I’m not a technological writer, true, but I do try to keep up with the latest developments in science and technology, so that I don´t invent my fictions ignorantly. Also, I strongly believe that the human race must get out into space to exploit the resources of the solar system, and go further if possible, so that our eggs aren´t all in one basket, vulnerable to being broken by, for example, a biggish asteroid hitting us. This said, my mental process are more metaphorical than strictly realistic, so some of my work is dark fantasy and horror, or surreal. But I do like to be called a science fiction author. The 4 novels which I wrote in the Games Workshop universe of Warhammer 40,000 (all translated into Hungarian) were my way of writing space opera, which I always loved reading but never found myself on the right wavelength to write before. I approached this 40K work by entering a surreal, lurid, hectic, almost psychotic state of mind -- but I was able to switch this off for lunch, then back on again the next morning.
Light sabres come from the Hollywood version of science fiction, which is often quite stupid even if it entertaining. This is miles away from the best written SF, which far fewer people pay attention to than the masses of people who see movies. I have written the screen story for one film, Spielberg´s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which was – shall we say – more poetic and intelligent than most American SF movies, so it did less well in America but Japanese housewives went to see it repeatedly.
In your novel, The Embedding (1973) you are dealing with the development of language and communication with aliens, and the aliens in Mockymen (2003) are capturing catatonic people’s bodies and using them as puppets. What do you think could the humankind survive the meeting with an alien intelligence?
If aliens visit us, they are likely to be much more advanced than humans technologically simply because they are able to travel here. They might be united with artificial intelligences and therefore more advanced cognitively too. This might make us feel diminished, but I don´t think so because we are an arrogant species. I would hope that contact with aliens would erase our silly concepts of a “God” and diminish the social and psychological damage caused to ourselves by most human religions. Realistically, however, intelligent life on Earth is the result of a long series of lucky accidents, like winning a lottery 20 times in succession, therefore I think we might be the only advanced intelligent self-aware life in our galaxy; and I don´t think that true “strong” self-aware artificial intelligence will happen either. However, it’s important to speculate about the possibilities. I create mirrors so that we might explore what we are, and what we might become, but also explore what we aren´t and what we cannot become.
Your latest novel, Waters of Destiny, is a historical thriller that takes place in a parallel time. Central to the plot, readers will find the Black Plague and the modern bio-terrorism. Where did the idea come from?
One of the biggest threats to civilisation nowadays is a global pandemic, arising spontaneously or else produced and spread deliberately, perhaps by religious lunatics. The idea that the killer Black Death of the Middle Ages had anything to do with rats and fleas is completely wrong, as science is now beginning to realise. Bubonic plagues also happened during the Middle Ages, but the real killer was a much more virulent haemorrhagic fever, which can come back out of hiding. In Waters of Destiny myself and my co-author imagine that a 12th century Arab doctor of genius could have worked out the true cause of the Black Death and also stored the virus, within the mind-set and the medical technology of his time, on behalf of the Assassins of Alamut, and that the modern descendants of those Assassins recover and amplify and release the virus. The science and the history in our book is completely plausible and realistic.
You co-authored the novel with Andy West, and as far I know you worked on the three books together for several years. Writing is usually a lonely job and it could be unusual for an author to work in partnership. Why you decide to work together and was this different for you?
In fact, collaborating isn´t all that unusual for me, though collaborations probably only amount to 5% of what I have written. Back in about 1980 I co-wrote with Michael Bishop the first transatlantic novel collaboration, Under Heaven´s Bridge, using typewriter and airmail post. More recently, with Italian surrealist Robert Quaglia I wrote a complete book of linked stories, The Beloved of My Beloved, which may well be the only full-length genre book by two European authors with different mother tongues. I´ve collaborated on poems with American poet Mike Allen.
All depends upon being on the same wavelength as the collaborator. I´m fairly flexible to work with. But I'm not advertising for more collaborators! This has to happen spontaneously. In the case of the big plague novel, The Waters of Destiny, the scope seemed too large for one person to work on, so I invited Andy West whom I already knew well – science background, keen interest in the big patterns of history, already author of a big ambitious SF novel (unpublished as yet), clever and congenial. Thank goodness I did! The scope of the novel became even bigger as we researched and wrote it. A good reason for writing books, including novels, is to discover things and states of mind that you never knew before, and to infect readers with these.
When you started working on the novels you didn’t know there would be a revolution in the Middle-East soon, for example Kadhafi would be executed. Were you astonished at the events? Didn't these events overturn the story?
