As his much-anticipated "monkeypunk" novel Ack-Ack Macaque arrives from Solaris, we catch up exclusively with the Bristol-based author
In 1944 and Britain's best hopes for victory lie with a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, who's starting to doubt everything – including his own existence!
Already intrigued? You're not alone, and thanks to a prequel comic strip in the latest 2000 AD as well as a personal monkey Twitter feed and various appearances by Powell in a flight suit , the word is spreading about this quirky SF book. A sequel has already been announced by the mighty Solaris so this seems like the perfect time to corner the author and ask him to explain all this monkey business:
SFX : How hard is it to summarise what Ack-Ack Macaque is about?
Gareth L Powell: I was trying to explain this to somebody the other day: it's a genre mash-up between a noir detective story, set in 2059, but on top of that you have an embedded steampunk adventure with the titular monkey. And then it surfs into a sci-fi, alternate history, detective, dieselpunk mash-up. It's very difficult to explain a snappy sound bite!
SFX : That's quite a mash-up... with a monkey thrown in. How did you get to that point?
I started with the name and that led to the character. Then I had to credibly extrapolate a world in which a monkey could fly a plane - which took quite a lot of different genres mashing together to make that work!
SFX : Was there some spark that put the "Ack-Ack Macaque" in your head?
Writers just play with words, they sort of collide in your head and stick together. Those two kind of globbed together and I wrote them down in a notebook. I thought about them now and again. And then I was writing a short story, which needed a character in it! "If he's a macaque, he's got to be a monkey; ack ack sounds like his anti-aircraft fire. So he's a monkey pilot..." and he just sprang forth from there. I sort of pitched it as a detective story with added monkey.
SFX : Is it a very pulp-like story, larger than life, or is there something serious behind it all? What's the theme of the story?
I would call it a homage to pulp. It's kind of like a modern-day Frankenstein . I even use a quote from Frankenstein at the beginning of the second part of the book, because it's very much about that. There are three main characters we follow. There's an ex journalist called Victoria, who is on the trail of a serial killer in London. There's the Prince of Wales who wants to impress a young lady who's just broken into a vivisection laboratory and freed some animals (they've gone on the run in France). And there's the monkey himself. All three of those characters, through the course of the novel, discover how they all in some way are artificial creations, as opposed to the people they thought they were.
SFX : Is identity a theme you're working at?
Yes, very much so.
SFX : To turn that original short story into a novel, did you have to apply a different discipline? Are you a different kind of writer when you're writing a novel?
Good question. The novel bears no relation whatsoever to the short story! The only link is the main character. We've actually included the short story at the end of the novel so you can see where he came from. I've gone back to writing short stories and I've found it quite hard to cram everything into the small word count! So I guess it's the next step: I went through a writing flash fiction, short fiction and I've stepped up to novel and I'm finding it quite difficult to go back to short fiction again.
I got serious about writing when I turned 30. I sat down and the first thing I tried to do was write a novel and that became Silversands - but once I'd written it, I fiddled about with it for a couple of years and then put it aside and started writing short stories. I wrote a load of short stories, some which ended up in Interzone . So when I came to write my next novel, The Recollection , I'd had all that added experience. I think writing the short stories was extremely useful and a really good sort of apprenticeship - but I was always aiming for the novel.
SFX : Were you conscious of having fun with this book after writing fairly straight SF before? Was it deliberately slightly more off-the-wall?
Absolutely. But then I was conscious of having fun with The Recollection as well! The Recollection was a work I wanted to write ever since I was 12. It's got a plucky space trader with a fantastic space ship, saving the universe from deadly peril. With Silversands I tried to write it very seriously and po-faced and it became a bit of a chore after a while! With The Recollection I just turned all the dials up to 11; you know, Han Solo to the max the whole way through. And with Ack-Ack Macaque it was the same... let's have Zeppelins, alternate Frances and evil robots!
SFX : What inspires you? Who were your SF heroes - and who can we see influencing Ack-Ack Macaque ?
I've always liked Jon Courtenay Grimwood's stuff. The idea to set Ack-Ack Macaque in an alternate universe but very close to our own came from enjoying his Arabesque sequence which is set in an alternate Alexandria. I also used to read a lot of Steven Baxter. If you want to go really old school, I grew up reading the Biggles books! Especially the early ones, World War I. I've still got them all on my shelf, really old musty hardbacks. I've always loved reading about World War I and World War II, it goes back to reading those books at an impressionable age. And then there are TV series: Tales Of The Gold Monkey - and then Indiana Jones obviously.
SFX : Who do you most admire in the world of science fiction today?
I think there's an identifiable generation of writers who all seem to be breaking out at the same time. There's Adam Christopher, Lauren Beukes, Lou Morgan... all seem to be of a similar age and all seem to be having their novels come out to quite a fanfare in slightly off-kilter genres. I haven't thought of a snappy soundbite for that generation but there does seem to be a crop of new writers breaking through at the moment.
SFX : And there's a comic of Ack-Ack Macaque out right now too?
I have penned a five-page prequel, which is in the latest issue of 2000 AD . It is called "Ack-Ack Macaque: Indestructible".
SFX : Thanks Gareth!
Ack-Ack Macaque is out in the US on 18 December and in the UK on 3 January from Solaris. Prequel strip "Indestructible", drawn by Nick Dyer, is in 2000 AD (Prog 2013), on shelves right now in the traditional 100-page bumper Christmas edition. Meanwhile sequel Hive Monkey has already been picked up by Solaris for an early 2014 publication. Gareth L Powell is writing a Book Club piece for SFX magazine about Gateway by Frederik Pohl and you can read that in issue 230 , on sale now until 9 January.