Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Real Talk: An Interview with Adam Roberts

(This interview originally appeared in Interzone 272).

The Real-Town Murders is just out from Gollancz. It’s a lean, twisty, frabjous, near‑future murder mystery thriller, with one or two dreamy philosophical interludes. I only spotted three Hitchcock references — one was a massive conversation between the protagonist, Alma, and the famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock, so it was hard to miss — but my sense is that The Real‑Town Murders is chocka with Hitchcock. How important was he to the novel?

The germ of The Real-Town Murders was an account I came across of a film Hitchcock never got around to making. He had the idea for a pre-credits sequence, set (this was the early 1970s) in a fully automated, robot-only car factory. He said the camera would follow the whole process of a car being made: you’d see the raw materials being delivered by automated truck; the camera would work its way along the assembly line as robots fitted the body panels together, inserted the engine, put in seats and so on. No people around at all; everything automated. At the end of this sequence the camera would follow the now completely built car out the other end of the factory, down a ramp to join a long line of similarly assembled autos. A man would come along with a clipboard to check the build. He would open the boot of the car and .... inside would be a dead body. “If only I could figure out how that dead body got into that car,” Hitchcock said, “I would make that movie.” But he never could, and so the movie was never made.

But you did, and so the novel was.

Well, I thought to myself: that’s a good starting place, that will give me the chance to write a proper whodunit that’s also a thriller with as many Hitchcockian touches as I like — my own versions of the famous scenes from The Birds and North by North West and so on, as well as other smaller things ...

Such as?

It’s perfectly true that Hitchcock once said: “Puns are the highest form of literature” for instance; and it’s also true that he did want to have a scene in which Cary Grant hid inside Lincoln’s nose and gave himself away by sneezing. He even wanted to call the movie The Man Who Sneezed in Lincoln’s Nose, and only when the studio wouldn’t let him did he settle on the unmeaning North by Northwest.

Hitchcock famously gave himself cameos in his own films. I’m wondering if Adam Roberts plays any of the bit parts in Real-Town.

Hitchcock’s cameos are odd, aren’t they? I can’t make up my mind about them. On the one hand they’re always minor, blink-and-you’d-miss-them moments, playing up Hitchcock’s own plump nondescriptness, his middle-aged-bald-man ordinariness. Nothing to see here. But in another sense, everything we see in a Hitchcock film is Hitchcock. His films are sold on the strength of his distinctive visual logic, his style and look; and he was famously controlling about his art, being closely involved from the original idea and the scriptwriting through to casting, set-design, directing (of course), editing and even the poster design and promotion. Film-making is a collaborative business of course, but to a much greater extent than other directors Hitchcock’s films were All Him. A gesture of self-effacement located in a much larger gesture of prodigious visual self-display looks almost disingenuous, as if it’s trying to inoculate the film against the idea that its purpose is precisely magnifying Hitchcockianness. And though I love his movies, and though I am beguiled, as whole generations have been, by his on-screen persona in promos and interviews and so on (that adenoidal drawl, that cheap-suit, that placid reticence, his stolidity as a physical player) it’s also worth noting that there was an overbearing element to him that speaks to male ego. To male sexual ego, not least. He kept casting the same type of classy blonde beauty in his female leads and, more than one of them has subsequently said he sexually harassed or pressured them on set—Tippi Hedren’s autobiography contains some alarming stories from the set of The Birds, for instance. That was also something of which I was aware when I wrote the novel, and which informs (in part) the female-only (more or less) cast list.

So it’s about the valences of self-presentation, and that always necessarily partakes, to one degree or another, of fantasy. For good and for ill.  Eve Marie Saint came to fame in On The Waterfront, and when Hitchcock picked her up for North by Northwest he told her she shouldn’t bother with what he called ‘those sink-to-sink movies’ any more: ‘women leave the sink at home when they come to the cinema,’ he said, ‘they don’t want to see another sink up there.’ This implies quite a straightforward theory of cinematic fantasy: in real life your husband is a dullard and you spend your life washing dishes, but at the movies you can imagine running off with Cary Grant and drinking elegant cocktails in Manhattan—or, from Hitchcock’s perspective, you yourself are fat, bald and ugly, but in your movie you can be Cary Grant, so tall, suave and gorgeous that Eve Marie Saint really won’t be able to help herself. Except that Hitchcock’s real genius was not in telling stories, or spinning fantasies, but in interrupting stories, in holding the storytelling suspensefully back, in the obstacles to fantasy rather than the fantasy itself. I wonder if, on some deep level, his cameos aren’t a slightly mournful acknowledgement that he is not actually in charge, that Fantasy not only is never so facile but wouldn’t be Fantasy it were—that he will never (as it were) be Cary Grant, never make Eve Marie Saint love him. Little visual testimonials to his relative insignificance. The more he attempts to project his large-scale fantasia, the more the real him is squeezed into a trivial, passing moment. There’s something quite profound about that, I think.

I appreciate that none of this answers the specific question you asked me. So: I have no difficulty accepting my relative and indeed my absolutely insignificance. I suppose that one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing SF is that it means I can avoid the confessional Knausgaardian gush and vomit of nakedly autobiographical writing, which does not interest me at all (as a writer, I mean). That’s not to say I don’t write about myself, of course. In one sense I can’t help but write about myself, just like any writer; but the way to write about oneself, and to insert oneself into one’s books, is slant, obliquely, in coded form. Bête is by far my most personal, autobiographical novel, but unless I’ve messed up on the execution you wouldn’t know it, even if you know all about my actual life, since I go out of my way to displace all that.

I did feel the novel needed a cameo, though—just not one of me. So I put my friend Scott Eric Kaufman in it. He knew it was coming, but sadly he died before the novel was published. 

