Interview with Simon Ings
Simon Ings burst on the scene in 1992 with the cyberpunk-esque Hot Head. Since then he has confounded expectations. His second novel, the Fantasy City Of The Iron Fish (1994), anticipates the New Weird. After writing two further cyberpunk science fiction novels, Hotwire (1995) and Headlong (1999), he moved away from genre fiction to write complex and fascinating modern literary works like Painkillers (2000), The Weight Of Numbers (2006) and Dead Water (2011). He ‘returned’ to science fiction in 2014 with Wolves, a powerful novel whose concern with augmented reality, the end of the world and the interaction between the digital realm and reality feels disturbingly prescient today. Ings also writes non-fiction and is arts editor at New Scientist. His new novel The Smoke was out from Gollancz this February. Simon Ings was kind enough to talk to The Fantasy Hive over the phone about his new novel and his rich and varied writing career.
Your new novel The Smoke was out with Gollancz in February. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I began wanting to write an alternate history set in the 1970s because I’m getting quite interested in the phenomenon of nostalgia. I’m interested in how it operates and you may as well start with what you know, and I can remember the 70s. So why not? Then it sort of went through its usual chaotic process of reinvention as I got more and more interested in why I wanted to do this project in the first place. And it can be best summed up by a WhatsApp message I sent to someone the other day as I came out of King’s Cross Station, in which I typed in caps, IT’S THE FUTURE AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND! Because of course King’s Cross has been redesigned so I couldn’t work out where on earth I was, which direction I was taking. And I realised that was the driver to the novel, it’s the fact that as one gets older, and one doesn’t have to be particularly old to notice this, the world escapes from under you. And regardless of the pace of change, which I think we always exaggerate, I think all periods of history think they’re the fastest and the brashest and all the rest of it. Regardless of the pace of change, the world will get out from under you and you will lose track of it, for the simple reason that it’s bigger than you are. So you can race ahead for as much as you like, and there’s that wonderful expression ‘fear of missing out’ – FOMO – which we all talk about, as we in a panic-stricken way search for our mobile phone, for information. But it’s gonna get ya!
So in the end this was a novel about revisiting past places and about nostalgia. And once I’d got that under my belt of course then I started having a lot of fun. Because then the possibility arose of writing a book ostensibly about some kind of future, which was actually about the past. So there’s virtually nothing in this book which is new. It’s all referencing old stuff. But writing about it as if it is new. And some of the games are quite hidden and they’re for my benefit rather than the reader’s to be perfectly honest! But the obvious one that I had fun with which tips a wink to the reader is the fact that our hero, this futuristic technology that our hero just can’t get a handle on at all, and even the people of the futuristic society of the Bund, which has arisen for reasons we can talk about later, doesn’t really understand the mobile phone. You know, that’s the one thing that gets him completely, he can’t work out how on earth to use a smartphone. It’s just beyond him. I was taking a slightly risky line in the writing of it cause I was thinking, am I writing about something real or am I just being an old fart? Perhaps I’m gonna leave that for the reader to decide! But as usual you know, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s deliberate. You want to get hold of the readers of the two star reviews and shake them. “I did that on purpose to wind you up!”
One of the versions of the story was about gender invention. It was going to be a society in which only men existed, so femininity had to be manufactured. And I got quite a long way into that, only to discover that the noise around gender had reached such a pitch that I couldn’t keep the voices out of my own head. And I don’t think that’s to do with the subject that I couldn’t do it, I think it was just timing. And it’s not that I have a problem with any of the voices in particular, but it was just that the timing was wrong. So that didn’t pan out. But that was interesting actually because everyone when they talk about science fiction talks about the grand ideas, when actually the grand ideas sneak up at you, they creep up from behind and cosh you round the head. You don’t start with a grand idea and then try and write a book because why would you? You might as well write a newspaper article. Science fiction is about the big ideas as far as the reader is concerned. As far as the writer’s concerned, you mine for them, you don’t start with one.
The Smoke is kind of an alternate history, with the invention of the Gurwitrsch Rays leading to a very different 20th century. How did this make it different to writing it as pure science fiction?
I didn’t really quite understand why I enjoyed writing this book as much as I did until I got a comment from Matthew De Abaitua, do you know him? He’s a grand writer. He said, nice one for doing an alternate history cause it means you can pick which bits of the future you want to talk about, and not have to make excuses for it. And I thought, that’s exactly it. Cause the thing is, if you then set your book in the future, you have to find out the future of everything. And this has sent more than one writer completely insane. But what most of us do is pick the bits of the future we want to talk about, and then the rest is very generic sort of future. You know, it’s the future of the private eye, it’s the future of the mile-long spaceship, it’s the future that’s essentially Star Trek. It’s the future that’s essentially Game of Thrones. And the reason that the TV references creep in at that point is because TV and film have to produce the visuals, they have to build worlds. I get quite angry when writers talk about building worlds because that’s not a writer’s job. Or at least that’s the first part of a writer’s job. But the important thing about writing is getting the reader to do the work. Otherwise why would you read a book if you’re not doing the work? That’s the pleasure of it. Reading a book is like playing the violin. It’s personal to you, but it is a performance, and it’s your performance as a reader.
