An interview with Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald
It’s Ian McDonald Week here at CCLaP, and I hope you all have been enjoying the six new and old reviews of his books that I’ve been posting here over the last four days; to finish things up, then, today I’m publishing a brand-new interview I did with Ian last week, from his home in Northern Ireland via Google Chat. It’s a long one, so if you’re reading this from the front page of the website, you’ll need to “click through” to see the entire thing — but of course if you’re checking out the archived version or reading through RSS, you should be seeing the entire transcript all at once. My many thanks to both McDonald, for being such a good sport about the nearly three hours it took to conduct this interview via text, and the good people at Pyr for helping to set it up in the first place.
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CCLaP: Hi, everyone; it’s July 15th, 2010, and I’m text-chatting this evening with Ian McDonald from his home in Northern Ireland. Thanks, Ian, for agreeing to join us this way.
Ian McDonald: My pleasure. Nice to be here, in this slightly disembodied state.
CCLaP: I know that text-based interviews are notoriously long to get through, so I’m going to stick mostly to your two newest US books, Ares Express and The Dervish House, but did want to start with a few general questions before doing so, starting with what I just mentioned, that you’re nearly a lifelong resident of Northern Ireland. You’ve mentioned briefly in the past that this has a bit to do with your famed “third-world” settings for many of your SF novels, or perhaps it’s better these days to call it the “developing world.” Could you tell us a little more about the relationship between Northern Ireland and these countries that you see?

IM: That’s right, start with the heavy hitter. Northern Ireland is the last vestige of the British Empire — one of its first and last territories, and it’s here that the end-game of Empire is still being played out. Thirty years of ‘sectarian’ violence — in truth, armed unionism versus old-school ‘one nation’ nationalism — does tend to predispose you to looking for those situations in other places around the world, whether it’s India, or somewhere with its own Imperial past, like Turkey. I’m interested in divisions in society, where they come from, how they play out, how they become the hidden narrative of a nation — the one the visitor has to be very sutble to pick up.
CCLaP: And in fact, you have a great line about this that you mentioned in a past interview, that you feel like the Troubles were the perfect preparation for the entire 21st century, it sounds like for the reasons you just mentioned.
IM: Well, we know how far glass can fly in an explosion, and we had current levels of airline security for decades before the rest of the world.
CCLaP: I found the following a little confusing when doing my research before the interview, so thought I’d just ask you straight out what kind of formal training you’ve had in writing. Your work over the years has been known to pay big homages sometimes to people like James Joyce and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I was curious how these people came into your life if you weren’t specifically studying them in an academic setting. Especially when working within a genre that’s not normally known for gravitating towards writers like these.
IM: I have the only qualification a writer needs — a copious and expansive range of reading. Inside and outside of the genre, fact and fiction. It’s really all you need — everything is technique, and you can pick that up from books — or ‘top tips’, and they’re different for everyone. Just read, read widely, read for pleasure, read things you think you wouldn’t normally read — why not follow some of your Amazon suggestions some time? Don’t be afraid — ‘Oh, I mightn’t like that book’ — give it a go and let the book shape you, not your opinions the book. I suppose this sounds a bit like the ‘Slow Reading’ movement emerging at the moment — fair enough. It’s a good thing. A book is the art most like a life — and you don’t want to rush through your life to find out what happens at the end. Take your time. Meet the people. Admire the views. Enjoy the conversation. I do think it’s important in reading — as in anything — to stretch yourself.
CCLaP: And then one more general question before we get into the new books; and this is something I talk about a lot in my own reviews of your work, so thought it only fair to give you a chance to opine about it as well, of how you see the relationship between your work and the old “cyberpunk” movement of the ’80s and early ’90s. A lot of Americans forget this, for example, but your first novel came out in 1988, right in the middle of the original wave of cyberpunk’s popularity. Also, you’ve mentioned this term before that you heard a fan use once at a sci-fi convention, “Khyberpunk,” which apparently you’ve grown to enjoy as well.
IM: Cyberpunk was the last time written SF was cool (TV SF can be cool) so of course if it hits around the time you’re starting out on your career, you’re going to try to attract some of its cachet. The early stuff was as far from cyberpunk as you can get — but then I’ve always moved against the prevailing moods in the genre — which I suppose is some kind of punk. Oh, and by the way, that ‘everything/punk?’ Stop it. Now. It’s old. Steampunk — lovely steam but boys and girls, that’s not punk, not even by Victorian standards.