You’ve said that when you write, you tend to strike a balance between having it all plotted out, and finding out where it’s going as you write. How did that play out in the writing of the breakneck hurtle narrative of The Real-Town Murders?

Breakneck Hurtle sounds like a 1920s Blues guitarist from Missouri.

With regular novels I will have a sense of the overall shape, I’ll know where I’m starting, where I want to end up and which points I definitely want to hit along the way: then I’ll dive in and write a first draft. A puzzle whodunit is a slightly different proposition, in that it has to be more carefully plotted out if it is going to fit together. So things have to be planned a little more thoroughly. The trick here, in my experienced, is to leave enough spaces in the structure you work out to allow the actual writing process to expand or contract as needed. But that’s not so hard.

Have you seen/read Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety and/or Robert Arthur’s The Three Investigators series? Both favourites of mine when I was a kid.

You know what, I’ve never read The Three Investigators. Should I?

Well, not necessarily. I think I remember the series being a bit sassier than The Hardy Boys. When the sleuths hit an impasse they go to Alfred Hitchcock’s house for some reason, and that helps. Also I liked it that when the series reboots as YA in the 1990s, it’s really the Two-and-a-Half Investigators, because one of them  just sort of doesn’t come to things anymore, because he’s like seventeen now and finds the whole thing a bit cringeworthy.

But I suppose I’m just interested in the order in which things are encountered? I got my Hitchcock via Hitchockiana plus the Brooks pastiche long before seeing any actual Hitchcock films …

I know the Brooks film, of course, and whilst it’s no Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, it’s pretty funny. And pastiche is a major mode of culture. Don Quixote is pastiche, and a greater artwork than any of the chivalric romances it mocks. The Incredibles is a better 1960s spy adventure movie than any actual 1960s spy adventure movie. The Rutles’ ‘Let’s Be Natural’ is a better pop-song than 95% of actual Beatles tracks. And so on.

I certainly recognise the situation you describe. My kids were first exposed to Shrek and Simpsons’ parodies, and later to the texts those works were parodying—a kind of precession of pasticheacra. That’s really interesting, I think; and has a particular relevance to SF, where (some) texts explicitly set out to represent things that have yet to happen. Which came first, Star Trek’s communicators or the iPhone? How can the former precede the latter when only the latter is real?

Of course I could go googling things in The Real-Town Murders that might be Hitchcock references. At one point the protagonist buys a muffin: isn’t that from Dial M for Muffin?

Torn Cupcake.

The Man Who Ate Too Much.

Cake by Cakewest.

Jamaica Muff-Inn.


Notorious Sponge.

Shadow of a Donut.

The Battenbirds.

Strangers on a Tarte Tatin.

The Wrong Naan.



We’re moving from cakes into bread, now, though, aren’t we.

In writing satire and/or SF, sometimes the challenge is having your cake and eating it: “How do I slip in something I suspect 90% of my readers won’t ‘get’, in such a way that they don’t mind not getting it?” But in The Real-Town Murders, this seems to be something you reflect on quite explicitly.

There are bits in the novel, like when Alma meets Derp Throat, that really engage with search engine society. It feels like a world where constant online research has become a basic part of how people interact. Everybody is a foreigner working hard to get by speaking everybody else’s idiolects.

I’m pleased you picked up on that, since it was something specifically in my mind as I was writing.

And the online research really becomes conspicuous when it disappears. For most characters in your world, such research must be an unconscious, invisible habit. It’s supported by augmented reality and some unspecified frictionless interface (neural implants, perhaps?). But Alma, the protagonist, is different. So long as she’s on the run, she can’t go online … just in case They that her login to track her.

So it’s mostly Alma’s sudden incapacity to look things up that brings to the fore questions about when people do or don’t, or should or shouldn’t, look things up.

Fifteen years ago thriller writers and crime writers used to complain that the new ubiquity of mobile phones rendered a good chunk of the standard templates of their genre redundant, forcing them into increasingly improbable shifts, ‘her phone was down to one bar, and there was no signal’ and so on. It seems to me that SF is in a similar place nowadays, with the ubiquitous accessibility of, you know, All Knowledge.

I think I understand that better with respect to detective fiction than to SF? With shows like CSI and Sherlock you sometimes get a sense of the detective figure as little more than the search-engine-made-flesh … which can be, apart from anything else, a bit boring. But how does it apply in the case of SF? I mean, the look-up-ability of everything isn’t really rendering standard SF genre templates redundant — or is it?

It strikes at one paradigm of the genre more forcefully than some others, maybe. It is perfectly true to say that Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories with the explicit aim of educating people about science, and even worked out the ratio of sugar-to-medicine he thought best helped that unpalatable lessons to go down: ‘75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science’ was his calculation. And all that is swept-away by the new age of Instant Access to Total Knowledge, I think—I mean, if you want to understand orbital mechanics is your time really best spent reading a story that laboriously explains orbital mechanics by padding it out with three-quarters-to-one-quarter cardboard characters and grey dialogue? Given that Wikipedia can give you the salient in a fraction of the time? But—of course—there are plenty of other paradigms of SF, and I guess it’s obvious that my own take on the genre has never been particularly Gernsbackian. Gernsbackish. Gernsbackoid. Gernsdorsal. Yes … that last one.

In The Real-Town Murders, the sense of cultural fragmentation is—

‘Gernsdorsal’. I like that! Do you think it might catch on?

No. In The Real-Town Murders, the sense of cultural fragmentation is something that mostly manifests itself in dialogue. Perhaps look-up-ability is becoming, for many people, a kind of implicit validity claim in everyday communication: even when nobody is literally googling something, it is difficult to comport yourself intelligibly without registering fluctuating forms and intensities of the look-up-ability of whatever it is you’re saying?

The sarcastic LMGTFY acronym, for instance.

What does that stand for?


