Drawing on his time surrounded by the the rich natural beauty of Crete, Neal Asher brings us a story full of what he calls “sensawunda stuff” with “An Alien on Crete” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now]. Read on to learn more about his inspiration, his history as a writer, and why he would like to live in the universe of his own stories.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
NA: Again, as is usual with me, I was ahead of my publishing contract with Macmillan having one book, The Human (third book of the Rise of the Jain trilogy), ready, bar a bit of editing, for publication almost a year before I needed to hand it in. I’ve wanted to return to writing more short stories for some time, since it was through them I got my first stuff published. I also feel that the change, the discipline and the necessity for brevity are good for my writing. I can explore stuff outside of my long-running space opera series too. It also makes good business sense to expose readers who might not have heard of me to my stuff. And opportunities had arisen (which I can’t talk about) concerning the TV streaming services. So I started writing some more short stories.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
NA: I am lucky enough to spend half of my year on the island of Crete and there, besides kayaking and swimming, I spend a lot of time walking in the beautiful mountains. One of the advantages of only needing a laptop, or even just pen and paper to do your job, is that you can do it anywhere. Being an SF writer, I of course visualized all sorts of sensawunda stuff in those mountains: starships in the sky, alien plants growing amidst the rest, some places where you could think you were on an alien world, how the walk would be while installed in a new Golem chassis and, of course, an alien landing there. This last was the one I took—a very tiny spark of inspiration—and expanded. As they say: ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
NA: This is a standalone. As I noted above, writing short stories gives me a chance to explore other stuff. I have started a follow-up to it, but then meandered off into writing something else.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
NA: I do relate because, well, I walk in the mountains like the protagonist and so much of what he sees is exactly what I see when I’m out there. I’ve sat drinking raki at a kazani and shopped in that butcher’s shop in Makrigialos. Some things I changed out of narrative necessity. The house in the story is very similar to mine, but there’s nowhere you can back a vehicle up close to the back door. The cisterns I see are normally quite shallow, so not enough to trap a creature, though I was quite happy recently to see a deep one that fit the bill!
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
NA: It’s a very simple title. Does what it says on the tin. Though I have to add that there is a little bit of a twist there—a bit of a double meaning—because the protagonist is ‘An Alien on Crete’ since it is not his home country.
I suspect a lot of writer’s block stems from lack of confidence and an inability to tear apart something you’ve already written, as if it’s a stone sculpture near completion and you have to be careful with the chisel. Writing is nothing like that. It’s protean, disposable and can be shifted about like a magnetic montage.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? What is your history with Asimov’s?
NA: As I was working my way up through the writing world, I started by getting stuff published in the small presses (while in the meantime banging off synopses and sample chapters of my books to book publishers), and gradually moved on to larger publications. In my youth, I did of course read Isaac Asimov and had known about the magazine for some time. When I was a teenager, my mother brought home a bunch of such publications from a charity shop for me and I loved them. Asimov’s was a prime target for me—a validation. I finally did get a story accepted when Gardner Dozois was the editor and subsequently had more taken. Titles are “Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck,” “Alien Archaeology,” “The Other Gun” . . . I lose track—there might be others. The cover pictures for the magazine were taken from a couple of them. Thereafter, just about every one of them went on to appear in anthologies like Hartwell and Kramer’s Year’s Best SF and Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. It’s good to be back.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
NA: Years and years of reading SFF had its effect. At one time I was polishing off an average of ten books a month. The acknowledgements in The Skinner (my second book from Macmillan) begin like this: Thanks to all those people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny. . . A deep interest in the sciences and much reading of them also informs my work, and of course various excellent films. I must at least tip my hat towards Alien and Aliens, Terminator, and others besides.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
NA: My Polity space operas are set far in the future in an AI run utopia that’s a bit rough around the edges and not quite as utopian as it should be, especially when there’s an alien race that would like to exterminate humanity and plenty of dangerous ancient alien technology lying around. Our present is their ancient past and does not impinge very much. My Owner trilogy (not in the Polity) is an extrapolation from the present day to create a dystopia, I mean, every SF writer should have a crack at a dystopia, right? In the short stories it just depends on what and when I’m writing about. “An Alien on Crete” depicts a little of present-day Crete. A recent story called “Longevity Averaging” is a product of my reading on biotech developments in life extension, and likely political outfalls from that (longevity averaging is what happens to your pension). But when it comes to present events I try not to proselytize. As far as I am concerned my job is to entertain and create that good old sensawunda. It is not to use my writing as a vehicle for partisan politics.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
NA: I have a trilogy called The Transformation Trilogy—Dark Intelligence, War Factory, and Infinity Engine—and I think that kinda defines a lot of my work: transformation. As is expected in any book, the characters will be changed by the events that occur. But I always take it a stage further with technological and organic transformations: life extension, mental uploading, downloading and editing, humans loading their minds to crystal substrates, AIs loading their minds to something organic, body-switching, physical adaptation to new environments, mental expansion and cerebral additions. Throughout my stories many of my characters change in radical physical and mental ways. Why do I keep returning to this? Because I am fascinated by what we might become.
