Laurence Suhner is an ambitious and prodigiously gifted writer from Switzerland with a deep fascination for modern science, in all its dizzying ramifications. In his introduction to the third volume of her QuanTika trilogy, Christopher Priest said, "The literary and intellectual diversity [in her work] no doubt springs from the author's varied background, which includes archaeology, Egyptology, physics, illustrator for bandes dessinées, storyboard artist, CGI design and a love of playing the tabla. An adventurous young writer like this can sometimes make her competitors feel like miniaturists. . . . " Writing in French, Laurence has only just begun the process of bringing her work to a wider international audience, which it surely deserves. This interview was conducted by email in March 2015, and you can read a short extract from Vestiges, the first volume of QuanTika, here.
Alastair Reynolds: You've just completed an ambitious and much acclaimed science fiction trilogy, three big books stuffed with speculation, philosophy, grand themes, strong characters, and fine writing. Could you give us the gist of the QuanTika books, for those of us who aren't yet familiar?
Laurence Suhner: The plot of QuanTika takes place 300 years in the future on a frozen but inhabitable extrasolar planet of the AltaMira binary system: Gemma, a snow-ball Earth, as the astronomers call it.
Ambre Pasquier, a young exobiologist, who has always been attracted by this distant world, finally decides to travel to the colony. She is convinced that her past, which she has forgotten after a trauma at the age of thirteen, is linked to Gemma and, especially, to the strange artefact, the Great Arch, in orbit around the planet and to the ruins that are supposed to be hidden under the ice shield. Soon after she settles there Ambre starts to be haunted by dreams that put her in contact with the traces of the first visitors to Gemma, the Builders.
She organizes a scientific expedition—the Archea mission, whose official aim is to look for primitive forms of life in the ice. In fact, she has a completely different objective—keeping it secret to avoid interference by the militia, a pseudo-military organisation having recently taken control of the colony. A passage has to be cut through the ice by means of a giant tunnelling machine to get to the rock substrata and ruins that Ambre is certain to discover there. Around twenty scientists have been recruited: Glaciologists, geophysicists, exobiologists, geneticists, climatologists, engineers, doctors. Two people have infiltrated the team. One works on behalf of a group of physicists who for over ten years have been studying the particularities of a specific planetary zone affected by fluctuations of the space-time. The other works for the militia which has recently taken control of the colony.
The expedition turns to chaos as scientists of the expedition discover an ancient Entity trapped in a prison built by the Builders, the first visitors of Gemma. They called it the Devourer of Reality. This is also the origin of the mysterious variations of space-time in this area.
The trilogy speaks about science and myths; the way humans understand the universe, compared to a totally different civilization whose technology has been built on intuition and instinct, a civilization based essentially on mythical and poetic thought, a civilization in which science seems useless and for which the notions of mathematics and distance are pure aberrations, yet a technological civilization. A paradox that will lead Ambre back to the mystery of her origins and far beyond human nature, to the land of the Builders: Timhkâ, an ocean planet.
Alastair Reynolds: Producing an epic and ambitious SF trilogy would be enough for most people, but it's only the latest accomplishment in a remarkably busy and interesting life. You've been an artist, a musician, among other things. Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and your various careers, and how you eventually ended up writing science fiction as your main activity?
Laurence Suhner: Actually my first interests in life have always been drawing and writing. I have always enjoyed telling stories, imagining situations, ideas, characters, universes. It started very early in my life with my father, who used to write scenarios for my comic books, and with my mother who was an illustrator for fashion and jewelry. I drew my first comic book when I was eight years old, and wrote my first novel when I was eleven. At that time I had already decided I would be either an archeologist, or a physicist, or a comics illustrator or a writer. When I became an adult I tried to become all of them! Actually I have always considered everything I did in my life, my studies for instance, as sources of inspiration for creation. I'm interested in a lot of things, especially in scientific fields such as physics and astrophysics, because these subjects try to find answers or at least try to ask questions about who we are and where we come from.
Alastair Reynolds: You write in French, but you live and work in Switzerland, where you were born. There's a healthy interest in science fiction in France, with an active publishing scene, well-regarded literary festivals, and so on. What was it like in Switzerland? Did you come up through an active science fiction community, or was it more a case of discovering things for yourself? What sort of science fiction did you encounter in your formative years? At what point did it occur to you that you might end up writing the stuff?
