From Rutland to the Universe

Published in Interzone 96 (May 1995). Republished here with permission.

Peter F. Hamilton interviewed by James Lovegrove.

Peter F. Hamilton's third novel, The Nano Flower, caps a remarkable trilogy of sf detective adventures featuring Greg Mandel, psi-boosted veteran of Gulf War II. All three books combine skilful speculation with pulse-racing plots, and all are set in Hamilton's native Rutland. Now working on the second volume of a massive space opera trilogy; Night's Dawn, Hamilton seems poised on the brink of breaking into the sf big time.

How did you get into writing science fiction?
My first story sale was to Dream, a small-press magazine which is no longer with us. There were other small-press magazines around at the time -- The Edge, of course, and REM, which bought stuff of mine and hasn't published it yet. REM is supposed to be quarterly, but in five years only two issues have been published, and the editor keeps saying the next one is coming out soon. If it does, I shall just buy up every copy printed. The work is '88 vintage and absolutely dire. Fear I sold to, which was probably my first professional sale. They asked for a potted biography to accompany the story, five lines saying how old you are, where you live and so on. I couldn't think of anything else to add so I put that I was writing a novel. The line editor as Pan read the story, read thie potted biography, and wrote to me asking to see the manuscript, pleas. I duly sent it off, and three months later I was signed up. That was the manuscript for Mindstar Rising.

So it was enviably easy.
When I first started going to conventions and meeting other authors and told them about this happy story, I couldn't understand all the black looks I was getting. But I did have that four or five years' apprenticeship in the small-press market. I have no background in leterature at all, but you could send your stories in to these editors and they would take the time to read them and send you back a critiquem which was absolutely invaluable. But the small press today is dying. Where I would start today I don't know. I mean, I didn't get published in Interzone until after the first novel came out. Before then I'd submitted about one story every two months for three years. When I met David Pringle for the first time at a convention, I walked up and was about to shake his hand and he took one look at my badge and said, "Ah yes, the best-known name on the Interzone slush-pile."

Your books are incredibly well-researched. How do you go about that?
I read New Scientist and have done for over a decade, so all that background technology and engineering is all up here in my head. I also get Flight and Space Flight. Specific research for the Greg Mandel books I only had to do once, for the environment and everything, which was nice. I had to look up plants, see what plants would die off after global warming, what would stay. Deciduous trees would basically die off, while pines would keep growing but you won't have any new growth because pinecones need cold in order to germinate. As for crops, you look at what's being grown in Florida and you transfer it over here. Suger cane instead of sugar beet, that sort of thing.

The Mandel books are set, by and large, in a Rutland which has been inundated by the rising tides. Did you actually sit down and work out on a map which areas would be underwater?
Oh yes. First, I set the books where I live in accordance with the old cliché "know what you write about." And after I started doing this, I realised what a wonderful place Rutland was for a setting. If you take Peterborough, for instance, its eastern side more or less follows the contour line, and whenever there's been any building, it's always been westward, which is up, higher ground. They just don't build the city on the Fens, so that if the water did come in to a height of about two metres, it would stop at Peterborough's eastern edge and wouldn't enter the major part of the city.

Peterborough used to be a coastal city. The Fens became a bogland approximately 500, a thousand years ago, but three thousand years ago it was sea, it was salt marsh. Then it gradually sank a bit, and then a Dutch engineer came over and started this massive drainage scheme, which reclaimed all this land. It was gradually dying down anyway, and then mankind came along and drained it mechanically, methodically, and turned it into one of Europe's most fertile areas. So my prediction isn't as far-fetched as that. It was like that three thousand years ago.

Apart from the books being -- in the best sense of the word -- parochial, in that they're set almost entirely in Rutland, they're very British too. There aren't many American characters, for example. Is that deliberate or inadvertent?
There was no conscious effort on my part to exclude America. It's just that where the books were set dictated what sort of characters were in them. When they were sold to a U.S. publisher, the only alterations the American editor asked for were inserts outlining what happened in America. He just wanted some little paragraphs -- there's only about five or six -- detailing for the benefit of the American readership what heppened to their country during and after the Warming. That's been one of the fascinations of the books for people here, seeing that a future Britain, which is very rare in sf, but the editor thought the books would go down better in the States if I sould show what happened there too. Which was fine, I had no quibble with that.

