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Science fiction is the most powerful and imaginative mode of writing: Adam Roberts
by Kourosh Ziabari
2010-11-18 09:30:31
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Adam Roberts is a British academician, literary critic and science fiction writer. He has a degree in English from the University of Aberdeen and a PhD from the Cambridge University on Robert Browning and the Classics. He has been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award of the best science fiction novel in 2001, 2007 and 2010. Roberts has published 11 novels of which the most prominent ones are Salt (2000), Stone (2002), The Snow (2004), Gradisil (2006) and Swiftly: A Novel (2008).

Roberts' "Palgrave History of Science Fiction" has been translated into Chinese. Several reviews of his books have appeared on international newspapers and media outlets.

Adam joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss his career as a science fiction author, his interest in history and its interrelationship with science fiction literature and the path of success in science fiction genre.

Kourosh Ziabari: You are a professor of nineteenth-century English literature. How do you reconcile this with being a science fiction author? How did you manage to connect your academic career as a literature professor with your personal interest of writing science fiction?

Adam Roberts: People are sometimes surprised by these two things, but I’ve never seen them as separate or opposed. The nineteenth-century is when science fiction really takes off: not only Wells and Verne although of course them, but a wealth of fiction that sought to come to terms with the impact of rapidly increasing industrialization and mechanization of life, the withering of the old certainties.  It’s also a time of formal literary experimentation; the dramatic monologue, a new ambitiousness and scale in fiction, a pervasive intellectualism. All of this informs my own writing.

KZ: How much does English literature and history materialize into your scientific fictions? Overall, what's the impact of cultural elements, including history and literature, on your scientific works?

AR: Oh, completely. All writing ought to be hospitable to as many influences as sources as possible: and that is true a fortiori of science fiction.

KZ: What is in your view the mission of science fiction? Is it aimed at creating pleasant moments for the reader? Does it intend to teach something to the reader? Is it aimed at producing artistic beauty? What is the essential function of science fiction?

AR: I’m wary of essentialism, and might not, personally, frame the business of art in terms of a ‘mission’ like this. That sounds a little didactic and teleological to me. I’m drawn to SF because it seems to me the most powerful, the most imaginative and wondrous, mode of writing available to us today. It is philosophy, in a specific Deleuzian sense—Gilles Deleuze famously and rather brilliantly defined the business of philosophy as in effect ‘inventing cool new concepts’. That’s SF’s business.  I’d actually go further and say that SF is about the inventing of expressive and culturally eloquent metaphors, born from the interaction of science and contemporary culture.

KZ: What was your motivation for writing the novel "Swiftly"? What do the British Lilliputian slaves and French Brobdingnagian giants symbolize? Would you please portray a synopsis of the novel for those who haven't read it yet?

AR: I wrote a History of Science Fiction for an academic press, Palgrave; it appeared in 2006, and in the course of that I re-read a good deal of material. Since my argument was that SF as a genre actually begins with the Protestant Reformation, and that by the 18th century the mode had reached an early maturity, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, an amazing, extraordinary, brilliant novel, has quite a large place in my History.  Rereading it I was struck by its imaginative hospitality. I know some contemporary readers took is to be a documentary account rather than a fictional one, and I wondered what the world might look like if the miniature Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians were real, and had been discovered in the 18th-century.  My novel is set in 1848, by which time humanity has, as you note, effectively enslaved Swift’s Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, his Yahoos and sapient horses, and put them at the service of an accelerated industrial revolution. This seems to me the most likely development, given the history of Europe in the 18th/19th centuries.  You ask what the Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians ‘symbolize’; but I have to say I think the novel works less by means of specific allegorical decoding, and more on a formal and conceptual level, which is to say, what they symbolize is in a sense the principle of scaling itself. The novel brings in miscroscopically small beings, to whom even the Lilliputians are giants, as well as—borrowing from Voltaire’s Micromégas—super-giant aliens, to whom the Brobdingnagians are comparatively minuscule. Its universe, in other words, is infinitely divisible and infinitely expandable. My notion was to worldbuild a cosmos without a planck-length minimum scale, in which everything is fractally replicated on larger and larger scales.
KZ: In the "Palgrave History of Science Fiction", you've elaborately discussed the history of science fiction since its primary inception in the Ancient Greece till its development in the present day. What has changed since that time? Is it that today, we have the modern manifestations of technology which adds variety and interestingness to science fiction, or are the changes beyond these superficial developments?

