This interview was originally published in the paper edition of The Zone It occurred in August 1997, on the eve of publication of Child of the River, the First Book of Confluence. Shrine of Stars, The Third Book of Confluence, was published recently (September 1999).

For more on Paul J. McAuley, his own web page is a good place to start.

Futures that Work: Paul J. McAuley Interview

Paul J McAuley is on the point of publishing his seventh novel, Child of the River. He has been a full-time writer since 1996 when he gave up his former career as a research biologist. His short stories have been published in magazines from Interzone to Amazing and Fantasy and Science Fiction since 1984. His first three novels, Four Hundred Billion Stars(1988), Secret Harmonies(1989) and Eternal Light(1991) encompassed a vast future history. Since then, he has written Red Dust(1993) about Mars controlled by the Chinese, Pasquale's Angel(1994), an alternative history of renaissance Italy, and Fairyland(1995), set in Europe in the near future. His work seethes with ideas and images, and in the course of his career, his novels seem to have gained an increasingly positive outlook. His new novel, Child of the River, is the first of a trilogy. It is polished, and a pleasure to read.

I suppose with science fiction, since you're not writing about the world as it is now, you use what you learn in what you're writing rather than writing about what you see directly.

Yes, to some extent. I'm never quite sure where it all comes from. It comes from everywhere, and I'd rather not try to analyse it as it might be a horrible mistake - I might hog-tie myself and never do it again. It's like trying to think about how you think, if you know what I mean. It's one of the questions that writers hate, anyway. What are your influences? Why did you write about this? Because I wanted to, or because I had to is the other way of putting it. It's a very complicated process. It's not a direct, sort of analogue thing - I do B because of A. It's much more horribly complex than that, unfortunately. I wish it was simple because then I could regulate it a lot more easily.

These days people seem to be accepting complexity more.

The interesting thing is how simple changes can produce complex results. The thing that interests me is that it is a complicated place, and also the future isn't something that happens all at once, over all the world at the same time. It's like the present - there are pockets of our world which exist in different eras - we have, still, just about, peasants in Europe. Even if they're watching MTV at home, their lifestyle is still predicated on getting up when the sun rises and doing all that stuff, yet at the same time, side by side we have very new, very strange, lifestyles, and then you get further away from Europe you find you've got countries which are living ten years, twenty years ahead of Europe, and there are places in the world which are thousands of years behind. So, it isn't like the future is a homogenous thing, which is how it's first imagined - you know, that everything would have a world government, there would be a world language and so on, and everything would be rational. We now realise that it will never be rational, or if it will be, it'll be horrible. So the kind of visions of the future that interest me are the rather complex ones, and certainly ones that incorporate lots of the present. Certainly now we realise that we have to turn the present into the future. You can't just say oh - there was a war and everything changed, or there was an invention and everything changed. Okay, TV has changed an awful lot, and the car has changed an awful lot, and the aeroplane has changed an awful lot, and the telephone or the internet too, but there are lots of other things that haven't been changed by any of that stuff. So it's a very complicated process - you know, it's an almost impossible process just trying to produce snapshots of the future, rather than an entire working future.

Is that suggested to some extent in the new book, Child of the River.

Well, it's the very far future, and it's an artificial world. You have to remember that it was created. It did actually have a starting place. It's very difficult to look at our history and say where did history begin. Some people would say when somebody wrote it down, but that's not necessarily true of course. Whereas in this world things did have a beginning, and they can look up into the sky and see where their creators have gone. Also there is a kind of cultural embargo on the use of certain technologies in big cities because it is destabilising - people are only allowed weapons of a certain sort, and if they find any more complicated ones then they're hit on the head, which is rather like the situation in London, basically. You are allowed to have a pen knife, but you're not allowed to have an AK47 - that's exactly the same situation, we just don't think about it in that way, and that's what happens in this big city as well.

Has the story got a finite ending. How many books are there?

Oh yes, it has a very definite ending. It has a way of ending which means there can't be more than three books, so when you reach the ending you realise you have travelled the entire loop. It's a strangely constructed narrative which means that if I told you too much about the ending it wouldn't be necessary to read the rest of the story. I've just now finished the first draft of the third book, and got to the bit where I was aiming at all the time, which is a fun thing to actually do, by very strange routes, which I didn't imagine when I started out. So yes, it does have an ending. It actually started with a short story. I was asked by Greg Bear to write a story for his anthology New Legends, or rather to submit a story, which is not quite the same thing. It was the story of somebody who'd come back out of history, returning from a visit to the Andromeda Galaxy. One of the things in this book is that you can't travel faster than the speed of light, so that takes five million years round trip. She comes back five million years later, and finds this artificial world around what used to be the Great Magellanic Cloud, which is now a big black hole, and she goes down and has various problems. And then the idea after that, because it was quite a short story, was well, what is the history of this world. So I wrote that, and what happens after all these changes she has accidentally induced into it. That's where the book came from - it came from a short story, which is not the first time in the history of SF this has happened.

