Ballantyne's first novel from Tor UK. One of the best of
If you've been reading Interzone in the last six years, you've read
a lot of Tony Ballantyne. And even a glance at the titles of his stories
-- 'SOLDIER.EXE' and 'Teaching the War Robot to Dance' -- shows an
interest in the AI/robotic end of the speculative fiction spectrum.
This is borne out in his first novel, 'Recursion', a tale of the consequences
of our current technological trends that's played out across three
lives and stretching over 200 years into the future. Ballantyne's
novel is funny, gripping, fascinating and certainly one of the best
first novels -- if not simply one of the best novels thus far this
year. I caught up with him via email to ask him about how this fantastic
-- in all senses of the word -- novel came to be.
RK: Tony, tell us a bit about yourself; that is, what you do that
leaves you enough time to write, and what you might have been doing
before you started writing.
TB: I’m a teacher- I teach IT to 11-18 year olds. I love teaching,
it’s never been something that I’ve done as stopgap whilst
I tried to write, and it doesn’t actually leave me a lot of
time for writing. I’m lucky enough to be very disciplined. I
write solidly for one hour every night between 8 and 9pm.
books first really drew your interest as a reader?
TB: When I was young- anything. I would pick up whatever there was
and make a point of reading it to the end- which is not to say I always
understood what I was reading! The books that really stick in my mind
are those I read around the age of eleven or twelve- 1984, The
Space Merchants, The Chrysalids. So I suppose the answer to what
first drew my attention would have to be SF.
RK: What books first stimulated you
as a writer, and when did you begin writing for yourself, and eventually
TB: I can’t remember when I first started writing. I do know
I started writing seriously when I read Diana Wynne Jones’s
books for the first time. Every character she has written, no matter
how minor, is a living, breathing person. More importantly, they all
relate to each other. That’s how it seems me, anyway. The way
she combined character and plot sparked something in me that I’ve
been trying to emulate ever since. I’ve written for an audience
from day one (which is not to say that that audience has always wanted
to read it.)
RK: You've been publishing stories in Interzone for six
years now. Did David Pringle accept your first story, or did you have
to cast about a bit?
TB: No! I submitted lots of stories to David Pringle
before he accepted one. I did have non-SF stories published before
then. No one, I’m
sure, forgets getting their first story published, but there was something
special for me about selling my first SF short to Interzone.
else have you been published?
TB: I’ve had stories in The
Third Alternative and some anthologies. I’ve also had them reprinted in various European publications.
Since I started writing the book and its follow up I have had less
time to write shorts. It’s a shame in some ways, I really like
the short story.
RK: How does your career affect your writing? (If at all.)
TB: It does give me ideas. I suppose that both writing
and teaching are about getting your point across to people and trying
to keep them
interested in what you’re saying.
RK: Do parts of any of the
published stories show up in the novel?
TB: Sort of. Herb’s story is largely based
on a short that appeared in Interzone that I felt could go further.
I always thought I was
trying to get too much into too little space. The novel gave me a
chance to expand the idea. Other shorts were also set in what became
the Recursion universe. Writing the novel and its follow up have suggested
some other short stories that I intend to get down later this year
when I have met my current writing commitments.
RK: What triggered
the decision to write a novel?
TB: The chance to expand on ideas, to have more space for characters
to develop. A friend suggested it was the obvious next way to develop
as a writer: he was right.
RK: 'Recursion' provides the perfect balance
of science and fiction for a science fiction novel. How did you apportion
the two? Was it conscious, or did you just spill it out onto the page
-- or typewriter or word processor?
TB: Thank you! That was the effect I was aiming for.
How I did it though… I’m not sure, it was just something that evolved.
I know that Eva was put in deliberately as a chance to develop a character,
to stop the novel becoming a relentless battle of robots. I was also
conscious of the fact that there should be no ‘heroes’ in
the book, just ordinary people. I think that helped.
RK: PC or Mac?
Or Unix or Linux?
TB: Oh, PC and Microsoft Office, but no ideological reasons for sticking
with them. With people still starving to death in the world there
are more important things to worry about than your OS.
'Recursion' is quite concerned with the increasing electronic surveillance
documentation of our lives. Have you had any personal experiences
that have contributed to this interest?
Your Protection. Not a joke anymore!
