Thursday, August 8, 2013

Interview: Ian Sales

I now present my interview with the 2012 Sidewise nominated author, Ian Sales, author of "Adrift on the Sea of Rains".

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm British but I grew up in the Middle East - Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (both Dubai and Abu Dhabi). After school and university in the UK, I returned to the UAE to work. In 2002, I came back to the UK, where I now work as a database administrator for an ISP.

I've been reading science fiction since I was a kid, and I've been attending conventions and reviewing books since the late 1980s. I had a couple of stories published in UK small press magazines while I was at university, but then decided to try my hand at writing novels. That got me an agent - the John Jarrold Literary Agency - but not a contract with a publisher. In the last few years, I've had short fiction published in several original anthologies and magazines, and in 2012 I edited the anthology Rocket Science for Mutation Press. In 2012, I also founded my own small press, Whippleshield Books, to publish my Apollo Quartet.

What is Whippleshield Books?

Whippleshield Books is a small press which publishes literary hard science fiction or space fiction. When I decided to self-publish my Apollo Quartet, I was determined to do it properly. So I created my own small press, bought some ISBNs, and published the book in signed and numbered limited hardback, paperback, and various ebook formats. Whippleshield Books is open submission, but only for the specific type of fiction described earlier.

What got you interested in space exploration?

I remember being fascinated by it when I was a kid in the 1970s, although the only mission I can actually remember watching on television was ASTP in 1975 (on John Craven's Newsround, for the Brits among you). When I turned 11, I started reading science fiction . . . and pretty much stuck with that for the next thirty years.

It wasn't until I read Moondust by Andrew Smith about six or seven years ago that my interest in space exploration was rekindled. So I started collecting books on the topic, and I set up a blog, A Space About Books About Space, to write about those books. The more I've read about space exploration, the more my interest has deepened.

It's not the science which fascinates me, however, it's the engineering. It's the technical solutions that have been applied to the problem of keeping human beings alive in space, and getting them where they want to go. I also find deep sea exploration fascinating for much the same reason.

Going back to our timeline, what do you think the future of space exploration will be like?

I've yet to be convinced commercial space is the way forward. As they like to say in the space industry, to make a small fortune in space, start with a big fortune. The commercial sector simply doesn't have the long-term view necessary to exploit space and off-Earth resources, and exploration is an important early stage in that process. Shareholders want their dividends, and they won't wait twenty years for cash to start rolling in. Especially when it's all going to be a very expensive gamble anyway.

Of course, some Kuhnian paradigm shift could come along and result in cheap and easy access to space, but I'm not holding my breath. Instead it'll be small steps by public institutions until we have enough of a presence in space to bootstrap it to the next level. And that's not going to happen this century. In fact, I'm doubtful we'll see anyone land on Mars in my lifetime. You'd think we'd be beyond philanthropy as the chief means of financing exploration, but if we're returning to that model for the rest of this century then all we have to look forward to is publicly-funded robots in programmes which will be progressively rolled back as capitalists expropriate more and more of the public purse. Given what we've done to this planet - and continue to do - then we really, really need to look beyond quarterly P&L statements. In so many different ways. And that includes space. I am not hopeful.

What is "Adrift in the Sea of Stars" about?

In a nutshell: a militarised Apollo space programme has led to a base on the Moon at the Apollo 15 landing-site. Meanwhile on Earth, the Cold War turned hot and resulted in an exchange of nuclear missiles which has killed everyone. The astronauts on the Moon, however, have the Bell, a Nazi "wunderwaffe", which allows them to cross into alternate realities, and they're hunting for one in which the Earth was not destroyed by war.

What inspired you to write the story?

2009 was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, and I wanted to celebrate this on my A Space About Books About Space blog. First, I read the biographies of the three astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, and posted reviews. I also wanted to write a piece of fiction about Apollo. In the event, I never finished the story in time.

A few months later, the writing group in which I was a member decided we should all have a go at flash fiction. I went back to my Apollo story and realised that I didn't need to finish it, I just needed to cut down what I'd written to 1000 words. So I did, it became 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams', and I posted it on my blog. I'd enjoy the process of researching and writing it, and I wanted to do something similar but more ambitious. I'm not sure if I had the plot or the title of "Adrift on the Sea of Rains" first, but I do know that I wanted to write a literary space fiction novella that was as realistic as I could possibly make it.

What sources were particularly helpful when researching for the novel?

Mostly, I used reference works on the Apollo programme, particularly the ones published by Apogee Books. Other details I picked up from astronaut biographies and autobiographies. "Adrift on the Sea of Rains" has two pages of bibliography - as indeed will all four books of the quartet - and it was important to me that I get everything as accurate as possible, which meant lots and lots and lots of research. I even read a book on the Apollo Guidance Computer so I could reference the correct programs at various points during the story.

