An interview with Neal Asher

GridlinkedFor all the time and money I spend on, it’s actually quite rare for me to take the advice of one of their “recommendations”. But after finishing Charlie Stross’s Singularity Sky, I was in the mood for some more punchy SF, something with a good bit of action and a hard-edged futuristic bite to it. And apparently, customers who bought books by Charles Stross also bought books by Neal Asher.

I’d seen the name before. I’d picked up his books in bookshops, and been intrigued by the fabulous covers (on the UK editions, at least). I’d seen his name regularly mentioned in the same breath as Richard Morgan, whose books I like really quite a lot. So I clicked through, and bought Gridlinked.

The Line Of PolityI find there’s a great pleasure in coming across an author I like when they are already several volumes into a series, because then I can go out and gobble up all the episodes so far in a single reading binge. Such was the case with Neal Asher. After a few pages of Gridlinked, I was thoroughly hooked, and I ordered The Line Of Polity and Brass Man, the second and third books in the Ian Cormac series straight away.

As far-future thrillers these books are second to none. Although Gridlinked was only published in 2001, Asher has been writing for twenty years, working his way up through the small presses, and continuously developing the Human Polity universe in which the stories are set. Consequently, they positively brim over with vivid detail and richly characterised planetary societies.

Brass ManThe Skinner and Cowl are both stand-alone novels. The Skinner is set in the same Polity universe, but several hundred years earlier. It’s a novel of grisly exploration as much as a thriller, as it leads you through the terrifying world of Spatterjay, where immortality is for the taking–at a price–and where even the smallest seashore whelk has a bite that will take your hand off. Cowl is an inventive time travel thriller set in a completely different universe, but with the same characteristics of Asher’s other books: fast action, tight plots, horrific enemies, and danger at every corner. You want science fiction excitement? Come and get some.

Like many SF authors these days, Neal Asher has an active presence on the internet, running two sites: the official one,, and an alternative view at his older personal site. When I posted my quick review of Gridlinked, he dropped by to leave a kind thank-you comment in response. Unwilling to let a good deed go unpunished, I asked him if he would do a short email interview for this blog, and he graciously agreed. I hope you enjoy it.

Neal Asher--photo (c) Jerry Bauer, reproduced with permissionMartin Sutherland: From the reviews I’ve seen, Brass Man is getting a great reception. How big is the difference between the attention you’re getting now, and when Gridlinked was published in 2001? How do you find yourself reacting to all this praise?

Neal Asher: Strangely, I’ve seen fewer reviews of Brass Man (thus far) than I saw of Gridlinked and The Skinner when they came out. I think, in the reviewing world, there’s an attraction to the sparkly new thing, which I was then to the larger publishing world, but which I am not so much now. Now I’m part of the establishment. How do I react to the praise? I revel in it, but I’m much more reserved in my attitude to the reviews because, having had so many, I can pick up any one now and find another that flatly contradicts it. The same rules apply to people’s attitudes to my books. Initially The Skinner seemed to be everyone’s favourite, now I’m finding that each one of them is someone’s favourite. Luckily I get very few saying how much they really hate this or that. But what affects me most of all now is the increasing amount of fan response I’m receiving (both by email and on message boards). When someone writes to thank me, saying they picked up one of my books, didn’t put it down until 3.00 AM and are now going to go and get the rest, I feel pretty good. This is the effect some books had and still do have on me, and is precisely what I’m aiming for.

MS: I know you pay attention to mentions of your books on the internet, because that’s how you came across my tiny wee review of Gridlinked. Do you go out of your way to seek out reviews in newspapers and magazines? Do you have any particular favourite, or least favourite reviews? And have you counted how often the word “explosive” turns up whenever someone talks about your books?

NA: I don’t go too much out of my way to find the reviews. When a book is released I flick through a few magazines and if I find something, buy the magazine, cut out the review, and add it to my scrap books. Internet reviews are easy to find with an ego-search on google. Whenever I find them I feel beholden (if possible) to reply, for that is the least I should do if someone has made the effort.

