Questions from Spain (October 2009)
1. When and why and how did you start to write with a literary purpose?
As a boy I knew I wanted to become a writer, but I had various false starts and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began seriously.
2. What do you want to tell when you decide to write?
What I want is to discover. A finished novel is the result of the process of discovery. I start with ideas, but they are only a beginning, not a goal.
3. Which is the way you usually take to write, the techniques you use, the face you want to give to your texts?
There is no starting point. Small ideas begin to connect in some way. These may or may not grow into a novel-length draft. Once I have a work of that size, I then know what sort of questions I am asking, and can start again. So my novels undergo very extensive reshaping and rewriting.
4. Creative process: before the seed of a new story or poem, do you prefer that it grows inside your heart and mind before writing it on paper or maybe do you write it from the first signs and then allow that it drags you forward?
For me it all has to happen outside my head, on the computer screen. Otherwise it is not writing. What happens usefully inside my head is mostly subconscious, and I try not to interfere too much with that. If I try writing inside my head then it ends up never going onto paper. Writing, for me, should feel like reading: it should make me feel surprised and engaged.
5. Study, learning and development of literary skills and techniques? Spontaneity and writing by ear? Which option do you prefer?
I believe that spontaneity in art can only produce interesting and original results if there is a grounding of technique, though technique can be acquired intuitively. It all comes down to reading a lot and writing a lot.
6. How “passion” can be recognized within a text? How a “cold” or “cerebral” —in appearance— text can be injected with passion? Is passion necessary? Where and how can we find the border not to be crossed?
For “passion” we could substitute many other words: voice, character, plot…. How is anything recognised in a text? That’s the game of illusion that we play. Diderot proposed the famous “paradox of the actor”: the best actor is not the one with most passion, but the one best able to fake it.
The question of how “cold” text becomes injected with life: this has much to do with the sensitivity of the reader. The reader is like the performer of a score. There is a big difference in appearance between a score of Bach and a score of Chopin – but both can be done with great expression, if the reader is sufficiently sensitive and alert to what the marks on the page mean.
7. In what circumstances the self-censorship (or the external censorship) can be necessary or useful for an author?
There is always a balance between urge and inhibition in everything we do. It can be fruitful or stifling. We just have to find our own balance. I would say, though, that I am far more risk-averse in real life than in my writing.
8. Do you wait for a reader or the fact that someone can read your texts is a secondary purpose? Do you think you must make easier your texts for the future reader or that reader must face alone the possible difficulties of the texts?
Writing is like having a theatre inside your head. You’ve got the stage where you make certain actions take place – but you’ve also got rows of seats with people watching. You have to think of every part of the theatre. Writing is a communicative act, but in a virtual sense. Reading a book, we imagine the author who is telling us the story. Writing one, you imagine some kind of reader. For me it’s not a real person or a single individual or even a certain type of person. But I always have a sense of a reader, and I am always concerned with what (I think) they will know, what they will feel, what they will anticipate – and how I ought to show this on the page.
9. How do you define yourself as an author (style, worries, horizon, projects, genres you prefer...)?
I write philosophical novels, meaning that they ask questions and in this way seek to create a form of knowledge. Not conceptual knowledge, like a research paper, but artistic knowledge. I think that a great many novels could be considered philosophical in this sense, though their creators wouldn’t necessarily think of them in those terms.
10. In the presence of a creative block, what kind of solutions do you take?
If something isn’t working then I stop and do something else. The problem will work itself out in time, in the subconscious. I have periods of frustration and inactivity but they always pass. I am always “working on a novel”, there is always a “work in progress”. Before finishing one novel I am thinking about the next one, and I don’t take any break in between. I also discard a very large proportion of what I write.
11. Open question: if you want, include here what you would like to say according to your experiences as a writer if it is not gathered among the previous questions.
I would only say that every writer I encounter is unique and has their own way of approaching or articulating the problem of writing. This is part of what makes it such a fascinating activity.
Questions from British Science Fiction Association (June 2009)
1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
No, but I have no objection to being considered one by people more knowledgable of the genre than I am. I consider myself a writer of philosophical fiction.
2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
I imagine it is predominantly the content (which is sometimes manifestly scientific), and perhaps my professional background as a physicist. I have been influenced by philosophical ideas that are frequently used in speculative fiction (e.g. the plurality of worlds), and reflect upon them in my work. My literary influences have included writers (such as Borges and Orwell) often considered to have contributed to the genre.
3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
I have chosen only to write novels that interest me. The choice of genre is one made by readers, and they are entitled to it.
