Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky interviewed with me about his upcoming releases, his penchant for role-playing, acting, and stage fighting.
If you are a fan of stories that ask the big questions and tackle challenging ideas, look no further than his catalog of work where he is as comfortable writing fantasy as he is writing science fiction.
GdM: I read that you are a live-role player and are an occasional actor and trained in stage fighting. Can you tell me about those? Did they help or hinder your writing?
AT: Added to that, I’ve trained at Leeds Armouries in historical combat, and it all goes into the melting pot, basically. It gives you an expanded toolkit to write scenes, both from the perspective of how individual fight moves work, and (from LARP) the wider tides of battle, and some sense of what it’s like standing in the second rank of a pike block when a horde of enemies are charging down a hill towards you. Which is something that an office job doesn’t tend to provide. The challenge as a writer is, of course, to then pare down everything you’ve learned and experienced to the absolute bare minimum, so that your desire to communicate all this stuff doesn’t just clutter the page up.
GdM: I know that creating fight scenes must be different from the mind of someone trained in stage fighting. I’d love to know what the differences are and how you approach a fight scene.
AT: One big thing is that there are a number of Big Lies that tend to get seen a lot in fiction (and even more so on screen) that you can’t honestly espouse. Such as “the armour does nothing”, which is a big bugbear. People wore armour (at great expense and inconvenience) because it really does keep you alive. They tested C17th breastplates by shooting them with the firearms of the time. You also have an appreciation for just how clever and cerebral the study of the fight actually was. The experts in the field, whose manuals we still possess, were intellectuals with an in-depth knowledge of how the human body worked (and how to make it stop working via the precise application of sharp pieces of steel). However, as above, all that can end up getting in the way. Making use of all that knowledge without sacrificing the emotional and narrative impact of a scene is a real art form in itself.
GdM: You have been asked often about your writing’s influences from specific authors or genres. You have mentioned Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, China Miéville, Mary Gentle, Steven Erikson, Naomi Novak, Scott Lynch, and Alan Campbell in the past. As a reader picking my favorite book, genre, or author would be akin to picking my favorite child. Instead, I’d like to know about a specific book, possibly from one of these authors, that affected you greatly and why.
AT: Honestly, as we’ve been talking about fights, let’s go for Mary Gentle’s Ash, still one of the greatest works of fantasy ever written. It is a mind-bending piece of work, seen from several perspectives that shift as the book goes on – with a framing device being the modern-day archaeologist uncovering the story of the titular medieval mercenary leader, save that the middle ages they uncover deviate more and more from accepted history, and are followed by physical discoveries that seem to back up the world of Ash rather than our own history. Behind this is Gentle’s iron-hard understanding of living history, including her absolute mastery of writing both close-in combat and massed battles. She really is one of the all-time greats, and she should be a lot better known and more widely celebrated.
GdM: You have three backgrounds that I found fascinating, and I would love to know more about how those focuses came about. In case readers don’t know, you are educated from The University of Reading in both zoology and psychology and then went on to work as a legal executive. What was your focus as a legal executive, and what made you choose psychology and zoology for your undergrad work?
AT: So the psych and zoo came from my existing interests, which have been fairly evident in my writing. I grew up with the natural world as a huge influence, from Attenborough to the books of Gerald Durrell. The Natural History Museum (which features as a location in Doors of Eden) was my favourite place in all the world. From there, wanting to understand the behaviour – the minds – of the nonhuman started to take precedence. Unfortunately, neither the psych nor the zoo elements of the university course particularly satisfied or focused on the areas I was interested in. I came out somewhat disillusioned with both.
The legal side of things was, basically, a complete fluke. I was on the dole in the mid 90’s and needed a job, and the Legal Aid Board was hiring. I did 2 years there, worked out there was no real career progression possible, but had become aware of the general idea of the legal profession. I had a zippy old typing speed, because of the writing, and on the strength of that I got a job as a legal secretary. After that I trained on the job as a legal executive (best of both worlds – training paid for by the firm while taking home a secretary’s wage). I ended up specializing in debt collection, litigation and landlord/tenant law, which I guess isn’t exactly the sort of heroic work that Daredevil’s Matt Murdock would sully his hands with.
GdM: Did your background in Zoology influence the creation of the Kinden in your Shadows of Apt series and the bioform characters in the Dogs of War Series?
AT: Honestly it’s more that the drives in my that led me to study zoology, went on to inform almost all of my writing. With a very few exceptions, my writing has the fingerprints of zoology all over it – spiders, dogs, wasps, even the aliens of Walking to Aldenbaran. It’s all beastly, frankly.
GdM: When I read The Children of Time and the in-depth creation you did around the spiders, I noticed that the spiders and ants are not anthropomorphized in the story. I have seen a lot of that in science fiction. Instead, you took aspects of their innate psychological and physiological traits and extrapolated on them. What was the research like for that? It seems like you had to parallel how the development would work naturally in a closed environment like a terraformed planet and how evolution would work when fiddled with by humans and bring those two ideas to harmony.
