You know how sometimes life becomes so busy that you have to sacrifice a few less-important things to get focused on the really important ones? That’s what happened with Philip, and why this interview took so long to get onto the blog. After all, the man is not just a SF / Space Opera Author; he works in TV too. But in retrospect, Philip’s timing couldn’t be better – with his latest novel on the way, this interview will give his fans (and I am most definitely one of them) some insight into his thought-processes, and wont spoil Red Claw at all. So, without further a-do, I give you Philip Palmer!
First of all, welcome to the South African SF-reading public, Philip, and thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.
It’s a real pleasure Dave.
Here’s my first question: Were you smoking something when you wrote Debatable Space?
I’m tempted to try some illicit drugs as a way of calming myself down a little; my natural metabolism is WAY too high. But I prefer to use endorphins – Nature’s natural narcotic.
I do like safe formulaic writing – when I’m looking for something to read on a Friday night. But when I write, I want to take risks. We’ve all read so many novels, seen so many films; so I want to know, what else? And how else?
Will you please tell us a bit about yourself? Your work in TV, influences, etc?
I’ve had a gipsy life as a writer – a bit of this, a bit of that. I worked as a script editor, and a script reader – David Puttnam was my boss for many years, when I was a humble reader. I’ve been a TV development executive, a TV script editor, I wrote for the British cop series The Bill, I’ve even been involved in the production side of things, for a company called Lucky Dog.
Working in TV taught me about story – how to tell a story, how to brainstorm a story, and how you need to never underestimate your audience when telling that story. (Which of course most British TV shows do ALL the time – but it’s good to know your enemy!)
Will you please take us through the process of writing the book – what led to Lena popping into your head, any ‘eureka!’ moments where something worked even better than you thought it would, and seeing your book on the shelf for the first time?
I really don’t know where Lena came from; I just had that voice in my head, and I listened to it. I knew I wanted an “unreliable narrator”, someone self-deceiving, but ultimately loveable. And the moment Lena started talking to tinbrain, her remote computer – the tone and energy of the book was all there.
I started with a mind full of hazy ideas – solar yachts, space pirates, the notion of writing a story that was a yarn, not an interior monlogue. And then each section leaped into place as I continued through the book. The Cambria sequence was a particular delight for me.
Some stuff I had to work at – building up Peter Smith’s character, getting the balance between Lena’s thought diary and action-adventure. But most of it really was eureka stuff.
And I remember I went with a friend into Blackwell’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, just before the official publication date of the book – and found 3 or 4 copies on the shelf, which had snuck out early. My friend actually bought one, and got me to sign it! Now that was a good moment. Then a few seconds later, my wife phoned up to tell me the roof was leaking and we had an infestation of ladybirds in the bedroom. So I said, ‘Yeah, but who cares? My book’s on the shelf in Blackwell’s!’
The main concepts that you dealt with, such as Emergence and Primary Imagination; did they grow out of telling the tale, or did you know from the beginning that you wanted to deal with them?
Before I started writing, I did quite a bit of science reading to get my head in that space, and it was then that I became fascinated by emergence. It just struck me as the only answer I know of to that vital question; how does this stuff actually happen? Evolution explains how complicated things evolve, by surviving or dying out; but how do simple things get to be complicated things? Why isn’t the universe just a great big mush of mess? If entropy and chaos are the natural state of things then, huh? Explain a snowflake!
The concept of Primary Imagination is something that has always intrigued me. At University I was a huge fan of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and who also wrote philosophy, and coined the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ to explain how we read and actively perceive fiction – and that phrase is still the best definition ever of the amazing magical thing that happens in our heads when we read a book, or see a film.
And it was Coleridge who coined the phrase Primary Imagination – based on his reading of Immanuel Kant – and guess what, it makes absolute sense. We each of us create the world, every time we look at it. We find pattern and beauty when we perceive matter that is actually made of atoms inhabiting weird quantum states, we see colour because of the way light interacts with our eyes, we make the real “real”. How cool is that?
