THE NAKED GOD
David J Howe speaks to popular SF author Peter F Hamilton about his work.
Peter F Hamilton is a phenomena. From humble beginnings with his first professional sale to Fear magazine in 1991, he is now an international best-selling author of epic proportions. His work is ranked alongside the SF greats and early editions of his novels exchange hands for considerable sums amongst fans on the Internet.
He recently published the final part of a series of novels collectively known as the Night’s Dawn trilogy which amounts to well over 3000 pages of text. I caught up with him for a chat just before he flew off to New Zealand and Australia for a much anticipated publicity tour for the trilogy.
How did you get into writing? Was this something you had always wanted to do?
I had absolutely no interest in writing while I was at school; I was strictly science stream. However I’ve always read SF starting back with Tolkien (naturally) and John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy which I first came across in the early 1970’s. Following on from that it was the classic reading route of Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, E E ‘Doc’ Smith, Aldiss, and so on. It wasn’t until 1987 that I actually started to write and that was down to a combination of circumstances. First the usual case of ‘I can do better than this’ (learning how wrong you are about that takes several years) and also the fact that I was spending a lot of time at home looking after my mother convinced me to give it a shot. Like most SF writers, I spent several years sending in short stories to beleaguered magazine editors, and gradually having more accepted. At which point I started writing a novel.
You’re well known as a Science Fiction writer and yet your first professional sale was to a magazine called Fear – a horror magazine. How did this come about?
The Fear story ‘Deathday’ was the first professional magazine sale, yes, but I’d already appeared in several small press mags, notably Dream along with several contemporaries (Steve Baxter, Eric Brown, Keith Brooke). Dream then turned into New Moon before folding back in the early nineties. Fear was primarily a horror mag, but had been known to take SF which is why I took a chance and sent the piece in. The market then, as now, is sadly short of magazines which print unsolicited stories, so any possible opening tended to get explored. I wouldn’t actually describe ‘Deathday’ as horror: it’s not a genre I write in – at least so far.
How would you then categorise your work?
Categorising books is difficult. The first three I wrote: Mindstar Rising, A Quantum Murder, and The Nano Flower, all featured a psychic detective, Greg Mandel. They were set in near-future England just after the greenhouse effect had played havoc with the climate. I deliberately set them covering a timespan of fifteen years so that apart from giving readers the main crime story, they could also follow the way the world and its society changed and adapted to new circumstances, along with the lives of the central characters. Several reviewers and critics commented on how this gave them a soap opera-ish feel.
Moving from writing short stories to novels can be tricky. How did the ideas for Mindstar Rising come about? Why write an SF detective novel?
I live in Rutland, so setting it there was a fairly logical thing to do. Then once I started looking into the effects of global warming, I realised it was a lucky choice. Although we’re a fairly rural area, the fens country to the east is going to be profoundly affected by the rising sea level; exactly the kind of effect on the population and physical infrastructure which I wanted to examine. As to why I made it a detective novel, it’s a part of the genre I always enjoyed, with the specific influences of Asimov’s Caves of Steel and Niven’s series of Gil the Arm stories. Detectives are an excellent method of exploring the universe which the author has created, getting to see how it works and where the flaws are in greater detail than a lot of novels.
One of the aspects of the first three novels which fans have picked up on is that they all feature the same ‘hero’, a detective called Greg Mandel. How did you hit upon this character and is he in any way based on the author?
Greg is a psychic detective, in that his intuition has been chemically enhanced. In effect it makes him a walking lie detector. I think it’s one of the big myths that authors put themselves into the role of ‘hero who saves the day’. Greg’s just an ordinary ex-military man, trying to make sense of a world that’s changed abruptly from the one he was born into. In that respect, he’s someone I imagine a lot of readers can identify with rather than being based on anyone specific.
In writing the books, I was determined that they shouldn’t just be re-writes of each other. I wanted to give Greg very different problems to solve each time. I wouldn’t even claim that those first three books form a trilogy, certainly not in the same way Night’s Dawn is. All three books can be read separately, they’re individual stories. It just so happens there are three of them.
How does the Night’s Dawn series differ from the Greg Mandel books?
