Crime has been good to me over the years. One of my first and best jobs in television was as a script editor on the cult BBC series The Paradise Club, created by Murray Smith, starring Leslie Grantham and Don Henderson. It was a seedy London crime drama with shootings and heists and yakuza, set against a backdrop of deliciously improbable and larger than life characters. Murray was himself a larger than life character, who had served in the Foreign Legion and (so he claimed) had a close association with an SAS. As a member of a shooting club, Murray owned a gun, a formidable Sig Sauer which he once showed to me during a difficult script conference. He pointed it at me, smiled his evil smile, and even though I knew the gun was unloaded, I immediately modified my notes and told him what a great script it was – don’t change a word, Murray!!!
After Paradise Club I worked for years as a regular writer on The Bill. Later I worked as a script editor on crime dramas like McCallum and Taggart, and wrote thrillers and noir film scripts. I spent a large part of one year hanging out with the West London murder squad, attending post mortems and drinking with coppers. I once spent an evening with an armed robber who had recently been abducted at gunpoint and hustled into the boot of a car, before being dumped on to the street in Glasgow. (I never had the courage to ask him why.) Another armed robber gave me a guided tour of all the banks and sports arenas he had armed robbed; only later did it occur to me that I would be appearing on the CCTV cameras loitering outside banks with a convicted blagger. ‘Guv, who’s that sinister looking Welsh bloke? Put him on the surveillance list…’
Then one day in the Science Museum, standing under a massive space rocket which hung from the ceiling, a vast phallic remnant of the days of space exploration, I had the germ of an idea that eventually evolved into Debatable Space. My aim was to write in a genre I love, with as much passion and bravura as I could muster. I wanted it to big, bold, and crazy (and in all honesty, I would say that it is.)
In writing Debatable Space, I became aware of the many differences between writing drama and writing prose – there are more words! Many many more words. (Actually, that really is the main difference. That, and the absence of producers, script editors and heads of drama all adding their wise and tactful insights to the evolving text.) I also experienced the joy of knowing that in telling this particular story, money was no object. This is a book with numerous space battles and bizarre aliens and black holes and flaring suns. If it were made as drama, it would cost the equivalent of 2,000,000,000 episodes of The Bill…
I also relished the freedom I felt I had to switch genres and styles, whenever the characters felt like a change. It’s a book about slavery, and entrapment; but in writing it, I’ve never felt freer.
As well as being a book about evil, though, it’s also a book about joy. One of my most truly joyful experiences in cinema was seeing the trailer for Raiders of the Lost Ark as a young man. It evoked the wonder of childhood, impossible stories of derring-do, and had a retro nostalgic tang that was fabulously compelling.
Debatable Space is born of a similar impulse. With Raiders, Lucas and Spielberg set out to make a movie that was like the movies they watched as kids. And in similar fashion, I wanted to write a story that evokes the spirit of wonder and delight that I remembered from reading science fiction as a boy. I’d buy and read a half dozen novels a week, and when I didn’t have money I’d stand in W.H. Smith and read the books that way. I’d borrow SF novels from my Uncle Bob, who had shelves and shelves of them in his motor repair garage. And I’d lose myself in strange worlds, from A.E. Van Vogt to Asimov’s Foundation universe, to the Known Space of Larry Niven.
It was Niven’s vision of weird, witty aliens and a morally conflicted hero that has most haunted my memories. The cowardly puppeteers, the furry Kzinti, the space yachts propelled by the solar wind…that was my starting point. But in the process of evolution, Debatable Space became more than just a rip roaring space opera. It become a biography, and a political allegory (evil rich humans controlling an empire by means of remote control technology – hel-lo?) and an ensemble show about a bunch of misfits bonded by humour and a mission.
But does that mean I’m now a science fiction writer? Well yes I am, and proud to be so. But a large part of me is an unrepentant genre-buster, with a love of mixing it up as much as possible. I love Blade Runner – a science fiction film noir. Alien, of course, is an SF horror movie. And The Matrix is a science fiction allegory of Jesus. Bring it on…!
Genre-busting is one of the most lively strands in modern SF, too. Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Alastair Reynolds do wonderful things in the world of SF noir. The astonishing Neil Gaiman gets his books on the SF shelves but, so far as I can gauge, manages to be a genre all of his own. And Peter F. Hamilton, one of my favourite SF writers, seems to be a Victorian novelist writing triple decker novels with rich, bravura characters, who also has a penchant for aliens and techno-talk. (And his Gregor Mandel novels are of a course a fine example of the busted genre of SF detective novel, following in the tradition of Asimov’s Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw.)
Casablanca was once described as a thriller, a love story, a political drama and a musical all rolled into one. And for me, one of the joys of SF is the freedom it offers to play with style and genre with complete abandon. Any story can be told in the SF genre, in any style, with any degree of political seriousness, or not, and with no limits on the degree of intellectual seriousness at work. So long as it’s exciting, and extrapolative…it can be SF.
I worry, though, that after Debatable Space I will no longer be allowed to write in other genres without putting an extra ‘M’ in my name. But even so, after a writing career living on the proceeds of crime, it’s a liberation to be a ‘British SF author’.
To me, that’s an invitation to have some serious fun…
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