BROUGHT TO BOOK
Neal Asher discusses Polity and politics.
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”