American sf, with the exception of someone like Heinlein, tends to deal with anti-Establishment characters, people on the margins, and there are characters like that in the Mandel books. But at the same tome, you have been accused by critics of being, shall we say, a little reactionary, a little right-wing?
Critics tend to be fairly, to use the dreaded phrase, Politically Correct -- let's be lenient on them and say Politically Aware. One review of A Quantum Murder -- in which the murder victim is called Dr Edward Kitchener -- said "The name Kitchener evoked imperial resonances." Now, if you read a book and you see the name Kitchener and it does that to you, there is no way, no how I'm ever going to convince you that the book isn't right-wing. Critics like that will always find what they're looking for, what fits their personal agendas, and once this ball has started rolling, it's very hard to stop. That same review began "Peter Hamilton has been accused of being right-wing..." which gets the accusation in without actually saying it.

The best example of why this crops up is a scene in A Quantum Murder where Julia Evans is at a foundationlaying ceremony and one of the workmen comes over to her and says, in effect, "Thank you very much for giving us out jobs." Now that scene, read straight light that, is extremely noblesse oblige. But what I was trying to do with that scene was to show that in this incredibly technological future, where most people are dataworkers or designers or work in cyber-factories, no matter how advanced teh technology is, who are not going to be able to master that technology; there are still going to be carpenters and brickies. The manual labour force. And you have to take people like that into account when you're putting together a fictional world. The point I really was trying to get over was that yes, this technological future will be wonderful, but you have to think about these people who aren't going to fit in with the technology end of things. They'll benefit from it, they'll get the good medicine, the fancy gadgets, the new cars, new power systems, but you have to provide some kind of work for them. So I can look at that scene and thing, There, you see, that's a social issue, that is not the natural habitat of the right-wing writer. But someone else can come along and say, "That scene is noblesse oblige, that's right-wing writing." On that scene, however, I will cash in my Young Writer's Flaw token. If I was writing it now, I'd like to think that my writing style has developed, matured, whatever. It wouldn't be so crude. It was very, very crude. It's the kind of mistake young writers make. It was, it you like, a bad piece of writing.

But that scene was also inoffensive because you played it for laughs.
Oh yes, I'd like to think that though the books are quite violent in places, there's also a bit of humour in them. Come on, let's lighten up a bit, life is not that serious. It's nice to have a bit of political background, it helps build the world, but these are first and foremost detective adventure thrillers.

It's the old thing of people confusing what you write with who you are.
I would say probably that's the most annoying thing about it. "Oh yes, Peter Hamilton, the right-winger." I shall be interested in the reviews for the third book. It's set 15 years on from the economic super-expansion of the first two, and Julia, this super-capitalist, has seen that the British economy has reached saturation point, and she's the one who's saying now is the time to consolidate. Julia is smart. Her company Event Horizon was big and had all the resources before she inherited it, but it wouldn't have continued to survive if she hadn't been smart.

But this relentless bloodhound of a PC critic will now be saying, "Ah, with The Nano Flower right-wing writer Peter Hamilton has decided to show that capitalism has a caring face after all, he's trying to apologise for everything that's gone before."
He would have a job, because The Nano Flower was actually written second and before Mindstar Rising was published. A Quantum Murder was written third. Originally there were only going to be two Greg Mandel books, Mindstar Rising and The Nano Flower, and I'd just finished a very rough draft of the latter when I read an article in New Scientist on quantum cosmology, and within a day I had the entire plot for A Quantum Murder, and you just cannot ignore a gift from the gods like that. I have few enough plot-ideas as it is.

Do you believe that wealth can actually solve everything?
It can help. It depends on how you use it. Power can be defined as making decisions which affect other people's lives. One of the themes of the third book is Julia being in that position. She is responsible for thousands of human beings, and she can't escape her obligations. She has the wealth but, fortunately, she knows how to channel it. Individual wealth is all right provided it's combined with the right decision-making process, and in The Nano Flower Julia ultimately has to make a decision on behalf of the entire human race. She's presented with all the information, that's what the team around her is for, but in the end it's down to her, she has to decide.

Who has influenced you in your writing?
I took more or less the standard SF route: Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov. One author whose work I do admire -- certainly his work up till about the mid-1970s -- is Larry Niven.

What do you read now for pleasure?
Very little, it has to be said. I don't read very much while I'm writing. Being a techno-buff, the harder edge of sf tends to attract me, though I also like Bradbury and Ballard. I'm fairly relaxed in my views of what I read.

What about non-genre fiction?
I read even less of that than genre fiction these days. I'm tending to concentrate on coffee-table type books. I'm currently slogging through Kip Thorne's Einstein's Legacy, which is pitched somewhere above coffee-table and below scientific papers. It's interesting but hard going for somebody like me. But it is quite rewarding when you can finally get your head around these concepts. Apart from that, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes to a small degree.

