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Exclusive interview with SF author Michael Cobley

The author of top series Humanity's Fire talks to SFX about space opera, artificial intelligence and Scottishness

Glasgow-based author Michael Cobley (glimpsed here at the SFX party in Waterstone's at the start of May) is the author of the Shadowkings fantasy trilogy, and is now two thirds of the way through his Humanity's Fire series. It's an SF saga set in a universe where human colonists have spread amongst the stars; they find themselves caught up in interplanetary politics - and an age-old battle between machine intelligences - when they one day make contact with representatives from old Earth. We caught up with Michael and quizzed him about his writing:

SFX: Your original short fiction was cyberpunk in tone, then you wrote high fantasy; why now move from writing fantasy to writing space opera SF?
Michael Cobley:
Moving from fantasy novels to space opera really felt like coming home in a way. My focus as a short story writer had certainly been much more SF-orientated and once I'd finished the Shadowkings books I knew I wanted to take a swing at writing a real, wide-screen, pure quill space opera - alien worlds, space battles, colossal scales of space and time, the whole bit.

SFX: The series is definitely drawn on a grand scale, with an epic range of ideas, locations and characters - to what extent is each book pre-planned in advance, and how much did you have the whole trilogy worked out when you began?
Well, modern publishing being what it is, I had to put together a convincing outline of all three books for my agent so that he had a concrete proposal to offer to publishers. So I had complete plot summaries of the three novels from the outset. That said, no plan survives contact with the enemy and significant variations have taken place along the way, though not wildly drastic differences. Writing prose narrative is an organic process of inspiration, slog, unintended consequences and unexpected feedback loops. But overall I do know how all the major conflicts play out.

SFX: Were there any conventions of space opera which you particularly wanted to tinker with when you set out to create the Humanity's Fire universe?
I kind of wanted the Humanity's Fire books to have a European flavour while keeping the pace and tension kicking along. I also wanted to do something different with the notion of hyperspace by turning it into sub-levels of reality made up of old universes, their decayed remnants stacking down into the foundations of reality, like sedimentary layers of continua.

SFX: You would you count as your biggest literary inspirations in this genre? What are your inspirations from other media?
Frank Herbert for Dune and Hellstrom's Hive, David Brin for the Uplift books, Iain Banks for the startling scale of the Culture and its artefacts (and those characters), Ken Macleod for the Fall Revolution novels, Vernor Vinge for Fire Upon The Deep and Deepness In The Sky, Shostakovich's Symphony No 11, Tales of Topographic Oceans by Yes, the Imaginos album by the Blue Oyster Cult, Brain Salad Surgery by ELP, Dopes To Infinity by Monster Magnet, Tomita's version of Holst's Planet Suite, the starship paintings of John Berkey... From visual media, the criminally-truncated Firefly (and the Serenity movie), Babylon 5, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica (apart from the final 30 minutes - the single worst denouement in the entire canon of media SF), Farscape, and Forbidden Planet (the film... although the store is also pretty damn kewl).

SFX: There are few authors writing sweeping multi-planet SF at the moment. Why do you think that is? What's the state of space opera as a sub-genre and does it have a strong future?
I think space opera will always be around. Neal Asher is doing some great stuff with his Polity books, and Banksy keeps coming up with the goods. And I'll still be writing it – I have plenty more ideas for stories set in the Humanity's Fire universe (as well as another well-fleshed out space universe). The movie Avatar, of course, is space opera, as are games like Mass Effect, Dead Space and Sins Of A Solar Empire, so I think space opera has a secure future.

SFX: The role - malevolent or otherwise - of AIs seems to be a big factor in your series. What prompted this? How much do you think we should be afraid of emerging AI in the real world?
Our relationship as individuals and as a species with technology has always been rife with positive and negative consequences. If we reach the point of creating AIs, that relationship will change from a primarily physical one to one that is unavoidably psychological. When our machines and toys can talk back to us, argue or agree or flatter us, then we better be aware of who's doing the programming and why. Otherwise we'll be easily led astray. As the Voltaire quote says, people who believe absurdities are capable of committing atrocities.

SFX: Darien is the name of the attempted Scottish colony in Panama, and of course some of the human settlers are Scottish. How much is this deliberately a Scottish series?
I didn't want to stuff the books with comedy Scots and have ceilidhs and highland games and so on. Yes, a couple of the characters are Scots but they were born on Darien, not Earth. Their culture, speech patterns and reference points were passed down from the previous generation. The point is that in the history of the Darien colony, strong divisions arose between the descendants who identified with Russian or Norwegian or Swedish or Scottish heritage; this happens in history, which isn't a linear process of steady progress. What has been gained by one generation can be lost by the next. Ultimately, though, contact between the Dariens and the Uvovo on their forest moon helped break down a lot of those cultural barriers. So it's not a Scottish novel as such - but it might be a North European novel!

SFX: The Uvovo and their living forest of Segrana play a big part. How much are you intentionally making an ecological message in this series?
Given the current state of the global ecosystem, such thoughts cannot help but express themselves. That said, the Uvovo and their origins don't really lend themselves to a definite eco-message: they are the creations of the Forerunners, along with the sentient forest, Segrana, and the formless entity, the Zyradin. So ecological concerns are more like undertones to the main melody of the story.

SFX: Without any spoilers, can you tell us something about how the story progresses into the third book - how do you think fans will react to the outcome?
Completely spoiler-free could be challenging but I'll give it a shot! Kao Chih takes part in the evac of the Pyre colonists; Greg finds himself caught up in a space battle when the Hegemony sends in reinforcements; the Construct deploys the Aggression against marauders emerging from the depths of hyperspace; Robert Horst uncovers a strange secret about the Godhead; and Julia Bryce undergoes a transcendent experience which has crucial real-world consequences. As for reader reactions – naturally I hope that the senses-shattering climax will be a crowd-pleaser; the aftermath too!

SFX: Would you like to live in the universe you've created? Which planetary society would you choose to be part of?

Cobley: Yes, I think I would like to live in my universe – it's pretty damn big, which is how I designed it, so there's plenty to see and do. I'd like to visit one of the Achorga hiveworlds (in the company of well-armed bodyguards, natch), and see some of the worlds of the Indroma. Maybe the Shylgandic Lacuna as well.

SFX: Thanks Michael!

The Orphaned Worlds, book two of Humanity's Fire, was recently released and the first book, Seeds Of Earth, hit shelves in 2009. Both are available now. Let us know if you've read any of Michael Cobley's work and what you think of the current SF series.

The SFX Summer Of SF Reading is in association with Waterstone’s , where you can buy all the books you’ll be reading about.

I'm the Group Editor-in-Chief for Future's film group.