Neal Asher dis­cusses Polity and pol­i­tics.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Words by Jona than Wright Por­trait by will i re­lan d

For much of the year, Neal Asher lives in the moun­tains of Crete, a place where “food and drink are rel­a­tively cheap, the tem­per­a­ture can climb into the 40s and the light is in­tense.” In the gar­den, he grows chili pep­pers and “all sorts of weird and won­der­ful flow­ers and fruits.” There’s no in­ter­net con­nec­tion. In 2014, though, the rhythm of Asher’s life, both on and off the is­land, changed ir­re­vo­ca­bly. “My wife died of bowel can­cer last Jan­uary,” he says. “I spent a lot of time walk­ing in the moun­tains, and swim­ming and kayak­ing in the Libyan Sea. This was mostly to try and hold de­pres­sion at bay. I have strug­gled to write, and to care about much at all.” Caro­line Asher was just 54 years old.

But you have to find a way to carry on. Asher has kept work­ing, and this month brings the first novel in a new tril­ogy set in his Polity uni­verse, Dark In­tel­li­gence. At its cen­tre lies a danger­ous rogue AI named Penny Royal, which pre­vi­ously showed up in the short story “Alien Ar­chae­ol­ogy” and the novel The Tech­ni­cian. “My read­ers rather liked that cre­ation, and I like it too,” says Asher. Plus, hav­ing writ­ten a dystopian tril­ogy, the “Owner” se­quence that be­gan with The De­par­ture ( 2011), he wanted to “re­turn to the Polity and do some­thing sprawl­ing ”.

It’s a novel in which char­ac­ters un­dergo star­tling and of­ten ter­ri­ble phys­i­cal changes ( see our re­view on page 110). Along with im­mor­tal­ity, the theme of trans­for­ma­tion is one Asher says has been present in his work from the off – early short story “Spat­ter­jay”, for in­stance, fea­tured an “im­mor­tal­ity- im­part­ing virus, spread by the bite of a leech.”

Dark In­tel­li­gence is also a book where many of the scenes have a vis­ceral power. “My de­sire is to en­ter­tain and the hor­ror el­e­ments, and the vi­o­lence – the con­flict – are a large part of that,” says Asher. “Sim­ply flick through the pages of SFX and point to a book, film or game that doesn’t con­tain them. I think you’ll find that dif­fi­cult. I guess my prob­lem de­vel­oped from when, from a book about writ­ing, I read that there should be con­flict on ev­ery page. I thought that meant ex­plod­ing space­ships…”

As a nov­el­ist, Asher was a rel­a­tively late starter. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school, be­yond get some money in my pocket and go down the pub,” he says. “I did, how­ever, have many in­ter­ests: bi­ol­ogy, also specif­i­cally my­col­ogy, chem­istry, elec­tron­ics, physics, paint­ing and sculp­ture. I used to flit from one in­ter­est to an­other but not achieve much be­yond learn­ing a lit­tle more.”

In his mid- 20s, he says, he re­alised “that writ­ing was some­thing that could in­cor­po­rate all my other in­ter­ests and only then did I re­ally fo­cus on it com­pletely.” Grad­u­ally, he inched to­wards be­ing able to work full- time as a nov­el­ist, a tale of hav­ing his sto­ries re­jected, then hav­ing pieces ac­cepted by non- pay­ing mag­a­zines and “nov­els taken by small pub­lish­ers who crashed and burned be­fore pub­li­ca­tion.”

Along the way, he un­der­took some jobs you re­ally wouldn’t want to do. So which would he least like to re­visit? “I guess that de­liv­er­ing coal for two weeks in the freez­ing rain just be­fore Christ­mas was the worst. Noth­ing like hav­ing to use a scrub­bing brush to clean parts of the body that should never see such a brush at all.”

His break­through came when pub­lisher Macmil­lan took Gridlinked ( 2001). The first in his “Agent Cor­mac” se­ries, it was the tale of a se­cret agent that com­bined el­e­ments of the thriller, hard SF and cy­ber­punk, a tem­plate for much of what’s fol­lowed. “I swiftly learned that get­ting a book with a big pub­lisher doesn’t mean cham­pagne and big cars there­after,” he re­mem­bers. “What it means is your pub­lisher/ edi­tor ask­ing what you are go­ing to pro­duce next year, which is a step many fall flat on their faces over.”

It was a more- or- less in­stant hit and two years later Asher was able to quit the day job. But for all his suc­cess, he’s some­times seemed like an out­sider among SF nov­el­ists. In part, this is be­cause he’s been crit­i­cised within the com­mu­nity for his ap­par­ent cli­mate change scep­ti­cism ( he de­clines to an­swer a ques­tion about his po­si­tion here). It’s also about pol­i­tics. The over­rid­ing al­le­giance among Brit SF writ­ers is – or cer­tainly ap­pears to be, SFX has never taken a for­mal poll or any­thing – soft left- lean­ing.

When SFX sug­gests that Asher, in con­trast, is po­lit­i­cally con­ser­va­tive, he first crit­i­cises West­min­ster’s denizens as “di­vorced from re­al­ity by mas­sive salaries, pen­sions and an over- priv­i­leged life­style” be­fore go­ing on to de­scribe him­self as a “lib­er­tar­ian in the sense of ‘ clas­sic lib­eral’” and not “a gun- tot­ing bi­ble- bel­ter”.

“I do some­times feel like I slipped un­der the fence and got into the SF world be­fore any­one could re­lease the dogs,” he concludes. “I once chat­ted with an SF writer who was ‘ po­lit­i­cally con­ser­va­tive’, what­ever that means, who was amazed that I didn’t just keep my mouth shut and my head down. But my con­tention was that, even if you are writ­ing some way out stuff, truth is one of your most im­por­tant tools. How­ever, I do tend to be more close- mouthed now sim­ply be­cause, over this last shitty year, my per­spec­tive on what is im­por­tant in life has changed a great deal.”

Dark In­tel­li­gence is on sale 29 Jan­uary.

“My per­spec­tive on what is im­por­tant in life has changed a great deal”

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