A number of your books seem to have started as short stories.

Yes. With the series of novels now, what happened was I realised I was throwing away an awful lot of great background, and I really wanted to explore. So it was just stupidity really. I incorporate the short story into the second novel, though I do it backwards. Hopefully you realise more things about the short story that are going on than are apparent, but only by this exercise. I'm having lots of technical fun doing things like that. Quite often people write a short story, and then they just take off from the short story, and then you find the short story that you've read - lo it has become the first chapter of a novel, but this is nothing- he said hastily, reassuring people - nothing like that, honest guv - it is an actual, real, honest to god novel.

Is the greater technical complexity of this down to the fact you're a full time writer now.

Good question. I've been wondering about that, because certainly my production hasn't zoomed up. I'm still only writing one novel a year. I'm not sure. It's also my seventh novel, which is another way of looking at it, so I'm now trying out tricks with narrative, or I feel more confident trying out tricks with narrative, or I realise the kind of patterns my narratives fall into, and I'm trying to break out of those patterns. I don't want to feel stuck with saying here's another one of those stories he always writes, so I do play around with narrative. It gets a lot more complicated because it's an attempt to write a trilogy where the first volume kind of reads like a fantasy, the second reads like science fantasy, whatever that is, and the third reads like hard science fiction, which explains the fantasy. So it is a complicated technical exercise from that point of view. With a lot of far future novels I've noticed do tend to fall into "science is magic" kind of stuff.

Work like the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe has an outside look of fantasy, but you can see the science fiction inside. With Child of the River you could almost read it as straight fantasy. Is there an attempt to appeal to a fantasy audience?

No - it's just an attempt to appeal to any audience. The whole thing about the science fiction community is it's great, it's welcoming, it's really inclusive, but in a kind of way it's exclusive as well. You're seeing quite a lot of that in some of the stuff coming out from the States. There's a lot of very core "we're going to write science fiction, dammit". Which means you can only read it if you read it properly - if you've read a lot of other science fiction. I don't know if that's true of my stuff or not, because I never have a clue about what appeals to readers. If I did, obviously I'd apply the magic formula and make millions, but I just want to write books that people enjoy reading. Something that will make them scratch their brains, that will make their brains itch, which is always a very annoying thing.

I've noticed in reviews of your work people tend to pull out a lot of the images. Does it make life difficult that science fiction now has well over half a century of back story of its own?

No, it makes it more fun, because you go back and say gee - only if they'd done it like this. It's what Gene Wolfe was saying in a way of course. If you go back to the Book of the New Sun, the images he was using are all really old, pulp science fiction images, and you find that in other writers as well. It's what I was doing in Red Dust in a way too, using up a lot of the old pulp science fiction stuff. I'm of the generation which can just about remember some of that stuff coming out - we can remember some of the anthologies of the old pulp stories, because that was the treasure house of science fiction, which is now not so well known as it should be.

Is that because it's now considered unsophisticated?

In a way I suppose, yeah. It's kind of embarrassing. It's fairly crude stuff, and they were writing it for half a cent a word , and banging it out first draft, but there are still powerful images in there. It's not so much pinching images its just putting them in their context, because now science has moved on fifty years or more. So how would a ray gun really work, and if it really did work, what would its effects be? Not just say he pulled out his blaster and blasted the alien - bang and that was it, which is the old way of doing it, but to actually explain - or show, rather, how it works.

Was your interest in science fiction because of an interest in science?

Not really - it's a bit of an unfair question. When I look around - I've worked in a lot of laboratories and seen a lot of graduate students reading a lot of books while they wait for experiments to cook, and they generally read fantasy. They don't want to read science - they have to do that f or a living, so they don't want to read all the rest of this hard science stuff - they want some relaxation. Do policemen read detective stories all the time ? I don't think so.

