In conversation with…

Interviewed by ECW for Tessera

What gave you the idea for the Gaian Federation?
Colours as a symbol of rank or role are endemic in both real history (Tyrian purple for Roman emperors) and fiction – just take the shirts in Star Trek or the colour castes of the Handmaid’s Tale (currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity, albeit years after I started writing YLO). So I can’t claim any great originality there. Although adding the colours to the militaristic uniforms and totally regimenting it as a rank rather than a role is less commonplace. The triple ratios throughout was just a pleasing geometric progression… all very visual.

Jen is a strong and convincing female character. Was that difficult for you to write as a man?
To my own surprise, I had no trouble with it at all. I actually began writing the sequel first, with Mattie as a grown-up, but found the character of his mysterious mother figure, elusive yet clearly highly intelligent and driven, an even more interesting character. And I don’t like prequels, so I decided to complete this one first.

Your book is a great example of how science fiction can be used to explore ideas about our present-day world, for example the blurring between the online and offline world. Is that something that’s important to you?
Very much. I love Black Mirror, for instance: designed to make you think, reflecting on modern society (and not always in a positive light, either). Any writing that is going to have an effect on people has to make them consider their own situation, whether that means racism, environmental pollution, sexism or homophobia (to name some of my greatest anathemas) or their religious beliefs (I sometimes envy the certainty that some of my friends have – it must be very comforting) or merely how they would respond if they had to survive in that society.
So yes, if people are discomforted by this novel, that’s entirely intentional.

Can you tell us a bit about the other books you have planned in this universe?
Well, as I just gave away earlier, the book I originally started writing was about Mattie, a lonely and isolated youngster struggling to make his way in that world, with no family contacts and only an absent, mysterious mother figure. And her also somewhat shady Afterlife friend to help him (if you’ve read the book you can guess who that is). So the sequel GRN is about 50% written already.

Though in fact I think I’m more likely to complete RED first, set shortly afterwards. It’s another murder mystery in which the nasty Canon Joaquin meets his maker… possibly with collusion from the Afterlife and thus requiring the involvement of a dead detective.

Which science fiction writers do you most admire?
There are lots of top-class ideas merchants in the sci-fi world, such as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But there are precious few who are or were also top-quality writers, which is why 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale stand out so much.

But I think there are two at the moment who absolutely stand out for me (although the boundary of what you might call fantasy or SF is somewhat blurred) and those are Neil Gaiman and China Miéville. Well-written ideas in abundance, both of them.

What about sci-fi films – any favourite dystopian futures?
Plenty, although whether you’d call them great films is open to question. I’m very fond of the original Blade Runner, and I have to admit that Minority Report works pretty well for me too.

But I think it has to be either A Clockwork Orange (why else do you think I snuck a few words of Russian into YLO?) or the Terminator. Okay, the graphics are pretty clunky by modern standards. But the camerawork, the self-referential moments, the superb closed-loop storyline… Even the casting (a tough heroine rather than a beauty, and can you believe Arnie was offered the lead but said no, I vill be ze robot?) and the unsettling seven-beat theme. Classics.

Finally, let’s fantasize… Imagine the film rights have been sold – who would be your choice to play Jen?
I should be so lucky! I think Jen is extremely complex, with a chip on her shoulder about the rankings, not even confident of her own sexuality, growing disillusionment with her society and her beliefs as the book progresses…
It’s not too hard to think up actresses who are the pale and vulnerable yet dogged physical type that I have in mind – Emma Stone or Amanda Seyfried come to mind, for example – but I think it’s a role a good actress ought to give her eye teeth for. That’s more important, I reckon.