Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Empires: Interview with Stephen Deas and Gavin Smith!

This groundbreaking collaboration between two Gollancz authors tells of the invasion of Earth by two different alien races - at the same time. Two men become aware of the threat, and must work to sabotage the invasion plans and see off the aliens.
Each book follows one hero, uncovering the threat to humanity and the world from their point of view. Each book can be read on its own, and will give the reader a complete, kinetic, fast-paced military SF story. But read both books and the reader gets something else - another view of (some of) the same events and crossover points, culminating in a bloody battle at Canary Wharf.
The two books can be read in any order, but together they tell the story of humanity caught in the crossfire between two deadly alien races, who have made Earth their battleground...

Empires: Extraction and Empires: Infiltration were both published this month by Gollancz, and both sound ace! Alien invasions and military SF... what more could you want?

Thanks to Gollancz for providing this exclusive interview with authors Stephen Deas and Gavin Smith!


Steve: The idea of a pair of linked SF novels portraying the same far future conflict from the perspectives of the two combatants was originally conceived in a restaurant between me and our then shared editor Simon Spanton after I shared my general scorn and unwillingness to believe in a shared world approach to story-telling that was truly a shared world and not just one person making up a world and then telling everyone else what to write. That was when your name came up as the other half of such a project.

I wonder if you could tell everyone exactly how honoured you felt to be invited to join what will surely be seen as the vanguard in a new SF revolution when it comes to alien invasion fiction?

Gavin: I was thinking how lucky you were. I was about to go and watch my friends do triathlon training from the comfort of a pub and I remember what a good idea I thought it was. I then spent my time in the pub starting to develop what would eventually become the Pleasure. I also remember thinking it would be complex because we needed to come up with aliens that people could identify with. Then I started thinking of a lot more complications. I liked it because I had grown up reading Wild Cards, so I liked shared worlds and I think they can work. Marvel and DC’s shared worlds seemed to have worked quite well, for example.

My question: You've previously played down your responsibility for coming up with the original idea. Just how exactly did this come about?

Steve: Um... Oh go on then – people always ask “where did you get your inspiration,” so let me show exactly how unhelpful it can be to actually answer that question:


Steve's Agent: “I like the idea of shared worlds and multiple authors writing into the same setting.” Steve: Pah! Scorn! Derision! Inevitable artistic conflict!


Steve (continuing): Pah! Scorn! Derision! Inevitable artistic conflict!
Steve's editor: “What if two authors wrote the opposing sides of the same conflict story?”
Steve: Derision! Artistic differences...!
Steve: …
Steve: Scepticism. Admission of interest in the idea as a theoretical concept.
Steve's editor: “For example, humanity are caught in a war between two alien races who are both much more advanced, and then each author writes from the perspective of one of the alien races.” Steve: More scepticism. Concept clearly unworkable. Wonders how human readers would identify with properly alien perspectives. Wonders how two authors can survive in the same fictional universe.
Steve's editor: “What about Gav?”
Steve: Considers future. Imagines shared scorn and derision plus also beer and pizza. “I reckon he'd think the same.”


Steve: “So, anyway, it seems like a great idea, and by the way, how much would the advance be on that?”

So not a great deal of responsibility for the very start of it, although I think what Simon had in mind then was some far-future Space Opera with the two alien races taking centre stage. I think by the time we started talking about it I'd already decided I didn't like that and that the primary protagonists needed to be NOT alien on the grounds that my idea of alien is more alien than simply being a human with a funny lumpy bit somewhere and oddly coloured skin.
Do you remember how we ended up moving the story from the far future onto contemporary Earth? Also, how did you come up with your aliens, The Pleasure?

Gavin: The question wasn't really about inspiration so much as apportioning blame. So you're saying it's still very much Simon's fault?

I think we moved the story from the far future quite early on in the process and if I recall correctly we did so because we were going to be using the alien perspectives a lot, and felt we needed to ground the human side, and make it more identifiable. As a result we chose to use the world we all know and start changing it...

