What else could one call a Simon Morden interview – Rocket Scientist.

Dr. Simon Morden, B.Sc. (Hons., Sheffield) Ph.D (Newcastle) is a bona fide rocket scientist, having degrees in geology and planetary geophysics. Unfortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly prepare a person for the big wide world of work: he’s been a school caretaker, admin assistant, and PA to a financial advisor. He’s now employed as a part-time teaching assistant at a Gateshead primary school, which he combines with his duties as a house-husband, attempting to keep a crumbling pile of Edwardian masonry upright, wrangling his two children and providing warm places to sleep for the family cats.

His not-so-secret identity as journeyman writer started when he sold the short story Bell, Book and Candle to an anthology, and a chaotic mix of science fiction, fantasy and horror followed. Heart came out to critical acclaim, and Another War was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award, but with The Lost Art, things suddenly got serious. Contracts. Agents. Deadlines. Responsibility. Scary stuff. The Lost Art was subsequently a finalist for the Catalyst Award for best teen fiction.

As well as a writer, he’s been the editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s writers’ magazine Focus, a judge for the Arthur C Clarke awards, and is a regular speaker at the Greenbelt Arts Festival on matters of faith and fiction. In 2009, he was in the winning team for the Rolls Royce Science Prize.

Tell me one little known fact about Simon Morden.

(Everybody knows about the Mars thing now, so something different). Twenty years ago, I was cycling home from work: beautiful sunny day, early summer, perfectly bright. I was up to somewhere between 25-30mph, turning the biggest gear I had, when a car coming the opposite direction decided to turn in front of me down a side road. I realised very quickly that I couldn’t avoid a collision – one of those moments when time becomes stretched and you get to experience everything in super-slo-mo – and started to haul my back wheel around, believing that it was going to be better to take the impact side on rather than head on. It sort of worked. My right-hand side smacked against the car’s left, and instead of going over the top, I bounced away down the road. The car screeched to a halt, I’m lying on the hot tarmac, and in a scene straight out of film-maker’s 101, my back wheel is still clicking round, slowing, slowing, stopped. The front wheel is bent in half. And I look at me, thinking “This is going to hurt.”

Now, I’m a big bloke. I was young, fit and my fighting weight was about 100kg. What I didn’t realise then was that I’d broken the car. If you do the maths, I managed to impart at least a couple of metric tonnes of force to the side pillar. I shattered the windscreen. And while I didn’t walk away from this – more hauled into the back of an ambulance by some very burly paramedics – I hadn’t actually broken anything of mine. I’d managed to cut my hands on my brake levers and taken my knee down to the dermis. Oh, and ‘severe bruising’ which meant I couldn’t move for a week. But I was back at work in two weeks, and seemingly none the worse for the event.

Fast forward two decades, and my right hip is starting to fall apart. Them’s the breaks…

Everyone except me knows about the Mars thing. Tell me about it.

The Mars thing.

There I was, newly-minted PhD certificate on the lab wall, perusing the NASA Bumper Book of Meteorites for some likely samples to use in my experiments. As you know, Bob, NASA run a yearly expedition to Antarctica to collect meteorites: it’s brilliant in its simplicity.

Ice flows, from where it collects on land, towards the sea. Sometimes, the flows come up against subsurface mountain ranges and get pushed upwards, slowing their advance, or halting them altogether – because the weather is so severe, the accumulation of new ice is more than outstripped by the ablation of the surface by the wind. So what you get is an old, deflationary surface. Normally, crap just accumulates on land, and buries what falls on it – not so here. There is ice, which is being eroded away, and whatever falls/has fallen on that ice. And because the only thing that could possibly have fallen on the ice is a meteorite (black), you can just go round picking these things off the ice (white). Let’s not talk about the extra ten thousand calories a day the expedition members have to consume just to stay alive, and think instead, “that’s actually quite cool”.