Do you feel that mainstream authors get an undeserved proportion of the attentionm especially as they're writing stuff that lacks plot and makes up for that lack with verbal pyrotechnichs?
Ignoring sf is the broadsheets' policy. Once a month we get a column summarizing ten science fiction books, and that's it till the next month. I forget what the figure is, but science fiction and fantasy books account for something like 17% of all fiction titles sold. And as always, we're in the ghetto. Some people are proud of that. You know, "Get science fiction out of the mainstream and back into the ghetto where it belongs." I'm not so sure. In the Sunday Times there was an article with a diagram showing something like 20 mainstream authors, and each one had recently reviewed another's books.

One huge circle-jerk.
Quite how true it was I don't know, but the mainstream is very incestuous.

But also it seems that you can't get a national reputation until you leave sf and enter the mainstream. Ballard didn't get the recognition he deserved until Empire of the Sun. Same with Vonnegut. Aldiss, too.
I wouldn't mind trying my hand at mainstream sometime, possible. I have a mainstream crime thriller on file.

There might be publisher resistance.
Under my name, yes, but they might just let me get away with it.

Just as Iain Banks slips an "M." into his name for his sf work, you could drop the "F." from yours for your mainstream work.
Be nice to give it a go.

The Nano Flower deals with alien contact. Do you personally think they're out there? Bearing in mind Enrico Fermi's paradox that...
That if they are out there, why haven't we heard from them? I think that statistically, with all the billions of planets in the universe, there is a good chance that a recognizable form of sentient life will have evolved on some of them. The question is one of coincidence. The chance that a civilization has evolved at the same time as ours, and is at the stage of being capable of interstellar travel, and is willing to make contact with us, the chance of all these three things happening at once is considerably more remote.

Your new trilogy, Night's Dawn, is space opera on a truly epic scale. Does the world really need another space opera?
Well, there aren't many to start with. My favourite is the E. E. "Doc" Smith Lensman books which I read when I was 13 and have no intention of reading again because I'm sure they would collapse horribly with the cynical person I am today. But I've always loved space opera, and there's very little of it about.

Why not more Greg Mandel books, though?
Certainly, Pan would have liked me to stay doing Greg, and he was an excellent start to my career, but you have, as always, got to move on. If I'd started to write two or three more, I would have been in an appalling rut. I have to tell people I haven't ruled out going back to him, but then again I'm not sure I could do it from a literary point of view, because those books are full of youthful flaws, youthful enthusiasms. I was really running out of scope with Greg's world. With the second and third books, the follow-on, you've still got the same constraints. He solves a problem in the first, so obviously you're not going to get that problem again. You move on to the next one, you've got an even smaller range of problems you can present him with for that and retain believability. I took a risj with the alien in the third, but there wasn't much else I could do by then. In space opera, with an enormous stage of half a galaxy, you have tremendous scope for imagination. You can let rip. It was great, from my point of view, to start work on something else, to experiment with writing styles. The Mandel books are very formulaic, in that each chapter is from one person's viewpoint. I've scrapped that altogether now. You still get viewpoints, but they're mixed up, they're not one chapter per person.

The are omniscient-author bits in it, then?
Oh yes. "Data-dumps". There have to be chunks of historical information because I'm working on such a huge stage.

Could you give us a rough idea of what Night's Dawn is about?
A summary of thousands of pages in a mere 30 seconds? Well, it's set 600 years from now, with about 800 colonized planets, and there is a threat which emerges in volume one, The Reality Dysfunction, and people let this threat out and gradually become aware of it. Just about by the end of volume one they know it's there and they know it's very bad indeed. Volume two will carry that on, and then you'll have a climax of sorts, a resolution of sorts, in volume three. Hopefully it's not going to be too formulaic. Not that I want the good guys losing, all my characters killed off, etcetera, that would be unacceptable, but I'm hoping that I can add a few twists to the standard space opera formula of You Find It, You Fight It, You Beat It.

But these are massive books. It's like having three volumes, each the length of The Stand, in a row, to tell one story.
If you have a society which is made up of 800 planets, and you have something which is powerful enough to threaten all these immense resources -- I mean, our entire solar system is industrialized -- if you have something powerful enough to threaten that, you cannot describe it in 250 pages. I follow the principals who are going to be faced with the tough job of actually combatting this threat, but there's also the little people. How will it affect the average farmer? Which is important. Again, it's nice to focus on the heroes and villains but there are other people in the world as well. How does this create conflict, which is above their heads, filter down to them? It was the same with the RAF versus the Luftwaffe. How did it affect the civilians in London who actually endured the Blitz? Fighter-pilots and bomber-pilots fighting each other, it's all very nobel and you can write exciting adventures stories about them, but there are other people involved taking punishment as well.

