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Adam Roberts Interview – The Real-Town Murders

Adam RobertsAdam Roberts is the BSFA Award winning author of Jack Glass (2012), a mixture of locked room murder mystery and golden age science fiction, Bete (2014), which imagines a world in which animal rights activists implant farm animals with computer chips that give them the ability to talk, and The Thing Itself, which uses John Carpenter’s The Thing to explore Kant’s philosophy and the Fermi paradox. His novels Salt (2000), Gradisil (2006) and Yellow Blue Tibia (2009) were nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He also lectures in English literature and creative writing at Royal Holloway. Adam Roberts was in Edinburgh for the International Book Festival, and kindly agreed to talk to us about his writing.

Your latest novel, The Real-Town Murders (2017), is out now. Could you tell us what it’s about?

It’s a Hitchcockian near future, murder mystery, locked room whodunnit. And the most important thing about it is it was originally called The R!-Town Murders. Because the town in it is R!-Town. It’s Reading, but in the future they’ve rebranded Reading to try to make it more attractive, because the populations are migrating into virtual reality. So they want to make the real place more attractive. So they make it R!-Town and the slogan is, “My town. Your town. R!-Town.” That was the working title of the book, and that’s the name of the town in the book, and I was told it’s not possible to have an exclamation mark in the middle of a title of a book. Apparently it messes up Bookscan and it can’t be put into the catalogues. So Gollancz said you have to change the title, I’m sorry it can’t be R!-Town it has to be Real. So we changed it to The Real-Town Murders.

But it’s a locked-room mystery. It’s a puzzle whodunnit. I love that format. I’ve written them before. And I’m writing them now. The kink is that it’s filtered through a distinctively Hitchcock sensibility. Because I found myself more and more fascinated by Hitchcock’s films, he’s a master of that. He’s a master actually of suspense, he’s not so much a master of the puzzle. That’s something that it’s rare it seems to me in the thriller nowadays.

What are the challenges of writing a mystery story in a science fictional world?

The Real Town Murders (cover)The launch point for it was, I knew that Hitchcock had wanted to make a movie in the 70s, towards the end of his career. It was going to be a pre-credits sequence in an automated car factory, where everything was robots and there are no people around at all. And Hitchcock wanted this pre-credits sequence to follow all the components of the car being delivered to the factory and robots assembling it, and you would see everything, you’d see the panels put on and the wheels assembled and the engine put in and everything put together, at the end of it the finished car would roll down, and there would be a dead body in the boot. And Hitchcock’s problem was, he couldn’t work out how the body would get in the boot. So he never made the movie.

But that’s the advantage of science fiction, isn’t it? Science fiction gives you a greater range of possibilities. You have to play fair with the reader, otherwise it’s not a proper whodunit. But you can at least say, we’re in the science fiction world now, so let’s say, we’re on the cusp of inventing teleportation. Perhaps that’s how the body got in the boot, perhaps not, let’s see what happens and how the character would be murdered and disposed of in that way, and so on. But that’s true of any science fiction narrative I think, isn’t it? You can’t just come to the denouement and wave a hand and say, “Oh, it was through the power of magic technology everything was sorted out.”

Your books frequently have a playful, humorous approach to genre and ideas. Do you feel there is something about SF that encourages playfulness?

I mean it’s strange that isn’t it? Because in real life I’m an incredibly dour and humourless man. I think it has to be a particular kind of humour. It has to be a particular kind of wit. And actually, an ironic mode of wit. So I hope it’s more than mere facetiousness or slapstick or nonsense.

I’m not quite sure if this is me post facto justifying to myself the kind of stuff I like, but I would try and put together a coherent argument that linked the specific logic of the sense of wonder that makes science fiction special with the specific logic of the joke. So if I’m asked for the definition of science fiction, which happens with remarkable frequency, on the tube, when I’m waiting at the checkout at Tesco, “How would you define science fiction, Adam Roberts?” What I generally say is, the moment at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When the ape has been uplifted by the strange monolith, and he beats the other ape to death, and he throws the bone in the sky, and then it magically turns into a spaceship. The spaceship that’s orbiting the Earth in 2001. That moment of transformation, that moment of kind of marvel and wonder, it seems to me, it still seems to me, really beautiful and really eloquent. Eloquent in a way that I’m not sure I can entirely explain or pin down or rationalise. But something profound is happening there. That change, it’s a metaphorical process where something changes into something else, and something new comes into the world.

