SHOOTY DOG THING INTERVIEW
In mid-2007, the admirable Paul ‘Brax’ Castle interviewed me for his very fine online Doctor Who fanzine, Shooty Dog Thing. The interview was carried out by email (you can tell it wasn’t conducted verbally by how coherent I am in it), and ranged across the works of Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams and the many worlds of Doctor Who and its spinoffs.
You can read the issue (which is full of fun and interesting stuff) online as a PDF file, but I’m also reproducing the interview, with Brax's permission, here at www.infinitarian.com. This version has hyperlinks for extra added value.
PAUL CASTLE SPEAKS TO
PC: Hey Phil, for the benefit of the readers, can you tell me a little about yourself?
PPH: I’m 35, going a bit grey around the edges. I have a beard, spectacles, and a fluctuating waistline.
I grew up in Worthing on the Sussex coast, studied English Literature at Oxford and stayed on until I got my doctorate. That was on The Relationship between Creator and Creature in Science Fiction, and involved reading a very large number of SF books in three years. I’ve rarely been so happy.
These days I live in Bristol and work half the week for the civil service. The rest of the time I write, or try to. I’m married to possibly the most tolerant woman on Earth, and have two cats named after fictional FBI agents.
I am, in no particular order, a vegetarian, a real ale drinker, a liberal christian, a Guardian reader, a Green voter, a pacifist, a blogger and a board games enthusiast. And, of course, a fan of SF in general and Doctor Who in particular.
PC: Has writing always been a part of your life?
PPH: Oh yes. I’ve always had the urge to create stories, to take the stuff which splurges up from my imagination and turn it into words. As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a professional writer. When I was a child I wrote stories all the time – generally based on the stuff I read, which was often Doctor Who. Later on I had plays performed in the school theatre, then at university I wrote sketches for a comedy troupe. (I also acted, though rather less effectively.)
The earliest extant work of mine is, I believe, a play called The Black Hole which I wrote circa 1979. It is, as you’d expect, about two children who meet aliens called Inchog, Minchog and Pinchog, and get taken in their spaceship to visit a Black Hole. In space!
PC: What kind of stories / authors / genres interest you?
PPH: A variety of stuff, though predominantly science fiction. I do enjoy clever, well-written mainstream novels, postmodern metafictional bumf, magic realism and detective stories, as well as the odd guilty dip into fantasy. But SF’s always been my drug of choice.
I like SF with imagination, which comes up with startling concepts and which follow them through rigorously. I also like novels which show the effects of SF settings or devices on realistic characters. I enjoy far-future stories, lavishly-constructed settings, tales of the evolution or remaking of humanity, stories about false or deceptive realities, religious allegory, cyberpunk, utopias, alternative histories, political SF.
I have less time for SF which concentrates on the theoretical or engineering aspects of the genre – what some critics call ‘hard SF’ – unless it’s very well written. Which, unfortunately, it usually isn’t.
I think that’s the main thing, really – if science fiction isn’t good science, that only really bothers scientific specialists. (Brian Aldiss once said that SF is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are for ghosts.) But if it isn’t good fiction, it has no business existing at all. My favourite SF authors are those with big ideas and the prose style to match: Aldiss himself, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Kim Stanley Robinson, Samuel Delany. Or, from the last century, C.S. Lewis, Olaf Stapledon, James Blish, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith.
Oh, and Douglas Adams, naturally.
PC: Your short stories, novels and novellas are spin-offs from Doctor Who. Have you always been interested in Doctor Who and the universe of stories associated with it?
PPH: I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for as long as I’ve been aware there was a Doctor Who. Like many fans, though, I didn’t start off by watching the TV series. I first encountered Who through the Target novelisations, which I pored religiously over long before my parents thought I was ready to watch it on TV.
(I remember being very confused by Terrance Dicks’ Junior Doctor Who books for younger readers, because the first one I read was Junior Doctor Who and The Giant Robot. This starts, of course, with the Doctor turning into a much younger-looking man, who I naturally assumed was ‘junior Doctor Who’.)
