Monday, June 22, 2009

Interview - Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is an English science fiction writer. He is also a Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Adam published until the present numerous novels, short stories and essays and also a number of academic works on SF. Adam Roberts published under pseudonym a series of parodies and pastiches. He was nominated twice for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, for the novels “Salt” and “Gradisil”, and once for Philip K. Dick Award, for the same “Gradisil”. This year one of his latest novels, “Swiftly”, was shortlisted for the 2009 Sidewise Award. Adam Roberts’ latest novel is “Yellow Blue Tibia”, published by Gollancz in January and which I enjoyed a lot (my full review here).

Dark Wolf: Adam, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
What was the initial spark that ignited the desire of Adam Roberts to write? What inclined the balance toward the Science Fiction genre?
Adam Roberts: I’ve always read SF and Fantasy, from my earliest reading days: Asimov, Clarke, Tolkien, Christopher Priest, Phil Dick. I can honestly say it never occurred to me that anything other than SFF was worth writing. I still feel that way.

Dark Wolf: You published two non-fiction books about the history of Science Fiction, “Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom” and the second improved edition, “The History of Science Fiction”. Did the documentation and writing of these two books help you avoid certain clichés of Science Fiction genre in your novels? Did it help you bring in your fiction new subjects or themes not touched before?
Adam Roberts: Researching and writing the second, certainly, fed directly into writing some of my novels: for example, Polystom began with reading Poe’s ‘Hans Pfaal’, and Swiftly with re-reading, surprise-surprise, Swift. Avoiding cliché is a particularly acute dilemma for any writer of SFF—the backlist is so extensive, and so rich. There’s no short cut past it where originality is concerned; you just have to work through. Writing the critical stuff certainly helps me do that.

Dark Wolf: How much of your experience and documentation in the nineteenth-century literature is reflected on your written work? Did you use elements of the nineteenth-century literature in your novels?
Adam Roberts: It’s not a boast, but rather only a description of the professional requirements of the job, to say that as Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at the University of London I know a lot about the 19th century. I can’t say this directly informed what I was doing (although of course it indirectly informed it in lots of ways) until I wrote Swiftly, a novel set in the 1840s. Compared with the research I had to do when writing about the Soviet world of the 1980s for Yellow Blue Tibia—a lot—writing Swiftly was a doddle. But Robert Browning certainly taught me a lot, in terms of the heart of expression being the ironies and obstacles to communication rather than anything else.

DW: Your works include numerous novels, novellas, parodies and short stories. What is more comfortable for you, writing short fiction or longer one? How different is the satisfaction of finishing a novel than a short story?
AR: Perhaps oddly, I find the novel a more comfortable length than the short story. I think (it seems to me) in novel-sized chunks, and it takes that much space to work my ideas and aesthetic through for any given idea. I do write short fiction, of course, but my short stories often go on longer than a short story should—10,000 words, 12,000 words—and don’t always achieve the snappiness and concision a good short story needs.

DW: One of your projects is writing a short story for every sub-genre and premise of Science Fiction. How is your project going? Would you gather your stories in a collection of short stories or this project will remain open?
AR: It’s still ongoing. For example, I wrote Swiftly because I hadn’t previously tried something in the steampunk mode; and with YBT I was both essaying the action-adventure idiom and trying to write a proper alien invasion story. Although it turned into, what shall we say?—an improper alien invasion story. My next novel is called New Model Army, and is a modern updating of a late C19th subgenre of Military Extrapolation that was, in its day, very popular indeed: set off by Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (

DW: The Guardian named you “The King of High Concept”. Did this statement change your career in any way? Did this statement change your personal standard for your works?
AR: It reinforced my democratic republicanism.

DW: How about the nominations for different awards, did they change your career? Did it become a goal to win a specific award?
AR: Well, I’ve never won an award, which in itself seems to me almost an achievement, given the large number of awards available in the SFF world, the generosity, generally speaking, of SFF fans and award committees, and the sorts of things I write. But none of my stuff has been up to snuff. I have occasionally been nominated for things, but really only very occasionally: my first novel Salt was up for the Clarke (and was very well beaten by China Miéville’s brilliant Perdido Street Station); and Gradisil was shortlisted for the same award a few years ago. Swiftly has somehow slipped onto the Sideways award shortlist this year, too (for alternate history: it just about qualifies, and whilst I’m really chuffed I don’t expect it to win). That’s about it: and given the number of critical works (none of which have come within yelling distance of an award shortlist), short stories (ditto), long stories and novels I have written, this is evidently more than a statistical freak—it suggests that the collective wisdom of awards committees finds what I do insufficient to merit an award. Maybe I’m too far ahead of my time, and posterity will rate me. Not terribly likely, but there you go. I’m tempted to say that SFF as a whole doesn’t really ‘get’ my writing, but it may very well be that they get it perfectly well and just don’t like it overmuch.