4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
I don't know what "distinctively British" means. My work has at one time or another been compared to Sterne and Orwell, both of whom were British, though I don't know if they were "distinctively" so. Equally, since Sterne was Irish and Orwell ultimately chose to live in Scotland (and since I was born in Scotland), I might be called "distinctively Celtic". National identifications are ultimately political and economic rather than artistic. As a way of extracting meaning from art I find them reductive.
5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?
I've written novels set wholly or partly in Scotland, England, France, Germany, Italy, and probably other places I've forgotten about. Foreign settings have been influenced by interest in particular writers (e.g. Rousseau, Proust, Goethe). English settings are influenced by my familiarity with the country. Scottish settings are influenced by my having grown up there, by my relationship to the concept of "Scottishness" as a generic/political classification, and by the particular political history of that country.
6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
Other than the usual ones (autobiography, chance), the most important is the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which I consider as significant an idea for our era as natural selection was for the nineteenth century. (I do not consider cultural importance equal to scientific truth; that's a separate question). The most important literary influence is Goethe, who was of course a scientist as well as an artist. His novel Elective Affinities takes a particular scientific theory as framing metaphor for a drama of human relationships: a paradigm for many subsequent novels, particularly in recent times, among which some of my own might be included. The major ideological influence is the opposition between socialism and capitalism. The major creative influence is music: I am interested in finding ways of responding to E.M. Forster's question, what a novel would be like if it was like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Publishers and bookshops don't market my work as science fiction in any country, as far as I can tell, though some reviewers call it science fiction. I do better in some countries than others; I put this down to statistical variance. Some places you get lucky, others you don't.
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Members of the public are individuals and respond accordingly: I can't draw any useful generalisations. The response I've noticed from science fiction critics in both Britain and America tends to be negative: when my work is viewed as science fiction it is often found not up to scratch. In that case I can only conclude that either I write bad science fiction, or else I don't write science fiction at all. When my work has been analysed according to standards of "Britishness" or "Scottishness", similar results have often been obtained. I once had my work reviewed as detective fiction, and again it was found wanting.
9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
For it to feel good to the reader, it should have whatever effect the reader is seeking. As a writer I concern myself with stimulus more than response. I try to design the stimulus so that it will produce in the responder a free desire for repetition: something I would define as pleasure.
10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
The weakness of any genre is its genericity.
11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
I don't feel qualified to say. In literature as a whole, I would say the only measurable development is the passage of time.
Questions from Asylum.com (February 2008)
1. You're probably sick of being introduced as the ex-physicist novelist who won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award. But can you explain what effect this had on your approach to your writing? And how come, with no day job any more, it still took you four years to write the book?
I don’t get sick of being labelled as a scientist-writer: it’s better to be labelled as something than not to be known at all, even if the label can be a bit limiting. But I don’t know if being a scientist made me a certain kind of writer, or if being a certain kind of person made me become first a scientist and then a writer. Really I’m interested in philosophy: questions like “what can we know?” and “how does this affect the way we live?”. I write philosophical novels. As to timing, I seem to have got into a pattern of one novel every four years, but that’s partly because I throw away most of what I write, and much of what isn’t discarded gets stored for later use, once the right time comes. Robbie Coyle, the hero of Sputnik Caledonia, first came to me about ten years ago, and I knew I wanted his story to turn into a kind of parallel-world space mission, but somehow all the ingredients weren’t there until after I’d written Mr Mee, Mobius Dick, and some other books that didn’t work out. Once I got going on Sputnik Caledonia it actually only took a year to write – the quickest I’ve written anything, even though it’s my longest book. Somehow its moment had come.
2. Sputnik Caledonia is (a little) more linear than some of your previous books, and each of the three parts has a very different tone. Was this a conscious decision to break with the earlier structures, or did it develop as the book was written?
Yes, it was a conscious decision. Usually I let my books grow in a completely organic way, with no prior planning, but Sputnik Caledonia was a little more planned. What I didn’t know was what would happen after the second part. The problem is that you’ve got two stories in two different worlds that both need to be resolved somehow, and for a while I tried making it a four-part book. Then I remembered the good-old Hegelian pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthesis: what I needed was a finale that would somehow unite both the earlier movements, and I do this with the aid of a new character, a new theme. It took a lot of trial and error but it was fun to do.
3. Your novels are always strong on ideas, but Sputnik Caledonia seems to have 'real' characters at its heart as never before: for example, the character of Robbie's father develops significantly - and heartbreakingly - through the course of the book. The scenes of growing up in 1970s Scotland are bound to attract suggestions of autobiography. Is there any truth in this? Where do you place greatest emphasis in the books you write (and read): characters, style, story, ideas?
