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A Conversation With John Meaney
An interview with Lou Anders
September 2002

© Steve Davies
John Meaney
John Meaney
John Meaney has a degree in physics and computer science, is a black belt in Shotokan karate and works in IT. He has been reading SF since the age of eight, and his short fiction has appeared in Interzone and in a number of anthologies. His debut novel, To Hold Infinity, was shortlisted for the BSFA Award and subsequently selected as one of the Daily Telegraph's "Books of the Year."

John Meaney Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Paradox

Jim Burns
To Hold Infinity

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

You began with a publication in Interzone. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Certainly not... Just joking! I'm always avid for details of other writer's lives, yet aware that my characters are more colorful than I. Roger Zelazny wasn't Corwin of Amber. He was a cool dude, though.

Am I the last of the Interzone brat pack? 'Spring Rain' was my first published story; it appeared a decade ago! Hell's teeth. And here I am, blasting ahead with my fourth novel.

I was in LA, at the World Science Fiction Convention, when a fax from London told me I had my first two-book deal with Bantam in the UK. If anyone spotted a manic Brit floating several inches off the ground... Yep, it was me.

To Hold Infinity was a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year, first choice in SF & fantasy, and was nominated for the BSFA award. So was the second book, Paradox. And Paradox's sequel, Context, appears in November.

Despite the success, I've so far kept the day job: teaching good folk how to hack Java and design object oriented systems. I dropped out of my original physics degree, in a fit of existential crisis, but made up for it later. Heck, I might even go back and finish my stalled postgrad work at Oxford... any year now.

How much of the future of Paradox and Context had you extrapolated when you wrote To Hold Infinity?

Not much... No, I take that back. The common element is the fractal universe of mu-space, and the Pilots who traverse it. They appear briefly, as quite mysterious characters, in all of the novels. I worked out their future early on: there are hints in To Hold Infinity about things that aren't made explicit until the fourth novel.

I'm not sure when I dreamed up the world of Nulapeiron, but I certainly had Paradox outlined by the time I finished To Hold Infinity. And I always knew that Paradox involved the Pilots... or at least one of them!

The second novel became volume one of a trilogy: Paradox, Context, Resolution. Each sequel works as a stand-alone novel. There's some kind of, er..., resolution in all three.

In your first novel, you show us a world dominated by a heavy Asian influence. Do you see this as a likely outcome for our world?

I foresee that unforeseen events may occur. (I may be a foreigner, but I've studied the profound teachings of the wise philosopher Quayle...) We could do worse than learn from Asian cultures, but I guarantee nothing.

Having been through Canada, it amused me to make Yoshiko, the heroine, a trilingual resident of Nihonjin Columbia. I love Quebec -- luckily I speak French: it's tough if you don't -- and Ontario. Heading west, by the time you get to Calgary, bilingualism is largely forgotten. Head on into the Rockies, to picturesque Banff, and you find notices in English and Japanese. I love these weird admixtures of cultures: they're beautiful.

What I do know is that the forces of history are swift and unforgiving.

The world building of Paradox is exquisitely detailed. I think I realized this when I grokked that the poor hang curtains over their doorways in imitation of the way the rich have permeable organic membranes. Let's talk about the process of world building. How much of the details do you work out ahead of time, and how much evolves as you go?

I had a very clear picture of the lower, impoverished strata: the curtained-off dwelling-chambers; the marketplace; the fluorofungus splashed across the ceilings, providing light and replenishing the air. The wonders of the Palace, the motile floor and intelligent walls and membranous entrances grew in my subconscious, I think, while I was writing about Tom's impoverished upbringing.

It's all about Zen and the art of dreaming, to me. The images -- more than visual: the scent of hemp in the market-chamber, the cold hard stone of the tunnels -- come leaping from that magical elsewhere. Resonances, such as between the curtains and the membranes, become apparent only in retrospect.

Later, though, I'll do everything I can to rationalize the milieu. I worked through half a dozen population growth models in a spreadsheet, before I was satisfied that I had the time line right. Neither history nor cosmology are encouraged studies in the subterranean strata of Nulapeiron -- not even in the Lords' logosophical disciplines -- but there's a definite back story. I needed to make sure that the world could have ten billion souls twelve centuries after its founding, representing a decline from an earlier peak.

I've only once stopped in the middle of writing to whip open Notepad, and hack Java code to check some extrapolation. That's my hacker daemon; my Zen writing daemon just lets it flow.

