Neal Asher Interview and The Skinner Review

Combining large-scale space opera, intense, visceral action, and occasional elements of horror, Neal Asher is one of the most exciting authors to come out of the United Kingdom in recent years. Born in England in 1961, Asher spent many years writing stories for British small-press magazines. In 2001 his first novel, Gridlinked, was published by by MacMillan in the UK, and by Tor in the United States. His “Polity” future history, the setting of books such as Gridlinked, The Skinner, and Hilldiggers, is one of the most intriguing settings in science fiction today. He has also written stand-alone stories, such as his novel Cowl. His next novel, The Shadow of the Scorpion, will be published by Night Shade Books in May 2008.

neal asher

John Markley: What can you tell us about your new book Shadow of the Scorpion?

Neal Asher: After I produced Prador Moon for at Night Shade Books (original title On the Edge of the Sand) and after it did very well, Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen immediately wanted another book and pushed for it being a bit longer. I was a bit dubious about this, since I had plenty of other work on, but I agreed. The general idea was that I produce another Polity book and I took this as an opportunity, as with Prador Moon, to fill in a bit of the back-story. I chose Agent Cormac and told the story of his early years in the military, linked into childhood events, and set it (where it falls in the chronology) just after the Prador war. Here’s the blurb for you:

Raised to adulthood during the end of the war between the human Polity and the vicious arthropoid race the Prador, Ian Cormac is haunted by childhood memories of a sinister scorpion-shaped war drone and the burden of losses he doesn’t remember. In the years following the war he signs up with Earth Central Security, and is sent out to help either restore or maintain order on worlds devastated by Prador bombardment. There he discovers that though the old enemy remains as murderous as ever, it is not anywhere near as perfidious or dangerous as some of his fellow humans, some closer to him than he would like. Amidst the ruins left by war-time genocides, he discovers in himself a cold capacity for violence, learns some horrible truths about his own past and, set upon a course of vengeance, tries to stay alive.

John Markley: Many of your books are set in your “Polity” future history. For those who are unfamiliar with it, what can you tell us about that setting?

Neal Asher: Well, even before I wrote Gridlinked I was creating a future setting in which I could tell an almost unlimited number of stories. I wanted to be able to lay my hands on every SF trope I’ve ever enjoyed, so the Polity had to be big, high-tech, but also have primitive areas. To cover this I had an diaspora from the solar system of colony ships before the expansion of the Polity (empire, dominion, culture) so as the border of that expanded worlds in various stages of development would be encountered. I therefore get a high-tech civilization impacting on worlds in every stage of human development and regression, so, as in Brass Man, I can write about both a lethal nano-technology subsuming a starship and a knight in armour riding around on an alien mount. The Polity itself is more-or-less settled, run by AIs, traversed by starships or via instantaneous transmission through runcible gates, but it does have its problems: terrorists, lethal alien technologies, and the ruling AIs are not always benevolent.

John Markley: Where did the ideas for the Polity setting originate?

Neal Asher: As above; it began forming in my short stories and then grew in the telling. Looking back at where it all originates from, well, predicting from my current science reading and just about all of the thousands of SF books I’ve read, but I also like subverting some of the stuff I found in them. Therefore, I have Golem androids who find the whole three laws of robotics thing amusing, whilst tearing off someone’s head, and I’ve got AIs quite comfortable with where they are and not that interested in ‘singularity’.

John Markley: How developed is the background of the Polity universe? Do you have lots of notes about things like its history, technology, and the like to refer to, or do you prefer to come up with those details as you go along?

Neal Asher: Hey, I make it up as I go along – that’s my job. However, along the way I’ve accumulated a chronology and a growing encylopaedia. It just won’t do to have a Prador bleeding green blood in book two then purple blood in book five. The details in the previous books inform what appears in later books and since I’m up to book eleven in that setting that’s a lot of detail.

John Markley: How would you describe your work to someone who has never read you before?

Neal Asher: First and foremost: entertainment. I’ve stated before that I come from the Arnold Schwartzenneger school of SF. My aim is to tell you an enjoyable story that keeps you reading until the last page, then wanting more. It’s violent stuff, packed with ‘technology indistinguishable from magic’, massive spaceships, superhumans and super androids, lethal alien technology, lethal aliens, high-tech weaponry and some decidedly odd characters. This is not to say that it doesn’t deal with some ‘deeper’ issues, but I don’t let that get in the way of story. Oh, and explosions, mustn’t forget the explosions.