CCLaP: Right, it was already a term that was essentially made up by the media to explain things like Blade Runner and Alan Moore, then ‘steampunk’ became a sorta in-joke riff on those original cyberpunk writers.
IM: There’s a whole cohort of writers on this side of the Atlantic who appeared during the cyberpunk heyday in the ’80s, but we seemed to be much more reactions to Thatcherism (thank you Maggie, you made me an SF writer!) than a punk ethos which, to be honest, over here had mutated into Blitz and New Romanticism (though I always thought 2Tone, which I loved, had something of the punk spirit). Thatcherpunk? Torypunk? Maybe with Cameron in power we’ll get another wave of reactive, proactive committed fantastic writing.
CCLaP: Okay, so let’s get into the first of your new American books, Ares Express, which in fact is a companion piece to this 1988 novel I just mentioned, originally published in the UK in 2001 and now here in the US just this year. So I guess the first question is, why write a companion piece 13 years later?
IM: Not having a US publiisher between 1996 and 2006, when Pyr bought River of Gods. There are a couple of other missing books in there: Kirinya, the follow-up to Chaga/Evolution’s Shore and Sacrifice of Fools.
CCLaP: Or, I mean, why write the companion piece at all, and especially so long after the original?
IM: Glad you spotted it was a companion piece…not a sequel. I’d done some stories in the same world — mostly for Peter Crowther of PS Publishing renown — and it seemed a fun and easy thing to do. It was very very far from either. It was a story about story, and what makes story work, and the other kinds of story that can be told — while still being a fun story in its own right. I like the heroine — and her grandmother. The basic inspiration came from a painting at an art show at Albacon in 1998 — can’t remember the name of the artist, which had ‘Big Fuck-off Train’ in it, and I thought, you could live on that. Steam nomadism.
CCLaP: Well, it certainly didn’t seem like a sequel to me — not only different characters and a different situation, but an entirely different style of writing. The ’88 original, Desolation Road, is a rather literal homage to Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, only set in a terraformed Mars a thousand years in the future, while Ares Express is MUCH more expansive in both scope and tone. In fact, haven’t you mentioned in the past that part of it was simply because of the wealth of new novels that have come out about Mars terraforming since your ’88 original?
IM: There’s a degree of truth in that…I probably was putting down a marker. Road was a Mars novel unlike any other and a game I enjoyed playing — there was a sense also that everyone else was having fun in the ball-pit, so why not get back in and throw stuff around? Behind it all, I was interested in how the Martian culture evolved — and how the people who lived there would just think of it as their Earth — in fact, in Desolation Road the ‘M’ word isn’t mentioned until seven words from the end. I wanted it to be a deep and rich Martian culture, quite different from anything we know on Earth, with its own religion and pantheon and mythology — which the events in DR and AE, by implication, become part. And a planet-wide revival of Big Band swing music because it’s good to dance to.
CCLaP: And then something else about the style, which I hadn’t even put together in my head until I saw you once mention it in an interview, but the influence of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles not necessarily for the setting, but for its looser, more rambling, more laid-back tone. It’s been a long time since I’ve read that, so it hadn’t even occurred to me, but as soon as you mentioned it, I was like, “Oh yeah, Bradbury’s book really does have that sorta ‘we’re taking our time telling a good story’ vibe to it.”
IM: It was a collection of stories, if I remember correctly, originally, but I liked the way he strung them together to build a bigger story — of the birth of a world — in a way that mightn’t get done these days because of SF’s seeming need to emulate movie construction to tell a tale. ‘Martian Chronicles’ — the clue is there in the title.
CCLaP: And then you just mentioned something I wanted to ask you about as well, although we only need to go into this to the point where you’re comfortable, which is the sort of checkered past you’ve had with the American publishing industry — you were rather famously first signed then dumped by Bantam in the ’90s, then made rather a name for yourself in the UK and Europe throughout that decade, eventually becoming part of the so-called “British Invasion” led by startup Pyr in the mid-2000s. How much does such industry rollercoaster stuff take a toll on you as a writer, and how much of it is just hunkering down in front of the computer and saying, “The new book, all I care about is writing the new book?”