Fine, be that way. I’ll google it later. I guess the main point is that changes in technology are going hand‑in‑hand with changes in oral culture, and perhaps SF is struggling a bit to reflect those changes. Partly that’s because SF is one genre that feels a particular duty to reflect such changes, out of its desire to be a certain kind of cutting edge … only, trying to do so reveals the ways in which dialogue in fiction is already highly stylized. Dialogue is unlike narrative prose, but dialogue is also unlike most transcribed speech. We don’t normally notice the conventions we rely on when we read dialogue. But trying to alter those conventions just a little to accommodate new technology confronts us with how arbitrary they are.

But have you been probing dialogue conventions in your work for a while? I’ve noticed in a few of your books that … unexpected things happen inside speech marks. Do you write dialogue differently from how you write the rest? Or differently from how many others write dialogue?

There are several bad ways of writing dialogue, but there are also several good ways, and some of those latter don’t get enough airtime, I think. I mean, there’s a standard ‘this is good dialogue’ school of thought, but actually there’s a lot more to good dialogue than that school allows. It’s what gets taught in Creative Writing 101: don’t use your dialogue just to infodump or exposit plot; don’t have all your characters speak with exactly the same flavour; do read your dialogue aloud to see if it sounds right, do make notes of actual overheard speech to try and get a sense of the rhythms of it. Mid-period DeLillo is especially good at this ‘good dialogue’-school stuff (though I fear he’s losing his touch as he gets older). The dialogue in Underworld is full of things like:

I’ll quote you that you said that.
She’s got a great body for how many kids?
They put son of a bitches like you behind bars is where you belong.
I’m a person if you ask me questions.  You want to know who I am?  I’m a person if you’re too inquisitive I tune you out completely.
Which is the whole juxt of my argument.

When Martin Amis reviewed the novel he criticised the ‘deliberate uglification’ of DeLillo’s dialogue.  I couldn’t disagree more. All those line I just quoted seem to me to possess real beauty, a poetic apprehension of the way throwing ordinary rhythms slightly off kilter can generate little jabs of beauty.  The second one in the particular is just superb—She’s got a great body for how many kids?—its jaunty knight’s-move shape; that little bounce in its middle.  Language in use, slightly scuffed and distressed but polished, shining (like the toe of a brass statue of a saint that has been touched and touched by decades of hands); more immediate, more corporeal, and tuned to the rhythms of lungs and tongues. How rare is this level of writing in SF? That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way—I’m really asking. How rare is it?

But to go back to what I was saying before I brought in l’il-old DeLillo: this is one way of doing good dialogue, but it’s not the only way. Wodehouse wrote great dialogue, although people don’t speak like that ‘in real life’, and never did. Nicola Barker is very good on just how much of human speech is phatic. For myself, I like to try and include things in dialogue that aren’t often included in it. I love the I’m-a-poet-and-I-didn’t-know-it inadvertent eloquences of speech, and like mansplaining (different to infodumping, and as an aesthetic rather than an actual thing). I like catchy phrasing, and hesitations and wrongsteps and all that. Just my personal crotchets, really, things that I like—but I would extrapolate to at least one general principle, which is: however you’ve written your dialogue you ought to go over it again and ruffle it up a little bit. I read an interview with Graham Coxon once (this dates me, I know) who was asked what he felt his role in Blur was, and he said ‘well Damon writes all these pretty little pop tunes and I feel my job is to go through them fucking them up a little bit. Not too much, just a little bit.’ There’s a very profound aesthetic insight there, I think.

In 1929 Ronald Knox composed ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction’ which try, a little jokingly, to codify what ‘fair play’ is in detective fiction. He claims that the rules of detective fiction are more like those of cricket than of poetry. His rules include these two: “No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end”; “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” Without reading these commandments too literally, might they point to interesting tensions between detective fiction and science fiction?

It has long been an axiom of criticism that detective fiction and SF are immiscible, because (I’m in-a-nutshelling Brian McHale and Linda Hutcheon and others, here) detective fiction is basically epistemological and SF is basically ontological. Detective fiction is epistemological in that it’s about finding stuff out, uncovering secrets, acquiring knowledge; and SF is ontological because it’s about thinking other being, building-worlds, interrogating the nature of things and so on. There’s a lot more to e.g. McHale’s argument than that actually—and by invoking him I’m aligning my own writing with ‘postmodernism’ which, while it’s apropos, tends to alienate readers (in my experience at any rate)—but this argument is sometimes deployed to explain why there has been so little successful whodunit SF.

You think so?

There are a couple of Asimov novels, Caves of Steel, Naked Sun, and a certain amount of more disposable things, but broadly the handsome Jeff Goldblum of SF has not clambered into the matter-transporter with the buzzy fly of Puzzle Whodunits and beamed into bookshops very often in literary history. Still: the questions McHale says are posed by ‘the Epistemological novel’ [“What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it?; and with what degree of certainty?; how is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?”] seem to me questions that can usefully be metagenerically turned back onto genre.

Can you say more? Do you mean using SF to pose questions like, ‘How does SF transmit knowledge from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?’, and attempt answers?

I’m aware of the danger of over-generalising an extremely large and diverse body of texts but do you think most SF is really in the business of asking What is there to be known?—that there is stuff to be known is taken as axiomatic, and our space heroes boldly go off to know it. But. Who knows it? is ‘Science’; How do they know it? is ‘Hey, we just do’. And questions of the reliability or otherwise of the transmission of that knowledge are reduced to questions of, let’s say, military supply-lines, or infrascture, or Moore’s Law computational capacity and so on.


You say that ….

Look: it’s not without problems, I know, because these questions are rather corrosive of the believability or identifiability of the imagined worlds of SF, and so they tend to give a flavour to a SF novel that not everybody likes. Human kind cannot stand very much relentless self-interrogation, after all; and there’s nothing wrong in wanted to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show.

