Ian McDonald is a British writer who currently lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He has been the recipient of many honors in his writing career, including a Locus Award (1989 Desolation Road), Philip K. Dick Award (1991 King of Morning, Queen of Day), and Hugo Award (2007 The Djinn’s Wife). His writing explores such themes as AI, human interaction with their environments, empires, religion, and conflict. His most recent work is Moon Rising, the third in the Luna series of novels. Interviewed by Cory de la Guardia.
BECOMING A WRITER
You are perhaps one of the most prolific writers in the realm of science fiction and certainly in cyberpunk. What do you attribute such production to?
Prolific? What have you been smoking? I’m one of the slowest writers out there. Ask my editors. River of Gods was pitched in 1999 and didn’t see print until 2004. Current project took 15 years to make it from an idea noticed in an airline magazine to a work-in-progress (and that won’t deliver until 2020). So, not prolific in terms of speed. I do big books though, the subjects I tackle –India, Brazil, the industrialized moon –kind of need space too breathe and kick things.
Cyberpunks –thank you. I’m in good company, though I’m the kind of writer wouldn’t be in any club that would have me as a member.
But to actually answer your question: to what do I attribute this? I have a mortgage.
One of the things most fascinating about your lengthy career is the fact that you started so young, becoming a full time writer at 22 (according to Wikipedia). Is that accurate? What was the drive for that? How did that come about?
I sold my first story in 1982 (yes, I am old, if you’re lucky and strong and support the life of the planet you will be too some day). This was the height of Thatcherism in the UK, the first attack of economic neo-liberalism on the fabric of society. Unemployment was three million, in Northern Ireland, where I live, the effects were amplified by our political and social divisions –there were no jobs. What’s a boy to do? Read, and write. I grown up reading SF, so it was natural for my thinking to kink that way, and I had plenty to write about. I still find I do. Which is not always a good thing.
CHARACTER GENESIS AND LIVING IN FICTIONAL WORLDS
In the “Desolation” series you wrote the debut book very early in your career and then didn’t return to it for about 13 years. What was the motivation to return to that series and what was it like “coming back” to something so far away in the span of your own life? Was there an odd feeling of coming home?
I’ve promised an editor the last Desolation Road novella, which will be my definitive sign-off from that world (Magic realism on Mars –very un-cyberpunk!). That was about three years ago, and I have the idea and the characters and everything but it won’t write. I don’t think it’s that I’m reluctant to bid farewell to that world, I think it’s that I can no longer find the voice for it. The Mars of Desolation Road had a voice, a style and a mindset that I find it difficult to retrieve and recreate. DR was a young man’s book, I’m someone else now. Not one atom of the Ian that wrote that book remains in me now.
A lot of your stories seem to focus on characters coming from third world or under-developed nations and migrating to what seems to be the hubs of empire and the fictional world at that point – why is that theme so important to you, and what are you wanting the readers to see?
Let’s throw down and marker here and call it the developing world, which was the phrase I insisted on using when I was writing those books. I stand by that still, because it’s a fractal term: every nation has developing and under-developed nations inside in. Once we understand that of ourselves, we can understand it in other nations too. That’s why I hate the expression “First World Problem,” it’s so smug and entitled. You think people in Nairobi or Ulan Bator never have issues with mobile phone data drop-outs, or getting a table at a popular restaurant? Why? Because everyone is starving and fighting on the streets to pick rice from a spilled sack? Fuck off with your entitlements and stereotypes. These are class-based problems, not geographical ones. Developed, developing and under-developed are fractal.
What I was interested in, in those books, was to get SF to look away from its traditional Western/North American core (I’m also against the expression “the West,” as it’s a socio-political-geographical nonsense). The future happens everywhere at once; what’s interesting is what different cultures and societies do with it; how they change it and how it changes them. Culture is always changing, always mutating. It’s us. It’s up to us to leave it different from how we found it.
Having written so many different series, is it hard to create in those confined worlds and then also write novels and short stories that don’t overlap those worlds at all? Do you ever find yourself borrowing or wanting to incorporate characters or locals from one series in another story?
I draw a lot from the deep wells. There are aspects of my fictional worlds that don’t make it into the novels, or aren’t right for novels –there are aspects of the fictional worlds that have emerged and I’d like to explore, so I do a lot of pin-off stories. There are the collected India stories of Cyberabad Days, there will be at least two Luna spin-off novellas, and my on-going fascination with the nation, people and culture of Brazil continues. I think I’m a writer of social literature –I like to explore a world, top to bottom, side to side, and if a fictional world is to have even a fraction of the richness of this one, then it’s going to be too big for any one novel –or even sequence of novels, to contain.
I’ve been exploring the ideas of the Long Now Foundation which promotes long-term thinking (short-term thinking is one of the greatest problems in our society) and this has been unfolding slowly (of course!) through my recent and on-going work. Everything gets used in the end.
You’ve written several short stories for anthologies and a couple of novellas – is there a different mindset for those stories? How do you decide which stories are shorter and which stories are novels?
Every story arrives a stranger. Some are good for a brief conversation, a short affair, some require a longer, deeper relationship. It’s only as you get to know the idea, the characters, how that idea works out through your characters, that you know how long the love will last.
You’ve won numerous awards and been nominated for even more – are there any awards you value more than the others? Does winning such high praise change how you approach your craft? Does it add pressure?
No. Awards are nice, thank you. It’s an honour to be nominated, always. But the moment the glitter of the prize blinds your eyes, your writing is dead.
As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business–a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is Aj–the waif, the mind reader, the prophet–when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.
In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation.
It all began thirty years ago on Mars, with a greenperson. But by the time it all finished, the town of Desolation Road had experienced every conceivable abnormality from Adam Black’s Wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational ‘Stravaganza (complete with its very own captive angel) to the Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar. Its inhabitants ranged from Dr. Alimantando, the town’s founder and resident genius, to the Babooshka, a barren grandmother who just wants her own child—grown in a fruit jar; from Rajendra Das, mechanical hobo who has a mystical way with machines to the Gallacelli brothers, identical triplets who fell in love with—and married—the same woman.
A collection of eight stories, “Cyberabad Days” is a triumphant return to the India of 2047 (the India of River of Gods); a new, muscular superpower in an age of artificial intelligences, climate-change induced drought, strange new genders, and genetically improved children.
A hundred years in the future, a war wages between the Five Dragons―five families that control the Moon’s leading industrial companies. Each clan does everything in their power to claw their way to the top of the food chain―marriages of convenience, corporate espionage, kidnapping, and mass assassinations.
Through ingenious political manipulation and sheer force of will, Lucas Cortas rises from the ashes of corporate defeat and seizes control of the Moon. The only person who can stop him is a brilliant lunar lawyer, his sister, Ariel.