is famous for his epic Night's Dawn, a space opera
published in three novels: The Reality Dysfunction, The
Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God, all set
in the far future and featuring a galaxy-spanning society
called the Confederation.
caught up with him at Waterstone's in Bristol where he was
reading from his latest book, Pandora's Star.
Read the review of the Bristol event
Before Night's Dawn, your novels featured Greg Mandel,
a psychic detective. Why did you start off with detective
Science fiction readers like a puzzle. Also, with the detective
story, you've got the perfect opportunity to send your detective
down onto those 'mean streets', and really explore the society
And your streets can be pretty mean. No matter how far into
the future you go, there always seems to be a core of poverty
As with all literature, sci-fi is a reflection of the world
we see around us.
around, I don't we are going to achieve Utopia. As a species
we are too flawed. It's all very well saying that technology
will be wonderful. But we're not all the same, no matter how
much people would like us to be, and you have to reflect the
differences: some people will always be on the bottom rung.
we care for them, how much of our tax we spend on them: that's
a reflection of our own civilisation. But they will always
be there, and there will always be people exploiting them.
At 3,000 pages, Night's Dawn is of quite breathtaking
scale, isn't it.
I did fall into the trap of getting very heavily involved
with my characters. Starting them off for one purpose to illustrate
one thing, and then thinking, 'Oh, they're quite interesting,
I don't want to get rid of them yet.'
is one of the reasons Night's Dawn grew to its ridiculous/astonishing
length - whichever description you prefer!
thought The Reality Dysfunction would come out about
the same size as The Nano Flower. It's not a deliberate
commercial decision to sit down and write books that big.
I'd thought it through from a commercial viewpoint, I'd have
made it a 10 part series, which would have made me lots more
money, but as it is, it's only three. Although it's 12 in
So, if you were completely devoid of financial incentive,
would you be writing the same stories?
Yes - and the opposite also applies. If nobody was interested
in reading what I was writing, and I had to go and get a proper
job, I would still be doing this in the evening. I'm lucky
in that what I write appeals to people.
What did you used to do for your 'proper' jobs?
Odd jobs mainly - most of my employed time was spent working
on a line in a plastics factory.
- near Stamford - is a lovely place to live, but it is very
agrarian. There is more industry now, but when I was younger
the major employers were two plastics factories.
Your first three novels were set in Rutland, and after Night's
Dawn you came back there for Misspent Youth, which
met with a lot of controversy.
It met with, how shall we put it, 'mixed reviews'. Not as
many people liked it as liked my other stuff. Whether that
came about because they weren't expecting something like that,
I don't know.
a character study, which is very different for me. I could
see why it didn't appeal to a lot of people. It was an unpleasant
story about unpleasant people. With hindsight, it was never
going to be as popular as my other works.
do tend to leave most of the other stuff on a fairly uplifting
MG: Not the short stories. I recently re-read your collection
A Second Chance at Eden, which is wonderful, but not
very optimistic. Especially New Days Old Times, where
far into the future, under an oppressive society, the Jews
are still being persecuted.
New Days Old Times looks at why the ethnic streaming
of the Confederation happened.
started writing The Reality Dysfunction around the
time of the Vance-Owen peace plan for the war in the former
Yugoslavia. Night after night on the news, the cameras were
down there on the ground with two sets of people who were
not going to live with each other.
You've based a lot of your fiction on very topical technological
advances, like cloning and genetic engineering.
The internet and copyright are of great interest to me, especially
post-Napster. You can apparently download any books you want.
But the actual gadget for reading them on isn't quite there
yet: you get e-book systems, but they still don't have the
resolution or the ease of carry of ordinary books.
everybody has broadband, when the display technology is two
notches up from what it is now, publishing is going to be
In Misspent Youth, copyright has collapsed. There are
no films any more because they're all pirated, so there's
no profit and no investment.
is television, but it's all one-off shows: soap operas, reality
TV, whatever… all commercial sponsorship.
only work writers can get is writing the soap operas.
was a side-portion of the book. The main theme was rejuvenation.
It was more or less the phenomenon we have in our own age:
that big projects are not allowed to fail, no matter what
the casualties on the way.
is a great example: financially ludicrous, but magnificent
at the end: it was not allowed to fail initially, because
that was us going into Europe and Europe being better, technology-wise,
In the end, Concorde was allowed to fail - it's no longer
flying, and we've got nothing to replace it.
It was built in an era when fuel was cheap and plentiful,
when environmental issues almost didn't exist. You probably
could spend the money and build a replacement supersonic transport,
but the political willpower isn't there.
politician would do that in this day and age. I'm not sure
whether that's a shame or not.
If there was one technology that you've written about that
you could have right now, what would it be?
Probably clean fusion. Once you have cheap, available energy
on a mass scale, you can do anything. We wouldn't have half
the worries we have if energy was cheap and available to everyone.
Do you think we can be trusted with that kind of technology?
PFH: The genetic technology that hopefully will cure Spina
Bifida one day could also be used to create viruses that could
just wipe us out completely.
does that mean you should stop researching genetics? We laugh,
we hold politicians and the political process in contempt,
but the societal structure of international law and order
does actually hold that off.
MG: The reason you're here in Bristol is Pandora's Star,
your most recent novel. Unusually for you, I believe, the
society is Utopian, or near-Utopian?
It's certainly a lot calmer than the Confederation was. Outwardly,
it's quite a pleasant place to live in, purely because people
very much trust the adage that 'with age comes wisdom.' If
you're 300 years old, you don't want to be part of a football
tribe, kicking people's heads in. You've grown out of that,
and you look around you and think more: you're calmer and
more reactive, and a better citizen because of it.
you have this huge influence of wisdom, with the bulk of the
population being quite old.
When you see a nice, calm, near-Utopian society at the beginning
of a book, we just know that something's about to go horribly
Conflict is great narrative, to put it at its bluntest. Utopia
would be boring. What's there to write about? 'It's a nice
day. It's another nice day. It's another nice day...'"