I believe my first non-Junior novelisation was Malcolm Hulke’s Doctor Who and The Doomsday Weapon, but I very quickly read all the ones I could find in the local library, and started building up my own collection.
The first Who stories I saw on TV were The Keeper Of Traken and Logopolis, which were broadcast when I was ten. They and Castrovalva are still the ones I remember most fondly, and I think they’re pretty damn good as well. Davison’s always been ‘my’ Doctor – that first actor you watch (or watch properly, in my case) who defines the role for you forever. Later I discovered that Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee, and even that Baker chap, had had some very decent stories too, but in terms of Who fandom I’m a child of the 80s.
With the McCoy era and then the Virgin New Adventures, I felt that Doctor Who was growing up as I did, becoming adolescent and then adult (or at least studenty) in its concerns. Despite my discovery of the TV series, though, it’s always remained primarily a literary phenomenon for me – when the series ended to be replaced by the New Adventures, it felt as if the format was finally finding its rightful niche.
Much though I love Marco Polo and The Mind Robber and Frontier In Space and City Of Death and Kinda and Vengeance On Varos and Ghost Light and the TV Movie and Father’s Day and The Girl in the Fireplace... for me Doctor Who has never been greater than in the later New Adventures, the Telos novellas and the BBC Eighth Doctor novels circa 1999-2002 (Say from around Unnatural History to Camera Obscura. But leaving out the rubbish ones, obviously.)
PC: It’s like looking in the mirror, though with less hair on my part. How did you make the transition from reader to writer?
PPH: One small step at a time. Virgin were always very public about their open submissions policy, and throughout the 1990s Doctor Who fans were becoming Doctor Who writers before everyone’s eyes. Unfortunately the stuff I submitted to Virgin was varying degrees of drivel, and was always politely turned down.
It was only when Who fandom diversified into publishing its own charity ‘fanthologies’ that my fiction saw print. (Even then I was rejected from the first of these, Perfect Timing, on the entirely reasonable grounds that I’d submitted a story about the eighth Doctor encountering three successive incarnations of the Master in his dreams and being offered the temptations of Christ in the desert. ‘Needlessly messianic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.)
My first fan-published story appeared in Perfect Timing 2, edited by Helen Fayle and Jay Eales. It was called ‘First Person’, though it was (I hope) slightly less up-itself than the title suggests. The second was ‘Cabinet Of Changes’ in Walking in Eternity, which Jay edited alone.
‘Cabinet of Changes’ was a shameless sequel to Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad’s eighth Doctor novel, The Blue Angel, and it’s that which got me noticed by the higher echelons of the Who fanarchy. Paul himself liked it a great deal, and suggested I send in a proposal for a range of novels Big Finish were considering at the time, based around his character of Iris Wildthyme. That range, and therefore my novel, never got off the ground, but in the meantime Lawrence Miles had included me in the list of talented fanfic authors he was inviting to contribute to his Faction Paradox anthology The Book of the War.
That was my first professional writing commission, and it paid at a better rate than some of the stuff I’ve written since. It also led to my being commissioned – again by Lawrence – for my first novel, Of the City of the Saved....
Throughout each of these small steps, though, as I evolved from rightly rejected fanficker to published novelist, I was constantly improving my writing, trying as best I could to learn from each rejection and each success. I’ve always striven, and strive still, to make each thing I write better than the last.
Ambition, luck and – I hope – talent all played a part, but they’d have been nothing without sheer bloody-minded persistence.
PC: Okay, your Faction Paradox book Of the City of the Saved... is about a city where every human who’s ever lived wakes up after the universe has died. Let’s say Arthur Dent is one of them, and is the author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the City of the Saved – how would he describe the City and its inhabitants?
PPH: He’d probably end up saying much the same as The Book of the War does, but with a greater emphasis on the best places in the City to get a good cup of tea.
And the glorious thing about the City is – there’d be millions of them. Tea-drinking, like any other specialist interest, would be served beyond Arthur’s most placid dreams.
