BSFA Survey Response: John Meaney

Survey coverJohn Meaney is a writer and black belt martial artist. His first novel, To Hold Infinity (1998), was shortlisted for the BSFA Award. Subsequent work includes the three-volume space opera Nulapeiron sequence (2000–2005), the gothic Tristopolis duology Bone Song (2007) and Dark Blood (2008), and many short stories. Just out is Edge, a near-future thriller (published as by Thomas Blackthorne), and forthcoming is Absolution, the first volume in a space opera series influenced by Norse mythology. Meaney was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

In the world of martial arts – bear with me: you talk to a writer, you get a fistful of metaphors – the ultimate fighting test is MMA, sometimes called cage fighting. The fighters are all-rounders operating in simultaneous modalities – jiu-jitsu, wrestling, kickboxing. Under those conditions, most martial artists fall to pieces.

In the ’90s, the field was dominated by one Brazilian family, working from their core art of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Nowadays, the light-heavyweight champion of the major worldwide circuit (the UFC) works from my own core system of shotokan karate, taking it into other modalities at world-class level.

Some of my work spans multiple genres – two of my novels are published as fantasy in the US but science fiction in the UK (and a different publisher offered to market them as police procedurals); while my novelette “Whisper of Disks” is almost pure literary fiction.

As a writer, my core discipline is science fiction; I take it with me wherever I go.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

Rigorous physics runs through my dark fantasy, which is really an alternative history deviating from our own during the formation of the solar system – as astute readers have noticed. In my hard sf, the story always depends on some deep concept or mystery from science – for example, time’s arrow. (Not a single fundamental physics equation indicates time flowing from past to future.) Critics sometimes say they cannot tell where real science ends and my fictional science begins. Sometimes I take that as high praise; other times I cry: “It’s all real, didn’t you know?”

But that’s only in the books I’ve written so far…

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

As someone deeply interested in cognitive processes – and a trained hypnotist – I’ve observed (and therapeutically utilized) the phenomenon of unconscious choice. We make choices all the time; the most important decisions rarely operate with much self-awareness. (Human beings are skilled at confabulating rational justifications after the behaviour’s conclusion; but those stories are what we cognoscenti refer to as porky pies.)

As far the conscious mind is concerned, books write themselves – and as for choice, there isn’t any.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

Sometimes yes; sometimes no. It’s American critics who say that I’ve written about class-ridden culture – in my Nulapeiron books – with a sensibility only a Brit could bring to bear. But the Tristopolis books are purely transatlantic, with a dark gothamesque setting that comes straight from my love of New York.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

Not in the books you can buy right now. There are recurring settings in secondary storylines, and Oxford is one of the cities I keep revisiting; but so is Zurich. I have two forthcoming novels set in near-future Britain, along with an alternate history cold-war thriller with a half-English protagonist and some British settings. (That’s in addition to my big hard sf trilogy in progress, the Ragnarok trilogy, which has a European timeline set partly in the UK.)

What’s interesting is that the books set entirely in Britain will almost certainly appear under a pseudonym, because they are more (literate) thrillers than hard sf. So perhaps John Meaney isn’t much for British settings, while his alter ego is.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In childhood: Fireball XL5, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, A.E. van Vogt. Later, Roger Zelazny (everything he wrote) and Frank Herbert (only Dune, but I loved it). In the decades since, it’s non-SF writers whose writing resonates for me: John Irving, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker and Stephen King are my heroes; and their books are my mentors.

Oh, did you notice they’re American?

Of course, that’s only the fiction. When it comes to other influences… that’s everything I’ve experienced and everything I’ve done. Me and every other writer.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Yes, but some of that is timing. My recent Tristopolis books generated similar responses in Britain, America and Germany.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

American readers are more likely to email me! Thanks, guys…

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

There should be a massive BANG! Spattered on walls and ceiling, remnants of brain slurp and drip toward the floor…

How many people flick on a light switch without considering what happens to make it work? How many people think of TV as electrons dancing in magnetic synch across the nation like a subatomic Riverdance? Or look at tiny flecks on brickwork and think: oh, fantastic, lifeforms are everywhere…

Everything’s connected. Our 13.7 billion year old universe, like a giant sponge filled with dark-matter filaments; our world existing for a third of that time; evolution and complexity turning stardust into living, thinking beings. How dare people – and mundane fiction – be so ungrateful as to ignore the wonder that surrounds and fills us?

SF should be adrenaline slamming straight to the heart, caffeine direct to the brain, injected with a hard, thrusting needle.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

Hollywood. Mind you, there are novelists who write about aliens with DNA or suchlike nonsense, on a par with sound effects in space… But the psychological associations with film and TV repel as many readers as they tempt into our genre. And some of our best books do present a barrier of geekness. Or should that be geekitude?

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

We grew confident, maybe even aggressive… and good for us! (And let’s hear it once again for David Pringle. He did us proud.) SF and fantasy writers have overwritten the old constraints, redefining the genre just as surely as MMA – and urban athletes like free runners – breathed new, exciting, energetic life into their arena.

3 thoughts on “BSFA Survey Response: John Meaney

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