No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, October 25, 2001

Interview: Justina Robson, October 2001

This interview took place in October 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #221, Jan / Feb 2002), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: ‘A novelist of real vision’, says Zadie Smith on the cover of Mappa Mundi. How did you get Zadie Smith to provide the quote for a science fiction novel?
JR: She wasn’t actually solicited for the cover quote. That particular quote was drawn from her judge’s remarks on the Amazon Bursary prize. She said it as a consequence of having to wind up the prize.
TB: You were the first winner with Silver Screen, weren’t you? What was the whole story behind the Amazon Bursary?
JR: I found out about it on the Internet, quite by accident. Amazon were doing this writer’s bursary, particularly for authors who’d just written their first novel and had a contract for another. The timescale was quite specific, and I just happened to fit into it. I thought I might as well give it a go; I probably didn’t have any chance but it was worth a try. I found out in the November of that year that I’d got onto the shortlist, which I was completely amazed by because I thought it was going to be a literary-focus prize, and therefore that science fiction probably wouldn’t get much of a look-in. I was wrong!
TB: What was the prize?
JR: I won £2,500, and I went to Queen Mary & Westfield College for one term at the beginning of this year (2001). I did two days a week. I was just supposed to be part of the faculty, while finishing my second book. The whole prize was designed to give you space and time away from home to finish your masterpiece, and also to have some interaction with the academic people at the college. I also gave the students a bit of creative writing tuition. I did that for an hour a week, and the literary group and I got together for chats. It was fun. I was a bit scared at first. I kept identifying with the students, instead of with the staff. I felt like I was a student and shouldn’t really be in the office, and that someone was going to tell me off. It was very strange. Just about as I got used to it, it was time to leave.
TB: Silver Screen made quite an impact: you won the Amazon Bursary, you were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke and BSFA Awards… Did you expect that degree of success?
JR: No, not at all. I was just delighted that it got into print, and that would have been enough for me. I was completely surprised when it got shortlisted for the Clarke. Writing the second one did get harder, partly because of that. I started to get very nervous and feel that now the challenge was really on. Silver Screen got a very good reception, and many people said many delightful things about it; and I started to feel that perhaps I could only disappoint from now on!
TB: There’s a review on the web which likens Mappa Mundi, your new novel, to The X Files. ‘The shadow cast by Chris Carter’s monster hit is impossible to ignore in Mappa Mundi; dangerous technology; shadowy government / military conspiracies; a maverick FBI agent not afraid to bend the rules (and whose relationship with his sister is an integral plot point); a cute and extremely intelligent female scientist with red hair; you get the picture!' How do you feel about that?
JR: I used to really like The X Files. When the first couple of series came out, they seemed to be really interesting and I enjoyed watching them. It’s only in later series that I’ve started to detest it. I was expecting people to mention things like that, because as soon as you start employing any character from the FBI who does anything remotely to do with futurology or mysterious stuff, it’s going to get compared to David Duchovny’s character in the show. There’s nothing you can do about that. I have to say it didn’t occur to me about the sister thing until I read it in that review - or the red-haired scientist, or the connection between them.
TB: This reviewer also says that he finds it a very cerebral novel; ‘it involves the head more than the heart’. I wondered if what he had a problem with was that you were dealing with complicated motivations, rather than a simplistic set of playground-type emotions driving some special effects, which is unfortunately a bit of a cliché in the genre as a whole. In Mappa Mundi, there are the opening ‘Legends’, each of which deals with a key episode in the life of one of the characters. They don’t initially seem to have anything to do with the rest of the plot. It’s only gradually that we realise how much effect those incidents have on what happens in the main arc of the novel: how much the incidents have affected those characters’ psychological makeup. Do you think that the SF genre tends to steer away from the more complicated emotions in favour of special effects?
JR: Yes, often. I hate to say that, because it seems to be selling science fiction really short. Lots of people have slammed science fiction in the past for exactly that kind of thing. But at the same time you’ve got people like Iain Banks who manages to do both: he writes complex and deep psychological stories with all of the -‘ bang, wallop, crash’ stuff at the same time. I always find it difficult to talk about science fiction as a genre in that generalistic sense, because it does so many things so well, but not necessarily all at the same time. I think it might be possible, but excessively difficult, to pull off all its stunts at once. Therefore, you have to pick and choose to some degree. You have to say to yourself, “Well, I’m going to write a thoughtful sort of book examining these ideas, so there isn’t going to be a lot of running around, car chasing, alien killing.” On the other hand, if you want a rip-roaring adventure where the action never stops, it’s a bit tricky to work in the really subtle psychological effects. I’m not saying it’s undoable, but it is hard, and many of the appealing features of science fiction are its much more obvious dramas and techno-feats.
