‘We’re Winning the War’: A Q&A with SF writer, critic and historian, Adam Roberts

Gautham Shenoy July 7, 2018 15 min

‘…the last true science fiction writer’ were the words the writer and critic, Damien Walter used to describe Adam Roberts in 2013 in his review of Roberts’ 13th novel, Jack Glass. Adam Roberts has since written four more since then, with his 18th book – since his debut with Salt in 2000 – By The Pricking of Her Thumb, expected to be out later this year. But by day, he is the Professor of English Literature, and also teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Apart from writing science fiction novels, Adam Roberts is also a historian of the genre having written a pretty comprehensive critical history of SF, The History of Science Fiction as part of the Palgrave Histories of Literature series, as also Science Fiction (The New Critical Idiom). On the lighter side of the genre, he has – in his A.R.R.R. Roberts avatar – written parodies as well, such as The McAtrix Decoded, The Sellamillion, Doctor Whom, and Star Warped. And for people who want to become SF writers, he has written a book, Getting Started In: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. All of this is apart from his many novellas and short stories. He is also currently writing the literary biography of one of the fathers of modern science fiction, H.G. Wells. Apart from the aforementioned By The Pricking of Her Thumb, another novel, The Black Prince, adapted by Adam Roberts from an original script by Anthony Burgess is also expected to hit the shelves soon. He was also recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and elected as the Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society, a role in which he follows the late, great Brian Aldiss. And last but not the least, Adam Roberts just happens to be one of my favourite science fiction authors, past, present or future.

So, who better then to grace the one hundredth, yes the 100th, edition of India’s longest-running weekly science fiction column – New Worlds Weekly – than Adam Roberts, who I interviewed recently. Without further ado…

Gautham Shenoy: Why science fiction? What makes SF literature so special?

Adam Roberts: I could try to answer this personally, or I could try to answer it more generally. The first answer would note that SF is what I grew up reading, from a young age: that it captured my heart and has never let it go, predisposing me to love its sense-of-wonder and its many marvels.

But there’s a broader answer to this question, too, which would argue (a) that fantastika, in the broadest sense, is the default mode of human storytelling: from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata right through to the twenty-first century: that the ‘realist’ novel is an interesting but limited departure from this broader mode, invented in the 18th-century. Fantastika speaks to our collective need for wonder, to step beyond the mundane in our imaginations.

Shenoy: As a historian of the genre, can you take us through the broad sweeps of the genre in recent times and how they’re different from the SF of the century past?

Roberts: The SF I started reading, in the early 1970s when I was a very little kid, skewed towards short stories by white mostly American, men (with some Brits and some women): even the novels, like Asimov’s Foundation books, were stitched together out of short stories, and those stories tended to be thought-experiments whose characters existed to serve the story-idea, or extrapolation, or sense-of-wonder moment.

The big change in the genre came with the success of Star Wars at the end of the 70s and into the 80s, when SF went from being a small-scale subculture of hardcore fans to being the most commercially popular and lucrative form in the world. It represented quite a radical change in the nature of SF, too: ‘Golden Age’ science fiction is often a literature of ideas, but cinema and TV are poor at articulating ideas and good at expressing visual splendour and beauty, and at evoking an emotional response. So SF shifted towards the visual sublime and the affective. I think that reverted back upon written SF too: so I like 1980s/90s Cyberpunk as much as the next reader, but I have to admit that there aren’t many very original ideas in that mode of writing, beyond ‘Late Capitalism is cluttered and oppressive’ and ‘the increasing encroachment of machines upon the organic is a kind of violence’ (which conceptual violence gets externalised into actual fighting and killing in the story). The glory of Cyberpunk is less ideational and more to do with a certain vibe, an aesthetic of “cool” and, as it filters into TV, cinema, comics like 200AD or Metal Hurlant and video games, becomes about stylish and striking visual design.

The big development in 21st century genre has not been ‘New Weird’, although for a time people thought it might be. Weird is fine, but remains a minority interest. The big development has instead been Young Adult fantasy and SF: Harry Potter and Twilight, Philip Pullman and Hunger Games.