There’d be culturally English Districts full of pinstriped Terry-Thomas types, who spent all day sipping tea from behind newspapers while their wives had affairs. There’d be far-future human tribes who worshipped the tea-bush, and the Chinese farmers who first domesticated it. There’d be factories churning out mass-produced Jeeveses, Alfreds and Parkers who’d serve you with the perfect cup of tea every morning. Arthur could have his choice of China, India, Assam or English Breakfast tea, white, black, green or lurid purple tea, tea from a teabag or a clay pot or a samovar or a replicator, tea infused with mint or jasmine or heroin, smart tea composed of nanites designed to stimulate the taste buds in the pleasingest, tingliest, most tea-y manner imaginable, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong or PG Tips. The City’s the ultimate melting-pot, and it would be the ultimate teapot too. I think Arthur would be happy there.
And somewhere in the City, Fenchurch would be waiting for him.
PC: Philip K. Dick is in your book, albeit under a different name. My girlfriend, when talking to her about him being in the novel, found the concept of the City familiar. Is the City a homage to Dick? And what further reading would you recommend?
PPH: There’s a lot in Of the City of the Saved... that’s deliberately Dickian – the ontological conundrum of whether the Citizens are real or ‘just’ perfect copies of dead people, the idea of a godlike invader taking over the universe by transmuting its substance into himself... even some of the characters are recognisable Dick ‘types’. (As you say, this is deliberate homage, so it doesn’t count as plagiarism. Or not very much.)
Even so, I’m not aware of anything in Dick’s writing that’s directly comparable to the City itself, in terms of a universal, secular, technological afterlife. That idea comes from Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality, which posits that at the end of time, as the information-processing power of the universe tends towards infinity, the entire historic population of the universe will find themselves resurrected as simulations in a virtual reality which will effectively be the mind of God. This seems to be the sort of weird conceptual territory you end up in if you study the philosophy of physics without the necessary safety precautions.
The books which SF readers have most frequently seen as an inspiration for Of the City of the Saved... are by another Philip altogether, Philip José Farmer. His Riverworld sequence has the whole of humanity (with certain key exceptions) resurrected along the banks of an enormous river. I did read some of the early Riverworld books many years ago, and I admired the scale of the conception, but I found the execution rather uninspiring. I didn’t enjoy them enough to copy them, at any rate.
A far more important influence was Managra, Stephen Marley’s fourth Doctor Missing Adventures novel, where Europe in the fourth millennium has been turned into a second-millennium-Europe theme park, teeming with recreated historical and fictional personalities. Marley’s manic delight in throwing together multiple incompatible characters and settings to see what they do to each other had a lot to do with the way I conceived the City.
In terms of recommendations for Dick novels... if you only intend to read one, you can’t go wrong with The Man in the High Castle, simply the best alternative-history novel ever written. Ubik – the cleverest of the many Dick novels where characters are trapped in a false reality at the mercy of its tyrannical creator – is also excellent, as is his drug novel A Scanner Darkly, which was recently (and wonderfully) filmed by Richard Linklater.
But if you enjoyed the borderline theological stuff in Of the City of the Saved..., it might be worth taking a punt on the surreally autobiographical Valis. It’s a thinly-fictionalised account of a series of visions Dick had in 1974, which he spent the rest of his life trying obsessively to understand, and which he came to believe were direct messages from God. It’s genuinely mad, but in a quite brilliant way.
To be honest, the main difficulty I have with recommending Dick’s fiction is knowing when to stop. The man was a genius.
PC: If all of us humans, sentient pre-humans, post-humans and half-humans who’ve ever lived are present in the City, just how tempting was it to include real live people in the book as characters?
PPH: Well, there are a few people mentioned who are alive, but they’re mostly film stars or politicians, so they don’t count as ‘real’. (Oh, and one of the voices in the ‘Voces Populi’ segment might be the art critic Brian Sewell. Although alternatively it might not, depending whether his lawyers are reading this.)
I wasn’t tempted to write any of my friends in, no. Much as I love them, they’re not nearly as interesting as slang-talking Neanderthals, machiavellian Romans or immortal god-machines.