It was better just to use an alternate present rather than the future, cause it meant that I could pick those bits of the future that I wanted to explore without having to then plug in some sort of Star Trek future, or Blade Runner future, or generic future of one sort or another, to keep all the other wheels rolling. This to be perfectly honest with you is why I don’t read much science fiction. Because actually you kind of run out of steam, having people laboriously reinventing some sort of cod -Star Trek universe. I actually found that with really good books. I find Iain M. Banks’ science fiction fantastic, but personally fairly unreadable because I just don’t have the mental space to want to plug in all that stuff about the Culture. And the Culture is brilliant, but Banks himself said where it came from, he said well it’s basically Star Trek. It’s a post-money socialist utopia that looks libertarian but actually isn’t, because the machine is going to look after you. I don’t think there are many writers who have actually created futures of everything. The only one I can think of off the top of my head was Olaf Stapeldon, who worked at such a remove from the individual that he could get away with it. But the moment you want to plug individuals into the book the scale will eat you. You’ll end up putting in placeholders, like the private eye, or whatever it happens to be.
Yeah, because the way Last And First Men (1930) is set up, you can’t really have a protagonist…
No, that’s right. So he gets away with it by changing the scale. What I was trying to do in The Smoke was, the smaller you make your story in science fiction, somehow the bigger the themes are that you end up talking about. So I wanted to do this very very traditional story, boy finds girl, boy loses girl. And just do the straightest most small-c conservative story I could find in the expectation that the stuff I wanted to talk about would kind of bleed out of the edges in bizarre ways, and I think that’s what’s happened. What I’d like is for the reader to go, well that was a very traditional simple story, how the hell did that get here? How did it get to Z, I thought it was going to B! It said I was going to B, it says it is B, but it’s not B!
Sections of The Smoke are written in the second person or the first person, depending on who is telling the story and their relationship to the other narrator. Was writing in this form a challenge?
No, it wasn’t, and I can’t quite believe how easy it turned out to be. I think I was much more concerned that it’s gonna be a challenge for the reader, because between you, me, these four walls and whoever reads this, reading second person is a bit of a pig, actually. It’s not wildly easy to read second person, so I was a little bit wary not to strain the reader’s patience too much. But without giving too much away, there is a game being played with the narrative voice which means that having one section in second person and the next section in first worked. I like games with narrators. I read Chris Priest at a dangerous age, and ever since I’ve been wanting to emulate The Glamour (1984), which just to ruin it for everyone who hasn’t read it yet, saves its tricks for the last two pages, and you think, you bastard! You utter sod!
Of course that game doesn’t begin with Chris Priest, bless him. It’s essentially the tradition of the Edwardian narrator, and goes back to Wuthering Heights (1847). One of the greatest and most terrifying supernatural novels ever written, and there’s a global conspiracy of academics to have us not read it as a ghost story. Fucking ridiculous. And of course there you have a narrator who’s so purblind he has no idea he’s in a ghost story, that’s what’s so magnificent about that novel. He has no clue the forces that he’s tapping into. And there is that fantastic thing which just scares you, if you’re sensitive to it and you haven’t been bamboozled by the university lecturers, there’s an absolutely terrifying line at the end of the book, where the narrator says, “I wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”And you say oh my god! Behind you! So there is that desire for the narrative voice to seem reliable, but to turn out to be profoundly unreliable. Which is a classic Edwardian technique and we forget it at our peril. It’s wonderful.
The Smoke plays with its relationship to other genres, with allusions to The Aeneid and Stella’s kitschy Gerry Anderson-sequel TV show…
Yes! As part of my important research for this book I tried to rewatch that. It’s actually unwatchable, I have to say! And really creepy as well! Because not only is it creepy because he’s trying to do everything on a really really low budget – when you do something on a really low budget, you haven’t had time to edit it properly, you haven’t had time to do retakes. And so all the reactions of the people are very slightly off. So it’s like looking through a distorted glass. And then of course at the time it was made, and you know it’s not Gerry, it’s Silvia and her costume making! You’ve got your head in your hands thinking, I think Are You Being Served? would have been slightly more politically correct than this show. And it’s not that one has to hold a political position to find that so awkward, it’s just the time has gone by that it is awkward. Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, you’ll watch that and go, who on earth are these people? You know, it’s just bizarre that half the cast are essentially clothes horses.
The Aeneid references look terribly, terribly deliberate and learned and halfway pretentious. They were a complete accident. The book opens with our hero reading a book that belonged to his mother, and I literally just glanced up from the shelf as I was writing, thinking I wonder what he could be reading that his mum would have collected, in a sort of lending library working class aspirational kind of way, and I just leapt upon The Aeneid, and I thought oh that’s the sort of thing, it’s the sort of Penguin Classic book. So I plucked it out the air. But of course you do things like that and sometimes they’re just one liners and you forget about them, and sometimes they turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving. And the whole book ends up being shaped around this idea of Aeneas and his duty to the family, the duty to his father. So yeah, sometimes God gives you one. Which is very lucky.