It’s true that when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, and my dad was a very active trade unionist and committed socialist. But writing is about making things up, and what I admire most in novels I read is their inventiveness, the way they turn life into something specifically fictional. Proust is the greatest example of this: his novel reads like the memoir of a man who falls in love with the wrong woman, when in reality Proust was gay. In a novel, everything gets turned on its head (the great Russian theorist Bakhtin called this “carnivalisation”). And we read novels with a double-view: we know it’s made up but treat it as if it were real. If we’re pushed too much in one direction or the other then this magical double-view falls apart, the illusion is shattered. It’s like looking at a painting: you know it’s chemicals on canvas but it’s also a landscape, people, houses. So this is where the emphasis lies in my writing: holding two completely opposite and contradictory views in mind simultaneously. Two worlds: one like our own reality and another that’s a sort of parallel universe. In a sense, every novel is like that, the story of an alternative reality, though not every novel makes this doubling an explicit part of the structure. And how is it done? Through voices, events, people: the eternal stuff of fiction.
4. Part of Sputnik Caledonia is set in the British Democratic Republic, an alternate Britain where the Communist Party was elected after the Second World War. It also featured in Mobius Dick and Music, In a Foreign Language. Is there something you're trying to tell us?
Two things got me into my parallel world. One was learning, as a student, about Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is the basis for current thinking on multiple realities. The other was a research trip I made to Poland just after the fall of communism. The physics institute I worked in had until recently been the local Party headquarters, and was still full of relics of that time. The only way I could write about it was by translating it into a world I knew: Britain. That’s how Music, In A Foreign Language got written. Now on one level this was all a kind of aesthetic decision, in the way I described in my answer to your previous question, but you have to realise that aesthetic theory is something you only come up with after the event: you write a book, then you wonder what question your book has answered. Once I began to understand parallel worlds as an aesthetic phenomenon, I was able to write Mobius Dick. But that still left me wondering about the psychological impulse that must have existed from the outset, and I knew this was related to the kind of socialistic upbringing I had, in which there was a kind of glorification of communism and a corresponding despising of capitalism. So, having written Sputnik Caledonia, I can see that one of the questions it answers for me is: why did I feel this strange romantic attraction towards a terrible totalitarian regime? For the reader, of course, completely separate questions get raised, the most arresting being, I hope “what happens next?”.
5. Your first publishers, Dedalus, have been in the news recently as they've had their Arts Council funding cut. This conjures up horrible images of a parallel universe where Andrew Crumey never got published. At the same time we have more prizes, book clubs and blogs than ever before. What do you feel about the prospects for less commercial fiction today?
The situation with Dedalus is very sad and depressing, and also rather mystifying: other small publishers threatened with funding cuts won full or partial reprieves, and Dedalus seems to have been singled out for specially punitive treatment. They worked tremendously hard for me and still hold the rights to my first three books, for which they continue to find new markets – recently I began to be published in Hungary, Romania and Turkey, thanks to their on-going efforts. It would be nice if some day my backlist could go up in value and earn Dedalus some more money. Of course, for that to happen, I’d need to win some high-profile prize that would make me a more marketable commodity. How do I feel about all that? It’s quite simple: writing is an art, publishing is a business, and I concentrate on the art, leaving business people to do the stuff that they’re good at and I’m not. The prospect for less commercial fiction is as poor today as it was in the days of Joseph Conrad – that’s life. If you want to be rich and famous then be a pop star or a TV chef. When I was a theoretical physicist I wrote papers that would be read by maybe a few tens or hundreds of people. I’m delighted that I’ve gone up a few orders of magnitude since then. Apart from the 3-year award I’ve been living on, I earn an honest crust through book reviewing and teaching creative writing. I wouldn’t want to be wholly reliant on writing for my income: I know people who have to get their next novel done so they can pay their mortgage, and that’s not my idea of fun.
6. Your books try to encourage the reader to hold differing ideas in their head at the same time, and yet your scientific background suggestions an attraction to solid facts, and 'truth' as a quantifiable quality. Is this something you enjoy playing with in your fiction?