I would say that’s also the logic of a joke. So if I say to you, for example, I went into the library and I said to the woman behind the counter, “I’ll have fish and chips please,” and she went, “This is a library,” and I went, “Oh, I’m sorry, *whispers* I’d like fish and chips please!” The last bit is unexpected, and that’s what makes it a joke. Structurally, formally, it’s the same thing. It’s more than surprise isn’t it? It’s more than just… BANG! It follows in an intuitive way from what’s happened before but not in a logical, rational way.

That’s interesting because a lot of science fiction writers think science fiction is about the logical rational extrapolation of ideas into a notional future. I don’t think it is. I think there has to be a kink to it, there has to be a knight’s move, an unexpected twist that makes it suddenly beautiful. And I do think formally, there are parallels between the way science fiction works and the way a joke works. I’m not saying that science fiction needs to be hilarious, and actually examples of successful comic science fiction are few and far between. In fact without The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (1979) I’m not sure there are any really successful examples of that. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the formal structure, which then lends itself to a particular sort of conceptual wit, irony and playfulness which is what I love about the genre in the first place.

Your previous novel, The Thing Itself, uses Kant to explore the Fermi Paradox, by way of Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). How do you go about writing something so complex?

The Thing Itself (cover)The Thing Itself is a kind of a special case because it’s a big book, it’s a complicated book, twelve sections. It took me longer than it usually does when I write a book to pull it together. It’s difficult to say from the perspective of writing it up, I was intrigued, and it kind of connects with what we’re saying. I was intrigued by the idea of being an atheist writing a book that was supposed to persuade people to believe in God. Because that had never been done before. There are lots of books by atheists saying you should be an atheist, like The God Delusion (2006), and there are lots of books by believers, who say this is why you should be a believer, but I’m not sure there’s any prior examples of an atheist writing that kind of a book. Because it has that sort of twist in it, because it’s kind of structurally unexpected.

I don’t know, though, it’s only unexpected if you know me. And not many people do because I’m a bit of a recluse. So then it has to be about mixing some of the glories of pulp science fiction, like John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is one of the great films, not despite but because it so enthusiastically inhabits the lineaments of pulp science fiction. Mixing that with the highest of high culture, Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy, and trying to make the two work together. Trying at every point to pull pulp entertainment and narrative excitement away from all the highbrow pretentious stuff without them losing touch.

If I look into the deep dark truthful mirror, about myself as a writer, one phrase has dogged me a bit, and which is now coming out in reviews of the latest book, is clever clever, which is different to clever. Clever’s fair enough, and you want a novel to be clever and to stimulate you and so on, but clever clever’s something much less desirable in a book. And that’s the mirror universe me that I’m wrestling with. I don’t know, I think the difficulty is I’m not sure I quite understand why clever clever is such a bad thing! But that’s, what it means I suppose is that you’ve sacrificed the heart of the story and the characters and what makes a story matter to people to mere intellectual game-playing. And that’s the sweet spot you need to get in, if you write the kind of books that I write.

I think with the kind of books you do write, there’s always going to be a spectrum. It will really work for some people because they want to engage with those ideas, but not so much for others.

Yeah. And it’s also, a novel especially has to have heart. There is a part of me as a writer that resonates with, you know the Cohen brothers, Miller’s Crossing (1990)? The scene at the end, where he’s going to shoot the guy, and the guy says, “Don’t shoot me, look in your heart,” and he says, “What heart?” And shoots him in the head. Part of me thinks, yeah, I’m with him on that, yeah. There’s enough heart! There’s enough novels with heart in them already! What heart? Boom!

It’s partly because these things do come in phases, there’s a vogue for this, there’s a vogue for that. I’m fascinated by irony as an aesthetic mode, and I find it really interesting and I find it really stimulating, I find it often really illuminating and elevating and even beautiful. But it’s kind of out of fashion at the moment. It’s not where we are at the moment. People like a bit more… I’m not sure what they like. A bit more genuineness I suppose.

For Swiftly (2008) you riffed on Jonathan Swift, and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) and Splinter (2007) are reworkings of Jules Verne. What is it like playing with other writer’s ideas? How difficult is it to get their voices right, which you capture especially well in Swiftly?

