Peter Hamilton

interviewed by the Preston SF Group

Peter Hamilton came to the notice of the discriminating SF reader with his three SF detective novels, however it was the resounding success of his first Space Opera, The Reality Dysfunction which really started to make his name. This interview took place just after this book was published.

How and why did you start writing?

The How and Why are combined really. In the 70ís when I was in my early teens, boys my age were into escapism in a big way. These days itís Boyzone and girls or whatever. The standard route then was EE Doc Smith which I loved back then. I wonít read them again now because I know the memories are too good to spoil. Then there was Azimov, Clarke and the rest. I was reading all this stuff and loving it, I got off on escapism and I thought; "Well one day maybe... perhaps..." But as it turned out I never did English at school past Oílevel. I wasnít interested in English or writing at all. That was until one day in the mid eighties when my mother was very ill and I was at home looking after her. So either I needed a job literally just down the road or something I could do at home and there was that shiny daydream there at the back of my mind.

I bought a typewriter in 1987 and started typing and I sold a story, I think, to The Gate in 1989, but itís probably folded now [the last issue was published in 1991 - Ed]. The sale encouraged me so I went from the typewriter to the old traditional Amstrad. And from there on I sold a few more and started writing my first novel. Now Iím sure youíve been told what a very hard route it is from being a nobody, up to getting a publisher or editor interested. Well... I had a short story accepted by FEAR magazine and they wanted the five line Biog. of my life for the end of the story. What the hell can you write about yourself in five lines? So I did how old I was, where I lived and that I was just finishing a novel. By the time this was published I had just finished Mindstar Rising. Someone at Macmillan read the story, read the biography, wrote to me and asked if they could see the manuscript. I thought this was perfectly normal for an aspiring author, so I sent it in and they bought it. For various reasons it was published two years later but at the time I was dragged out to a convention by my then editor who insisted I get known on the scene. So I was telling this happy story of how I got published to my fellow authors and couldnít understand why for two years I was ostracised!

Mindstar Rising was a detective thriller set in about 2040, and I wrote a sequel to it which is called A Quantum Murder which is what I thought was a very traditional English locked house mystery. I mean it does take place in an English mansion house on a dark and stormy night. In the third one, The Nano Flower, I went a little more science fictional and started to bring in the possibility of aliens and the culture of this world I had built had started to develop a space industry. Everyone keeps asking me when the next one is coming out and the only thing I can tell you is there is a novella on file but when Iíll get around to it I donít know.

What part of the world were these novels set, was it somewhere you knew?

Itís set where I live in Oakham which is half way between Leicester and Peterborough. So it is a rural England setting in the year 2040 which people couldnít understand. I mean if Iíd set it in LA or London that would have been fine and no-one would have showed the slightest interest. As it was set where it was, people showed an interest which was nice.

Incidentally itís set after the global warming so I had a lot of fun looking up what plants would survive and what wouldnít, where the sea level would come up to. I flooded the Wash so that Peterborough became Peterborough- on-Sea. I had a lot of fun doing that. Why did you stop the series? After the third book the series was beginning to run out. Iíd backed Greg into a corner. It was set over 15 years and Iíd shown how the character developed. Heís pretty bruised in fact. Heís a soldier and he packs up work and becomes a detective. Heís not very human, heís been killing people all his life. By the end of the 15 years it shows him softening up and becoming a normal human being again. So I was more or less at the end of what I thought I could do with Greg. Of course the company would have loved book four, book five, book six... So I had to make a choice. Either I became the Greg Mandell novelist or I did something else. From a writing point of view I really did want to do something else, because again I would have been in a rut. I made the choice to go for something completely different, but still science fiction. I used to love the old space operas; the EE Doc Smith, and what have you, and there isnít a lot of that about. I wanted to see new books written which gave that same sense of wonder.

So I started writing The Reality Dysfunction. I knew when I started it was to be a big book, but I never imagined it would be THAT big. I had the idea of the threat which emerges to threaten civilisation. I knew how it starts and how it finishes, as with all my stuff. Getting from A to B is a little more complicated. I worked out the world to set it in, the kind of politics, economics, culture - the lot. Then I started picking out characters through who I would describe this conflict. The other thing that struck me about the old space operas was of course that it concentrates on the heroes and the villains; the big guys, the important ones. And I donít think thatís strictly fair when you have a conflict this big. The analogy I always give is world war II and the Battle of Britain. Itís a wonderful story, The Battle of Britain, you have the two warrior heroes, us and Germany in what was then absolutely new technology - the Messerschmitts, the Spitfires, fighting it out for supremacy over London. Weíve all seen the film and it makes a great story. There were people living underneath as well. They have a story too. It might not be quite as interesting as whatís going on in the air above them but it is far more relevant because wars always change society. I mean World War II changes society enormously. So I chose to have a very prosperous society but it is also very static. I developed a world called Norfolk because there is a lot of ethnic streaming worlds as I call them. Whereby you would go to your own individual world; Christian ethic, Muslim ethnic what have you. This being the only way you can get people to live together in one confederation but at peace with each other.

