PETER F HAMILTON
FROM PROG ROCKERS TO PALEOLITHIC ART, THE SF AUTHOR SHARES HIS PASSIONS WITH JONATHAN WRIGHT
The top SF author chooses his heroes and inspirations, from David Bowie to Mount Kilimanjaro. He’s an eclectic chap.
It’s safe to say that Peter F Hamilton has reached a stage in his career where he could simply write about the fictional universes he’s already created and many of his fans would be immensely happy. But not the man himself. “I wanted to do a different style of narrative structure,” he says of new novel, Salvation, the first offering in a new trilogy.
One part space opera to one part whodunnit, it follows a team sent out to the site of an alien artefact, a team where one of the members, we gradually learn, is not whom he or she appears to be. “It’s similar to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion in that you get the travellers en route to their destination and each of them tells their story, which builds up the background,” says Hamilton, chatting over coffee on a sun-drenched day in Bath. “But of course Simmons took that off The Canterbury Tales so I’m not particularly worried that I’m going to be accused of copying this now!”
So is Chaucer a direct inspiration for Hamilton’s writing? Perhaps not. As SFX discovers when we go on to discuss his heroes and inspirations, he’d mostly rather talk about music and SF literature…
“I didn’t actually have to think about this one. I was a teenager in the ’70s. Musically, David Bowie was streets ahead of everybody else. I liked the constantly changing styles and he’s not terribly well known for it now, but I really liked the film he was in, The Man Who Fell To Earth. That was real science fiction although I think it’s classed as an art film. That was really influential on me. It was a realistic portrayal of what would happen if somebody from a very superior culture came to us with the opportunity for corruption that our society gives him. Low was the first album that connected with me, but I caught up fairly quickly with Ziggy Stardust. Each single he brought out was different too.
“He was into dance as well as his music, and style. He loomed large in a way that other rock stars didn’t. He wasn’t just a rock star, he was into other things. He’s also the reason I got such bad marks in my physics A-level because I went to see him and it took me until four o’clock in the morning to get home, and at nine o’clock I had my exam.”
“I walked up Kilimanjaro 15 years ago. You start at the bottom in rainforest and you go up through every climate on the planet. You wind up in an Arctic desert at the top. You don’t need to take oxygen, it’s not a climb, although you do need to take a day halfway up to acclimatise. I even had a nosebleed at that point. It’s just an amazing experience and it actually features in Fallen Dragon: mercenary Lawrence
Newton’s walk at the end of the book where he goes up a mountain. It was very, very interesting, walking through the world in two days.
“I just fancied doing it and as a consequence I am now no longer in charge of choosing holidays ’cos I dragged [my wife] Kate along with me. If you got ill or broke your leg when you were halfway up there then you were in trouble basically. They will wheel you down on what’s almost like a stretcher with bicycle wheels. I suppose you could get a Land Rover up there, but I wouldn’t like to drive it. You had to be aware of what you were doing.”
“He’s opened things up visually for us. I admired the way Aliens was structured. It’s actually, and I horribly over-analyse films these days, very, very simple but very effective. And this was way before CGI took off like it has today, but that film still stands up, the way he filmed it, this claustrophobic world closing in on the marines and Ripley trying to warn them. People always try to emulate it and they never succeed. And then he opened everyone up to CGI with Titanic. And then Avatar pushed it even further. I know a lot of people don’t particularly rate the story in that, but just the spectacle of that was quite something. It was filmed with 3D in mind. He understood the visual perception of it, every scene was composed with the 3D effect in mind.
“I’ve never met the man, I’m sure he’d be very interesting to talk to, but if he’s got something to do, you wouldn’t want to stand between him and it. Getting what you want to get done within the film industry is quite tough, and he sees things through from start to finish. I’m constantly in pre-production hell…”
CLIFFORD D SIMACK
“He wrote a kind of pastoral SF that nobody does anymore. One of my favourite books is Way Station. There is one way station for galactic travel on Earth and it’s managed by one man. It’s a very gentle and very lovely book. When I read it, it resonated a lot with me, and still does to this day. A lot of science fiction when I was reading it back in my teens and twenties was all problems and conflicts. Simack came at things in a completely different way from, say, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, who was also a big influence on me, where everything is solved by another bigger blaster.
