Interview: Brian Stableford
By Cheryl Morgan
12 March 2001
Brian Stableford is one of Britain's most prolific and respected science fiction authors. He began writing at the age of 9, made his first professional sale in 1965 at the age of 16, and has written and edited over 70 books. Yet it is only now, with the publication of a major series of his by Tor, that Brian is starting to get the international recognition that he deserves. A trained biologist and sociologist, Brian often produces visions of the future that are at odds with the current popular hysteria about biotechnology. However, his speculations are always thoughtful, and always centred on achieving a future that is beneficial to mankind.
This interview took place at Brian's home in Reading, England; his house appears to contain more books than the average public library. Almost all of them are SF and fantasy related, and many are ancient examples of the genre with fascinating titles such as New York to Brest in Seven Hours (a story about a trans-Atlantic tunnel) and Through the Sun in an Airship. There is no one I know who is better read in the genre than Brian.
Cheryl Morgan: The future history used in your current series comes from a book you wrote in collaboration with Dave Langford, The Third Millennium: A History of the World, A.D. 2000-3000. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Brian Stableford: It dates back to the Golden Age of British book packaging, when London was briefly full of entrepreneurs thinking up spiffing ideas for illustrated books, for which they would draw up glossy proposals that they could hawk to publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair. If the ideas sold the packagers would then commission some hack writer to produce the texts. In 1983 several of these packagers were simultaneously seized with the notion that 1984 would be an extremely propitious year for futurology books. One can, of course, only speculate as to whether George Orwell would have appreciated the compliment. I was approached by David Reynolds of Shuckburgh-Reynolds, who wanted to put together a proposal for an illustrated "history book" written from a future perspective. He proposed that it should cover the next hundred years but I suggested that it might be more interesting to examine the next thousand.
CM: How did Dave Langford get involved?
BS: One of the potential publishers complained that I did not have the educational background to cover the future of the physical sciences as well as the social and biological sciences, so Dave was co-opted onto the project.
CM: What does the Stableford-Langford future look like?
BS: Dave and I decided at the outset that we would be as optimistic as we possibly could. We agreed that a near-future eco-catastrophe was inevitable and near-future wars fought with both atomic and biological weapons highly likely. However, we felt that it was possible to imagine a situation emerging from those disasters in which the necessity of global ecological management would be recognised and secured, with permanent peace as one of its corollaries. The argument we invoked to make this case was that sophisticated techniques of genetic engineering would make large-scale ecological management feasible, while facilitating such a dramatic expansion of the human lifespan as to make long-term planning an existential necessity.
CM: So you are arguing that humans will be more likely to take good care of the planet if they live long enough to suffer the consequences of their actions. That's very interesting, how did the idea go down?
BS: Unfortunately, David Reynolds cut about 25,000 words from the original typescript, carefully removing everything that bore the faintest resemblance to an explanation, and then demanded that Dave supply 23 extra "jokes" to pad out the wordage and make it more reader-friendly.
CM: Ah yes, Dave being the man who was brought in to provide the high quality physical science expertise. Of course. I can imagine that you were not best pleased.
BS: <sigh> I suppose that my subsequent career might be regarded as an absurdly stubborn and essentially quixotic quest to find a means of placing on record the key points that we were trying to make in those murdered explanations.
CM: But Third Millennium came out in the mid 1980s. Why has it taken so long to get these ideas into print?
BS: I'd abandoned fiction writing in 1981, after delivering the last item I was contracted to do when I got tenure in my academic job (lecturing in Sociology at Reading University). I had decided to concentrate, at least for a while, on my academic career, although I continued doing commercial non-fiction for reference books and mock-reference coffee-table books produced by packagers. As things turned out, only one of the three academic books I wrote actually appeared, and the publisher of that one pulled the plug on the fourth when the U.S. co-publisher pulled out. So I gave up and went back to fiction.
CM: And that was when?
BS: The first new story I produced, in 1986, was . . .And He Not Busy Being Born, a mock-biography cast in the mould of such "sleeper wakes" utopias as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887 . Its middle section includes a synopsis of the future history mapped out in The Third Millennium. I liked the story a lot -- it renewed my hope that I might actually be able to write some worthwhile SF. I produced several more ironic mock-biographical accounts of the trials and tribulations of future genetic engineers, including the first version of a novella, Mortimer Gray's History of Death, which interwove a history of humankind which extended from the neolithic to the end of the third millennium with a centuries-long biography of its emortal author's youth. ["Emortal" is a term that Brian has coined to describe someone with an artificially extended lifespan. -- CM] That first version was, however, far too unconventional to sell as an item of fiction, and I knew that I'd have to rethink my strategy if I intended to continue mining that particular vein.
CM: What did that rethinking involve?
BS: I was very reluctant to try to explore the future of biotechnology using such conventional story formats as the thriller, for reasons I've since set out in a series of articles lamenting the moral and logical fatuity of equipping serious science fiction stories with the normalising and conventionally improving endings standardised by other genres of popular fiction (see, in particular, "How Should a Science Fiction Story End?", published in The New York Review of Science Fiction in 1995). I concluded that the only way to use conventional story forms to present future biotechnology in a favourable light, and to sugarcoat the explanations necessary to focus that favourable light, was to make them obviously caricatural -- not satirical, except insofar as muddleheaded opposition to biotechnology could be swingeingly assaulted, but blithely ironic.
CM: That doesn't sound too commercial either.
BS: Not instantly, no. I began work late in 1986 on the novel that later became Architects of Emortality (it was originally called Les Fleurs du Mal). The novel is a bizarre comedy set in a world of genetically engineered emortals. It is cast in the form of a detective story with the murder weapons being specially designed flowers. The book was first submitted to publishers as an outline-and-sample in 1987, but failed to sell even though the U.K. publishing industry was then experiencing the most recent of its rare booms.
CM: So you turned to other work?
BS: Yes. Publishers were hungry to acquire books with more obvious sales appeal, and I accepted a commission to write a novel based on one of the few short stories that I had written back in 1986. It was an alternative history story called The Man Who Loved the Vampire Lady, in which vampires rule the world until the scientific method paves the way for a new understanding of their nature. The commercial success of that novel, The Empire of Fear, coupled with some unusually lucrative work writing tie-in fiction for Games Workshop, allowed me to quit my academic job in 1988 and become a full-time writer.
CM: Did that give you time to get back to the Third Millennium project?
BS: I still had no success with my novel ideas, but I did sell three cut-down novella-sized versions of the stories. These were Les Fleurs du Mal, Inherit the Earth , and Mortimer Gray's History of Death. Les Fleurs du Mal received a Hugo nomination in 1995 and Mortimer Gray was nominated for a Nebula in the same year. This renewed my hope that I could do something substantial with an appropriately updated version of the future history of The Third Millennium.
CM: The success of the novellas gave you a better platform from which to sell the novels?
BS: Yes. I put together an outline for a six-novel series that would include novel-length expansions of the three novellas, a novelette called The Magic Bullet, and another aborted novel called Dark Ararat, the whole enterprise being "framed" by a climactic novel based on . . .And He Not Busy Being Born. The proposal was rejected by every publisher of SF in the U.K. However, David Hartwell of Tor agreed to test the water by commissioning one book at a time. He decided to begin with Inherit the Earth, partly because of its relatively close and fairly earnest imitation of a conventional thriller format and partly because of its previous exposure in Analog. He continued to commission the books one or two at a time. I continued to play safe by issuing the other volumes based on pre-existent novellas -- Architects of Emortality and The Fountains of Youth (based on Mortimer Gray) -- before going back to the beginning within The Cassandra Complex (based on The Magic Bullet), which is just out from Tor.
CM: You mentioned six novels. Can you tell us about the others?
BS: Dark Ararat provides a much fuller account of a key incident in the future history, which is briefly summarised in The Fountains of Youth. It concerns the arrival on Earth in the mid-29th century of news from Hope, a generation starship launched from the inner solar system in the late 21st century. The novel describes the exotic biology of the new world and the first contact made by Hope's would-be colonists with its intelligent humanoid indigenes.
BS: The Omega Expedition uses a revised version of . . .And He Not Busy Being Born as a frame narrative. Ostensibly it is a thriller involving the revival of some characters from the previous books, as well as a few living persons, including Mortimer Gray. These characters and a few others are kidnapped, apparently by space pirates, but the thriller element is, as usual, a hollow sham. The point of the narrative is to explore the several different kinds of emortality that have now become available, from the viewpoint of a small company of mortals who have to choose what kind of post-human condition would suit them best. Dark Ararat is tied in because one of the items on the menu is based on an extrapolation of the exotic biology of Hope's new world, and The Cassandra Complex is echoed by a further extrapolation of the kind of flawed emortality discovered in that book by Morgan Miller, so all the various threads of the series will be tied together.
CM: Part of the future history involves scientists acting independently to save mankind from itself, doing things that governments would never dare do. Is that something you think would be a good thing, or will happen anyway, or what?
BS: Having scientists act independently is inherently more dramatic than following government initiatives through various phases of implementation, so I tend to favour independent action on dramatic grounds. I tend to assume that governments will become less relevant in the future as big corporations acquire all the real power, but it would be nice to think that heroic mavericks might still be able to make an impact.
