A selection of online interviews.
Ian launching Kate Forsyth and Fiona McDonald’s book, 2014. Sophie Masson next to Kate.
The following interview first appeared on the Warner Aspect website.
A SHADOW ON THE GLASS is a “science-fantasy” novel. When creating this book, did you think in terms of combining Science Fiction and Fantasy?
Not at all, though after it was written I realised that, because of my training and work as a scientist, the settings I had created and the fantasy elements of my story had a strong and logical foundation which added to the realism and believability of my worlds.
Initially all I wanted to do was write an epic fantasy that was a great big adventure, but I did want to write something different from the usual male-dominated, good vs evil kind of fantasy that was so prevalent back when I began writing nearly fifteen years ago. Also, recalling Tolkien’s criticism of his own work as being ‘too short’, I wanted to write a really big but totally consistent story.
A SHADOW ON THE GLASS, therefore, is the first volume in a four book epic fantasy series called THE VIEW FROM THE MIRROR QUARTET which took me twelve years to write (and whose origins in world-building go back another decade). It forms the first part of a cycle of ten fantasy novels I’m writing called THE THREE WORLDS SERIES which consists of the Quartet, a trilogy, a pair of novels and finally a single novel. I’m writing the second and third books of the trilogy at the moment.
The action takes place on the Three Worlds (Aachan, Tallallame and Santhenar) which were originally occupied by three distinct human species (Aachim, Faellem and old human). Then, fleeing out of the void came a fourth species, the Charon. Desperate, on the edge of extinction, they changed the balance between the worlds forever …
Having written the Quartet I came to realise that it was a ‘Darwinian’ fantasy. There are no truly evil characters in it, though sometimes good characters do evil deeds. There are four human species, each struggling with all the others, and each doing what they think is right to ensure the survival of their kind.
How did this come about?
Well, every writer is a product of their environment, upbringing, and the work they do, and I’ve been a working scientist for twenty-five years. In fact, when I was a kid I had no interest in writing at all, though I devoured books in every genre. I just wanted to be a research scientist.
My first degree was in earth sciences. That was in the early 1970’s. The environmental movement was just getting started and I became interested in environmental research. To do research you need a Ph. D. so I ended up doing one of those. It’s great training in being persistent, and therefore very useful for a writer.
My doctorate was in marine science, specialising in pollution in the bottom of Sydney Harbour, of which there’s plenty! Somehow I ended up an expert in an esoteric branch of pollution science, namely contaminated sediments and how to manage them safely.
I set up my own little consulting firm 15 years ago and have been doing that kind of work ever since. My plan was to only ever have one employee – me – so I could pick the kinds of jobs I liked and live with my family wherever we wanted to go. I had grown up in the middle of a forest, and my wife also came from the country. We wanted to bring up our kids in a pretty, peaceful place, a long way from the muck and grime of the city.
I live in Australia but work has taken me all over the Asia-Pacific region, to such romantic locales as Mauritius, Sumatra, Bali, Fiji and Tonga, as well as the bottom of every scummy, festering harbour in between. Those places, the people I met there, and the disasters we faced and (sometimes) overcame, gave me many ideas for my books.
These days for family reasons I do most of my professional work in my home office. Over the past decade I’ve designed some of Australia’s national guidelines for the protection of the marine environment, however for the last three or four years I’ve essentially been writing full time (and consulting part time).
My work has also influenced my other writing, a trilogy of near-future thrillers about eco-terrorism and global environmental change. The first of the trilogy, THE LAST ALBATROSS, was published in 2000 and the second, TERMINATOR GENE, will come out in 2002. But that’s another story entirely; almost another life.
My training has definitely influenced how I write fantasy, particularly in the way I look at fantastic phenomena. For example, if I’m describing someone using a portal, its not just a device to carry characters across a continent in the nick of time. As with the things we use in real life, it has particular characteristics, problems and effects. Sometimes a portal goes wrong, or breaks down, or affects those using it in unusual ways. When people are using any kind of magic or magical device, I try to imagine what that phenomenon would actually be like. Say the portal goes from the tropics at sea level (eg, in our world, Singapore) to high latitude mountains (the Andes). The air pressure is higher at sea level in Singapore, the air is hotter and more humid. So when you open the gate in the highlands, air pressure will result in hot, humid air belching out through the gate and the moisture condensing into clouds of fog or mist. That’s what my gate will be like.
And I’m a strong believer that everything has a cost, so people using any kind of ‘magic’ (the Secret Art) always suffer aftersickness. Magic can’t be a ‘magical’ solution to plot problems. I also make sure that the calendar(s) are correct, the phases of the moon(s) match the tides, that travel times are realistic etc. In other words, I try to get all the details, even if they’re only a sentence in a long novel, absolutely correct.
I work hard to make the landscape, the cultures, the people and the settings different but realistic. So much fantasy (even Australian fantasy) uses the same Western European settings, the same vast oak forests, the same clichéd pseudo-medieval cultures. To me, popular fantasy often seems fossilised into patterns, structures and concepts laid down fifty years ago. Alternatively, where fantasy sets out to break free of these stereotypes, it is sometimes exotic and alien at the expense of the story. For me the story always comes first.
The science angle also comes through in viewpoint. Most fantasy writers come from a humanities background, I think. I’d been writing for a decade before I realised that my outlook, as a practicing scientist of 20 years or so, differed to someone from a non-scientific background. No better, no worse, but just a slightly oblique way of looking at the world.
