Aliens, Alastair Reynolds and Fermi’s Paradox: The Keith Brooke Interview

OUT NOW in US & Canada
$8.99/$10.99 ISBN 978-1-78108-001-6

7th June (UK)
£7.99 ISBN 978-1-78108-002-3

The aliens are here. They always have been. And now, one by one, they’re destroying our cities.

Dodge Mercer deals in identities - until the day he deals the wrong identity and clan war breaks out. Hope Burren has no identity, and no past, struggling with a relentless choir of voices filling her head.

In a world where nothing is as it seems, where humans are segregated and aliens can sing realities and tear worlds apart, Dodge and Hope lead a ragged band of survivors in a search for the rumoured sanctuary of Harmony, and what may be the only hope for humankind.

Keith Brooke forces us to look again at the idea of alien invasion, abandoning tired cliché and instead creating an all-too-real world where mankind faces extinction. With his crystal clear prose and vivid imaginative storytelling, alt.human/Harmony promises to reinvigorate one of the oldest themes in SF.

As Harmony is published in North America, we caught up with Keith to discuss alien invasions, his favourite books, and why he chose to write about Fermi’s Paradox...

* Tell us a bit about alt.human/Harmony and why people should buy it.

Aw shucks. It's not easy to say why people should buy your own book, but clearly I hope everyone will. This story matters to me because it's a story that's been building for years.

Very loosely, it's part of a sequence which began with Genetopia and then The Accord, although I doubt anyone would spot that there's a connection there! For me, all three books are about what it is to be human, and what it might be to be human in the future.

The world of alt.human/Harmony is a parallel of our own, the most radical alternate history I could come up with: what if the universe was heaving with aliens? What if they were all around us, and they always had been?

This is the story of how humankind might have evolved if we had never been top dog, even on our home planet.

It was such a big concept that it took me several years to shape it into a story that would work; I wanted to tell a very human story, but also to capture the spirit of a universe with stories going on that are just too big for us to grasp.

Did I manage that? I hope I got close, but rather than me tell you why people should buy  alt.human/Harmony I should leave it to hard SF maestro Alastair Reynolds: "alt.human is a startlingly new take on the theme of an Earth under alien occupation. The  far-future Earth revealed to us is both familiar and weird, and Keith Brooke's vivid, high-definition prose makes us see it all with magnificent clarity, as if we were there, sharing the ruins and rubble with his strange but all too human characters."

* Please explain Fermi’s Paradox to us and why you chose to write about it.

Back in 1950, over lunch with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory, physicist Enrico Fermi made an observation that has fascinated science-fiction authors ever since: given the vastness of the universe, if intelligent alien races have emerged then it's statistically almost certain that many will have appeared long before humankind; on a universal scale that "many" is a vast, vast number; races so much more advanced than us must have left their mark - radio signals, exploring other worlds, even re-engineering their corner of the universe on a large, and detectable scale. So, to use the phrase he blurted out some time after that conversation had moved on, "Where is everybody?" Are we really alone, or is there some other explanation for what became known as "the silence of the universe"?

My take on the Paradox was to turn it on its head. As  alt.human/Harmony opens: "If they existed, they would be here" -- Enrico Fermi

But they are here.
They're all around us.
They always have been.

Once that spin on the question had occurred to me, I just had to sit down and get writing!

* Alien invasions tend to be incredibly violent or sinister, but alt.human is more about colonisation – are you drawing parallels with the way humans behave?

Aliens are often used in SF as thinly-disguised ciphers for far more parochial concerns: alien invasion is such a Cold War trope. But even now, post-Cold War, we still return to the invasion theme: we have other conflicts to reinterpret through science-fictional eyes, the so-called War on Terror, for starters.

I've certainly written SF war stories that fall into this category, but I don't think alt.human is really one of them. For me, the many alien races in alt.human simply *are*; they exist, they're here, get on with it.

I've always shied away from aliens in my writing, but after twenty years in the field it was clearly a subject I was finally ready to explore. I think my problem was that I struggled to suspend disbelief: it's quite legitimate to write aliens as thinly-disguised humans, but that never interested me - if I wasn't convinced by the aliens then my readers wouldn't be either. The fascination for me, when I finally sat down to write alt.human/Harmony, was how to portray truly alien aliens that we could still relate to in some way. And writing alien aliens brought me round to writing inhuman humans, and aliens who were perhaps more human than some humans, themes that I've kept coming back to in Genetopia, The Accord and now alt.human.

* Tell us a bit about your writing routine.

I genuinely don't have one. I used to be very precious about my writing: I needed undisturbed silence, in blocks of several hours at a time, or I just couldn't do it, darling. One big thing I've learned in the last ten years is just how stupid that was, and how many writing opportunities I missed as a result.

I lead a very busy life: writing, editing, running a small publising imprint, managing websites, lecturing... I rarely get those two or three hour blocks to write in. So I grab whatever opportunity I can. Half an hour at lunchtime, editing the previous day's writing, is enough to keep the story fresh in my mind. Twenty minutes at the end of the day, adding a couple of hundred words keeps the momentum going. Recently, I've written in coffee shops, pubs, on planes and trains, in hotel rooms and at friends' houses, on laptops, desktop PCs, a netbook, my phone, in notebooks, scraps of paper, etc. It probably means I'm an incredibly dull person, but at least I get lots of writing done!

* What are your five favourite novels?

It probably depends on when you ask me, but here are the ones that are consistently up at the top of any such list I'd write:
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald: beautiful, moving, passionate writing - perhaps a cliched choice as it's on so many school reading lists, but it's there for a reason.
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg: oops - the only SF title on my list... A fantastic portrayal of a man losing his telepathic abilities. Brilliant stuff.
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan: perhaps not the obvious choice from one of my favourite writers, but I think this is the closest he's got to achieving the near-perfection of his early short stories at book length.
Waterland by Graham Swift: one of the best books I've ever read for sense of place and time, and a hell of a story, too.
The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene: although, to be honest, it could have been any of another half dozen or so of his books; a lesson in how to write outstanding fiction with economical, pinpoint prose.

* What advice would you give to new writers hoping to break into the field?

If you really want it, you'll be stubborn, and that's one of the most useful attributes to have. You'll get knocked back repeatedly, you'll get dispirited, you'll wonder why you're devoting so much of your life to something that, in all probability, won't come to anything. But to give yourself a chance you have to finish what you write and then write someting else; to give yourself a chance you have to revise your work, learning what works and doesn't, and why, and how you can fix it; to give yourself a chance you have to stick at it.


Unknown said...

Ahh, now stubborness I have aplenty :)
Inspiring stuff, thanks! said...

Great writer! Can't wait to read the book!