AE: What is your process?
NA: I’m not a planner. I don’t map out a plot first and fill up a pin board with post-it notes. I’m a seat of the pants writer. Sometimes I’ll have a vague image of where I want to get to and stuff I want to include, then I simply sit down and write, and it all happens at the keyboard. I aim to write two thousand words a day five days a week and usually hit that target. The next day I read through the previous day’s stuff doing a bit of editing, then just continue. Times when I’m not writing like that are usually when I’m dealing with the publisher’s editing, or later on. I find that as I write, plots threads and ideas proliferate and require thinning out. I move stuff around, make alterations throughout to make it work. I blend characters together, excise characters, and make additions. I often chop out large chunks, and have a file called “BitsSF” where I put them. These can sometimes be used elsewhere. In fact, a story I had published in Asimov’s, “The Other Gun,” was, initially, one such excised chunk of text.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
NA: In the far past this was something I struggled with occasionally, but not now. I’ve spent so long being disciplined about my writing I just write. I suspect a lot of writer’s block stems from lack of confidence and an inability to tear apart something you’ve already written, as if it’s a stone sculpture near completion and you have to be careful with the chisel. Writing is nothing like that. It’s protean, disposable and can be shifted about like a magnetic montage. Whenever I hear this question, a quote I vaguely remember comes to mind. It has been paraphrased quite a lot, the current Stephen King version being, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
AE: How did you break into writing?
NA: I climbed up the entire ladder with people stepping on my fingers all the way. I started writing longhand with a fountain pen and typing on a manual typewriter when I was a teenager. The fantasy trilogy I inevitably produced did the rounds of publishers (by post) and still sits in my files. I wrote another fantasy, then had a crack at something contemporary (dated now—no mobile phones or computers). I picked up a writing magazine at about this point and discovered the small presses: little A5 magazines printed from people’s home and with readerships at most of a few hundred. I started sending stories to them and, it being that only subscribers could submit stories, had to buy the magazine before submitting. I had an acceptance, but the mag concerned closed before it was published.
My first story appeared in a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1989, for which I got a free copy of the magazine. Onward and upward. I got a novella published by a publisher called Club 199 for which I actually got paid money, just before the publisher went bankrupt. Slightly larger magazines started paying for my stories. A small publisher did a collection called The Engineer (it can be found under the new title of The Engineer ReConditioned). I wrote a book called Gridlinked and that was to be published; the publisher went bankrupt. I wrote another called The Skinner that went nowhere. I had a novella called The Parasite published. By this time I had learned that it’s a good idea to put in reviews etc. with those samples and synopses you send to publishers. Conveniently I’d just had an excellent review of The Engineer in a national magazine called SFX. I sent a color copy of that to Macmillan along with synopsis and sample chapters of Gridlinked and later got a phone call from a very posh sounding guy called Peter Lavery who was the editorial director there. That was in December 1999 and by the next year I had my first three-book contract. The rest as they say, is history.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
NA: As I grew up, I had interests in all sorts of things: painting, electronics, biology, sculpture, chemistry, microscopy and of course reading piles and piles of SFF . . . I flipped from one thing to another all the time. One day, in school, instead of the usual boring English lesson, the teacher told us to just sit and write a story, any story. Maybe she was tired and bored and wanted to take a break from the usual. I had great fun writing something completely derivative of E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Saga, and at the end was singled out and complimented by the teacher. Writing now became one of my interests. Later, maybe in my early twenties, I realized I would not be able to build a laser rifle, matter transmitter, or create a monster, or invent some fantastic chemical process. I also looked at what was appearing in the Tate Gallery at the time and decided that if that was art, it was not for me. But I was still interested in all these things and understood that in writing I could incorporate them all. That was when I made a decision to take it seriously and make it my singular goal.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
