Adam Roberts' first novel, Salt, was published in 2000, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His latest, Jack Glass, has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for best novel, and the Kitschies Red Tentacle for most progressive, entertaining and intelligent novel of the year. In the interim he has published a further eleven novels, eight parodies, two short story collections, two book-length works of SF criticism and numerous reviews and essays. He is also Professor of Victorian Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Royal Holloway, London. On 5 April 2013, New Genre Army, the first academic conference on his work, will be held in the UK at the University of Lincoln. In the run-up to the conference, at the end of January I met Professor Roberts to discuss science fiction, philosophy and puns.
Christos Callow: So, Adam Roberts. You're an unconventional science fiction writer in many ways. Unlike most, for example, you don't do trilogies, tetralogies, and the sort. Every one of your novels is a stand-alone work. Is this a conscious choice?
Adam Roberts: I suppose the answer to that would be yes. I suppose in a sense that's become one of my defining features as a writer—insofar as I have any defining features—that each novel I write is deliberately different to the novels I've written before. I don't think it started out as a strategic decision on my part. It's just that I get bored very quickly and the idea of working through the same story across ten separate novels in order to write a decalogy, or whatever it might be, just fills me with a kind of horror. I'd like to try something new every time and the joy of science fiction is that it has so much imaginative room, there's so much potential, you can do almost anything you want to. It seems to me a shame to just stick in one tiny corner of it.
CC: Yes, but I think it's both easier and it sells more.
AR: It is easier and it certainly sells more and I think my publishers might be happier with me if I followed the more mainstream, more conventional, publishing route. What can I say? I'm up to my—what, fourteenth novel? I've lost count. It seems a bit late in the day to suddenly change horses in midstream.
CC: Do you think that humorous SF is underrepresented? If so, does it find refuge in your work and do you treat it well?
AR: The short answer is yes. But I think there's quite a large problem here. There're two sides to this, it seems to me. One is humour, in the sense of comedy: materials designed to make you laugh and that I think is important. I like to laugh, I like to make other people laugh, if I can. And more, it seems to me, the English novel specifically is a comic mode, which is to say, the novel in England comes out of Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens and writers who were primarily setting out to make their readers laugh. For an English writer to turn his or her back on that seems to me to miss some of the strengths of writing in this larger tradition.
But the other half of the equation, aside from laughter, is irony. And irony is kind of related to humour. It might not be laugh-out-loud funny but irony has always struck me as being absolutely central to what science fiction is. Science fiction is an ironic mode of art. It seeks, you know, to represent the world without reproducing it. It's not mimetic, it's not setting up a mirror, it's setting out to change the way the world is. And the potential of irony is, aesthetically speaking, not only huge but very rarely taken up by science fiction writers, in fact science fiction has often been very po-faced and taken itself very seriously. And this has led to a kind of mismatch. It's one of the reasons why so much science fiction is quite plodding and the way it works its ideas . . . I mean, the ideas may be brilliant and mind-expanding, there may be a real sense of wonder there, but characterization and narrative and story-telling seem very pedestrian in a lot of science fiction stories. I think that's in part because people don't quite know how to handle humour, and people are suspicious of irony in the science fiction community. And I think it's rare for a funny novel to win any of the big science fiction prizes. I don't know. Sometimes I write very unfunny novels, very gloomy novels. Certainly, some of my earlier works are very dour and very grim. But I like to think that they're dour and grim in an ironic way.
(We are interrupted by noise and Adam seizes the opportunity to check his Twitter feed on his phone. When the noise is over, he puts the phone back and smiles.)
AR: You have my undivided attention.
CC: Alright. The forthcoming New Genre Army conference . . .
AR: What? There's a conference? Why wasn't I told?
CC: Actually you have been told, you mentioned it on your website.
AR: [Laughs] Yeah, it's true, it's true.
CC: Right. So the forthcoming New Genre Army conference wants to draw academic attention to your work. What do you hope we'll get out of the conference?
AR: Well, it's an unusual position, I've never had a conference about me before. The closest I've come to that is: I went to a conference in Liverpool that was on science fiction generally and one person gave a paper on one of my novels. And it was a very good paper. I'm not quite sure what the protocol is, in that sort of a situation. After the paper, everyone kind of looked at me to see what my reaction was. I mean, it's very exciting that there's a conference about me, I'm looking forward to it, it'll be fascinating to see what happens, what kind of perspectives people have on what I write, but I'm schooled in a particular generation of university studies that taught me that the author is dead, so that as a dead man, I have less of a worthwhile perspective on my own works than the living . . .