IM: Well, (self-congratulatory cigar puff) I try to be that little bit ahead of the curve — which surely is what the job is about: I did my urban fantasy aaallll the way back in 1990, before there even was a genre. Then again, as a writer, you need to be aware of where the market is — and at the same time remembering that, in the words of William Goldman, ‘No one knows anything’ –everyone wants the next big thing, no one knows what it is. The fun part is to try to stay on that wave. I’m working [currently] on a YA series — that’s where the market is, but I had a story that could only be told that way anyway. At the same time, now that I have concluded the ‘New World Order’ sequence (well, apart from that third part of the Chaga Saga I have planned out and may get round to writing) I think it’s time to try something new. Every ten years I get the hunkering to move on — oddly, ten years was my time in the Bantam wilderness, so maybe it allowed me to take more risks and write the kind of book that excited me — River of Gods — which might have been a hard sell into the US market. I’ve got another Big Grown Up book idea, but it’s in early stages. I don’t like talking about them in that stage. Superstition.
CCLaP: And that actually leads us to the last question I wanted to ask about Ares Express before we move on to the NEW new book, which is that it’s a rather hard-edged, far-future type of SF, which you used to do a lot more of in the ’90s before devoting more and more of your time in the 2000s to this “New World Order” series (or in other words, developing-world day-after-tomorrow tales). Do you have a certain predilection for one type of story or another? And for fans of one type but not another, do you feel comfortable saying that you’ll always at least partially jump from one style to another throughout your career? Or are you completely done now with, say, urban fantasy tales?
IM: You never know. As I said, I’m having one of my 10-year career evaluations, and I want to try new stuff. I can do and I have done Big Space Stuff (Ares Express ‘hard?’ Get out of here…) and enjoy it, it seems more of a writing exercise than the this-world stuff. I’d love to be able to create a big future as lived-in as Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen — far future, but feels human and real. At the moment, I feel my writing is more directed to what Simon Spanton at Gollancz once called the ‘lapsed Catholics’ — people who read SF when younger and fell from grace with it — maybe it didn’t grow with their expectations, or the telly was doing it better. Maybe I’m trying to say, hey, here’s what SF can do — and there’s a lot more stuff out there, trying to do something new and fresh.
CCLaP: Well, and all this nicely segues into your brand-new book, the Turkey-set The Dervish House, which I guess is what I mean by Ares being ‘hard’ SF; because Dervish is instead set literally only 17 years from now, and contains barely any speculative elements at all. And now that you mention it, I think that’s a really great way to describe a book like this — that it’s for people who read SF when younger and sort of fell out with the genre — and I have to say, after finally finishing it yesterday, I think it’s not only easily the best book you’ve ever written, but might very well be your first to garner a large, mainstream, non-genre audience, kind of like what happened to Neal Stephenson when Cryptonomicon came out.
IM: Well, thank you sir — I’d love be able to emulate Neal — though maybe at lesser length. It’s a route I’d like to try — I think I’d be very happy as a writer in those green fields. Interesting you say about the speculative aspects being minimal — I’ve seen some commentators who felt the nano waaay too far-fetched. What I was doing was imagining a nano industry that developed at the same rate as the computer industry over a similar period of time — and then maybe it isn’t quite so far-fetched. The key hanging at the back of my mind in this book was that it was about what it is like to live in the future — in this future.
CCLaP: Well, certainly the nano stuff is the most far-fetched element of the book; but I think the thing to most emphasize to people not familiar with your work is that the ‘speculative’ elements of your “New World Order” novels are speculating about things like the future of political parties there, the future of the relationship between church and state, etc.
IM: …If you say so.
CCLaP: And in fact you’ve said before that these types of novels were at first a very hard sell to American audiences, especially when you started your Africa-set “Chaga” series. Has that changed? And what do you think about very recent developments like the global rise of the so-called BRIC coalition (Brazil, Russia, India and China, which to borrow the Victorian terms are in the process of upgrading from third-world status to second-world these days)? Oh, and I should make it clear, I’m with you as far as such terms as “third world” and the like being inherently uncomfortable and not really that applicable anymore to today’s global society.
