It’s impossible to spend time in the f/sf section of a British bookstore without noticing Adrian Tchaikovsky’s impressive number of published books – but the most impressive thing for me about his career so far has been just how varied it’s been, as he’s gone back and forth between fantasy, science fiction, and even Regency-style alternate history, winning awards along the way.
So I was really happy to host this guest blog from Adrian (on the occasion of his latest book release, Dogs of War) discussing his shifts between genres across his career.
One foot in each world: Writing SF and Fantasy
I started off with a title about having one foot on a dragon and the other on a rocket ship, but the mental image produced was too exquisitely painful. I suspect, to be honest, that to readers outside our little nested genres, the difference between SF and fantasy is rather small – that one has dragons and the other spaceships is probably about it. To those of us living in the microcosm, though, it can seem an insuperable divine. I started off as a fantasy writer back in 2008 and for rather a long time, seven years, that was what I did, and not a spaceship to be seen. Looking back over the sort of things I was writing prior to Shadows of the Apt finding first an agent and then a publisher, it was also mostly fantasy, or if it was SF, it was a sort of Dying Earth/New Sun-set SF that had thoroughly fantastical sensibilities even if the underlying message was that there was a scientific explanation for everything, except nobody left had enough understanding of the science to figure it out (digression: I absolutely love that kind of stuff to read – Vance, Wolfe, Harrison, Bishop, all that post-collapse sci-fantasy stuff. I will write one and get it out there one day, but it’s a hard sell).
However, I will go so far as to say there is an undercurrent of the SFnal in my fantasy, just a little. The technological ramp-up within Shadows is probably the most obvious. The artificers of the Insect-kinden are doing SF stuff, it’s just that their weird-ass technology is not ours, so they solve familiar problems in unfamiliar ways (see Banjacs Gripshod’s bonkers anti-air defence in The Air War for example). On a larger note, fantasy narratives are frequently very conservative in overall structure – the status quo is good, the bad buys break it, the bad guys are defeated, the status quo is restored/king returns etc. SF narratives feel to me as if they’re often more directional – things are discovered or devised, the world won’t ever be the same again. I tried to put a bit of that sensibility into Shadows in that neither the technological nor the political change is going back in the box any time soon.
I have always read fantasy SF and the rare gems that sit along the dividing line with a fairly omnivorous eye, and I have something of a science background (although my psych/zoo lecturers at Reading University would probably have suggested my essays were heavier on the fiction than the science). Trying my hand at SF was probably inevitable so long as I had enough sales to maintain my publisher’s goodwill. Received publishing wisdom was and is that fantasy is by far the bigger seller, though, which makes SF a harder thing to sell to your publisher most of the time. As it happened, the book I actually wrote about spiders from space turned out mystifyingly well, which left me with the aforementioned one foot on either side and held the door open to putting out more SF. Hence my novella, Ironclads, and my new novel, Dogs of War.
Writing SF is a qualitatively different experience to writing fantasy. There’s a definite shift in where the work goes. Fantasy involves more free creation for me – setting my own rules and then extrapolating from them. I am conscientious enough about the science in my SF that I at least try to do due diligence with research, although there’s always that “unknown unknowns” barrier because you don’t necessarily realise where the gaps in your knowledge are (until kind readers point them out!). There’s also the “one big lie” trope (introduced to me by engineer and superb science advisor Nick Bradbeer) where you can kind of get away with the great big non-science thing that the book is based around, but you shore it up by making the rest of your science as watertight as possible. In Children of Time, weirdly, the lie is not the spiders themselves, but the nanovirus that acts (initially) as a plot device to accelerate what I felt was a plausible natural evolution for them.
Going forward, I am definitely hoping to keep my feet right where they are. I have my current fantasy series Echoes of the Fall finishing up early 2018, and am currently writing a Children of Time sequel with a further SF book to come after, but I have a list of fantasy projects backed up and waiting for a publisher as well. Writing fantasy and writing SF seem to fulfil linked but separate needs in me, and I’m hoping to hold on to both. And maybe one day I’ll get out that sci-fantasy dying-earth novel I’ve always wanted to do.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is a keen live role-player and occasional actor, fantasy author and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. You can find more information about him and his books on his website.