Of course, common sense might tell us “but knowing is what science is all about, so epistemology should fit neatly in with SF!”

Yes, and I’d suggest that ‘science’ (if you’ll permit me the over-generalisation) is more interested in the what that is known than in the who that knows. Science likes to think of itself as objective, and scientists as agents of objectivity. Detective fiction is less about facts, although it may play with ‘clues’ and the like. It is more about unreliability, about ‘trust no-one,’ and of course about mortality. Here I’m tempted to slide into a much longer and more complicated argument, so I’ll rein myself in: except to say that it’s remarkable, really, how completely murder has come to dominate the detective mode. Most of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are about other kinds of crimes: jewel theft and blackmail and missing persons and the like. But the genre that developed in part from Holmes very quickly became about murder and that’s where it has remained. That’s because the detective mode is really about death, our anxiety about death, the puzzle of death—the puzzle of the murder whodunit is a way of emblematising the puzzle of death itself, the puzzle that we die.

If the real puzzle is death, fair play becomes impossible, doesn’t it? The detective can solve the puzzle, in a way that the reader can’t, by being a fictional character.

We can only apprehend the death of others, never our own. Death is not lived-through. And other suchlike jolly and heartening considerations.

We often talk about ‘worlds’ in SF. Worldbuilding and all that. But the striking thing for a reader who really, really wants to match the detective and solve the mystery alongside them, is that a text is not a world. For instance, things don’t happen by chance, or not the same kind of chance. And you can’t really zoom into a text to a fine grain, or interact with it in the same ways. As a writer of detective fiction, aspiring to fair play, how do you deal with those discrepancies?

The photograph Deckard examines in Blade Runner is a really potent rebus for this, isn’t it: the notion of a text as something infinitely fractal, infinitely zoomable-into. That said, I wonder if I agree with your premise, though. I mean, is the actual world as fine grained as you imply?

Well, I suppose the relata of a text are not necessarily coherent and mutually reinforcing. As a reader, you’re being sold an ontological pig in a poke, I think. A text often becomes less solid, not more solid, the more you study it, atomising into a manifold of rhetorical effects. And the reader and the detective are fundamentally different classes of entity. Somebody who is good at guessing the ends of stories isn’t necessarily any good at real world deduction, and vice-versa.

Texts exist in complicated networks of other texts; the rhetorical effects you mention aren’t melted ice-cream, they have a kind of specificity, a kind of reality. Texts also stand still: you can go back and check things in a way rarely true in the real world. And whilst you’re surely right that skill at predicting or ‘solving’ stories is not transferrable into the real world, and that real-life crime is nothing like this mode of puzzle, that’s not to say that the real-world somehow floats above ‘story’ as such. We all live our lives by various stories, il n’y a pas de hors-texte and all that.

I almost said ‘somebody who is good at guessing the ends of stories isn’t necessarily any good at solving crimes,’ but for some reason I resisted. Perhaps that’s because we all live our lives by various stories, and storytelling practices aren’t always necessarily a million miles from the actual practices of nicking baddies? Somebody creates a narrative, backed by state violence, in which you are assigned a role of confessor or snitch. Or you get entrapped by a system that generates the crime that it also polices, because your actions fit with the narrative of the police and the courts, better than they fit with your own narrative. That’s solving crimes by producing truths, rather than getting at the truth per se.

In your novel Jack Glass, you not only blended science fiction and detective fiction, but specifically Golden Age SF with Golden Age Detective Fiction. There is some discrepancy between the stylized clue-puzzle cozy whodunit that we all think we know and love, and all the complicated messy things actually going on in the crime novel of the 20s and 30s. In Jack Glass, it felt to me you were more interested in the latter than the former. For instance, the idea that the Golden Age detective is all about healing the disruption in the social order. And also, perhaps, the idea that Golden Age crime fiction is sort of sanitary and jolly and scarcely about blood and death at all. If you really wanted a cozy, bloodless mystery, why not go with the jewel theft?

The hopeful part of the SF mode is that it tropes death as a soluble puzzle, but it’s still death, and our own mortality. And that I do think that’s at odds with the more formally hopeful anti-tragic logic of SF [here’s where I insert a 12,000 word summary of my Palgrave History of Science Fiction] which is about overcoming death, about resurrection and boldly going, about Spock coming back from the dead or Doctor Who endlessly regenerating. SF is not about resurrection in every single particular of every single story, of course; but I’d argue the larger logic of the genre has to do with this, that its various senses of wonder and transcendences trope that larger transcendence. So that’s another way in which the two modes don’t fit.

So what’s the relationship in your mind between The Real-Town Murders and Jack Glass?

I can’t deny there’s a kind of perversity about trying to make the two modes fit, and to fit at a deeper level than just dressing up a detective novel with spacesuits and ray-guns. The thing Jack Glass has in common with Real-Town has to do with that perversity. I should probably say a little more about that. After all, being perverse is nothing to boast about. Plus I’m amazingly and rather grimly conventional and boring in real-life. The sort of person who brags about their perversity is the sort to be avoided, by and large. They might be overselling themselves, attempting to disguise mild unconventionality as something more satanic, or perhaps they really do have a creepy affection for the unsavory and are sounding you out to see if you want to join in. The English are a deeply conventional people who pay a kind of lip-service to the unconventional (the eccentric, the office joker, the revolving-bow-tie wearer, the oddball) in an attempt to convince themselves they are not as ovine as in fact they are. I say “they”; I mean, of course, “we”. And that’s problematic: it allows the Jimmy Saviles of this world, the genuinely and dreadfully perverse, to hide in plain sight. So I hope I don’t mean perverse in that sense. But I’m conscious that there is something ‘in’ me, as a writer, that resists the conventional, the usual and the familiar. On the level of affect it bores me, and on the level of praxis it is rather suffocating: do we really need yet another cookie-cutter Heroic Fantasy or standard issue MilSciFi deep space battle? Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but ... don’t we have enough of those in the backlist already? It was precisely the scope SF offers to make it strange and new that attracted me to the genre as a kid, and that’s still what holds me. So perverse means: take the familiar riffs and fuck them up a little, in hopefully creative and fertile ways. But it also means: people are liable to find what I do repellent, or eminently ignorable, or turgid, or whatever. My friend, the American academic Alan Jacobs, has proposed mapping out genre on the twin axes of speculative/meticulous and accommodating/perverse.

