How Was The Future For You? Or, A Brief History Of The Author

'All day long the trains run on rails. Eclipses are predictable. Penicillin cures pneumonia and the atom splits to order. All day long, year in, year out, the daylight explanation drives back the mystery and reveals a reality usable, understandable and detached . . . All day long, action is weighed in the balance and found not opportune nor fortunate or ill-advised, but good or evil. For this mode which we must call the spirit breathes through the universe and does not touch it; touches only the dark things, held prisoner, incommunicado, touches, judges, sentences, and passes on.'>

William Golding, Free Fall.

In July, 1969, it seemed to me that the road to the future was as straight as a monorail line, as predictable as an eclipse. Harold 'white heat of technology' Wilson was prime minister. The long years of austerity that had followed the Second World War were slipping into history; London was swinging like a pendulum do. The British prototype of Concorde frequently overflew my school, piloted by the inimitable Brian Trubshaw. Nuclear power promised unlimited electricity too cheap to be worth metering. A hovercraft service linked Dover and Calais. The first decimal coins were being struck in the Mint, replacements for the half crowns, florins, shillings, sixpences, thrupenny bits, and copper pennies, halfpennies and farthings of the l.s.d. system inherited from the Romans.

I was fourteen. I read science fiction to the exclusion of almost everything else, and watched every episode of Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Thunderbirds Are Go. I'd switched allegiance from the Victor, a comic that endlessly refought the First and Second World Wars, to TV 21, which promoted a future full of big machines and bigger explosions. My mind had been expanded by 2001: A Space Odyssey, which (setting aside the stuff about monoliths) laid out the game plan for the thirty years: shuttles owned by Pan-Am; wheel-shaped space stations in Earth orbit; giant Lunar cities; expeditions to the outer planets; brilliant, almost human computers; quietly competent scientist heroes. And now, July 16 1969, in the lunch hour of one of the last days of the summer term, I was sitting in warm sunshine on a grass bank of the school playground with several friends, listening to a transistor radio tuned to a live broadcast from Cape Kennedy, Florida, USA, the launch of Apollo 11. The future would never again be so hopeful, so full of promise.

But in the blue and sunny expanse of the sky which the Apollo astronauts left behind on their way to the Moon, a small cloud about the size of a man's hand was beginning to drift towards the sun.

######

I would not have admitted it then, in the summer of the Moon, but it's clear to me now that I inhabited two worlds. One a world full of dreams of a thoroughly scientific future; the other the quotidian world in which huge chunks of the past still permeated and shaped everyday life. I was an avid SF reader who dreamed of being a scientist; at the age of fourteen, despite some small talent in English composition, I had already committed to the science stream rather than the arts. But I was also a more or less ordinary schoolboy living in a rented and mostly unmodernised cottage some four hundred years old, at the end of a revolutionary decade that had not much touched the small Cotswold town where I had been born.

This was Stroud, Gloucestershire, to which my mother and her parents had moved soon after the end of the Second World War. Although it is surrounded by beautiful, unspoilt countryside and postcard-perfect villages built of honey-coloured Cotswold limestone, Stroud is not an especially lovely town, but rather an industrial centre that in the late 1960s was still coming to terms to the decline in the English wool trade on which it had largely depended for several hundred years -- in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, much of the cloth used to make the uniforms of the British Army was woven there, and fields all around were spread with freshly-dyed scarlet lengths of cloth stretched on tenters -- drying fames -- by tenterhooks.

At age eighteen, my mother left Stroud for London, where she worked in shops in Oxford Street, then considerably more fashionable than it is now, and met my father at the Queen's Coronation. He was a sailor in the Royal Navy and often away, so my mother moved back with her parents after she married, was living with them still when I was born, and later rented the cottage next door.

There were four cottages in the row: small, stone-built, of no particular architectural merit. We lived in one of the middle cottages, No 3. It had a breeze-block extension at the back that housed the kitchen and small bathroom, but otherwise was nothing more than three rooms stacked one of top of the other. A door in the corner of the living room revealed not the expected cupboard but a flight of stairs up to the first bedroom; a similar door in the bedroom opened on stairs to the attic bedroom. The only heat was a coal fire in the living room and a one-bar electric fire in the attic bedroom; the only sources of hot water the gas geyser that spat and rumbled in the bathroom and kettles boiled on the gas cooker; wallpaper in the living room blossomed with rings of mould and peeled from the walls. Four of us -- my mother, myself, my sister and my brother -- lived there, with my father an occasional visitor.

