Aliens Are Quite Nice Guys: John Kenny talks to Brian Stableford
Originally appeared in Albedo One #13 (1997)
John Kenny: The first work I came across by you was the Hooded Swan books, way back. Was it the early seventies or was it even earlier?
Brian Stableford: It was the early seventies. The first I think was in 1972.
JK: Around about that time, the market was very buoyant and there was an awful lot of work out there.
BS: The paperback market was expanding very rapidly at that time and although there was a lot of old pulp magazine for reprinting, some of that looked very dated; paperback publishers at that time were quite hungry to find new work, so it was a useful time to be coming into the market.
JK: What I liked about the Hooded Swan books was that they involved a non-violent solution to situations.
BS: Well that was adecision I made at the beginning because the books I had written before that were all melodramas, space operas, they were very violent and looking back at them, I began to get a bit worried about what was said about me. So for a change, if nothing else, the next stories I wrote would be, not exactly pacifist, but I made up my mind the hero was never going to kill anybody and never going to hit anybody unless he was absolutely forced to do so, and therefore, he goes through the six plots and he never does kill anybody and although he actually jogs some elbows that’s as far as he gets.
JK: I don’t think those previous books were a reflection on yourself. Basically, that seems to be what was required by the market. The standard space opera of the day was very much a shoot them up, wasn’t it?
BS: That’s true; it’s true of a lot of popular fiction that it is melodramatic by virtue of the nature of the marketplace. It did not worry me so much in psychological terms, but if you do a space opera that involves a lot of shooting then it seems to be taking for granted certain undesirable things about the way humans may relate to aliens, and questions like that, and it seemed to me that these questions shouldn’t really be begged in that way. That is why I wanted to throw in some kind of counterbalancing way of looking at it, so in most of my stories, the ground assumption tends to be that the aliens are quite nice guys, in fact, they are almost certainly nicer than us, and you do not change your mind about that until you have hard evidence to the contrary.
JK: Innocent until proven guilty.
BS: That was the approach that I was trying to take.
JK: Has there ever been any feedback from publishers or requests from fans for that series and other of your older work to be reprinted?
BS: Yes, I mean there are people who remember them with affection. People often talk to me about those books because they remember them as books they read when they were younger and liked a lot. The British marketplace is at the moment rather hostile to reprints because they reckon unless a book is by a really big name who is selling it on the basis of the name, then any reprint will sell less than a new book.
So they would much rather do a new book than a reprint and you do not really get them reprinted until you have got to the stage when a publisher is trying to promote you as a commodity in your own right and will then want uniform editions of things. It is very difficult for anyone to get reprinted at the moment unless they have made it big.
JK: In those books and in most of your books, there is always at least a small use of your background in biology. That seems to be your passion.
BS: Yes, that is what I specialised in when I was at university: ecology, evolutionary biology. That’s where most of the intriguing possibilities occur to me, I’m very interested in that area of theory and can best see the possibilities. In the days when I was writing the Hooded Swan books and the Daedalus series, they are very much one idea books because in those days you were not allowed write more than 60,000 words.
Paperback publishers at that time wanted to restrict the number of pages to a fairly standard format, so there is really only one idea per book.
In modern times, the editorial theory has shifted quite dramatically. Nowadays, you are not allowed to write books as short as that. Nowadays, it has to be 120,000 because otherwise editors think readers don’t think they are getting value for money, so that at least means that I can do much more complicated ideas. The more space you have the more opportunity you have got for recomplicating the ideas, developing them in a much more comprehensive fashion. So my work has grown more sophisticated in the way that it uses the ideas, but the source is still the same.
JK: I find myself pining for the days you could pick up a 150 or 200 page book and read it quite quickly and enjoy the one idea and the imagery and hopefully, it was well written. I find when you pick up a 500 or 600 page book these days, it still only has one idea in it but has been fleshed out.
BS: That is one of the consequences of the editorial demand that you produce longer books and there is a temptation to pad it out and the word processor is, of course, a great gift to writer’s padding because you can just load down the skeleton and go back and expand bits. I try not to do that. I am not claiming that I always work to the level of complexity demanded by the length of the book but I find it rather boring just to put in padding for the sake of padding, or for that matter action just for the sake of action. I do like to try and integrate it together into some kind of unfading pattern so you have at least got some tiny revelation in each chapter, which is cumulative and which is bUilding up to a bigger picture.