So – in common with publicly-funded institutions and some private collections – NASA produce an updated list every year of their samples, which researchers can borrow (in the loosest sense of the word – some testing is destructive). I’m going through the catalogue looking at eucrites – that’s a class of differentiated stony meteorites – and working out which rocks the curators have got enough of to spare me a few grams. Because some years, they get a lot of samples back, not all of them have been properly classified: the description in the catalogue is just a bit vague, but that’s fine, and someone will nail it down later. Which is pretty much how science is supposed to work. I fill out my list, and a couple of weeks later, a padded bag covered in rather exciting stamps and stickers turns up. I record the weights and appearances of each sample, check them against the inventory, and get to work.

My research involved testing the remanent magnetic field of meteorites, to better understand the environment in which they’d formed. Practically, it involved breaking off little bits and progressively demagnetising the fragments in either an alternating electric field or by heating. The heating experiments are much more difficult to do right, but they yield all sorts of interesting information, including which minerals hold the magnetism. These being meteorites, I was looking at alloys of iron and nickel, and contamination was relatively easy to spot – iron oxide (that’s plain old rust) has a very different magnetic signature to native iron. One of my samples seemed to consist only of this rusty iron, and was therefore precisely useless for my research. All the metal inside had oxidised, and the information I was looking for had been lost.

Except, of course, that this meteorite had been misclassified in the catalogue. Rather than being a ten-a-penny eucrite (they’re still 4.6 by old, formed at the very start of the Solar System, and by far the oldest thing anyone will ever touch) that had been contaminated by the Earth’s high-oxygen, high-water atmosphere, it had formed on Mars. It had been blasted from the surface by a massive meteorite impact, achieved escape velocity, and through the clockwork of celestial mechanics, fallen to Earth in Antarctica. I had a piece of Mars on my desk and I completely missed the significance of the results my experiments had given me. Several months later, someone else in a different lab on a different continent did another set of experiments involving the oxygen isotope ratio, and swiftly reclassified the find as a Martian meteorite. Which is also pretty much how science is supposed to work.

Are you still involved int his area of science or have you ditched the day job?

The day job ditched me, I’m afraid. It was a casualty of a perfect storm of government cuts in the early 1990s – so that not even top graded research projects were being funded, my supervisor retiring, and being far too junior to get a research or lecturing post on my own cognisance. The field of research I was involved in was so fantastically specialised that me and my supervisor were the only people in Western Europe doing what we did. There was another group just setting up in Finland, and another in Japan, and that was about it. But meteorite science as a whole was a small field: our world conference attracted around 400 delegates, most of whom already knew each other really very well. I did try quite hard to hang on, but in the end, it just wasn’t happening, and I had to go out and get a different job. Making ends meet – I was newly married – was proving tricky.

I am – obviously – still fascinated by science stuff. My current part-time job is teaching Design Technology to ten and eleven year-olds at the local primary school. We haven’t exactly thrown the curriculum out of the window, more turned it up to eleven. It is, in essence, a basic engineering course, almost entirely practically based. We make things and then either race them or blow them up. And sometimes both at the same time. A couple of years ago, a bunch of us – two from the school, and three from outside – entered the Rolls Royce Science Prize with our home-brew wind tunnel, with me in charge of instrumentation. I don’t think I’d designed a circuit since A-level, but I managed to cobble together enough bits and pieces so that the sensors in the tunnel would talk to the computer outside, and simple enough that the children could confidently use it for experiments. We won, which was nice (Primary school science doesn’t have a fantastic reputation, so beating a bunch of Secondary schools and FE colleges was good, too), and we’re investing the prize money in a massive greenhouse/outdoor classroom for doing proper horticulture and plant biology in, as well as having off-grid power and water systems, worm farms and composting. I’m going to try my hand at some hydroponics and try and pretend we’re on some vast generation ship…

How does your work backgound, current and past, impact on what you write?

