Sometime ago I reviewed ”Paintwork”, an extremely interesting collection of short stories by Tim Maughan (Bristol, U.K.). Now it is a real pleasure for me having the author answering some questions about his work and his view on the current state of science fiction (you can read a translation into Spanish of this interview at the Literatura Fantástica Blog).
Elias Combarro : Recently, your name was mentioned in an article by Jonathan McCalmont as one of the few authors who are writing “relevant” science fiction nowadays. What is your opinion on this ? Is science fiction really exhausted ?
Tim Maughan : I know Jon very well, and we’ve discussed this issue at length – which made his inclusion of my work even more flattering. I know including me just because we are friends would be the very last thing he’d do. I think he hits the nail on the head in that article, I can’t think of a time when science fiction has been so escapist. I have my own theories as to why this is, largely to do with the shrinking and threatening of the middle classes – which have always beeb SF’s core audience. I outlined these in some detail in an article I wrote for Lavie Tidhar’s site- but put simply: the western middle classes feel threatened by the swing of economic power to the east, and feel like the future – which they were always told would belong to them – is slipping out of their grasp. They can’t get a grip on it, and the fact it might not have much of a role for them means they don’t want to. Thus they want SF that is escapism, or even a retreat into the past – that’s why I think there’s been an upsurge in the popularity of steampunk, fantasy and the paranormal in speculative fiction.
Does this mean SF is exhausted? Perhaps, but I don’t think that has to be it’s ultimate state. It can revive itself, take a look at what it needs to do, have another go. Or at least I hope it can – it’s what I’m aiming for anyway. Plus I don’t think it’s a black and white situation – the best SF combines both escapism and realism or social commentary. It’s about getting the balance right.
Elias Combarro : While reading your stories I thought I could detect the influence of cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and, especially, Bruce Sterling. Am I right? What other authors have influenced your writing ?
Tim Maughan : Spot on about Gibson and Sterling – Gibson in particular had a huge impact on me when I first read his work, and still does. My father is a huge SF fan, so I was surrounded by books growing up and consumed so many of them – but I’d lost some interest by the 80s when I was a teenager; it didn’t seem particularly sexy or cool – things teens worry about so much – compared to the music and drugs I was experimenting with at the time. And then I found Gibson and cyberpunk – and not only did it seem cool, but like the music I was listening to (hip hop and house/techno) it seemed of it’s time, dealing with issues that interested me – giving me another way of looking at the emergence of hyper-capitalism alongside computers and the total media saturation that we are so used to know. Plus it was exciting because it was SF that I had discovered, rather than my father. That was important, I think, the suggestion of a generational divide.
Which is why I’m sometimes very conflicted about being labelled as cyberpunk – it’s very flattering as it was such an important influence on me, but it was a movement of it’s time. I’m trying to do something new, but it comes out as cyberpunk not only because of my influences but also because Gibson etc got so much right about the present. In fact my books don’t use a lot of the cyberpunk tropes – there’s no AI, no cybernetic implants, no secret technologies etc. The tropes I do use – virtuality, hyper-consumerism, corporate dominance, networked life – they’re not science fiction anymore; they’re the nature of our existence.
The other big influence on me, and one I’m going back and re-evaluating at the moment – is J.G. Ballard. Nobody has come close to him in unpicking western society, and the psychology of living in a technology soaked world. He really was the most important writer of the last century, I think.
Elias Combarro : The short stories that you have published so far are set in the near future. Are you considering writing some far future SF for a change ?
Tim Maughan : No plans at present – but only because the ideas haven’t come to me yet. I’d quite like to write something with spaceships and robots in – I have a lot of nostalgia for the lost, dirty industrial future of movies like Alien, Blade Runner and Outland, but recently I’ve realised that if science fiction is about the present those films are about the 1980s, as was cyberpunk. They have historical importance for that reason, and I love them dearly, but trying to recreate them now is pointless nostalgia largely. Which could be fun I guess. Contemporary space opera replaces that industrial, corporate world with nanotechnology and post-humanism – which feel like yet more escapist tropes to me. They’re magic, wish fulfilment. They might as well be fantasy.
Elias Combarro : Current technologies such as virtual reality, social networks and online games are prominently featured in your stories. How would you say that the use of these technologies is changing our way of thinking, our way of interacting with other people ?
Tim Maughan : That’s a good question. That’s a big question ! I’m not sure we know yet, I think we’re still feeling our way. That’s why I’m writing about them, I think, to try and understand myself. I think everything is so double edged now – online communities for example, they can be both embracing and alienating, both to degrees we couldn’t possibly imagine a couple of decades ago. The same goes for the anonymity and distance that ‘net culture grants us – it can be liberating, allowing people to express themselves in ways they would be too scared to in real life – but of course the flip of that is it lets people get away with saying or doing terrible things with no consequence. I was reading a forum recently where someone used a homophobic slur, and when they were confronted about it they said nobody should be offended as it was ‘only pixels’. That struck me as simultaneously both horrifying and logical – it’s a defence that must make some sense if you’ve grown up spending a large percentage of your communicating life online. It’s the complete stripping of meaning, postmodernism made real, I guess. How do you argue against that? In fact, with meaning gone in that way, how do you argue about anything?