JK: You have a number of trilogies to your name. Is this perhaps a knowledge of the marketplace or does a particular idea in your mind warrant a trilogy?
BS: Well it is abit of both really. Early in my career, it did make sense to try and sell books in batches. That way you knew what work you were doing over a period of time and you had money coming in at regular intervals so while I was dependent upon my writing income in the early seventies, I did try to shop around for 3 and 6 book contracts where I could. In those days I tended to design templates so that I could do the six books in at least one series, and just moved on to a different scenario each time; in the Daedalus series they go to a different planet each time, so it was a unique constraining problem but it was also asequential thing that built up to something larger.
In recent times, there has been pressure on writers from publishers to do trilogies because it is such a neat marketing package. I am not sure that the theory is holding up too well, but at least in science fiction you do have the opportunity of starting with an idea and then developing some further ramifications and then some further ramifications still, so once or twice when I have written novels where I only intended to do the one thing, it has then occurred to me later, that I can run with this idea to a further stage.
The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires was originally planned as just a single thing, then it occurred to me that I could actually do rather more with this, I could carry the future history forward and I could recomplicate the ramifications within the 19th century, so I was then tempted to carry it on. Three volumes seemed the most convenient marketing.
JK: You seem to be having a lot more fun as well with The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires, and those books where you have introduced real people.
BS: I certainly have a lot of fun devising and writing books like that. It does help me make more use of other expertise I have in terms of the fact that Ihave written an awful lot of historical and critical material about the 1890’s. It’s useful to be able to filter that through into the fiction and it was great fun to do that. It was areally exciting challenge.
JK: Obviously, for the more recent books like The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires, you have aiready done a lot of the research, but normally would you put a lot of research into a book?
BS: It depends on the character of the book. When I wrote Empire of Fear as an alternative history story, I had to do a lot of research into the real history to see how to change it within the context of the new history. So that was a very heavily researched book in some ways. But if you are writing a planetary romance set on a distant planet, you really do not have to do alot of research; the thinking involved there is more in constructing the pattern so that it makes sense, but you can use any materials you like, you are not constrained by any responsibility to a real history.
JK: I would imagine that one of the difficulties of writing a well researched book would be to hold yourself back a little bit on putting too much of your research into the book.
BS: It is a perennial problem. You have done the research. It is always a bit of a wrench to have read a book for research purposes and then not to be able to use it and sometimes the editors will want to lighten the burden because editors are sceptical about readers responses to info dumping. Sometimes it is just useful to know more than you are actually putting into the story at the time so if you have got it straight in your own mind, you can put things down in such a way that they do make sense, although it is not necessarily obvious at the time. So it is useful to have done the research although you are not necessarily going to put it in fact by fact.
JK: You have avery long and intimate association with Interzone. There is nearly a kind of running competition, I feel, between yourself and lan Watson, as to who has had the most stories in Interzone.
BS: I read Interzone because it is the British Science Fiction Magazine, as it were, the nearest market to hand. And the fact that I have known the editor for very many years, I mean we were friends long before he became editor, this means that I feel I can approach him with ideas of things to do in the same way that he approaches me with things that he would like done.
I created a science fiction series of essays that is running at the moment. It was his idea. He said the readers keep writing in to him and asking for more data about classic authors and who they ought to read and how they ought to begin familiarising themselves with the history of the field and he asked me to do that as a device for that, but yeah I always try to keep them reasonably well supplied with stories. It is not because I am competing with other writers as to who can have the most but it is just because it is the domestic market and I would like to maintain a presence there.
JK: But I do think that it is a terrific record. I would say that you have had nearly 30 or more stories in Interzone.
BS: Well I do write quite alot of fiction and non-fiction so I am always trying to keep a number of markets reasonably well stocked and Interzone is just the closest one. So when the last story is published I send another one.
JK: Do you wait for it to be published before sending another one?
BS: Well, not necessarily. For six months to a year I might not be doing anything except writing anovel and then I will write a batch of 8 short stories which I will send off to all the markets one by one and then when I have saturated the markets, I will just start again and sometimes I do have 2 or 3 going through the same market at different paces.
JK: Would you ever stop in the middle of a novel to write a short story?