Zelazny wrote about a writer's reflexes. Here's a great thing he said: Sometimes, when you've set up a situation, there's a rational way forward... And then your personal daemon delivers something wild, crazy, unthinkable alternative. That's the trick... Trust your daemon.

We -- all humans, but especially writers -- are not single personalities, but communities of many daemons. (I loved Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi -- so much so, that I read it in two languages.) Whenever I'm wandering through a novel-scene in my imagination, one of my insistent sub-daemons will direct my attention to something small, like a cup, and whisper: So what's different about this? Is it really just a cup? Can it float? Change shape? Change its contents to reflect the drinker's mood?

Hey, come on. I never said I was sane.

Let's talk about your style. You accomplish a lot with short, staccato bursts of description. How did this evolve, and does it play into creating a sense of distant times, the inevitable drifting of language across the centuries? (As an aside, the way you have built the "futuristic" name "Corcorigan" by simply doubling the first syllable of Corigan is inspired).

Bursts. Sentences without a verb. Sudden swift movement. Shift: vertigo. Yeah, I love playing with that stuff. I try not to overuse it, or disorient the reader so much they fall over.

I'm conscious of language on many levels. In the world of Nulapeiron, there are hundreds of languages: all part of its deep, multifaceted history. (The thing about Star Trek aliens is that they aren't -- alien, that is. Earth cultures alone, right now, show more diversity than that. In my novels, so does Nulapeiron... I hope.)

Paradoxically -- ha! -- it means there aren't too many puns, except perhaps in the back story set on 23rd century Earth. I'm too aware that the characters are really speaking a language called Nov'glin. And, yes, I play with the linguistic roots of proper names: mutated Irish and Russian, all sorts of stuff. What fun!

Incidentally, working with one of the editorial staff at Bantam (strictly, the company name is Transworld: Bantam is an imprint) on the proofs of Context, I pointed out that I know how to choose among an em-dash, an en-dash and a hyphen; and that I know when to 'choose among' and when to 'choose between'. She was overjoyed!

Every time I break a grammatical rule, I know exactly what I'm doing. And why. For people who want to write: this stuff should be deeper than reflex, like the workings of your heart. Or like breathing: it flows by itself; you control it when you need to.

Your work has been called Cyberpunk in the far future. I can see this applied to To Hold Infinity perhaps, but I'm not sure it's really an apropos description of Paradox or Context. How do you describe what you do?

I'd agree on both counts: To Hold Infinity is far-future cyberpunk; Paradox and its sequels aren't. The Luculenti, in the first novel, have embedded processors to extend their minds, and they're immersed in a multi-sensual virtual overlay of reality, with a purely electronic telepathy. But the elite of Nulapeiron, a millennium later, use logotropes, which are neither drugs nor software but something of both. Technology is flowing, organic, while the societies themselves have more poor than rich. For every Lord or Lady controlling immense wealth, there are dozens of prostitutes eking out a degrading and dangerous living on some lower stratum.

What do I do? I just let the stories rip...

But I couldn't write this way if William Gibson hadn't blown up the old conventions and revolutionized the field.

One thing is, every age is ruled by its technological paradigm. In the early Renaissance, it was cool to own a map. Later, clockwork provided an obvious metaphor to help drive real progress, while steam-engine thermodynamics generated the equilibrium concept of classic economics. The computer is now; I'm writing about the 35th century.

I recently visited the BodyWorlds exhibition of Professor Gunther von Hagen: flensed and dissected human corpses. (For anyone who later reads Resolution: eerily, I visited the exhibition having just finished the opening chapter.) Look at the tangled, complex, evolved mess which constitutes a person: the body is not a machine; the brain is not a computer. The mind is not a program.

And Paradox ain't cyberpunk.

I see a lot of Dune in Paradox. Orphaned boy cast out from home, learning a martial art, returning to seize power: Am I right in spotting Frank Herbert as a source of inspiration or am I reading in? To me, the novel felt very much like "Dune if Frank Herbert were a physicist."

Yo, way to go! You are spot on, my friend. Dune made a big impression on me when I was 16, maybe 17 years old. And then I got my turn at bat, writing far-future epic stuff but with scientific training under my belt, and the wide-open literary vistas that resulted from cyberpunk's dark, refreshing subversion.