In terms of connections with other science fiction, I think that probably covers it. I wasn’t really aware of playing any further great games. Once you read a lot it all comes clicking into the book whether you like it or not. The very opening, there’s a prologue set in the Australian desert, a man standing on board a spaceship, and that’s very consciously modelled on the opening to the Divine Comedy written by Wyndham Lewis. The first volume, which is the Childermass (1928), and there’s a wonderful description of a desert, which this guy wrote when he was, he’d already gone blind by then. Wyndham Lewis had already gone blind when he wrote this. And so I thought, if this bugger was able to write that incredible scene, without sight, I’m damn well going to try and do something vaguely good, given that I can see. I’ve got to be able to step up to the mark. So that’s the conscious one. Then others I was completely unaware of until I did them. So Matthew De Abaitua in his letter said, oh I see you’ve put in the word Process and I was like oh god yes, of course, cause he uses the word Process all through his stuff. And there are various other references. The elevated walkway through London that we get is Paris 1900. I basically wanted it to be a book not so much of science fiction but a book that is set within this kind of chaotic toy box of science fictional tropes that people move through. I even tip a wink to the reader when I say it’s like walking through the toy box of a hyperactive child. The reason I wouldn’t do a classic alternate history is that, just as the future arrives unevenly distributed, so does the present. Why would one event lead to a seamless change? Why would one event not throw everything out of whack so that everything is happening at the wrong time? So there’s elements of 1970, there’s elements of 1950, there’s elements of 1990 all running together in this chaos, because if you were to have an alternate world of that sort, that’s probably what it would look like. You’d get this odd kind of, oh that’s arrived but that’s not available. It’s this quality of going to a foreign country and finding that some things are very modern and some things are way behind. But overdriven in the way that science fiction overdrives everything.
The novel also explores gender and sexuality in interesting and uncomfortable ways with the chickies and people’s reactions to them. Was this difficult to write?
I actually had an editorial note, I think it was from the staff at Gollancz, saying, “This seems excessive to me!” To which I replied, “Yes.” The chickies were essentially a play on the idea of loot. Because while I was writing the book I was very very conscious that, as with so many stories, one tends to cast certain characters as loot. The boy finds girl, boy loses girl is a classic example. Where the character is actually standing in as a MacGuffin. And obviously if you’ve got half a conscience you try to avoid that. But you know, we do want each other in this world. We do chase after each other in this world. You’re not going to be able to remove the loot element from the story without ending up with no story. Because if nobody wants anything or anyone then there’s not a lot to write about. So it was just being conscious that adventure stories do tend to cast especially female characters as the gold at the end of the rainbow, or whatever, so to play with this I wanted to create a character that was literally desire. That could just turn on human desire regardless of your gender, regardless of your sexuality, when this creature comes along you want some of that. And that of course is another science fictional reference to that… Is it a James Tiptree story? Where they’re aboard this space station and there are all these hideously disfigured astronauts sitting around, cause they’ve all gone chasing after aliens?
‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ (1972)?
Yeah, and the guy goes, why would you go through all that… And just as he’s saying that he sees a shadow through a plate glass, he sees the silhouette of an alien form going by, and just says, “Oh god. I have to go. I have to go. I have to get the Other.” All stories are about people who want things – well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! That story’s fantastic for talking about loot. So the chickies were a desire to create a non-binary target for human desire. And of course the consequence is because they’re a target for desire no one really thinks about what they’re doing. And, without giving too much away, they’re kind of important, and nobody knows it. Cause nobody’s paying attention. They’re just paying attention to their own desire.
The chickies were the last vestige of the version of the story that was about the construction of gender, so it’s a little bit of archaeological material left in the book, but I was able to make it work in the end, for the purposes of the final version. That’s the fun of being prepared to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and that’s the fun of writing out of contract. Actually, I think I was in contract for this one, but Gollancz were very lovely, and let me have lots of time with it. It doesn’t necessarily bring the money in, to write slowly, the way I do. But what it does mean is that by the time you’ve got something, regardless of whether people like it or not, you’ve got something that’s cleverer than you are. It’s got more than one you in it, it’s got more than one take. So, a device like the chickies, which served a much more dramatic purpose in an earlier version, then becomes this arch eye on the whole book in another. And with the couple of big books I’ve written out of science fiction, The Weight Of Numbers and Dead Water, I had a huge amount of fun just taking a long time and just seeing this entity accrete versions of itself. The problem with doing that to the extent that I was doing it when I was outside science fiction is that you end up with a construction that requires rereading. And I like books that you have to reread. But they’re not fashionable now. So one takes a hit in terms of readership if you try it. After a while you think, am I writing books that will be enjoyed by alien archaeologists of the future? I like writing books like that. I’d quite happily do more, I’ve been shaken out of that by ending up with a full time job, and once that happens, you have to write tighter, simpler stories. And of course a lot of people go, ‘oh, it’s so much better now it’s tight and simple!’ Nah! No it’s not. It’s just different and easier of access. And that’s good, it’s good that more people can enjoy it. But I don’t think it’s better for that necessarily.
Explorations of gender and sexuality recur throughout your work, all the way back to Hot Head and Hotwire….
I suppose it does, yeah. It’s always kicked around and never really been fully realised. Hotwire is a dreadful mess in terms of sexuality, in that I was trying for a very very highly coloured melodramatic kind of written out of a state of pornography that forgets what the porn is about. It’s overdriven and the language is the language that you get in pornography but it ends up being about AIs and artificial intelligence and so on. I don’t think it works, I think it’s a mess. I find it very difficult to read now. But it was a genuine experiment. I did it for a reason. Rather wonderfully there’s a German translation that they’re bringing out again for God only knows what reason which got an absolutely fantastic German review, and I think they were trying to say that it was hardcore porn but it got translated as “banghard cyberporno”, which for a long time I had on my website, because I thought, yeah, that’s what I write! My banghard cyberporno days are behind me. I don’t know. I might have a fit one day.
