David Mitchell is one of the world’s most successful literary novelists. He has been twice nominated for the prestigious Booker prize, and his novel Cloud Atlas was adapted to the Tykwer and Wachowski film starring Tom Hanks. He’s also a huge sci-fi fan with a long love of geek culture. Damien Walter sat down with the bestselling author to discuss his SF influences, which D&D character type he plays, and the future of the novel in a multi-media age.
Damien Walter is a writer and storyteller. Words in The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Independent, Aeon, OUP. Teaches the Rhetoric of Story and Writing the 21st Century Myth to over 35,000 students worldwide. Host of the Science Fiction podcast.
Damien – Hello David. Sci-fi and fantasy fiction have a huge and very dedicated fanbase, who over the years have come to love your work. I think many fans see parallels between the metaphysical ideas in your writing, and common ideas in genre fiction. I’d like to ask you a few questions about this.
David – Cheers Damien. Good to meet you, and thanks for your interest in my work. The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.
Damien – The relationship between literary fiction and sci-fi has been discussed a lot recently, including a fascinating dialogue between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.
David – Gosh that was an interesting article – one of the most ideas-buzzing conversations about genre I’ve ever read, don’t you think? I was fascinated by NG’s anecdote about China. My own experience is that while the Party has relaxed regarding SF & Fantasy, it still censors alternative history SF. Of course, if the past is rewritable, the Party’s place in it, and in China’s present and future, is more arbitrary than inevitable. Makes you think of the famous Orwell quote about whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future. There’s something deeply subversive about SF, in part because of its camouflage – “Hey Mr Grownups, don’t worry about me as an art-form, I’m just kids’ fantasy rubbish, they’ll all grow out of me in a year or two…”
“my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn.”
Damien – That must be why so many writers were inspired by sci-fi as kids. You’ve admitted to a totally normal white middle class upbringing in the past. Did this include such geeky things as Doctor Who, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, video games?
David – I’d use the verb ‘assert’ rather than ‘admit’. Protected solvent normality with sane kind parents, is a stroke of luck, not a misdemeanour. But yes; yes; yes…and yes! Tom Baker was my formative Doctor – someone that batshit crazy simply had to be real, a trick that Capaldi borrows to great effect. 2000AD was my comic – I loved THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT stories particularly, and JUDGE DREDD provided great training in long-form episodic narratives. AD&D, yes, until an age when I really should have been doing something more pro-active about my lack of a girlfriend – my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn. (He’s still out there, somewhere…) Video games – not so much playing them as programming them. I made an epic on my 48k Sinclair Spectrum called THE SPHERES OF CREATION. (It was a load of balls. I know, it’s the way I tell ’em.) It was a quest-based adventure game, and for a short time a software house in Stockport was interested in developing it, though that fizzled out. I think of it now as a kind of proto-novel.
“Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part.”
Damien – You’ve listed Ursula Le Guin and Issac Asimov as early writing influences, two Big Guns of science fiction. Are there any others you might add? Which scifi authors impress you today?
I remember collecting the RIVERWORLD books by Philip Jose Farmer; the ‘Gil the Arm’ stories by Larry Niven, about a detective with a psychic arm; Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN; Harry Harrison, author of THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT; JG Ballard; HG Wells; EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s LENSMEN books, though I now suspect the Chris Foss covers were better than the books themselves; Ray Bradbury. I’m sure there were more. Like Neil Gaiman, I enjoyed reading Asimov’s (slightly self-congratulatory, but never mind) introductions to each of the stories in his volumes of COLLECTED STORIES – these short passages provided insights into the craft and business of writing which were unavailable elsewhere. I had a cheaply-printed second-hand American anthology called 100 YEARS OF SCIENCE FICTION that I bought from a shop in Upton-on-Severn, and I still remember some of the stories in it, even if I don’t remember the authors.
These days I’d add the names Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Margaret Attwood to the list, but there would be many more individual books than names of individuals: Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; Emily St John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN; EM Forster’s (seriously) SF novella THE MACHINE STOPS; Michel Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS; Gary Shteyngart’s SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY; Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE. Something’s afoot. For literary-ish writers of my generation – and the freer-styled writers in the generation ahead of ours, like Kazuo Ishiguro – the assumption that only social realists are allowed into the throne-room is falling into disrepute. Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part. It’s not like Dylan going electric. Or, it is, but it doesn’t end with electric; it can then veer country-wards for NASHVILLE SKYLINE, before wellying up the bass-lines for JOHN WESLEY HARDING, before …
Damien – Before going as far and as freely as the author can imagine. A great imagination must be a basic criteria for a good novelist, but people sometimes frown at wilder flights of fantasy. Do you see anything fundamentally different between mapping imaginary archipelagos and describing the detailed lives of real people and real places?