You’ve given life to some incredible characters in DS; did any of them ever sneak up and surprise you with something you hadn’t planned?
Kalen’s ‘miaow’ was a bit of a shock to me. And Alby was the character I loved writing most – because he is so unpredictable, and hard to define, and so effortlessly powerful. I would love to have a friend like Alby.
You spoke of Michael Crichton’s novel Prey in the ‘Extras’ section at the back of DS; what are your opinions on ermergence and the ‘Hollywood’ threat of AI? (I say ‘Hollywood’ threat because it’s such a money-maker there)
Prey was indeed a great influence – Crichton (bless his memory) is such an uber-nerd that he actually has a reading list at the back of the book – which I devoured voraciously. The reading list proves he knows what emergence really is – a powerful ‘theory of everything’ for biologists. But he’s also smart enough to know that you can’t have a book without a villain; so he quite shamelessly uses emergence as a way of creating monsters.
I can’t be judgemental about that – I use the same approach myself all the time. You take the truth – great concepts in science – profound ideas – then you make a rattling good yarn out of them. So though I don’t really think emergence and nano-technology are any kind of urgent threat to us; it’s cool to write stories in which that is so!
You left clues all through the novel as to the final fate of Peter; how was it writing the particular character that did the deed?
The clues were particularly cunning because I didn’t really know that was going to happen at the end. But, without giving anything away – I wanted magic in the closing sections of the book, and hope I achieved that .
Lena is vibrant and emotional and utterly fearless (when it suits her); Will Lena (and Flanagan, and the rest of the pirates) ever return? We certainly miss her (all of them) already.
I’d love to write another Lena and Flanagan book, and hope to do so. I’d be wary, to be honest, of making a series of books about the characters – because that might make them seem ordinary, and it’s their extraordinariness that defines them.
But I do have a notion for a follow-up novel, featuring Lena’s son (a son she didn’t know she had) in cahoots with Flanagan and Lena, on a mission at the far edge of the galaxy…But I have a bundle of other ideas too, so I’m not sure which ones I’ll write next.
And finally, what’s next for you, and for us? Already working on the next novel?
I’m having a joyous time at the moment writing my third book, a noir sci-fi novel set several hundred years later than Debatable Space, in what I call the Exodus Universe. It’s a detective drama, a murder story, it has killer aliens, it has it all really! That should be ready to send to my editor (DongWon Song) in the autumn I hope.
Meanwhile – book number 2 is to be published later this year. It’s called RED CLAW, and it’s similar to DEBATABLE SPACE, despite being totally different in every single respect. It’s not a space opea, it’s a thriller set on a planet rich in deadly aliens. And the main characters are a bunch of scientists who, like me, are geeks; geeks in peril no less.
Orbit have put a lot of work into designing a cover and approach for the new novel that will, we hope, make it stand out. The cover is “pulp”, but with attitude; and it’ll be published in the rather snazzy “B Format” – the paperback format that’s used for Iain M. Banks’ books here in the UK.
RED CLAW is my love song to the old fashioned ‘bug eyed monsters’ genre – the twist being, each of the bug-eyes monsters in my story has a Latin name, and a beauty all its own. It’s really a novel about the joy of discovery, and the naturalist’s love of nature – with a bunch of killer doppelanger robots shooting the hell out of everyone along the way.
Thanks, Philip, for giving up your time to answer these questions, and for writing such a brilliant novel! We wish you all the best!
A pleasure – and let’s keep in touch.
Philip's second novel from Obrit, Red Claw, will be available soon! :-) So pre-order your copies here for US, here for UK and for those in SA, please use the link at the top of the page. To give you a bit of a taste of Red Claw, here's the cover:
Check out this link to Philip's site, and order your copies of Debatable Space here for US, here for UK, and for those in SA, use the link at the top of the blog. :-)