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Ian R Macleod

Interview with Jeff Topham

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Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about how The Light Ages came about. How long did it take you to bring the novel from conception to conclusion?

It took about five years, which is certainly much longer than I intended. There were breaks to do other things, but writing it was always a high priority. I think that in hindsight, that long gestation period and working-out helped the finished book, although it didn't always feel that way as I was doing it. I always had an idea of what I wanted in terms of character, plot and setting, but the bits in me that require a logical background and also fully believable characters took a lot of satisfying.

Essentially, what I wanted was a realistic fantasy. A world which was recognisably close to ours, but in which mysterious and fantastic things could happen, and yet be fully incorporated into the culture of the society. By taking so long, I think I was able to add layers and nuances of reality which you don't always get in fantasy, which often strikes me as fitting itself much too easily in Tolkien-based generic landscapes.

You’re a writer who writes science fiction and fantasy with equal facility. Does writing fantasy allow you to address certain themes more easily than sf (or vice versa)?

I don't really draw a distinction between the genres. I think both are founded for me on a conflict between logical classicism and romantic emotion. That applies to both the dragon and the spaceship, the ghost and the alien.

The Light Ages is a quite unusual fantasy in that it engages directly with issues of social inequality, economic injustice, and corporate deception in a manner that is intended to discomfort rather than console. Is it fair to say that in The Light Ages you’ve offered an implied critique of the escapist impulse that drives a great deal of fantastic fiction?

That's a sub-text I hadn't really thought about in those terms, but it certainly rings true. A lot of heroic fantasy fails to address the who-does-he-think-he-is feelings that many so-called ordinary people would experience when they met a wizard or a king. I entertain that somewhat naive belief that people are at some level equal. Princesses wafting around in palaces with scarcely a thought for the economic burdens they're imposing on their citizenship sounds all too much like our own dear Queen.

Injustice is something which bothers me in this world, and, in any other world populated by human beings, I can't see it being easily dealt with. The main character Robbie's impulse to change things is, of course, essentially selfish, but at the same time, and rather like me, he's so puzzled and infuriated by what he sees about him that simply taking the easy route of acceptance isn't on

Duplicity is a common enough thing in fairy stories. Think of Snow White. The fact that it evolved into an Enron-style fraud was an interesting and challenging element of the world and the task which I'd created. It was one of those things which took a long time to get right.

Both The Great Wheel and The Light Ages are ultimately novels about faith, although in The Light Ages it is the main character’s faith in social change that is tested rather than his faith in God. What makes the subject of belief an especially interesting one for you?

Probably because I don't have any! It's also maybe another angle on what I was saying above about the way the world is, and another way of attempting to deal with it. I suppose that I'm an intellectual atheist who, emotionally, is always looking for God. The explanations religion offers of the way the universe is are both so rich and so flawed that they also make for a fascinating subject to dramatise. I would also place science in a similar category. People who don't have religious belief do tend to cling to it with almost equal fanaticism. Yet there's so much we don't know about the basic elements of human experience, like time and consciousness and the link between advanced physics (assuming it's broadly correct) and our own quite different perception of reality.

Parts of The Light Ages are loosely modeled on Dickens’ Great Expectations. What made you decide to include this homage as part of your novel?

It rather came about, and I thought, well, why not? Sometimes, especially early on in a piece, you're led in a certain direction which seems pretty obvious afterwards, but which you hadn't consciously chosen at the time. I'd put the Great Expectations link in that category. I do enjoy Dickens, although the more deliberate homage in parts of The Light Ages was to early D H Lawrence in the childhood scenes, and to Henry James in sections of the grand social gatherings. It's often the case, though, that the things you consciously set out to achieve don't come out in the way you'd intended, whilst those which you stumble into run on the smoothest of rails. I have no problem with that. Art is all about grabbing up influences and messing around with them. I'm sure Dickens did.

Can we expect to see some more short fiction from you, or is there another novel in the works?

I'm off short fiction at the moment, although I feel rather ashamed to admit it, as I believe it to be one of, if not the, key element of the whole fantastic genre. Having said that, and returning to the theme of aiming for one thing and achieving another, I always wanted to be mainly a novelist rather than thought of as a short story writer.

For me, these things go in long phases. I spent most of my twenties writing my first novel, which never got published, but was really how I learnt how to write. Slowly, in my thirties, I stumbled into writing short fiction, and started selling. Novels, or coming back to them, has been a bit like turning around an oil tanker, although I do now feel as if I'm heading in broadly the right direction, even if I'm older and wiser and more aware of the rocks.

In the current publishing world, I feel that novel-writing is much more compromised than short fiction. There are so many ridiculous preconceptions based around what's genre, what's commercial, and what the public appeared to like last year, all of which is then buried beneath a layer of dross. The writing itself, though, at least when I know where I'm going, can be more enjoyable at novel length. There are always things to do, and a gradually unwinding sense of progress, whereas short fiction, even long short fiction, is more of a temporary hit.

My sole writing endeavour at the moment is a successor novel to The Light Ages. It's called Electricity, and is set in the same world about a century after the end of The Light Ages, and revolves around another turning of an Age. I've always been a bit sniffy about multi-volume fantasies, as one of the good things for me about the whole fantastic genre is the endless scope it always offers to write about different things. Having said that, though, one of my favourite authors is Thomas Hardy, and he was able to turn and somewhat rename a small part of England into his Wessex and then use it and re-use it to tell of all sorts of different lives and events. So, when I came to the question of what to write next, I allowed myself to think about the world I'd created, and then to push it forward, and, somewhat to my surprise, it clicked fairly swiftly. The characters are entirely different, and so is the setting, but I guess that all the effort at world-creation for The Light Ages has helped in letting me found the base I want to say on an existing foundation.

More specifically, Electricity is about the events in and around a beautiful house which take place one summer, and their repercussions, which is essentially a civil war between the West and East of England. The book's still very English, but much more outward-looking towards the rest of the world. I'd like to think that it deals with big events in a very intimate way, which was also one of the aims of The Light Ages.

 

With thanks to Jeff Topham and The Third Alternative

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