Swiftly (cover)It’s pooh, is what you’re saying, in your diplomatic way. It was a very pooh-y novel. But I think that is true to the voice of Jonathan Swift if you boil it down. It was very excremental, his vision of the universe. What I’d say is, and this may simply be me positioning myself as an eccentric, in the strict sense of the word, but it doesn’t seem to me unusual to engage with other writers that way. It seems to me that all books are written in dialogue with all the other books that are written. And the more honest thing to do is to be straightforward about that and to put it up front. Intertextuality. But intertextuality has a horribly old fashioned flavour to it now. It seems very kind of 80s, 90s postmodernism, which is all behind us now.

It’s not an effort for me to engage in that way. And I read all the time, and this is how my imagination works, it likes to grapple whole with things. And in The Real-Town Murders, with Hitchcock, the only real difference is Hitchcock is a visual artist, rather than a textual one. So that required me to make a different set of choices for the way I wrote the book. And actually I think bits of The Real-Town Murders are more like pastiche than is the case with the titles you mentioned, which I think are by way of living homage. But then bits of it are not.

New Model Army (2010) explores how the Internet can radically change social organisation. How have your feelings about this changed in the seven years since you wrote it?

When I wrote New Model Army, the paradigm I had in my head was the direct participatory democracy of Ancient Greece. Which is participatory in the sense that if you’re an adult, freeman, male, then you could participate in an election. If you were a slave, or a woman, or a foreigner, you couldn’t. But even with that limitation, everybody in Athens, or everybody in Corinth, engaged with the democratic decision making process. The point of the novel was to try imagine how that might work through social media.

New Model Army (cover)

The big difference between what’s actually transpired and the kind of vision I put into that novel, is, it seems to me that direct participatory democracy facilitated by social media is now just a feature of the political landscape. But it’s much more easily manipulated than I anticipated it would be. That it’s not actually millions of people expressing their voice, which might be, to my political sensibilities, an obnoxious voice. A Trumpian voice. It’s not even that. It’s that you don’t need very many people using the clever algorithms that social media have available to nudge people in a particular direction. It doesn’t even need to be straightforward corruption in the old school model. Because people on social media are much more malleable than I thought, perhaps, they would be.

But it’s weird that isn’t it, thinking individually, people have spent a lifetime accumulating experiences and thinking about things, and they arrive at political positions, which when you talk to them one on one they will defend, which can be cogent and rational and have roots. En mass though, people seem to be fantastically manipulatable. Seems to be the way social media is working its way through. But it’s the way it was targeted with Trump. Trump was such a catastrophic candidate. And is now such a catastrophic president. Clinton won the election with three million more votes than Trump. But the campaign was able to target itself, put pressure on a small select band of rust belt states that enabled Trump to take the White House. I’m a little bit more pessimistic about Brexit. I think Brexit was the consequence of decades of anti-European propaganda by the mainstream media which pre-dates social media actually but was then carried through in social media. Combined with the fantastically mendacious Brexit campaign, which persuaded people that we’d all have 350 million pounds to spend on the NHS, and a small majority then voted for Brexit. And then we’ll live with the consequences.

But also there was a legal case that went to the high court to try and make the Brexit campaigners accountable for the lies they told. And it ran out of time. So the logic is, if you lie as a politician, then the sanction is, the voters will know and will vote you out next time. In civil discourse or in legal discourse if you lie and you’re found out, then you can be prosecuted. This was a test case to try and bring that into politics as well. And it’s failed. So there were monstrous lies told. And now we have to deal with the consequences, and you know, for the people who told those lies, it’s like, there’s no incentive to tell the truth! What can you say? I mean there were some exaggerations and lies told on the other side as well, but the other side didn’t win.

Anyway now we’re just ranting about Brexit. A disaster. As we all found out. So clearly what we can also say is, the best remedy for Brexit is to buy many copies of my novels, and have them in your house or perhaps even in your bunker. For when chaos comes again so that you have lots of useful books to read. As, you know, cannibalism and dystopian horrors sweep the country outside your panic room. Anyway, carry on, you were saying?

Your short story collection Adam Robots sees you playing with a whole bunch of science fiction tropes and ideas, each story appears to be a take on one idea before revealing itself to be a take on another. Is it easier to do this with short stories than with novels? How does the process differ?