Very often the words explosive, action-packed, violent, weird etc appear in reviews, and that’s great. I’ve always said I come from the Arnold Schwartzenegger school of SF. My aim, firstly and most importantly, has been to tell an entertaining story, not stun literati minorities with my brilliance.

My favourite review has to be the one of The Skinner that appeared in the New York Times. To begin with it was very good, but it what a venue!

MS: In an earlier interview you had said that you had originally intended to write four Ian Cormac books, one for each Dragon sphere, but that seems to have gone out the window now. At what point did you feel that you needed more space to tell all of these stories?

“I’ve always said I come from the Arnold Schwartzenegger school of SF.”

NA: That had been my intention, and it seemed obvious to many, from what happened in the first two books, that this was they way the rest were going to go. I tend to find in my writing that when I know myself what is going to happen I get bored, and it becomes more difficult for me to write. I got bored with that idea and new ones began to occur. A lot of people commented about how they really like Mr Crane … and a whole book came out of that. I also introduced Jain technology… As things have continued I’ve realised I need more than four books to tie up the loose ends, firmly nail down certain ideas and give a clearer description of the Polity. In the end, when you are describing a future history, the job can be never ending. Books about Cormac will reach a conclusion, but I suspect I’ll be writing about the Polity for a long time yet.

MS: Your novels so far have alternated between stand-alones, and volumes of the Ian Cormac series. What do you find are the main differences between writing the two types of book?

NA:The stand-alones are easier to write and I can allow my imagination a freer rein. The series is constrained by everything I’ve written before. Writing the series is more difficult because I have to keep going back to the old books to check my facts and iron out continuity errors.

MS: You’re now doing a book every nine months, rather than the more usual one per year. Is this pressure from your publisher to get hot product onto the shelves, or are you just writing faster than they can keep up with?

NA: The latter case. I’ve always delivered my books many months before I’ve needed to, and the gap has been growing ever wider. It has now reached the stage where I’m about a year ahead of my publisher. They’ve decided to play catch-up and adjust the publishing schedule to suit me more. Of course it helps that my books sell.

MS: Hubris is a big theme in your work. Not only is it the name of the main attack ship in Gridlinked, but it is also a motivating force for your
villains: Arian Pelter and Skellor are both arrogant enough to think that they are uniquely capable of controlling a dangerous thing that is quite obviously greater than themselves. It’s a classic theme, and also a very British one: we don’t like people getting too big for their boots. Do you feel that there are any other aspects of your work that are specifically British? And more generally, to what extent do you feel that your environment and current events shape your writing?

“I want to see the white hats win and the black hats dangling from the end of a rope.”

NA: A villain’s hubris bringing about his downfall is a quite commonly used plot-device. It’s especially useful when the villain is very powerful—a form of krypyonite really. I have to say though that I don’t think it a particularly British idea since it’s rooted into the mythologies of the entire human race. In fact I rather dislike the idea of being diagnosed as infected with that very British disease which is plain envy, not just a dislike of “people getting too big for their boots”. But I guess by Britishness comes out in my writing in many ways. How can it not? The great thing about SF writing is that everything feeds the mill: current events, some article in Focus or Scientific American, a fragment of conversation in a pub or something you saw crawling out from under a rock.

MS: The complementary theme is, of course, justice. The Gridlinked books follow the adventures of ECS agent Ian Cormac, and The Skinner and Cowl both feature characters chasing down mass murderers. You also seem to relish in making sure that bad guys get their righteous comeuppance. What do you think draws you to this kind of story, and this kind of character?

NA: Contrary to what is often seen in British writing—that dystopic vision of everyone screwing up, including the main character, and it all turning to shit in the end—I want to see the white hats win and the black hats dangling from the end of a rope. I can do this because I am telling a story, not trying to make serious predictions about the future, or come out with some deeply intellectual social commentary. As a writer you write what you like to read, and that’s what I’m doing.

MS: Your aggressive wildlife is as much of a trademark of your books as your fast-paced action plots. How much do you find yourself tailoring the flora and fauna of your settings to fit your stories, and vice versa?