Certainly I think some of the impulse for writing the way I do comes out of being a scientist - the way you look at the world. As a scientist you are trained to look at the world in a certain way. Science has a certain way of finding the explanations for things, and you can apply that to fiction to a certain extent - if you try to do it too much the whole thing falls apart. Science fiction is a very strange thing - its neither one thing nor the other. It's not "proper" fiction because it has this strain of science running through it - mutant stuff, which is why I find it fun to do. I read science fiction from a very early age anyway, but I gave it up for a long time and read a lot of other stuff - actually, oddly enough, when I was doing my PhD I started to read just mundane fiction, which is probably very good for me. Reading too much science fiction will make your brains rot. If you read it exclusively it's not great for you.

You end up in an ever decreasing circle if you don't go out there and look at the wider world occasionally.

It goes back to this core science fiction idea, that you have to write with the pure quill, and that's all you should write - science fiction for science fiction writers, but you are going down a little circle of diminishing returns. What is interesting, the big revolution in science fiction is actually that we have had so many more women writing it, and they were reading more widely. A lot of them wrote science fiction without really knowing that that was what they were doing because they wanted to talk about the world not as it is exactly, but using science fiction in one of it's old satire modes. Now it is tremendously invigorating that that was happening in the seventies and the eighties. That's something that's not going to go away. It's good stuff.

Does that mean that as women are included within science fiction that new women science fiction writers are going to have come from a background of having read mostly science fiction?

That's interesting. I don't say that it's kind of a boy's thing to have only read science fiction - certainly, there are plenty of women who've only read science fiction. The same as Star Trek - there are plenty of women - probably more, I don't know what the ratio is, but it seems to be at least 50:50, maybe slightly more women than men with Star Trek now. But I think it's part of the New Wave thing that you should bring literary influences in and actually write yourself out of the genre. That's kind of like mission impossible - if you write yourself out of the genre you are not any different from any other writer. You kind of evolve out of something - the niche is still there, and new people come in and fill it. The argument is whether the niche is getting bigger or smaller, whether it is changing, but certainly the fiction is getting more complex. Even the core stuff is simply much more well written than it was in the early pulp days.

Why, with Pasquale's Angel, did you write an alternative history?

It's a way of doing satire. It's a way of saying "suppose the renaissance people were Victorians". It's a distancing effect. It's also a game. Again, there's lots of popular culture references in there - you know "Machiavelli is Sherlock Holmes" - he becomes the first consulting detective in a way, though he is actually a journalist. It's just a way of playing around with that and saying well, if you suddenly had this world, how would the historical figures we know fit into it? Obviously, the branch point wasn't very far away, because they'd all been born before the branch point except for the hero of the book, who had been born after, so he doesn't exist in our world. But he was about the only made-up character, apart from a few stock characters. Even some of the minor ones, you'd be surprised, are actually real. It's also an era that has tons and tons of research. It's when the biography was invented, so there is tons of useable stuff you can get, so for a lazy person like me that's very easy. To do research you just go to the book shop and buy a few books, or go into a library and saturate yourself and see what comes out. That was the reason behind the alternative history really - I wanted to write about Leonardo da Vinci, but I wanted not to write about the historical figure so much because that's been done. It ended up not being much about Leonardo da Vinci anyway, but more about his machines.

Red Dust came out when everybody seemed to be writing about Mars.

You can never have too many books about Mars unless they're bad books. The whole Mars thing - it was just coincidence basically - none of us knew that everybody else was writing about Mars. I vaguely heard when I started writing this book about democratic Chinese on Mars that Howard Waldrup was writing communist Chinese on Mars and I thought Oh - damn. I wrote to Howard and said "do you mind if I do this - it's really about Tibet", and he said "well, I'm not writing mine anyway. Do you want my research notes". That's about as synchronous as it got for me to be honest. Obviously Kim Stanley Robinson had written his novella Green Mars. I was aware of that, and there were rumours that a big trilogy was coming, but I didn't know anything about all these other people writing about Mars. It's still continuing actually. If you look at it, it's quite stretched out. It's not like sixty books came out in one year. It's more like ten books came out over five years. Really, it goes back to when the NASA maps got published, basically, once everybody saw these details. In fact, I wanted to blur it a bit because I wasn't into doing it in a realistic kind of way. Then you can go back further and say "what about Ian McDonald" - he wrote a Mars book in 1988 with Desolation Road. So when do you start this synchronicity period ?

Your books tend to have a fairly passive protagonist.

Don't think I haven't noticed.

Is that intentional? Is that something you're trying to escape from?

