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David Conyers interviews Greg Egan

Greg Egan is one of Australia’s leading science fiction authors with over sixty short stories, seven novels and three collections to his name. His novel Permutation City won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and his novella “Oceanic” won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award and the Asimov’s Readers Award. He regularly appears in leading science fiction magazines such as Asimov’s and Interzone, and in Gardner Dozois’ The Years Best Science Fiction series. His most recent books are the novel Incandescence (Gollancz, 2008), and the short story collection Oceanic (Gollancz, July 2009).

What was it that compelled you to pursue a career writing science fiction?

I was interested in both science and science fiction from a very young age, and by the time I was seven or eight it was obvious to me that the best thing in the world would be to spend my life doing three things: writing books, making movies, and working as some kind of scientist. And I did make some attempts at all three, but I didn’t really have the temperament to persist with the last two.

How did you get started?

I wrote a lot of crap for twenty years, starting from the age of six. I had a novel published by a small press when I was twenty-one, but it wasn’t very good and it was more or less irrelevant in terms of my development as a writer. Then in the late 1980s I started writing short stories about biotech and artificial intelligence that just clicked. David Pringle, the editor of Interzone, bought several of them and encouraged me to work to my strengths.

Your first mass-market novel Quarantine was published in 1992. Can you tell us the story of how this book came to be?

I’d been aware for a while that some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggested an active role for conscious observers in “collapsing” the multitude of possibilities that exist in quantum superpositions into single events. I should stress that that’s a very marginal position, and it’s not one I ever believed to be true myself. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to imagine that only humans had this special “skill”, and that other conscious beings might not be too pleased with us running around annihilating alternatives.

Who are your influences and how did they shape your writing?

I must have read all the major SF that was in print in English in the 1970s. My mother was a librarian, and I had an adult library card from a very early age, so I’d just go and grab every new science fiction book as it came on to the shelves. I grew up with everyone from Aldiss to Zelazny. It’s hard to single out anyone as shaping my writing. Philip K Dick is a great example of someone who dealt with metaphysical themes, as well as virtual reality and artificial intelligence, all of which interest me greatly, and Larry Niven was the quintessential hard SF writer of the 1970s. A few years later, at a time when I’d almost given up on SF, Greg Bear’s Blood Music came along and rekindled my love of the genre. But I don’t model myself on any of these people; they were just inspiring because they worked so brilliantly with the kind of subject matter that makes SF indispensable.

Who or what do you read now?

Not a lot of fiction, these days. I read some of the SF magazines and anthologies, but the last novel I read was A Thousand Splendid Suns by the Afghani writer Khaled Hosseini. As well as general science and technology news, I read a lot of technical material in physics and mathematics, because my formal education in those subjects only went as far as a B.Sc. and I’m trying to keep up with modern developments. There are a number of recent SF novels I aspire to read, but whether I’ll find the time remains to be seen.

You have been described as a leading visionary when it comes to ideas on what the future will be like. Gardner Dozois said that you write fiction that changes “the way that other science fiction writers think about the future.” Where do you get your ideas from? What sources (magazines, books, films, life in general and so forth) provide you with a creative spark?

Basically I just spend as much time as I can reading and thinking about the subjects that interest me, and leave the fragments to collide in various ways.

How do you go about constructing a story?

It usually starts with an idea that I find interesting in itself, and then I look for a character and setting where the idea will have the most impact. For example, with “Reasons to be Cheerful”, I spent a few years wondering how to write a story about what it would be like to be able to choose precisely what makes you happy, before it struck me that that condition would be far more vivid and poignant if the protagonist had first lost the ability to be happy at all.

You write a seemingly equal amount of short fiction compared to your output in novels. Do you prefer one medium over the other?

Some ideas are perfectly suited to short stories, and there’s something immensely satisfying about finishing a piece of writing in a couple of months. It’s also very appealing to me to be able to re-read the whole story from the beginning every time I sit down to work on it — to have the whole thing in my mind all at once. It’s like working on an object you can hold in one hand: a watch or a piece of jewellery. Writing a novel feels more like building a house; you still have a vision of the whole thing, but the relationship that bears to the details and the day-to-day work is very different.

Are there advantages in writing a novel compared to a short story, and vice versa?

When you write a novel, you live with the same setting and characters long enough that you absorb the whole background and it becomes your default way of thinking about things. Rather than having to remind yourself of all the premises of the world you’re creating, it becomes second nature. And it’s a wonderful feeling when things you wrote six months or a year ago start slotting together into something larger.

Which sells better, your short story collections or your novels?

Novels generally, though Axiomatic has done pretty well.

What is a typical writing day for you?

I go for a walk, for about three hours; that’s when I think things over and plan what I’m going to write. It’s good to be able to do that in a situation where I’m not actually in front of the computer, because it makes it easier to try things out in my head and discard them if they don’t work. Then I sit down and write, for maybe four to six hours.

You have a degree in mathematics and work as a computer programmer. Do you believe that science and/or technical qualifications are important when it comes to being able to write hard science fiction?

Most hard SF involves some speculative element — and in some of my own writing the science is extremely speculative — but it does help to have enough formal education to be able to research things a bit and have some sense of the degree to which you’re remaining consistent with real science.

Many of your stories involve transhuman characters built with incredible, almost magic-like technology. Do you believe this is our future?

I hate the word “transhuman”; it suggests beings who have become something alien and incomprehensible to us. I’d much rather stress the continuity between humans in different eras who want much the same thing, but have various degrees of success in achieving their aims. Pretty much all decent people throughout history have wanted to live with the absolute minimum of violence, poverty and disease, and sought to improve their abilities to learn about the world, to express themselves artistically, and to try to ensure that their descendants have better lives than they had. Technology has been part of that all along.

I don’t pretend to know when various specific technologies will become practical; in fiction I really just make choices that suit the story at hand. But unless the species is wiped out completely, or dragged back into a kind of pre-industrial era, “our future” encompasses everything we’re capable of doing over millions of years. Maybe it’s absurd to imagine us uploading our minds into computers and travelling between stars as pure data just a hundred years from now, but it seems equally absurd to imagine that we could survive and flourish for, say, ten thousand years and still fail to do anything that would render us as robust and flexible as uploading would. The only reason, on that timescale, not to do it would be because we’d come up with something better.

Do transhuman characters with god-like powers alienate readers? Are they too far removed from human emotions and frailties that we experience in modern society?

The frailty of our bodies is an enormously important part of our current reality — and I very much doubt that anyone will ever be literally immortal — but I don’t think there’s anything all that strange or alienating about the prospect of having, say, a far more robust body, or back-up copies of your mind. These are just ways of enabling us to do the kind of constructive things we’re doing right now, with fewer unwelcome interruptions. If you asked someone who’d moved from a country with endemic violence, women dying in childbirth, high infant mortality, and no effective treatment for dozens of infectious diseases to a place where all of those problems had been solved whether they felt alienated by the loss of their precious human frailty, they’d just laugh.

Of course, while these problems are still extremely pressing in the real world — not to mention very unequally distributed — I can understand the impulse to treat fiction about our hypothetical invulnerable descendants as somehow decadent or trivial. But I don’t think it’s trivial to contemplate what we’ll do with our lives once we’ve been successful in dealing with our physical frailties.

Do you believe we are destined to colonize other worlds, both within the solar system and other star systems? How far away do you think such a future is, if at all?

I have absolutely no idea about the near-future prospects for human colonies; it’s hard enough right now to imagine that we’ll even go ahead with a single human expedition to Mars. But in the very long term, of course it would be absurd to imagine no one setting up home away from Earth. It would be far easier to do that without our traditional bodies, and I prefer to write fiction where space travel has become a form of communication more than a matter of shifting bulky, delicate freight, but I don’t know what will come first in reality.

Do you think over-population, global environmental degradation and dwindling resources will put the brakes on humanity actually achieving some of the glorious technology and societies that many science fiction authors, yourself included,envisage in their fiction?

Oh, I’m sure things won’t work out the way anyone has written it. When I write SF, I’m almost never trying to map out the future in the manner of someone giving sober advice about the real-world challenges ahead. I take it as given that in the real world, people know broadly what they ought to be doing, and me writing a gloomy book about environmental apocalypse isn’t going to change anyone’s behaviour if they don’t already get the message.

Is it important for authors to educate readers and suggest alternate viewpoints on how the world does or could function, even when writing fiction?

It’s good that there’s a certain amount of that in fiction, but I don’t think it’s an essential ingredient of every single novel, and I certainly don’t think fiction — least of all written fiction, which has such a tiny audience these days — is the most effective way to achieve any kind of urgent political goal.

You have won the Hugo, John W. Campbell and Locus Awards, amongst others, and consistently appear in year’s best collections and many mass market science fiction anthologies. No other Australian writer has achieved your international success. What do you believe appeals about your writing that differentiates you from your local peers?

I’m sure other Australian writers have done as well or better by various measures; if Sean Williams hasn’t sold more books than me I’d be very surprised. But I suppose I’ve been lucky in that I hit on some fresh approaches to perennial themes a couple of times, in books like Permutation City and Diaspora. There’s also something to be said for pushing things to their logical endpoint, rather than playing it safe and staying too close to the way other people are treating the same ideas.

Carl Sagan was once asked which did he prefer – science or science fiction. He said “Science, because science is stranger than science fiction.” Do you agree with this observation?

I agree in part. Certainly, it’s immensely difficult to come up with, say, speculative physics that’s consistent with everything we know about the real world, but also contains something interesting and new. And evolution is notoriously more inventive than most writers’ imaginations.

You’ve been criticized for not developing your characters as fully as you could. How do you respond to this? Is characterization important when the story is about the science?

There’s a preconception in some circles that the characters in realistic fiction ought to have a certain quota of relationship problems, family issues and emotional baggage of various kinds — and some people seem literally unable to believe that a real human being can be more passionate about scientific ideas than anything else, even though the history of science is littered with people for whom that was true. I write about characters for whom the events of whatever story I’m telling are among the most important things in their lives, and there’s not much point writing about science through the eyes of someone who’d rather be down the pub.

You’ve been described as a recluse. You don’t attend science fiction conventions, there are no photographs of you to be found anywhere, and very few people in the publishing industry have actually met you. Is there a reason why you value your privacy so highly?

It’s funny; I spend my long weekends mowing the lawn and visiting friends, and I get described as a “recluse” by people whose idea of normality is dashing around a dreary hotel somewhere trying to get photographed next to someone famous.

Are any of your friends authors or editors, or do they in general work in very different industries?

None of my friends are involved in publishing.

These days authors are often advised that being a public figure helps sell their books. Even maintaining an online journal is encouraged as a means of keeping in touch with fans. Have you ever considered going down this path?

No. I have a web site, which is packed with supplementary material related to my work, but it hardly requires an online journal to announce a novel every few years or a short story every few months.

You turned down a Ditmar Award and your stories never seem to be nominated for the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s two leading speculative fiction awards. How did this come about, and why?

Back in 1996, the rules for the Ditmars chosen by the organising committee that year made one of my novels — which had been published in the UK in December 1995 — eligible for nominations that would close before the book would be available in Australia. Obviously that was a disadvantage to me, but I didn’t really care and I didn’t say a word about it. Then a member of fandom started jumping up and down and proclaiming that the rules had been rigged in my favour, which I found both bizarre and insulting. So I withdrew the book from eligibility and spent a few months trying to get some agreement among Australian SF writers as to what would be a suitable permanent set of rules for the fiction awards. The writers all pretty much agreed, but fandom told us in so many words to mind our own business, since the whole point of the Ditmars was to have something to brawl over. So, at that point I lost all interest in Australian awards and Australian fandom. And my life is far more pleasant now that we’re entirely mutually irrelevant.

Do you read many Australian science fiction authors, or do you believe nationality is not really important when it comes to writing in this genre?

I don’t read much science fiction, period, and I wouldn’t read something just because it was written by an Australian author.

With respect to your own work, do you have any favourite stories?