AR: The big change, I argue in the History, is the Copernican Revolution, and the Protestant Reformation that more-or-less coincided with it.  Before that, all the way back to Ancient Greece, there are myriad fantastical narratives, including voyages to the moon and robots and so on.  But they happen in a fundamentally magical space.  After Copernicus, a new kind of materialist fantasy enters human discourse, predicated not upon magic but upon science.  Fantasy is still a vibrant mode today, of course: but SF, paradoxically, is in touch with a version of the transcendent sublime inaccessible to magic al thinking.  Magic is always human-scale; SF apprehends a much vaster cosmos.

KZ: Do you consider a remarkable, effective work of science fiction a piece which is in compliance with scientific facts? Does the science fiction author have to cross the borders of scientific validity in order to become successful, or is it possible for him to prosper by clinging to the traditional motifs of science and scientific facts? To put it more precisely, do you consider scientific inventiveness a shortcut to success?

AR: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘success’ here. Success as a writer? Unlike many of the SF writers I know who often studied science at school and university, my background is in the Arts. My first degree was English and Classics, and my PhD was on Robert Browning.  My knowledge of science is that of an interested humanist; I read up quite a lot about it, but I’m as interested in its poetic and metaphorical as its nuts-and-bolts valences.  So a short answer would be: no, I don’t think a Hard SF fundamentalism, where only elements judged to be wholly consistent with science as it is presently understood are admissible, is the whole of SF.

KZ: Have you ever been affected by the influence and persuasion of what you've written? For example, have you ever thought of the possibility of realizing time-travel or encountering with alien life?

AR: You mean—in real life?  Not really.  I maintain the stubborn belief that the technology I invented to lift humans and cargos into orbit in my novel Gradisil could be realised in real terms.  But I don’t know anybody else who shares that belief.  Otherwise, I rarely write about aliens, in part because it seems to me that actual alien life would be radically incommensurable with humanity, physically and mentally—my one major exception, The Snow, is one of my least well-received books.  And I’ve almost never done time travel either.  I have never driven a De Lorean.

KZ: You've won several awards and prizes for your novels and science fiction books. How is the feeling of being an award-winning author? Have these awards had a positive impact on your writings? Have they built up your motive for writing more efficiently?

AR: I wish the premise behind this question were correct, but alas I have never won any kind of award for anything I have written.  I have, on occasion, been nominated for awards, but I’ve never won: nothing, nada, nyet. Given that there are something like 80 awards in the field, and that I’ve been active—prolific even—for over a decade, this tells me something about what I do. Most probably what it tells me is that what I do is a bit crap, conceivably it tells me that I’m not well-liked by the SF community. Either way it tells me that I’m something of an also-ran, genre-wise. But perhaps that, paradoxically enough, does have a positive impact of my writings. It prompts me to push on, try new stuff, keep at it. If I were ever to win a big award, I think that’s unlikely, incidentally; I think if it were going to happen it would have done so by now.  But for the sake of argument—if I ever did, it might flick that switch in my brain that said: ‘right, done that. I’ll go off and do something else now.’

KZ: Jon Courtenay Grimwood has called you "the king of high concept Science Fiction". What's your viewpoint about this description?

AR: My political sympathies are democratic, republican and anti-monarchical.  This doesn’t mean that I believe the king ought to be sent to the guillotine, or anything like that—luckily for me—but I do say that he ought to be deposed via forceful, peaceful, popular action. And then I suppose he ought to be re-educated to become, let’s say, a gardener, like the Last Chinese Emperor. Since I have been crowned by Jon, it puts me in the awkward situation of having to lead a citizen’s coup d’etat against myself. I’m sure I’ll manage it somehow.
KZ: One of the features of science fiction is that you can reverse the events and actions in it and turn everything into the form it had had before. What would you undo, if you were able to use this feature in the real world?

AR: David Beckham’s reckless kick at Diego Simeone’s legs in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final match against Argentina, the one that resulted in a red card, England going down to ten men, and eventually losing that match.  Without that kick, and had Beckham stayed on the pitch, I am confident that we would have gone on to the world cup that year.

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