A graph! This is those unexpected things happening inside speech marks …

It’s clear enough where my kind of writing comes on that notional graph, I think. At any rate, being told that SF and whodunits can’t mix will act by way of taurine scarletry to me, more so than it might to another kind of writer. I grew up obsessively reading SF and Fantasy. I read a lot in part because I grew up in a house full of books, where reading was taken as axiomatic—but none of those books were SF and Fantasy: I had to beg, borrow and cadge the money to buy my own SF paperbacks. The shelves of the house were filled by my mother’s great appetite for crime fiction, so I grew up reading those on the side, as it were, when I couldn’t scratch together the money to buy skiffy. Not Agatha Christie, particularly: my Mum’s taste ran more to Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, that sort of writer. So there’s something I love about the pure form puzzle whodunit that goes back a long way, and which the more recent swerve in ‘Crime’ as a genre towards gritty psychological drama and police procedurals doesn’t satisfy.
In other words, I’m motivated to find ways to force together these ill-matched modes, and to find ways in which they can illuminate one another. How much strain can the ontological foundations of SF take, and so on.

Alma is also unusual in the novel for turning her back on the immersive virtual reality where most people spend most of their days. The whole setting of The Real-Town Murders actually has the feeling of something that goes on backstage, or in those hidden infrastructural spaces that are supposed to be for Authorised Personnel Only — except here, those spaces are actually the entire world we’re familiar with. They’re places like Reading, now chirpily rebranded R!-town.

Perhaps the presence or even possibility of immersive virtual reality in a narrative — a bit like those mobile phones you mentioned — also exerts a kind of powerful gravity, which distorts ordinary narrative logic and essentially makes it very difficult to tell certain kinds of stories? I’m interested in how the Shine is such an important presence in Real-Town, and yet the characters never actually visit it.

Well, that’s really the only way the story could be told, don’t you think? Given how wonderful the Shine is supposed to be, how many testimonies the novel includes to its manifold superiorities to the real world, it would lose all narrative and dramatic force if I set any actual scenes in there, or described it in too much detail. I’m obliged, really, to constantly big-up the Shine at the same time as I deny my readers a good look at the Shine.

I guess I agree. I’m thinking of Iain M. Banks’s Hydrogen Sonata, when he finally gives you a good long peek into the Sublime, which is this kind of science fictional heaven he’s hinted at in earlier novels. And while it’s bravely chosen and ingeniously executed … it still feels disenchanting, maybe even disappointing.

Hard to see how it could be anything else. A related phenomenon is the many narratives of revolution, from Marx through to today’s Singularity-heads, constantly looking-forward to how great things will be without ever quite spelling-out exactly how things will be. The one really significant exception I know is the last act of Shelley’s Prometheus Bound: the first three portions of that verse drama repeatedly talk about how great things will be when tyranny (Jupiter) is defeated—and then Jupiter is defeated—and Shelley gives us a great wad of lyric poetry and dancing and joy. It’s brave, but kind of doomed, writing. Because as soon as we describe paradise we engage that part of our brains that likes to nitpick. You know that Marx quotation from The German Ideology about how after the Revolution each man or woman will be able ‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner’—whenever I come across that line I find myself thinking: phew, that sounds like hard work, though. But then again, maybe that’s just my age. In Minima Moralia Adorno says that his vision of communism is precisely of the release from struggle: ‘Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, “being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfillment,” might take the place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic that it would culminate in its origin.’ Rien faire comme une bête—now there’s a slogan we can all get behind.

One of the things that I like about the novel is that it figures the future (that is, the future from the perspective of the characters) as something entirely unsettled. At one point, Alma steps out of augmented reality, and finds that raw #nofilter perception is almost painfully delightful; “die of a rose in aromatic pain” etc. The novel is partly about a kind of game and/or war between the virtual and the real, and the future is the object of real political struggles, and particular decisions made by particular actors, rather than some inevitable outcome of large processes, technological or otherwise. Thoughts?

It’s a very good question. It’s partly to do with the exigencies of the sort of novel I’m writing, I suppose. I’m not sure how one would write a ‘history is the product of large processes not individuals’ novel nowadays, short of going the full War and Peace hog, lengthy Tolstoyan appendices and all. The danger in believing that history is governed by huge impersonal forces is how discouraging such belief is to personal action. Why bother getting involved in politics if it’s all pre-ordained? But people should get involved. That means you! And you, standing next to that person. And you at the back. But not you.

You also have a Professorial hat. Do you think the phrase ‘real world’ as it is sometimes used in universities, or in connection with universities, may have influenced aspects of this novel, or aspects of the developing trilogy? I’m not fishing for a defence of any aspect of Higher Education, or anything like that. I guess there is something about the rebranding of towns and cities that reminds me of some clumsy university marketing I’ve seen, simultaneously desperately try-hard and also underselling the reality of the university.

This is bigger than the University world, I think (although I agree it afflicts the academic mindset something shocking)—it’s part of our general Being-in-the-World. The billy-goats gruff think the grass is greener in the field over the river, and human beings from one culture think that human beings from another culture live more authentic lives. Northern Europeans think Mediterranean peoples have a more authentic access to life and joy and sex and passion and so on; Mediterranean people think Northern Europeans have access to a more authentically adult balance of private and public. Skeptics think religious believers can shuffle all their onerous existential responsibilities onto their deity; religious believers think atheists are free of all the onerous existential responsibilities that believing in their deity imposes upon them. We all think it’s other people who live in the ‘real world’. We’re all imposters to ourselves.