What you won’t find in my books is navel-gazing introspection, stunning (or rambling) prose for its own sake, didactic political bullshit, the ad nauseum over-development of a character’s history and that meandering slide into the arty-farty-literarty spectrum of the SF world. Everything first bows to entertainment and story.

John Markley: Your stories feature a lot of bizarre alien life forms, like the sleer, the Spatterjay virus, and (my favorite) the gabbleduck. What sort of things inspire your aliens? Do you have an interest in biology?

Neal Asher: I have a huge interest in biology, though admittedly the more icky aspects of it. Show me a vast colony of sea birds, which seem to be the staple of many wildlife programs, and I start to yawn. Show me a pod of whales traversing the ocean and I’ll be more interested in what’s burrowing into their skin. It’s all my parent’s fault for buying me a microscope when I was a kid and also taking family holidays by the seaside, where I spent long enjoyable hours digging for bait and looking under rocks. My interest has never waned and the whole subject fascinates me still. One book that particularly got under my skin (pun) was a veterinary book on Helminthology – the study of parasitic worms. Read up on that and the Spatterjay virus is not so unlikely as you might think. I like the logic of it too (read Dawkins) and apply it and, though I might come up with weird life-forms, I also build the ecology that allows them.

John Markley: How much do you plan books ahead of time? Do you use an outline or anything similar?

Neal Asher: Nope, it comes straight out of my head via the keyboard to the screen. The only real planning i.e. when I submit a proposal to Macmillan, is along the lines of a blurb. I briefly detail certain elements and characters in the next book, but only have a vague idea about what I’ll do with them, though it’s certain there’ll be blood on the carpet. My editor is okay with this because I’ve always produced, and usually before time. It’s also the case that if I know what is going to happen I get bored with it. Originally, with The Line of Polity, I wrote out a full synopsis and the first 30,000 words while in pursuit of a bursary. When Macmillan took it on I scrapped the synopsis, dumped all but a couple of thousand words and started again.

John Markley: What do you enjoy more: books that are part of a series, like the Ian Cormac books, or stand-alone stories like Cowl?

Neal Asher: I enjoy them both but I guess the stand-alones I enjoy more. Earlier you asked about the background to the Polity universe and it’s that that can be a pain. Writing Line War, which is book five of the Cormac sequence, I have to perpetually refer to the previous four books, which is not only burdensome but constricts imagination. It’s the case, as many SF writers have found, that every brick you use to build up your future world is also the brick to prison for your imagination. Fortunately, by writing books like Cowl, books set in the Polity but outside the Cormac sequence and numerous short stories set in an entirely different future, I’ve been constructing a little escape hatch.

John Markley: How much do you usually write a day? What sort of environment do you like to write in?

Neal Asher: In our bungalow we have a small spare room converted to an office where I sit typing away at a pc. Nothing unusual, really. I have, however, written on a lap-top in other locations and in longhand while dossing on a beach. My aim is to hit 2000 words a day for five days a week, but I don’t hit that target very often. Sometime I might edit all day which can sometimes result in my overall wordcount dropping, I also have stuff from my editor and copy editor at Macmillan to go through. Then again, every now and again something puts a rocket up my backside, like earlier last week when I wrote a short story plus outline of about 4,500 words in one day. Also I might spend time doing other stuff, like interviews…

John Markley: You do a good bit of interacting with fans, through your blog and on message boards. Do you find that rewarding?

Neal Asher: My theory is that if you’re a story-teller then you’re a compulsive communicator. I enjoy chatting, arguing and I’m an opinionated sod, which I think you have to be if your writing is going to have any sincerity. Yeah, I do enjoy it and do find it rewarding. It is the practice and practising of writing and throughout the process I don’t often find myself lacking something to say. Also, I want to hear from my fans: I want to hear what they want so I can produce it, and not wrap myself up in my own little authorial world and disappear up my own fundament.

John Markley: A number of your books, such as The Line of Polity, have not been published in the United States. Do you know if your American publisher has any plans for those books?

Neal Asher: Damned if I know. Tor published books one and three of the Cormac sequence and missed out Line, which is book two because, apparently, it was too long. I still fail to see the logic of this and it still annoys me. Perhaps they just aren’t selling enough of my books to be prepared to take the risk. Maybe the Polity books just don’t do so well in the American market. I know that’s not the sort of thing a writer should dare utter but I’m a realist and I’m in no pain: by books are published in ten different languages and Macmillan show no sign of dropping me. Then again, it could be time for another American publisher to pick up the baton.

John Markley: Do you have any interest in writing something outside the science fiction genre?