I've often wondered about that. When a plane was shot out of the sky, it had to crash-land somewhere, maybe in somebody's back garden...
And how does it affect them? Concentrats just on the hero and just on the villain, you could to it in 250 pages, but I don't think that's fair. I think you should give people a look at the whole picture.

You've been involved in negotiations with a computer-games manufacturer. Terribly hush-hush, and I know that if you tell me about it you're going to have to kill me, but...
It's all on hold. I did some proposals for Sony, they liked the proposals, then they suddenly moved office, and they're busy moving in and getting it all together, and once they've done that they're going to get back to me, and we'll hopefully develop some of these projects.

You're not actually a computer-games player yourself, though.
I have a horrible feeling that if I did sit down in front of a fully-equipped computer, I'd never get up again. I have played Doom, they made me play it in the Sony offices to show what they could do, and I didn't want to leave. It's frightening, the graphics and storylines they can build into computer games these days.

It's getting close to being a computerized movie, with the player taking a major role.
But interactivity will never come into its own fully until you can develop voice interactively. When you can shout at the characters, say, "Duck!", and they respond, they you will be fully interactive.

But there still aren't decent real-time graphics available.
That's just a question of processing power. When you get down where you can put a Cray super-computer into something the size of a Walkman, then you'll get real-time graphics, then you'll get voice interactivity. It's Clarke's Law: everything is optimistic in the short term, pessimistic in the long term. People are expecting too much too soon.

Are you a fully paid-up subscriber to the Internet? Do you surf the information superhighway?
No, I'm not. I'm a technological Luddite. My computer has own program in it, and that is a word-processing program, and I can just about handle that.

Do you think the Internet is genuinely a wave of the future, or is it just a fad?
When computers are a little more sophisticated than they are now, if they improve as much in the next 20 years as they have in the past 20, then yes, it will develop into a very powerful economic tool, and you will get people working from home, and you will get designers sending their prodicts down the line to automated factories, at which point a country will shift from its manual labour priorities to an intellectual output, in which the intellect will be harnessed to more or less go straight into production. That's a way off yet, but the Net will grow. At the moment it's interesting. I think "faddish" is the wrong word. People are seeing what the Net can do, but there's a long way to go yet. There's a lot of growth potential in there, some of which we can't anticipate.

There's a possibility of a Greg Mandel TV series, isn't there?
Word has gone down from ITV and the BBC that they are not receptive to science fiction, because they've suddenly realized that it's been 15 years since Blake's 7, God help us, and we've got the Gerry Anderson Space Precinct coming up, God help us again. So this company, Diverse Productions, went round all the publishers asking what properties they had got, and Pan announced that I was one of their "properties," and so I've been teamed up with Adrian Hodges who created Kavanaugh, QC and wrote the screenplay for Tom and Viv. Between us, we are now going to produce a proposal which will go to ITV or the BBC, and hopefully one of them will finance it.
Obviously the Mandel books can't be filmed as they are. For a start, you've got the Warming to take into account. You can't have characters dricing past palm trees in Rutland, unfortunately, so I've hedged about a bit. I've said of the Warming that it just created super-storms, and instead of my fictional political parties the PSP and the New Conservatives, we've now got the collapse of European federalism. The political extremes aren't there any more. When I began writing the Mandel books in 1990, we had Kinnock and Thatcher, which were heavy influences in the sociological make-up of the books. Now we've got Major and Blair, who you can't tell apart with a magnifying glass. So the TV proposals give me a chance to update the books from that perspective, but the Mindstar Brigade and Event Horizon will of course still be there.

And the TV series might satisfy those readers who are clamouring for more Greg Mandel books, in the same way that the Star Trek books satisfy Trekkies who can't get enough of the TV series.
But if Night's Dawn fails totally, I could be sitting here in two years' time saying, "Well, I always wanted to do a fourth Mandel book!"

So what's going to happen after Night's Dawn?
I haven't got a clue. The end of Night's Dawn is probably three to four years in the future.

Are you worried about committing yourself that long to one project?
I worried at the start of it. Obviously it's a very big step for Pan to take, to buy a book that size, not to mention the fact that it's the first of a trilogy, but given that they have bought it, it's a trilogy so it's more or less commissioned to be written. A nice position for an author to be in, knowing that his next two books have already been sold. After that, God knows what'll happen. Star Trek books, probably!

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