I suppose the other one that played a lot with gender was City Of The Iron Fish, and the female characters in that book I’m very happy with. Apart from maybe Weight Of Numbers, I think those are the ones where the female characters are really ticking. I have no distance for The Smoke because The Smoke is based on two women I loved. So it’s very close, it is about me falling in love at a ridiculous age, like an old fool. In the end, I’ll probably look back and go yeah, that’s about your feelings, it’s not really about the women. But that’s OK. As long as you declare that’s what you’re doing, that’s alright. The problem is when you’re a film maker and you have your muse, and every shot is slightly leering. “Oh, no, it’s not about her, she’s just the actress in the film!”, you go oh for god’s sake. Nicholas Roeg and Polanski and all these slimy characters with their muses.
Hot Head, Hotwire and Headlong all contain strong elements of cyberpunk. How do you feel about cyberpunk as a label now?
Yeah. It was curious at the time, cause I was younger then, it was kind of annoying to find myself in that environment. I had deliberately not read Gibson or any cyberpunk work when I was writing Hot Head. Because everybody kept saying, you must read so-and-so, and of course whenever you hear that you immediately keep away, otherwise you’re dead. We were talking about, when you’re trying to set a book in the future, because you can’t predict the future of everything, then you tend to plug in certain futures that everyone will recognise, to give it grounding.With cyberpunk I was seeing one of those narratives develop. And now it is absolutely completely set in stone. So you look at Altered Carbon (2001), and it is your perfect cyberpunk narrative, it’s just plug and play. And I think that cyberpunk was always going to develop into a plug and play narrative, because it’s an aesthetic.
It got really old really quickly. Bill Gibson ran screaming out of the theatre that was showing Blade Runner because it was like the inside of his own head. I think an entire generation of us ran out of the cinema screaming when we saw Blade Runner. Because it just did everything that a plug and play futuristic narrative needs to do. I suspect there were writers in the 60s who the first time they saw Star Trek went, oh, that’s it. I can’t get this out of my head now because it does everything that I need a future to do. It’s a sandbox, it’s a place I can play in. And I think what is sad about that is you have writers who invent it who then just see it taken and then played with by everybody. And that must be galling. But I think far, far worse is you have writers who take it and just use it as an excuse to be lazy for their entire careers. And I’m gonna name no names. But you know there are some people who’ve just spent the last twenty, thirty years writing into the place where they should have started. That’s where you start from. It’s not where you end up. And I think that, with Light (2002), M. John Harrison did a staggering job of starting with cyberpunk and going somewhere. And that trilogy is, among other things, a fine work of cyberpunk. And of course it’s why whenever anything good happens, people from outside go, ‘oh, it transcends the genre.’ Which of course drives everyone mad, not just science fiction people. Can you imagine being a fan of Westerns? And every time someone makes a decent Western, “Oh, it transcends the genre!” You put your head in your hands and weep. It’s not transcending the genre, it’s using genre tropes to do something new, which is why we came up with the genre in the first place. These things are the places that you launch from. Not the places you stick around in. And that happens everywhere. You know the number of bad books set in Hampstead is colossal because they stay in Hampstead. But by god I can read you a list of books that start in Hampstead and go to some very strange places. And those are magnificent. And they stand the test of time. And I’ll defend them to the hilt. Looking back, I don’t have to look at cyberpunk because it’s thrust down my throat every time I turn on Netflix.
And that’s the other thing I can drone on about until the cows come home, of course, is the difference between the written word and TV, and the different requirements of those forms, and you shouldn’t mix the two up. There’s a lot of talk about world building. The thing that drives me mad about that is that there is one writer on god’s green earth that needs to build worlds, and that is George R. R. Martin. Who is of course a TV writer, he was a TV writer before he wrote novels. And he has to build that world of Ice and Fire. Because if you get the sigil wrong, in a scene, the viewer will know. The viewer will notice. And they don’t have to be particularly persnickety to spot. They might not even consciously notice. But they’ll subconsciously realise that something is off, the costumes aren’t quite right, or the weather isn’t quite right, or the colouration, and those things really matter. You get them wrong on TV and you notice it incredibly quickly without it ever reaching conscious awareness, and you think, oh, that show’s not very good, and you turn it off. And people will say, why did you turn it off? And you actually don’t know. But you just know that the work hasn’t been done. So world building is hugely important when you’ve got to get the soundtrack right, the costumes right, the mise en scène, you know, the props. Jesus, what a job of work. But that’s profoundly not the job of writing, which is to create a half open door that the reader will step through. And filling that space behind it with their own ideas. Because reading is a performance. And when I look at cyberpunk I just think, that is an absolutely brilliant thing for film and TV to take hold of and use. I’m interested in Bill Gibson, I’m not interested in cyberpunk. Or I’m interested in Bruce Sterling, I’m not interested in cyberpunk. The thing itself is just a label we put on something we use, and if we’re TV we build worlds with it, and if we’re novel writers or whatever, poets or God knows what, we’ll just use it as a launching pad. And manipulate it and play games with it and cheat with it and deliberately misread it, which is the other thing you can do, you just deliberately misread everything to do with it, and end up with something odd and peculiar at the other end.
City Of The Iron Fish is a Fantasy about the role of art in shaping reality, and our relationship to Fantasy as a mode. What were the challenges of writing something like that?
That book took ages. That book was probably the worst experience in my entire career. I started writing fairly young and without much life experience, which is always a bit of a mistake to be honest with you. I’d have been better off having a bit of a life and turning up on the scene a bit later, I think. And when it came to the second book, I was deeply enamoured of Mike Harrison’s work. Mike Harrison, who was taking me climbing, which was terribly exciting! I was massively pretentious and aspirational and wanting to do everything all at once. And embarked on this great cloudy mess of a book that was about the only things I knew about at the time, which was going to galleries, living in London, being very very poor, and leading a fairly louche life on no money. Which, it was the 80s, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And the dope coming out of North Hampton was really special!
