It took a full six pages of Equations of Life to realize we'd discovered another capital-A-Author-We-Like. But we didn't realize how fully awesome Simon Morden was until we did some internet poking. A proper rocket scientist, a speaker at Greenbelt, a prolific essayist, former Arthur C. Clarke judge... this is a man of many hats, all of which fascinate us no end.
Fortunately, as this (wide-ranging) interview shows, he's also incredibly patient, as we fired all our questions at him at once.
PK: You have an impressive scientific background (advanced degrees in geology and planetary geophysics), so how (and why) did you turn your hand to writing fiction?
SM: This comes up a lot. I became a scientist because I read lots of science fiction. I was already interested in science – especially space stuff as I was three when they first landed on the Moon – but one fed off the other in an entirely organic way. And when I was at school, we were still allowed to electrocute each other and set things on fire, so it was proper science.
To me, science fiction was simply an extension of lessons. Fair enough, almost all the science I learnt from SF was wrong, but it was a good wrong. Massive space battles, exotic energy sources, unlikely biology and weird alien sex: of course all spaceships should look like Chris Foss covers, of course we’re going to live in domes and have robot servants, of course we’re going to make a hash of First Contact.
What I eventually realised is that it’s still all up for grabs. Science fiction allows us to choose the future we want to live in. In that future, I wanted to be a scientist. So that’s how that happened. How did I then start writing?
While I was writing up my PhD thesis, I wrote a novel. I had, since my early teens, played D&D, branching out into other RPGs on occasions. I’d gone on from playing to running campaigns – but of course, those pesky players never follow the plot you set out for them. So simply to throw the hard science of the day job into sharp relief, I decided I’d write a fantasy novel. So I did. Fortunately, the thesis was much better, so I got my doctorate.
That first attempt wasn’t so bad that it put me off. I actually enjoyed it, and I wanted to do it again. So I did.
PK: Your career began with short fiction and a handful of small press publications, then you mention that things changed with The Lost Art (a finalist for the Catalyst Award or best teen fiction). How did your life as an author change at that point?
SM: By that time, I’d already been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award (for Another War), so I was no stranger to disappointment… but it wasn’t being up for the award that changed things, it was the mere fact that someone had paid me several thousand of our English pounds for something I hadn’t quite finished yet. I now had a deadline, an editor, a publisher – the sunny upper slopes of success beckoned and I thought, somewhat foolishly, that I’d arrived.
It didn’t quite turn out that way: nothing I wrote subsequently was taken up by that particular imprint, so after some nifty footwork by my agent, I ended up at Orbit. At least I know now that I’m only as good as my last book.
PK: Where did the inspiration for the character of Samuil Petrovitch come from?
SM: A few years ago – in fact, it’s almost ten years– I wrote what became the background for the Metrozone books in a short-story collection called Thy Kingdom Come (available free from my website). Petrovitch turned up, fully formed, as smart and snarky as you’d expect, in one of the later stories, Cargo. Set in St Petersburg, it has Petrovitch being magnificently and unambiguously Petrovitch. After that, there was no question as to who would eventually star in a novel set in that world. The collection also has stories that centre on Madeleine and Harry Chain, too. On the occasions I’ve had to re-read them, they still come over as real people I just happened to write about. Which, I suppose, is a good thing.
PK: I can guess that you're pretty familiar with post-graduate student life... but what about Petrovitch's Russian background? One of the things that struck me about Equations of Life was that there's clearly a "hard" scientific core, but we don't really explore it in detail. Was this you reining yourself in from enthusiastic over-sharing? Or is that core not actually there (and you've successfully buffaloed this gullible reader)?