Shenoy: I remember a few years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson angrily (I’d presume) calling the judges of the Man Booker Prize ignorant for ignoring science fiction, singling you out as the author who should’ve won that year, for your book, Yellow Blue Tibia. How did that make you feel? Which leads me to the second part of this question, where do you stand on this ‘literary apartheid’ if I can call it as such, where the ‘literary establishment’ tends to ignore if not sneer at ‘low brow’ science fiction, which in turn one could say has become ghettoised.

Roberts: Stan was being kind (really, incredibly kind and flattering) rather than wholly accurate when he said that. I’m never going to win the Man Booker, and I’m content with that. By the same token, I wonder if the ghetto doesn’t figure the opposite way to how it’s often invoked. It’s not that SFF is a ghetto inside the glorious city of ‘Literary Fiction’, but the reverse. “Literary” novels sell abominably badly, by and large; popular culture in the main belongs to SF and Fantasy, eighteen of the top twenty highest grossing movies of all time are SFF, everybody recognises SFF icons and memes, and not only popular bestsellers like Andy Weir’s The Martian but the best in contemporary experimental fiction is now SF. Nicola Barker’s Goldsmith’s Prize-winning H(a)ppy is SF; Kim Stanley Robinson’s own New York 2140 is as stylistically and formally innovative as Dos Passos, and so on. We’re winning the war.

Shenoy: You’ve written 18 science fiction novels in the span of 18 years since your debut, Salt in 2000. And among the first 17 of those, no two books are the same either in terms of subject or tone. And then there’s all the other stories, parodies, reviewing and the books you devour. How do you explain being so prolific? Have people ever complained that maybe you’re a little too prolific?

Roberts: I probably do write too much: it’s got something to do with an urgency I feel, as a writer, to get my ideas down. I might drop dead of a heart-attack tomorrow. But it’s also a reflection of the realities of writing as a profession nowadays. Back in the 50s and 60s pulp writers produced enormous numbers of titles, often under different pseudonyms, because that was the only way to make a living wage: you’d be paid relatively little per book so you had to write a lot of books. Robert Silverberg wrote a million words a year for the first ten years of his professional life; he wrote a book a week during 1956-1960, and now even he doesn’t know how many hundreds of titles are in his bibliography. For a while at the end of the century, it was possible to earn more respectable sums writing in the West, but now the encroachment of ebooks and self-publishing, and a shift in audience towards other forms of pseudo-novelistic narrative like TV box sets has meant that publishers’ advances have shrunk back down again. I don’t blame the publishers for this: how much they can advance is determined by market forces after all. But I have two kids and a mortgage and many expenses, so if somebody offers me money to write something I’ll do it. I need the money.

Shenoy: You’ve written books that deal with such a wide range of subjects, themes and ‘what if’ scenarios, and the phrases most often used to describe your novels is ‘high concept’, ‘big ideas’, ‘grand thought experiment’. But additionally, your novel Jack Glass was called ‘fan friendly’, while The Real Town Murders was called ‘accessible’. Who then, is Adam Roberts’ ideal reader?

Roberts: Following on from my previous answer I’m going to say: an eccentric billionaire who so enjoys one of my novels that s/he says, “I think I’ll become Adam’s wealthy patron, and settle all his bills for him”.

Shenoy: This question is to A.R.R.R. Roberts who wrote enjoyable parodies. Why isn’t there more wit and humour in science fiction? What’s the anti- grimdark? How important is humour to you?

Roberts: There’s some, isn’t there: SFF fans revere Douglas Adams for a reason, after all. But I’d agree with you there’s not as much wit and humour as there ought to be. And this puzzles me.

I’ll say this: science fiction is fundamentally a metaphorical literature, because it seeks to represent the world without reproducing it. Now the structure of metaphor as such is the knight’s move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess: leading you in a certain metonymic direction, the logically correct A to B to C, and indeed sometimes it leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, but only in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in an unexpected direction.

It’s the way the carefully world-built society of Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel’s wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It’s the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson’s superb 26 Monkeys, also the Abyss’. It is the famous jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly, yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

The thing is: this structure I’m describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke. The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected. The joke can’t be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won’t be funny: but the flourish at the end must work. This is not to say that SF needs to be full of jokes to work. I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That’s why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

Shenoy: Your book Splinter is a reworking of Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet, Swiftly is a follow-up to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, while Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is a contemporary rendition of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What drew you to rework these classics? And with you being an avowed fan of HG Wells, why have none of his books received the ‘Adam Roberts’ treatment?