And so it was a book made out of wandering around galleries wearing petite body suits. And of course that didn’t work, it was a terrible mess. And so that book evolved out of trying to take all this material and actually get a story out of it. So it becomes a Bildungsroman, it becomes the story of a young man coming into some degree of maturity. And it has a lot of sources, frankly. If you know about Picasso then you know where the book comes from. There’s a relationship between the hero and the artist. I called him MJH and Harrison told me to fuck off. So it was GLS or something. It was a Bildungsroman built out of disparate experiences that I’d had in my twenties, and it was my attempt to put a lot of note taking, a lot of material together into a coherent form, and that struggle to find meaning in the material actually wound up being the subject of the book, which is a struggle to find meaning in an absurd world. It’s the most bookish of anything I’ve written. It is the one that’s pretty much about what it is to write a novel. So the challenge to do that was frankly I think to stay the course and not abandon it. I’m very bad at abandoning projects, I do have a tendency to bash on with them, determined to get them right, where I should probably throw more away and start on new ideas. But everyone’s different in that respect. I mean, there are people out there who never finish anything cause they’re so far at the other end of the spectrum. So one has to be kind to one’s own inclinations. That book took, oh, I think it took two years, which when you’re 26 is a long time.
City Of The Iron Fish, with its echoes of Gormenghast and Viriconium, and its relationship with postmodernism, anticipates a lot of the New Weird, in particular China Mieville’s work. Do you feel it was ahead of its time?
Yeah. The worst thing about it, apart from the fact that China is nicer than I am as well as more handsome and younger, is that he actually said in public that oh that book was a huge influence on me. Well, don’t tell people that, just give me the cheque! I mean, what’s the point of that? Yeah I think it’s true. We’re all in one way or another feeding off each other. And you can take someone who appears entirely sui generis, like OK he’s come up before so I’m going to pick on him again, cause he’s come up before, like Harrison. Don’t go to science fiction to find out where Harrison’s getting his stuff, but you can find the sources. You can find the people he stole from. Because we all steal. And I’ve stolen more from Harrison than a lot of people have. And Priest and that whole New Wave. We all steal. And that’s universal. That’s not a genre thing. We take what we need, and we misread what we need to misread.
The New Weird completely passed me by. I’ve read almost nothing of China, I’ve only read Jeff VanderMeer cause I ended up publishing him, and that was wonderful, because I got to read Annihilation (2014), which is an incredible book. And that’s like the finest flowering of a mature field that I had completely not read. The one thing that distinguishes genre from anything else is that because it is a smaller group, the rhetorics get more overheated. You’re heating up a smaller pan under the same fire. And it gets hotter quicker, so you get a lot of running round, saying oh I’m cyberpunk, I’m dieselpunk, I’m steampunk, or indeed New Weird. And it’s a genuine and frantic attempt to keep tabs on a field where there might only be three or four people really working at the top of their game in that area. And it’s an attempt to use critical discourse of the sort that we start picking up at school, and then pick up at university, and there’s lots of smart people in this field and so we’re trying to use critical discourse but in an incredibly small space. And it does mean that when you’re young, you worry about this far more than is healthy. And one of the reasons I got out of science fiction for so long and one of the reasons I like science fiction but I don’t go to the conventions, is I can’t handle that kind of very frenetic overheated discourse about where the genre’s going and who’s doing what, it’s just a lot of people shouting in a very very small room. And you know frankly, most people don’t react this way to it. Most people say oh, it’s lively. And they have a nice time. And they go and have a pint. And they have a perfectly nice time in this lively creative field that is science fiction. I come in and I’m like, within five minutes I’m like the portrait of the Scream. And over the years I’ve realised that when everyone’s an arsehole then actually, no, it’s you. And I did have a moment around the time I embarked on Painkillers, and left science fiction for a long time. Painkillers was a conscious attempt to get out of the field because I realised that I was being the arsehole, actually. That it’s not a scene I feel comfortable in. But there’s no point agonising over it. It’s just one of those things. And so I went off and did other stuff. And everything plugs into everything else, and in the end that’s my place to be, just doing what you want to do. And you try not to have too many conversations with publishers. Because publishers are deeply into the environment. Oh what is this person doing, how does this plug in with the rest of our list. You really, really, really want to avoid those conversations because they’re death to the spirit. Not if you’re a publisher, if you’re a publisher they’re great, but if you’re a writer you just really don’t want to hear that stuff, it’s very very bad for you indeed.
After your shift away from genre fiction with Painkillers, what brought you back for Wolves?
I often wonder! I think what it is, is I’ve realised a way of writing exactly what I wanted to write about in the way that I wanted to write about it with Wolves. And it felt to me not as if it was a genre piece at all. It didn’t feel, I mean obviously I knew because it was about the end of the world and augmented reality, that it plugs into that space. I’m not that up myself. But it didn’t feel as if it was science fiction in the writing of it. It just felt like me. It felt very natural. And I think it may just be me finally growing up. So that I can write what I want to write about and say well, actually, this audience will enjoy it so I will offer that work to that audience. And The Smoke and Wolves feel much much more part of a family with Dead Water and The Weight Of Numbers than they do with the earlier science fiction. And there’s no great important fist on the table point to be made here other than the fact that I think I’m just a better writer now. And because I’m a better writer I don’t worry too much about what genre something is going to fall into. I let my agent deal with that, quite frankly. And as a consequence I’m more than happy to be back in science fiction, that’s absolutely fine by me. It means I can write very odd books. And have an audience even weirder than I am try and unpack them.