PC: The City of the Saved first appeared in The Book of the War. Did you have any idea that a year or so later you’ll be developing the City further in a novel?
PPH: In a word, no. If Lawrence Miles and Lars Pearson knew at that point that there were going to be Faction Paradox novels, they were playing it close to their chest. The Book of the War was obviously a pilot project of sorts, and I hoped a book range would result from it, but I never imagined an untried newcomer would get a shot at the prestigious second slot.
The idea for my entries in The Book of the War actually came from that rejected proposal to Big Finish’s original abortive ‘Iris Wildthyme’ range, which was called, imaginatively enough, ‘Iris Wildthyme in the City of the Saved’. That story involved a war in the City between nineteenth-century utopians and twentieth-century nostalgists, which turned out to conceal a fiendish plot by Iris’ Auntie Connie. Nearly all of that detail disappeared, but the bare bones ended up recycled as the story of the Celestis assault on the City.
I certainly had ideas in mind for how I could take the story further. Indeed, if you read them carefully enough, some of my entries in The Book Of The War lay groundwork for the revelations of the novel. But I was expecting that those might see the light in another anthology, perhaps not even a Faction Paradox one. You can imagine how delighted I was when Lawrence asked me if I’d like to develop them at book length.
PC: The City of the Saved strikes me as a concept too big to be used just a 120,000 word novel and a few entries in The Book Of The War. Have we seen the last of it? Or is there the slightest chance of there being an anthology? I’d love to see more of House Halfling, the Order of the Iron Soul and other favourites.
PPH: The main reason House Halfling and the Order of the Iron Soul don’t feature much in Of the City of the Saved... was that we were all keen to establish the Faction Paradox range as its own entity, distinct from Doctor Who. As written in The Book of the War both of those elements are nicely ambiguous, but it would have been difficult to develop them at length without making it too obvious that the Order of the Iron Soul are, frankly, Cybermen, or that Grandfather Halfling’s... well, you get the idea.
As for further stories... there has been some rather wild talk of a radio sitcom, but where we’ve got to with that I don’t honestly know. Lawrence and I co-wrote a pilot script back in 2005 that was actually recorded using real actors and stuff, but nothing’s come of that so far.
The City is, I think, one of those ‘seed concepts’ that can generate ideas more or less indefinitely. You can set almost any genre of story there, and you’re not limited to a particular time-period or class of character. If you want to write a buddy-cop story where Robocop teams up with Dixon of Dock Green to track down Osama bin Laden, then (with the necessary changes of name to avoid accusations of copyright infringement and poor taste) you can. I’m not quite sure where you’d go with it, but it would have potential.
The concept’s also infinitely transportable – there’s nothing tying the City to the Faction Paradox universe. It could quite easily form the basis for standalone stories.
I’d dearly love to do an anthology. One of the great joys of shared-universe writing lies in seeing the places other, more talented, authors go with the ideas you’ve created. (I absolutely loved Lance Parkin’s prelude to the third Faction Paradox novel, Warlords of Utopia, which he set in the City.) An anthology would be absolutely perfect for that.
So far, though, I haven’t been able to interest any publishers in such a thing. If there are any reading this (perhaps over Brian Sewell’s lawyer’s shoulder) who’d like to give it a go, then do get in touch.
PC: Moving on now. You’ve written one of the Time Hunter novellas for David Howe’s Telos Publishing. Sadly, these haven’t really had the attention they deserve in the genre press. What are they about?
PPH: It’s a great shame that the Time Hunter novellas haven’t gathered enough of a readership to continue beyond this year, because they’re fab. Telos’ Doctor Who novellas were, I think, the best tie-in range the series has generated, eclipsing even the New Adventures for consistently excellent quality, and these are a direct continuation of that range.
Part of the problem is that the Time Hunter series isn’t easy to describe in a quick soundbite – it’s a period time-travel crime-drama with horror, fantasy and SF elements, but every story’s different. Like Doctor Who itself, the setup allows for a wide variety of different stories to be told.
