Interview: Stephen Baxter
By James Palmer
18 April 2005
Stephen Baxter is the author of the novels Flux, Anti-Ice, Timelike Infinity, Ring, and the Manifold trilogy of books. He has also collaborated with Sir Arthur C. Clarke on the novels The Light of Other Days and Time's Eye. He was born in Liverpool, England, in 1957, and holds a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University and one in engineering from Southampton University. His novels have won several awards, including the Philip K. Dick Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the Japanese Seiun Award. Several of his works have also been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as well as the Hugo and Locus awards. Mr. Baxter has also written over 100 short stories.
James Palmer: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Stephen Baxter: I grew up a fan of written and TV sf, but when I read Asimov's Nightfall collection as a young teenager I connected with his autobiographical notes. Here was somebody like me producing this wonderful stuff. So I started writing then, or trying.
JP: What are you currently reading?
SB: A lot of my reading is directed, for research on the current project. I'm working on a book about Roman Britain, so I'm reading a heavyweight Companion to Roman Britain. Heavy but fascinating.
JP: What writers have influenced you?
SB: Clarke is obvious. I always loved the big cosmic sweep. Asimov, Niven, and Sheckley for their prose, deceptively straightforward; I studied their short stories especially trying to learn how to do it. My favorite author in my late teens, before he was fashionable, was Dick; I think I write about Dick characters, with doggedness and endurance, in Clarke universes.
JP: What's it like being first compared to, then working with, Arthur C. Clarke?
SB: Overwhelming, but an instructive example. Sir Arthur is very generous to young wannabes like me, and, even in his 80s, isn't resting on his laurels, always focused on new ideas, the latest project.
JP: How did you get started collaborating with him?
SB: He was very kind with quotes on some of my early novels. I interviewed him for a genre magazine, and I came up with a short story idea as a sequel of one of his early works, eventually published in Playboy. We went from there.
JP: How has he been doing since the recent tragic tsunami?
SB: In his own words: "I am enormously relieved that my family and household have escaped the ravages of the sea that suddenly invaded most parts of coastal Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of destruction." Read it all at The Clarke Foundation website.
JP: The first book of yours that I read was The Time Ships, which was billed as the official sequel to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. Did you have to get permission from the Wells estate to write this book? What did they think of the result?
SB: Yes, the Wells works are still in copyright. They liked the book, calling it a "homage." Some quotes from their lawyers were so good I said the publishers should put them on the cover!
JP: In the Manifold books, you were very critical of NASA. Do you have specific problems with their policies, or are politics the problem?
SB: I'd laud NASA's achievements. The unmanned program is a stunning success, and with the Shuttle they've delivered a huge bank of experience in space. They lost focus on exploration as a goal for astronauts though—not their fault; the post-Apollo years were not a good climate. I think the new Bush plan, if delivered, is a good way to go.
JP: Do you think we will become a spacefaring race? What will happen to us if we don't?
SB: I think we must. We can use space to do all the dirty stuff—energy generation, mining—that is currently disfiguring Earth, while leaving the planet to do what it's good at, hosting the only biosphere we know of. That way we can enjoy a growing civilization without ruining Earth. The alternative could be awful; societies have collapsed before—see Collapse by Jared Diamond.
JP: In the Manifold books, you run through different scenarios involving the Fermi Paradox, which states that if there are other intelligent beings in the universe, we would see evidence of their existence. Do you think there is other intelligence out there? Do you think we would be able to recognize them as intelligent?
SB: Manifold explores different answers to these questions. My gut feeling is that it's absurd to imagine the universe is empty of mind save for us. But we've been looking hard, and we can be pretty sure there is no civilization like us this side of the Galaxy's core. So I think "they" are out there but will be very strange indeed, perhaps with supremely different goals to us.
JP: You've come up with some great workable nonorganic life forms in your books, the glass flowers on the Moon in Manifold: Space being but one example. Do you find it probable that the universe is teeming with non-carbon- or silicon-based life?
SB: Maybe not silicon; carbon is better on a world like Earth. But there are surely plenty of strange arenas for life—anywhere energy flows—see the star-center creatures in my novel Flux, for instance.
JP: How do you come up with your ideas? Do you think of a question you want to answer? A problem you want to solve?
SB: I look for interesting ideas, usually small details, from anywhere—science, history, biography. From an interesting angle a story grows.
JP: Your background is in mathematics, but in Manifold: Origin and Evolution you get into the nitty-gritty of evolution and delve into the daily lives of creatures long extinct, and a few who probably never existed. How much research did you do, especially for Evolution?
SB: A lot. I read extensively, went to a conference on human evolution, checked the manuscript with evolutionary biologists. I'm sure the result is shaped by my background. I'm biased in favor of "physical" interpretations, about the energy a hominid needed to find, say, rather than vague speculations about her "intention." But a background in SF is surely a good base for trying to imagine these alien intelligences.
JP: You've mentioned before that Reid Malenfant, your protagonist in the Manifold books, has a strong fan following. What do you think it is about him that everyone identifies with?
SB: He's a Dick character, I think as I mentioned before; he cares about those around him and he keeps on going in fractured universes. But he thinks he's a Heinlein character, a Competent Man. So he's complicated and sympathetic.
JP: What do you say to critics who say that hard SF lacks good characterization?
SB: The universe is an active character in a hard SF story. That's what makes hard SF unique. Like the Greek myths where the gods are active, that crowds out humanity a bit. But the stories that work always have sympathetic characters at heart.