BS: Sometimes. At the moment I am writing Genesis, which is a three-decker novel; it is not really a trilogy. It is going to be marketed in 3 novels, but it is really one long novel from beginning to end and that has taken me 3 years to write but in between the volumes, I take a rest and quite often I am doing other bits of non-fiction in parallel with a novel.
It’s more difficult to write short stories in parallel with a novel but non-fiction is a kind of a rest. It’s an entirely
different pattern of working but I do write occasional short stories in the middle of novels, often because I am asked to do it. I would sometimes be asked to do something for an anthology and usually the deadline is reasonably tight so then I have to stop.
Also, occasionally you just get a very good idea so I do it as a short story and get it off to the magazine in the next week; when you are halfway through a 180,000 word block of prose and you know you are not getting to the end of it after seven months, thinking I can get a product out in three to four days, this can be really attractive, so if I get a really neat idea, I will usually write it straight away.
But other times I just write the idea down on a bit of paper, stick it in a file, and then when I finish the novel, I just haul out these bits of paper and rattle off a few short stories.
JK: You just mentioned you spent the last three years or so working on the Genesis trilogy. The first volume is in paperback now, but your previous novel would have been written four years ago; if you are doing some publicity for that and that is the latest product and that is what people are talking about and interviewing you about, but it is history for you, how does that feel?
BS: That can be the case. Sometimes, it is as long as that. I mean The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires I wrote in 1992. I could not sell the 55,000 word version at that time, so I cut it down to a novella, sold it like that, and then sold the volume version on the back of the novella, so by the time that got into print, it was four years old. Serpent’s Blood is not quite that bad because that was contracted so I have got a kind of ‘fixed delivery schedule’ there.
Every May I am delivering one volume and at least I am still reasonably well in touch with that even though it is an awfully long time since I first put pen to paper, but that is the way the publishing world works. Publishers work on this kind of two year planning schedule and you always are out of step with your manifestations in the marketplace. It can be even worse sometimes with short stories. You sell a short story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. They pay you but it is two to three years before it actually gets into print. They pay on acceptance, so you get the money but they have such a big inventory.
I have got a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction inventory that I wrote four years ago and it still has not appeared because it is a slightly awkward length, and when that appears, I am assuming it will appear, it will be one of the few short stories I have published this year, but it will not feel like this year’s story at all. You do get this rather strange dislocation of time.
JK Do you ever wish you had a bestseller, an absolute runaway bestseller, along the Asimov line?
BS: Everybody wishes one of their books would take off and become a bestseller, and lots of people probably sit down and try to write bestsellers to recipe. If I could do that, I would probably try it. As it is, I try to take what consolation I can from the fact that getting into a bestseller market can be very constraining. If you get a big reputation for doing a certain thing, then there is a terrific amount of pressure on you to keep doing it.
I do not have that kind of pressure, but in away it would be very nice to have that kind of pressure. People would be willing to give me huge amounts of money just to do the same thing I did before.
JK: Well at least you are publishing books on a regular basis. They may not be bestsellers but they are of a quality that I would consider to be far superior to bestsellers.
BS: I keep trying to do things that interest me. The market is very unstable but I do have a cushion in that I do an awful lot of non-fiction things like reference books, so it is usually the case that I have got a certain amount of work flowing through that is just routine non-fiction. This is interesting in itself, though it does mean that Iam not quite as vulnerable to vagaries in the marketplace as I might be if I was concentrating entirely on fiction. So I have usually got work to do, even when it is difficult to sell a novel at the moment, and that has allowed me to be a little more self-indulgent than perhaps some writers are able to be.
I have reached the stage now where I am much more prepared to do what the hell I like and if it sells, it sells and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but it has taken along time to get to here. In the past it has always been the case that there was a problem if I didn’t do something that would in fact sell, so there are compromises you have to make and eventually, hopefully, you get past the stage where you have to make compromises.
But I have always tried to take as much interest in what I am doing as I can. Even when I have been doing things like gaming tie-in fantasy, I have always regarded that as the kind of opportunity to do things that I have not done before and this is really interesting, even though you are working with some constraints that you would not necessarily choose if you were working off your own bat.
So I have always tried to find an interest in the projects I am doing. Otherwise, it would become too much like a job.