In a couple of ways, I think, though they aren’t exclusively the domain of a scientific bent. First and foremost is naturally the need – sometimes the overwhelming need – to get things right. And when I say right, I mean, can I convince the reader that I know what I’m talking about. So I do lots of research. Lots and lots and lots. The London Metrozone, for example, is a real place. The streets are all there, the Underground stations, the railway lines and cuttings and flyovers and underpasses. Even the timings to get from one place to another are as accurate as I can make it. Yes, I piled old shipping containers on parkland in order to give the refugees somewhere to live, but this sort of containerised living isn’t something I’ve dreamed up on my own: it’s a real solution to a present problem. I want to nail everything down: the effectiveness of body armour, the behaviour of shaped charges, the extent of computer control and automation in cars, the possibility of ‘hat nav’, Catholic religious orders… partly because I’m obsessive, but mainly because I think it makes for a better story. If there’s something I don’t know, then I’ll go away and find out enough to bluff it. I don’t want my scenery to wobble when you push it.

The second and related point is that I want my plots – no matter how outrageous (and the Metrozone plot moves from slightly off-centre to What Fresh Hell Is This? at remarkable speed) – to be on rails. Causality, the effect of one thing on another in a not-necessarily predictable but after-the-event inevitable sort of way, needs to be continually nipping at my characters’ heels. Can you imagine a story which starts off with the push of a domino and ends with civilisation collapsing? I can. The chain of events doesn’t even need to be shown: they can diverge elliptically and snowball off-screen, only to bend back and bite someone’s arse later on.

It probably gives you the impression that my wall is covered with little post-it notes and lots of pieces of string, trying to plan everything out beforehand so I don’t forget about the veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s guns I showed you in chapter 1. It’s not like that at all. I’m one of those writers who makes it up as they go along. I have to keep all this stuff in my head. Why yes, I am slightly mad.

Typically, how long do you have to keep it in your head, given that level of thoroughness? (How long does it take you to write a novel?)

I’m not making any claims to super-human feats of memory – I don’t think of something until I’m just about to write, and once I’ve written it I can (and do) stupidly forget stuff on occasions that has to be cleaned up in the editing process. But when I write, I feel like I’m watching the action unfold. All I have to do is describe it. I don’t know how that works – presumably my subconscious mind has it somewhere and just spools it out. This is sounding madder by the minute, but that’s genuinely how it feels. My characters aren’t under my direction, the plot continually surprises me, and while I can consciously guess at what happens next, it doesn’t always turn out that way. I have to assume I’m not channelling the story from somewhere external, that I am actually putting the work in somewhere along the line – and I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes where I can’t visualise the scene properly, so it’s far from being straightforward.

What I’m trying to say in a roundabout sort of way is that I seem to have a very vivid imagination that’s been fed with thousands of stories since my teens. I get to blend all those elements up inside and out comes this flood of … whatever. But I can see it, and I can write it down. Depending on the length of the story, it takes from six months (which is really very quick, and the made-up world starts to bleed into the real one, which isn’t healthy), to a year to get a first draft down. I’m not writing all the time – I’ve other duties to attend to – but I do try and write every day.

What would it take, do you think, for you to be able to become a full time writer? Is it harder than before given the way the publishing industry is at present?

Okay – being a full-time writer, which is probably the holy grail and ultimate goal of a writer’s career, can mean two things. Firstly, that you write full-time (well, duh) and secondly, that you’re able to support yourself, and possibly your partner and family if you have one, simply by selling the words that come out of your brain.

The first isn’t that difficult – if you’ve no one to help financially or materially, it depends on is the level of discomfort you’re willing to suffer. Starving in a garret, whilst fashionable, isn’t exactly fun. I’m lucky in that my wife earns enough that I don’t have to go out to work – though I do have a part-time job teaching primary school kids Design Technology. The work I do there takes up more time than the hours I get paid for, but since I originally volunteered my time, the fact they pay me at all is a bonus. More important than me enjoying it though is that the children I teach seem to enjoy it, too, and learn some important science and engineering skills on the way. It gets me out of the house, too: I’m not admitting to being a borderline recluse, but I took part in an NHS survey recently where one of the questions was “Do you enjoy meeting new people?” I answered “Rarely”. I am really very self-contained. I’m also heavily involved in raising my kids: I’ve been the house-husband since they were tiny, and still do the cooking, cleaning, washing and ferrying around. Another five years and they’ll be more-or-less independent, but for now, a portion of my time is taken up with looking after them. And to be honest, I don’t think I’d swap the time I spend with them for any amount of cash and get someone else to do it. Just being here when they get home from school, helping them with homework, taking them places and being around to kiss them goodnight – It’s important, and I can still put in a full day around that.