The central characters first appeared in Daniel O’Mahony’s novella The Cabinet of Light, itself a strong candidate for the best-written Doctor Who story ever. Honoré Lechasseur is a black American ex-G.I. living in 1950s London, making a living as a racketeer and occasional private eye, and Emily Blandish is... well, she’s lost her memory of who she used to be, but she may well have arrived in 1949 as a companion of the Doctor. They have a rare combination of abilities which allow them to time-travel, but only together, and the origin and nature of those talents is part of the ongoing mystery of the series.
My personal favourites in the range are Claire Bott’s The Clockwork Woman (a splendid feminist parable which mixes together the Frankenstein, Pygmalion and Pinocchio legends, and comes up with something wonderful), John Paul Catton’s Kitsune (a gorgeously-written fantasy-horror set in a future Japan haunted by time-travelling fox-demons) and Dale Smith’s The Albino’s Dancer (a multi-layered time-travel story whose plot unfolds like the most intricate origami). I’d recommend all of them to anyone who loves clever, literate, genre-bending science fiction.
My own novella, Peculiar Lives, introduces Honoré and Emily to Erik Clevedon, an elderly SF author whose stories were all true, and whose characters have come back to haunt him. Clevedon’s based heavily on Olaf Stapledon, one of my literary heroes but a man whose beliefs are, from a modern perspective, very difficult to sympathise with. It’s a very focussed character piece, a deliberate contrast to the exhilarated splurge that was Of the City of the Saved....
That said, it does have posthumans in it. And speculative theology. And a central character who’s an SF author. Just so you can tell that it is, in fact, by me.
PC: Have you got any projects in the works that you’re able to tell us anything about?
PPH: Coming out this summer is Nobody’s Children, a collection of three novellas in Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield series. The third one in the volume, ‘Nursery Politics’, is my second novella – the others are written by Kate Orman and Jon Blum, who I respect enormously and who it was a huge pleasure to work with.
The book as a whole deals with the aftermath of an interstellar war, and in particular with the fate of some very unusual war orphans. My story looks at the political angle, and sees Benny embroiled in some complex and morally difficult negotiations. It’s a story about how our culture and biology dictate our perspectives, and how, if at all, we can break away from that.
It’s also a story about families and children, Benny’s in particular. It has the Draconians from Doctor Who in it, and also features one of my favourite characters from the New Adventures. Kate’s and Jon’s novellas are, as you’d expect, excellent, and I’m very pleased with what we’ve made of the book as a whole.
The project I’m currently working on is rather different – an idea for a Doctor Who reference book which hasn’t been written half a dozen times already, which is unusual in itself. Possibly this is because it’s an insane idea, but I hope it’ll be insane in an entertaining way. The publishers seem to like it, anyway. It’s quite a lot of work, but it should reach fruition sometime in the second half of 2008.
PC: What would you most like to write about? Or do you like some sort of a brief to start off with?
PPH: I love writing shared-universe fiction, but I’m increasingly wanting to create something of my own, that’s all original – or at least as original as any mainstream SF novel can be. The Doctor Who universe is vast, but it still has certain conventions it’s difficult to break, and characters who can’t be developed beyond a certain point.
I obviously don’t want to say too much about specific ideas, but there are a number of books I’m itching to be allowed to write – a planetary romance, a sort-of-notionally post-apocalyptic spy-thriller and a slipstream fantasy, to mention just the ones I’ve thought about recently.
Back in the Doctor Who tie-in ranges... a ‘Tales of the City’ anthology would be my number one pet project, but I also have a Bernice Summerfield novel I’d like to write. It would bring back the characters of the Quire, the posthuman scholar-clan who Nick Wallace and I created for his anthology Collected Works, and take Benny to visit their home time.
I also have ideas for Doctor Who novels I’d love to take further, but they’d only work if the Past Doctor range came back in one form or another. (I certainly can’t see them as New Series tie-ins, even if I stood a chance of being commissioned for one of those. Which I really, really don’t.)
Oh, and I’d love to be allowed to write a Prisoner novel. That would be so cool.
