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Adam Roberts: 'Science fiction isn’t about accurate prediction, it’s about the eloquence and wonder of our ideas, our imaginings'

BY Katie Smart
2nd Mar 2022

We are thrilled that our new six-week online course – Writing Science Fiction  is open for enrolment. The course features exclusive teaching videos, notes and tasks from Adam Roberts. Adam is a prolific science fiction writer, and Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture at Royal Holloway University of London. He has published 23 novels, most recently Purgatory Mount (shortlisted for the Prometheus Award and the 2021 BSFA Best Novel Award) and The This. His non-fiction book It's The End of the World, But What Are We Really Afraid Of? won the 2020 BSFA Award for non-fiction. He is a Vice-President of the H G Wells Society, and is currently chair of judges for the 2022 Orwell Prize for Fiction.

We spoke to Adam about his life-long love of science fiction, the recent SF he's enjoyed reading, and his advice for budding writers...

When did you know you wanted to be an author?

Usually I answer this kind of question with: ‘since I was a teen’. And that’s true: I scribbled continually through my teenage years and my twenties, although it was only towards the end of my twenties that I got good enough at writing to get published. But in fact I can be more precise: what made me want to write was reading Roald Dahls’ first published short story, ‘A Piece of Cake’ (1942). I grew up reading Dahl’s kids’ books and loving them without ever wanting actually to write kids books. But something about that story, and more to the point something about the form of that story—not its content, particularly: which is to say, it wasn’t that I had a particular interest in WW2 or planes or anything like that—something about the way it was written, and structured, or the way it arranged its scenes and images, and the emotional affect it generated, rushed my 13-year-old conscious mind like a tidal bore, and made me want to write things myself. It was, more or less, as simple as that. I didn’t want to be a writer before I read that story; I wanted to make animated cartoons. After I read that story, I wanted to be a writer. I have, as you might expect, thought about this a great deal since then, but I still can’t understand why this particular story had so profound an effect on me. That I have never written anything like Roald Dahl, and have no desire so to do, flows naturally from this impetus, I think. The force of it upon my mind did not impel a desire to imitate, you see. Instead I wrote what I mostly read: science fiction.

You’ve written multiple science fiction novels, non-fiction books about the genre and even parodies of beloved classics. Is it fair to say that this is a life-long passion? When did you first become interested in science fiction?

I have always been a Fantasy and SF fan: that’s where I started as a reader. I read Tolkien, and SF, obsessively: Asimov, Clarke, Frank Herbert, Le Guin, all that, as well as a bunch of people who were, in the 1970s, contemporary: Chris Priest for instance was hugely influential upon me. For a long time SF was all I read. Then I saw Millais’ painting Mariana, read the Tennyson poem it’s based on and fell in love with Romantic and Victorian poetry—which is now my day job, at the University of London. Poetry and science fiction seem to me to work in very similar ways: a similar metaphoric leap, a similar (sense-of-) wondrous eloquence and delight.

Your latest novel The Thiscentres around a new social media platform, one which requires an implant in the roof of your mouth to enable you to connect with other users with a mere thought. What inspired this imagined next phase in the evolution of social media?

I was a late adopter of Twitter. For a long time I thought: nah, it’s for youngsters, not for oldsters like me—the irony here is that the youngsters have, as my kids remind me, long since abandoned twitter for other social media platforms, Instagram, TikTok and the like. But eventually my publishers, actually, persuaded me: ‘you need to be on social media Adam,’ they said. ‘To publicise your books and so on.’ So I joined Twitter as @arrroberts and oh good grief but it’s addictive. It’s like the internet in crack cocaine form. I quickly got sucked in: for a while I was using it obsessively—tweeting and checking my feed all the time. I’ve dialled that down somewhat now: it wasn’t healthy. But it gave me a sense of the way these technologies can swallow us whole. I watch my kids: they’re on screens all the time, Instagram, WhatsApp, and it feels perfectly normal and natural to them. It’s the shape of their world now.

How much do real life technologies impact your fictional writing?

I feel we’ve reached a plateau in terms of the development of new technologies. Remember I’ve lived through the information revolution: I was born before computers were a thing, and now computers interpenetrate shape our lives absolutely. The changes between the 1960s and now have been immense. It’s interesting: the SF of the 1950s assumed the next big leap in human development would be space travel, colonising distant worlds: but they were wrong—the next big leap was computing. I often wonder what the next next big thing will be, and how far it will change our lives and our world. I’ll probably guess wrong: but that doesn’t matter. SF isn’t about accurate prediction, it’s about the eloquence and wonder of our ideas, our imaginings.

SF writing often grapples with high concept technologies, advanced alien worlds and other imagined scientific innovations. What worldbuilding tips do you have for writers looking to convincingly establish elements like these in their novels?

You do need to work out how your imagined technology your alien society, your new system works—how it functions, how it fits with the laws of physics and so on—but you don’t need to work it out exhaustively, in every particular. You’re writing a story, not actually inventing a teleportation machine (or whatever) and the needs of the story determine the parameters of your tech. It sounds a little cynical to say ‘it doesn’t have to be right, it only has to sound right’, but the important thing is that it not be so wrong that it becomes actively implausible, and bounces your reader out of the tale. Beyond that the ‘novum’ (as we call this ‘new’ element, that distinguishes a SF story from a realist, everyday story) works because it signifies, because it means something. If you dig too deeply into the concept of The Matrix, for instance, it doesn’t make a lot of sense (humans as batteries? why use humans? Wouldn’t cows be better, and easier to fool? The Matrix could just be an endless green field. How do the machines in charge of the Matrix repopulate the humans in their pods?)—but that doesn’t matter, because it works enough for the story being told: it’s a way of talking about how life feels like an corporately-generated illusion, the way we are surrounded by simulacra, the way so much of modern life lacks authenticity.

When you start writing a new SF novel, where does your inspiration come from? What comes first – the characters, the scientific concept, or the world?

Ideas, concepts, thinking ‘what if…?’ even odd images and situations from daydreams and dreams—lots of things can spark a story. But the first thing to do is to take the idea and work out how it translates into story: identifying its conflict, and therefore its drama. If I think of a new piece of technology, a machine or mode of transport or something like that, the task is to imagine how it would work in the world, how it would affect people’s lives. Story is key.

What are some of your favourite recent SF books?

There is so much great SF being published these days! The genre I read as a child, which was dominated by a group of white US and UK male writers, has gone global, an explosion of talent and a brilliant diversity of ideas and forms and modes. Just talking about 2021 books: Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control is an excellent story about a woman transformed by an alien artefact. Tade Thompson’s space-set whodunnit Far from the Light of Heaven is bonkers and brilliant. I really enjoyed A Desolation Called Peaceby Arkady Martine—a capacious space-opera full of action and ideas. Another big brilliant space opera is Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky—but I also loved a number of harder to categorise works: Alice Albina’s feminist fable Cwen, and Deep Wheel Orcadiaby Harry Josephine Giles, a verse-novel about a decaying space-station written in the Orkney language (and published with a facing English translation).

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would you say?

A writer is someone who writes. That means: don’t get hung on whether you are published or not, whether you’re getting paid or not, whether you’re winning awards or not—those things have their place, but they are not what defines a writer. A writer is someone who writes: so write as much as you can, write regularly, write and revise and get better at writing. If you are writing then you are a writer.

We’re so excited to have you on board as the teacher of our new Writing Science Fiction course. What was your favourite part of creating the course?

The actual filming was a blast: a great crew, a lovely location, talking though a subject that I love. What’s not to like?