Stephen Baxter is arguably the leading light of British SF. We caught up with him during the countdown to his next release, Transcendent, and asked him about his Xeelee universe, his current work and the future for his writing.
Rowntree & Negus: How rewarding did you find your teaching career, and what made you give it up in favour of writing?
Stephen Baxter: Very rewarding, the personal feedback was tremendous. But we just couldn’t pay the bills and we were strike-riven. Anybody who sticks it is heroic. In fact I went into IT for 10 years while developing my writing career.
R&L: When you wrote Raft back in 1991 did you envisage that 14 years later you’d still be setting novels/stories in the Xeelee Universe? What drew you back to the setting after all this time?
SB: I knew I’d always be drawn back to this universe. It springs from my first few published stories so is somehow primal to me. The scope is so vast there’s always a new way to look at it, new ways to reflect my current interests.
R&L: Your latest novel, Transcendent, is due for release in October 2005. Can you tell us a little about it?
SB: It’s the third in the ‘Destiny’s Children’ series which is a subset of the Xeelee sequence. In the near future an ancestor of Michael Poole, hero of earlier novels, struggles to cope with climate change, while his timeline is meddled with by far-future descendants seeking transcendence.
R&L: What’s the first line?
SB: ‘The girl from the future told me that the sky is full of dying worlds.’
R&L: Great line, so what’s next for the Xeelee Universe?
SB: I am working on stories (published by Analog in the US) based on the very far future of that universe, humans living amid the wreckage of a universe everywhere shaped by intelligence. The working title is “Old Earth.”
R&L: Transcendent is the last novel in a trilogy started with Coalescent. Many reviews intimated that this was perhaps your best work. There’s a literary “feel” to the contemporary sections of the book. Was it a conscious decision to try and write a sort of “cross over” novel?
SB: I didn’t think in terms of genres but the material itself. I wanted to ground it in the present day as a sort of prequel to the space-operatic Xeelee saga so I tried to make it specific, even personal. I was trying something new for me, but that’s always good I think, after 30+ books I’m wary of becoming stale.
R&L: To add to this, you have been described as perhaps the most significant writer of your generation. Does this give you an added sense of responsibility in what you do?
SB: It’s nice when people say that kind of thing, but it doesn’t help at 9am on a Monday morning when faced with a blank screen! I just focus on the material. I suspect most writers are the same.
R&L: Many of your novels deal with alternate histories concerning space exploration, and your own interests are well documented. What are your thoughts on both NASA’s and ESA’s current exploration plans?
SB: I’m actually optimistic. The current grand visions for going back to the Moon and on to Mars have held together for 20 months, which is about 19 months longer than previous grand visions. They make technical and financial sense and the new NASA administrator is being aggressive about pursuing them. ESA’s plans running in parallel will hopefully lock in the international partnerships and drive it all forward. Of course there are stumbling blocks notably the state of the shuttle but I think we have more reason to be positive now about seeing humans on Mars in my lifetime say than for a long time.
R&L: Your attempt to become an astronaut is well documented. Have you booked your ticket with Virgin Galactic yet?
SB: Not interested in a sub-orbital hop. But if I had a hundred million bucks I would take up the Russians’ offer to fly a Soyuz spacecraft around the Moon. That’s what I call an adventure.
R&L: Your novels Time, Space, and Origin, deal with different aspects of the Fermi Paradox. Do you have a personal stance on this subject?
SB: No one solution, which is why those books (and the stories in my collection ‘Phase Space’) deal with many possible outcomes. I do think that, with all the new data we’ll get from the next generation of planet-finder telescopes and the exploration of the solar system, in 100 years say the paradox will be resolved, and our understanding of our place in the universe will be transformed, one way or another.
R&L: Where is the next planetary propulsion system coming from? And will it be able to get us around the solar system in a reasonably short space of time?
SB: Some far-out technologies are moving further in. The Australians are looking seriously at a space elevator off the coast at Perth. And ion rockets, largely pioneered in Britain, have flown in space, and solar sails are being trialled. So a suite of technologies is starting to come together.
R&L: Is there anything newly discovered, cosmologically speaking, that particularly interests you?
SB: All of it. I’m fascinated by the latest discoveries on Mars. Titan was tremendous of course. I thought the results of the “Microwave Anisotropy Probe” in 2003, mapping the Big Bang, were hugely significant, our first real map of the universe. I have kept a couple of old reference books from when I was a kid and the volume of knowledge we have acquired since then is stunning.