Laurence Suhner: I started reading science fiction as a child, around ten years old. The first serious novel I read was The Plague by Nathalie Henneberg, a very powerful and evocative French writer. Definitely not a book for a young child, but it made a very strong impression on me and increased my desire to write that kind of stuff.
Then I read all the classics in English and American science fiction: Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg, Simak, Hamilton, Priest, and so on . . . My father used to read some of these writers, especially Clarke and Asimov.
I was already an addict at 11 years old. I was also very interested in science fiction movies, and comic books (in the French tradition: Moebius, Mézière, Caza, Druillet, Bilal). I was fascinated by different, alien worlds and creatures that were depicted in these comic books. Nobody around me liked science fiction, except my father and a friend at school. Science fiction was not taken seriously at that time.
I'm rather a solitary person. I prefer to write retired from the world, but sometimes I meet other people who are interested in science fiction. In Geneva and Lausanne there are groups called "Les mercredi de la science-fiction," where fans and writers can meet and exchange. I enjoy very much going to festivals and conventions because it is a way for me to keep in touch with other writers.
Alastair Reynolds: How do you view your position as a writer within the wider literary scene? SF writers and commentators, at least in the UK and North America, often speak of the populist end of the field as a kind of ghetto. The idea is that you're either inside the ghetto, steeped in the history of the field, operating within the commercial and artistic constraints of genre science fiction, or you're on the other side, operating in a more refined artistic sphere, and not necessarily owing anything to the "pulp" side of our literary heritage. Lately there seems to be a sense that the ghetto walls are becoming more porous, with newer writers happily ignoring these perceived boundaries and just writing (and reading) what they feel like. My perception is that, at least in the Francophone world, this distinction has never really been that important in the first place, with writers simply operating in a continuum of influences, from Asimov to Zola. Has that been your experience?
Laurence Suhner: In France or Switzerland, when you say you write science fiction, you are not well considered. I never had the chance to get a scholarship to pursue my writing because science fiction is not considered as a serious literary genre. Generally people think it is for children or people who have a doctorate in physics!
Personally I haven't experienced a difference between a commercial science fiction and a more artistic science fiction. Maybe because in French-speaking countries science fiction doesn't have the same importance and impact as it does in the UK or the USA. There aren't so many readers, of course.
Alastair Reynolds: Let's go back to the graphic novels. You were not just the artist on some of the titles, but also the writer. That must have been a great way to think about narrative form, storytelling, pace, and so on. Did you find it a natural transition to move from the graphic form to prose, or were there entirely new lessons to be learned? When you're planning a novel or a story, do you still think in terms of storyboards?
Laurence Suhner: As I started writing and drawing at the same time (very early), these two forms of expression seem a unique single form for me. When I write I always imagine the landscapes or characters I depict, and very often I have a sketch book next to my computer to quickly draw a scene before I describe it in words. All my characters have a precise look, and I know them very well, because I drew all of them before describing them with words.
For me drawing, writing, and composing music are one single thing. Or various aspects of the same thing. I like to live in a wide imaginary world, although I feel very well in reality at the same time. I like paradoxes, opposites, duality, complementarity.
Alastair Reynolds: Picking up on the last question, what is your overall writing process like when working on a novel? The QuanTika books are big, complex works. Do you do a lot of meticulous planning, or just dive in and see where the story takes you? And given that you've produced a trilogy, did you have a clear sense of the shape of it when you started out?
Laurence Suhner: Most of all, I trust and follow my instinct. I hate planning in advance. I start by imagining my characters and their personality (and very often drawing them), and then I follow them along the story. Very often the story leads me in ways I wouldn't have imagined before. I think it is because I dream a lot about my stories and universes before starting the actual writing. Then I'm inhabited by my characters. I just let them live their lives in me, I become them. I think it is a subconscious way of writing. I like to be surprised by my story all the time, as if I discovered it as long as I write it. My characters have their own independent lives. Maybe they actually live in a parallel universe . . . It is a nice idea.
Alastair Reynolds: You have a physics background, among many other things. People will come to a "hard SF" book with a certain set of expectations. Your trilogy is based around the AltaMira solar system, 6.5 light years from Earth. Settlers reached there in 2139, and the main action of your story begins in 2310, as plans are made to drill down through the planet Gemma's ice-crust. I found it fascinating that, rather than base your story around a "known" exoplanet solar system, you just made one up! It's a very clever decision, but how has that gone down with readers?