Elias Combarro : Trust (and distrust) is an important theme in your stories, where characters are often deceived by their friends. Do you think that trusting other people is more dangerous today than, say, twenty years ago ?
Tim Maughan : No, I don’t think so – the media would love us to all believe that, it feeds on fear, and is constantly looking to spread the illusion of distrust so that consumers turn to it for a kind of fake truth. I hear a lot of media talk here about the ‘blitz spirit’, about how British society was more unified during the war in the ’40s. I largely suspect that’s bullshit, and some terrible things happened when the lights were out, there was looting, people cheated on departed lovers and so on. When I’m writing about distrust I’m not saying that it’s a new thing, or a futuristic thing – to be honest it’s sometimes just a plot device! – but more that it’s there, and our media and culture likes to amplify it, to separate and alienate us, to make us better, competing consumers. Consumerism doesn’t work well if everyone trusts each other, it only works if we feel the need to compete with our neighbours, friends, even families.
Elias Combarro : You have self-published three of your stories in the ”Paintwork” collection. How was this experience for you? How do you think ebooks and self-publishing will transform the publishing industry in the next few years ?
Tim Maughan : I enjoyed the self publishing thing, it was mainly done as a personal experiment. There’s lots of reasons behind it… my music background was one for a start. Music – or the music I enjoy – has flipped values to publishing. Being independent or self controlling is seen as a badge of authenticity, where as with books it’s seen as the opposite – being anointed by an agent or publisher is the ultimate goal. I don’t think either view are true now, really, but that was in my mind when I did it. It seemed cool, plus I’d made quite a strong name for myself as a non-fiction writer by blogging – just another form of self publishing – that it seemed the logical step for me.
The only other alternative was to submit my short stories to magazines, and I’d tried that with little luck. To be honest I found dealing with SF mags pretty depressing – there’s lots of hoops to jump through for little financial rewards – and much more importantly – little exposure. Magazine editors and their readers often feel like sealed communities – if you’re not one of the gang nobody cares. I didn’t want my stories read just by the readers of a few magazines, or even just traditional SF readers – I was hoping they might have more appeal than that. I’m still not sure if they have to be honest.
I honestly don’t know how things will pan out for the industry at a whole, just that it’ll be messy and some sacrificial lambs will be slaughtered – and not always for the best reasons. The experiment worked for me – I ended up with a book I could give to people to review, and that’s got some great responses and attention. Now things have flipped over and I’m getting commissions from magazines which is exciting. But its still hard to shake off being a self-publisher – many people just sneer at you, which is understandable seeing how much dross is out there. But I do chuckle to myself when I see established publishers and industry people going out of their way to discredit self publishing – if it is so fucking terrible why waste your energy ?
Elias Combarro : In your stories globalization is unstoppable and corporations are, sometimes, more powerful than governments. Do you think it is only science fiction or it is also a fact in our real world ?
Tim Maughan : I think sadly it is an undeniable fact that corporations are more powerful than governments now. I hate to comment on Spain when you obviously know far more than me, but the EU crisis has proved one thing – banks have more power than nation states now. Democratically elected governments have to bow down to financial corporations, both in that they have to pay back debts or prop up the corporations when they fail. It’s a dire situation for democracy I believe, far worse than the over blown phantom menaces of terrorism or social unrest. Can it be stopped? Maybe, but it’s not for the faint hearted – it will require REAL resistance, more so than the cozy middle class rebellion of movements like Occupy. I fear it might be time to start setting fire to stuff.
Elias Combarro : What are you working on at the moment ? Can you give us a sneak peek of your future projects ?
Tim Maughan : Like I mentioned earlier I’ve just finished a couple of short stories that will be published in the new year, around spring I think – and I’m currently working on a novel. All of these are both connected to my previous work while also being a departure from them in one important sense… I don’t want to say much more than that right now!
Elias Combarro : Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
Tim Maughan : Over on my website – timmaughanbooks.com and on my twitter feed @timmaughan. Warning: I tweet A LOT!
Elias Combarro : Thank you very much for your time and your answers!
© Elias Combarro & Tim Maughan
The interview was published in Elias Combarro’s blog, “Sense of Wonder”/”Sentido de la Maravilla” :
We’re thanking Elias for his kind permission to repost his interview !
Tim Maughan lives in Bristol in the South West of England, science fiction author, freelance writer, debut book ”Paintwork”. Accidental film maker. And when he’s not writing science fiction he writes about Japanese animation and comics for websites like Anime News Network and Tor. He also daydreams about being a techno DJ and spends far too much time on Twitter.
“Limited Edition” by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine) was a 2012 BSFA Award finalist (Best Short Story category) : http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/03/announcing-the-2012-bsfa-awards
Tim’s essay “Science Fiction Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed” on World SF Blog : http://worldsf.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/monday-original-content-tim-maughan-on-british-sf-and-the-class-system/
His site is : http://timmaughanbooks.com/