A month or so ago, I had a really interesting chat with French genre maven Gromovar Wolfenheir, about Crashing Heaven and a whole lot of other stuff – he asked some really thought-provoking questions. He put the interview up on his website, having beautifully translated it into French – you can read it here. I thought I’d put the English version up today to celebrate the paperback publication of Crashing Heaven. Happy reading!
Hello Al and thank you for your time.
First, can you introduce yourself to French readers ?
Thank you, it’s lovely to be here! And, hello – I’m Al Robertson. I’m a British science fiction writer who lives and works in Brighton. It’s a particular pleasure to be on a French website as I grew up in France, living just outside Paris until I was about six then returning regularly since then.
Can you tell us of your writing activities before Crashing Heaven ?
I’ve been writing for a long time. The first book I wrote was about Zorro, when I was about six. It was very short. As I grew up I ended up writing a lot of poetry, then working in film script development for various London production houses.
But one day I realised that what really excited me every month was getting the latest edition of “Interzone” or “The Third Alternative” (now “Black Static”) and racing through them. I thought I’d have a go at writing some stories for them, and everything went from there.
I spent about ten years publishing short stories before “Crashing Heaven” came out – mostly fantasy and horror rather than science fiction. There are some up on my website if you want to check them out.
There’s also an unpublished novel that will never see the light of day. It’s about what would happen if somewhere a little like Narnia had massive oil reserves, and someone a little like George W. Bush or Tony Blair found out they were there. Of course, we’ve invaded the magic kingdom and destroyed everything.
Oh, and I’ve also been a corporate writer and comms strategist for the last ten years or so. I’ve worked with many different kinds of companies, writing just about everything imaginable for them!
Can you tell us of your love for SF ? Which authors are your favorite ones ? What are the other genre you like ?
Well, I’ve always been very deeply into SF. I remember watching “Space 1999” and “The Prisoner” dubbed into French when I was tiny, maybe four or five – they blew my mind. Partially because the imagery was so powerful, partially because I didn’t really understand what was going on. So I started trying to invent stories that would explain it all to me – I think that was one of the moments when I really started to become a writer.
Later on, the big influences were the British New Wave writers – Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard and M. John Harrison. Moorcock’s been a constant presence, his work – quite apart from being great fun to read – is a huge, endless education in the possibilities of genre writing, for me in particular as satire. Ballard always seemed to be so alien – there’s something very clinical about his writing, it often feels far more like very acute analysis rather than fiction. I think his experiences in Shanghai during the war moved him far beyond our conventional senses of society and humanity, and he never quite came back again. And M. John Harrison’s grasp of the literary uses of genre, of the way that the unreal can in very sophisticated ways reflect and comment on the real (inasmuch as we can even begin to grasp that very slippery concept) is an endless inspiration.
And there’s H.P. Lovecraft. He was a huge obsession when I was a teenager. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised how problematic he can be – but what I always enjoyed was how he’s absolutely a science fiction writer, but one utterly horrified by all the things that usually excite SF writers. Aliens ? NOOOO! New planets, dimensions to explore? I’M GOING MAD! Vast gulfs of interestellar time ? LIFE ITSELF IS MEANINGLESS!! Time travel ? AAAAARRGGH!!! And so on. He’s also a very nostalgic writer, but his nostalgia is so broken. All those backward looking characters you feel he’d most want to be – all those repressed New England academics and historians – are the ones shown by his stories to be most completely wrong about the true nature of the universe.
Oh, and there’s Iain Sinclair – I started reading him at about the same time as Lovecraft. A remarkable writer, he’s someone I’ve come back to again and again over the years. Partially for the way he blends a crazed pulp-fuelled imagination, a very sharp critical mind and a brilliant prose style, partially for all the other writers and film makers he very consciously and very generously leads his readers to. I felt some of him come through in China Mieville’s early work, too. China’s sense of the weird was very important – my initial response to it was to go and start a cabaret night in a bar in Brixton, but it’s also been a big influence on how I think about genre fiction in general.
And poetry’s always been a big presence. Partially for the more genre-relevant stuff – poems like Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel”, James Thomson’s “The City of Dreadful Night” have all haunted me, over the years – and partially for the ways it shows you how you can tell non-realist stories in ways that can have very deep resonance. I was deeply into William Blake for a while, for example. His shatteringly powerful, deeply sophisticated myth-making is a very useful antidote to a realist tradition that insists that only literal transciptions of reality can have any sort of aesthetic worth.
