Michael Cobley: Humanity's Fire Author Interview

What would mankind do if humanity’s first alien contact involved a devastating strike against Earth? It’s a scenario imagined by Brit space opera Michael Cobley in his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, which last year concluded with the publication of The Ascendant Stars .

The trilogy has been a slow-burning, critically lauded success that’s now sold Stateside. The French SF community is so impressed that Seeds Of Earth , the first book in the sequence, has been nominated in the best foreign language novel category of the prestigious Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire awards, sharing company with books by China Miéville and Ursula K Le Guin.

SFX caught up with Cobley recently to discuss the trilogy and his future plans…

SFX : The Humanity’s Fire trilogy is now complete. Were there specific things you wanted to achieve with the books – and did you achieve them?

Michael Cobley: “Yeah, actually, there were and I did. Science fiction was always my mainline route to stories with ideas, and I wanted to prove that I could write it with energy, readability and surprises. I wanted to write a trilogy in which each succeeding volume widened and deepened the dramatic stage where the action was happening, and to end with a gargantuan, knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred series of battles with a galaxy-shaking climax – seemed to work.”

SFX : Space opera is sometimes perceived to be a conservative genre. What’s your reaction to that?

Michael Cobley: “‘Space opera? Huh, isn’t it just robots, spaceships and rayguns?’ Well, that’s the standard snot-nose putdown you get from the mainstream media. But I generally don’t get worked up about those sneers, simply because what they consider to be fine literature and high craft has essentially lost the war. SF and fantasy blockbusters rule the movies, and account for something like 18-22 per cent of fiction sales. Of course, sheer sales volume is no guarantee of high quality, but it does normalise all the tropes and furniture of what we all think of as science fiction and fantasy. Watching, reading and playing games in these genres is normal, hence writing stories in them also seems a normal thing to do for youngsters who want to write.

“But coming back to the original comment about space opera and conservative genres, yeah, there is a lot of shared trad stuff in the genre, just as there is in fantasy, but the writing and the reading of them is a generational thing, and many stories do get remade and recast for newer audiences.”

SFX : What are you working on at the moment? And are you able to write full-time?

Michael Cobley: “I’m writing a new Humanity’s Fire book, WarCage , set in the same universe as the trilogy but a few years on. It’s a standalone novel, just one book with a beginning, middle and an end. Bit of a change in pace after having written two trilogies in a row. As for the full-time life, yes, what with finally getting an American deal for the trilogy – due out in October, November and December this year – and since we’re living in a less expensive part of the west of Scotland, I am in the fortunate position of being able to write full-time. But we are living in the age of austerity and billionaires, so uncertainty is always in the background.”

SFX : Can you tell us a little about the short story collection Iron Mosaic ?

Michael Cobley: “The version of Iron Mosaic published by Immanion Press basically assembles all my short stories from 1986 till about 2003. Now that the ebook is out under BrainInAJar imprimatur, it has been expanded to include another four stories that came out afterwards. I love short stories, the compactness of them and the artistic license they allow, but since I got into writing novels I’ve found that the time available for side projects such as short stories has become almost non-existent.”

SFX : It’s being republished as an ebook via author Gary Gibson’s imprint. The publishing industry is going through a lot of changes at the moment, where do you sit in the opportunity/buttock-clenchingly-scared-of-what’s-about-to-hit-us continuum?

Michael Cobley: “I feel ambivalent about ebooks, definitely. I can understand the utility of them, that you can have thousands of books in digital form rather than hardcopy books cluttering shelves. But I love my shelves and my books. I love them as made things, as real-world artifacts that have an existence independent of our civilisation’s power grid. That said, I’m more worried about how writers are and may be treated in an increasingly corporatised world of media.”

SFX : How did a lad from Leicester land up living in Glasgow? Are you an exiled Englishman, a Scot born the wrong the wrong side of the border or a freewheeling citizen of the world?

Michael Cobley: “Okay, it goes like this: my mum is from Glasgow and my dad is from Leicester and they met in Germany while they were doing their National Service. I was born in Leicester. My folks decided to emigrate to Australia, but we came back to the UK in 1967 and came north to live in Scotland. Which is where we’ve been ever since, myself and my parents, although my brother lives in Surrey.

“I’ve always felt British rather than uniquely English or Scottish, seeing as how there’s also an Irish family connection on my mother’s side. As far I’m concerned, my heritage spans any line on the map and includes the legacy of the whole of Britain and Ireland, which enriches my background and my outlook. Why should I restrict myself? And as you might guess from that, I’m not really a supporter of independence.”

SFX : You previously wrote a fantasy trilogy. Is it frustrating it’s not in print?

Michael Cobley: “Ah, the ‘Shadowkings’ trilogy! The first book was reviewed by Roz Kaveney and she called it an ‘impressively unpleasant first fantasy novel’. The tale of its publication by Simon & Schuster went from triumphant opening through to a less-than-gratifying conclusion. Anyway, yes, the books have been out of print for several years now but I am seriously considering having them reconfigured for ebook publication.”

SFX : Did you have to bribe or threaten Mr Banks to get that quote? (The big beard called Seeds Of Earth “proper galaxy-spanning space opera”.)

Michael Cobley: “All of his own accord, I am delighted to say. I think he’s still amused by the interview he gave to me back in the late ’80s, at which I used a polystyrene head with studio headphones in lieu of an actual microphone. And an old silver Pioneer tape recorder the size of a mixing desk. The sheer physical burden of it all stays with me…”

Interview by Jonathan Wright