Worldbuilding, Stranger Things and odd fan encounters: An interview with Peter F. Hamilton
The bestselling science fiction author talks to us about his love of the genre, how he writes and the sci-fi series on his must-watch list.
After more than two decades of writing science fiction books, including his latest novel, The Saints of Salvation, Peter F. Hamilton has a deep love of the genre and knows a thing or two about how to craft a bestseller. We spoke to the sci-fi author about how he researches and writes his epic space operas, his favourite characters and science fiction becoming reality.
Find out more of the best new sci-fi books of 2020 here.
How did you get into writing, and why science fiction?
Writing was always something I'd considered doing, the idea (impulse?) to start grew steadily during my twenties, so I eventually went out and bought a typewriter. As to why science fiction, it was the genre I enjoyed reading the most, so in my mind that was the obvious field to write in.
What first drew you to science fiction, and specifically to space opera?
It was the sheer escapism of the genre, allowing a 1970s teenager to get out of what was a fundamentally drab world (apart from the music, obviously, it was a great era for music). Doubly so for space opera, which got you even further away from life on Earth. I think it also developed a more critical attitude when it came to looking at the world around me.
What was the first science fiction book you ever read?
You expect me to remember a precise fact from that far back? I do know I read EE Doc Smith and Clarke and Heinlein within a very short space of time.
Which of your books have you most enjoyed writing?
If we’re including the research part of writing then it has to be Great North Road. I spent several days in Newcastle finding real locations to fit the story. My father’s family comes from Newcastle, so it was nice revisiting places I knew from childhood. Seeing how they’d changed was also a masterclass in extrapolation, which is one of the basics of worldbuilding. Then there was a trip to Iceland, where a friend took me driving over a glacier for research on how vehicles behave in those conditions, plenty of which made it into the book.
You've been publishing bestselling science fiction books for more than twenty years now, how have things changed for you as a writer in that time?
I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot about the whole process of novel writing in all that time. The way I write the outline and plot structure now is certainly more sophisticated than it was when I approached Mindstar Rising, my first book. That kind of development can only ever happen through experience. I’m not sure it’s necessarily any easier to write a novel twenty years on, but I certainly have a lot more confidence about being able to deliver when I sit down and face the dreaded blank screen of chapter one.
Do you think science fiction has changed as a genre since you first started writing, and if so how?
It certainly has changed. Firstly the range of science fiction is now so much broader than it used to be, with more sub-genres than anyone can count. There really is something for everyone out there. Secondly, I’d like to believe the overall quality of writing has improved.
Your novels always have wonderful detail about technology and new sciences – how much research do you do before starting to write?
Enough to make it sound plausible, is my rule of thumb. There’s always the danger of too much research which can spill over into the book, and drown the reader in too much unnecessary detail. The bigger challenge with future technologies is working out the impact they’ll have on society and the changes in attitude they’ll instigate.
Are there any advancements or technologies that you’ve written about in your novels that have since become reality?
This is the benefit of writing stuff set hundreds or thousands of years in the future, you rarely get called out on improbabilities. Having said that, Greg Mandel (written twenty years ago and set in a future now only twenty years away) uses electronics that are suspiciously like laptops today – they didn’t exist when I wrote them.
Is there a science fiction book that you think may become reality?
Not a whole book, no. If you look at books published thirty or more years ago, none of them have a particularly accurate account of the world as it is today. The classic example being mobile phones. However, there are ideas and technologies that were featured back then that have been built and are now everyday items.
From your early novels featuring Greg Mandel through to Salvation, it’s been clear that worldbuilding is a big part of your stories. How important is this to you?
Very! It's all very well to have a plot, but unless the setting is one which is plausible the story becomes unbelievable. Putting a fully functional world / universe together is my first priority, I'll spend months making sure all the aspects work together.
One of your strengths is giving us multiple characters offering a variety of viewpoints. But how do you decide on the different voices that will be necessary to tell the story?
It's a chicken and egg situation. I like to provide as much balance to a story as possible, everyone has a reason for doing what they do, and just because I personally don't share their opinion doesn't mean it's not valid. So main characters are chosen for their outlook on what's happening, which in turn gives them their behaviour and motivation, which colours their voice.
Do you have any favourite characters and who are they and why?
Like any good parent, I show no favouritism. However, that said . . . I do like writing Gore Burnelli simply because his opinions are completely opposite to my own. I always have fun doing that.
How do you tackle writers’ block – if you suffer from it?!
I avoid it by making a lot of notes beforehand. That’s not to say there are no bad writing days, but I always know what I have to write. I suppose that means the only time I’d have writers' block is if I couldn’t think of a new idea for a book. That hasn’t happened yet.
If you get time to read for pleasure, what’s your go-to genre – other than science fiction? Or is it science fiction all the way?
It is mostly science fiction, and mainly because I now know so many SF authors. The to-be-read pile is now so large that they never will all be read now. And I have just come out of a phase of reading a lot of children’s books. Sadly my kids are now too old for me to read to them each night, but it was grand while it lasted.
There’s been a greater output of quality science fiction TV shows and mini-series of late – both from original ideas and novel adaptions. Do you have a favourite among these, or any you’d recommend? And have any recent films caught your attention?
I've just finished binge-watching Stranger Things on Netflix, which I liked. I haven't got round to watching The Expanse, and I'll probably take a look at the new Star Trek series when it comes out. In films, my son is a huge Star Wars fan – I don't take much persuading to take him to the cinema for that.
What’s the most interesting/strangest fan encounter you’ve ever had?
Some people have written albums ‘inspired by’ the books, which is both crazy and wonderful. And yes I have them on my iTunes library. Then there was one reader who brought all (and I do mean all) his poetry to an event, and wanted me to read and critique it there and then. The people in the signing queue behind him weren’t terribly impressed.