The Pleasure came from my trip to the pub. I needed an alien race that was very alien but that humans could identify with. Their technology was very advanced but they still needed a good reason to invade the Earth (rather than wanting to steal resources that are readily available all over the cosmos or just to f*** s*** up). The infinitely customisable Pleasure was my response to these considerations. Like you I think aliens should be genuinely alien and not just Viking space bunnies. The Pleasure were a lot of fun to write. So right back at you, how'd you come up with the Weft?

Steve: I remember not having a clue what my aliens were going to be like when you came up with the Pleasure, which was both useful and irritating of you. Irritating because I rather like the Pleasure and wished I'd come up with them first. Useful because it put another boundary up – the Weft needed to be very not human, but also very unlike The Pleasure – I felt our two alien races should be alien to each other too. So the Weft ended up being very mathematical, a race whose approach to absolutely everything is to solve it with provable veracity, who operate as a collective and to whom the concept of individuality is simply bizarre. I wanted the Weft to have a collective mindset that simply couldn't 'get' The Pleasure (and possibly vice versa, though I suspect The Pleasure are more versatile in their thinking). After that I needed them to have a reason that would absolutely compel that mindset to engage with the plot we were thinking of, which is how, with the aid of some extremely questionable physics, they ended up having an exotic matter second self which they consider to be – in human terms – their soul. That also dealt with the issue of how to have a hive mind that could function across a galactic scale. Well, when I say “dealt with”, I mean having already crossed the Rubicon as far as any realistic physics was concerned...

So we got our aliens and our basic premise, and I guess we had something of an outline that some of us didn't stick to terribly well... but never mind that, what was your favourite scene in INFILTRATION?

Gavin: Who didn't stick very close to the original plan? Was it me? The first casualty of war and all that. I thought the exotic matter second self was a work of genius by the way. A scientific soul. Particularly as it's the pivotal connection between the Weft, the Pleasure and humanity, with that in place it made everything a lot easier plot wise.

I'm actually very pleased with the book in general, I think we've got away with a lot in it. An alien invasion story that makes sense, aliens that are properly alien but still easy(ish) to identify with, the crossover points in a shared world etc. But if I had a gun to my head, I'm fond of the scene where a certain crotchety police officer meets a certain military scientist, and I like a lot of the quieter moments, particularly with the two brothers that the human side of INFILTRATION centres on. That said I do like the first chapter, getting to wheel out some of the bigger SF tropes in a hopefully original fashion.

So what was the least favourite part of EXTRACTION for you to write? (I'm asking this because I think I know the answer.)

Steve: The not sticking to the plan was me. Or maybe we just had different ideas of what the plan actually meant (taut alien invasion conspiracy thriller or Transformers 17: Optimus Prime smashes up London, what are we doing here?)

My least favourite bit to write? I think you think I'm going to say the Docklands scene. And that was bloody hard work and very frustrating and irritating at times, and next time we ever do something like that again, with two story-lines meshed together in the same place at the same time for about ten thousand words of extended pitched battle involving multiple (I count six) different groups of protagonists, I demand we run it as turn-based combat using miniatures first. That said, I will offer a small prize to anyone who spots the one tiny inconsistency that escaped.

No, my least favourite scene to write was the one you ended up writing for me to make up for not letting me have the Gherkin turn into a spaceship and just take off from the middle of the City of London.

We should probably stop soon. I don't think anyone's still reading. In case they are, why the hell should they buy an EMPIRES book?

Gavin: I think they'll get something that's original, a bit different but still very much 'classic' SF, exciting, action-packed, with moments of humour but mainly they should read the books for the same reason any good book should be read, it's entertaining. And same question back at you.

Steve: Badass aliens. Snarky spaceships. Sweary SAS men. They fight. And despite the fact that that's basically EMPIRES in a nutshell, we also manage to be moderately intelligent about it.

Gavin: The next two aren't going to have a f*****g clock in them though. Possibly the meanest thing you've ever done to anyone, ever.

Steve: I was still sore about lasers visible in the vacuum of space in ELITE: WANTED. See what I did there, how I plugged the other book we did together. . .

You should have mentioned the clock to Mike.

Gav? You still there?

Gav. . .?

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