NA: Usually the flora and fauna begin as world-building—the canvas on which the story is painted—but such is my interest in biology and the weird life forms I create, they often end up playing more of a central role: canvas plus quite a lot of the paint. Take The Skinner: without the ecology of Spatterjay there would be no story. It is all based on that viral immortality and what it does to people. Elsewhere it remains window dressing, but the focus of my attention as a writer is evident when people come away from a novel like The Line of Polity talking more about gabbleducks and hooders than the main characters and plot.

MS: Another technique you seem to be an expert at is rounding up all your characters into a single location for a huge show-down finale. You have said elsewhere that you try not to plan your novels ahead too much, though. Does this tying together of plot strands come naturally, then, or do you have to work hard at it?

NA: A bit of both really. Creating all the plot strands I find very easy, but satisfactorily tying them all off at the end comes a bit harder. My emphasis there is on the ‘satisfactorily’. It is easy to tie off plot threads say by killing all the main characters (the cop-out used in Blake’s 7) or by introducing that old SF standby the deus ex machina—something used by many authors who have backed themselves into a corner and found no other way out. But to bring about an ending that seems to arise naturally from everything that has already occurred and doesn’t leave the reader feeling cheated is a finely balanced thing. Yes, I do find this hard work, but also enjoyable, and years of writing experience oils the bearings. I sometimes fear that this time I’ll not be able to pull it off. Maybe without that fear I wouldn’t be able to?

MS: After Ian Cormac, I think John Stanton is my favourite character. Are we likely to see any more of him?

NA: John Stanton needs a rest and I think deserves to live happily ever after. Don’t you?

MS: Since reading Gridlinked, every time I see someone with a behind-the-ear bluetooth headpiece for their mobile phone, I can help thinking “aug“. Do you like techie gadgets like phones, PDAs, iPods? How do you see these devices influencing our culture? Do you think there is a danger of them dehumanizing our interactions with other people, in the way that had happened to Ian Cormac at the start of Gridlinked?

“I do find this hard work, but also enjoyable, and years of writing experience oils the bearings.”

NA: I recently did an audio interview with Dragon Page which was going to first go out as a ‘podcast’. I didn’t know that that was. I don’t own a mobile phone since I’ve never seen the need. However, this computer is a wonderful writing, research and advertising tool. I do love technology for its own sake, but not enough to go out buying the latest gadget on the market. I will use whatever technologies best serve my own purposes.

I’ve always been optimistic about all technology. Yes, some of them have the capacity to dehumanize our interactions with other people, for example the text messages : You’re fired, or You’re dumped. But on the whole they tend to enhance communication. We’ve many different ways now of chatting with anyone anywhere. The old and/or the crippled confined to their houses can now have that option. We tend to talk and interact more now, not less. This interview is an example.

MS: The inevitable movie question. At a talk Richard Morgan gave a couple of years ago (after he’d optioned the rights to Altered Carbon), I remember him saying that one of the keys to attracting Hollywood’s attention is a fast-moving plot, plenty of violence, and a strong headline protagonist to carry it all. It sounds like the Gridlinked series would fit the bill. Have you had any interest from Movieland? Which of your books (if any) would you most like to see turned into a film?

NA: There was a brief bit of interest from a production company called Blue Train (I think that’s the name) who along with another company called DreamWorks (!) were involved in the Jackie Chan movie The Tuxedo. But nothing came of it. I still live in hope, however.

With the CGI we have now I’d love to first see The Skinner turned into a film, then my second choice would be Cowl. The Cormac series I reckon would be much better serialized for television, though of course I wouldn’t be averse to them being turned into films (Heh!)

MS: Leather jacket with the collar up, white shirt casually unbuttoned at the top, and a casual frown that says, “I know 27 ways to kill you with my bare hands.” So what do you think of your author photograph?

NA: Hah! That was an interesting experience. Met a photographer, employed for the task by Macmillan, called Jerry Bauer. He’d photographed all sorts like Julie Christie and James Dean. He talked about Robert Silverberg and when I repeated the name he asked, “Do you know Bob?” Well yeah, me and x-million other SF readers. He took myself and my wife off from Temple underground station and had me posing in various litter-choked alleys while he took his snaps. My wife, Caroline, found much amusement watching the reactions of passers-by.
I don’t know 27 ways to kill someone with my bare hands, just variations on about five or six—as does anyone who has done a bit of karate. However I probably do know about 27 different ways to run away. That picture is now getting on for six years old. I’m a bit greyer now and baggier under the eyes. A bit wiser too, I like to think.