I mentioned the soap opera-ish feel that the first three books were perceived to have … the Night’s Dawn trilogy was a complete break from that. It’s set 600 years in the future, with a great many elements of traditional space opera: hundreds of colonised worlds, faster than light starships, aliens, starkiller bombs, and so on. It’s also set during the time of a titanic conflict, and follows what happens to several people – they way they fight it, or succumb. If there is any theme running through the books it’s that of observing change. The societies I’ve written about, although futuristic, reflect the components of today’s world; I find it fascinating to introduce a new element into a stable environment, and track the waves of change that are created as a result. With Science Fiction, you have a genre perfect for this kind of extrapolation playground.
The series is epic in every sense. How did the ideas for it develop?
It started with just a single idea: the possessed. After that, the Confederation universe was an obvious place to set it in. It wasn’t inspired so much by Star Wars, rather E E Smith’s Lensman series. I’d read a lot of space opera when I was younger, and enjoyed it immensely. At the time I began writing Night’s Dawn there wasn’t much of it about, now though it does seem to be back in vogue.
In The Naked God you comment that the series has taken six and a half years to write. Did you ever conceive it would take that long? What kept you going?
When I started I knew it was going to be a trilogy, but certainly not that it was going to be such a length. I thought the first book, The Reality Dysfunction, might possibly be a hundred pages longer than The Nano Flower. After I started writing, I simply kept on exploring what were originally intended as minor characters, and the situations they found themselves in. As many authors claim, the characters took over. So once I had laid such a large foundation stone, the rest of the story was equally sized.
How do you put your books together; planning and so on? Are you writing full time, for example?
I do write full time. The method of creating a book goes through several stages once I have the principal idea. First comes the worldbuilding: working out what kind of universe I can place the story in for it to become plausible. This is when I’ll probably do most of my research, learning about the science I need to make the universe plausible, and the technology you can build with it. After that come the characters, who are defined by a mixture of what’s necessary and people or traits which I’ve seen and know of. Once those basic elements are in place, I’ll start to do a more detailed outline to make sure the story holds together in the setting I’ve given it. Once I’m satisfied, then I’ll start the actual writing, which is always a linear process. On an average day, I’ll spend the morning reviewing and re-writing what I did the previous day, so by the afternoon and evening I’m back where I left off, and start writing fresh material. I prefer this kind of real-time editing to rushing out a first draft, and spending weeks or months revising it through several times. And I’m certainly not one of those people who can start with a book, having no idea how it’s going to end. I’m not sure if I envy them or pity them. I don’t have any key audience or grand marketing plan in mind. I simply write the kind of books which I imagine I’d like to find in a bookshop.
Who is your favourite character from your books? Why? What sets them apart?
Probably Louise Kavanagh from the Night’s Dawn series, who undertakes a very long journey of discovery about herself and the world in which she lives. This is a girl who has lived her life on a planet which is subtly oppressive, so much so that she’s never even considered her position before. And she’s certainly not best equipped to handle the threat which the possessed bring. However, because she does have an open mind, she learns how to fend for herself, and manages to escape. After that, by travelling round the Confederation and seeing for herself how other cultures live, she realised how flawed her own world is, and has the courage to admit it. More than anyone she represents the kind of changes inflicted on an unsuspecting society which the Night’s Dawn chronicles.
Do you ever read your reviews or listen to critics? What has amused you most about the reviews you’ve received?
I read most of the reviews, even the bad ones. If you can’t take criticism then don’t get published. As to taking notice of them, it depends on the type of criticism offered. If I read someone who’s being constructive and points out a fault I hadn’t noticed myself, then I’ll certainly take that into account next time round. People who don’t like it because I’m not writing what they want to read – well, what’s the point of reviewing it? Having said that, the most memorable review I had was someone on Amazon who simply said: ‘This is perverted trash which must have been written from inside jail.’ Now that’s being succinct.
For someone new to your work, which would you recommend as a starting point? What should readers expect?
Difficult, because the two series are so different. If you do like space opera, then you should start with The Reality Dysfunction: I really don’t recommend reading Night’s Dawn out of sequence. For people who like straightforward detective puzzles, then A Quantum Murder would be best. It’s a classic whodunit, which even starts in an English Country mansion on a dark and stormy night.
With Night’s Dawn finished (or is it?) what’s next?
Oh yes, it’s finished. First a long break, then smaller self-contained books. I don’t see myself writing a trilogy again for some time. At the moment I’m putting together the notes for Fallen Dragon, which tells the story of a platoon of soldiers during the tail end of a pointless war, who come across something unexpected on the planet they’ve been assigned to.
David J Howe