R&L: There’s a new series in the pipeline from you–Time’s Tapestry. We believe that this is an alternate history series. Were you drawn towards this sub-genre after researching and then writing the ‘historical’ sections of Coalescent?
SB: Not alternate history but historical novels in which the timeline is being meddled with. Really Coalescent was part of the same impulse, I’ve always been fascinated by history, and now I’m living in Northumberland, a remarkable Bronze Age landscape, I’m even more drawn to it. Not to mention Hadrian’s Wall.
R&L: Pressure is sometimes brought to bear on writers to have their work packaged in a certain way as to appeal to both genre readers and a more general public. (We are thinking here of the recent spate of SF/thriller cross-overs from Bear, Brin, and Paul McAuley.) What do you think this achieves? Have you ever considered writing in a new genre?
SB: It only works if the material takes you that way, if that’s the book you really want to write. In some ways too much angst is focused on genres and boundaries which readers don’t actually care much about I suspect. I’ve enjoyed all the “crossovers” you mentioned, notably McAuley.
R&L: We believe that another collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke is on the way. Can you tell us about that?
SB: It’s a third in our ‘Time Odyssey’ series after Time’s Eye and Sunstorm. More mucking about with the meddling aliens the Firstborn. Still at a very early stage.
R&L: Both you and Arthur C. Clarke have written speculative books predicting possible future events; especially concerning mankind’s “destiny”. Enjoyment aside, what is to be gained from such ventures, if anything?
SB: SF writers are often asked about the “real” future. It’s fair enough; there aren’t many professions after all where you are paid to think constructively about the future. So I developed my books like Deep Future as a kind of deep back-up to my research for my novels and to be able to answer such questions sensibly.
R&L: What makes up the typical day for Stephen Baxter?
SB: Very dull. I work 9-6, Monday-Friday, with many breaks, including a dog walk. I like to have Friday evening as a break point and the weekend off.
R&L: Do you have any rituals or idiosyncrasies when it comes to writing?
SB: Maybe sticking to 9-5 or 9-6 when I don’t need to. I have tried to keep the work habits of mind that I had when I was in my day job, helps me keep going I think.
R&L: How about otherwise?
SB: I suspect as sf writers go, I’m remarkably sane.
R&L: Who do you read for pleasure? What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?
SB: Not much SF actually. Partly because reading fiction when writing is exhausting, and partly because I read for input into my own fiction, and other people’s fiction won’t do. Last book I read: Rumpole and the Angel of Death by John Mortimer. Nothing to do with sf, just clever, witty, often moving stories with excellent characters, a lifelong favourite.
R&L: If you weren’t a writer what would your chosen profession be?
SB: Teaching if I could make it pay.
R&L: Why SF over other genres?
SB: I grew up in a post-war world of huge and accelerating change, and SF is a literature of change. In a way it’s surprising more people don’t read SF, I think.
R&L: You’ve written a couple of novels for children, Gulliverzone and Webcrash, as part of The Web series of novels for teenagers; what did you set out to achieve with these novels? Do you have any plans to write more work for children/teenagers?
SB: I wanted to see if I could do it, and, not too cynically I hope, to reach a new generation of readers. I think it worked. These books serve as a basis for talking to schools, etc. I do have vague plans to write more for youngsters.
R&L: What motivates your writing? Is there anything that you’re trying to impart to a reader every time you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard?
SB: As Heinlein once said you’re competing for beer money. I try to make every paragraph as compelling as I can, as if I were a reader reading it.
R&L: A couple of years ago, you were invited to participate in the Imagine This project in Poland. Do you believe that there should be more projects like this to promote writing and science fiction in particular?
SB: Yes, it was very successful. SF was reaching Eastern Europe and Russia as a kind of subversion long before the Berlin Wall fell.
R&L: In your opinion, what difference has the internet made to reading habits?
SB: As far as I can see the big difference is Amazon, eBay, and the like, which have turned the world into a huge second-hand book store. I know there are issues about the remuneration of authors, but basically we’re reading more books than ever and we can get hold of any book we want quickly, and that has to be a good thing.
We’d like to thank Stephen for his time. His next novel, Transcendent, is due for release in October 2005 from Gollancz, ISBN 0575074302, £18.99.