But I do take your point about university culture, especially over the last couple of decades. We—by which I mean, since you’ve handed me my Professorial hat, academics—have been made to feel, and also have internalised, a sense of social inferiority, a sense that what we do and who we are isn’t ‘real’. ‘We’ don’t generate the actual wealth of the nation (actually we do, in part, but that’s not the narrative) and therefore are parasitic upon it. We need to be more like commercial companies, we’re told, and we’ve started to believe it—students are ‘customers’, research isn’t really research unless it generates a direct income stream. It’s all a complete shower of frozen bollocks, like hailstones, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have real-world effects. A couple of years ago my university convened a brainstorming session in which they called-in all the teachers of creative writing and invited them, Mad Men style, to come up with a really eye-catching slogan for the institution. The University of Surrey’s ‘Wonderful Things Happen Here’ was mentioned as an example of the kind of thing we should be aiming for. It might as well have been ‘I’m Lovin’ It’. We dutifully mumbled out way round various possibilities, much more brain-drizzle than brainstorm. I’m starting to rant, so I’ll stop—except that it does seem to me to miss the crucial ways in which a life dedicated to education in the broadest and fullest sense of that word really takes existential precedence over a life dedicated to all those other, more notionally ‘authentic’ ideals.

Tell you what: let’s get back to puzzle whodunits. They’re less tangled.

The “false solution” is a key crime fiction trope. But it’s interesting that a false solution may well tie up all the clues almost as well as the real solution. Their falseness has a different source: they’re unsatisfying and/or untimely. I think false solutions are often essentially early drafts. Any thoughts about false solutions?

Well just as a practical matter, the whodunit writer is aiming at a particular affect in his/her reader: you want the reader to go ‘ah!’ at the end, in a satisfied-surprised manner. You don’t want the reader to go ‘what? How the fuck was I supposed to guess that?’ and equally you don’t want the reader to go ‘yeah, boring, that’s just obvious’. It’s a question of pitching it somewhere in between the two. And it’s made harder by the fact that the reader will of course be dynamically engaged with the mystery, trying to figure it out. So you need to veil the actual solution behind not only an obvious-but-wrong solution, but also behind a second layer of not-obvious-but-just-about-guessable solution, which the reader can decipher and upon which they can congratulate themselves for their cleverness. The actual solution needs to be behind that one.

You just mentioned the ubiquitous accessibility of All Knowledge. I guess that goes together with the ubiquitous accessibility of All Error. For instance, at some kind of extreme, you might have the dogmatic conservative who always looks up “[probably true thing that doesn’t cohere with my existing worldview] + ‘fake news’”.

So one of the things The Real-Town Murders does is shine a little light on the ethics and praxis of Investigating Further. It’s interesting to do this using a blend of science fiction and detective fiction: science fiction, because of the importance and complexity of extrapolative thinking within that genre; detective fiction, because often the thing what makes the detective figure different from everybody else is not so much that they can decipher clues, but — OK, it is that, but also — that they can see clues in the first place. The detective is the one for whom bits of reality can be intelligibly unintelligible. The detective is the one who knows which bits of reality to Investigate Further.

I read that as ‘Investigation Führer’, which carries a rather different sets of implications.

Proposition. A novel is a form of AI that runs on distributed hardware, mostly made up of its readers’ brains. There is a kind of mind there, although it is specialised for one sort of task. It does evolve, e.g. Pride and Prejudice is a very different kind of AI compared to what it was in 1817. Thoughts?

Very interesting. But what if something the reverse is true? I don’t mean to go all Daniel Dennett on you, but: entertain the notion that consciousness is much less robust than the ‘hardware’ analogy suggests, much more a matter of overlapping subroutines, layers of vestigial and less vestigial processes, characterised by much greater intermittency and approximation than people generally think. Perhaps the really robust things in the world are the stories — ideologies, religious narratives, myths, even scientific explanations and in‑group bonding narratives. They’re more robust in that people will override really very basic drives (e.g. the drive to stay alive) under the spell of such stories. What I’m suggesting is: the stories are the equivalent of the hardware, and our consciousness are being ‘run’, as it were, on them. This would position Pride and Prejudice (say) at the other end of the process: an iteration of the program, perhaps even a bug test, running on the story ‘romantic love is the life-defining purpose of your existence, lady’.

Ha. That is a fascinating thought. My instinct is to kick against it. I suspect that we both systematically underestimate and systematically overestimate the robustness of stories? But we do have plenty of story specialists equipped and poised to capitalise on the systematic underestimation of stories, by pointing out the power of stories in all kinds of thrilling and enticing ways. We have fewer ways of reminding ourselves of the power of the unstoried, the untellable.

Doesn’t Dennett talk about ‘the intentional stance’ as a nevertheless-often-useful attitude to adopt towards the intermittent, scattered, and contradictory flux of consciousness, and towards the brain, the body, the intricate, unstoried physical reality on which consciousness supervenes? We could have an analogous ‘narrative stance’ as well, perhaps?

Makes sense.

“The body” is fundamental to murder mysteries. The Real-Town Murders seem to be interested in “the body” — as in, generic “the”, bodies, embodiment, etc. — in its own special way. Do you want to say anything about that?