I’ve already said something about this holding of different ideas in an aesthetic context, and it’s time we gave it a name, which is “irony”. In the original ancient Greek sense it meant “feigned ignorance”, in other words it’s what the character Socrates does in the dialogues written by Plato. Socrates says to people, “what does goodness mean?”, like he has no idea, and in this way he teases out the problem of defining what it means to be good. Now that’s pretty much what scientists do: they might say for example (if they’re Isaac Newton), “why doesn’t the Moon fall down on our heads?”, or like Einstein they might say, “what happens if I travel at the speed of light”. There were perfectly good answers to those questions at the time, just as there are dictionary definitions of “goodness”, but the answers weren’t good enough for Newton or Einstein. So science is fundamentally ironic: it’s about believing and not believing something at the same time. This isn’t my idea: it’s my interpretation of what Goethe said in the early eighteen hundreds, and Goethe certainly knew a lot about both art and science. It’s also pretty much what Bakhtin said about novels: they are all essentially ironic. In fact Bakhtin called the Socratic dialogues the first novels, and I agree with him on that. They raise questions for which there can be no single answer. The illusion that many people have about science is that it is somehow different: the term “law of nature” suggests a rule book written in advance, which can never be changed. Really all there exists is a “court of nature”, where judgments are made according to the best available evidence at the time. No case is ever closed.
7. Finally, one of the pleasures of your books are the references to lesser-known works of literature which you clearly hold in fond regard, such as Hoffmann's Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. If you ruled an alternate world, which one overlooked book would you make compulsory reading?
I would never make any book compulsory: rather, I would make some books forbidden, in order to ensure that people would read them. I’m delighted that Mobius Dick has helped boost interest in Hoffmann’s Tomcat Murr (which was apparently Kafka’s favourite novel). I hope that Sputnik Caledonia will do the same thing for Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, a great classic which tends to be unjustly neglected by British readers. I first got to know it as a teenager, through Schubert’s settings of its songs – I re-read it when trying to figure out how to end Sputnik Caledonia, and it showed me the way. Two other books, which I came to for the first time only recently, have excited me with equal passion. One is Problems Of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin, whom I’ve mentioned a few times. The other is Monadology by Leibniz: a very short work that deals with the problem of space and time in a profound way. I suspect that the answer to quantum gravity lies in that little book, if only some smart young physicist can work out how to find it, and I only wish I’d read it when I was young enough to have a go. Putting it briefly, Leibniz’s answer is that space and time do not exist: we only think they do.
Questions from Spain (November 2006)
1. Was it hard to make all the theories you explain in the book accessible for the general reader? Why is it that scientists are usually so cryptic?
Making difficult ideas accessible is something I try very hard to do. Leibniz said that if you can’t explain something in clear, simple language then it means you haven’t really understood it. By trying to express ourselves simply, we force ourselves to think. Language should be about communication, not mystification. Scientists can indeed be cryptic, but so can people in every trade, because special tools require special names; this is equally true of tools of the hand or tools of the mind. But even if those tools are unfamiliar to us, a skilled craftsman should be able to explain their use.
2. Does Mobius Dick have a happy or a sad ending? How did you come up with the idea for this book? How long did it take you to write it? Are you happy with it? What is the best and the worst about it?
Mobius Dick is both comic and tragic, because this is how I view life. The ideas came to me in separate pieces, and gradually I understood that they were part of a single idea: the appeal of the book is the way in which all its parts are gradually seen by the reader to be interconnected, because this again is how I see the world – as an interconnected whole, where any small part shows you something of the totality, like fragments of a hologram. I wrote many versions of the book over a period of about four years, but most of what appears in the final published version was written over a period of about a year. It is not a book that will appeal to everyone, because no work of art has that quality, except perhaps the most banal. The book’s richness and subtlety will appeal to readers who like books that stretch and exercise the mind; the humour will appeal to those who can appreciate British irony; the thriller plot will please those who prefer a fast pace to a slow one. I don’t know of any other book that is quite like Mobius Dick, and I feel proud of that. Its uniqueness is what readers will find either its best or worst feature, according to their own taste.
3. What do you answer when people ask “what do you do for a living”? Are you more a writer than you are a scientist? How interested are you in other fields, such as philosophy?
My livelihood comes from a very generous prize I won recently, which allows me to write anything I want. This of course is every writer’s dream, and I feel supremely lucky. I also feel a responsibility to produce good writing so as to repay the generosity I have been shown.
I consider myself a writer because the part of the day that I call work consists of sitting at my computer typing words. But those words might be about science or philosophy or fictional people, and of course the same was true, for example, of Plato or Galileo, who could be considered scientists, philosophers or literary writers. I don’t like barriers and labels: the way we earn a living is not what we are. I’m a human being who happens to write and think, but I do many other things too. The most important thing is my family – writing comes second and earning a living comes third.
4. Would you consider yourself a paranoid? Do you believe in conspiracy theories? What do you think of the term “conspiranoia”? Do you think books can actually make a change? What do you think it would take to “right the wrongs” in this world?