IM: The idea behind River of Gods was born out of an observation: when did you ever seen an Indian on ‘Star Trek?’ For all its vaunted racial harmony, it reflected the US world-view at the time. Yet here is a major nation with one of the world’s most individual, powerful and ancient cultures — the future is happening there like it’s happening everywhere else, so why not set an SF novel in India? You still see the old attitude in US-centric message boards –when the mention is ‘Asian,’ it means east Asian. To us on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve always had a close relationship with South Asia. Likewise, as I researched more into Turkey, the more I was interested in how it challenged the stereotypes of populist post-colonial arguments: here’s a big, diverse Empire that owned a lot of Europe, but wasn’t Europeans — and collapsed in nationalism, genocide and ultimately reinvented itself. That asks questions.
CCLaP: Okay, so that brings up my biggest question of this entire interview, the thing I’ve been intensely curious about since first becoming a fan, of just how much research and what type of research actually does go into writing these novels. They’re known, in fact, for being unusually precise and detailed looks at these countries, not just the major issues but how local pop-culture is influencing these societies, the multiple tiers of differing views on religion, etc. As someone who’s jealous of how well you do this, just how do you go about gathering in all these details in the first place?
IM: What, give away all my secrets? Well, I have this avatar body I can occupy…It takes years. I read a lot. I travel a lot — and as much as I can afford. I talk to people, I read the papers. I cook the food. I buy the music, I follow the sports teams. I try to second-guess what the government will do in international politics. I learn a bit of the language. I study the religion. I study the etiquette. I try and work out what the day-to-day details are like. I watch people. I have a very strong visual memory and I can recreate an entire scene in my head and observe details. I cultivate an eye for detail. I take thousands of photographs of boring everyday things. I look at what’s on sale in gas stations and what that tells you about a culture. I study the ads. I talk to more people. I get hammered on the local booze. I try to take the country’s political position in the world news. I watch television. I read books for those tiny details. Is this like Method Acting? WTF are you doing with those lights?!? This takes time and intellectual and emotional commitment. I love it. Of course I get it wrong. Then again, I can write about what’s going on at the bottom of my street and get it wrong…particularly my street. Oh, one other research tool. I tie bundles of memories to scents and smells. When I smell that scent again or something like it, everything in the bundle springs back into the forebrain.
CCLaP: Just to focus on one of those details, I’ve always been curious about how much you do physically travel through these places. One of the things I loved so much about both Dervish and River of Gods is how I could sometimes feel like I was standing right there on the street you’re talking about; I love the main conceit in Dervish, for example, that all the main characters coincidentally live in and around this forgotten old religious headquarters from literally the 1700s, back on a forgotten side street in a slightly run-down but safe and kinda boho neighborhood of Istanbul. I kept thinking the whole time whether this came about because of you literally stumbling across such a situation in your travels.
IM: The actual dervish house as an apartment block isn’t so outrageous. After Ataturk disbanded the dervish orders, a lot of their tekkes ended up in private hands and were indeed turned into shops or apartment blocks. Istanbul is so old and complex that everything seems to have had several uses and instances. The Mevlevis haven’t gone away you know — I’ve seen several sema shows, but the one that impressed me most was a blatantly tourist show in Goreme in Cappadocia. Afterwards we talked with the ded — the leader. He worked in a garage fixing cars, but he radiated spirituality more than anyone else I have ever met, and it seemed strange how this could happen in the middle of a tourist show. Later I realised it was hiding in plain sight — the orders were illegal, so for us it was show, for them it was the real thing. Brilliant. Nothing has ever gone away in Turkey, it seems. It hides in plain sight. We went to Rumi’s tomb in Konya — the Adem Dede dancehall, the one in which Ayse has the gallery, is based on the Konya dervish house — and I saw a tiny kid lifted up by her grandfather to wave quite naturally and joyfully to the tomb of the saint.
CCLaP: And in fact you take a rather complex view of religion in these “New World Order” books, and in fact (without going into spoilers) even make them tie into technology and the main plots in many cases. I saw something you said in an interview, for example, that makes a lot of sense after you read these books, but I was hoping you might explain in a little detail for CCLaP’s readers, that Hinduism is actually a great structure for thinking of third-generation artificial intelligence.