SM: The post-grad stuff is all real enough. The first lab I was in had a cheese plant, handed down through generations of research students, which had grown so vast that it had thrown aerial roots down the sinks and become part of the building. They had to chop it down when they wanted to install some proton thingy in there for the particle physics group. Then there were the wheelie chair races around the research block, too…
Petrovitch being Russian was well, not an accident, but research centres pick up a veritable United Nations of staff as they go along: the more prestigious the department, the less likely you are to find an indigenous post-grad or post-doc working there. I was an interloper in mine: most geophysics groups are part of a wider Earth Sciences set-up, but at Newcastle, geophysics was in the Physics department, so I was rubbing shoulders with both theoretical and experimental physics students working on stuff that involved massive shiny machines and seriously impressive maths. They helped with the tricky sums, and I debugged computer programs.
So the actual equations in Equations of Life might exist, but don’t yet. I hope they do. I hope there’s a straightforward way of unifying all the forces of nature which means we can manipulate them as easily as we do the electromagnetic. I don’t know what they’d look like either, but they will be beautiful. The universe demands it.
PK: In Equations of Life, The poor reclusive Petrovitch is dragged out of his shell to save the city. And, if you'll pardon the mild spoiler, it seems that he's developed some emotional connections. I feel a bit like a soap opera enthusiastic, but does this develop further in the next book(s)?
SM: Yes, yes it does. As well as being attracted to a certain mutant nun, he actually starts to learn how to trust other people. Which is good for him, and not necessarily so good for them, as he’s a bit of a bullet-magnet. Of course, when Petrovitch decides to make friends, he has no past experience about what friends mean or what function they serve, so he goes about it in the clinical, OCD way he does everything else. Which is almost endearing to watch.
PK: Equations of Life also teases a bit about the world outside the Metrozone. Selfishly, the bits I found most intriguing were the hints about the US. Is there anything more you can share - it sounds like there have been a few changes back home...
SM: Ah yes, America. We’re back to the Thy Kingdom Come collection again. In it, I chart the rise of a new political party in the US, the Reconstruction Party, who are fiscally and socially conservative, isolationist, hyper-capitalist, ultra-patriotic, strongly evangelical Christian… by now the alarm bells ought to be ringing.
At the time of Equations of Life, the Reconstruction Party has been in power for twenty years. Having pretty much obliterated all forms of opposition from the country, a whole generation have grown up knowing nothing else. Their parents voted for them, but there’s no good reason for them to ever fall out of power.
Up until recently, I’d simply had this scenario down as a work of speculative fiction. Now, I look scarily prescient.
SM: That depends entirely on how well the first three do. Obviously, if the series had tanked completely, that would be that. But it hasn’t: it’s still selling well (at least here in the UK), and hopefully it’ll notch up enough sales to make another few irresistible.
Besides, I want to see what that rascal Petrovitch gets up to next.
PK: You've been a regular speaker at the Greenbelt Festival for years - if you'll excuse the naivete of the question, what's that like for a science fiction writer?
SM: I’ve been going to Greenbelt for around thirty years now. It’s best described as a Christian arts festival: it’s very broad and encompasses not just all forms of music, but pretty much anything you can stick the label ‘art’ onto. We also do politics and social issues in a big way, and if you naturally think Christian + politics = right-wing, you’d be so far off the mark as to be nowhere near the target… Billy Bragg is headlining one night, which is brilliant news for an old socialist like me.
I’ve been going for so long, I’m treated as one of Greenbelt’s ‘own’. Because Greenbelters are an eclectic and mostly broad-minded bunch, I fit in very well. A few years back, I did a talk on what science fiction was all about, and the teenagers were outnumbered by their parents who all dutifully took notes as to my top ten SF reads. Hopefully there were some proper Christmas presents that year.
PK: Your talks [which we highly recommend] include a rather gutsy 2005 call to arms for writers of Christian Fiction to ignore guidelines set out by evangelical bookstores and "be honest, fearless and unflinching" and more importantly, "don’t write the stories you think you ought to write because you are a Christian or the stories others think you ought to write because you are a Christian."
To broaden it out, this seems good advice for budding authors of all styles and genres. Do you have anything else you'd add specifically for those looking to break into Science Fiction?