Speaking of subversion, I was born and raised in England -- but of Irish parents: a major factor -- where the old class system still rears its ugly head. US senators are elected; in California, a few thousand signatures can force a plebiscite on any issue. By contrast, members of the House of Lords either inherit their titles or -- as so many issues are decided -- are appointed by secret committees whose inner workings can never be published.

So there's never going to be any straightforward acceptance of aristocracy in anything I write... but you'll notice that terrorism fails to achieve its aims, and revolution never turns out the way its followers expect.

But I don't want to get tangled up in current affairs... If I keep the story in the 35th century, I can explore deep issues from political liberty to the nature of time, and still have a total blast while I'm doing it. What good is a philosophical debate without a few -- or even a lot of -- rip-roaring fight scenes?

And speaking of fight scenes, I love the strong martial arts influences in your work. It's odd, because I'm usually arguing that SF literature is far less action-oriented than its cinematic counterparts. Still, I find the descriptions of the fighting techniques engaging. It's obvious that you are speaking from experience. Let's talk about martial arts in your life and in your work.

I'm just a simple thug at heart... The training's been a part of my life for decades, which included eleven years at Enoeda Sensei's elite shotokan dojo in London. That's the autobiographical part of Paradox: the bookish kid who is awe-struck at the first sight of martial arts, and never loses that joyful wonder.

And I run, and lift heavy weights, with an emphasis on functional strength: free weights, powerlifting moves. It's all part of the same discipline which gets me up at 5a.m. to write. I love it.

It's a deep kinesthetic joy: and that should be the way a good book reads, for me. You have to engage more than the visual sense. In the crime genre, there are a few writers who convince, physically: Robert Parker, James Lee Burke. (Check out Nicola Griffith's The Blue Place, and Stay.)

My real literary forebear for action sequences has to be Elleston Trevor: the espionage books he wrote as Adam Hall. If you think a novel can't have a car chase, dig up one of those old Quiller books.

You have to connect to reality. Both Alvin Maker and the Atreides twins gain physical prowess with magical ease... As an athlete, I can't accept that. (And I'm deliberately alluding here to writers I admire.)

You have to sweat buckets, each and every day. It's just like writing: you'd better enjoy the endless, daily training. Hell, I smile when I'm lifting weights, I laugh when I run on a treadmill... Why's everyone else looking miserable?

On that, it's also obvious that you've rock-climbed as well. As just an amateur indoor climber, I found one of the most exciting parts of Paradox to be the scene where the one-armed Tom is scaling the environmental platform in a downpour.

Did I mention I'm scared of heights?

As a student in Birmingham -- England, not Alabama -- I used to clamber up the outdoor wall which serious climbers practised on. Always a laugh when wet: I never used safety equipment, and there was concrete waiting below if I fell.

So I needed a bit of research to get this aspect right, but I had just enough experience to understand the feel of it, which is so important for me.

Here's a key event which caused Paradox to coalesce in my mind. I was lifting weights in a strange gym -- away from home on business -- while watching an able-bodied climber spider his way one-handed up the indoor climbing wall, purely for the practice. I'd already envisioned the terraformer scene... but now, the novel fell right into place.

I can't manage one-finger chin-ups; real-life elite climbers can. But I have achieved their kind of suppleness: I've no problem performing side-splits between two chairs, like Jean-Claude van Damme. Always an ice-breaker at parties! Or conventions.

Although it's not a major theme of the book, I'm interested by the way the society of Paradox treats homosexuality. Let's talk about the choice to put the subject "back in the closet", and build a world in which homosexuals again have to hide their orientation.

Well, aristocracy is an archaic social construct, but I can easily envisage it occurring under all sorts of guises once more. There are places in the world right now where women get stoned to death for committing adultery. So it's feasible that such oppression of gays can recur.

As for why... In Paradox, it sprang from one character, Corduven d'Ovraison. He's the first friend Tom makes among the nobility -- among the Lords and Ladies who can condemn a servitor to death almost at a whim. I had a very clear vision of Corduven's physical appearance -- gaunt and highly strung -- and there had to be something different about him, a kind of vulnerability, a sense of hidden layers, and this seemed to fit.

It worked on several levels. Corduven's unspoken emotional conflict mirrored Tom's ambivalence towards the culture: with his intellectual ability, Tom loves the logosophical disciplines, grabs every chance he can get to further his education; yet he despises any system which treats human beings as chattel.