My mother, who had Standards, insisted that we were lower middle class, but we were really part of the generic Poor. Fortunately, I grew up before conspicuous consumption and instant credit had taken hold, so it did not occur to me that we were very different from anyone else. And in many ways my childhood was idyllic. At the back of the cottages was an acre of ground divided into four plots, including a small orchard, with a stream on one side and the sports field of a light engineering firm on the other, and the remains of a canal lock at the end. Beyond the canal was a single-track branch line railway, and then the brow of the first rise of Selsley Hill, which reared up some six hundred feet, the edge of a range of limestone hills that bent westward. The primary school I attended was halfway up the hill. Divided into Infants and Juniors, with just forty children taught by two teachers, it was almost exactly like the village school described by Laurie Lee (who lived on the other side of Stroud) in his memoir of childhood in the Cotswolds before the First World War, Cider With Rosie. Laurie Lee was the first writer I ever met, ensconced at a folding table next to the Pick'N'Mix section of the local Woolworths to promote a uniform paperback edition of his books -- an early indication of the kind of glamour that an author might expect to enjoy. I bought my first books in that branch of Woolworths, from trays of imported pulps, and still own a few of them, including Clifford Simak's All the Traps of Earth, John Jakes's The Asylum World, and a collection of Theodore Sturgeon's stories, one of which, 'The Way Home', sang to me then, and still sings to me now, like no other.

Beyond the school, the village straggled upwards alongside a steep and winding road, giving out at unbounded common land that spread across the wild, windy ridge top. Cows and sheep grazed freely, there were old limestone quarries where the Devil had his pulpit and some of my schoolmates once unearthed an ammonite two feet across, and terraced hollows said to be the remains of Roman vineyards, and we children played there unsupervised and watched sheep being dipped in spring and in summer collected rose hips from the wild roses that sprawled on the stone walls of Dead Man's Acre, the only enclosed field on the Common, which were bought at sixpence a pound by a company that made rosehip syrup.

Just as the countryside, where I received the first quiverings of a lifelong passion for biology, spread beyond my back door, so the past surrounded me, not yet unquiet, not yet past. Steam engines still ran on the branch line while I was at primary school, and at the end of the school day I would hurry downhill so that I could stand on the bridge beyond the little station and see the little black engine blow dragon clouds of steam and smoke first on one side and then the other as it dragged its rattling tail of coal wagons beneath. My grandparents, born when Queen Victoria was still on the throne, owned a wind-up gramophone that played 78 rpm shellac records and a valve radio whose glowing dial listed exotic stations like Hilversum, Helvetia, Athlone and Luxembourg, and my grandmother kept meat in a meat safe because she did not possess a refrigerator, and boiled up sheets and shirts in a 'copper' and plucked them from the water with wooden tongs and rinsed them and passed them through a mangle to squeeze out excess water. This was the world of my childhood, yet I looked forward to a bright, clean, scientific future. At the age of fourteen, I wanted to be a scientist, and I also wanted to be a science-fiction writer.

But there was a little cloud.

My mother and father's marriage had long before hit the rocks. A year after Apollo 11, I was sitting in the dim cool cave of the cottage's living room, watching my father walk out. I can't remember what he had just said to me. I was gripped by a tremendous intertia. There were raised voices in the kitchen, a human cry -- then he was gone.

I did not see him again. It did not seem to make much difference. He'd been absent for most of my childhood and I told myself that I did not miss him. But divorce was not common, then. It was a cause of shame. Although we did not talk about it, it squatted like a toad at the centre of our lives. I retreated into my head, and into books. Fred Pohl once suggested that most science fiction writers seemed to have suffered a bout of serious illness in their childhood that isolated them from their peers. It may not be a universal truth, but I certainly felt isolated, then.

But even before my parents' divorce, I had always lived half my life in books. Whenever I was struck down by one or another of the usual childhood illnesses, my grandmother would supply me with copies of Reader's Digest from the stacks she kept in her bedroom -- my first introduction to American culture. And at the age of nine, having exhausted the little seam of science fiction in the children's section of Stroud library, I received special dispensation to borrow books from the adult section. And while a psychologist might find it interesting that I began to write with serious intent about a year after the primal scene of my father's departure, it seemed to me a development of what I had already been doing at every opportunity in school.

I borrowed a typewriter from my neighbour and tapped out several short stories and attempted a novel I could not finish because I could not get the hero out of the laboratory storeroom where he had hidden himself. It was set on Mars, featured visiting aliens and a living spaceship I stole from an episode of Doctor Who, and wasn't any good. The novel I did complete, and entered for a Gollancz competition (I believe that Chris Boyce and Garry Kilworth won, while Salman Rushdie's first novel, Grimus, was plucked from the stack of entries and published separately), was little better, but at least proved that I could finish a work of fiction 70,000 words long. By then, I had bought my own typewriter, a sturdy Olivetti portable which I carried with me when I went up to Bristol University in 1973.