This is the confident worry around science fiction, is that it won. It won the war. Everyone is trying to get hold of it. All the academics are all over it, they adore this stuff. At which point you have these dark nights of the soul, you think oh my god it’s all over, why would I want to write into a genre that makes shows like The Expanse possible. I don’t know whether you’ve seen that. It’s beautifully acted, beautifully scripted, beautifully designed, I really mean that, it’s just stunning, and the stories are so boring, and so generic. Because it’s essentially just that thing we were talking about. It’s not using anything as a launching pad, it’s just playing with the toy box. And it can get away with it because it’s TV, but can you imagine reading James S. A. Corey novels! So there is a worry that it’s all over, everyone knows it. But we’ve been here before. And all genres have been here before. And what you look at are the edge cases. The oddnessess. For a while it would be a certain kind of New Weird. And now VanderMeer’s got this film deal. And that film looks absolutely amazing. That’s dead. Because it’s won. It’s won the general audience and I think oh, where now?
It’s no longer new nor weird!
Yeah, you just look to the new thing. And the lovely thing about science fiction is that it continues that search. It hasn’t stopped. It’s actually as healthy as it always was. Now, publishers may come and go. Certain lists may come and go. Certain agents may come and go. But actually, that search for the new edge to things, the new way of explaining the world, it’s always been healthy and it’s by no means going away. So it’s a nice field to play in. And one thing about its general popularity now is that you know people are willing to come in from outside and take it seriously and get into really interesting conversations. My best conversations about literature have come from people talking about science fiction who are not science fiction writers. But they get it. That’s the point. They don’t want to do it, cause they’re doing something else, but they get it. And and they’re informed by it, and they’re excited by it. And it has an effect. And these things are made as a consequence. There’s a friend of mine, Joanna Kavanna, and there’s no way on god’s earth she’ll ever write a science fiction book, but by god she can certainly run rings around me in terms of her love for science fiction and her interest in it and her knowledge of it. And her respect for it. And that’s really lovely.
Wolves uses Augmented Reality to overlay a dystopian environment over our current one. What drew you to this idea?
I lost my shirt on it. I had a bit of money, and I blew it on a startup. And the technology wasn’t good enough for the ideas that we had for it. So we were essentially trying to design a game that eventually happened as Pokemon Go. We had this fantastic science fiction story where you would find wraiths from the moon. And you would spot them across the street. It was absolutely magnificent. What can I tell you? Far, far better than Pokemon. So much more fun. And we couldn’t make it work. But as a consequence of doing that, mind you I never had a lot of money so losing it didn’t really make a huge amount of difference! Doing that did actually get me in contact with all the people working in that environment, and that whole kind of very sort of low grade, low level dot com mentality where you’re looking for the next thing and you’re absorbed with the technology and your reality shifts as a consequence. Your way of looking at the world shifts and you don’t look at the world in the same way anymore, everything is this kind of free floating possibility. It’s rather as if you’ve got a permanent line into your vein with Anthony Robbins self help tapes pouring into your blood stream twenty four hours a day and it’s intoxicating. It’s hugely fun and you know eventually it turns you into a monster like Peter Thiel. So the reason I ended up writing about augmented reality was not because I was in the first place interested in the philosophy of it, although I am. I was actually working for a company on which the story is modelled. That is much more autobiographical than you think. All that stuff about oh god how do we see round the edges of things and how do you deal with the occlusions and so on. And the guy I was working with now runs a studio in Wimbledon with money from Microsoft. He’s actually got a studio now. He really did lose his shirt, Jesus Christ, but he’s stuck with the idea, and now the technology is available that he can play with.
Of course, once you’ve got AR under your belt then all kinds of lovely philosophical weirdnesses start to emerge, which is, no one can visualise climate change, and no one really knows when the disaster is happening, everyone posits the disaster in the future. And it was John Wyndham, not Ballard, who quoted John Wyndham, with attribution. It was John Wyndham who was the first one to say “We are the catastrophe.” We are the catastrophe, it’s already here, it’s us. And so Wolves was a play on the idea that everything is an alternate reality or augmented reality, none of us have a grasp on the world, it’s too big. We can only see what’s relevant to our own survival. Which is Jakob von Uexküll, the first ethologist, talking about how animals sense the world, and going well they don’t sense the world, they sense what they need to survive. And human beings see probably more than anything else, but we still don’t see it all. The all is monstrously huge, literally unimaginably huge. So then you plug in climate change and you’ve got a story about the whole of the human race sleep walking towards disaster. Which is pretty much what we’ll do. What we are doing, and it’s frankly very hard to see how it could be anything else, because regardless of the fact that it’s us that’s done the damage, the world is bigger than we are and if it’s decided that the climate will now alter into a new stable state that will not sustain us, an Eocene hot period or an ice age or whatever it happens to be, that’s kind of it. Not a lot we can do about it. This idea of taking control of the earth, it’s kind of tragic, cause I don’t think they’ve actually looked at a map. Have you seen how big that thing is? It’s really very very big.