Though of course, having said that I’ve learned a huge amount from that kind of writing. Epic, tub-thumping 19th century novels are magnificent! They contain so much and they tell their stories with such ferocious, unputdownable verve. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Balzac, Zola – all essential. Balzac in particular – the Comedie Humaine as a whole is a great lesson in how to write multiple books set in the same world, all crossing over with each other in complex, fascinating ways.
Crashing Heaven, your first novel, is out since June 2015 at Gollancz. Can you tell us how you got your Publisher ?
Through my agent, Susan Armstrong at Conville and Walsh. I signed up with her in 2012 and then spent a year or so rewriting Crashing Heaven off the back of her thoughts on it. We took Crashing Heaven out to auction in 2013, and Simon Spanton at Gollancz came in with a pre-emptive offer. I’ve always been a huge fan of both him and them, so I was very pleased indeed! I signed up, and that was that.
Let’s talk about Crashing Heaven. What’s the plot of the novel ? What are the main factions warring inside ? What is at stake ?
Well, Crashing Heaven is about Jack Forster, an accountant of the future, and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a very heavy duty military AI that manifests as a virtual ventriloquist’s dummy. As the book begins, they’re just returning home to Station, a giant space station orbiting the Earth where most of humanity now lives. They’ve been battling the rogue AIs of the Totality on behalf of the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporations that are worshipped as gods.
One of the Pantheon starts persecuting Jack and Fist – they have to find out why and do something about it. Which annoys the hell out of them, their real motivations are much more down to Earth. Jack wants to find and be reconciled with Andrea, the great love of his life who’s mysteriously gone missing. And Fist wants to turn into a real boy. Some dodgy software licensing means that he’s going to inherit Jack’s body in a couple of months time, wiping Jack’s mind in the process. So really he just wants Jack to do nothing dangerous whatsoever.
CH happens after an AI war that destroyed Earth. Can you give us some details ? What could we see if we were on Earth at this time ?
Well, you get to find all that out in the next book, “Waking Hell”! It’s coming out this October. It’s difficult to talk about without giving away massive spoilers, so it’s probably best if I leave it to the book to reveal it all…
The strong character in Crashing Heaven is the puppet AI Hugo Fist. Can you describe him ? Where does such a strange character come from ?
He’s a psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy and he took me totally by surprise. When I was planning the book, I was imagining the Jack Forster / Hugo Fist relationship as a kind of Faust / Mephistopheles one. Jack was going to be much as he is now, but Fist was going to be a dark, spooky silhouette, a kind of demonic digital familiar. But when I started writing him, he marched into the book as a ventriloquist’s dummy. The scene where the reader first meets him is also the scene where I first met him! It was quite a surprise.
Though of course, he does have some very definite inspirations. I’ve always loved possessed ventriloquist dummy movies – one of my favourites is ace 40’s portmanteau horror movie “Dead of Night”, in which we meet the dummy Hugo Fitch, a very evil little presence. He was a big influence. There’s a lot of Jan Svankmajer in there too. His “Faust” was very inspiring – partially as a Faust myth retelling, partially for its general imagery, and partially for how it shows humans and puppets interacting with each other.
And there was one film that I only saw when the book was pretty much done – Nina Conti’s “Her Master’s Voice”. She’s a wonderful ventriloquist, but at one point was feeling very disillusioned with it all and on the point of quitting. She was about to tell her ventriloquial mentor, Ken Campbell, this, when he – very sadly – died. And in his will he left her all his puppets and declared that she was his ventriloquial heir. The film’s about how she deals with all this. It’s hysterically funny, sometimes very spooky and – most importantly – profoundly moving. Watching it was a shatteringly powerful confirmation of how strong the human / puppet bond can be, in real life as much as in fiction.
There is also the pacifist human Jack. What do you want us to learn from his defection out of his war ?
Whatever you find resonant in it! Writing a very heavy handed fantasised satire on the Gulf War helped me realise that nobody wants to be ranted at. I don’t think fiction’s there to draw conclusions for you – I think it’s there to give you an open field in which you can think through certain situations and possibilities for yourself. So a good story is both defined enough to suggest certain areas to think about and open enough to let you do whatever you want with them. So, really – whatever meaning you find in Jack’s defection is the right meaning.