As for the second part? That’s not just hard, but really, really hard. Consider the economics of it: if a full length novel takes an average of a year to write (average – some do take longer), how much does a writer need to be paid in order for them to do that without having alternative sources of income? The median wage in the UK is around £25,000. I’ve never been paid £25,000, or even close to that, for one novel, and for the most part, neither has anyone else I know. There are always exceptions – someone can suddenly hit it big, get a six-figure sum for their book and it makes the news. But there are very good reasons why it makes the news: it’s because it’s so very unusual. There are always film rights: someone optioning the film rights on a novel is a good chunk of cash which often exceeds the author’s original advance, but that’s nowhere near guaranteed. It would be brilliant if I could earn enough money, consistently, that my wife could give up work, but until I can at least match her wage, we’ll have to keep arrangements as they are. In a few years time, I’ll be pretty much full-time by default, but that won’t be because of my bank balance.

Is it harder now, to be full-time, than it used to be? Undoubtedly. A B-list author could manage, and manage well enough, on the advance provided by a book a year. Now? Not really, unless your outgoings are really very low. Anecdotally – publishers obviously play their cards close to their chest, and the only good research I’ve seen on the subject came from Tobias Buckell, whose survey is now over 7 years old – advances are not just not keep up with inflation, but actively going down. Which is a roundabout way of saying “Buy more books!”

What are you working on at the moment?

Imagine a world where magic pervades every aspect of people’s lives, from how their plumbing works to how their kings and princes conduct their warfare. Then imagine the greatest, the richest, magical kingdom of all, the one that relies on magic the most. That’s what I’m writing about right now, except because I’m a complete bastard to all my characters, I’m taking the magic away – slowly at first, so that the signs are there for those who can interpret them, then all at a rush so that everyone’s lives are turned upside down. How do you go about reconstructing a civilised society when a thousand years of status quo is swept away? How do you go about defending your borders when you’ve only a ceremonial palace guard and a handful of militia to hold back the ravening hordes? And most importantly of all, how do you keep everything together when your own citizens are rioting in the streets? The answer, as always, has been right there in the middle of things all the time, just ignored and neglected. That library, that expensive folly of collecting and storing and copying, kept alive for a millennium on the whim of the rulers of the land, suddenly seems worth a second look.

Can our heroes hang on long enough to bootstrap the entire Renaissance from scratch? Or are they going to be wiped from the map by the cold, dead hand of history? That’s my book, my Ignite.

I’ve also just delivered the fourth Metrozone book, The Curve of the Earth, in which, well… some really big things go boom, and not in a good way. It’s up to Petrovitch to sort it out in his usual inimitable fashion.

And furthermore, I’m re-releasing my very first published novel, Heart. I’m giving away the e-copies (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi, if I can format the damn thing correctly), and if people want a hard copy, that’ll be available from a pod publisher. That’ll happen in the next month or so.

That sounds like standing heroic fantasy on its head, and may even be, persih the thought, somewhat original? And unusual for someone with a scientific background – though I guess your book is re-inventing the rational world from magical beginnings.

Do you or did you ever read much fantasy?

Now this is the thing about fantasy – I seem to have read far more than I realise. I started, pretty much like everyone else, with bowdlerised fairy tales, taken from the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen, then into traditional children’s books, which often contain fantastical elements: the Phantom Tollbooth, Five Children and It, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and such like. It’s only a short stretch from there to fully-fledged fantasies like Narnia and the Hobbit. Looking back, though, all these things were frowned on at school, all except Beowulf, which was old and Saxon and therefore counted as literature.