CC: So you see the conference as an academic funeral?
AR: It is, yeah. I find it's kind of a zombie thing, isn't it? I'll still be moving around . . .
CC: Right. There are obviously many definitions of science fiction. What is science fiction to you or, perhaps a more fruitful question, why do you write science fiction?
AR: In the first instance, I write science fiction because I love science fiction, it's what I was reading while I was a kid, and I've kept reading it all the way through. Sometimes people say "would you like to write a historical novel or a realist novel?" and I honestly don't see the point in doing that. I can't see why anyone would write anything other than science fiction, what else is there to do, really? From a creative point of view, it is simply the most imaginatively hospitable mode of writing there is, because you can do anything you want and because it engages with these things that fascinate me, things like irony, the sublime sense of wonder, things like imaginative extrapolation. All those things I find fascinating for, I'm sure, cultural or personal reasons or reasons that I would need to go through a lengthy period of psychiatric discussion to really unearth and get to the bottom of. And the problem is I don't think I can afford that financially, it's very expensive to hire a psychiatrist.
CC: So, you think it's emotional?
AR: It goes very deep in me, I think, is the thing. Science fiction was my first love and I read science fiction and fantasy omnivorously as a kid and as an adolescent. I read other things too. And then I went to university and I took a degree in English and Classics and I did a PhD on Robert Browning and the classics. And then I got an academic job teaching the 19th Century primarily. In those days it wasn't likely that I would have found an academic job teaching science fiction. I think things have changed a little bit now. But I'm still reading science fiction. So the reason why, I think, goes quite deep. It's funny speculating about these questions of psychological motivation and what the roots are of one's adult passions and fascinations. And it is purely, I think, speculative, I'm not sure there's any way you can really know. It might be interesting to try and get back into the state of mind I was in when I would read the science fiction that first really—to use the cliché—blew my mind, that moved me in ways that I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. And this would be to go back to writers like Asimov or Clarke or Brian Aldiss or the early Christopher Priest, and a time when I would be really swept away and not really understand why and what was affecting me so profoundly. Writing then becomes part of a larger project to kind of test and explore those areas. The downside of that is because it's rooted in a very personal response, I think there is something idiosyncratic or eccentric about my relationship with science fiction that isn't shared by the large majority of science fiction fans. I think what they get out of science fiction doesn't map exactly onto what I get out of science fiction. It means that the kind of science fiction I write doesn't necessarily chime with what a large readership finds interesting or appealing. Or I just write shit. It's hard to know. It's one of the two, certainly. What's your next question?
CC: If I may, I'm going to cite Twitter.
AR: I must check Twitter, as you mention that. You never know what may have happened on Twitter. [The interview is interrupted once more.] Carry on.
CC: I'm not going to mention that. [Adam laughs.] Right. On November 13, Damien Walter tweeted "Seriously, why the effing hell hasn't Adam Roberts won a Hugo or Nebula award yet?" What are your thoughts on that?
AR: I think swearing is big and clever. I think Twitter is a wonderful medium, I am a bit obsessed with Twitter. I think, to answer Damien's question, the reason I haven't won a Hugo or Nebula or been nominated for either of those prices is because I have a very vanishingly small American profile. My novels, I think, with one exception, have not been published in America, I don't have many American readers or fans and these are awards that are ranged in an American spectrum, I think. They should have a more global perspective, actually, but then they should have a global perspective that takes in more than just white male English writers, so I can't really complain about that.
CC: I would say awards in general.
AR: Awards in general is a larger question. I've been nominated for some awards. It's a strange business, awards. I'm not sure I quite understand the way it works. I mean, there are some awards which depend upon fans voting a price for somebody when I'm not just sure I have . . . [Adam laughs] popular appeal. And then there are juried awards. The thing I don't quite understand about awards—well, this goes back to talking about the author being dead. If I look back over my backlist, it seems to me that some of my novels are better than others and that in some of my more recent novels especially, I have pretty much achieved everything I set out to achieve. I'm thinking particularly in New Model Army and By Light Alone: I set out to do certain things, some of which were deliberately fucked up, some of which were about engaging with the ideas and the genre and I think I did what I set out to do and those are the novels that did very poorly when it came to awards, nominations and so on.
