Gareth L Powell is an award winning science fiction writer. He has written five science fiction novels, perhaps most notably his alternate history Ack-Ack Macaque series, the first of which won the British Science Fiction Association’s award for best novel. In addition to his novels, Gareth also writes short stories in the genre which have appeared in a number of magazines and in his short fiction collections. He also gives guest lectures on creative writing and is a popular speaker at literary events. Check out One Giant Read’s Interview with Gareth here.
What inspires you to write science fiction?
I was six or seven years old when Star Wars first came out. Unlike the science fiction to which I had previously been exposed, the hero wasn’t a tough, ultra-capable Captain like Kirk. Luke Skywalker was barely an adult, and he came from a small town backwater, just like me. I had already encountered written science fiction in the form of the Dragonfall 5 books by Brian Earnshaw.
Now, fired by my new obsession with space adventure, I pillaged the local library shelves for anything with a spaceship on the cover, and found books by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven and Harry Harrison. Without Star Wars, I might never have thrown myself into reading science fiction with such gusto – and I might never have started writing it, either.
Science fiction offers the chance to explore imagined possibilities, can you say what role does science fact play in your writing?
I like to try and ensure the science in my stories is as plausible as possible. I might invent a new faster-than-light engine to propel my characters between star systems, but I won’t make basic errors, like allowing sound to propagate through a vacuum, or have a character fire a hundred shots from a six-chambered revolver without ever having to reload.
Is there any particular writer who has impacted upon the way you write or think about the genre?
Many writers have shaped my appreciation of the genre. Stephen Baxter writes marvellous, scientifically-rigorous stories of near-future space exploration and cosmic wonder. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer made the genre dangerous again, bringing everything down to the level of the street, showing how the technology of the future would be co-opted and misused by hustlers and criminals. Iain M Banks wrote space opera with such gleeful and savage intensity that every writer since owes him a tip of the hat. And Ann Leckie has just finished a masterful trilogy that reshapes the genre yet again, crafting something that is simultaneously very much of its roots while also being brand new.
Some of our readers are new to the genre, if you could give them one reason to try it, what would that be?
It’s a common misconception that science fiction writers try to predict the future in their stories. But accurately predicting the future is extremely difficult. Instead, what we try to do is to dream up plausible futures by extrapolating sociological and technological trends, and use those futures as a means of commenting on the world we see around us today. We imagine good futures and bad futures, utopias and dystopias, and explore them through the eyes of the characters in our books. We get to put ourselves in their place and live through them.
In this respect, science fiction is useful as a tool, not for predicting the future, but for instead modelling a vast range of possible futures. As our society develops and changes, science fiction is there to show us what will happen if we continue along our current path. As science fiction writers, we put a lot of serious thought into the futures we construct. It’s a game we play, and we like to be as plausible as possible; but the truth is, we simply do not know what will happen. We’re not trying to make accurate predictions.
For me, the most important function of science fiction is the way it encourages us to think about what it means to be human. Consider Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, or the narrator in HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds, or Robert Neville in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend . There you have three fairly ordinary men thrust into unwelcome and dangerous futures. By following them, we get to vicariously experience their plights as their worlds are turned upside down and they lose – or come close to losing – everything they’ve ever cared about. We read those books and we wonder: “What would I do?” And when we’ve finished reading them, we feel as if we’ve lived the adventure along with the main characters. We have some inkling what it would be like to live in their worlds, and therefore gain a fresh perspective on our own.
This is the science fiction writer’s job: to comment on our world by changing it; to show us our reflections in a distorted mirror. If you refuse to read a book simply on the grounds that it might contain some speculative or fantastical elements, you could find yourself missing out on some of our most inventive and excitingly contemporary literature.
Tim Peake is on a mission to the International Space Station for six months. Can you imagine yourself exploring space on this kind of mission?
I would dearly love to go into space. It has been a dream since I was a child, watching footage from the Apollo-Soyuz link-up on our black and white TV. If the International Space Station ever needs a writer-in-residence, I will be sure to put my name on the list.