Jack was an accountant before the war, then an investigator. Did you have Eliott Ness in mind when you created him ?
Not at all – in fact, I’ve never seen “The Untouchables” or dug too deeply into gangster history. But of course, if you as a reader find interesting resonances between the two of them, that’s wonderful. For me, that’s the book doing its job – helping the reader go in directions they set for themselves.
As for where the accountancy in the book comes from – really, it comes from my experiences of the corporate world and my sense that accountants are the secret masters of the universe. Being able to read a set of corporate accounts is a tremendously powerful thing – it gives you so much insight into how a company works, what it’s doing right, what it’s doing wrong.
The recent fascination with corporate tax avoidance is a really interesting manifestation of this. It’s proper militant accountancy – people picking apart internal and external money flows, understanding their social and political implications, then taking action.
Can you describe to us the buddies pair made by Hugo Fist and Jack ? How does the pair evolve during the story ?
Again, I wouldn’t want to talk about that too much because spoilers! I hope their relationship evolves in a way that’s both interestingly unpredictable, and coherent and truthful.
There is too a beautiful and tragic character in CH, the jazz singer Andrea. Did you have a model in mind for her ?
Quite a few! There are elements of many different people in there. First of all, there’s her as a musician – in my mind, she sounds a bit like some combination of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell (particularly on their last album, “Pygmalion”), My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher, Lana Del Rey and Jesca Hoop. And anyone who’s ever sung in a David Lynch movie, blended with Miles Davis’ soundtrack to “Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud”.
Her films were very much inspired by Stan Brakhage – the way he explores and plays with memory and perception was a huge help as I wrote and came to understand her. There’s a bit of Proust in there, too – I was reading my way through him while doing the last two, very major edits on the book.
Oh, and since writing the book I’ve been listening to a lot of Holly Herndon. She’s a remarkable musician. I think that Andrea would be fascinated by her work, they have a lot in common.
And I could of course be quite wrong about any of that. Your version of Andrea is equally if not more valid than mine!
In CH, nearly everything is virtual and need to be paid on a duration basis. Yet, the Internet now is mostly free or all-included. Do you really think that it will change in the future ? Do you think that a always-augmented world is at hand ?
I’d disagree about that – I think very little of it is free, we pay for most of it with data about ourselves. We just don’t have any understanding of the true value of that data, and no current way – as individuals – to access that value. But the tech giants of our day do very well off it.
And more generally, as I was writing and rewriting “Crashing Heaven” various software and content companies were trying to move to a model where you subscribe to a service rather than buy a product – Adobe moving Photoshop to the cloud, Microsoft pushing Office 365 and so on.
Looking at companies like Netflix and Spotify, something similar seemed to be going on – you no longer buy a piece of music, film or whatever and own it outright, you subscribe to a service and enjoy it as part of that service. Or you just go to Amazon Prime and pay a one-off rental fee.
At the moment, these services are the exception rather than the rule. They have non-subscription competitors ; I can still go and buy a DVD, for example, and completely circumvent Netflix, Amazon or whoever else.
But when that sort of competition no longer exists, when the only choice is content leasing services of one kind or another, then there’s a commercial logic that says these kinds of companies will take advantage of their market dominance. And we’ll all suddenly find ourselves paying much more for much less.
You see it now for example in the way Monsanto sells seeds to farmers. Seeds should create plants which create seeds which farmers can reuse. Of course, this isn’t profitable – when you sell a farmer one year’s worth of seeds, you’re really selling him a lifetime’s worth of crops. So you just turn off the seed production gene in whatever you’re selling him, and hey presto! Guaranteed annual income.
Incidentally, in this context it’s both interesting and a little worrying watching technologies like blockchains, smart contracts and the internet of things develop. On the one hand, they have genuine utopian possibilities ; on the other, taken together they also make it so much easier for any kind of product usage to be very precisely monitored and therefore monetised. A future in which – for example – we pay a software levy to boil our own kettle, then pay again for mug usage because someone holds the rights to the groovy design on it it is both closer and far easier to get to than we might think.
In CH, the inequalities are huge in the Station. Don’t you think that we’re going to a future of post-scarcity as in Banks’ Culture ?
Again, I’m trying to reflect rather than predict – in fact, I see “Crashing Heaven” as realist or documentary rather than predictive SF. So, from that point of view – we live in a very unequal world and I wanted to bring that out in the book.