CC: And you're nominated again this year?
AR: For Jack Glass. I'm delighted. I'm really really pleased. I'm proud of Jack Glass, it does lots of quite difficult things, technically. I think it does some interesting things with genre. I don't think it does as much in that way as my last two novels did. My wife thinks it's just more accessible and easier-to-like. I'm not sure why people would read my novels if they're looking for an easy-to-like novel. There's lots of writers who write very easy-to-like novels.
CC: So, Adam Roberts and A.R.R.R. Roberts, the SF writer and the parodist. Do they have the same objectives, even the same target audience?
AR: I don't know about audience. And I'm really the last person to ask about audience. I suppose they have the same targets, in a sense. The parodies are more delimited projects. I write a parody because I'm commissioned to write a parody. Someone somewhere thinks it's a good idea that we have a parody of . . . whatever it might be, The Hobbit or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or something. And then it's a particular task. It's about engaging ironically with a source or text. And I've a great deal of respect for parody as a mode of art. I think it's a very important and actually underappreciated strand of Western art more generally, I think some of the great masterpieces of Western culture had been parodies. I think Don Quixote was a parody of the Romance tradition. Alice in Wonderland, one of the finest children's novels ever written, was a parody of the didactic children's literature that went before. I think parody can be immensely creative.
CC: What about puns?
CC: Puns. Everywhere! In your titles, in your tweets, in your novels. On December 4, you tweeted that "puns are a delicate art".
AR: Did I? [Laughs] Yes, clearly they are.
CC: What is their function in your work?
AR: "Function" seems a very utilitarian way of putting it, doesn't it? Yes, I do find puns fascinating. I mean, they are rarely funny, except in a kind of meta-way. You know, sometimes the worst puns and the most groan-worthy creaking jokes become funny when you think that someone would find them funny. Beyond that, there's an obvious point to make, puns are language alive. They're language in motion, there's something that we can dignify by talking about what James Joyce, for instance, as a writer did with language. Joyce's scholars rarely talk about what Joyce does in terms of punning because punning seems low-brow and vulgar but that is what he is doing, but he's doing it because he's fascinated by language as a living metamorphosis, in the ways it is coiling, turning back and biting itself and so on. I'm fascinated by that too. I find it invigorating. It can become kind of a mental habit, when your mind is always kind of communing with itself, linguistically, to see how language works. Burgess is like that as well, Anthony Burgess, an underrated English novelist, a novelist entirely aware not only of the comic mode in which he's working, but a very speculative novelist, a novelist who writes science fiction novels, a very punning novelist. What was the question, remind me?
CC: What is the function of puns in a literary text?
AR: Oh, yes, the "function". I think if something is too harmonious and finished and polished then it will tend to fall dead from the page. I think that a writer, or any artist, needs to find ways of messing up their own finished product, dirtying it a bit, making it a bit less clean. There's a necessary uncleanness in art. And there's something of that in puns, because puns refuse to take language seriously, they refuse to bow down at the altar of significance and importance and those deadening things.
CC: Right. So, Adam, you write a lot, teach a lot, tweet a lot . . .
AR: Did you say I tweet a lot? 'cause I do tweet a lot. I'll check it now actually to see what's going on. [Checks.]
CC: And you have a family and a lecturing job—I imagine you also read a lot.
AR: I do, yes.
CC: You must have been asked the same thing in the past, but where do you find the time?
AR: Well, I think what takes up most of my time is giving interviews. [Laughs.] The time, yeah. I should have a pat answer to that. I think it helps that the actual writing, actually sitting at a computer and tapping the keys is the part of the whole process that I like the most. That's why I am a writer. It's not that I like going into Waterstones and seeing my books on the shelf. It's that I like actually writing. When I was a kid, I loved reading, I found reading very immersive and I still feel that way about reading and I read a lot. Writing is like that, but more so. It's more immersive, more engaging, so . . . What that means I suppose is if I get a chance to do some writing, I will take that chance. I think there is also something in the old adage that the problem is having not enough to do. It's when you don't have enough to do, that the time hangs heavy on your hands and nothing gets done. When you have too much to do, then time becomes precious and you use it more efficiently.
CC: Do you think that science fiction is moving in the right direction? Or isn't there such a thing? What do you think is missing from SF nowadays?