PC: All the Faction Paradox books have been very different beasts, closer to being stand-alone novels than part of a series. How much freedom did you have in developing the synopsis? Did Lawrence have a shopping list (a la RTD with the TV writers) or were you simply told ‘I like the City, can we have something set there please?’
PPH: Very much the latter. Lawrence asked to see my ideas for a City novel, then for as detailed a synopsis as I could give him. I sent him 20,000 words, including a glossary of terms. Inevitably he wanted some alterations made – nearly all of them for the better, in retrospect – but a good 80% of that proposal made it into the book itself.
There are various reasons why Lawrence Miles is controversial among Doctor Who fans, but I found him a truly excellent editor. As an experienced novelist dealing with a nervous first-time writer, he could easily have steamrollered all my ideas and insisted that this was his range and he knew what he was talking about. Instead he was respectful and sympathetic, tried to help make my ideas work where possible, explained why he thought some of them simply wouldn’t (he was nearly always right, as well), and wasn’t in the least bit precious about his own characters and creations. I’ll always be profoundly grateful to him for commissioning my first novel, and for midwifing it in such a professional way.
I know that at least two of the other Faction Paradox novels started their lives as something else entirely – Lance’s Warlords of Utopia was originally an Eighth Doctor proposal, and Kelly Hale web-published a Faction-free version of Erasing Sherlock some years ago. As far as I can see it was always a question of authors bringing their own unique ideas to the range, rather than having them dictated from on high.
I’ve talked about the Doctor Who universe’s unbreakable conventions and fixed characters. One of the joys of writing for the Faction was the way it cheerfully broke those rules, and allowed us authors to take the characters in whichever direction we wanted. It’s an outstanding series of books as a result, and I’m proud to have been part of it.
PC: Winding up now, looking back over your work, which is your favourite piece of writing, and why? And, for good measure, which is your least favourite?
PPH: Of the City of the Saved... is the thing I’m most proud of having on my CV. It’s huge, it’s riotously inventive and its readers have mostly said very nice things about it (although I’m honour-bound to mention the reviewer who thought it was ‘an excuse for self-gratification’ and wanted to slap me). It’s certainly the sort of thing I’d like to read if I hadn’t written it myself.
It’s also among my earliest published work, and as I’ve said I think I’ve improved as a writer since then. Most of my more recent pieces have been short fiction, and some of those stories are, I think, the best things I’ve done. I’m particularly fond of the Iris Wildthyme story I did eventually get to write – ‘Minions Of The Moon’ in Paul Magrs’ anthology Wildthyme On Top, which brings together Shakespearean characters, Renaissance alchemy and utopian space-opera through the medium of Iris’s time-, space- and genre-hopping double-decker bus.
More recently I’ve written ‘The Ruins Of Time’, a Doctor Who short story for Simon Guerrier’s anthology Short Trips: Time Signature. That features the first Doctor along with Susan, Ian and Barbara, and takes them to a world called Torcaldi, where time is coming to a standstill. I tried to evoke the eerie menace of those earliest black-and-white stories, which I wasn’t particularly familiar with before doing the research for the story, and which I now love. I’m very pleased with the result.
My least favourite piece would probably be my other Doctor Who short, ‘The Long Midwinter’ in Short Trips: A History of Christmas. That one’s OK – it does the job it was meant to – but I’ve never been happy with how it came out. I did enjoy writing for the eighth Doctor, though.
PC: Finally, a quickie from left field. Who would win in a drinking contest: Bernice Summerfield or Iris Wildthyme?
PPH: Tricky. I think it would depend on which incarnation of Iris. The Barbarella version might be able to drink Benny under the table, but only because she seems more competent than the others (she’d probably cheat). As for the rest... one of the endearing things about Iris is she really isn’t nearly as good at stuff as she thinks she is. And that includes the things she really cares about, like drinking.
One of the endearing things about Benny, on the other hand, is her nearly superhuman tolerance for alcohol. So yes, Benny would probably win. But it would be academic, because neither of them would remember in the morning.
PC: Thanks Phil, you’ve been a star!
© Paul Castle 2007
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