TB: Your first book, Silver Screen, is in the first person. That’s something you do see quite often in writers who want to balance the action and the more emotional side - the more cerebral side, perhaps - of it. In Mappa Mundi you write in the third person, which doesn’t give the same immediacy or special knowledge of the character’s emotional life.
JR: In Mappa Mundi most of the emotional stuff that’s going on is an undercurrent of some kind. That’s precisely because the whole book is an examination of motivation, and whether or not you really do have any insight into what you’re doing, or if you are, in fact, driven by all kinds of things which you hadn’t realised have affected you. It’s all about free will, freedom of choice and that kind of thing. All the characters in it are driven, not only by the things that they think they want, but also all the things that they don’t really understand that they want. I felt it was a very emotional book, because the only reason that people do anything in it is because they have such strong feelings - whether they’re rational, whether they’re conscious, or not. To me it just felt like this big, dark soup of strange stuff going on: to read a review saying, “it’s just cerebral, nobody feels anything” is a bit … disappointing. Perhaps that’s partly the book’s fault: in some ways it sets out to be a thriller in its style. If it was that kind of book, you would expect it to have more thrilleresque qualities - much more obvious emotional motivation and character interaction - than it does.
TB: It seems a less British book than Silver Screen. Despite some scenes set in space in your earlier novel, and in America in Mappa Mundi, to a British reader it’s the action set in England which is clearly in a real place. Do you think of yourself as a particularly British, or English, writer? Do you think it’s important to get locations right?
JR: I think it is important to get your locations right. I like to be precise about them where I can be, and I try to write about places that I know, so hopefully they’ll feel authentic. The American places in Mappa Mundi are all places that I’ve been to. I’d have to wait until I found somebody else who’d actually been there to find out if they feel authentic.
TB: Mappa Mundi appeared just after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. It features a hijack, which may have been rather too timely for some people. There’s an apposite phrase about the effects of Mappaware, which is effectively a kind of mental programming. “Guskov said that it was possible for a person to remain essentially themselves whilst shifting the core of their identities, to a sufficient extent that an Afghani Muslim could experience himself as a part of the United States diaspora, loyal to the flag, espousing democracy, even tolerating libertarians on the same street because of the Stars and Stripes flying overhead.” Would you like to rewrite that, with hindsight?
JR: No! I stand by it. A lot of the book is to do with the development of this mind control technology. Its primary developers are the Americans - and the American government in particular - who are doing it in response to a perceived bioterrorist threat coming out of Asia/the East: it’s not specified exactly where. They have medical nanotechnology working quite well, and they’ve realised that by fiddling around with your synapses they can do certain things to you. The system they’re trying to develop is one which alters the emotional response you have to particular ideas. It doesn’t try to change your thoughts - it’s just about changing your attitude, in a very broad-scale sort of way. Part of the reason I wrote it was because I was feeling quite resentful at that stage about the American cultural overspill that the media was creating, not just in the West but also migrating into the rest of the world. Partly the McDonalds and the Disneyfication, but also all the myths and beliefs they’re exporting in their films. Their response to a lot of films - especially Independence Day - is quite different from audiences elsewhere. Many of my relatives are Americans, and many of them are very patriotic. I even found sometimes talking to them would drive me gradually round the bend at their insularity. It’s almost a cliché of the age to say that about Americans. Part of my reason for having them develop this technology was the natural result of running their ideology right out to its limit line. The final conclusion that the US makes, in the book, about other people is that we must preserve them and not do horrible cultural-territorial things to them. They can all still be themselves, except they’ll like us. And we won’t need to bomb them. The whole beauty of this idea was, there would be no more war. There would be no more bombing, because everybody would get along at least enough that you wouldn’t have this kind of violent uprising of the people. Do you really think people would be offended by the hijack scene? People will still be hijacking planes as long as there are planes!
TB: Perhaps America has taken it more personally than another nation would have, because they never thought it could happen to them. Americans are now programmed - in the old-fashioned sense of the word - to think of hijacking in the context of September 11th and the Twin Towers.
JR: We are programmed to do things. If someone had come up to me in the street two days later and asked what I think I’d have probably said something off the TV or the papers, because I didn’t really know what to think.
TB: You studied psychology, didn’t you?