AT: There is a SF tradition where aliens are just humans, when you scratch the surface, save that they are humans with a more limited emotional palette. Or they’re humans pretending to be a human idea of what a particular animal is like. These are the angry, warlike aliens. These are the cat aliens (so many cat aliens!). With CoT, though the Portiids aren’t really alien, being of Earth stock, I wanted to present a species that was complex, nuanced, non-human and yet comprehensible to human readers. Hopefully at least some of that came through. (The octopuses in Children of Ruin almost broke me, frankly. They make the spiders look like our near cousins.)
The actual research I did was mostly on the practical aspects. I went to the Nat History Museum and had a very productive time with the entomology department chatting about what happens when bugs get big, and about insect behaviour, and that solved several issues I was having right then with the book. For the speculative behaviour and society, I was on my own. You end up going places that nobody can really research.
GdM: Your stories have important themes. For instance, you have Firewalkers, which touches on environmental and social class issues. In Children of Time, there are themes on the importance of empathy in things unlike yourself. The world, especially this last year, has been brutal. If you spend any time on social media or the news, it is enough to make someone feel powerless in the face of it all. Is story writing cathartic in a way? Does it help exercise some of the thoughts and ideas you see in the world?
AT: I write my fears and anger and anxiety because otherwise it’s screaming it all out of the window and they lock you up for that. And it does help, to a point. It’s the only way I feel I can actually influence the world even in a tiny way.
GdM: I am a huge fan of your novella/short novel work. I have read Firewalkers, Walking to Aldebaran, and Made Things recently. What is the process for writing a multi-novel story arc versus a much tighter story arc in something like Walking to Aldebaran?
AT: I’ve found the novella form absolutely perfect for exploring a single idea in detail. It means you can have a very tight focus, and the plot gets pared down to just that. As with a short story, everything on the page needs to serve that core concept much more tightly than in a novel, where you have room to expand, introduce more characters, develop subplots and the like. But where a short story really is like an iron boot, a novella can still go places and explore fully rather than just plant an idea. For a multi-book series, of course, it’s the opposite. You can spread out in multiple directions, flesh out the world, go other places that might just get a hint or a mention in a shorter work. And that has its own challenges, because you’re often dealing with three or more arcs at once – the overarching series, the individual volume (I always give individual books a solid structure with a definite pay-off at the end), in-book arcs and individual character journeys. Essentially, each length has its own skillset and requirements, and its strengths and weaknesses.
GdM: How would you define the conflict type in Walking to Aldebaran? Is it Man vs. Himself, or Man vs. Supernatural?
AT: I’m going to say I try to avoid that kind of categorization when talking about writing. I think you get into a mental rut where something must fit into one box or another or else it can’t be ‘literature’ or some such. Basically, it’s throwing up walls that aren’t necessarily useful. If forced to make the call, I think it’s certainly vs Himself by the end. But you could just as readily say it was Human vs Human (for a given value of human) or Human vs Wild even. Which again suggests the categorization isn’t necessarily the most useful analytical tool.
GdM: You have two exciting novels coming out in quick succession for 2021. Firstly you have the release of Bear Head on January 7th as the second book in the Dogs of War series. And, you have the twisted time travel novella, One Day All This Will Be Yours. Could you tell us a bit about the two books?
AT: At the risk of sounding ridiculous there’s also The Expert System’s Champion, sequel to The Expert System’s Brother, also out in January. It’s a busy year, frankly. So Bear Head does indeed follow (some way behind) Dogs of War. Much of it’s set on Mars, where heavily modified human and animal bioforms are building the first Martian city. The rest is set on Earth, where the political situation is going rapidly downhill, and turning against bioform rights. Between these two planets is Honey, the bear from the first book, fighting battles and uncovering conspiracies. One Day… is very different. It’s the closest I’ve got to actual full-on comedy, for a start. It’s a spiritual (though not actual) sequel to Walking to Aldebaran, in that it explores someone who’s been abandoned in a weird and inhospitable place – in this case, the back end of time after a catastrophic time-machine war shattered all of history. The hero of One Day has a bit more self-knowledge than poor Gary Rendell though. He knows what a terrible person he is. He really is the worst time traveller. Doctor Who would despair. And, to round off the triple threat, Expert System’s Champion picks up from the earlier book some years later, when the hero has managed to carve a place for his misfits into the society that has rejected them, only to run into something alien from outside that threatens both groups. It’s me playing with alien exosystems and biology, with a bit of body horror thrown in. The usual.
GdM: In Bear Head, you touched on some interesting ethical questions, mainly around the treatment and modification of animals. What was the impetus for the idea of a bioform and its legal and cultural ramifications?