Neal Asher: Before being picked up by Macmillan I wrote a contemporary thriller about farmers growing GM cannabis in Essex and the villainy surrounding that (Frog Wine). That book sits in my files along with four fantasy books. The first three (The Staff of Sorrows, Assassin out of Twilight & The Yellow Tower) are a trilogy I wrote over many many years as I worked my way up from longhand and manual typewriter to the pc I work on now. The fourth one (Creatures of the Staff – The Infinite Willows sequence) was written towards the end of that time, at which point I thought there was no point in carrying on with them unless a publisher picked up the first three. At some point I’d love to return to them all, rewrite them and try my luck again. However, I’ve made my name as an SF writer, steadily clawing up the ladder and increasing sales, so to then just stop that and turn to fantasy seems like a good way to shoot myself in the foot. Anyway, I’m enjoying what I do now.

John Markley: Have anyone expressed interest in adapting your work for television or film?

Neal Asher: A company called Blue Train Entertainment expressed an interest in Gridlinked (they were involved in The Tuxedo along with Dreamworks) but nothing came of that, then recently I got a query from a story editor at Twentieth Century Fox about Hilldiggers, which again came to nothing. However, another query/request has come up through my own internet connection, y’know, all that compulsive communicating. It’s presently turning into something very interesting about which I am only allowed to say that “I’ve been working on some ideas for a ‘Heavy Metal’ feature”. I’m afraid that if I said any more I’d have to shoot you. More about this, possibly, in a month or so.

John Markley: What got you interested in science fiction? Who were some of the first authors you read?

Neal Asher: I think you have to have a certain kind of mind to have an interest in SF and the moment you are exposed to it there’s no looking back. I suspect it has something to do with imagination and a love and understanding of science – something of which the slavering critics of SF don’t seem to possess. My first exposure was to fantasy with Lord of the Rings and the C S Lewis’s Narnia books. My parents and brothers read SF too and passed books on to me, starting me off with E C Tubb (first one was The Winds of Gath), Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter on Mars) Wyndam, Lymington, Clarke, Asimov, Silverberg and all the rest. Damn those were wonderful reading years.

John Markley: What current science fiction writers do you like?

Neal Asher: In a way that’s quite a vague question, but : C J Cherryh, Ian M Banks, Sherry Tepper, Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Robert Reed, Peter F Hamilton, Gary Gibson, Charles Stross, Stephen Baxter, Ted Chiang (on the basis of one short story collection), Jon Courteney Grimwood, John Meaney, Vernor Vinge, Peter Watts, Gene Wolfe … and doubtless I’ve missed quite a few from this list. I’d also add that I don’t necessarily like everything this lot have written. The complete stand-out ones for me on recent reading experience are Watts and Gibson.

John Markley: What do you like to read outside the SF field?

Neal Asher: I like to read fantasy, thrillers, humour, science, vicious Internet blogs and message boards. Here’s a couple that might be of interest: the best fantasy book I’ve read lately is Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, and as far as thrillers are concerned (police procedurals) you can’t go far wrong with Minette Walters.

John Markley: What’s your impression of the state of science fiction reading/fandom in the United Kingdom?

Neal Asher: As usual the sneering attitude towards SF remains unchanged, both inside and outside the SF world itself, but if you like the stuff that ain’t going to effect you. The Internet seems to have finally wiped out the market for short SF magazines, though it was struggling anyway with most subscribers being wannabe writers and too many magazine editors losing sight of the fact that stories sell such magazines, not rambling prose, no matter how admirable. Fans go to cons – each to their own. It all seems to be alive and kicking.

John Markley: What are you working on now?

Neal Asher: I’m working on a follow-up to The Voyage of the Sable Keech (which followed The Skinner) called Orbus, pursuing the story of an Old Captain who leaves Spatterjay heading for the Graveyard (a planetary wasteland between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom). Also heading that way is a Prador infected with the Spatterjay virus and the king of the Prador who is turning himself into something monstrous. Awaiting in the Graveyard is the thousand-year-old Golgoloth, a Prador who has kept himself alive by harvesting transplants from his own children. Oh, and aboard that captain’s ship, the Gurnard, is a war drone by the name of Sniper. Damned if I know how it’s all going to turn out, since I haven’t finished writing it. I suspect there’ll be blood … and explosions.

John Markley: Do you have any plans yet for what you’ll be writing next?