Brass Man is Neal Asher’s latest book, out now in hardback and trade paperback, published by Tor Books UK.


The Line Of Polity

Brass Man


The Skinner

Copyright © 2005 Neal Asher and Martin Sutherland

Pillow talk

Despite only having a dozen or so words in her vocabulary, Fiona is already using them to get into arguments with her brother. Take, for example, this gem from the other night, just after I’d put them both to bed:

[Fiona] “Dada!”

[Alex] “I’m not Dada, I’m Alex.”

[Fiona] “Dada!”

[Alex] “I’m not Dada, I’m Alex.”

[Fiona] “Dada!”

[Alex] “No, I’m not Dada, I’m Alex! Listen to what I’m telling you!”

[Fiona] “Mama!”

[Alex] “No! I’m not Mama! I’m Alex!”

[Fiona] “Alex!”

[Alex] “Yes.”

[Fiona] “Nooooooo…”

[Alex] “Yes I am!”

[Fiona] “Nooooooo!”

[Alex] “Yes! I am! I’m Alex! I’m Sandy!”

[Fiona] “Alex.”

[Alex] (Pause)

[Fiona] “Dada.”

[Alex] “Dada’s downstairs.”

[Fiona] “Dada!”

[Alex] “Dada’s downstairs!”

[Fiona] “Mama!”

[Alex] “No, mama’s downstairs too!”

[Fiona] “Mama!”

And so on…

Book Meme

Well, Keith tagged me with the book meme last week. It’s just taken me a while to get round to it…

Total number of books I’ve owned

Abi extracted the figure of about 2300 for the number of books we currently own. This is after some pretty heavy thinning-out of our collection over the last couple of years: we’re probably down about a thousand from our peak. Before then, getting rid of a book was a very rare thing for me, although Abi culled her collection before she moved from California to the UK in 1993. The whole communuty property thing complicates matters, because what is really “mine”, and how do I calculate the books I owned individually before getting married, and so on… I suppose 3500 wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

Last book I bought

Not a single book, but a bundle from Amazon:

  • Neal Asher – Cowl. Neal Asher is my highlight of the SF genre this year. His Gridlinked series (Gridlinked, The Line Of Polity, and Brass Man) are top-notch SF adventure stories. Hard-boiled, but with plenty of well-thought out futuristic detail.
  • Christopher Brookmyre – Boiling A Frog. Likewise, Christopher Brookmyre is my top discovery in the mystery/thriller genre in 2005. People have been recommending him to me for years, and now I know why. Exciting plots, writing that is laugh-out-loud funny, and Scottish to the core. Boiling A Frog is the third in the Jack Parlabane series, and the one I should have read before Be My Enemy, but the airport bookstore didn’t have it in stock…
  • Christopher Brookmyre – A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away. More Brookmyre, but a stand-alone one this time.
  • Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann – About Face 2.0: The Essentials Of Interaction Design. I’m so overdue for reading this it’s not funny any more. People snigger behind my back when they find out I haven’t even read the first edition.

Last book I read

Currently in the middle of The Skinner by Neal Asher. (Notice a pattern here?)

Last book I finished

Coyote by Allen Steele. I had read most of the Coyote stories that make up this book when they appeared in Asimov’s a few years ago, and was a pleasure to see them here compiled as a novel.