“Reasons to be Cheerful” is my favourite short story. Distress was my favourite novel until recently, but I think the one I just finished, Zendegi, has taken its place.

What is it that appealed to you about “Reasons to be Cheerful” and Zendegi?

“Reasons to be Cheerful” felt to me like a jigsaw puzzle that couldn’t have been put together any other way; more than ten years later, when I re-read it I’m still happy with every word. That doesn’t happen often.

But I like Zendegi for almost the opposite reasons; it’s full of lots of serendipitous things that could easily have been different. For example, at one point in my research for the book I decided to read the Persian epic the Shahnameh. If I hadn’t done that, I would still have written the novel, but it would have been very different.

You mentioned earlier that an influence on your writing was Larry Niven who is probably best known for his Known Space series. Have you ever thought about writing a series of short stories and novels that together form a future history of the human race?

I’ve written three short stories that share the “Amalgam universe” of Incandescence, and I might set some more stories and novels there in the future.

Since 2002 you have been active in campaigning for refugee rights by seeking the end of mandatory detention for asylum seekers in Australia. What prompted you to do this?

Armed Australian troops boarding a freighter that had rescued drowning asylum seekers, in order to ensure that they couldn’t claim asylum in Australia.

How did you become involved in this cause and what actions did you take?

It took me a while to get my act together and find the groups in Perth that had already been involved in the issue for years. Mostly, what I did myself was write to, befriend and visit a few dozen people who were locked up in the outback detention centres. So it was a matter of providing moral and practical support to people who were under a lot of stress — people who’d been imprisoned for at least three or four years, and had no idea when or how their situation would be resolved.

Do you feel that you had any successes in your campaign?

There was a nationwide movement with thousands of people, and it kept the issue in the media spotlight and provided some counterpoint to the government propaganda. Ultimately all the long-term detainees were reassessed, and virtually all of them were given visas, and while I expect that would have happened eventually anyway, I think if there’d been silence from the Australian community it might have taken much longer.

Australia has recently had a change of government. Do you believe that the rights of refugees will or have improved with the new government?

There has definitely been an improvement, though the legal situation remains far from ideal. The current minister for immigration is the first decent human being to hold the portfolio for a very long time, but there needs to be major legislative change to ensure that people can’t end up detained for years again in the future.

Has your involvement with refugee issues influenced your writing?

Mostly it stopped me writing much for about four years. But obviously it was an eye-opening experience to see people mistreated in that way, and to learn firsthand just how badly a “civilised” government can behave. I ended up writing a short story, “Lost Continent”, which is an allegory of the whole thing, just to get some of the anger out of my system and move on. But more positively, I got to meet a lot of people from backgrounds and circumstances very different from that of any of my other friends.

Have any of your stories or novels been optioned to make into a movie? How do you feel about your work being transcribed into another medium?

There are a couple of short stories optioned at present. The most promising project involves a young Australian screenwriter who’s working on “A Kidnapping”. He’s expanded it out in some interesting directions, and I’d be delighted if it did make it to the screen.

Do you have any science fiction movies or television shows that you’ve enjoyed or influenced you?

One of my favourite movies of the last ten years was Memento. I know it’s not classified as SF by most people, but it was packed with more genuine existential vertigo than any of the movies based on Philip K Dick’s books. Before that, probably Repo Man and Liquid Sky.

You recently completed a manuscript for a new novel. What can you tell us about the novel, and when can we expect to see it in bookstores?

The new novel, Zendegi, is set mostly in Iran. It begins in 2012, when a high-ranking Iranian politician is involved in a car accident in the company of someone other than his wife, and follows the political avalanche triggered by a mobile phone image snapped at the crash scene. But it’s also about brain mapping and virtual reality. It’s due to be published late in 2010.

What other stories can we expect to see from Greg Egan in the near future?

I’m currently researching a novel, Orthogonal, which is set in a universe with different laws of physics. It’s enormous fun, but it’s also hard work, because I’m having to learn to throw out old intuitions about what’s physically reasonable, and develop new ones that fit the new laws.

First published in Albedo One, Number 37, 2009. Copyright © Greg Egan and David Conyers, 2009. All rights reserved.

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