SM: Gutsy is one word. Polemical is another, and frothing another still. I’ve just written a follow-up to that 2005 talk, which I’m giving this year. I thought after six years, I’d check out the lay of the land and see how things were. I told myself that I wouldn’t get quite so rabid this time around, but there’s still plenty to get cross about. The original talk is used by some (Christians and non-Christians) to teach general fiction-writing principles, which is both flattering and humbling – I would add Morden’s Three Laws of Writing, the first of which is definitely aimed at genre writers.
Firstly, write what you love. It’s usually write what you know, but unless you’ve led a very exciting life which involves aliens, Giant! Fighting! Robots! and engineered nanobot plagues, writing what you know will only get you so far. So write what you love – that way at least one person’s going to enjoy it.
Secondly, nothing is ever wasted. All those words you’ve got tucked away in a drawer that you’ll never let anyone see because you think they’re really not very good? That’s fine – that’s your apprenticeship right there. Every word you’ve written is a word closer to being a decent writer. And when the time comes, you –and only you – get to recycle all that work into stuff that’s fit for publication.
Thirdly, marry someone rich. In older times, we’d have patrons with fancy sounding names like the Grand Duke of Lower Saxony or the Earl of Northumberland. These days, there just aren’t enough Arts Council grants to go around, and it’s rarely SF writers who get them anyway. As well as being somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice, it’s also a warning: it’s really, really hard to make a full-time living writing books. An alternative income is a must, I’m afraid.
PK: As a former judge of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, what advice would you give to others trying to determine the best science fiction (or fantasy) of the year?
There weren’t enough hours in the day to read all of everything, but you certainly have to read some of everything. As a Clarke judge, we were required to produce a shortlist of six, and a reserve list of six. I simply started by reading six books, rating them roughly, and then judged where the seventh came in that list. And so on until you’d worked your way through the massive piles of books stacked across the floor. Some books, you knew after spending an afternoon with that it wasn’t going to break into that top twelve. Others you simply had to finish, no matter how massive they were.
What was gratifying was finding out at the shortlisting meeting that the other judges essentially had the same list of books I did, just in a different order. Coming to a shortlist of six was surprisingly straight-forward. Picking the winner a few months later was a nightmare: we were almost late for our own presentation ceremony. Some years, there’s a clear winner. Other years, not so clear… but it was a fantastic experience and a great honour to help decide such a major award.
PK: Our Mandatory Bonus Bonkers Question... What does Mars feel like?
SM: Once you consider it’s been blasted off the surface of Mars by a massive meteorite impact, spent an indeterminate time (but several million years at least) orbiting the inner solar system, fallen through Earth’s atmosphere at tens of kilometres a second, entombed in the Antarctic icesheet for hundreds of thousands of years before being found by a team of scientists, completely misclassified and having small (less than five grams) fragment broken off and sent to me… surprisingly normal. It was a chip of nondescript rock I thought was a specific type of meteorite, but because the metals were so heavily oxidised, I couldn’t get any decent results from it.
Of course, if I’d have thought for a single moment that the reason they were so rusty wasn’t because of terrestrial contamination but because it actually came from the Red Planet, it would have been serious kudos for me. But I missed the connection. Fortunately, someone else in a different lab half a world away doing different tests, realised what it was. That’s the way science works: the accumulated knowledge of a whole civilisation, written down and freely shared.
Compared to regular meteorites, it was a youngster. Meteorites are simply the oldest thing anyone will ever get to hold: they were formed at the same time as the solar system, and there are no rocks left on Earth as old as that. Four point six billion years old. How cool is that?
PK: Very, VERY cool. Thank you for your time, and we look forward to the further adventures of Mr. Petrovitch!
Simon Morden's Metrozone trilogy is out now from Orbit. If you need further encouragement, try our review of Equations of Life. Mr. Morden's website is a wealth of commentary, excerpts, essays and even a free book or two.