Neal Asher: Next up on my contract:

John Markley: THE OWNER OF WORLDS (Working title only)

In my collection The Engineer ReConditioned, I introduced an immortal superhuman who is refered to by those resident on worlds usually with regressed civilizations, as the Owner, for he owns those worlds. The stories concerned were called Proctors, The Owner and Tiger Tiger, and I’ve also recently had a 20,000 word story called Owner Space accepted by Gardner Dozois for his Book Club anthology Galactic Empires. In the aforementioned stories that character is ten thousand years old, controls a spaceship the size of a moon and owns numerous worlds from which he bars surrounding civilizations by dint of the fact that he controls a very advanced technology, is in fact melded with that technology. I would like to tell the story of how he got to that position.

John Markley: Do you have any parting words you’d like to leave the readers with?

Neal Asher: Hey! Buy my books!

On the the review of Neal Asher’s The Skinner:

neal asher the skinner

The Skinner is part of Neal Asher’s “Polity” universe. However, while it exists in the same future history as many of Asher’s other works, it is quite separated from most of them in time and location. Thus, while some knowledge of Asher’s previous work in this setting will add some context, it is not at all necessary to understand or enjoy the book.

The book is set in the far future on the human-occupied world of Spatterjay, just beyond the authority of the star-spanning A.I.-ruled human Polity- there is a Polity outpost on the planet, but outside its confines the local humans, known as “Hoopers,” rule. The planet is noteworthy for being the source of a virus, borne by most of the local humans and transmitted by the bite of a common local organism, that can transform a human being, making him immortal and gradually, over time, stronger and more resilient- someone who has the virus for several centuries is virtually unkillable by normal means.

The book begins when three visitors meet on their way to Spatterjay. The main character of the story is Sable Keech, a reanimated corpse kept alive and moving for the past 700 years by Polity technology and his relentless drive to hunt down the legendary “Spatter” Jay Hoop, a war criminal who collaborated with humanity’s enemies in the ancient Prador War. Along the way he is joined by Erlin, who contracted the virus on her last visit to Spatterjay and has returned in search of an old friend among the Hoopers, and Janer, agent of an insect hive mind on a mission unknown even to him. Each of their goals requires to them to venture beyond the safety of the Polity and into the savage expanse beyond. The resulting story takes Keech and company across the watery surface of Spatterjay, battling for their lives against human assassins, the deadly political machinations of the alien Prador, a psychotic war criminal, the planet’s relentlessly hostile ecosystem, and- perhaps most disturbingly- whatever Jay Hoop has become.

I found The Skinner to be a highly enjoyable read. The central story of Keech’s pursuit of justice- and the deadly plots of those who committed the ancient crimes he seeks to punish- is exciting and involving. The grim and violent nature of the story and setting allows Asher’s talent for intense, visceral action to come to the fore, and he does an admirable job of bringing to life conflict with humans, aliens, and nature. Spatterjay is a fascinating environment, full of intriguing creatures, and the brief glimpses given of Polity and Prador society are enough to intrigue the reader and spark the imagination without distracting from the main story.

My only major criticism lies in the area of characterization; in particular, I wish the character of Sable Keech had been explored more thoroughly. The idea of a man so driven that he is willing to spend 700 years in pursuit of justice even after being reduced to what is essentially a walking corpse is an intriguing one, and I would have liked to have known more about him. However, the book does have some great secondary characters. I was especially fond of Sniper, a bad-tempered Polity war drone gone freelance.

Though the story is for the most part action-adventure oriented (verging on military science fiction in parts), the book is also an interesting exercise in combining far-future science fiction with elements of horror. This aspect of the book may appeal to fans of Alastair Reynolds, though Asher’s style and mood is more grisly and less gothic than Reynolds’. Asher lets the darker parts of his imagination run loose here, and the story is full of disturbing concepts and images- the relentlessly vicious native life of Spatterjay, aliens who use remote-controlled human bodies with their brains removed as servants, the bizarre transformations wrought by the Spatterjay virus in hosts who “go native,” and the quasi-undead Sable Keech himself. At times, the horrific elements combine nicely with the more traditional science fictional element of speculation on future societies- for instance, Asher’s depiction of a horrendously brutal prizefight between two Hoopers provides a disturbingly plausible idea of how a society of nearly unkillable people might come to view violence.

Despite the dark and horrific tone of the story, the book is not unrelentingly grim or despairing. There is a good bit of dark humor in the book, especially from Sniper. Further, while Asher fills his story with ghastly events and some truly vile people, there are nonetheless lights peaking through the gloom, moments of hope and human decency. The result is rather touching at some points, something that caught me by surprise.

With The Skinner, Neal Asher brings together elements of space opera and horror to great effect. If you enjoy intense action-oriented science fiction or are interested in something with a different take on the horrific, then I would strongly recommend this book.