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A Conversation With Neal Asher
An interview with Lisa DuMond
March 2001

© Neal Asher
Neal Asher
Neal Asher
Neal Asher was born in 1961 in Billericay in Essex. He started writing SF and fantasy at 16 after what he terms an "overdose" of E.C. Tubb books. After leaving school, he worked for a steel furniture maker, then operated a milling machine and began writing again. Thereafter, he decided to go back to school and finally graduated. He continued to write, having his work published in a number of magazines and producing a short story collection called Runcible Tales from Piper's Ash. With the sale of Gridlinked, he's now working on his next books: The Skinner, scheduled for 2002; and The Line of Polity, to follow the year after.

Neal Asher Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gridlinked

The ENgineer

You did say 'fire away', so here come the questions!
Blimey. Right, it looks like I've found my writing warm-up for this morning (stretches mental muscles)...

Rats in the brain, Engineers, Dragons, and bibrats -- your creations run rampant across a spectrum all your own. Sounds a bit like your "day job" history, actually. Does a somewhat checkered past make for the free-ranging imagination essential to a writer? Maybe the wild imagination makes for an inconstant employee?
I mentioned 'mental muscles' and this was not so much of a joke as it might sound, as I believe that the dictum 'use it or lose it' applies here: if you don't use your imagination it'll atrophy and if you don't use it constantly it'll never grow strong. But it is the case that you must first have an interest in using your imagination -- just as an athlete has an interest in using his body and constantly exercises it to make it serve. Imagination also requires something on which to feed and that is experience. For me, this includes everything I have done, seen, experienced... which includes the digestion of a huge quantity of science fiction. I could go on. To more precisely answer your first question: a chequered past helps but is not essential. I was writing strange fiction and living inside my head when I was at school so I guess I had a lump of this thing called 'imagination' from the beginning.

Actually, a wild imagination does not necessarily make for an inconstant employee (irrelevant to me now as I'm self-employed), and as far as being an SF writer is concerned, that person has to have self-discipline and a practical outlook. I've had people opine to me their belief in things like UFOs, on them finding out what I do, and this irritates me immensely. Having imagination does not mean you buy into every piece of pseudo-crap going, nor does it mean you're off with the fairies when you should be concentrating on work. There is this idea of "Never mind him, he's one of those arty types" (the idea of the writer who has his head in the clouds but cannot change a plug) which is rubbish. I can take my mind up some pretty weird back alleys, but I was also an engineer for ten years and I can repair the car. (I think perhaps I've over-answered that question, but what the hell...)

You recently signed a three-book deal with Pan Macmillan, of which Gridlinked is the first. The second novel, The Skinner is due out in 2002. Knowing the gritty, gloves-off voice of Gridlinked, the title of the next volume sounds ominous. Is The Skinner as unsettling as it sounds?
From the reactions I've had so far, I would say yes it is unsettling. The Skinner has, as its precursors, the stories "Spatterjay" and "Snairls" from my collection The Engineer and we've been playing with taglines like 'Where death is a remorseless fact of everyday life' and 'Where flesh is a harvest' so that gives you a little hint as to what readers of the book have in store. It concerns the voyage of three travellers across a planet with a particularly hideous ecology: one of them carries the eyes of a Hive mind, one is searching for an ancient sea captain who can teach her how to live, and one is a policeman who has been dead for 700 years and is still not prepared to give up the chase. Toss in an alien who wants to cover up crimes committed in a long past war, another vicious psychopath, leeches that impart immortality and, of course, The Skinner himself...

In Runcible Tales, you introduced and explored the concept of the Runcible, an almost instantaneous teleportation device, that is essential to the plot of Gridlinked and the upcoming The Polity. Was the inspiration for these machines any existing technology or prototype?
The inspiration for the Runcible has only fictional sources and is not exactly a new idea: you have Larry Niven's teleportation booths, C.J. Cherryh's Gates in those wonderful Morgaine novels, and much else beside. My only slant on the matter has been to suggest that what is considered impossible now has a lot to do with vision and knowledge -- in reply to the suggestion that one day humans will cross the ocean in vast ships made of iron the man in the coracle would probably tell the suggester that he has been fishing too hard. The newer idea I have here is that an amalgam of AI and human mind might create a kind of synergy out of which could come an entire new science.