AR: Ok, that's an important, complex question because science fiction is nowadays several different things that don't really belong under the same discursive umbrella. So, commercially it's predominantly a visual discourse, cinematic and televisional discourse: that is, I go to the cinema and I'm as agog as the next man or woman at the splendid special effects of Avatar or whatever it is. But I don't see there's much further than that kind of thing can go. So in that sense, I'm not sure direction really is what we're talking about, there's something static about that, we're just going to have larger and more elaborate and more gorgeous, three-dimensional visual special effects dominating the visual text.
On the other hand I think as a literature of ideas, science fiction has . . . well, there are always new ideas. And I like that Gilles Deleuze defined philosophy, effectively, as inventing cool concepts. And I think that science fiction is much better, much nimbler and much more empowered when it comes to inventing cool concepts than professional philosophy. So in that sense, science fiction has a future.
The problem with science fiction as a literary genre is that the backlist now is so large and so dense that it's stifling what new writers can do. You think you've come up with an ingenious new idea for a science fiction story, but it's been done before by some writer somewhere, usually several. Now how we handle the backlist, we can just ignore it, we can pretend it isn't there and then we can re-invent the wheel as sometimes happens. A writer can come along and say "oh, I'm gonna write a story about a starship that takes several generations to reach its destination!" But you only think that's an interesting new idea because you haven't read all the generation starship stories that were published in the 20th Century. Maybe that's not a problem. If the writer doesn't know and the readers don't know, it will feel fresh. Otherwise, the business of getting a handle on the backlist is very time-consuming, there's just a lot of stuff to read and it can only be done by someone who genuinely loves this, who's been reading all their life. And lots of writers are like that, lots of writers of science fiction started out as fans. But even then, you can make barely a dent upon the whole body of work.
They used to say that there's only one person who has a handle on the whole of science fiction and that's John Clute and even he admits now that it's getting away from him. There's just too much stuff published, he can't keep up. It's a problem, actually. There are writers I admire because of the way that they handle the backlist. M. John Harrison is one example of that, the way he plays with generic conceit, tropes, and all the standard devices. But to follow through with your metaphor of science fiction as something that's travelling in a particular direction, 'where is it going?' and so on, I think that the thing with the backlist is that it's a drag, it's a sheet anchor that's pulling science fiction back. There certainly is a large body of science fiction fans who prefer their science-fiction old-fashioned, they like golden age science fiction and they want contemporary writers to be writing more of that. There's nothing wrong with that taste, you know, your taste is what it is. But I think it's a bit suicidal for a genre as a whole to become merely recursive in that self-congratulatory way . . .
CC: To pretend that the Golden Age never ended.
AR: Yes. But then I think almost everything I write is in dialogue with the backlist. And I'm not sure whether what I'm trying to do works, actually, in the larger sense, because what I'm trying to do is to deconstruct or ironically engage with all the ideas and the classic texts and all the stuff that's gone before. I don't know. You've got to do something with it though.
CC: Do you see yourself in a particular generation of writers, or literary movement? Or do you go independent? If you looked at your work as if it wasn't your own, like a critic or scholar, where would you place it?
AR: Like a critic or a scholar? It is hard, actually. There's an old gag that the golden age of science fiction is fourteen—which is to say, it's an adolescent genre that you fully love when you are that age. In my heart, I'm still kind of fourteen, in some sense, and it seems to me that we're still basically in the late 1970s or the 1980s, that the rest of the world has moved on but I haven't, so in that sense I'm quite young. On the other hand, I've recently grown a beard and I've come today wearing a nice hat—I'm putting the hat on now—and this makes me look like I'm in my late fifties, which I quite like actually, it means I . . . I should tweet a picture of myself in a hat. [Actually, Gollancz editor Simon Spanton did that later the same day] To answer your question, I'm not sure that there are any movements to belong to in contemporary science fiction. I think attempts to invent new forms or new sub-genres, to come up with manifestos, to say oh, now we have a New Weird, or now we are mundane writers, or we're this or we are that, seem artificial to me, they don't map onto my experience of what the genre is. The genre is on an enormous scale, so I'm not sure I feel that I'm missing out by not being part of "movements."
CC: What do you think about the concept of the New Genre Army as genre that is beyond genre?