AT: Well this has its roots in the predecessor, Dogs of War, and the impetus is simply that this is the way our technological development goes, historically. We don’t put the ethical framework in place first, and then go ahead and do the R&D. We seek forgiveness later, rather than asking permission before, most especially if we’re talking military advances. Nobody convened a council of nations in 1940 so we could discuss whether we should do this whole nuclear weapons thing. And, although people really are trying to lay some AI ground rules, I am sure as anything that, if AI is ever achieved, it will be real before those ground rules are. Hence, in Dogs, when those bioengineered animal soldiers became the ideal military solution (after the great autonomous robot debacle the book touches on), people just made them, in the understanding that you could pull an Old Yeller on the poor mutts if you ever had to. Except once the mutts turned up on live TV talking and expressing their interior lives, that became rather more difficult. I think it would have been a mad book if I’d been writing about something like Rex and not going straight for the legal and ethical angle.
GdM: I have a great fondness for books about Mars; it seems like it would be the equivalent of the great western frontier, but for science fiction. Why did you choose Mars as the setting for Bear Head?
AT: Because it seems quite possible we’d go there, and because Mars is really not very hospitable, but it’s closer to habitability than, say, the Moon or Venus. The living situation that Jimmy Marten and the rest are coping with is towards the extreme end of the possible, but it’s just about plausible if you’re willing to start off with the idea of not How can we change Mars to suit us but How can we change us to suit Mars. And in the world left to us by Dogs of War, changing people is definitely on the table. Once you have that kind of bioengineering tech available, a lot of things become possible.
GdM: Jimmy is a wonderfully surly and sarcastic character. I had a lot of fun reading him. Is the grumpy or moody character with acerbic wit one of your favorite types of characters to write?
AT: Definitely. One Day All This Will Be Yours has probably my favourite, and obviously there’s Gary from Aldebaran. It’s where I tend to go for first-person narratives, because it permits a very personable, funny writing style that doesn’t get in the way of events. It’s also a huge contrast with Rex’s very earnest, direct first-person style from the previous book. Honey’s own sections are somewhere between the two. She’s idealistic and fundamentally honest, but she’s also been around the block enough times that there’s a certain cynicism ingrained in her.
I should also say that I got to do the audio narration for Aldebaran and I will shortly be doing the same for One Day and that particular narrative style is an absolute joy to read out loud.
GdM: Your novella, One Day All This Will Be Yours, is a hilarious and twisted time travel read. You talked a bit about the grandfather paradox problems and the “Killing Baby Hitler” ethical question with it. How did the idea come about, and how much fun did you have writing this story? Did you grow up watching Doctor Who?
AT: I did grow up watching Who, and that’s surely an influence. I am also building on a couple of short stories I wrote years ago, exploring the idea of time travel breaking time (one of these was a bit of daft fun called ‘2144 and All That’ which is in the Feast and Famine collection. The other, that just about fits into the continuity(?) of One Day, is ‘The Mouse Ran Down’ and has turned up in a few places, most prominently in The Time Travellers’ Almanac, which is an encyclopedic time travel anthology). There was also a David Gerrold novella, The Man Who Folded Himself, which covers very different ground but really set me thinking about different time travel narratives. Because there’s a lot out there about preserving the timelines and changing history and all that, so what if you have a set-up where that’s literally no longer important, because the use of time machines (and worse things) means history is basically, as the book says, in pieces all over the floor, like your aunt’s favourite vase.
GdM: Of all the creatures in time, why choose an Allosaur?
AT: For the genuine reasons the narrator gives. T Rexes are too big. We’re too small to interest them. If you want to feed someone to a dinosaur, without faffing about with little guys like raptors, an Allosaur’s your pick. Seriously, go find an Allosaur skull. It’s the perfect size for chomping someone in half.
GdM: Can you tell us a bit of what is in store for you for the later part of 2021?
The other major book in the works is the first of my big space opera series ‘The Final Architecture’. Book 1 is Shards of Earth, which has had a cover reveal recently. It’s set in a universe with limited faster-than-light travel – you can go along set paths, or you can get a special navigator like our hero Idris to go off the beaten track. It’s also a universe where Earth and a number of other human worlds got horribly reshaped by moon-sized entities called Architects in what humans laughably refer to in a war, and the Architects just thought of as ‘art’. The Architects have been gone for a while, but Idris, the war veteran who wants nothing but for his unnaturally long life to be as quiet as possible, has just discovered the first signs of their impending return. There are plenty of alien races for me to have fun with. There are cyborg insect hive minds (of course there are!). There are factions and cults and politics and a human civil war breaking out at just the wrong time. It’s SF where I can mess with artificial gravity and fast travel between stars and the like. I mean, originally that was supposed to be easier than the scientific rigor I was theoretically applying to the Children of… books, but then I got really into the fictional mechanisms of how it all worked and now I don’t think it’s ended up easier, just difficult in a different way…
And theoretically there will be a third Children book. I’m currently tinkering with a second draft of it. We’ll see how that turns out.