IM: Well, I did kind of retrofit my aeais to fit it. [NOTE: Ian is talking here about the artificially intelligent creatures found in River of Gods.] I suppose I was thinking of the ways in which a machine-based artificial intelligence must structurally be different from our kind of intelligence, an intelligence of copies and erasures, and that seemed to fit neatly with what I knew of Hindu thinking. In Dervish the sufist concept of one and many is at the heart of the book, one and separation. LIttle things build into a big unity — whether it’s Can’s robots scaling up into something really rather cool, or Necdet’s djinn. Nuff said. Here lieth spoilers.
CCLaP: And then along those lines, I also find it interesting that both Dervish and River of Gods feature a subplot having to do with a very traditional romance, almost an Austenesque one. I’ve heard this from friends as well who have traveled in these countries — that as their industrial development ramps up to the speed of, say, the Brits in the Victorian Age, even the social issues they must deal with are ones the Victorians grappled with too — the growing independence of women, the changing nature of formal courtship, the rapid dissolving of classes/castes. Have you been finding this as well in your research of these countries? Or do you just like throwing in a good love story every so often?
IM: It’s a fundamental thing, love and marriage. Turkey is pretty traditional and feminism still has a long walk. I didn’t want to get into the honour-killing issue because it had no part in the story, though it happens far too often in Turkish and Kurdish communities. Honour suicide is a growing phenomenon. In the book, Adnan is a terrible sexist pig, and (spolier avast) he doesn’t realisze what Ayse sacrifices for the company. He gets to be the White Knight and pull her ass out of the fire, but she makes sacrifices as well which he isn’t culturally conditioned to recognise. Likewise, it’s him who knocks Leyla back. She’s alllowed to get so far, but she’s always going to be that girl from tomato land. I like formal societies like India and Turkey. Manners and etiquette are always about upholding some social order — get that and you have opened up something very important about a culture. In the home women rule supreme, and I hope I captured that with Leyla’s Great Aunt Beshun. That is as valid a world as the exterior world of men. In the West we’re conditioned to think of the exterior world of action and economic activity as the only valid one, the social world of home and family seems to have been made secondary and I do sometimes think that in Turkey they have more of a balance between them. It’s just the segregation is very strong — the men’s world and the women’s world. If that started to change on a society-wide scale…now that would be very interesting indeed.
CCLaP: Okay, and one more question about the book itself, or I guess more about the entire “New World Order” series, that you once remarked that you may find so-called “failed states” the most interesting places of all. Will we ever see a speculative novel from you in the future about, say, North Korea?
IM: No. But Afghanistan now.
CCLaP: Oh, I’m looking forward to that! Okay, so to finally finish things off on what may or may not be a “light” note, I came across this little tidbit online and couldn’t help but to ask you a little more about it — that you once accepted a civil service job opening mail in a government office so that you wouldn’t have to write a “Star Trek” novel. Whaddya got against “Star Trek” novels, Ian?! (I’m laughing as I type this; I can in fact envision all KINDS of things you might have against “Star Trek” novels.)
IM: It’s not, for me, what writing a book is about. Now, I’m not such a snob — in [my] day job I’ve written TV drama and soap so it’s not me objecting to characters I didn’t create. It’s that, in my wee room, with me and the music and keyboard, I’m picky about who I want in there with me. Writing is brilliantly self-indulgent — it’s wall-to-wall me-time. So I’d rather go out to the dayjob, with real people, than have to bring it home with me. I just know I’d hate it. What have I got against Trek novels? Never read one. I watched Trek, but I’m not a fan — of anything, really. It’s a way I don’t have. Maybe it goes back to what I originally said in the first question (bookending! Come on, kudos for that!) — there is a world of wonder out there to be seen and to be read, and if I know what a Trek book is going to do before I open it, I couldn’t be bothered opening it. Give me something new. Make my eyes pop. Make me wonder. Amaze me. It’s the journey, not the destination.
CCLaP: Well, Ian, thanks so much for talking with all of us today, and for being such a good sport over this interview’s length. I wish you the best of luck with both your new books, as well as all your future writing.
IM: Cheers! My pleasure.

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd