Interview: Justina Robson
By Cheryl Morgan
21 April 2003
British authors are enjoying a certain amount of popularity right now, but for every China Miéville, Ken MacLeod or Al Reynolds powering into the U.S. publishing scene there are plenty more writers back in Britain waiting to be discovered by a wider market. One such writer is Justina Robson, whose latest novel, Natural History, is being published in the U.K. in April. She has been shortlisted for two Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and was awarded an Amazon.co.uk Bursary in 2000. This interview took place last year shortly before Justina gave birth to her first child.
Cheryl M. Morgan: Let's start with a bit of background. You know, the usual "who are you, where do you come from, and why are you writing science fiction?" thing.
Justina Robson: I come from Leeds, in the north of England, and I've been writing since I was six years old. There's not a lot more to say really. There have been other things in my life, but they have all been sidelined. I've had something of a one-track mind.
CMM: So, born wanting to be a science fiction writer perhaps? What inspired you to start writing at six?
JR: Well I started writing horror at six. I'd been given this book of children's ghost stories that I didn't find very frightening so I decided I could do better. How presumptuous.
CMM: And other stuff you have done since has been a means to an end.
JR: Yeah, even when I went to university I mostly saw it as something I was doing so that I could get some experiences that I could write about. That and studying subjects I found interesting.
CMM: What did you do at university?
JR: I did philosophy and linguistics. I had a stint at art college because I thought I might be able to do illustration and writing, but that didn't work out very well so I packed it in.
CMM: And philosophy and linguistics is good training for being a science fiction writer.
JR: Sure, why not?
CMM: Well it is good training for the sort of science fiction that I like to read, but I can imagine that people might be thinking that you should have studied physics or something like that.
JR: Science always scared me at school because my maths was never that good, so I got out of science quite early and then there was no way back. I did classics instead, because I went to quite a posh school where they did Greek and Latin, and I got into philosophy that way.
CMM: One of the other things you have done is be a yoga teacher.
JR: Yes. I didn't intend to be a yoga teacher, I intended to be a yoga student. So I started going to classes at my local leisure center, and I'd been studying yoga before from books. At that time I was a fitness instructor so I did have some experience of teaching. Then the class teacher left, and she said to me, "Why don't you take over? Otherwise the class will have to close," and there were a lot of students, so I did. I bought loads of books, studied ferociously and I've been doing it for about three years now.
CMM: I haven't seen a lot of it come through in the books yet.
JR: It is there in places. There's a bit in Mappa Mundi where one of the characters becomes one with the universe. That's sort of yoga-inspired, except for the fact that it's the end of him rather than a great spiritual transcendence! But I'm such a sceptic that I can't bring myself to go along with anything very mystical, even in yoga. Maybe that makes me atypical, but I think a lot of people in yoga at the moment, particularly in the West, are not following the whole philosophical and spiritual path.
CMM: For many people it is just a means to get fit that doesn't involve buying expensive machines or running through the streets in the rain.
JR: Yes, and there's quite a big debate in yoga as to whether that's good, bad, or indifferent, and we probably shouldn't get into that debate now.
CMM: The Leeds origins interest me. Your books do cover issues of industrialization, and you come from the north of England, which is the home of the Industrial Revolution, Luddism, and whatever.
JR: My mother in particular was very keen on that when I was younger. She'd take me round to look at old mills and that sort of thing. My parents are both scientists, both involved in textiles, particularly wool and silk and later, aramid fibers. They had a lot to say on the matter and I guess it rubbed off on me. Also, when I was growing up in the '70s, Leeds was a bit of an economic wasteland. It must have made an impression on me.
CMM: Let's move on to the books. Silver Screen is a book about an AI, but you also have this character, Anjuli, who has perfect recall, and she's always worrying whether she's a bit like a computer. It is like John Searle's Chinese Box problem. She's able to take information in, process it and recycle it in exams without ever having to understand any of it. That's the argument that Searle uses to try to demonstrate that computers are not intelligent.
JR: That was deliberate. I wasn't sure when I wrote the book whether it was possible for a human to have a memory like that, although I believe that some people have come close. I was trying to explore the question as to whether there was a difference between a human having that sort of ability and a machine. I wasn't sure of the answer, and I'm still not sure. But I think it is an interesting contrast. Especially as the AI is able to mimic being human so well that 99.9% of people don't notice.
CMM: If it talks like a human it must be a human?
JR: Sure, but then you get into a whole lot of other questions about what it means to be human.
CMM: And that's where the philosophy degree comes in?
JR: I was certainly using it as an opportunity to try out ideas. I got very frustrated doing philosophy at university because I felt that you were expected to accept the official line on everything. At the same time, if you wanted to get a good degree you were expected to start thinking for yourself, which was a bit difficult in the circumstances.
CMM: You are not a programmer yourself, but your husband, Richard, is. Did you use him as a source?
JR: I did. I could pick up quite a lot just listening to him and his friends talk about different issues. Of course nobody today is programming at the same sort of level that they do in science fiction books, but it is useful to have that technical perspective and understand just how difficult it is to create a set of instructions for even the simplest task.
CMM: Does it concern you at all not having the scientific background? I remember a review of Mappa Mundi in Foundation where the reviewer said it was obvious that you were making all the science up.
JR: I was so cross about that. Of course I made some of it up. It wouldn't be SF otherwise, it would be realism. But I think his problem was that I wasn't explaining how any of it worked, so he assumed that I hadn't done any research, that it was just some sort of thought experiment that wasn't going anywhere. What really annoys me is that I have drafts of that book in which it is all explained, and it's really long and boring, it jams the storyline.
In order to explain how it all works, you first have to decide where to start. In this case the poor layman doesn't have a great deal of knowledge of neuroscience or nanotechnology or biochemistry, so you end up thinking that you need to include an entire lecture series, and I don't want to do that in a novel.
CMM: Mappa Mundi, then, is about biotechnology, and specifically about programming the human brain. Is this something that you think is possible?
JR: I have to say that I think it probably is. Not now, but in the not too distant future, sadly it will be possible, to a much greater extent than we'd like to think. Hopefully not in my future, I don't think I'll live that long. But even today you look at the way the advertising industry works and you can see what they would like to be able to do. To a degree it's always been with us because we're a highly suggestible species.
CMM: One of the things I very much liked about the book is that most of the people involved in the research got into it with the best of intentions. Natalie is trying to find a cure for schizophrenia.
JR: A lot of things in science start out with the best of intentions. You can't pick and choose the applications. Once you have the power to do something, you do it. You might hope that some sort of government regulations will be brought in to make the world safe from greedy biotech companies, but unfortunately I've never really seen that happen.
CMM: That's probably a very European way of looking at it. Americans might be more worried about the government getting hold of the technology and doing evil things with it.
JR: The argument is the same regardless of whether you are talking about corporations or governments. Individuals are the only entities that can think, feel, and have morals. Groups act on each other in ways that are much more driven by the logic of group survival rather than individual preference and suffering. However, personally I think that if things go bad it is more likely to be a result of incompetence or misunderstanding than of malicious intent. There's quite a lot of incompetence in Mappa Mundi: people making stupid decisions and so on.
I guess I was trying to get across the real experience of doing science, or at least as I saw it from listening to my parents. There's an awful lot of doing the experiments, crunching the numbers, and not getting the sort of results you were expecting and which you needed to prove your thesis. (The world is full of bad science, especially thanks to the climate of political correctness in which certain questions have been unaskable and certain results grossly misinterpreted or ignored. I'm thinking about human biology and the nature, nurture thing).
CMM: It reminds me of my feeble attempts to do practical organic chemistry. By the end of it I was convinced that you needed green fingers. If you had good technique then everything would work, but if you didn't have good technique then you could put the same collection of chemicals together and get nothing.
JR: That's interesting, isn't it. As a non-scientist who believes in science I would tend to think that if you followed the recipe then it would work.
CMM: I also remember Delia Smith [a famous British TV chef] once saying that making pastry is entirely mental. If you believe it will come out OK then it will, but if you are worried about it then it will be a disaster.
JR: I've just been reading a book by Raj Persaud who is a psychologist working in the U.K. It is called Staying Sane, and it is about preventative maintenance of your mental health, as opposed to doing things for people whose mental health has already seriously deteriorated. He says that although it is irrational to think that everything good that happens to you is a result of your good efforts, and everything bad that happens is a result of unfortunate circumstances, people who take that attitude to life are provably having a better life, more success, more luck, and everything else.
CMM: I've noticed that your heroines do seem to be rather dysfunctional. Anjuli has continual crises of confidence and has comfort eating binges. Natalie suffered badly from depression in her teens.
JR: Those are both things that have been strong features in my family on the female side. They are things that I have wanted to write about, probably for cathartic reasons. I wanted to be able to write about those issues and have a relatively positive outcome. It hasn't been terribly positive in my family, so maybe I've been trying to rewrite history. But also you get so many books with these wonderfully competent and self-confident heroes, and I can't really identify with that sort of person.
CMM: Do you think that women writers are more likely to have self-doubting heroines while men go for the strong, confident types?
JR: I think there is a difference, but I've had this discussion with a lot of people and I'm still not sure whether there is a biological cause or if it is just cultural. In my experience the women I know seem to be more neurotic than the men, but I emphasize the "seem to be" because the women are more prepared to talk about such things whereas men just hide it all. And of course that's a gross generalization.
CMM: A lot of male science fiction writers are now doing books with lead female characters, but most of those are feisty and sexy and confident.
JR: That's a male fantasy, isn't it. "If I were a woman, I'd be like this." I have no objection to being like that, but I often wonder if, when I write male characters, I write what I'd be like if I were a man. If I inject them with too much thinking before they act or worrying about the consequences, whereas in practice they'd just plough ahead.
CMM: But maybe they're more like real men than the men that male authors write about.
JR: I guess if you are trying to write a fun, action-filled book then you want to have a very confident, capable hero. But I prefer to write books about people who seem more real to me.
CMM: Another thing that strikes me about your books is that the politics is realistic. A lot of books have very sketchy politics and everything turns out right in the end. Whereas, as you say, a lot of what goes wrong is a result of incompetence.
JR: I've based it on watching people I know, mainly in local government. In my experience, most of these people start out trying to do something good. But the way that governmental and bureaucratic processes work is so complicated that, by the time you get to the end, the result is nothing like what you had planned because of all the compromises you have had to make along the way.
I've always been baffled by the reality of politics. It is so different from the SF that I read when I was young, in which governments were right and you would grow up to understand it, even if it didn't look right from where you were. Back then I thought that as I got older I would understand things better and be more capable. But in my experience the more I have become an adult, the more I understand people and their behavior, the less sense any of it makes. In some ways I'm very disappointed, but that's all a result of my thinking that we would grow up to live in this lovely land of Progress.
CMM: The idea of Progress is still very powerful. Brian Stableford, for example, does it very well. He shows how things can get better, even if there are a few problems along the way. Even at the end of Mappa Mundi, when the technology is loosed, it isn't necessarily a disaster. We may end up being able to program our brains, and the society we get out of it at the end may be very different, but it may be better in some ways than what we have now. The ending is very ambiguous.
JR: It is. It is down to you, the reader, as to what you want to make of it. Is the new situation better than what we have now, is it worse, or is it no different? I sometimes change my view of the ending, and to some extent it comes down to the question of, "are the slaves happy if they don't know that they are slaves?"
CMM: It is a question that we ask more broadly in the genre. For example there are all these fantasy books about a romanticized version of the Middle Ages.
JR: And that's a very false view of what the Middle Ages was like. Just like it is a false view to think that things were better in the Stone Age when we were just hunters and gatherers.
CMM: But do we really know if people were happier then?
JR: We don't. I don't think we have evolved over the past 10,000 years, maybe longer than that, 60,000 years. We like to think that we have because we are soaked in the idea of Progress and we believe that the trappings of civilization have made us more sophisticated. I used to think that we had evolved mentally, but now I'm starting to doubt it.
CMM: Do you think that if we lived in a society we had evolved into rather than one we had created with our brains we might be happier?
JR: Ooh, look at all of the examples of societies that people have invented. No, there's no way out. I've had this discussion with China [Miéville] in which he says that Socialism would mean a much better society if only people would just do their bit. It would, but I think he has a very optimistic view of human nature. I don't believe human nature leans that way (I'm with E.O. Wilson on this one, who said of Marxism "Wonderful theory, wrong species") and so I find it hard to believe in any kind of future in which that sort of society might exist.
Wait, I realise that I haven't answered your question. We HAVE evolved into our present set of cultures and societies. They're all amalgams of our inclinations, our biological imperatives and our intellectual abstractions, no matter what they are. I don't think you can divide them up as easily as that although the more powerful logically derived social theories do seem to come out of the ether somewhat. I'm very sad that historical attempts to impose the logic of equality from the top down have caused such enormous suffering and so I tend to fight shy of them. The crimes were in the implementation, rather than the ideas themselves however. I think we need to understand our natures more comprehensively before we start down the fatal paths of perfectibility. So far we've projected our beliefs onto ourselves, rather than looking honestly at what we really are.
Society is beyond anybody's individual control, although of course if enough individuals mass together -- but that's a fluid dynamics situation and it can't be applied to individuals. And I think Mappa Mundi is about my sense of exasperation at my own inability to make things happen. We always talk about these things retrospectively, as if it was all planned, as if we decided to make our societies Capitalist or Socialist, but I don't think it was like that at all. I think we are constantly dealing with memetic and biological forces that are beyond our ability to control, and maybe even beyond our comprehension. You're kidding yourself if you think you know what is really going on.
CMM: Can we talk about your career a little. You won this prize with Zadie Smith?
JR: Zadie Smith didn't win the prize. You got that from that review in Foundation. Zadie Smith was on the judging panel, along with two other people. (She's won better prizes!)
CMM: And the award was?
JR: The Amazon.co.uk Writer's Bursary, which was for people who had written their first novel and were under contract for a second novel. They drew from all areas of fiction, and I won it, along with James Flint, whose novel [Habitus], although it has some science fiction undertones, was more mainstream.
CMM: That's a success for science fiction then?
JR: I think so. I never thought I would win. I almost didn't apply, but I did so out of a sense of "why shouldn't I apply? I might be a science fiction author and they'll never take any notice of me, but I have a right to apply anyway." But they did notice me. And I'm pleased to say that with everyone I have met in association with the prize I have never experienced a twinge of bias against science fiction. Indeed, everyone has been very interested in what I do. Now they are the younger members of the literary establishment, as it were, and that may be significant.
CMM: Is it because they see that what you are doing is politically relevant rather than escapism?
JR: I have no idea. I talked to them about science fiction, and they seemed interested in it, though I don't know how much of it they actually read. But we have all these discussions in the genre about how terrible it is that we are not taken seriously, and I'm not sure that it is true.
CMM: I think it is more a case that we don't get reviewed in the mainstream media the way that, say, crime fiction or even romance fiction is.
JR: Yes, and that's an issue, but I have had a review in the Saturday Telegraph, which is a major broadsheet, so that's a step forward.
CMM: Still with awards, both of your novels have been short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain's premier SF prize. I believe that a 100% record in Clarke nominations is unique, so you have really burst onto the scene with a bang, and it is especially notable given how tough the competition is these days. I guess that must be both heart-warming and scary.
JR: Ah, yes. The first time it happened I almost stalled out completely on Mappa Mundi (with fear). The second time I was even more surprised. It's a privilege to get listed alongside such great names. I don't think about it much, to be honest. Only when the list comes out. And at the ceremony of course. One day I hope to break Stephen Baxter's bridesmaid record. . .
CMM: So where do we go from here? What new books do you have in the pipeline?
JR: The next book is called Natural History. It follows on in theme if not in style from the other two. It is a bit more of an adventure story, not nearly as complicated as Mappa Mundi. In the world of Natural History, people haven't gone into space in ships because it proved too dangerous and uneconomic. But somehow through biotechnology they found a way to transform humans into creatures that can thrive in a space environment.
CMM: It sounds a bit like space opera.
JR: It is, and it was a lot more fun to write. It is a lot less soul-wrenching and hair-ripping than the others. It has a lighter tone, I think, but it still has some of the same old undercurrents. The main question is whether you are locked into your physical identity because of your physical form. Whether you can still possess a human identity if you are some sort of radically different gigantic cyborg type of creature that lives among the stars. The book is due out next spring.
CMM: You have another major production, of course, that could interfere with things.
JR: Ah yes, children.
CMM: So can we expect to see books about motherhood, then?
JR: [mock despairingly] Oh my God!
In Britain there has recently been a rash of books about what it is like being a mother and can you have it all. I'm going to steer well clear of anything like that.
CMM: So no books about being a Domestic Goddess.
JR: No, definitely not. But there might be a book that has some bearing on it. And it might be a follow-on to Natural History. An examination of how people first came to create these beings that were capable of surviving in space, and whether they regarded them as children or not. After all, you might as well make use of any experiences that come your way.
CMM: Any sign of American publication?
JR: My agent occasionally reports whispers of interest, but there's nothing definite yet.
CMM: Justina Robson, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.
Copyright © 2003 Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan's native habitat is the U.K., but the species has also been found in Australia and California. Naturalists belive that the species is migratory and that it follows the publication patterns of science fiction novels. Ms. Morgan is also the editor of the Hugo-nominated online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City and is an occasional reviewer for Foundation.