Then I discovered The Lord of the Rings, aged 13. I understand that some people read it at exactly the right moment in their formative years, and it changes them forever. I’m one of those. Thereafter, it was Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane (which are dark – really, really dark), Conan, Lovecraft… By this time I was playing Dungeons and Dragons, which was serious head-fuel for a teenager, and inevitably as you play and become a more experienced gamer, you want to try your hand at running your own campaigns. It’s like a boot camp for young writers, really. I was still playing by the time I got to university, and that’s when you don’t have a couple of hours to play, you have a couple of days. Gnarly.

It’s no coincidence that the first full-length novel manuscript I wrote was a fantasy – it was (and remains) completely unpublishable. But Heart was my first published novel, and that was what you’d now call urban fantasy, written long before the genre became synonymous with pale boys and sexy girls. It, too, is quite dark, taking on Arthurian legend and apocalyptic myths – I’ve recently made the full text available as a free ebook, so you can make you’re own mind up exactly what it is.

And yes, I still read fantasy, which is often tinged with horror, especially if it’s done right.

At what stage did you stumble across SF?

There were SFnal TV shows – things like Thunderbirds and Stingray, and of course Doctor Who – but the first SF book I ever knowingly picked up was Harry Harrison’s Spaceship Medic. It was the Puffin 1976 edition, and I was 10. Because I was a precocious brat and could read to a high level very early on, I was let loose on the school library books while the other kids had to plough through the set texts. I saw this book (exactly this cover here – it’s burnt onto my retinas) and it must have called to me. After that, I started on the hard stuff – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, more Harry Harrison, Aldiss. I couldn’t get enough, and fortunately my mum was a queen bee in the local WI. She managed to ‘pre-sort’ the bookstall for anything with a spaceship or woman-in-improbable-armour on the front. As a consequence, I got to read some magnificently age-inappropriate books.

If I say everything I thought I knew about sex came from reading SF, would that be too much information?

You must have been at just about the perfect age when Star Wars came to your local cinema.Was it an event/influence and has film in general had an impact on your writing or even life?

 

Ah, Star Wars. I queued for round the block for that, and when I couldn’t get in for the first showing, me and my friend waited for the next one. The scrolly titles, the John Williams score, the thunderous bass, the massive space ship that just kept on coming. Han shooting first.

For a kid who’d grown up on slightly ropy special effects and stop-motion animation, it was a jaw-dropping spectacle. The story was simple, archetypal, epic. And in that way that it does, it became part of my cohort’s childhood, to be quoted endlessly and parodied affectionately. I haven’t seen the prequel trilogy. Neither do I want to. I can keep the memories clean and unsullied of the abominations that are Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians.

Films in general, I used to consume like sweeties. We used to pitch up to the local cinema for the cheap night pretty much every week. Then we had kids and it simply stopped. So I’ve seen all sorts, mainly from the mid eighties to the mid nineties, but thinking about it now, they’ve had a significantly lesser effect on my writing than the books I’ve read over the same period. I don’t know why that is. Obviously, being able to quote dialogue from Alien, Aliens, Terminator, The Princess Bride and Bladerunner has meant that Petrovitch always has something apposite to say, but affecting the plots of the stories I write? Not really.

What books were you reading at that time?

It was the summer I turned 11, so was about to go to Secondary school. That would mean I was binging on Clarke and Asimov. Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars, A Fall of Moondust, Rendezvous with Rama, The Foundation books, and the Robot stuff. I’m guessing that at least some of it went completely over my head – I remember rereading Childhood’s End much later and thinking that I’d missed an awful lot of nuance the first time around – but those books, which often simply dealt with technical problems and not complex emotional relationships between characters were perfect for me: galaxy-spanning empires? No problem. Treating other characters as if they weren’t automatons? More than I could cope with. I was precocious in my reading age and scientific understanding, but was seriously behind (and remained so for a long, long time) at my emotional development. I hope I’m a bit better at that sort of thing now.