I was the first of my family to go to university, and I stayed inside academic life for more than twenty years. I completed a degree in Botany and Zoology (one of the people given an honourary degree at my graduation ceremony was Raymond Baxter, one of BBC commentators during the BBC's TV coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing), stayed at Bristol to do a Ph.D, working on plant-animal symbiosis, and continued my research in Oxford and Los Angeles, and Oxford again. I was a scientist, and by the time I was given my first permanent job, as a lecturer at St Andrews University, I was also an established science-fiction writer.

And so I divided my time between the world of science and the world of my imagination until in the summer of 1995 the black dog of inertia returned. I was finding it increasingly difficult to get funding for my research, and I was having trouble finding the time to write and to do all the work of a full-time university lecturer. That summer I announced my intention to quit, and a year later (in return for staying on for an extra term, I'd been granted several months' grace to put my research to rest) I became a full-time writer and moved to London.

The present is famously not the future of days past. The straight and gleaming rail to the future turned out to be an illusion. Yet I am typing this on a computer that although not as powerful as HAL is not only a thousand times more powerful than the computers that plotted the course of Apollo 11, but is also plugged into a vast global network of information; the human genome has been decoded and we are on the brink of the creation of artificial life; robots roam the surface of Mars, and a robot is swinging through the intricate orbits of Saturn's moons, and another is bound for the binary system of Pluto-Charon; a European space freighter has just docked with the International Space Station; and I am presently on Triton, in the middle of my seventeenth novel.

Some of the old futures made it through the flak of history after all.

#####

At the beginning of their careers most writers believe that writing will get easier; later they find that it gets more and more difficult, that you have to work hard to avoid bad habits and recurrent patterns and strange attractors. You begin by competing with your influences, and you end up competing with yourself. But if you're lucky, you also find that you return over and again to one or two themes, deepening and enriching them. The central strand of my work is, I think, the reconciliation between ordinary human life and the vastness of space and time, the implacable hostility of most of the universe, and (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Harris) the loveliness that mocks our plight.

I am most often labelled as a writer of hard science fiction. Traditionally, that strand of the genre is impatient with ordinary human life, squirming like a twelve-year-old boy at the movies when a clinch between hero and heroine interrupts the action. Traditionally, hard SF simplifies human mess with its cold equations, reduces the complexity of human behaviour to Skinner box reflexes, and favours a flood of ideas and eyekicks over characterisation. But while I am keen on verisimilitude, on grounding every kind of wild extrapolation in what is known, in the transparency of the universe to human thought, and pushing ideas as far and as fast as they can go without shaking themselves to pieces, I'm also interested in human fallibility and foolishness, and in futures that are richly varied patchworks connected to the present, rather than thought experiments that have somehow floated free of every trace of their origin, or friction-free futures where heroes occupy hero-shaped holes especially created for them.

When I was fourteen, I read every bit of SF I could find, but I gradually became more discriminatory, favouring writers who acknowledged the debt that the future owed the past: Brian Aldiss, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula LeGuin, and Michael Moorcock in the 1970s; later on, amongst others, John Crowley, William Gibson, Gwyneth Jones, Ian McDonald, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gene Wolfe, and Jack Womack. That isn't to say that I don't admire attempts to get inside the chilly minds of posthumans who've shed their meat envelopes to better explore the involuted physics that underpin the universe's creation, or enjoy space operas that chronicle conflicts spanning centuries and light years. SF's primary theme is the universe, rather than universalisation of every kind of human experience. But as far as I'm concerned, human figures give depth and perspective to alien landscapes and vast timescapes; human life gives essential context to wild ideas; any future not somehow grounded in or connected to the past from which it evolved, second by second, is in danger of becoming a sterile exercise in contingent imagination.

One theory of consciousness that's currently gaining popularity is that what we think of our 'self', the inviolable centre of our thoughts and memories, may be a fictional construct. It seems that we make decisions several seconds before we consciously act on them; our much-vaunted consciousness may not be not the prime mover after all, but a construct got up to reconcile and explain actions of the various agents that make up our minds for us. Each of us may be a story we tell backwards, from moment to moment. And if certain parts of quantum theory are really true, the universe is a story we're telling, too, simply by observing it.

Both the world of science and the world of the human spirit have their own kinds of reality: at its best, SF is a bridge between them. Perhaps its famous sense of wonder is the literary equivalent of the oceanic feeling, the self dissolving into the world, that I first encountered one day in the summer of Apollo 11, when I lay on my back on the sunwarmed turf on top of Selsley Common and felt myself softly swooning into the infinite blue sky while the planet swung beneath me and somewhere overhead, here, there, never seen, a meadowlark sang its heart out, and I did not doubt that I would live forever and one day step out onto the sands of Mars . . .


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution.

Home