Not paranoid, only neurotic – though less than many other writers I know. I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, pseudo-science, crank ideas and so on. They form a kind of parallel knowledge system, helping us to understand how “mainstream” knowledge works.
Books cannot change the world – only people can do that. And the only thing that any of us can change is ourself. But by changing ourself we change the world, even if only by a tiny amount. I have read books that have changed the way I think, and perhaps I can have a similar influence on other people – but that is for them to decide.
5. What books would be included in your “Best ten books in History” list? Have you got any favourite writer? Are you a comic fan?
Some books I love: Goethe: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; Cervantes: Don Quixote; Proust: In Search Of Lost Time; Flaubert: Bouvard and Pecuchet; Diderot: Jacques The Fatalist; Dickens: Pickwick Papers; Montaigne: Essays.
I am not really a visual person: books appeal to me through ways other than sight. So among my list of books I would also include the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven (plus the Diabelli Variations if they could be bound into the same copy).
6. Are you planning a next book? If you are, can you tell me about it?
I am nearly finished a new novel about a young boy who wants to be an astronaut, and finds himself launched into a fantasy world where he is to participate in a mission to a black hole. Like Mobius Dick, it is a mixture of the comic and tragic, involving ideas of science, history, politics, philosophy - but it is also different in many ways.
I am also researching a book about writers who have been interested in science – there are many examples. And I plan to write a novel about Beethoven. All of this will keep me busy for the next three or four years.
7. What questions would you really like to answer in an interview?
What I like most are unexpected questions – and I am gratified that I get asked so many different things by different people. Some want to know about science or philosophy or literature; some are interested in my life or my opinions. Rightly or wrongly, my books seem to persuade people that I have something interesting to say – and this must mean that my books have the sort of richness I wish for them.
Questions from a Spanish newspaper (October 2006)1.- Una típica serie de peguntas que con seguridad le habrán formulado en múltiples ocasiones para empezar: ¿Cómo un profesor de física teórica se convierte en escritor de ciencia-ficción? ¿Y cuál de las dos facetas es más “fácil”?, ¿y más gratificante?, ¿y con cuál se gana uno mejor la vida? (A popular question that you have received multiple times: How does it is possible that a theory physics teacher, has become a science – fiction writer? Which of both activities are easier for you? and which one more enjoyable? And which one it allows you to live?)
Every writer starts by doing something else, and with me it happened to be physics. Writing involves sitting at a desk trying to think of good ideas, and theoretical physics is much the same. But writing comes more easily to me, and gives me a chance to communicate with a wider audience. As for earning a living, this is always difficult for a writer. I had the good fortune this year to win a large prize that frees me from financial worries for the next few years.
2.- ¿Escritor de ciencia-ficción o de física teórica-ficción? Es decir, ¿hasta que punto su formación académica determina los argumentos de sus relatos? ¿Se ha planteado alguna vez trabajar sobre argumentos de “otra ciencia”-ficción? (How would you define yourself? Science – fiction writer or physics theory fiction? So, at what level, your studies background determinates the story of your books? Have you ever think about the possibility to write about the “other fiction – science”?)
I’m a novelist, pure and simple. I write about things that interest me, and that I hope will interest other people. In the case of Mobius Dick, this means things such as quantum theory, history, literature, music, technology. I’ve also written novels set in the eighteenth century, or in modern Scotland, or in alternative worlds. So I don’t worry about defining myself – I leave categorisation to other people, if it helps them.
3.-Al hilo de lo anterior: ¿Cómo nacen las ideas para sus novelas? ¿Surge como consecuencia de la investigación o área en la que trabaja en cada momento o bien surgen de forma independiente, como pensamientos paralelos a su labor científica? (Following the previous point: How do the ideas of your novels came through? Does it is a consequence of your investigations that you develop diary, or are coming in a independent way, such as parallels ideas at your scientific activity?)
I write every day, and I start from random ideas. They might come from things I think about or read, or from places or people that strike me as interesting. Then out of these random pieces I slowly build up a story. I don’t consciously “research” a novel: I prefer to let information sink deeply into my mind, then it can resurface in its own way.
4.- ¿Cree que algún día sus historias dejarán de ser ciencia-ficción para pasar a ser consideradas como novelas premonitorias o visionarias en el sentido de que anticiparon una realidad futura? ¿Cuándo estima que llegará ese momento en el caso de Mobius Dick? (Do you think that one day your books will be considered visionary novels in spite of science fiction? On the way that it will alert about a future reality? When do you think it will happens on the case of Mobius Dick?)
