxiety at the whole process happening in another hemisphere, completely out of reach and sight.

What's next for you after Steel Frame? Anything else in the works?

AS: There’s more from the Steel Frame universe in the works (hopefully more news on this soon!). Rook’s story is fairly self-contained, but there’s a lot that you don’t see, plenty of secrets still to be revealed.

In the long run, I’d like to emulate Iain M. Banks’ habit of writing (mostly) disconnected stories against a common background. Mythology is a powerful tool, and I’d like the opportunity to develop one of my own.

Are there any authors that influenced your work or acted as inspiration?

AS: I owe debts to more writers than I’ll remember right now, but writing Steel Frame involved learning a couple of lessons that are really clear to me in retrospect.

I set out aiming for the hardest SF I could manage, but the more I kept the scientific details in focus, the less satisfying the story became. There’s an art to it, I’m sure, but that’s a skill that’s still very much in development for me.

What I realised, though, was that I also didn’t really want something meticulously scientific. In fact, my favourite stories were by people like China Mieville, Yoon Ha Lee, Cassandra Khaw, and Jeff Vandermeer. Not to say that their writing is implausible – rather the opposite. They maintain a kind of essential logic and plausibility behind everything, while going places that are fundamentally, delightfully strange.

Dan Abnett taught me that conflict should always come with loss, and I really tried to reflect that in Steel Frame. It’d be easy to have my jockeys hurling themselves into the fray, over and over, and come out with little more than scratched paint and empty magazines. Too easy, in fact. But I didn’t set out to write an unmitigated power fantasy – I wanted these people to be like the rest of us; often scared, nearly always uncertain. More importantly, they always lose something in contact.

What's your favourite science fiction read? That one book you'd take with you on a trip around the Moon and back.

AS: Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit tickles a really particular place in my brain.

Pick your poison: Robotech, Voltron or Transformers?

AS: Macross.

(And it’s not as much of a copout as it sounds.)

Thank you so much for taking the time. Steel Frame sounds kwaai (amazing) and I'm sure it's going to kick some serious metallic butt!

Order your copy of Steel Frame now!

More about the author:
Andrew Skinner grew up in South Africa’s coal-mining heartland, amidst orange dust and giant machinery. He now works as an archaeologist and anthropologist, interested in folklore, rain-making arts, and resistance; but the machines aren’t done with him yet. Steel Frame is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter @apocrobot.

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