I do think that the Culture is a profoundly utopian society – particularly in the way that it elides any sense of how it arose from the kind of wealth-and-power-concentrating economies we live in now. Nobody ever gave up that sort of wealth and power without either a fight or some kind of profound, externally imposed destabilisation.
That kind of upheaval might in the end lead to very good things, but not without a fair amount of trauma for pretty much everyone involved along the way. The Culture is wonderful and I would love to live within it, but surviving the journey to it might be quite a challenge.
In CH, the world is mostly contractual as in Ayn Rand or in Kress’ Beggars in Spain. What do yo uthink of this kind of world ? do you think that it’s close at hand ?
I think I’ve answered this above!
Can you tell us of the “gods” that rule the Station ? Where do their names come from ? What are their powers ?
Their names vary. Some communicate relevant meaning, some are randomly chosen. I looked at how corporate entities are named now and tried to reflect that. Some – like Virgin, for example – communicate very specific meaning in an evocative way. Others, like Samsung, have no innate meaning. Our understanding of them comes from the action of the entity they describe.
And as for what they can do – each has a specific sphere of influence, so for example Kingdom is concerned with physical infrastructure, East with the media, Grey with corporate efficiency and strategy, and so on. But in essence, like all brands, they all share a combination of practical and emotional power.
Practically, they sell you things or provide services that do something concrete for you. Emotionally, they make you feel like a certain sort of person when you acquire those things. They want to extract profit from their relationship with you, so they make sure that you give them more than they give you. The effectiveness of their branding makes you feel good about this.
In CH, the powers that be lie and manipulate the people. Is it how you see politics in our world ? Or do you think that AI politicians will be structurally manipulative ?
Certainly in the political worlds I’m closest to – the UK and US. For example, there’s David Cameron, our current Prime Minister. He’s a career politican. The only real world job he’s ever held is as Director of Corporate Affairs at media company Carlton Communications. In effect he was their PR head, managing public perceptions of the company and presenting its point of view to the world.
I feel that’s what he now does as head of the Conservative party. He seems to be very tactical, more concerned with selling individual policies than enacting any grand vision for Britain. And those policies are often brutally harmful, but are hardly ever seen as such by those who vote for them – individual MPs, the electorate in general. It’s a very effective piece of perception management.
As for AI politicians – that’s an interesting question! It depends I think on how they’re coded. It’s very easy to see our current, fundamentally manipulative and extractive version of digital technology as the only possible option. In fact, it’s the result of a series of assumptions and choices about how we want it to work. If we start making different assumptions and choices, then we’ll be able to build IAs on different foundations.
There is a preemptive war in CH. Won’t we have learned nothing from the War on Terror ?
Sadly, I don’t think so. After repeating itself first as tragedy, then as comedy, I think history recurs for a third time as novelty, restarting the whole cycle. It’s been doing that for a long time and shows no signs of stopping.
In CH, the dead continue to communicate virtually with their living relatives. Do you think that these kind of apps will soon appear in our world ? If your answer is YES, how do you think it will change our world and our lives ? What will be the pros and cons ?
They’ve already appeared, although as yet they don’t seem to be very effective. For example, a site called Eter9 offers to learn about your through your social media posts, then mimic your voice and start talking to the world on your behalf. It will of course keep on doing so after you pass on. A while back, Virtual Eternity offered a very fetch-like service, but it didn’t take off and the site closed. Perpetu helps you manage your online presence post-death. And so on.
And of course, the dead already persist in ways they never used to. Facebook’s already asked me to wish friends who’ve passed on a happy birthday, and I occasionally get updates from their accounts, as people leave messages for them or friends and family post on their behalf.
More generally, the combination of digital tech (photos don’t fade any more) and the internet’s storage facilities has made the past a lot more present and persistent than it used to be – and the dead live in memory, so our relationship with them has also changed.
This is both a good and a bad thing, I think. On the one hand, I hugely enjoy having the past more present in my life. Many good things happened there! On the other, it can be more difficult to escape past traumas – Facebook’s recent decision to thrust memories from the past at people seems to have been problematic for some, for example. And I think there’s a risk of a certain kind of stasis. Forgetting the old makes room for the new. When the past persists, there’s much less room for novelty.
Oh, and more specifically – “Waking Hell”, the next book, has a fetch as a heroine and is very much about the pros and cons of fetch existence, how fetch society will evolve, how the living and the dead will relate to each other and so on. In short, I think it’ll all be pretty complex!