With the introduction of trains, then automobiles, then commercial airlines, distances seemed to shrink and Earth became a genuinely "small world." With Runcibles under our control, what would that do to humans' view of the galaxy? The universe?
Interesting that you should ask this just after I've watched a serial called 'Destination Mars.' The logistics of a mission there are frighteningly complex and appear completely on the edge of the possible. Then, near the end of the program and almost as a footnote, they dump on you the idea that nuclear powered plasma drives, which are within our reach, could probably get us there in three months. All of a sudden the solar system seems a lot smaller.

You have in fact answered your own question: the faster and easier travel becomes, the smaller becomes 'the world' (this covering solar system, galaxy, and universe). People regularly fly thousands of miles now for business and leisure and have no idea of what a thousand miles actually means. I guess that comes down to imagination as well. We are not built to visualize such distances... yet.

Cormac, the protagonist of Gridlinked, is a battle-scarred veteran, an almost indestructible agent for the Polity, his abilities almost super-human. More than once, the comparison is made to AIs and the android "Golems." Is this suspicion one that will haunt Cormac in all of his missions? Or, will readers ever know with any certainty the truth of Cormac's humanity?
The suspicion that Cormac was not human came from the fact that he had lost much of his humanity because he had been gridlinked for so long. He is certainly human, but then you have to ask what does 'human' mean. Is Blegg human?

In your universe, those who remain "gridlinked" for an inordinately long time become more machine than human, losing contact with their emotions. For an android, life would begin linked to machines; would removing such links begin the humanisation process of an artificially created being?
Again: what does 'human' mean? I think it the case that in my stories the machines have a better idea as to the answer to that question than we do. If a machine can perfectly emulate a human being then, barring the fleshy body, is it one? If you made a recording of a human mind, would that mind be human? If you built a human body and mind atom by atom, would it be human? I don't believe in souls so for me a lot of lines are blurred, definitions turn to smoke, and just about every point a moot one.

Removing the links would not begin the humanising process, just allow that entity to become a distinct and divergent one. It might also cause that entity to become less human. You see... I have trouble with questions like this because 'human' is not one of those terms easily defined. Look at this from Collin's Concise: 'having the attributes of man as opposed to divine beings, or machines.' Where do the Golem and AIs fit there?

Ridiculously, a human is something that is a human, except when it isn't.

Cosmos Books will be releasing your serialised novel Africa Zero in a single volume, two novellas into one book. With The Collector on the prowl in a radically altered Dark Continent, the situation will definitely get much worse before it gets even slightly better. Can you give us a glimpse of this unfamiliar terrain and the deadly Collector who has come to raise some hell?
Here's another one for human definitions: The Collector has a flash-frozen bio-gridded human brain and spinal column and the activity of his mind now runs in software packages. His body is made of ceramal and has a synthetic covering with which he can sense the world as much as or more than a normal human. He's a couple of thousand years old and is wandering around collecting the genetic heritage of the planet, which now includes resurrected mammoth, pygmy vampires that feed on them, and the great African vampires that were spliced to feed on the out-of-control Third World population. Here is the Earth left behind by the spread of the human race out into the galaxy where primitive and super-science combine. Something called the silverman is killing his mammoth and that really pisses him off.

In the second novella he has to deal with a nasty religious cult that is getting out of control... and now he's got a tank, ho ho...

Your short stories have garnered well-deserved praise, with some reviewers hailing you as an infusion of much-needed new blood into a stagnant form. With your foreseeable future packed with novel commitments, will you still find time to work on the short stories that you do so brilliantly?
I want to do it all, but it's just a case of what time permits. If I can give up my day job, I intend to rewrite a fantasy I finished some time ago, do the same with a contemporary novel that sits in my files, and yes, write more short stories. At present that is not happening because I'm concentrating on the books for Pan as this is something I have to get right. Anyway, I reckon I've got a few million more words in me yet.

Now, is there anything else you'd like to talk about? Anything I've missed?
The thing about interviews is that they can go on forever. This is my fifth one thus far and I see now that there are endless questions to be asked and an infinite number of answers.

Copyright © 2001 Lisa DuMond

In between reviews, articles, and interviews, Lisa DuMond writes science fiction and humour. DARKERS, her latest novel, was published in August 2000 by Hard Shell Word Factory. She has also written for BOOKPAGE and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her articles and short stories are all over the map. You can check out Lisa and her work at her website hikeeba!.

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