JR: A bit. I studied philosophy and linguistics. I was hoping to convert to studying Artificial Intelligence, which you can study at Bristol University. Philosophy and linguistics go together quite well in AI, because you study natural language design - and structured thinking, to whatever degree you can study that.
TB: Can you tell us about how you evolved the AI in Silver Screen?
JR: I just extrapolated it from what was already going on in that area. They were thinking at the time that the only way you could possibly get an AI was to have it design itself to some degree. It would have to start off mimicking human complexity because that’s the only model of intelligence we’ve got. One of the main problems with developing AI at the moment is that the machines themselves don’t have sensory input from the outside world, and they don’t have mobility, and they don’t have limbs. They’re utterly incapable of gathering their own information, apart from what we give them, which is not environmentally rich. There’s no stimulation, no opportunity for them to exercise any kind of decision of any meaningful value. You’d have to equip the AI with inputs that you didn’t have to feed. Once you’ve got something like that, even though it’s modelled on a human intelligence, ultimately it’s going to be smart enough to realise it isn’t human. A lot of human beings’ behavioural development is to do with their hormonal structure, among other things, and unless you mimic that there’s no reason to think that the machine would be anything like a human consciousness, if it ever evolved. But it would probably have to behave like one, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to interact with it.
TB: In Mappa Mundi, on the other hand, you’ve gone for quite a different area of future technology: it’s basically mind programming, isn’t it?
JR: It’s been featured a lot over the years, done by various means. I was trying to approach it in a scientific kind of way, to see if it would be possible to affect people in the way you’ve often dreamed of affecting them, by saying ‘Buy Brand X soap powder’ or ‘Believe this political theory’. By the time I’d thought it through, I could see it was going to be far too complicated. No one’s ever going to have the time to get into every individual head and see how it all works, and then start to make changes. I had to think of a much more brutal way of mind-controlling people that was simpler and more horrible but potentially much more effective. It’s the whole brainwashing technique just taken to an extreme by being done electronically, instead of having to persuade people through reams and reams of information bombardment.
TB: Wireless brainwashing. You could have done it via mobile phones…
JR: I didn’t know about mobile phones. I thought they might be obsolete technology by this stage. I have these little handheld ‘do everything’ gadgets, Pads, but a lot of people probably won’t have those, because they’re still very much a First World item. If you’re going for global domination you need something that’s globally available.
TB: When is this set? It’s 2015, 2016?
JR: Yes, ten or fifteen years’ time.
TB: It’s interesting that you set the novel so near to us in time. Writing near-future science fiction must be difficult - you have to think so hard about what’s going to last and what isn’t. Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones’ new novel, is already outdated because she talks about putting a Railtrack spur out, and Railtrack are, of course, no more. Famously, in the film 2001, there’s the Pan Am shuttle. How do you decide? What makes you think something is going to last?
JR: I decided I wasn’t going to think too hard about that kind of thing. I tried to avoid mentioning anything that seemed like it was a transient technology to me. Things like Walkmans - do they change into Walksticks?
TB: You’ve written two very science-oriented science fiction novels. Some, at least, of your short stories are fantasy. Have you ever thought about writing a fantasy novel?
JR: Yes, I used to write fantasy novels when I was unpublished. That might give you a hint as to why I stopped doing it! They were pretty horrendous, actually. I wouldn’t rule it out: it’s just that I’d have to be a lot better at it than I used to be. I’m still waiting for the day when I come up with the idea that I think is worth doing. I don’t really care about the money. I’d only write fantasy if I thought it was going to be any good and if I thought it was going to be interesting to me, and the same goes for an SF book. And if I never had another good idea I wouldn’t bother carrying on. It might not interest anybody else, but if something interests me I’ll write about it.
Audience: You’ve written some short stories.
JR: I have, yes, and some of them are OK... I find it really hard to write them. I don’t find them satisfying. It’s quite rare for me to read a short story that I like. I’d rather read a novel.
Audience: You’ve said that you don’t really like writing short stories. When I started reading Mappa Mundi it just seemed like a series of short stories.
JR: I suppose they are short stories, but I didn’t think of them that way. To me they’re components. I didn’t think they’d be stand-alone stories. I like short stories to do more than what those first-person narratives do. I like them to go somewhere, to have a definite beginning and end and development.
TB: Back to the mind programming. If that technology was available, would you do it? Would you go and disseminate the substance that changes peoples’ minds?
JR: It’s an enormous hubris to think that you can solve the world’s problems by having this blanket niceness that would appear in everybody’s personality.
TB: And that’s why you picked the Americans to initiate it?
JR: It would be enormously tempting, almost impossibly tempting, not to try to do something in the current situation to improve the outcome. But no, I probably wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I could possibly do anything to make things any better. What would you do if you had one thing to do to try to make the world better, to improve people? What could you possibly do to them? Whatever small change you made to them, it could have enormous effects. But I don’t suppose, in terms of net happiness, it would up the percentage. It may change things, but it wouldn’t make them necessarily better.
TB: I was interested in your article for the website The Alien Online about, amongst other things, transcendence. That sense of there being something else, something different was present in both your novels, both for human and for AI. In Silver Screen, you seem to have transcendence as a potential, at least, for an artificial intelligence as much as for a human being. It’s an atheist’s epiphany.
JR: I’ve always been fascinated by altered states of consciousness as an aspect of human living. I’ve tried to approach it personally through yoga, but also through books and learning. For ages I just couldn’t get out of anybody - even people who seemed, or claimed, to be regularly experiencing it - what they were actually talking about. What is this experience of the ‘higher’ state of consciousness? Do I know more things? Will I get strange powers like telepathy and clairvoyance? They all talk in very vague and difficult-to-interpret terms, and a lot of the time I felt that it was an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ situation, because there’s no way to share the experience or even to communicate with somebody exactly what your experience of the profound or the divine or the higher is. There isn’t a language for it. You try to put it into language and it doesn’t really make any sense. It’s so open to interpretation, especially in terms of neuroscience, different sorts of brain events and the actual experience of the event, and the chemical or the electrical activity of the event. All the time I was trying to figure out whether I thought the world was just a material place in which we have totally chemical brains, or whether there really was something other going on. It was a very hard decision but eventually I came down on the atomic structure side of it. You may have an experience of becoming one with the divine. Just because it’s an atomic event happening to you doesn’t mean that your experience is wrong, or that you are wrong, or that there is no divine. If you think you turned into a wolf and ran over the steppes, and met with magical beings, you probably didn’t: but that doesn’t mean that your experience of being a wolf and running over the steppe and meeting magical beings is a meaningless load of old tosh! There’s a piece of me that’s a completely godless atheist, but another piece of me longs for mystery and the divine and the intercession of greater things for us, because god knows we are not doing such a great job of it on our own. I have this big struggle all the time, in all of the books: I’m trying to portray people as, not transcending so much as becoming greater things. Sometimes it’s too much for them - a sublimation too far.
TB: But it’s sublimation through science, rather than through religion or the supernatural.
JR: Through all my contact with people who have spent a lifetime in devout practice, I’ve found that there is something different about them: but I don’t believe it’s an otherworldly, supernatural something. I think they definitely have evolved as human beings to a different state, which you might choose to call higher or not, and they are operating on slightly different levels, but I don’t think there’s anything bizarre or X-Filey about that.
TB: It seems to me that your major characters all get somewhere completely unexpected! Your female protagonists are strong and effective, but also very human, with lots of very real self-doubt. Does any of that - or even the choice of female characters - come from being a female author? And would you work with a male protagonist rather than a range of viewpoints from both sexes? What about writing from the first person as a male character?
JR: I couldn’t say at the moment whether I’d write a first-person man. I think it’d be enormously difficult, because I do think that male experience is significantly different from mine. I hesitate to say that I’m typical of all women, because I don’t think I am: nobody’s really typical. Most of us are in the middle of that bell curve. But there’s a huge range of different experiences depending on your physical gender. I probably would try it, but how convincing it would be would depend on the men who read it. Having read science fiction over the years, women have often been secondary characters. I did make a conscious decision to try and redress the balance, but I didn’t want to do it by writing science fiction about feminist issues.
TB: Is that because you don’t think of yourself as a feminist or just that it’s not an especially interesting area for you?
JR: It’s because I’ve never liked any of the fiction I’ve read which was specifically feminist-issue based - not that I’ve read that much of it. The Left Hand of Darkness was interesting on lots of levels, but it wasn’t very gender-specific, or I didn’t find it was and hence, although it did some work communicating a genderless experience, it felt very flat and uninteresting, like a thought-experiment and not a real situation. I’m also thinking about books like The Gate to Women’s Country and Mothertongue which I didn’t find credible, although they had interesting moments. When you’re trying to put a political ideology into a science fiction book as a reality, or as an idealised reality - it could be just that I happened to have picked the bad writers - but it feels so artificial and so unlikely, and the emotions that came out of that sort of writing are hostile and angry. It’s not a helpful attitude, not an attractive one. I don’t want to feel all these negative feelings they make me feel, not only about myself, but also about feminism. I honestly think that if this is what feminism’s all about then I don’t want anything to do with it, because it’s absolutely repellent in human terms. It’s dishonest and I hate it. That really put me off. Yes, I am a feminist, but in my definition of that.
TB: Is your idea of a happy ending less likely to be girl and boy walking off into the sunset than girl walking off in an altered state of consciousness?
JR: I could do girl and boy walking off into the sunset if it was justified by anything that had gone before it! Happy endings … Both my books have positive endings, to some degree. They’re quite complicated endings, rather than happy resolutions in terms of putting everything neatly together
TB: You don’t necessarily buy into the stereotypical romantic ending.
JR: Absolutely not! In fact I don’t like that ending, on its bald facts, because I think it’s the same old trash you’re always sold. As a girl, I felt that my expectations were all to be moulded around it and everything else was secondary. If you didn’t have that you wouldn’t be happy in a certain special way. You’d always be missing out and be somehow lesser and defective. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had my own happy ending, but I resented it being peddled so hard! I’d rather have been sold dreams of being someone with a clue in my own right rather than an accessory in some other hero’s story.
Audience: You’re writing just far enough in the future that the rest of your career will span the times you’re writing about. How embarrassed do you think you might end up being? For instance, in Mappa Mundi, you’re writing about an America which is a lot more authoritarian than it is now.
JR: It could just be me getting it wrong! I won’t ever be embarrassed by getting things wrong: I find that amusing. I’m sure things will turn out completely differently anyway. I’d hate to be some kind of oracle.
Audience: Which authors inspired you? You mentioned The Left Hand of Darkness
JR: Ursula le Guin, yes, to some degree. I found Earthsea, as a story, emotionally more rounded and thoroughly developed than the actual science fiction books. Iain Banks - I like the way that he can combine many complicated things and still have lots of fun action and derring-do going on. Recently I’ve started to try and read a bit more broadly. I liked House of Leaves - ‘liked’ is probably the wrong word, I admired House of Leaves. A very interesting but very disturbing book. I’m still not quite sure what I think about it! I’m trying to branch out a bit more. There’s so many writers that it’s hard to say. I read books, and I’m very into them for the time that I’m reading them. A short while later they go right out of my head like a sieve, and I retain all kinds of strange things about them which often aren’t there in the text when I go back and reread them. China Miéville was quite an influence, just recently, with Perdido Street Station. That had energy and verve and I thought it was a refreshing change.
TB: Presumably that would have been an influence over your third book?
JR: The working title is Natural History, which nobody likes but me. I’m trying to write a story about when human beings have engineered themselves to live in outer space or on the surfaces of gas giants. The most limiting factor of the whole space travel thing is having to go out there in a tin box and support yourself with some very vulnerable systems that take enormous energy and effort to maintain. You’re not going anywhere like that, really. The best thing to do would be to try to change yourself. It’s in a future where genetic engineering’s been tremendously successful, and all Earth-based DNA is basically up for grabs, and so are the cybernetics and nanoware industries. People are becoming conglomerates of biological and engineered processes. They come across some aliens. I’m having real trouble with the aliens, because the more I try and write about them the more I realise they’re humans in suits. I don’t like that, because I think aliens are nothing like that. I’m going to have to remove them, I think, and do something else.
TB: Who do you think does a good alien?
JR: Lots of people do good aliens, as in entertaining aliens with lots of funny appendages and habits and physiological niceties and so on. I really like James White’s books, because of the alien classification system. All the aliens you come across in the hospital are just hilariously entertaining and wonderfully inventive. Banksie does good aliens. But the ‘people in suits’ brigade - their aliens are all wonderfully comprehensible and they communicate beautifully … Contact aliens are a bit like monsters from the id, taking on a form that everyone will understand, so you don’t really get any insight into them anyway. I suppose that in terms of ‘real’ aliens, I preferred that, because it’s a bit more plausible than thinking you could actually understand anything about them whatsoever. But then you also get the South Park response to stories like Contact… all that and you find out the aliens are her father! It sucks.
TB: What do you think will happen first? Artificial intelligence that can think like a human, or an artificial way to change what humans think? Silver Screen or Mappa Mundi?
JR: I just read an article by Stephen Hawking in the paper. In this article he says ‘both’: he’s saying that the machines will reach a level of complexity where they might overtake us and become smart. His response to that is to say that we must make connections between them and our brains so they make us smarter, and don’t threaten our supremacy. I thought that was quite a strange conclusion! Smart machines first, I think …