I will only be considered visionary if I make predictions which happen to be correct, and that is a matter of luck I shall leave posterity to mull over. What I write about is the world we live in now, and the habits of thought we all have, without even noticing. Fifty years from now we might have quantum computers on our desktop, and Mobius Dick might seem very quaint to anyone who should read it then. But I hope that if anyone happens to pick up my book in the future, they will find things in it that remain worth reading.
5.- Mobius Dick está plagado, desde el principio, de referencias a escritores y sus obras: desde Melville a Thomas Mann ¿Qué autores le han influido más? (Mobius Dick is full, since the beginning of references a writers and his novels: since Melville to Thomas Mann. What authors influent you more?)
When I was a teenager I read George Orwell, and he is a big influence, through his combination of the visionary and the political. I also loved Kafka and Goethe. Their writing is very pure, simple in style but perplexing in content. They are philosophical writers offering very different messages: with Goethe it is hope and with Kafka it is despair. And I love Cervantes, Dickens, Proust – all great humorists.
6.- Y por supuesto, Mobius Dick también está repleto de alusiones a muchos de los más famosos físicos de la historia. ¿Siente especial inclinación por alguno?, ¿Cuál es, si se me permite la expresión, “su héroe” en la física? (Mobius Dick is full of references to famous physics around the history. Do you feel an special opinion for any in particular? Which would be your hero?)
My hero from an early age was Einstein, and I still feel his achievement is of a unique kind. I put Newton in the same league, and all physicists would agree with that – but I also have a very special respect for Aristotle, and for Leibniz. They are under-rated by modern physicists, but I think that Leibniz in particular has much to teach present-day workers in superstring theory and quantum gravity.
7.- La novela plantea la cuestión de si los acontecimientos suceden por azar o si, por el contrario, existe un esquema lógico que lo conecta todo. ¿Realmente considera la existencia de dicho esquema? ¿Y que papel jugaría entonces la cuántica en esa visión? (The book is proposing the question if the events are happening by curiosity or if by the way, exist a logical structure that connects everything. Do you really believe on the existence of this structure? And what would be the rol of the quantium on this vision?)
This is a question that philosophers have puzzled over for millennia: is life a matter of chance or necessity? I agree with Engels, who saw the dichotomy as a false one, and modern physics supports this view. The laws of nature can be deterministic, meaning that the future is in some sense already settled – but the only device capable of predicting the future exactly is the universe itself, which we can regard as being, in effect, a quantum computer.
8.- La novela está salpicada de explicaciones sobre física cuántica y alusiones a aspectos “poco asequibles” como puede ser el efecto de Casimir. ¿No teme que eso le reste lectores? ¿A qué público está destinada? Por otro lado, y teniendo en cuenta la claridad de alguna de dichas explicaciones, ¿entiende su labor de escritor de ciencia-ficción como una herramienta o una posibilidad para divulgar y acercar a la gente la ciencia o para nada se lo plantea de ese modo? (The book is full of quantum physics aspects, which are not easy for usual readers. You are not afraid that this can rest you readers? What is the final reader destination? On the other hand, considering your clear explanations on some of these points, do you feel your activity as science fiction writers such as a tool or a possibility for promote and bring to the people the science?)
I have worked as a teacher in schools and universities with people of all abilities, and I have learned that one should never be afraid of ideas that seem too hard – only of ones that seem too easy. I like to read books that make me think, just as I like to play sport with people who are better than me, and will make me improve. I hope that my books might encourage some readers to pursue science or literature.
9.- El gato Murr, el gato de Schrödinger,… ¿qué nos contaría el gato de Crumey sobre su amo? (Murr cat, Shrödinger cat… What would Crumey cat, would explain about his boss?)
My pet cat would describe a man who wastes a great deal of time, worries about pointless things, does his best to be a decent citizen and a good father – and disappears every day into his room to type at his computer, for no obvious reason.
10.- ¿Cuánto de Andrew Crumey hay en John Ringer? (Such as of Andrew Crumey is in John Ringer represented?)
All of my characters are a part of me, but they are not me. John Ringer is a very rationally-minded scientist who initially scoffs at the idea that life is like a novel. Then in the course of Mobius Dick he discovers that his life is like a novel – and he is living in one.
11- Los ordenadores cuánticos son otro de los elementos protagonistas de la trama: ¿Qué futuro les depara? (The quantum pc are another important component of the book. In your opinion what does it is its future?)
Experts think that at least fifty years will be needed to bring the technology into everyone’s homes, so I might not live to see it – but my children will. Then perhaps we will have new ways of approaching the problem of making computers that can think like us – and that will be very interesting. One day we might have no more need for novelists – machines will do the work far more cheaply. When I read some best-selling novels today, I wonder if this process of automation has already begun.