Adam Robots (cover)It’s different because short stories are shorter so they don’t take as long, yes. But you see what I did with the title there. It’s very clever. Because my name is Adam Roberts, and the title was called Adam Robots. And I’m a science fiction writer and robots are a science fiction trope, conceit. Roberts, Robots, Robots, Roberts.

Short stories are a strange thing aren’t they? I know writers personally who will spend months and months and months honing and crafting a short story. And there are writers, let’s say Ted Chiang, who’s a writer I admire enormously, whose entire career is based on a very slow production of exquisite extraordinary short stories. And that’s never been my approach to writing short stories. I like to try and, I turn the handle on the machine and the short story comes out and that’s good, but you can’t sell them and there’s no money in them.

You read very widely within and around the genre, as your role as a Kitschies judge and elsewhere. How do you feel about where the genre is now?

I do think it’s in rude health. So the opening title to John Millius’s Conan The Barbarian is a quotation from Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” and I don’t want to be fatuous in my optimism, but I do think having been through the whole Gamergate, Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies experience, I think science fiction is actually coming out the other side of that stronger. I think the most recent round of Hugos is a tremendous bill of health. Because all the books that won, and all the stories and novellas that won, are really good, by women and by writers of colour, and there’s a much greater diversity now, there’s a greater acceptance in the kind of core of fandom, that’s where genre’s going.

We need diverse books, we genuinely do. And I say that as a hideously white, straight, middle aged man. Because everybody benefits. You get a much wider range of experiences reflected in fiction, you get better fiction. And it may be just fatuous, it may be that a lot of people who were putting their energies into Gamergate and the Puppies have been distracted by the Trump phenomenon and their now directly acting in politics which is a terrible thing. But science fiction now feels saner and healthier and richer and more diverse than it did two or three years ago. And certainly than it did twenty years ago. So I’m full of hope.

Would you do something like judge the Kitschies again?

I enjoyed doing the Kitschies, partly because the people I was judging with were just excellent human beings. Kim Curran and Claire North and Frances Hardinge… it was just a pleasure to spend time with them. And I read a lot anyway, and it was nice to get a whole ton of free books, but it really did start to get more than I could cope with. Every day would bring another parcel of books. And it was, the good part of it was I got a much broader, a much wider sense of what’s happening in genre. But the downside was I read a ton of shit. And the worst of it was, you get boxes and boxes of books, and you read them. And I tried not to be the kind of judge who would read five pages of a thing and go oh it’s not for me. I tried to give each book a chance, take it on its own merits, and I read quite quickly, and I read a lot anyway.

The Kitschies (banner logo)

The real killer was that the Kitschies have an electronic submission protocol, so after you got through the thirty books or whatever you’d go on and open the folder on your computer, and there would be 120 often self-published electronic books! And you’d think, well I can’t just sweep them under the carpet. And in fact one of the books that we shortlisted for the Kitschies was Becky Chambers, who’s gone on to great things, and I’m not saying that it was because we shortlisted it, which we did, but I think by the time we shortlisted her it was already clear that she was a major new voice, but that came out of that folder. And also in amongst that folder was just, as they say in Full Metal Jacket, a world of shit. Which you then wade through. And that’s a bit demoralising actually when you realise how much bad writing there is. But then there was also good writing. So it was a bit more gruelling than I thought it was going to be.

It’s to the Kitschies’ credit that they have that avenue in, because a lot of writing now doesn’t come through the traditional avenues of publishing. There are very exciting, particularly new voices, they’re getting self-published and they’re getting digitally published. It makes it hard on the judges!

What’s next for Adam Roberts?

Well I’m going to write a sequel to The Real-Town Murders. Because what I’ve done all my career is do something different with each book. So I’ve never written a sequel before. So because I’ve never written a sequel before, writing a sequel is doing something different. That’s the way I’m selling it to myself. So I’m writing that now. It’s another whodunnit, and it’s set in the same world, and this time, Money, with a capital M, is who dunnit. That’s a bit of a spoiler actually now I come to think about it but there we are. It’s a dangerous thing, Money, you’ve got to watch out for it. Particularly with a capital M.

Thank you for talking to us Adam Roberts, and thank you to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for hosting us. To learn more about The Real-Town Murders and Adam Roberts’ other stories, you can check out his website here.


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