AR: Ah, I like the sound of that. I like the idea, because the New Model Army, in my novel, is a headless giant and I think there's something nice about that. I think that does describe science fiction, in a sense. It's not that there's a group of massively influential writers who hand down on tablets of stone dictates as to what science fiction is, or should be or who polices it. I think that's healthy, it means that science fiction becomes more inclusive. I suppose if there is a movement of contemporary science fiction, the last five or ten years, it's a tidal pull towards greater inclusiveness and diversity. It's been a movement away from, in a sense, what I represent, which is a middle-aged white male anglo-writer, and towards writers of different ethnicities and backgrounds and colours and sexualities, that's clearly a massive good. It can only be good for genre as a whole, it ought to be particularly good for science fiction because science fiction ought to be about exactly that, about diversity, inclusiveness, about the spaces of the alien and the way the alien relates to the norm in inverted commas and so on. My answers are too long, aren't they? I should keep them down to 140 characters. Which reminds me, I must check Twitter! [Laughs]
CC: I was lucky—I think—to hear you give a keynote speech on Teletubbies as an asexual utopia . . .
AR: You think you were lucky!
CC: . . .at the 2012 Utopian Studies Society Conference in Tarragona. Do you consciously challenge conventional academic thinking, as you do with genre conventions in your fiction?
AR: I think I do more than I used to, yes. When you're starting out as an academic, it's harder to find the courage to do that. Because it does take courage actually to challenge the consensus in academia. And in part that confidence comes from, having been an academic now for more than two decades, a professional academic I mean, I've now read a lot more criticism theory than I have previously and I've come to a position where I can see that a lot of it is shit, although often genuinely held and earnestly-argued shit. But it's quite easy for very weak or dubious or wrong-headed positions to become embedded in academic discourse. I am talking about the humanities, I think. I wouldn't extend that into the sciences. I think in the sciences, because scientific investigation is based upon a logic of falsifiability, you're encouraged to test assumptions. I'm not sure this has been true in the humanities. You could argue, I suppose, that there is enough of a mixture of the scientific and the fictional, and the science fiction that has shaped my critical consciousness to put me in a position where I want to try and falsify ideas that have gone before, aesthetically and conceptually.
CC: You once said that science fiction and poetry are the same thing, that SF herself is poetry. Here's the thing. I thought academics were supposed to divide genres into as many bits as possible, to create borders in order to form categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories. You seem to do the opposite. Do you suggest we abolish those borders? Why, if yes or why not?
AR: Well, theoretically speaking as an academic, I am constitutionally suspicious of the formalizing, structuralizing principle that some academics engage in when they want to define, to categorize the pigeonhole. All that seems to me to misunderstand the logic of literature. So in that sense, yes, and again I'm a product of my generation and I want just to deconstruct and I want this Deleuze-Guattarian flow, we want to make roots, to make all sorts of strange reconnections and that seems a much better way of approaching literature and art but then that's separate I think from the point about poetry and science fiction which you mention, I think what I was trying to get at in that is the sense that science fiction is not a formalist structuralist genre because its building blocks are moments of metaphorical epiphany and that that is also the logic of poetry, that's the kind of semantics of science fiction, that's what science fiction is as a mode, these are the atoms out of which we construct our science fictional molecules.
CC: Your next novel—this is the final question—is 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea. Tell me all about it that you don't mind revealing at this phase.
AR: Ok, well, as you can tell from the title, it's a riff on Jules Verne's 20 Thousand Leagues under the Sea which I wrote in part because I read that when I was young and I remember being disappointed—it promised a story about a submarine going twenty thousand leagues under the sea, but the submarine doesn't do that! The submarine goes half a league under the sea and then travels horizontally twenty thousand leagues. That's just a cheat. So I wanted to write a story where the submarine went straight down a long, long way. That's what I've written: a story set in the fifties, where a French nuclear submarine has a malfunction and sinks straight down and it just keeps sinking, until it reaches this incredibly deep position, twenty trillion leagues under the sea. The thing I'm really excited about for this book is—it's being illustrated by a Canadian illustrator, a friend of mine, called Mahendra Singh who is a gorgeous artist, produces a really lovely combination of styles. He's got a kind of nineteen century precision, a kind of surrealist sensibility. He's an extraordinary good visual artist. And he's lavishly illustrating the book; it will be as much a visual text, his vision as it is mine. And I've never done that before.
CC: Many thanks for your time. Are you looking forward to conference?
AR: Absolutely. I am very much looking forward to the conference.
CC: Me too. See you there.
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