I should stress that I don’t try to explain magic with science, nor portray magic as a science that people no longer understand (and therefore think of as magic). For example, I never explain how portals work; I just show what it would really be like using one. Differences in air pressure could well be so extreme that it would be impossible to get through a gate at all. Those are the kinds of little details that make a story interesting, especially when they cause the characters problems that they could never have anticipated.
So where do my stories come from? My fantasy writing germinated in outrage back in the 1970’s. I was reading a blockbuster fantasy of the time where the map in the book seemed to bear no relation to the story. Fantasy maps often seem to be drawn by people who think geography is a set of clichés, or a shopping list. “I’ll have one of those deserts, and two of these arctic tundra …” Not to mention geographical chauvinism – virtually every fantasy ever written is set in the Northern Hemisphere.
Anyway, in that moment I decided to design a world properly, from first principles, and spent a good bit of the next few years doing so (to the detriment of my academic career, it need not be said). I put in the geology, the meteorology, the ocean currents, the forests of different kinds, ecosystems, trade routes, several thousand years of history etc. And then I had to tone it right down, because a completely alien environment is incomprehensible without masses of explanation, and that rarely makes a good story. The reader has to hang her hat on familiar things, so my characters ride horses, not six-legged purple gnurrls, and much of what they eat is familiar.
Above all, I’m not trying to impress anyone with my cleverness, but simply to tell the best story I can. I just aim to write popular fantasy for ordinary readers, where the action never stops and the reader really worries about the characters. With the different races and human species in the Quartet, I wanted them to be fully rounded, alien yet very human (because ultimately the four human species do have a common ancestor). I also wanted my characters to be different. I didn’t want the cliché warrior, the cliché mage, the cliché waif, king etc.
Furthermore, when I had been writing fantasy for a while, ten or twelve years ago, I realised that I was writing female characters who led every bit as exciting lives as the males. They had adventures and when they got into trouble, which was practically all the time, they got themselves out of it by their own wit and cleverness, rather than being helped by some heroic bloke. I wasn’t trying to be politically correct, or to make any kind of point about equality. That’s just the way my stories ended up.
Once I realised that, I also realised how rare such characters are in (popular) fantasy. So often women are portrayed as helpless victims, or completely under the thrall of males in a patriarchal society, or manipulators behind the scenes, or just window dressing. No doubt at this point readers are thinking, ‘But I’ve read lots of books about women warriors’. Well, I have too, but in most they’re women acting like men. I wanted to write about women who had adventures but were still characteristically women.
I also discovered that, in my worlds, women occupied positions of power and influence just as often as men. What’s so difficult about that? Quite a lot, judging by current fantasy. How often do you read about a fantasy world where women have the same kinds of opportunities as men? Practically never! Why not? Why do we have to recreate versions of Earth’s past in EVERY fantasy? I wouldn’t say that I try hard to be even handed, because I don’t. Again, that’s just the way I write. But of course, having created that kind of world, there is always the temptation to start tearing it apart in future books and see what happens … I wanted my characters to have weaknesses, and doubts, like we all do. I wanted them to fail occasionally, and make mistakes. There are no all-powerful characters in my books, good or evil.
When I began writing THE VIEW FROM THE MIRROR I wasn’t deliberately reacting against the good versus evil cliché, though as I grow older I find it more infuriating the more often I come across it. I loved THE LORD OF THE RINGS but I have no wish to read another thousand inferior versions of it. These days, once I identify that theme I think ‘Oh no, not again!’ and usually heave the book out the window. I have set out to create thoroughly evil characters on occasion, but generally end up finding good points in them.
For example, with Rulke in THE VIEW FROM THE MIRROR. I originally conceived him as an arch-villain, then a likeable, magnificent one (rather like Satan in PARADISE LOST, as it happens). But the more I wrote about him the more I saw him as a man who had been greatly wronged, and one who, whatever he did, acted for the best of all reasons – the survival of his species!
That is ultimately what THE VIEW FROM THE MIRROR is about, and why I call it a Darwinian fantasy. There is no good or evil in nature; no right or wrong. There’s only survival or extinction. However these days, I suppose I do deliberately react against the good versus evil business in fantasy because it has become such a cliché and, more importantly, it makes the book predictable. Once the arch-villain is identified, the rest of the novel is really just a chess game.
I want to see realistic characters. I want my books to be more like real life, where people are complex and sometimes do things out of character. And where you never know what’s going to happen next because the characters have a variety of motivations, not just ‘Exterminate!’ But having said all that, I’m finding that a minor character in my new fantasy trilogy does look like turning evil after all. This puts me in rather a quandary. Oh dear!
The new trilogy is called THE WELL OF ECHOES and the first volume, GEOMANCER, will be published in Australia in September 2001 and in the UK in 2002. It’s set in the same world as THE VIEW FROM THE MIRROR but several hundred years in the future, when the world is greatly changed as a result of what happens at the end of the Quartet. I also wanted to get away from all the old characters, though that proved harder than I had expected.
The future has been created by the past and ultimately, all ten books of THE THREE WORLDS SERIES are bound together by it. It seems some of those long-lived characters had plans I didn’t know about at the time, and some of them do reappear in later books. After 2500 pages of the Quartet, they’d learned a trick or two about survival. In fact you could say that the world of THE WELL OF ECHOES has been designed to achieve one character’s centuries-old objective. Good or evil? Survival or extinction? I can’t wait to find out myself.