TB: No, not really, or no more than anyone living in the West in the twenty
first century. I think that SF readers are very aware of how past
seemingly dark futures are positively embraced fifty years down the
line. We’ve gone from a fear of Big Brother to a desire for
surveillance. In Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, the cameras
your Protection’ written underneath: a chilling joke twenty
years ago. I get the impression that most people nowadays would see
the sign as a reasonable comment. Maybe they’re even right.
RK: You also speak quite eloquently of the thin line
between concern for others and control of them, of how "I did it for your own
good," is a frightening and potentially lethal thought. Could
you talk about how one evolves into the other?
TB: It happens from the day we are born. Our parents and teachers,
and later our leaders and politicians make choices for us. The trouble
begins, of course, when these people blindly assume that they know
what is best. More subtle, though, is the human need to find someone
to make the difficult decisions for us. You see it on a simple level
when people read their star signs; you see it on another level when
people base their opinions purely on statistical data or opinion polls.
It takes courage to make decisions.
RK: Cybernetic theory, computer
programming and artificial intelligence themes are key points in this
novel. How do you convert the often dry and quite potentially dull
realms of theory into captivating fiction?
Thank you for the compliment, but I don’t know! I suppose
it’s because I find those areas fascinating myself. You mean
there are some people who don’t enjoy computer programming?
Space travel is not often a strong component of stories involving
AI, and to be sure, AI theory and practice are not often strong components
of stories involving space travel. 'Recursion' involves both. How
did you strike this particular balance?
Possibly because I didn’t set out to specifically
write about either of those two things. Rather, I extrapolated a line
now and the possible emergence of AIs and self replicating machines.
It may be worth stating that there is no reason why AIs should be
more intelligent than we are, but it struck me as more interesting
if they were super intelligent. After that I tried to think of likely
consequences of such a world.
Von Neuman didn't set out to revolutionize science or science
RK: 'Recursion' comes complete with a
very nicely understated sense of humor and the absurd. Did the humor
develop from the absurdity or was it vice versa?
TB: The absurdity came first. I never set out to
be humorous, but sometimes the absurdity of the situation just sets
off the rest. I
think that’s got to be the case in any extended work, otherwise
all you’re left with is a string of jokes.
RK: Your three main
characters are all people the reader enjoys reading about. How did
you shape them separately, and how much did they change as they came
TB: I wanted to have three characters to reflect
different strands of the plot, so Herb was originally a SF ‘geek’ and
Constantine a family man. Like I said earlier, Eva was there to provide
RK: The plot in 'Recursion' is quite intricate. Did you develop
it first then write to an outline, or did the plot evolve from the
characters and their situations?
TB: Both. I did have to shape the three plot strands to make sure
the story passed from one chapter to the next, but Eva got completely
out of control and took on a life of her own that ended up changing
the end of the book. She will be back.
RK: Did you know how the three
threads in the novel were going to join together when you started?
TB: Roughly yes, but as I said, Eva was the thread that skewed the
RK: Once you finished the novel, how did you move
it off of your computer and into the real world of publishing? Did
you seek an agent or did you simply contact the publisher?
TB: I sought out an agent. Mic Cheetham, and later Simon Kavanagh
were very instrumental in getting the book published.
RK: Once the
novel was finished, did it change significantly from the first draft?
Did Peter Lavery over at Pan MacMillan/Tor UK help you shape the work?
TB: Not so much in terms of plotting, though Mic Cheetham did make
me sharpen up the ending, and quite rightly so. Peter Lavery is a
superb editor. As well as tightening up the overall shape, he has
a real feel for prose. He can improve a sentence immeasurably by moving
just one word.
RK: Who are you currently reading?
Robson and Jean Aitchison. The last is Professor
of Language and Communication at Oxford University. She writes on
linguistics, and she is excellent. She puts forward complex ideas
simply and always in a readable style.
RK: What writers do you look
to for new material?
TB: Everyone, particularly those out of the genre.
I also read a lot of non fiction, and usually have two books on the
go at once, Fiction
and Non Fiction. I like Eric
Brown. He has a knack for making character
driven SF look easy: it isn’t.
RK: Are you interested in writing
out of the science fiction genre? If so, what might you write?
TB: Oh yes. I’ve got a mainstream novel half
finished, and a romantic comedy planned out.
RK: Most importantly, what's next? Tell
us where to find your next short story and what kind of novel we can
TB: My next short story will probably be Star!,
appearing later this year in the 'Constellations' anthology, edited
by Peter Crowther.
The next novel is a follow up to 'Recursion'. It’s set twenty
years after the first book, and picks up on threads that have hopefully
gone unnoticed by the reader so far.