It resonates for another reason. During Tom's years of servitude, he is in many ways powerless: I had to work hard to show his inwardly directed anger, the psychopathic drive that fuels him, so that he is never a passive observer. You have to feel the pressure building: he cannot, for a long time, change the circumstances of his life... but you know it's going to happen.

Corduven is also trapped, more subtly, by the strictures of his culture.

Incidentally, I was sitting in a lecture theater in Oxford when the speaker mentioned Turing, and just for a moment ice crept down my spine. Turing might have worked in that room. The man who possibly did more than anyone else to win the war against the Nazis was hounded by society until he committed suicide. Just a few decades ago. Ain't no such thing as linear progress.

But hey, I was traveling on a train today opposite a white guy wearing a Mohammed Ali t-shirt. That's an achievement not lost on Nulapeiron: color is irrelevant, even among the aristocracy.

The means by which Tom Corcorigan dispatches with the Oracle is the most creative skirting of a temporal paradox I've ever seen. I don't know if you've seen Minority Report yet, but I wonder what your reaction is to their explanation of how their own precogs were duped. I wondered if one of their screenwriters had read your work and produced their own truncated, simplified version of the trap.

Let's see... Agnes the precog sees the future. Then says: "But hey, you're Tom Cruise. You can always change your mind." Still, I enjoyed the movie, and the shooting incident which the precogs had foreseen was handled pretty well. They certainly picked up a key element in resolving this type of paradox; they just couldn't sustain any kind of rigor all the way to the end. Nice try, guys.

(If you want to get technical, paradoxes come in three flavors. In the novel, the Oracle foresees his own long, peaceful life, even though Tom plans to kill him... If you can skirt around the problem without invalidating it totally, then it's a veridical paradox. And you're right, the shooting scene comes into that category.)

It would be nice if the screenwriters pinched the idea off me, because then I could sue them for lots of money. Isn't that how Harlan Ellison -- allegedly -- became rich? Trouble is, I once had a great idea (I thought) for a story: a world where everyone lived one day out of every seven. (Overpopulation hasn't gone away -- it's just become unfashionable to discuss it.) I wrote the story, submitted it to Interzone... and it turned out that Philip José Farmer had already used the notion of timesharing, in a short story which he expanded into Dayworld.

Luckily, my story, "Timeslice", was different enough that David Pringle bought it anyway: it involved non-paradoxical time travel, where everyone in each time zone, at midnight, is squirted six days forward into the future. Not to mention stuff about terrorism and military special forces and quantum entanglement that I reused and enhanced in the novels.

But similar ideas strike simultaneously. It happens. Damn.

I wrote the final draft of Paradox to the soundtrack of Mission Impossible: 2. So if Messrs. Spielberg and Cruise are reading this... Could you get your people to ring my people? Thanks. Let's do lunch, make a movie... Really!

Oh, yeah. You need two bits of weird physics to make precognition work. That's one of the things which excites me about Paradox: the Oracles are not a purely literary conceit. Some of the neural groups in their brains experience negative time flow. That depends on both the transactional interpretation of quantum physics (which provides for a single Destiny despite quantum uncertainty and chaos), and the Gold model which links the cosmological and thermodynamic arrows of time. Deep stuff. Endless fun.

What can you tell me about Context?

Shhh... Top secret. Well, it's a direct sequel to Paradox, and it's a far better novel: in a strange way, Context retroactively -- or is that retrospectively? -- strengthens Paradox. Tom's goal this time remains personal, and much more commendable.

There's a dark force rising throughout Nulapeiron, known as the Blight, or the Dark Fire. It subsumes human beings, makes them insignificant components of a vast whole: an entity which bears the same relationship to a single human being as a person does to a bacterium. From small beginnings, realms undergo strange societal changes, until they become part of the Blight-occupied territories.

And the woman Tom loves is dead... Or possibly not. She's his objective.

There's espionage, a strange monastery, death camps... some dark and weird stuff.

In the back story, among the Pilots, the focus has shifted from Karyn McNamara to her daughter Ro. Until now, Pilot Candidates have had their brain virally rewired and their now-useless eyes removed. But Ro, born in mu-space and rewired before birth, is very different. She turns out to be very interesting.

And the third book in this trilogy?