I think that’s spot-on. Habeus Corpus and all that: you have to have the carcase, according to criminal law (or you used to: I think the law has recently been changed in the UK on that score). Dorothy L. Sayers wrote some genuinely great whodunits, and although Have His Carcase is more or less where the rot starts to set in, and she gets distracted by the wish‑fulfilment romance she concocts between Lord Peter Whimsy and Harriet Vane, it’s still quite an interesting murder mystery: about a body that disappears. Some actual murderers have tailored their crime according to the exigencies of habeus corpus: Haigh, for instance, the acid bath murderer, thought that if he dissolved away his victims entirely he could not be charged with a murder. (In the event the police collected items like gallstones and dentures from the slurry that remained, which stood-in as ‘the body’ for the purposes of prosecution. He was hanged).

There is certainly something bodily, something somatic, to use the jargon, about crime fiction. It makes crime writing the dark half of erotic fiction: two genres that have a lot more in common than people realise, I think: both about the body as sites of transgression, excitement and punishment. Tally up how many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey were sold; take a look at the endless parade of sexy vampire novels; try to work out how far it goes, this constellation of the erotic, the punished and the alluringly dead! It’s definitely a Thing. More, and though this does have a global reach, it has a particular place in the English imagination, I think: that folding together of the sexual body and the punished/punishing body. They call it le vice anglais, after all: not le vice americain or le vice russe. Golden Age whodunit writing is dominated by English writers and what we might more loosely call an English sensibility. There’s a link here, I suspect.

There’s more I could say about this, in a specifically SF context, but my argument would, I think, sprawl. Being as brief as I can manage, I’d say: this cultural tradition comes out of the Gothic, at root: the eroticisation of the morbid, the somatic apprehension of death and transgression. I’m not judging, when I say this, by the way; whatever lights your candle. On the other hand I am, I think, suggesting that SF, very broadly, entails a different, less erotic and less morbid. apprehension of the body. The SF body is more likely to be cyborg-ish, active, automatic, kinetic, transcendent, super-heroic, the site of a different sort of somatic fantasy. And, really, what I’m doing by making this argument is rehearsing my disagreement with the critical consensus that sees SF as a sort of development of The Gothic, starting with Shelley’s Frankenstein. I have *clears throat* issues with the SF-is-the-descendent-of-Gothic thesis, which I’ve developed at length elsewhere. (Frankenstein really is a special case, I think: a sort of Schrödinger’s novel that exists both as SF and as Gothic-proto-Horror, depending on whether we read the monster as a ghoul or as a kind of machine But, Shelley aside, there’s actually very little crossover between 1760s-1800s Gothic and what was, by then, really quite an established mode of writing. I’ll climb down off my hobby horse now).

Coming back to Real-Town: the body, yes. It’s important in obvious and some less obvious ways. Mostly this is a novel that takes its place in quite a venerable post-cyberpunk tradition where a superior online virtual existence vies with a shabby, limiting actual-world existence. The premise of the book is that more and more of the population are migrating into the novel’s virtual dimension, called ‘the Shine’ because all the good terminology for suchlike Matrix-y places are already taken. That’s both backdrop and plot-driver, and since the novel is set in the real world it couldn’t avoid a certain emphasis upon the bodily even if it wanted to. Better to go the whole hog. So I’ve included some big bodies in my novel, some naked bodies, bodies in various states of decomposition and recomposition.

And bodies of water. This also seems to be a novel of stocks and flows, of infrastructure and irrigation and circulation, of inputs and outputs and flows and bends and sphincters and collars and piping, and of course timers and manual recalibrations.

That’s a very astute comment, I think. I might say a good deal in reply, but I notice I’ve already said a lot. So I’ll be briefer and note only one thing: having spent my time as a writer doing completely different books each time I produce a new one, I went into Real-Town thinking I might do a trilogy.

That’s exciting!

For the first time in my life. I mean, there’s a first time for everything, right? So there are couple of things in Real-Town that I’m hoping to pick up in the follow-up volumes, to do with the two rivers that run together at Reading, a certain fluidity of gender, and more specifically to do with money and capital fluidity and blockchain obstructiveness and other things.

Can’t wait. I hope there’s a lot more about AI in there as well. And care. Am I right in thinking you wrote The Real-Town Murders soon after judging a competition for SF short fiction about medicine? Do you think that informed your writing?

Actually I think the keel for Real-Town was laid before I did that judging gig. So I’m going to go with: ‘nope’, here.

Do you think there could be such a thing as a reverse spoiler, or the opposite of the spoiler, or an unspoiler, or an enricher?

A spoiler is a very fragile thing: it can only flourish immediately before a first-reading of a novel, or first viewing of a movie; it can only ever affect some small portions of that experience (plot-twists for instance). The weakling spoiler expires pathetically before any re-reading or re-viewing. I’ve read Lord of the Rings dozens of times: spoilers for this novel have no power over me. What interests me is that we in fandom talk as if spoilers possess enormous power, and must be warded off with heroic collective effort, when, really, spoilers are pathetically feeble and sickly. In a culture of re-readers they would die out. Perhaps we’re not re-readers, broadly speaking, anymore? So many books, so little time, and high on the crack of narrative surprise. A whodunit would make an interesting test case, here, I think: would you re-read a puzzle whodunit? Or would you consider that as pointless as doing the same cryptic crossword twice? Me, I’m an obsessive re-reader, and write my books in the hope that they’ll be re-read, and I’m well aware as I do so that my real problem is getting anybody to read me once, never mind twice. Ah well.

Although I bet whodunits get flipped through a second time more than most books.

You reckon? You may be right.

Sounds to me like spoilers are not exactly weaklings, they have a potent attack but pitiful defence: in gamer terminology, glass cannons.

I had to google ‘glass cannons’, which shows how out of touch I am becoming. So it means something with impressive offensive, but feeble defensive, capacities, yes? But doesn’t ‘glass cannon’ rather imply the opposite? You load it and try to fire it and it shatters—but in doing so it litters the battlefield with hulking great shards of glass, thereby impeding your enemy’s advance? No?

