Monday, January 26, 2009

Interview with Stephen Baxter - Interviews (SD #58)

Stephen Baxter
is one of the most acclaimed names in British science fiction, and a man deeply immersed in the traditions and history of both the science and the fiction. He's vice president of the the H.G. Wells society in England (he also wrote a sequel to the legendary Wells' novel The Time Machine). He's been a close friend to the late Arthur Clarke (with whom he co-authored the Time Odyssey series) and is one of the increasingly dwindling in number writers of so-called "hard" science fiction. Mr. Baxter teaches physics and mathematics and often participates in British and international scientific projects as a consultant. He kindly agreed to do this interview for his Bulgarian readers who've recently had the possibility to enjoy many of his works.

ShadowDance: Your books are especially valuable for their scientific background. Where do your ideas come from ­– unsolved questions, posed in modern science, for which you seek answers; or mankind's imagination on which you can elaborate thanks to your knowledge of science?

Stephen Baxter: I have a background in science myself. I've always been interested most in hard sf, which draws ideas from science. I try to keep up with new developments, and I get involved in science-based projects too. I have worked on study projects with the British Interplanetary Society and am on an advisory committee regarding the search for aliens. So my ideas come from interesting stuff in all this mix, especially the fringe questions: what is the far future of the universe; why don't we see aliens all around us?

SD: In your works you describe different epochs of humanity's lifespan – ranging from the far future, to the current times and then to our past and evolution. Which of these periods was the hardest to write about? What ignited your interest in humanity's ancient past? It's a somewhat unusual topic among sci-fi writers.

SB: I became interested in our past when I learned how recently the other hominids died out - Neanderthals maybe 30,000 years ago, maybe some species like those in Indonesia more recently. So we evolved in a landscape full of other kinds of hominids. Now they're all gone and we're alone – which is unusual; there are many species of dolphin, whale, etc. I have developed an idea that we long for the Other - God, or the alien – because we're lonely, and we don't know why. So it's valid stuff to write about in science fiction.

SD: One of your most acclaimed books is The Time Ships, written as a sequel to the famous H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. What inspired you to write this novel – the challenge to stand up to Wells' work, your love for the original book or maybe simply liking time-travel stories? The critics and the fans consider the experiment very successful. Do you?

SB: It was a love of the original book, which ended on a cliffhanger when the traveller went off into time for the second time. What happened to him? And also at the time I wanted to write a big history-changing novel, and thought that Wells's story could be a good starting point. Since then I've learned much more about Wells, and am now in fact a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. So yes, it was a successful experiment.

SD: Sadly, Sir Arthur Clarke, one of the greatest names in the genre, left us this spring. You've had the chance to work with him on the Time Odyssey series that were recently also published in Bulgaria. What was the feeling for you, working with him? Did you learn something valuable, did you maybe manage to teach something?

SB: I first met Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1992, when my first novel Raft was nominated for the Clarke Award, for the best novel published in the UK. My publishers sent Arthur copies of my next few novels, and Arthur was particularly taken by The Time Ships (1995), my sequel to Well's The Time Machine. In a way this was our first meeting of minds. He responded with a kind blurb, and with correspondence: he sent me a copy of the H.G. Wells Society's magazine, and even a little collectors' postcard of Wells himself. That was how my name entered the frame a couple of years later when Arthur was looking for a new collaborator for the book which became The Light of Other Days (2000). Starting from a fairly open-ended outline by Arthur, we kicked around ideas and outlines for some months before getting down to work, corresponding by email and phone. Collaborating on a book, he would call, full of ideas, when it was convenient for him in Sri Lanka, sometimes at five in the morning UK time: "This is Arthur, over and out!" It was a joy and a privilege to work with a man who had such a profound influence on my life.

SD: Which period of sci-fi's history do you consider the most successful and important – the Golden Age (the 40's & 50's), the New Wave, the 80's cyberpunk, contemporary fiction? Or any other?

SB: I think possibly the end of the nineteenth century was extremely important. Writers like Verne, Wells and Lasswitz set out the basics of modern science fiction. The American pulp movement was important, but began with reprints of Verne and Wells. But in terms of success I think today's writers are producing work as good as it's ever been. Just in Britain we have fantastic writers like Ian McDonald and Paul McAuley producing work that couldn't have been written 20 years ago. So maybe today is the best.

SD: Are you familiar with the works of East European sci-fi authors, such as Lem or the brothers Strugatski? What is your opinion about them?

SB: Lem, yes. As a kid I loved such pieces as the Prix the Pilot stories. And later I was profoundly moved by Solaris, the novel. I've always thought there should be more translation between the languages. But then, a lack of translation means that different cultures have grown up in different regions. East European / Russian fiction seems to have a deeper, mystic feel than some American works.
SD: Do you wish to share something with your Bulgarian readers?

SB: I believe my Manifold series is available in Bulgaria. This series is about one of the deepest questions we face, I think: the Fermi Paradox. If aliens exist, some of them should have spread across the galaxy, and we should see them. Why don't we? Maybe we're alone, maybe they're hiding, maybe it's a dangerous universe where you can't travel. I think with new radio astronomy techniques and the new planet-finding telescopes we will soon have much more information about life in the universe, and may have an answer to the question by, say, the end of this century.

Thank you!

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