“I always say my escape out of Rutland was the science fiction section of the library because Rutland, love it dearly as I do, is the middle of nowhere. A lot of Simack’s stories were set in the middle of nowhere – rural America basically. That meant a lot to me, that people in these very rural, very out-of-the-way places could be just as involved in the big things as the city dwellers. Physically isolated didn’t mean isolated entirely. There is a divide between country life and city life, and that helped bridge it for me.”
“His ‘Known Space’ short stories are beautifully crafted. His world-building was a bit of an eye-opener to me as well, that he’s patched together all these different physical locations like Mount Lookitthat and the physical environment has shaped the social environment, which was very interesting to me because I do like to dwell on that aspect of science fiction. But it was like old-fashioned science fiction in that everything was a problem, and a competent man comes along and solves it. Everything was an engineering or physics problem, and he did those engineering and physics problems very, very well.
“I only came across him in the late ’70s and early ’80s, by which time I was getting a bit tired of science fiction because it was all Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov, which was all that was printed back in the ’70s that I could get my hands on. Along with Julian May’s ‘Saga Of The Exiles’, Niven pulled me back into science fiction. They were certainly a sea change in science fiction and of course Ringworld is the classic big-dumbobject science fiction story. I think Banks said he took his orbitals from Niven. I should mention Banks, but I’ll go with Niven!”
“Hawkwind is Dave Brock’s band but everything else changes. Lemmy was the bass player for a while. This really shows my age, when I saw Hawkwind, Motörhead were in support. It was the phase where Bob Calvert was the frontman, the singer, and the stage performance was like nothing else I’ve ever seen. He was completely out of his head, or looked like he was. And then we hung around backstage and got to meet him, and we were just a gaggle of teenage boys. He came out, and
he talked to us and he was really nice. He was on the Keith Moon level of the wild men of rock, and there are some fabulous stories about him misbehaving and falling out with the band.
“I always remember him dressing up in a space suit, and somebody had obviously sprayed silver paint on his clothes, performing ‘Uncle Sam’s On Mars’, and out of that came my character Joshua Calvert in Night’s Dawn as the spaceship captain, clearly and directly inspired by Bob Calvert, an absolute connection. I must have been 16 or 17 when I saw them, never to be forgotten.”
“I’ve got to mention Pink Floyd, I’m of that age, sorry. Tommy came along and that was great but The Wall was the ultimate concept album, surely? Pink Floyd are to this day unrivalled. You had a lot of prog rock bands, but nobody ever reached that height, nobody has ever managed to recreate that whatever they had. I think the tension in the band clearly helped produce the music they did. The collaborative albums are great, then Roger Waters kind of dominated, then he was ousted, it’s a fascinating history. Also, Meddle is very good, the album before Dark Side Of The Moon. I saw them live on the Animals tour. I did see the flying pig in its original form, it was covered in duct tape from what I remember!
“I’m getting nostalgic for the ’70s now. We had the Beatles in the 1960s, were just getting into prog rock, punk rock was coming along – Motown, northern soul, all of this was new back then. Even The Bay City Rollers, the first boy band, and disco was there, and it was all fresh and new and exciting. And now I’m getting really crotchety and conservative!”
“I watched it again recently with my daughter who’d never seen it and she laughed all the way through. Old stuff she just doesn’t watch, but Fawlty Towers, which is proper old-school slapstick but cleverly done, I think that still holds up today. The relationship between Basil and Sybil is so well written. I think I’ve even got the scripts at home somewhere, but I knew those so well. You cannot get away from Fawlty Towers.I like Python, but I don’t think that’s dated nearly as well. There’s this thing about comedy that once you’ve heard the joke it then becomes decreasingly funny. By the fifth time you’ve done the dead parrot sketch it’s really not that funny anymore. “But Basil falling off a ladder is always funny. He was based on a real character. They stayed in Devon to film Python and met this manic hotel guy [Donald Sinclair] – his family have been trying to clear his name ever since! I’m never going to write slapstick or particularly good jokes, but I can use comedy as wry observation. I think that’s what some sci-fi lacks, don’t ask me for names.”
Salvation is published on 6 September.
Hamilton loves the film The Man Who Fell To Earth.
James Cameron’s Aliens changed sci-fi forever. Hamilton saw rock band Hawkwind live as a teenager. Climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro was a huge moment.
Hamilton was also a big fan of Pink Floyd.