12.- En un momento dado de su novela, el protagonista, el profesor Ringer, acude a Penrose como argumento de autoridad académica. Un Penrose que en una reciente entrevista señalaba que para él la mecánica cuántica es una teoría provisional y que no cree que sea la respuesta definitiva. Dos cuestiones al respecto: a) ¿Qué opina sobre eso? b) A la luz de su novela, ¿cómo debemos interpretar que la persona que le entrevista (yo) con motivo de la presentación de su último libro en el que menciona a Penrose, saque a colación una idea de Penrose recogida en una entrevista con motivo de la presentación de su último libro? ¿Azar o…? (At some stage of your book, Ringer teacher uses Penrose as a key point on his academic authority. Pensore, was explaining in a previous interview that on his opinion cuantium mechanical it is a provisional theory and he doesn’t believe it is the definitive answer. Two points at this issue: a) What do you think about it?)
I think Penrose is right, and most physicists would agree. Quantum theory is not the final answer. The way forward must be a deep re-evaluation of our concepts of space and time – as Leibniz was already saying in the seventeenth century.
The second point mysteriously disappeared…
13.- Y ya para finalizar, tengo la intención de, con motivo de la publicación de esta entrevista, proponer a los lectores el reto de escribir o al menos esbozar entre todos una historia de ciencia-ficción. Y sería un verdadero placer que usted nos diese una idea de partida. (The last question: We have the idea of propose to the readers of this interview write or set up all together an history of fiction science. Do you have any idea about it? Any proposal??)
History is a matter of selection; selection is a matter of taste; taste is a matter of culture; culture is a matter of history. My own history of literature is a secret passage that runs through Cervantes, Diderot, Goethe, Flaubert, Proust, Kafka, Orwell, Borges. It is a path that few people take – and that pleases me.
Questions from a Greek newspaper (July 2006)
1. What was the original idea that pushed you into writing this book?
There’s a picture by Escher showing an artist’s hand drawing the artist’s hand, which in turn draws itself… The idea of two stories, each a fiction within the other, was my starting point.
2. The intersecting stories of those grand figures such as Melville, Schrodinger, Nietzche, Schumann, in the book, seem to erase the dinstiction between the past and present time frame and to empower the promise of multiple interiorities to be explored. But what was actually your reason for putting them in the book?
I’d already used mixed time frames in my earlier novels – notably Mr Mee – and I liked the freedom of moving between different settings, styles and registers. Artists and philosophers of the past interest me but I don’t want to write books filled with too many slabs of exposition, so the only way for me to engage fully with these people and their ideas is by dramatising them.
3. While working on Mobius Dick did you think of yourself more as a physicist or a writer?
Totally as a writer. I’m a storyteller and the only rules I follow are the laws of storytelling. I wanted to make the physics accurate or at any rate plausible as speculation, but only so that a compelling story could emerge. The people in a story need to move and sound like real human beings – the ideas in a story need to be rendered just as carefully.
4. In the book you reveal a universe of miraculous but also monstrous perspectives resulting from the rapid scientific evolution. As a physicist what are you afraid mostly of?
As a physicist I’m not afraid of anything but as a human being I’m afraid of the same things as everyone else, and my writing comes from those fears. Epicurus said that all fear stems from ignorance, and the way to escape fear is through knowledge, principally scientific knowledge, but I think I would call loss our basic fear – loss of life or the people or things we cherish – and in that sense my writing ultimately comes from a desire to conserve. Intellectually I know that everything is ultimately lost and forgotten – even Shakespeare will one day be erased, if only by the Sun’s explosion - but spiritually I want to rebel against this. Philosophically I’m a materialist – we’re an arrangement of atoms and eventually we’ll get rearranged into dust – but I’m also human, and we’re not a very rational species, which is what makes life fun.
5. Do you think that we’re already subjected to some of the fascist sides of science’s aspirations?
Science is the means by which we change the conditions of life: we have medicines, air conditioning, motor cars and so on. Any change to human conditions can have good and bad outcomes: my car journey to hospital is somebody else’s pollution problem. Only through concerted global action can we regulate the self-interested actions of individuals, but such large-scale regulation was a feature of fascist and communist ideology. Can we trust global capitalism to do any better? I don’t think so. I only wish that politics could have made the same progress in the last few centuries that science has.
6. So according to the physics there are not only second chances but multiple chances and if we knew how to manipulate space-time we could win also death as we commonly understand it..it sounds thrilling! How far quantum physics has gone into exploring that?