DW: Two of your novels, “Splinter” and “Swiftly”, are inspired by the works of Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift and are also a homage to these authors. Why Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift? Are there elements from other authors’ works that you would like to transform in your works?
AR: The Jules Verne thing began life as a specific commission—Mike Ashley and Eric Brown edited a collection called The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures [], and asked me (and many others) to contribute. The gig was: pick a Verne title and write a modern riff or revisioning of it. I chose Hector Servadac, because I’ve always loved it: despite Verne’s reputation as a core SF writer only two out of all his many books take the reader off planet earth—and this is one of them. I wrote the story for Mike and Eric’s collection, but it wouldn’t let my imagination alone, so I carried on with it until I had the novel. Swiftly also started life as a short story, although its gestation was much longer; and it was re-reading Gulliver’s Travels to write my history of SF that put the idea of extrapolating the world Swift describes in that novel—or more precisely, of exploring the core metaphor of that novel, the shifts in size and scale—in a new piece of fiction. What other writers would I like to transform? My Chesney Battle-of-Dorking book is actually written as-by-Nabokov, not in imitation Chesney (hmm: that would be a very thin stylistic gruel) and I guess you could say that everything I do is an attempt to inch a little closer to Nabokov. More practically I have pondered a sequel to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (to be called, obviously: Twenty Eighty-Four) set in a world in which all dissent has been crushed, there are no individuals, only the four collective entities, the whole thing to be written in newspeak. Not sure that would be a very, er, commercial proposition. I’d also like to try an enormous series, in the Perry Rhodan style, although more literary: a huge future-narrative issued in monthly 110- or 120-page novel sections, and running at least to one hundred novels. That would be fun.

DW: Are the parodies you wrote under pseudonyms a different homage brought to the works parodied? Did the tone of your parodies made his presence in the other works you wrote?
AR: Parody is a more focused, comic form of intertextuality, and intertextuality is the currency of all writing; so my answer to your question would be ‘yes’. There are few authors I love as profoundly as Tolkien, and my parodies of him were undertaken in as close to reverence as is possible when you’re completely pastiche-ing somebody. But, see, I don’t see pastiche as incompatible with love—or with originality, either. Some of The Rutles’ songs are the best Beatles songs ever recorded; Rabelais, Don Quixote, Alice in Wonderland—all parodies that surpass the texts they parodies. As for my regular writing, I’m surprised more readers don’t see how parodic it is. But maybe that’s because my sense of humour is a bit involuted, and oblique.

DW: Would you like in the future to experiment with other genres of literature as well?
AR: Wait … there are other genres of literature, besides SF and F? Why did nobody tell me this before?

DW: I know that this is an awkward question, but is one of your works closer to your heart? What’s the reason for this preference?
AR: My most autobiographical novels (close to my heart in that sense) are my first two: and the ‘best’, in terms of hitting most of the targets I set myself and doing something original and new, is probably Swiftly. But I’ve a soft spot for Yellow Blue Tibia, because it’s the one of my novels most thoroughly about SF, and I love SF. Plus it’s the funniest. And I like funny.

DW: From all the scenarios you imagined in your works which one do you think is more plausible to happen someday in the future? If possible would you like to visit some of your created worlds?
AR: I remain convinced that an enterprising scientist will develop a practical, functioning version of the method outlined in Gradisil for getting into space, and so revolutionize interplanetary travel. Someday soon. Soon, yes.

DW: Playing a bit, in an alternative history of our days, what would have been Adam Roberts, if not a writer and a professor of literature?
AR: A maker of animated cartoons.

DW: At what are you working at the present and what other future plans do you have?
AR: I’ve just finished another sort-of parody, commissioned by my publishers for the Christmas market: I Am Scrooge!, which is essentially A Christmas Carol And Zombies. And in a month or so I’ll deliver my next novel the aforementioned New Model Army: a mash-up of Chesney’s Battle for Dorking, Clockwork Orange (without the invented future argot, though) Fight Club and Heart of Darkness. Then I need to do some professor-of-Victorian-literature stuff for a while. After that I’ll start thinking about my next novel after that.

Thank you very much for your time and answers. It has been an honor and a pleasure.
The pleasure is all mine.


ediFanoB said...

Great interview! Swiftly and Yellow Blue Tibia are on my list.
And I must admit New Model Army sounds very interesting.

Sharon E. Dreyer said...

This is a very informative and wonderful interview! Thanks of the heads-up on these books. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

Liviu said...

Great interview; Adam Roberts is maybe the most interesting sf writer today since he does not repeat himself; I own all his (original) novels and read 7 out of 10 so far starting with Stone which is still a big time favorite of mine, but I also loved Land of Headless, Splinter, YBT a lot, with Gradisil and Swiftly close behind and only Polystom a good but could have been better one.

Any new novel from him is an asap and I plan to read the other 3 (Salt, On and Snow) at some point too.

And he writes great ss too

Mihai A. said...

Michael, thank you. "Yellow Blue Tibia" is a wonderful novel and I recommend you to read it :)

Sharon, thank you too :)

Liviu, I read only "Yellow Blue Tibia" from his novels, but many more of his short stories. However, I plan to order all his novels too, because I really liked Adam Roberts' works I read :)

Steven said...

Adam commented: "Swiftly has somehow slipped onto the Sideways award shortlist this year, too (for alternate history: it just about qualifies, and whilst I’m really chuffed I don’t expect it to win)."

The actual name of the award is the Sidewise Award, named for Murray Leinster's 1934 short story "Sidewise in Time."

Mihai A. said...

Steven, thank you very much for the clarification.
And let me say that this is one of the awards I watch :)