Tor UK recently asked me a few searching questions on THE THOUSAND EMPERORS and FINAL DAYS, my latest stand-alone SF adventures. We discussed everything from evil protagonists, to Flash Gordon, to cars that self-fuel by eating genetically-modified grass. Read on to find out more ...
What most excites you about these books?
Up until recently I'd spent years working on the Dakota Merrick books, and this was an opportunity to create a brand-new setting. I started researching time/space wormholes and quickly realised that the physics by which they might work led to some diabolically tricky story possibilities, the kind of thing where you can take things very much to their very furthest logical conclusion and hopefully twist the reader's brain into knots at the same time. Once I had all that figured out, I had the beginnings of my characters and how they would fit into this new environment.
Who is your favourite protagonist and why?
It's hard to pick a favourite out of the two new books. At a push, I'd say Jeff Cairns, the scientist who ends up on the run in Final Days. He's not the main character, but the fact of him being an entirely ordinary person, unlike Saul or Luc, who are both professional policeman and therefore trained to deal with potentially dangerous situations, makes him interesting to me. He's desperately out of his depth, and has to figure out how to stay alive by his own wits, and nothing else.
Who is the most evil character and why?
Undoubtedly Joseph Cheng, in The Thousand Emperors. I spent a few years living in the Far East, in Taiwan, and ended up learning some things about Chinese politics and history, and about Mao, and that in turn led me to read up on similar characters in history such as Temur, whose name appears in the book for very deliberate reasons.
He has another genesis as well. Before I came up with the story of The Thousand Emperors, I'd had an idea for writing a novel which would essentially be the autobiography of Ming the Merciless, from the old Flash Gordon serials. The notion was inspired by another novel, Soon I Shall Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, which was itself told from the point of view of a comic-book supervillian. The idea of a Galactic Emperor is such an old and hoary one, but I always found the idea fascinating.
Over time that idea evolved into something much different. The Mandarin word for father is 'Fu', which immediately makes one think of the old Sax Rohmer character Fu Manchu. That's one reason Cheng is sometimes called 'Father' Cheng. Similarly, his first name is Joseph, after Joseph Stalin, another model for the Tian Di's effective absolute ruler. Stalin reputedly liked to drink vodka with his compatriots and casually mention from time to time that he could have everyone in the room killed or arrested on a whim. I wanted to get some of that air of absolutely corrupting power into Luc Gabion's dealings with Cheng and the other members of the Temur Council.
Is there any plot element or character you wanted to include but couldn’t?
At first, I tried to think of ways I could keep Saul, the protagonist of Final Days, as a primary character in The Thousand Emperors. But then I realised early on there was an opportunity to write a story that didn't require the audience to have read the previous volume at all. I'd tried to find a way to do that with the Dakota Merrick books, but by the time I got to The Thousand Emperors I'd figured out how to do it.
My model was an early book by Vernor Vinge, author of A Fire Upon The Deep, called Marooned in Realtime. Realtime is one of my all-time favourite books, ever, but it's also a sequel to a previous work called The Peace War. Despite this, Marooned is easy to read as a stand-alone, essentially because it tells an entirely different story. In fact, in terms of sheer cosmic scale, that book alone is a major influence on my own writing. I wanted to replicate that same experience, of reading two entirely different stories set in the same universe, and I think I managed to pull it off.
What is your favourite gadget or piece of ‘futuristic’ technology?
It's hard to come up with any idea for technology or gadgetry that hasn't already been described or thought of in some way by much smarter people than me, but if I had to pick one, it wouldn't be the enhanced eye lenses or even the wormholes. It would be the cars in Final Days.
Sometimes a description can be more effective for what you leave out as much as what you put in. I had trucks forming up shells like armadillos, or cars fuelling themselves by eating genetically-modified grass, or changing shape depending on whether or not the occupant was actively in control or asleep in the back. How they manage this, I couldn't tell you, but by missing out the 'how' you give the description an very surreal edge. It's much more fun to keep some things vague and leave the reader wondering 'how the hell does it do that?'