The “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory maintains that there exist multiple realities, so that if you roll a dice and it comes up six there are also five other universes where the other five outcomes arise. The theory is controversial and comes in various forms but has notable adherents (including Stephen Hawking). I remain agnostic about it. The point is that it is really more an “interpretation” than a “theory”; a way of understanding certain phenomena rather than a way of predicting them, though you could of course say something similar about Darwin’s natural selection. Both Darwin and “many worlds” reflect the modern view of life as probabilistic rather than deterministic, and this in turn reflects the modern capitalist view of life as a matter of unlimited personal choice and freedom. “Many worlds” is attractive because it seems as if we can have it all, which is the consumerist dream.
In practical terms, real work is being done on the “quantum computers” described in Mobius Dick, and some of the leading researchers do take the view I express in my book, that a quantum computer effectively works in many parallel universes simultaneously. But the real technology is still at the very early stages: a major breakthrough was when a quantum computer was recently able to work out that 15 = 5x3.
7. Don’t you worry sometimes that your books probably demand a great deal of knowledge from the readers, even to be familiar with specific fields, in order to follow them? Do you address them to a particular readership?
As a reader I like to feel that I can get something out of a book but not everything; the best books have a richness that will sustain many different kinds of reading by different people. I hope to write books with that kind of richness and multiplicity. I want people to feel there’s still something worth going back for. I’m always pleased when people tell me they got to the end of one of my books and wanted to start it all over again.
8. What would you say are the most characteristic factors that define your writing?
Keats described something called “negative capability” which is essentially being able to see two opposite sides of an argument simultaneously. That’s what I’m like as a person – I try to see both sides – and that means I tend not to be dogmatic about anything. It also means that when I explore ideas in the books I write I’m naturally led to emphasise contradictions and oppositions, so my books are naturally ironic; in Mobius Dick I have parallel realities and at the same time I argue against their possibility. I think my books appeal most to people who are open minded and don’t take a dogmatic view of life. The latter sort can easily find fault in them, just as they can easily find fault in everything.
9. You use to challenge the common ways of narrating a story with your kind of cyclical, fragmented narrative forms. What’re the different perspectives and abilities that style allows you as a writer? Do you feel that the book reveals more of its possibilities and dimensions in that way?
My aesthetic approach starts from music: I see all my books as being like musical compositions. The different sections are like different movements – the long Schrodinger chapter in Mobius Dick is the book’s “slow movement” and then there’s a quick “finale”. The highest aesthetic example for me is Beethoven, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way he can link diverse movements into an overall unity. That’s the essence of the problem for me: achieving a balance between unity and multiplicity, and I attempt to create works that have great variety but also an organic wholeness. I often get called a postmodernist and have no problem with that, but the aesthetic ground-rules for what I’m talking about can be found in Kant. The only difference is that Kant’s organic view of art was essentially theistic and idealist, while I’m more of a materialist. Marx and Engels tried to ground their own organic view on materialism and I have some sympathy with that as an aesthetic position if not a political programme. Engels defined dialectics as “the science of interconnections”, and I’d say all my books are dialectical in the sense that they’re about making connections. In Mobius Dick I try to make everyting connect with everything else: for the reader this creates a gradual filling in of a pattern which I hope brings pleasure.
10. At some point you’re also very caustic about the diminishing respect towards books’ very idea and value. Do you find that nowadays books are treated more and more like plain consumer goods and what’s the responsibility of critics and writers themselves about it?
Everything is more and more treated as a consumer good: this progression was well understood by Marx who said that capitalism produces nothing except need. For example when I go to the opticians to have my eyes checked I see “this season’s style” of spectacles. My spectacles work fine and when they break I’ll get new ones, but Marx would have been intrigued to see how a medical need has been transformed into a consumer need. Everything becomes a matter of “choice”, which sounds like freedom, but is of course really a matter of something new to spend our money on. So we all work harder and harder to earn all the cash we need for our new spectacles, iPods, giant televisions and so on. Books have always been a consumer product and there has always been a publishing business. But writing is not a business, and as long as writers bear that distinction in mind they still have some hope of writing half-decent books. The responsibility of writers and critics is the same responsibility everyone else has: to do work that is honest and productive and can contribute something, however small, to common as well as personal good.
11. Are you working on something new these days?
My new novel is called Sputnik Caledonia and it’s about a young boy in 1970s Scotland who dreams of becoming an astronaut – and gets his chance in an alternative communist world. So the book revisits the fantasy setting of Mobius Dick and Music, In A Foreign Language, but in a new and more personal way, exploring the role that socialism played in my own upbringing and in the country where I grew up. All my novels are really one story – but I won’t know what it is until my work as a novelist is finished.