MEET THE CREW: SCI FI AUTHOR ALASTAIR REYNOLDS
He’ll be helping us separate science fact from fiction as a Session 2 panelist on April 22nd, but as astronomer, erstwhile ESA scientist and bestselling sci fi author Alastair Reynolds tells us, one doesn’t exist without the other.
When did you fall in love with space?
“I had equal interest in space and science fiction from an extremely early age – I don’t know which came first, if it was Star Trek and sci fi that lead to astronomy or the other way around. Two of my earliest memories were things I saw on television. I was growing up at the tail-end of the Apollo era. I remember Skylab quite vividly and I got very excited about the Viking landers – it’s all a continuity.”
How’d you get into science?
“I started studying Astronomy at Newcastle in the mid-80s. I thought you had to have scientific credentials to be a sci fi writer. I suppose that was because Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke did, too, and I thought it was my best shot at getting into space. I thought, ‘I’ll go into astronomy, be a space scientist, and by the 2000s we’ll have telescopes on the moon.’ Gradually you realise that we’re not on that track.”
Do you remember the first authors who inspired you?
“Asimov and Arthur C Clarke were the first pro science fiction authors I got into. I’d grown up with Thunderbirds and Dr Who, but when I was eight or nine I started reading short stories. I loved that they had these preoccupations with the human condition, artificial intelligence, aliens – big cosmic questions. Arthur C Clarke was something of a media presence as well back then, kind of on par with Carl Sagan. And I related to the fact that he was from Minehead – I thought, ‘if he can do that, then maybe…’”
How did you make the jump to being a published author?
“I was writing as a glorified hobby for years and years, and I suppose I was quite set on a lifelong career in space science. It was a real privilege to work at ESA and it changed my life in so many ways – it was a real education in looking beyond national stereotypes. You’re pitched into teams of scientists and engineers, and nationalities just melt away. I left space science to write full time in 2004.”
Do you still follow space exploration closely?
“I had a period where I wanted to get away from it – it carried a lot of emotional baggage and I almost wanted to get away from it, but then the itch began to form and I got back into amateur astronomy and it reinvigorated my enthusiasm. These days I just follow New Scientist and the same stuff everybody else does. I’m interested in dark energy, dark matter, galaxy formation – I love the drama as it plays out. It may not be solved in our lifetime, but it’s a matter of professional pride to keep up with that stuff. I’m also really interested in where we’re going in terms of access to space, or whether it’s back to the Moon or Mars. As a writer you’re multidisciplinary – genetics, ecology, climate, if you’re building a future you’re not just building space science into it – you take a global approach.”
Do you think science fiction drives space science?
“I see science fiction at its best as a massive thought experiment, or speculation about the future – you’re not using the literature as a tool for predicting the future, but it’s a way of probing the possible – from space policy, to colonisation, or even the argument for not going into space. I think of science fiction as a culture lab that sparks ideas. You also get that reverse traffic. You never know – someone may have watched the Martian and decided to become a planetary scientist.”
So you’re saying that science fiction is important to inspiring future space scientists?
“Think of it this way: a lot of the pioneers of the original space programme cited (writer) Robert Heinlein as an influence – novellas that saw space travel as a practical problem waiting to be solved. I think that mindset was critical in setting them on that path. It shouldn’t feel necessary that science fiction does that, but it’s a fortunate byproduct.”
Do you think science fiction has an obligation to get science right?
“In some of my favourite films the science is really terrible but you make allowances for that – the story wins. Fantastic Voyage is ludicrous on every level because they take an idea and run with it, but in a way I’m more happy with that kind of film – it’s absurd but enjoyable, but then you get Gravity which made a lot out of getting the physics right, so you sit there with your arms crossed thinking, ‘nah, that’s not quite how orbital mechanics work.’ It’s when they overinflate the credentials that I tend to pay really close attention. I’m not there to shoot them down of course – they’re made by humans, and nobody sets out to make a bad film.”
Alastair Reynolds will be joining us for Session 2: Science Fiction vs. Fact at Space Rocks on April 22nd at Indigo at the O2 in London. Get your tickets here!