Laurence Suhner: I wanted to be completely free to imagine my world and in my world there is a extrasolar planet at 6.5 light years from Earth! It is a choice. Some readers asked me why I did that and I gave them the exact same answer.
But I used a lot of research in other ways. After studying Egyptology, archaeology, and English literature at Geneva University (that's the reason I studied six months in Oxford, and I enjoyed it), I decided to attend the EPFL in Lausanne (federal polytechnical school in Lausanne) to study computer science and artificial intelligence. Actually, I just studied two years in physics in order to be more familiar in quantum physics, but I don't have a degree in that subject. In my next life I will graduate in physics or astrophysics, for sure!
Alastair Reynolds: Apart from the books, you've put together a very impressive multimedia website based around QuanTika. You're also a regular attendee of the two main French science fiction festivals, Imaginales and Utopiales. What other channels have you been able to use to publicize your work? How do readers come to your books, if they're not already involved in the science fiction scene?
Laurence Suhner: Good question, indeed! I have to think about it.
It is difficult in Switzerland and France to have a lot of advertising. Science fiction is not taken very seriously, so you are not invited on television shows, etc. It is a constant fight to be invited at festivals. You have to do most of the job to attract people's attention. It is hard to be invited in France because I'm Swiss, and hard to be invited in Switzerland because my publisher is French!
Sometimes, when I have time, I try to publish short stories in science fiction magazines as well. I use Twitter and Facebook as well to present my work. And two friends made trailers for my books, that you can discover on my website: quantika-sf.com. The best way is, I suppose, that people speak about my work.
Alastair Reynolds: The scope, ambition, and thematic concerns of your books make them seem like natural properties for translation. But it's been an uphill struggle to bring your work to a wider international audience. It seems to be a chicken and egg situation—a foreign publisher won't look at a work unless it's already been translated, but at the same time, you need a foreign publishing deal to cover the translation costs! It must be incredibly frustrating, especially given the awards and attention your work has already merited in its original language. But you've refused to simply give up, and have been exploring ways of funding your own translations. How is that going? What other possibilities might be worth exploring? Have you considered funding schemes like Kickstarter?
Laurence Suhner: I thought of Kickstarter right from the start, but how can I manage to offer something in exchange to my funders if the book doesn't find an English/American publisher? That is what stopped me. I tried to get a Swiss scholarship for translation, but as I said before science fiction is not considered very serious in Switerland, so I didn't get the money . . . Like you say, the egg or the chicken.
But Vestiges, book one of QuanTika, is being translated right now. As many English readers seem interested in my work I hope to find a publisher soon. I will manage myself to get the money for the translation. But it is hard for every Swiss or French writer. We are not very often translated into English, and that's a pity, because there are a lot of excellent SF writers in France and Switzerland.
Alastair Reynolds: You're done with the QuanTika books now, other than seeing the third volume through to publication, and looking at avenues for translation. Are you working on any other projects now? Any other plans for another trilogy or sequence of books, or was one enough? Do you intend to keep writing short fiction, as well as novels? Any chance of a return to working in illustration?
Laurence Suhner: Actually, I have a lot of other projects. So many that I have problems to choose which one I'm going to start working on first. One is a spin-off of QuanTika, which takes place years after the end of book three, with some of the characters of the trilogy but also new ones. When I started working on book one of QuanTika, Vestiges was a comic book project. The story I tell in this spin-off is directly inspired from the original scenario of this comic book. It will be a one shot project, but I don't have a title yet: maybe "The worlds of QuanTika," or "The New Gemma." It won't be "book four" of QuanTika.
Among other projects I have some science fiction stories, of course, and also thrillers. I love thrillers and horror stories! One takes place during the 1924 Solvay physics congress in Brussels. I have already written a short story, published in a French anthology, with the characters I would use in this novel. Another is more steampunk, with a story taking place in 1889 in Geneva. Another takes place in the beginning of the twenty-first century and deals with multiple universes. All these stories have always a link with science. I'm also about to write a short story about the Mars One project.
About my work as an illustrator: many people asked me to draw some comic books pages showing the graphic world of QuanTika. I will see if I will have the opportunity and the time to realise them. Actually I have also to find a job . . . It is difficult to live on writing in Switzerland, unfortunately!
Alastair Reynolds: Laurence, thank you very much for your time.
Laurence Suhner: Thank you.