Five books that mean a lot to me

This is the most difficult question. Do I choose my five favourite books? But those might not necessarily be the ones that have the most emotional significance for me. Is it even possible for me to narrow any kind of list down to a top five? Ah, but the question doesn’t actually ask for the five books that mean the most to me, just a lot. Still, it’s hard to keep the numbers down:

  • Bob Shaw – Ship Of Strangers. This is the book that marked my transition from reading kids’ space stories to proper, grown-up science fiction. I vividly remember buying it at De Slegte in Maastricht in anticipation of a long plane journey on my first trip to the US in 1985. It was the 1979 Ace edition with the enticing Vincent di Fate cover, remaindered, with the notch taken out of the bottom of the book. (In fact, in all my years of collecting Bob Shaw books, I’ve never found a copy of this edition that hasn’t had the remaindered notch in it. If anyone knows of such a beast, let me know, and I’ll pay good money for it.) It’s a fix-up novel, consisting of stories about the crew of the survey spaceship Sarafand. Not, in objective terms, Shaw’s best work, but it does contains some excellent stories, and it struck a chord with me at age 14 that is still ringing.
  • Binas. Any Dutch high school student from the last, oh, thirty years or so will know this book. “Binas” stands for “BIologie, NAtuurkunde, Scheikunde” (biology, physics, chemistry). The book is a roughly A5-sized, paperback volume of tables, physical and mathematical formulas, and it is utterly indispensible if you’re studying the sciences. The densities of hundreds of solids and liquids, the rates of decay of isotopes and particles, trigonometric functions, statistical functions, melting and boiling points of materials…it goes on and on. I carried this book with me almost every day from when I got it at school (1986?) until I finished university in 1993. And then again while I was at teacher training college in 1994, and in the classroom in 1995. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve taken it off of my reference bookshelf.
  • Iain Banks – Espedair Street. I read this on the train back up to St. Andrews in January of 1992, after seeing Abi off in Gatwick or Heathrow on her plane back to California. (Actually, it might have been 1993…Abi will probably set me right.) Anyway, upon arriving at Leuchars station in the middle of the evening, all us disembarking passengers found ourselves unable to leave, because of a blizzard and eight foot snowdrifts. Bummer. Fortunately the nearby RAF base learned of our plight, and sent out an expedition to rescue us. I spent most of the rest of that night huddled up next to a radiator in a mess hall, with Abi’s long winter coat to help keep me warm (and remind me of her smell), finishing off the book. The rescue team fed us pies, beans and chips, and replaced the blood in our veins with sweet, milky tea. At around 4am, I got hauled off to a deathly still St. Andrews in the last truck. Espedair Street is inextricably entwined with this experience.
  • Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game because it is FUCKING AWESOME and makes me cry every time I read it. I don’t re-read many books (too many books, not enough time), but this is one of them. Despite also winning the Hugo, I didn’t think the sequel Speaker For The Dead matched it, and Xenocide is the reason I haven’t been inclined to read any more of the series. But when I first read Ender’s Game back in 1990…it just blew me away.
  • Robert Silverberg – Worlds of Wonder (now re-branded as Science Fiction 101, a sucky title). A collection of some of the best science fiction short stories ever written, introduced and critically dissected by Silverberg, interspersed with anecdotes and reminiscences from his own life as a writer. Three books in one, and 100% pure inspiration. Whenever I need to get fired up about writing fiction, this is the book I turn to.

Some close contenders that didn’t quite make it into the five:

Five Six Seven Fuck it, some people I’d like to pass this meme on to

  • Rands, because, y’know, he probably hasn’t anything better to do
  • Richard, because I know he hasn’t anything better to do
  • Riri, because, frankly, I’m amazed it hasn’t hit her yet
  • Frank, because he probably needs a break from changing nappies. (And I still I owe you a present, Frank…I’m working on it…)
  • Spence, because I think it would be really interesting
  • Matt Little and Alistair Laing because they don’t blog enough. Suck it up, guys.
  • Simone Cooper and Guy Gascoigne-Piggford, because we lost touch with them a long time ago, and that’s a shame. Unfortunately, neither of them seem to have blogs, and I doubt if they read this one.


Upon Julian’s urging (and after having been sniffing around the idea myself for some time, too) I’ve installed Skype. My username is martinsutherland, because the signup process told me that “sunpig” had already been taken. Being curious, I did a search for the name once I got the program up and running, and found…no such user. Harumph.

Oh, and just like Instant Messaging, don’t expect to see me online in your contacts list very often. Showing up as online only encourages people to try and contact me, and why on earth would I want that?