Paradox, Context... and Resolution. Those titles worked so well, I knew I had to turn the first novel into a trilogy. I've tried to write the novels so they work individually, as I said. Much of Context comes from a single sentence in Paradox, right at the start. (Don't worry -- you don't have to work it out: Tom revisits the memory in a dream.) Almost as though I knew what I was doing.

Resolution is in progress, and the title reflects both Tom's attitude of mind and his achievements. I know how the book ends: with a final resolution... and a final paradox.

That's definitely the end of a story. My editor, Simon Taylor, who is a terrific guy and a smart cookie, christened the whole shebang 'the Nulapeiron sequence'. Could that be some kind of Oracular prescience?

The universe of mu-space and the Pilots is a vast milieu. I haven't finished with it yet. But Tom's going to deserve a peaceful retirement after Resolution.

I think.

Stephen Baxter has said some very fine things about you. How does it feel to have his praise?

Isn't that a great quote? "Meaney has rewired SF. Everything is different now."

Other writers have added corollaries. I think it was Lori White who suggested I refurbish the plumbing next. Maybe give SF a sauna and a jacuzzi.

I am in fact totally bowled over. It's ten years since that first short story in Interzone, and four years since the first novel came out, and I'm well into my fourth novel... But I've only just reached the stage where I can say "I'm having lunch with my agent" without having a fit of the giggles. It is very unreal. This incredible praise from Steve, from Connie Willis, from Ian Watson... That's superb icing on a very rich cake. Thanks, folks.

I think Paradox is one of the most exciting SF novels I've read in recent years, but there's still no US publisher behind your work. Are there any plans to bring you over here?

So far, I've only rewired non-American SF. I guess your power supply cycles at a different frequency, or something... Hey, I'm hopeful! I've got the body of work in place. Definite news coming shortly, with luck.

There is a divide between the countries, and Brit writers often don't get US publication until they have several successful novels in the UK: I think it worked that way for Mike Marshall Smith, Ken McLeod, Peter Hamilton...

And it's a two-way street. You'd be surprised at some of the US authors whose books I have to import or pick up during my visits to the States, because they've no British publisher.

There is a growing body of opinion that Britain is in the early stages of fermentation for a "new wave" of science fiction, with writers like China Mieville, Adam Roberts and Alastair Reynolds mixing it up and making a big splash. What are your thoughts about the "next wave" and do you see your work as being a part of it?

The Brits kick ass! China Mieville is the Vin Diesel of fantasy. Al Reynolds puts the rock into space opera. We're wild, and we're going for it.

None of that post-Imperial angst nonsense. I don't know where the dark explosive energy comes from, but we are the Starbucks generation, with a hypercaffeinated Zeitgeist. And a great camaraderie.

Getting together at a convention, a party, or even a joint interview session, you'll hear "Your books rock..." riposted with: "Heck, no, you are a literary genius." Like that.

Type fast, write hard, and leave a beautiful corpus.

So, beyond Frank Herbert, who are your influences? What science fiction authors do you read? And, on the other side, is there anyone who's laboring in obscurity that you'd like to point to as needing some more recognition?

Laboring where? I labor in Kent, just a few miles down the road from Obscurity. Luckily, Desperation is in the next county.

Seriously, then... My childhood brain was recircuited by Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton juveniles. The first adult SF I read was Clifford Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing, and I can still remember that brain-blasting opening... a gray plain on a distant world, and the alien who says: I trade with you my mind. Yow!

There was still hope for me. I could have turned out normal. If only I hadn't come across van Vogt...

But Zelazny was the first SF writer I read for the language. And yes, I loved Dune. And Gibson, most definitely. (I've got a signed copy of Idoru, congratulating me on selling my first book. Yo!)

On a personal level, I've known Anne McCaffrey for a zillion years, since my first convention, and she's wonderful.

Outside of SF, I read lots. I'm a big fan of John Sandford, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver... A whole load of diverse writers.

In the genre... Right now, it really is the Brits who are rockin'. Besides China Mieville and Al Reynolds, and the firmly established Stephen Baxter and Peter Hamilton, check out Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Justina Robson. British readers know their books already, and love 'em.

As for me, I'll labor anywhere, so long as they serve venti cappuccinos. Lightning in the brain, caffeine in the veins: in the groove, and grinning. Per ardua ad astra, my friend.

Copyright © 2002 Lou Anders

Lou Anders has written, directed, and edited articles, plays, screenplays, books and websites. He hasn't taken over the world yet, but he thinks he should get points for trying.

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