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It's All In The Details
An Interview with Neal Asher

conducted by Sandy Auden

© Neal Asher
Neal Asher
Neal Asher
Neal Asher was born in 1961 in Billericay in Essex. He started writing SF and fantasy at 16 after what he terms an "overdose" of E.C. Tubb books. After leaving school, he worked for a steel furniture maker, then operated a milling machine and began writing again. Thereafter, he decided to go back to school and finally graduated. He continued to write, having his work published in a number of magazines and producing a short story collection called Runcible Tales from Piper's Ash. With the publication of Gridlinked and The Skinner, he's working on The Line of Polity, to follow the year after.

Neal Asher Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Skinner
SF Site Interview: Neal Asher
SF Site Review: Gridlinked

When is a gun not a gun? It's a question that SF author Neal Asher has taken to the heart of his writing. Two of Asher's published novels, Gridlinked and The Skinner, are fine examples of how such a simple question can shape a story from the inside out and he was more than happy to disclose the details of his creative processes.

So when is a gun not a gun? 'In an SF story,' Asher says cryptically before going on to explain. 'If you look at contemporary and historical fiction, the "world" is already there for you. With a gun, we can see that in historical fiction we have muskets, duelling pistols, cannon. And most people know what they can do -- inaccurate, a large hole, a lot of time to reload. In contemporary fiction we have the likes of AK47s, Uzis, automatic pistols -- accurate, repeating, quick reloading. With these, the parameters are already there for you.'

'But in SF you have to really think about the capability of your gun. What does it fire? How accurate is it? For how long can it keep firing? And,' he pauses, 'such wonderful twists as: is it intelligent and might it decide not to fire? Of course you have the added difficulty of putting all this information across to the reader without info-dumping on them too much.'

'You can also get into huge trouble with your plotting,' he adds. 'For example, now your Hero has the Carlos Fandango megagun with pinpoint accuracy to a hundred kilometres, a mind that makes Einstein look like a moron, and a power pack with an output equivalent to Bradwell power station... oops there went the story: the baddy just got creamed in the first paragraph. Silly, I know,' he smiles, 'because for your story you give the baddy the same weapon, but you see what I mean?'

'Other things to think about,' he expands, 'include the ecosystem of an alien world, how people might have changed, political systems, financial systems... EVERYTHING! In other fiction, a table is a table is a table. In SF, a table can be made of materials we can only imagine, it might follow you around the house like a dog. "Hey, do you like my Parker Knoll dog-table? It doesn't have to recharge itself as it eats coffee stains and breadcrumbs. It also acts as a security system. I heard the other day about a guy who had his house broken into -- he found the burglar's fingers in his table's mouth!" The details are endless, just endless! But they have to be coherent and they have to work.'

This kind of attention to detail can be seen clearly in the ecology on Spatterjay, the planet that Asher has created for his novel The Skinner.

'My vision for Spatterjay is of an ecology a lot farther down the line than that of Earth, and one that has become very much dominated by one life form -- the leeches. Just about every creature on the planet is food for these parasites and, over the centuries, a horrible kind of symbiosis/mutualism has evolved. The leeches carry a virus that they transmit with their bite. Once infected, a creature becomes more rugged, less sensitive to pain, stronger and more able to survive. Quite simply the leeches are preserving their own food supply -- why kill your meat animal when you can harvest meat from it and leave it alive to grow some more?'

'Beyond this there is the life-cycle of the leeches,' Asher enthuses. 'On land they'll grow as large as a hippo then thereafter take to the sea so the water can support their bulk. In the sea they change from being plug-feeders to whole animal feeders as they outgrow their prey, and then start manufacturing a poison in their bile ducts that kills the virus, for otherwise tough virus-infected prey might chew its way out.'

'There's more involved than this, but I could go on for ages. Are my aliens implausible? Not really. Just pick up a veterinary book on helminthology and you'll find some things in there that'll set your skin crawling. How about the parasite that gets inside a snail, shuts down its ability to breed and makes it grow a thicker shell, thus increasing the survivability of both individual snail and parasite, or the brainworm that uses a number of creatures in its cycle, two of them being the ant and the sheep. To get to the sheep, it fools with the ant's cerebral wiring and causes it to climb to the top of a blade of grass and cling on with its pincers, waiting to be eaten by a passing sheep. You see, you don't have to look far if you want to find a plausible alien, just go and turn over the nearest rock.'

(This interview first appeared on Sci Fi Channel Europe.)

Copyright © 2005 by Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.

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