The whole book has basically given me the one really really good one liner, which was when they’re sitting in the pub and the hero Connie is sitting there eating, looks down at his plate and says, “How can this be a catastrophe if there’s still pudding?” If only I made t-shirts, I could make a fortune on that one. So yeah, I was pleased with that line. I was pleased with the book actually, it was a lot of fun to do. The creepy thing about Wolves is that the book in many ways predicted my complete domestic collapse at the time. Shortly after writing it I got divorced and ended up living in a little flat and it was bloody awful. And the book in weird ways actually predicted those outcomes. But what was interesting was that with that and with The Smoke, is that there’s an awful lot of processed autobiography in those books that there never used to be. And I think it is about actually just having had enough life to use your own experience. It’s not roman-à-clef, it’s not my life in disguise by any stretch, but it is using a lot more of my life in there. And that’s nice to do, it’s nice to be writing science fiction that is personal. Not out of a self indulgent way but because it gives you more ammunition. If you can find a way to get your own life into the work, the work becomes easier. And it becomes faster to do. And it becomes simpler as well. The structures become simpler because you’re not striving for effect.
In the four years since Wolves, we’ve seen how the digital landscape can interact with the real world to devastating effect. How do you feel about that aspect of the novel now given how the last couple of years have shaken out?
One of the reasons I’m still in New Scientist other than the fact that I need the money is that I’ve got this most amazing job here. I’m incredibly lucky working on the arts pages. And I’m just on this permanent, slightly horrifying learning curve of just seeing where digital culture is taking us. And the degree to which we have been isolated from each other. I took some friends to dinner the other day because my girlfriend was over from Dubai where she lives, and the book’s coming out so we thought oh, let’s go and have something to eat. What was extraordinary was the odd tension I felt, when six people from different backgrounds and with radically different politics just start arguing. And within about twenty minutes we were having a grand old time. But it was this sort of, oh my god, this is great and it’s working and it’s hugely fun but we almost never do this anymore. It’s actually gone away, we don’t all get together and yell at each other and throw things and then share a taxi home anymore. And that used to be civic life. That was the point. You actually had to go and see people and you would disagree with them and you would shout and you would, you know, laugh and all these things. And now so much of that has been absorbed within social media so that it feels odd to go out and have that experience of genuine physical civics.
I was at a conference last week. Over the weekend actually. It’s called Transmediale. It’s a Berlin conference on media art. I was going for work and it’s all very modish and high brow and all the rest of it. But what was really interesting was that it as a bunch of artists, curators and critics looking at each other going, oh god we’re so not out-anything. We thought we were alternative, we thought we were transgressive, we thought we were all these things. And the far right has taken it all. And the pity of it is that these guys have completely forgotten how to entertain, and the alt right hasn’t. The alt right knows how to entertain. It’s never forgotten. It’s one of the things it does really well, is entertain. And you know the consequences, once you’ve put your entire civic life onto what is essentially an entertainment network, you suddenly realise, oh hang on a minute, rallies are fun. Oh fuck! What have we got that competes with a rally? Nothing! A lecture in a pub! Oh fuck we’re doomed! And it was kind of brilliant actually because there were all these leftist intellectuals sitting in a room. And good on them, because they got it. They understood the problem. They know there’s a problem. But it was this moment, which the whole field of media art which is attempting to address the fact that our civic life is on, essentially, it depends which way you want to argue it, it’s now become part of the entertainment industry, because that’s the network it’s sitting on, or you could say it’s become bureaucratically invisible. So that our entire civic life is now, you can’t see it. You can see the interclaiming froth, the rallies and all the rest of it, the beatings and the torchings and all the rest of it, but you can’t see what’s actually going on because it’s this bureaucratic machine and everything’s been bureaucratised. No answers came out but at least people are worried. People should be worried. They buy more books when they’re worried!
The length of time it takes to do novels at the moment is kind of crazy because I’m also writing non-fiction. I’ve just ended up with far too many things to do. And the non-fiction I’m working on at the moment addresses some of this because I’m looking at ageing, the way in which both medicine and the rhetorics around medicines and new technology are eroding the idea of ageing. Without this idea of life as a process, when one is a living thing and then one fails and is thrown away and replaced with the next one, I think the civic environment declines. We have to reinvent civics for an environment in which the old are not exceptional. And that’s quite an odd one. And I think we have to reinvent civics for a world in which the elder memory is no longer important, because we have the record. We have more records than we quite know what to do with. So there’s a sort of big cultural reckoning coming up soon, and I wanted to look at it through the perspective of ageing. Apart from anything else I’m quite interested in the fact that ageing is different for every generation. I’m sitting here with no money and a girlfriend. I might as well be twenty. My life has not changed in any way. And each generation is different. So radically different, so how do you describe ageing when the cohort effect is so massive? Whichever cohort you look at, the data you get and the experiences you have described to you are just wildly different. That’s interesting. So that’s taking up my time at the moment. I don’t know why, I should just write novels, shouldn’t I? But then again, when I’m writing a novel it’s like oh god I wish I was writing non-fiction, it’s so much easier.
How does your non-fiction influence your fiction, and vice-versa?
There’s almost no crossover at all. Non-fiction teaches you how to research efficiently. It teaches you that research involves bureaucracy but is not bureaucracy. And if you let it get to be bureaucracy then it takes over your life and you don’t do anything but. So in terms of discipline, in researching an idea and exploring an idea it’s very good. But the disciplines are quite different, and the writing is quite different. It’s really odd going from non-fiction to fiction actually because non-fiction you’re basically expressing your Beautiful Opinion. The truth test is outside the text itself. It’s, have I got that source right, have I interpreted that page correctly, ought I to read a counter argument to this, that or the other. But the truth test is in the world itself. There’s a lot of work involved in non-fiction, there’s a lot of reading. But the writing is very easy. Just once you know what your Beautiful Opinion is, you write it down. And you can do it on the bus. I wrote Stalin and the Scientists (2016), this huge history of the Soviet science base, I wrote it on the bus.