NA: I’m at about twenty-six published books now. For a while, I’ve been writing trilogies, and have noted that as my oeuvre grows it needs more points of access for the new reader. While working on a short story (again from that “BitsSF” file), I found it expanding, and it eventually turned into the first draft of a book called Jack Four. It’s a standalone set in the Polity, and readers do not need to have read the other books to enjoy it. I then started another short story that grew. It’s complicated because a lot of what I was doing was telling backstory and the timeline is all over the place. But considering that Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons is one of my favorite books, I’m okay with that. It concerns the colonization of a world, human radical adaptation to that world, right at the time the Polity comes across the hostile alien prador and an interstellar war begins. This will be another standalone. I’ve nearly finished it now . . . but that’s my aim: a few standalone books set in the Polity to draw readers in. After this one, whose publication date will be over two years hence, I’ll get back to those short stories and doubtless another one will grow in the telling.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
NA: My own. Yeah, some nasty stuff does happen in that future, but it’s a big wonderful universe with everything in it I love from the thousands of books I’ve read: FTL travel, matter transmission, godlike AIs, post-scarcity, human immortality, and more besides. I have to add that in the Polity, I created a future in which I could tell just about any story I chose. As such, the possibilities, if one were to actually live there, are endless.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
NA: Right now, since I’m fifty-eight, human longevity, so I can get to see Musk putting people on Mars; I can get to see the solar system of The Expanse; I can get to see the starships heading out, and perhaps climb aboard one. Maybe I would get to see an alien, or stand before a panoramic window gazing out at the shifting clouds of a gas giant. Endless possibilities again, which all disappear if you’re dead.
AE: What are you reading right now?
NA: Frankly, not enough. I wonder if I’m starting to get a bit jaded, because it’s not often I’ll pick up a book and fall into it like I did in my youth. I think a problem with being a full time writer is that it’s difficult to turn off the editing head, so I find myself reading something and wanting to make corrections or alterations. I also don’t get so much time to read, what with the writing, gym visits, walking, kayaking, repairing furniture, growing chilies, and my current attempt to learn Greek. I must make time!
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
NA: Write every day. Count words. Stop thinking about “being a writer” and be one. Get on with it and do it. Remember the ten thousand hours principle. There’s an analogy I use here when wannabe writers baulk at the prospect of writing a 150,000-word book. Someone who runs a marathon might well have, in their past, got out of breath walking up the stairs. But then they walked a bit further, then they started running, just a little way at first, then further and further. That’s how you do it: a bit at a time and then more and more. There’s that aphorism too: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
NA: I write. I live in the UK in Essex half the year, and the other half on Crete. I’m a widower as of five and a half years ago, having watched my wife die of bowel cancer. One day I will write a book about my experiences on Crete and with grief. It will be called Walking to Voyla—an Ottoman ruin I walked to over a number of years while trying to get my mind straight again. Not much else.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
NA: I’ve done all sorts. I’ve worked in many factories, making steel furniture and aluminum windows for houses and boats. I trained as a production engineer then toolmaker. I’ve operated all sorts of machinery like milling machines and lathes, including programming the numerical control varieties. I’ve been a builder, done council contract grass-cutting, run my own business chopping trees and hedges, putting up fences and sheds, laying concrete—basically anything that came along. I’ve driven skip lorries and delivered coal, renovated motorbikes and cars—all practical stuff, in essence. All of this is grist to the writing mill but I would say that the engineering background definitely shows through. I know how stuff works and can make that real in my work.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
NA: I have a blog at theskinner.blogspot.com that is also copied across to my website at nealasher.co.uk. I can be found on Twitter @nealasher and on Facebook at Neal Asher.
Neal Asher lives in a village near Maldon in Essex, England. His most recently published books have been Prador Moon and The Voyage of the Sable Keech, with Hilldiggers in the pipeline. Presently he’s working on his ninth book for Macmillan: Line War which, hopefully, completes the Cormac sequence. He’s been accused of overproduction (despite spending far too much time ranting on his blog, cycling off fat, and drinking too much wine) but doesn’t intend to slow down just yet. Having done numerous jobs ranging from programming machine tools to delivering coal, he rather likes this one. “Alien Archaeology” fits neatly into the Polity universe of his books, and gives readers a chance to sample that somewhat fraught and dangerous future.