Were you influenced by Gogol’s Dead Souls when you wrote ?
Not really, no. I read it years ago but it hasn’t really stuck with me – which is a shame, as I love Gogol’s short stories. I should go back and try again!
If I had to pick Russian books I hope I’ve learned from, I’d probably go for Turgenev’s “Scenes from a Hunter’s Album” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Turgenev for his mastery of mood and subtle telling detail, Tolstoy for his marvellous ability to balance complex personal stories and the great, epic sweep of history.
Oh, and I think Hugo Fist would love “Notes from Underground”.
Your novel reminded me of Neuromancer (Gibson) and The Quantum Thief (Rajaniemi). I thought that it could be a missing link between those two great novels. Would you validate this assumption ?
That’s difficult for me to say! I can see how it might act as an interesting bridge between those two books – and I both love and am very flattered that you’ve seen it in that light – but I didn’t consciously write it to do that.
Are there some novels that you’d say influenced the way that CH is ?
Yes. Key specific inspirations were (in genre) Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances, Charles L. Harness’ “The Paradox Men” and Barrington Bayley’s “The Zen Gun” and “The Garments of Caean”.
Each combines a wonderful sense of playful imagination with a very serious aesthetic intent. They’re hugely enjoyable, constantly surprising reads, but they also cover some very important ground.
There’s also a fair bit of film in there. “The Third Man” was a big influence – a broken man returns to a broken city and discovers that an old friendship is not what he thought it was. There are some very specific nods to the film in the book.
And of course “Orphee” hangs very heavily over “Crashing Heaven”. A broken world in which reality and illusion have equal weight, the gods walk casually among us and the dead rise again with offhand ease – it was a huge inspiration.
The films of Powell and Pressburger were very important too, in particular “A Matter of Life and Death”. Again, it shows us two worlds – the real and the unreal, the living and the dead – negotiating a sometimes troubled, often dangerous, always fascinating co-existence.
In CH, you mix cyberpunk with singularity and noir. What are your favorite works in this genre ? How did you balance the mix in your own novel ?
I haven’t read a great deal of singularity fiction. Most of what’s in “Crashing Heaven” comes from just looking around. I think the singularity has already happened and it’s transnational corporate entities. They are independent intelligences in their own right, their needs and goals entirely separate from and often deeply inimical to humanity’s. It’s just that their scale of presence, thought and action is so different from ours that we haven’t really noticed. And we certainly haven’t developed effective ways of communicating with and managing them. I tried to dramatise my sense of that in the book.
And as for noir – again, it’s more of an atmosphere I’ve picked up over the years so it’s hard to point to single works. As I said above, “The Third Man” has always haunted me. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, of course. There’s a fair bit of Julian Maclaren Ross, Derek Raymond and Gerald Kersh in there as well, those great, dark, undeceived London mythmakers – again, experts at showing broken people moving through a broken city, trying to make some provisional sense of the parts of their lives they feel they can control.
The way that noir’s mutated into occult detective fiction was also a big inspiration – early “Hellblazer” hit me like a sledgehammer, for example. There’s something very cyberpunk about it – the way that John Constantine deploys street-level occult technologies to enforce his will on vastly more powerful supernatural entities. And there’s such sharp contemporary satire in there too.
Stepping back from individual works – I think the great lesson that noir has to teach is that you can solve crimes but you can’t solve people. That’s something I definitely tried to reflect in “Crashing Heaven”.
Will CH be published in France ? Will it be adapted on screen ? If it’s not secret…
I’d love to see “Crashing Heaven” published in France, but alas there are no current plans for anyone to do so. If anyone reading this is interested, do get in touch! And I’d be fascinated to see it adapted on screen. At one point we did get quite close to selling TV rights to it, but nothing concrete’s yet emerged.
What is your next project ?
I’m deep in final edits on “Waking Hell”, the loose sequel to “Crashing Heaven” that I’ve already mentioned. The past attacks and only the dead can save us! It’s coming out this October.
After that, there’ll be the final Station novel, “Purging System”. “Crashing Heaven” is about Station’s present, “Waking Hell” reveals its past and “Purging System” will show us its future.
And then there’ll be a bit of a change of pace, something a little more contemporary. I’m tossing round some ideas in the back of my mind, but I’m not even sure about them myself!