Roberts: It’s not possible, I think, to escape what the professors of literature call ‘intertextuality’: stories are stitched together out of other stories, texts exist in a matrix of allusion and quotation and contextual meaning-making with other texts. I just think it’s more honest to be up-front about that fact. As for Wells: I adore Wells. He’s one of my Household Gods of writing; recently I was elected Vice-President of the H G Wells Society, an honour I felt very profoundly

As for giving Wells the scary-sounding ‘Adam Roberts Treatment’, I direct your attention to this post on the Wells at the World’s End blog, especially its section 3 here.

Shenoy: What’s your opinion about SF/F from India? Which are your favourite SF books by Indian authors, and why?

Roberts: I’m sorry to say I don’t know Indian SF nearly as well as I should. I like Amitav Ghosh’s writing, although The Calcutta Chromosome perhaps isn’t his best book (though it won the Clarke award!) and I’ve been following, off and on, the way SF has bloomed in India over the last few years, with really exciting writers like Tashan Mehta and Prayaag Akbar. Although actually of course India is a matrix of many different cultures, complexly interconnected, it interests me how a culture, in which the magical, mythic andfantastical have such a central and deep-rooted place, comes to the more rational westernized ‘science’ part of the science fiction equation.

ALSO READ: ‘No poster and no flag’: An interview with Samit Basu

Shenoy: What are the top 5 books you’d recommend for someone who wants to get started with reading good science fiction, with the proviso being that the books have to be from the 21st century, and an additional caveat that they must make those who read it fall in love with the genre.

Roberts: Pia Guerra and Brian K Vaughan’s Y The Last Man, Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking, Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti.

Shenoy: Adam Roberts’ 7 Tips of Creative Writing & Thinking would be…

Roberts: 1. Read all the time. Nobody can be a good writer who doesn’t drink down writing of all kinds like a parched person at a desert well.

  1. Write every day.
  2. Finish what you write.
  3. Revise what you finish.
  4. Aim to cut half of all adjectives and adverbs from your first draft.
  5. Read your dialogue aloud to yourself to check it sounds like actual people actually speaking.

Shenoy: Apart from The Real-Town Murders, if you were to choose only 3 of your books to be adapted into a movie, which they be and why? Also, who would you like to see portray Alma, the private detective?

Roberts: 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, and possible Land of the Headless. As for who would play Alma: I honestly don’t know!

Shenoy: If a menu were to name a drink Adam Roberts, it’d surely be a cocktail rather than a highball. What would its recipe be?

Roberts: No cocktails, please: Whisky (Scotch not Irish, and no bourbon) on ice. Just that.

Well, I’ll drink to that!

Thank you, Mr Roberts, for your time. It was indeed a pleasure.

And that, dear reader, brings us to the close of the second season of New Worlds Weekly, and I would like to thank you all for all the support, and for being with us on this fantastic voyage into SF. There’s just one more thing left to do, the traditional New Worlds Weekly giveaway. And to celebrate 100 editions of this column, and with this being the finale of season two, we’re giving away 5 books to 5 lucky winners!

All you have to do is tell us which edition(s) of New Worlds Weekly you liked, and why on or before 26/7/18. Here’s the link to all the 100 pieces in the column so far. And the prize? The 5 winners get a paperback edition of any of Adam Roberts’ 17 science fiction novels of their choice! So tweet us your entry with the hashtag #NWWonFD AND the link to the piece in question to enter the giveaway. If you’re not on Twitter, you can do the same on Facebook. You can submit multiple entries. All entries – one chit for each submission – will be entered into a lucky draw and the 5 winners announced on Saturday, 28th July, 2018. All the best!

And on that note, I thank you again for helping make New Worlds Weekly what it is today and helping us reach this milestone of 100 editions. Live Long and Prosper, fellow SF fan!


Lead image: Geraint Lewis/REX. Via AdamRoberts.com

Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.