Those events took us by surprise. However, no publishers or agents were interested in our book (which is very well written, with a subject of world importance; idiotic publishers and agents! but this is normal), so the book got delayed for a couple of years and I was able to revise political aspects. Finally we published it ourselves as 3 ebooks through a company I set up in Spain; see www.watersofdestiny.com. Our major problem about recent events in the Arab world was Syria, which our characters must visit, and where the political outcome is still unknown, but I rewrote episodes in a way which I hope fits most outcomes except for anarchy.
Is traveling important for a writer? For example Jules Verne didn’t travel at all, and you traveled many places in the World. Which was the most astounding/amazin/stunning travel or experience?
What I remember first of all is driving through Tanzania along a rutted dirt road miles from anywhere, with no other vehicles on it, when a bush fire burst out along one side of the road. [Bush = wild African countryside with some trees and bushes and grass] So I drove faster. Then the fire leapt the road and both sides were aflame; and I was driving as fast as possible. Later, on the same road, after I got past the fire, I saw what looked like a branch lying across the road, so I aimed to hit it symmetrically because you don´t slow down on rutted roads or the ruts will try to shake your car to pieces. Just as I got close, the “branch” reared up to strike at the windscreen; it was a poisonous black mamba about 3 metres long. I saw the head coming right towards me, getting within less than a metre, but then the front of the car hit the majority of the snake and knocked it down. On the positive side, the most amazing thing I saw was Mount Kilimanjaro. I´d be driving for hours, looking out for it among the other mountains on the horizon. Finally I stopped the car, got out to stretch my legs, and for some reason I looked up at the zenith of the sky. There, high above clouds, was Kilimanjaro like a giant moon floating in space.
Travelling has always been very important to me, from the age of 16 when I hitchhiked from Rotterdam to Munich on my own, via the Rhineland and Nürnberg. I´ve been inspired to write quite a lot of stories set in a whole range of countries. Probably it seems that I travel more than I really do. Also, I mustn’t travel too much or I won´t get enough writing down. I´m not a writer who writes anywhere compulsively in any spare moment. Nor do I read much when travelling, preferring to observe things and people. I don´t carry a laptop with me, only a paper notebook.
You are living in Spain with your wife, Cristina. Was it hard to leave England?
On the contrary. I've always been adaptable. After I escaped from the North of England of my upbringing to Oxford as a student at the age of 17, I had no desire ever to go back “home” again. Even my voice quickly mutated. When I returned by boat to Europe, to Hamburg, after 3 years in Tokyo, myself by then accustomed to the subtleties of Japanese faces, Germans and then British faces looked freakishly exaggerated as if in some painting of peasants by one of the Brueghels. Back in Britain I felt like an alien for a couple of years, though equally the Japanese regard a foreigner as a sort of alien.
I feel very at home in Spain. I´m in the north where the weather is quite like England except that the winters aren´t so nasty, and the city of Gijón which I live in (unlike in the adjacent province) has all the beers of the world that I could desire, not to mention gorgeous wines at a third of the price in Britain. Now that I breakfast on home-made bread with peppery olive oil upon it, I can´t understand how I could have spread so much grease and sugar on toast, I mean butter and marmalade.
Last year you wrote a cookbook with your wife, and this contains recipes and stories of famous chefs and restaurants. Specially interesting for us that you selected Gundel Crêpe as well. What do you think about the Hungarian cuisine, and generally what is your perception about Hungary nowadays?
To me Hungary seems a very congenial country, probably because of my Hungarian friends, but I’m aware that democracy might be disappearing rather fast and darkness may loom. I´m aware that Hungary has had a – shall we say -- unfortunate history at times. Recently I read a biography of Mátyás Corvinus, a great ruler whose achievements melted away so quickly.
I regard most Hungarians as specially clever, one reason being that they can speak Hungarian; after several years of effort I can only count up to 3 in Hungarian -- much more difficult than Japanese! As for the lovely Hungarian cuisine, I have to be careful because I came back from my most recent trip to Budapest weighing 2 kilos more – probably the fault of roast duck with foie on top.
For our book we wanted to avoid mentioning too many French chefs. So many meals which are named after people originated in France! We tried hard to include other countries. We managed to include the UK, the USA, Portugal, Italy, Russia, Uruguay, and New Zealand, as well as Hungary among the 50 meals – the Spanish book club commissioned our book for their 50th anniversary.
Also, we wanted a dish which would appeal to Spanish palates, with ingredients easy to find in Spain; hence the Gundel crêpes. In fact the book is suitable for any country, so I´m trying to get it published in English because I wrote the stories of the meals in English to begin with.
This was originally published on-line in Librarius, the interviewer was Peter Michaleczky.