It's certainly intentional. It's the way I started out, because I thought "I'm not interested in writing about people who own vast mega companies or who are princes or whatever". I don't know what being a prince is like, and what I've read in all these science fiction novels doesn't feel much like what being a prince would be like. I've got a better idea of what it would be like now. I've been thinking about it, but still I was more interested in writing from the ordinary person's perspective. That's why in Fairyland it's told from Alex's point of view rather than Milena's because Milena is the person pulling all the strings. If I showed you what Milena was doing, you wouldn't have the book. That's the mystery - what is she doing, and how far back does the scheme go, which is the fun part of it for me - doing all this stuff, and then whipping away the curtain and saying actually, it's over there. Misdirection is all part of the fun. That's certainly a reason for doing it. That's where my interest lies is in doing that. Unfortunately if you do that it becomes difficult to do really action hero kind of thing. Although I have to say that Yama, who is the hero of the trilogy, is a bit more like a proper hero. In other words he is a person you wouldn't actually much be comfortable with if you met him.

It seems to me a way of explicating a world. By moving Wei Lee in Red Dust from one side of the world to the other and back again you get to show the whole world off without him being forced to change anything.

Whereas in this new book you get to see the whole world and he is changing things. Although there are viewpoint switches. It's not told exclusively from one point of view. I think too much is put into this Flash Gordon perspective of things to be honest, or this captain of industry kind of thing. Anyway the passive protagonist is not something new. Space Merchants did it for goodness sake, years ago. If I look back, all my favourite novels are from that point of view anyway. It seems that, in some things, you can't choose what you want to write about because you do see these patterns re-occurring. It's what you are interested in, or what you feel comfortable writing about. That doesn't mean you should always write within your comfort zone. The thing with Fairyland is that Alex thought that he was somebody who was manipulating everybody. He's not a particularly nice guy, not very sympathetic. He likes his mum, but he thinks he's smarter than everybody else, he's the whiz kid and so on, but it turns out that he's the one being manipulated. That's part of the point of the book anyway.

He does start off very much as the central figure who really does things.

You see him at the point where he realises that he actually isn't in control, and he runs back to the one place where he is in control, and that gets intruded on and so on. Things get inside his head, which is the worst part of it. Again, the whole action hero thing. I'm not sure why it's so popular in science fiction. You can certainly see one reason why it has to be in fantasy. Most ordinary, mundane books aren't from the point of view of captains of industry. except for techno thrillers and books like that. It's the things you can do with science fiction - it's not like you have to do them one way, and I thought "I'm interested in trying to write stories about ordinary people", though of course it turns out that they never are. Nobody is ordinary, let's face it, but I'm trying to do it very much from that perspective, writing from the inside of society rather than from the top looking down. There are only so many ways of ruling the world, but there are loads of ways of living it. There are only so many presidents and kings, but there are a lot more of us. Maybe it is the wrong way to write science fiction and I ought to write about heroes - and scientists who are wonderful at playing squash and do all this other stuff too, but I find these frankly unbelievable people. I have met one or two people who are hot scientists - top of their field, and they're wonderful squash players and they do this that and the other, but they are boring people because they are monomaniacs, and they're not very interesting to write from the inside. You'd really hate them, if I wrote one of those, to be honest. Alex thinks he's one of those, but he's not, and he's bad enough. His redeeming quality is he fails. I'm being horribly subversive. It comes of reading too much American science fiction - no I'm beating up the Americans.

I was about to make exactly that point - there seems to be a separation between the British mode and the American idea of what science fiction, the American idea of what people should be.

There's kind of a model that we have of British science fiction, and a model that we have of American science fiction. Let's face it science fiction is mostly an American thing . The British inhabit their own kind of space, supposedly. But when you actually look at what people are writing these days, there are American writers who seem like they're British writers, and you look at the British writers who seem like they're American writers like Peter F. Hamilton. Wait a minute he's an American, dammit. He is writing straightforward, good old swashbuckling science fiction with proper heroes - the American mode, but he is British, he's writing about people who live in Peterborough. There are a whole bunch of writers writing in different ways and if you took the names off and said is this American or British it would be difficult. to tell What annoys the Americans at the moment is they can't sell their books over here, or it's more difficult for them to because there are more British science fiction writers. There's lots of good British science fiction being written. There's about twenty people making a living out of writing science fiction or fantasy in Britain at the moment - an incredible number.

Well, thank you for your time.

Thank you - all that rambling and muttering - what are you going to get out of it?