David – (1) The mapping of made-up archipelagos is imaginary cartography. (2) Describing the detailed lives of real people and real places is biography and history, respectively. (3) Describing the detailed lives of imagined people in places you can find on Earth today is an act of fiction, and if the laws of physics in this fiction pretty much correspond to those of our world, then the label ‘social realism’ is applied by those who care about these matters. (4) If the novel is set on a place not on any map (and “true places never are” Melville writes in MOBY DICK) or if the laws of physics have been monkeyed about with, then the label ‘SF’ or ‘fantasy’ gets applied, depending if the monkeyings are of a techno or a magical nature. So, to answer your question: (1) and (2) are fundamentally different from each other and from (3) and (4). (3) and (4) are not so different from each other, no. In both cases, fiction is being written and it’s either good or bad or somewhere in between, according to the talents of the writer and the tastes of the reader. Frown if it’s bad, frown if you have to take it to the charity shop after only 40 pages in, but don’t frown just because it’s a wild flight of fantasy. GAWAINE AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a wild flight of fantasy. So is much of Shakespeare. So are key chunks of Dickens. So is Borges.
Damien – Your debut novel Ghostwritten seems to flirt with many forms of afterlife – ghosts of course, and the idea of reincarnation. Do you play with supernatural ideas for fun, or does the book express any part of your true beliefs?
David – Ghostwritten – If I remember correctly, it’s been years since I looked at it – incorporates various forms of the afterlife because the novel wouldn’t have been the novel I wanted it to be if it hadn’t done so. The novel’s the boss, every time. I’m a content-enough agnostic with a now-common built-in wariness of both mega-religions and cults. I’ve read books about Buddhism that I’ve found instructive and helpful for my relationship with my mind, but I have little doubt that Buddhist institutions in East Asia are every bit as capable of mafioso practices and predatory violence as the Catholic Church has proven itself to be in Ireland.
“Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo.”
Damien – Cloud Atlas also interwove multiple story-lines, and took the reader into a future dystopia and the post-apocalypse. Are these serious predictions about how you see the future unfolding?
David – They are possible futures. I have no idea if the futures portrayed in Cloud Atlas will come to pass or not, and neither does anyone else. All futures are possible until they cull the competition by becoming the singular present. Aren’t time and reality fascinating things?
Damien – The Bone Clocks has been called your most explicitly sci-fi novel to date, with elements of the paranormal, the alien, and conspiracy theories. But I’m most struck by your repeated interest in teenage characters. What draws you back to the adolescent experience?
David – Not sure if I’d totally agree with the premise of the question, Damien. There’s the whole of Black Swan Green and one-sixth of The Bone Clocks where my narrators are adolescents, and… I think that’s my lot? That said, adolescence is an interesting threshold in life, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, don’t you think? Adolescents are neither fish nor fowl, they have a lot to learn even if they think otherwise. They tend to be seeing the adult world for the first time and thus have fresh eyeballs, and everything they do is a journey of one type or another. Gold dust for novelists.
Damien – The Bone Clocks also revealed more clearly than ever the “meta-narrative” that appears to stitch all of your novels together. Have you been planning this from the beginning?
David – It has been quietly mutating as I’ve gone along.
Damien – Some people argue the novel is in trouble, that it can’t compete with the spectacle of films and video games. Your novels are experimental and challenging, but also commercially successful. What makes the novel relevant for people today?
David – For people who don’t have the novel habit, novels couldn’t be more irrelevant. Just occasionally a HARRY POTTER or a GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or a DA VINCI CODE comes along and ram-raids the leisure time of people who don’t normally read, and maybe then they experience a ‘relevancy-surge’ and that’s great (and hats off to those authors). A few non-readers may be converted long-term to the pleasures of novels, but most aren’t, and that’s okay too and anyhow it’s the way of the world so what can you do, eh? Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo. To novel-readers, however, the novel is rather more than ‘relevant’: at its best, the form brings pleasure, solace, knowledge, bonding with other readers, intrigue, escapism and who knows, maybe just occasionally a few dribbles of wisdom worth storing away. Yes, the novel’s business model has taken a hammering from the Internet – too many people are too pleased with themselves for downloading books without paying the writer – but a business model being in trouble is not the same thing as an art form being in trouble.
Damien – Thanks for your time David. Any final thoughts?
David – My pleasure, Damien. I suppose my final thought is that our artsy sub-corner of the big wide world would be better if the question “To what genre does this novel belong?” were utterly irrelevant to that novel’s critical or commercial reception. I’m heartened by the signs that we’re getting there, and I sense that we are on the same side.