CM: One of the central characters in Architects of Emortality bases himself on the historical Oscar Wilde. You are living here in Reading, the scene of Wilde's famous incarceration. Do you have a particular interest in Wilde and his work?
BS: I'm very interested in the Decadent movements in France and England, and in their aesthetic theories. I've always been a great admirer of Wilde's essay regretting "The Decay of Lying," and I've always hoped that a more relaxed society of the future would be able to recover some of the doctrines associated with the Decadent movements: the notion of art for art's sake, the enthusiasm for alternative lifestyle fantasies, and so on.
CM: Are all the French authors you refer to in Architects of Emortality part of that movement as well?
BS: Baudelaire was the chief inspiration of the Decadent movement, although it began 25 years after his death. The first "manifesto" of the movement was the introduction provided by Theophile Gautier for the third edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (the Baudelaire original, not my novel), although others were quickly provided by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Rémy de Gourmont and Stéphane Mallarmé. I have translated a good deal of relevant material for the two Dedalus Books of Decadence I edited in the early 90s. The same publisher issued Jean Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas and Rémy de Gourmont's Angels of Perversity, which I translated under the pseudonym Francis Amery.
CM: Is there any of that work which would be of particular interest to science fiction or fantasy readers?
BS: Many of the items in the Gourmont collection are fantasy, as are a few of the items in the Books of Decadence, including James Elroy Flecker's futuristic account of The Last Generation, but fantasy fans would probably find the translations of Paul Féval's vampire novels that I've been doing for Sarob Press more central to their interests.
CM: A central theme of both Architects of Emortality and Fountains of Youth is that as mankind starts to live longer we tend to take fewer risks. Some of your heroes are there to inject a little more excitement into the world. Is that something you already see happening today?
BS: To some extent, yes. As the possibility of living a comfortable and protected existence increases, people tend to adapt themselves to that expectation. The future history stories assume that when nanotechnological aids to self-repair and pain control become available there will be a phase in which people become more reckless, some of them addicted to extreme sports, but that on Earth the majority will gradually settle for a more sedentary, risk-free existence. In the meantime, the gradual colonisation of the solar system provides a new frontier that will inevitably attract the more adventurous souls; a process of selection that will leave the stay-at-homes even more set in their ways (until the Yellowstone supervolcano blows up).
CM: Not to mention a brief fashion for suicide as an art form, as I remember. Nevertheless, the earthbound still seem to be quite willing to make major changes to the planet. They don't seem to be obsessed with keeping things the way they are, as many people today are.
BS: The series assumes that much of the change will be cosmetic -- there are references to a "Garden Earth" philosophy which sees the ecosphere as a glorified suburban garden -- although some of it is defensive work by "continental engineers" made anxious by the Coral Sea disaster (defensive work which eventually fails).
CM: Knowing you, the Third Millennium series isn't all that you are working on. What else do you have scheduled to appear in 2001?
BS: Knightshade, my translation of Paul Féval's Le Chevalier Ténèbre, will be out from Sarob Press in the summer. It's the shortest of the three feuilletons he wrote which use vampirism as a motif. It's also a crime story of sorts, although its real theme is the art and craft of story-telling. The Sarob edition of Vampire City did well -- it won the Dracula Society's "Children of the Night" award for best novel of 1999, which I was glad to accept on Paul Féval's behalf, and is now out of print. I hope to complete the set by delivering a translation of La Vampire some time this year.
CM: Anything else?
BS: The print-on-demand publisher Cosmos Books will be issuing a number of my books, although I'm not sure of the exact timetable. The first will be a fantasy novel called The Eleventh Hour, which has always been one of my favourites, although the commercial publishers felt that it fell between the two stools of juvenile and adult fantasy. That should be available very soon; I've corrected the proofs. Cosmos will also do a couple of story collections and The Gateway of Eternity, a portmanteau novel whose three elements were published in abridged form as novellas in Interzone.
CM: That should keep you busy.
BS: Another small press print-on-demand publisher called Big Engine, which is the brainchild of my fellow Interzone author Ben Jeapes, plans to issue an omnibus volume of the six Hooded Swan novels that kicked off my writing career in the 1970s. That will probably be out in the summer. Games Workshop's "Black Library" should be issuing Pawns of Chaos, by my alter ego Brian Craig, in April.
CM: Brian Stableford, thank you for finding the time to talk to Strange Horizons.
Cheryl Morgan is the editor of the online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City.
More on Brian Stableford:
Brian Stableford's home page at the British Fantasy Society.
A comprehensive Web site devoted to the work of Brian Stableford.