Then when you go from that, or at least when I go from that to fiction, it’s really bizarre because I’m suddenly using phrases that I’ve used once too often in too many books, and little flourishes and little structures and where I’ll break the paragraph and little jokes. And all this stuff will come back to me, it’s like the return of the undead, it’s ridiculous, all these clichés, will fill my head and I kind of have to learn how to write fiction again because the truth test for everything is entirely self-referential, the novel refers only to itself. If it’s any good. If it’s not design fiction or some twaddle like that. The structure you’re building is entirely self-referential. So the way you handle language is very different. There’s a cadence to writing fiction that I’ve never been able to shake. And it crops up quite a lot in Hotwire, which was written fairly quickly, an in a fairly angry state, angry at myself I hasten to add, because I couldn’t get this experiment to work. There’s whole passages in Hotwire that are in iambic pentameter. You don’t notice it so much when you’re reading it on the page but if you were to read it out loud it scans. Because you get that rhythm in your head and you can just generate words according to the poetic structure and meter and it’s very crude, it’s not by any stretch poetry. Although once you’ve done that and you realise what you’ve done I really wish I knew more about poetry, because you’d be able to handle this sodding horse that you’re strapped to. As it is, it just runs away with me. I did one book, which in the end didn’t work I killed it. But the technique was really weird because I would just write page after page after page which was kind of automatic writing, just keeping the rhythm of the sentence, and then taking that and saying OK, in the course of doing that it’s like automatic writing you will have come up with some sort of plot or some sort of development, is there anything in here you can use. And then it was a case of cutting it and mucking about with it and rewriting it to the point where another poor bloody human being could get into it. And in a slightly less dramatic and throwing pieces of paper around the room and being an artiste, in a slightly less dramatic way that’s pretty much how I write fiction now. The voice gets into your head and you just write with it, and then you have to edit it.
I was talking with one writer about it, he says that yeah, whenever he does it he realises it’s not him writing, it’s J. G. Ballard. The problem with that kind of automatic writing is you will always default to your major influence. And if you get a group of writers doing a project that happens a lot. I was in a kind of a masterclass-y thing, It was basically a bunch of writers, Bruce Sterling, me, Tim Maughan, this guy from the architectural association called Liam Young, a few others and we were building worlds, we were building the city of the future. And of course when you have six people on a room, all trying to dream up this city, they will always dream up Venice. There’s no way they’re not going to dream up Venice. Because it’s the biggest massive cliché of a weird city. Cause it’s the one weird city that everyone’s been to. We’re just at the end of three days and this huge applause from the audience and all this hard work and it’s like, we’ve just done Venice haven’t we? Oh fuck quick let’s leave the venue before anyone notices! Yeah that was strange.
What’s next for Simon Ings?
Well the age book develops, I’d quite like it to be my Sapiens! So there’s that, then there is another novel, God knows whether Gollancz will want it, it’s a bit odd, but it’s set in the 20’s in Moscow and it’s, what’s the, I’m trying to think of a succinct way of kind of summing it up. My favourite novel ever is Pinocchio (1883) by Carlo Collodi. It’s an absolutely phenomenal novel. I want to write a novel with the clarity and the simplicity and the throughline and the philosophy of Pinocchio. And it’s going to be set in the 1920’s in Moscow and it’s going to have, it’s going to have a few historical figures in it. Mainly Shostakovich, who’s the only person I know who can write sarcastic music. Just the sarcasm drips from most of what he wrote, it’s magnificent. So yeah, a nice straightforward tale of, it comes back to City Of The Iron Fish in a way, a boy growing up. Everything you do you think is going to be completely different and then, at some point, you look at it and go oh, it’s a variation on that. And it’s because we are very small and the world is very big. When you start looking for correspondences, you’re not going to be short of them. And they’re gonna be everywhere because the world is like that. It’s not because you’re doing anything wrong, it’s just that the correspondences will drown you the moment you start to look for them. So with The Smoke, you look at it and you go, well it’s a kind of variation on Headlong. It’s man meets woman meets moon. And with this one it’s probably a hark back to City Of The Iron Fish. As long as you know that those things exist it’s fine. Knowing they exist, maybe even playing with them but by god you don’t want to start raiding them. It’s a balance because if you’re not aware of that stuff you’re hardly doing your job. But you never want to become a crime writer. You get them at conventions and they’re all talking about the 31st volume in their series! But of course they’re driven by the economics of their genre, they need to do that, that is how they make a living. It’s not like that’s their choice. The magnificent thing about science fiction is that although there are certain things the publishers would like you to do, but really, we have incredible freedom in this genre. A staggering amount of freedom. And the only reason people say otherwise is, because science fiction is a literature of ideas you can start young, and because so many of us start young we start untried by the world. So the irritations that actually belong to the world we blame on the genre. And I know I did. Oh science fiction it’s full of this sort of person. Stopping me from doing this that and the other. Well actually you’re gonna find out the world is like that. Science fiction is actually a very free, friendly and exciting place.
Thank you Simon Ings for talking with us!
Simon Ings is the author of The Smoke, out now from Gollancz.