How did it feel to win the 2012 BSFA Award in the short fiction category?

It was a huge surprise. When I published "Adrift on the Sea of Rains", I'd sort of expected my friends to buy copies and I thought perhaps a few people who were space nuts might find it interesting. I mean, it had a glossary and two pages of abbreviations! People just didn't do that in science fiction. So when friends and acquaintances started telling me how much they liked it, and positive reviews began to appear online, it slowly dawned on me that I'd written something that people actually thought was good - even though I'd broken every rule in the book, so to speak.

Appearing on the BSFA shortlist wasn't much of a surprise as numerous people had told me they were nominating it. (I'd also been shortlisted the previous year for SF Mistressworks, and people had told me then they were nominating that.) Winning the award, however, was a completely different matter. I fully expected Aliette de Bodard to walk away with the award for her excellent story "Immersion" (it was later shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Sturgeon awards). I was so sure I wouldn't win, in fact, that I didn't bother writing a speech to give in the event I did win. So when they called out my name, it was a few seconds before it sank in. And all I could do when I accepted the award was mumble thanks to everyone who had voted.

Can you give us any hints about the forthcoming Apollo Quartet stories?

The stories in the Apollo Quartet do not form a single story-arc. The links between the novellas are thematic, and there is a motif which develops over the four books. The first three are based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme - the military Moon base in "Adrift on the Sea of Rain"s, a mission to Mars using reconfigured Apollo hardware in "The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself" . . . and a female astronaut corps inspired by the Mercury 13 in book three, "Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above".

The final book, "All That Outer Space Allows", will be set in the real Apollo programme. It's been important to me while I've been writing the novellas that they're very realistic. Obviously, Falcon Base never existed, nor did the USA send a man to Mars in 1979. But the technology described in "Adrift on the Sea of Rains" is real historical technology - even the Bell has a Wikipedia page. And the Mars mission profile in "The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself" was actually proposed in 1966, although I took a few liberties in redesigning it to use Apollo hardware. The FTL drive, on the other hand, is pure invention, although I did carefully stitch it into existing Area 51 mythology.

Apollo Quartet 3, "Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above", will be purer alternate history, with a pair of unrelated narratives based on two real events from the 1960s/1970s. It will be very different in terms of story to the first two books of the Apollo Quartet. That's one thing I'm trying to do with each book: deliver something the reader won't expect having read the preceding novella . . .

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I have a bunch of short stories I'm working on, including one about Yuri Gagarin marooned on Mars, and another about angels. I'm in the middle of plotting out a novel about the first mission to leave the Solar System, which has the working title of "The Voyage That Will Never End". I'm also planning to collect half a dozen of my alternate space short stories (some of which I, er, have yet to write) and publish them using Whippleshield Books. Just this month, I had a story published in The Orphan online magazine about rocket sleds and I have another about aliens on the Moon who attack the Earth which will appear soon in a literary anthology from The Fiction Desk.

What are you reading now?

I'm still working my way through research material for Apollo Quartet 3, such as the autobiography of Jerrie Cobb, the first of the Mercury 13. I also foolishly promised on my blog that I'd spend this summer reading six science fiction classics. While I do read a lot of sf, I have a pretty low opinion of the many of the so-called classics of the genre, so I'm not expecting to enjoy the experience. The first book is Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I expect I'll start it before the end of the month . . .

Do you have any advice for would-be authors?

I'm probably the worst person in the world to give advice to would-be authors. I self-published "Adrift on the Sea of Rains" because I didn't want to compromise on my vision. Winning the BSFA Award - and being a finalist for the Sidewise Award - vindicated that decision, but that doesn't mean everyone should do it. I suppose it depends on whether you want to be a financially-successful writer or a critically-successful writer. True, some writers are both, but most are either one or the other. And if your chief objective is filthy lucre/units sold, then not compromising on your vision is about the worst thing you could do. But whichever path you decide to follow, you need to keep plugging away, hone your craft, get your name out there via short stories or guest posts.

Build yourself a platform. It not only helps if you choose to self-publish, but getting yourself noticed is half the battle when it comes to getting published by a major imprint too. And don't forget to read a lot too. And everything you read: read it *critically*. That's very important.

Have you read any of the other works nominated for the Sidewise Awards? If yes, what did you think about them?

Not yet, although I'll certainly read the other short form finalists. Of the long-form finalists, the story of the McDevitt & Resnick one sounds like it might appeal, but I'm not a fan of either author. Ruff's novel appears interesting, and while the premise of the Sansom feels a bit tired (genre fiction has been over that same ground several times) it might be worth a read. The other two look too much like steampunk for me.

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