You mean like caltrops or jack rocks? Jack glass rocks, of course, are the output of loading one canon into another. But speaking of gaming, which of your books would you most like to see as a game? Or as a film?

A lot of writers salivate at the prospect of a film deal, partly because there’s a lot more money to be made in that world than in publishing, and partly because film just does have more glamour, more kudos. I have creative writing students who view getting a novel published as the first step on the ladder to getting a film made, which is what they really want, because they grew up on films. I tell them that if cinema is where their heart is, they should be writing screenplays. My novels? They’re really not very cinematic, I think: not conceived in a filmic or visual-narrative way, are more interested in words and ideas. Or so it seems to me. So, though it would of course be cool to get a movie deal, I can understand why film-makers aren’t forming an orderly queue at my door. There was a deal for New Model Army, but it didn’t come to anything. Otherwise? Yellow Blue Tibia might make a reasonable movie, I suppose. I don’t know enough about the world of games to know which of mine would make a good game, though.

I think I would play The Thing Itself quite a lot. I might have to uninstall it actually. So, the core conceit of that novel involves the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categories of possible experience, which become manipulable by, shall we say, an entity. Did you feel you were fudging any aspects of Kant’s system in order to yield that conceit?

On the contrary! I thought, making allowances for the relative shallowness of my grasp of Kant (I don’t speak German, for instance), that I was engaging seriously with Kant’s ideas. There are a couple of aspects in the novel which constitute a genuine critique of the Critique on my part, and rendering the whole as an in-world agent-patient sequential adventure, howsoever far-fetched a one, was in itself a mode of ‘reading’ Kant, whose ideas (after all) were about our actual, on-going Being-in-the-World rather than the abstruse purely conceptual pattern most Kantians seem to take them as. Michael Moorcock called Philip K. Dick ‘a great philosophical writer who found science fiction the ideal form for the expression of his ideas’: Grafton put that blurb on the back of the five-volume paperback edition of Dick’s complete short stories, and when I was younger, reading those very volumes, that blurb struck me as both cool and admirable, to the point of being something any serious SF author ought to emulate.

That is interesting. It does ring true, for me, that the book is a serious engagement, and not only playful opportunistic riffing. But my hunch is that the critique has something of the structure of a reductio ad absurdum … although, yes, not as an abstruse purely conceptual pattern, but as something far more flexible and generative, and far more concerned with ways of seeing and imagining and feeling, than that term usually implies.

Any other thoughts about science fiction, detective fiction, ontology and epistemology?

Many, many thoughts.  Lordy lordy, so many thoughts.

When you were writing The Real-Town Murders, you mentioned to me a slightly different ending. Do you want to say anything about that?

That’s part two, working title: The Punctured Thumb (or, I guess: Real-Town 2: The Punctured Thumb, or maybe The Punctured Thumb: A Real-Town Murder ... I don’t know). But, wait: this drags us back into the realm of spoilers again, doesn’t it. Verb. sap., and so on, and so forth.

A little bird, whom I have employed to do marketing for my poetry press, tells me you will be publishing some Vergil translations later this year. What do you think of the relationship between poetry and SF? Seo-Young Chu has argued for a lyric theory of science fiction. But I recall reading someone (maybe Samuel Delany?) saying they thought poetry and science fiction are inimical modes; they can be woven together, but they interfere with each other too much to ever become truly fused.

Yet another translation of Vergil? Does the world really the need for such a thing? Your poetry press ought to think long and hard about that, I’d say.

The ‘SF and poetry’ question depends on what you mean by poetry. Narrative, epic poetry: no, I think you’re right. But it is part of the argument that I make in my Palgrave History, and some other critical stuff I’ve written, that SF has so much in common with lyric and imagist poetry that it’s almost worth describing SF as a poetry itself. My argument draws on Roman Jakobson, who distinguished between metonymic and metaphorical logics, the former being strong of sequentially connected items as in a narrative or a logical argument, A leads to B leads to C, where the latter is a sudden leap into an unexpected or non‑predictable direction as in a lyric epiphany or a joke. Jakobson was working with autistic children and was struck that though they were often very good at comprehending metonymic connections but were baffled by even the simplest metaphors: “Achilles is a lion? No he’s not, he’s a human being” and so on.

When I’m asked to define SF, as sometimes happens, I say: SF, I think, is the bone thrown into the sky that suddenly, sense-of-wonderfully, but also somehow rightly turns into a spaceship. That transformation is a metaphorical one, in Jakobson’s terms: something marvellous and unexpected, something that could not be predicted ahead of time (in contrast to more readily extrapolated sequences of plot, or association, or logic, of the A to B to C kind). A lot of SF is metonymic, and therefore more-or-less dull. But even SF minds like Arthur Clarke’s, coolly rational and reasonable in almost all aesthetic particulars, are capable of their “Nine Billion Names of God” moments.
I’d be surprised if your maybe-Samuel-Delany turned out actually to be Samuel Delany incidentally, since Delany also makes the argument, in Starboard Wine (I think) that SF is a fundamentally metaphorical mode of art because it aims to represent the world without reproducing it. Which is also what poetry is doing.

What I’m proposing is to expand Delany’s insight, really: SF is metaphorical not only in the sense that it very often literalises metaphors but also in a structural, technical sense (that sense that distinguishes, via Jakobson, between the poetic sense-of-wonderful leap of the metaphor on the one hand, and the plodding, one-thing-then-another-thing connectivity of metonymy on the other). The props and toys, the conceits and extrapolated technologies of the genre are almost always metaphorical, and metaphors are what we live by. It seems to me, as a writer, that this provides a way of mapping the novums of SF onto the character-based and formal aspects of what is sometimes called ‘literary’ fiction. And aren’t all we genre-heads, really, in our hearts, looking for the crack-cocaine of the joyous moment of metaphorical-poetic epiphany? To quote Keanu Reeves: ‘woh’.