On Norfolk the people harvest only one crop which is very economical, called Norfolk tears - the best drink in the Galaxy. It is harvested once every four years and everyone flocks to buy the stuff. The economy is based around that. The point of that was Norfolk is the extreme of the confederation itself; it is perfectly static. No technological development is allowed, no political advancement, the lot. Itís static, which in a way the whole confederation is. So what Iím doing is at the end there will not just be a victory or defeat, but will kick-start this immense society into a new social level. War is hell, but at least some good can come out of this. So I hope it will eventually work on quite a lot of levels.

The idea of ethnic streaming planets is not a terribly nice idea - the idea that we can live as people but not together. It came about because a book like this takes a year and a half to write and I do prepare for it quite well by making notes about six months in advance of starting. While I was drawing it up it was the time of the Vance / Owen peace treaty and peace accords. This was on TV night after night and it is incredibly depressing for someone like me. There was this conference with fairly well-meaning people trying to get the parties round the table at the UN in Geneva. It bore no relation to what was happening on the ground in the former Yugoslavia. These people were not going to live together in the same country. I could see this and I found it immensely depressing and this fed over into this society I created in which the Earth becomes very over-populated and polluted and everyone goes away. Even then, when they have discovered faster than light travel, they have got planets to colonise, they have this great new era of hope, but they just wonít live on the same planet as each other.

So in that it does reflect in some degree what is happening in the real world. It does have relevance to what life is like today.

How do you keep track of all your characters in a book of that size. I counted about 30 individual stories going on at once?

I took six months or so to prepare it, which is not just creating places like Norfolk and Tranquillity. I draw up plot lines of people and whatís happening to the main characters. I donít think itís quite thirty, but anyway, I print these out and clear the floor so I have a list of events which happen to each character and literally line them up along the floor and try to co-ordinate whatís happening to that character and what is happening to another character at the same time. So from that I then draw up chapter outlines, which contain whatís happening in the same time if not in the same space.

So it is co-ordinated that way, but I do have an overall picture. Your SF tends to have a lot of imaginative technology but it is not a science textbook do you set the technological level consciously? People have said very nice things about the technology in my books but I tend to put things into context rather than explain them. In that you have the black box there and itís mentioned two or three times and from what itís doing there in those paragraphs you can work out what it is; what it is meant to be rather than go into the equations about it. The reasons I do that is that a, because I am not terribly technologically oriented, I would say I know the limits of technology rather than the mechanics of it. But I know what circuits can do, I know what engineering can do. The more detail you go in to the more likely you are to trip up. Have the black box - donít have the circuitry inside, thatís the simplest solution. And even then you get caught out. I mean in the early books I had something called a cybofax which I thought was a beautiful extension of a filofax in that it is a pocket computer, video telephone, recorder. As I say that was written in 1990 and Christ weíve already got laptops and this was supposed to be 40 years in the future! So I get caught out from that point of view, but not tripped up over details.

I believe you were involved in a TV series, what was that about?

The brief story about that was that the X files were just becoming popular so word came down from the BBC and ITV hierarchies to the smaller production companies, who seem to make everything on TV these days, that they were looking for an SF series.

So the little production companies phoned round the publishers and asked; "What properties do you have?" And Macmillan answered "Well, weíve got Hamilton." So this meeting was duly set up with a production company which shall remain nameless. I walked in to this producerís office and he said, "This is exactly what weíve been looking for. I really like your work - I havenít read it yet..." At which point I thought, "Oh Oh!".

I went down to a few development meetings with them and wrote out outlines for him and at one point Steve Gallagher was mentioned as a co- writer. We eventually parted company on the simple fact that he said to me, "Well I donít see how we can make this a weekly series." This being a detective thriller. I asked why not and he answered that they didnít think there was enough there.

Not having enough for a detective to do each week struck me as extremely odd. So we parted company at that point.

Do you think you will write outside the SF genre?

SF is a great genre. I hopefully have the imagination to fit into it quite well. Iíd like to think I will someday write outside the genre. Not switch from the genre and say Iíll never write in it again, but Iíd hope to write one or two books outside the genre. Funnily enough I always thought A Quantum Murder was outside the genre. Publishers have to stick SF on the spine because publishers always have to pigeonhole everything. But I always thought that if that was put on the crime shelf, people who like crime novels would have been perfectly at home with that. The parameters are different. Agatha Christie is in the past, this is in the future - you have to pick up new terms, but people who like criminal puzzles would still have been able to read that and enjoy it, I always felt.

So, yes if I can think of a plot and a subject Iím interested in Iíd like to write outside the genre, but not exclusively.

Thankyou Peter.

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