What, no Pkd?

As you have just won the Philip K. Dick Award in the past week (as I write) I have to ask what it means to you and how it makes you feel?

As I said in my acceptance speech (ably read out on my behalf by Ellen Wright of Orbit), no one except those gripped by extreme hubris ever sets out to write an award-winning novel, let alone three. So to be merely considered for the award was an unexpected public reward for what was essentially a private pleasure: I wrote the Metrozone books because they were fun stories to tell. That they’ve gone on to find a wider audience is brilliant, and now having won the PKD award, I’m supposing that even more people will hear about them and perhaps give them a go. What it definitely does mean is that every single book I write from now on will have “Winner of the Philip K Dick award” slapped somewhere on the cover. What I’m hoping it means is that my publishers will allow me to go off-piste a little: there will be a Book 4 – “The Curve of the Earth” is already in the can, and I’m about to do the edits – and if that goes well enough, I’ll round the series off with 5 and 6. But there’s so much more I want to write that isn’t cyberpunk, but is still firmly in the genre.

As to how it makes me feel? I picked up the actual framed certificate from the couriers last week, and it’s sitting on my desk waiting to go on the wall somewhere. It’s there in black and white, and I still can’t quite believe it. William Gibson won that award for Neuromancer. Tim Powers. Geoff Ryman. Stephen Baxter. Gwyneth Jones. Michael Marshal Smith. Richard Morgan. And now me. No, definitely can’t believe it.

You are on death row, convicted of murder (wrongly) and will be hanged in the morning. What’s your last meal?

Part of me thinks I’d rather fast, which would clearly be my last protest at the injustice of it all. And let’s face it, it would be my last opportunity to lose some weight, which has crept up over the last few years and will now take some concerted effort to shift.

The other, less aesthetic part of me would be thinking “Curry!” I’d be pretty much good to go on anything that my local (The Last Days of the Raj, Low Fell) serves up as long as it came with peshwari naan, and I’d wash it down with some Cobra or Kingfisher. Take that, post-mortem bowel movements!

If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film director etc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single existing  piece of ‘art’ by someone else.

Gah. It’s an almost impossible question to answer. Art – great art – provokes an emotional response from the viewer. It makes us love it, cherish it, defend it. And of course, it’s an individual response: we don’t have an objective scale to measure art against. Culturally iconic art is also very parochial. How can we compare say, the Terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang with Tutankhamen’s funeral mask? Both serve a similar purpose, and yet rise naturally out of their specific cultures, redolent with meaning.

So given that, I’m going to pick something culturally relevant to me, an Englishman of part-Jewish heritage, living in the 21st century in North East England. I’m going for the Lindisfarne Gospels – yes, I know it’s a book, but the illuminations and the calligraphy elevate it from being a mere book to a work of unparalleled art that continues to fascinate and attract. It’s supposedly the work of a single man, Eadfrith, an 8th century bishop of Lindisfarne, who used quills and reeds, soots and soils and plants and gems, to create something that is transcendent. The detail is incredible, the construction techniques used to create the patterns and knots precise and mathematical, in a style unique to these islands. As an icon of artistic, cultural, religious, technological and ethnic significance, I can’t think of anything that can match it. 1300 years later, it isn’t just treasured, it’s fought over – we’d like it back from the British Library at some point, thank you very much. They lend it to us occasionally: the last time, 180,000 people turned out to see it. The colours and the script are as vibrant and exacting as the pictures of the pages suggest, but there’s something about the sheer physicality of the book itself. It’s treasure, and not just because it’s treasured.

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About Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife, two daughters, son, two dogs, one cat and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. In partnership with his wife he runs a successful retail business in Dublin city. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and he has had two plays performed on RTE and one on Anna Livia FM. He also presented a radio show on Anna Livia for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as several comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland.
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