Peter F Hamilton (L), BSFA’s Andrea Dietrich & Gareth L Powell (R)
Gareth L Powell is the author of so many short stories he has lost count of them and six novels, including the BSFA Award-winning ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’. A lifelong SF reader, his degree is in humanities: a blend of subjects like philosophy and sociology that inadvertently provided him with a range of world-building tools. There was also a creative writing module run by a poet who hated SF, which perversely encouraged Gareth to start writing it. He was influenced at first by the big science ideas of Arthur C Clarke and then by William Gibson, whose vision of characters scrabbling around in the ruins of civilisation utilising technology for their own ends showed that not everyone had to be Captain Kirk.
Gareth wrote his first novel, ‘Silversands’, in 2000 but put it aside and from 2004 produced short stories instead. He sent them to SF websites with enthusiastic comment sections, which provided invaluable feedback at a time when Gareth didn’t know anyone else writing in the genre. He honed his craft sufficiently to approach much loved SF magazine ‘Interzone’. After five rejections, ‘Interzone’ accepted a story called ‘The Last Reef’, whose favourable reaction eventually led to a collection of Gareth’s short stories being published by Scholastic Press.
Then came the monkey. At first it was his name, ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’, whose earwormish rhythm bothered Gareth long before he even knew what it meant. Eventually, he spun a story from it about a web animator who needs a cartoon character for a game. Remembering from the ‘Biggles’ stories that an ack-ack was a sort of gun, Gareth made the monkey a World War I pilot, complete with an eye patch and a personality a bit like John Belushi in ‘1942’.
The ‘Interzone’ piece did well, coming first in a readers’ poll for story of the year. It also caught the attention of publisher Pendragon, which eventually published ‘Silversands’. Gareth then put everything he had learned into planning a new novel called ‘The Recollection’ that he pitched to Lee Harris from Angry Robot. Angry Robot passed but introduced Gareth to John Oliver at Solaris. Oliver liked idea and asked if the book could be completed in six months. Gareth agreed and wrote it in two. Solaris then asked if Gareth had any other ideas and he suggested a novel based on the ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ story.
This time the monkey was a World War II pilot, but the main evolution of the milieu involved continuity of consciousness and identity. For example, the main character realises he is not a fighter ace at all but an enhanced simian plugged into a virtual reality game, one of a whole line of animals who have played this role. Meanwhile, the human heroine has had part of her brain replaced with gelware following an accident. She questions which element is making decisions and, ultimately, whether it matters. Her dead husband exists now as a digital recording; a character originally intended as a murder victim who, in Gareth’s words, ‘just wouldn’t shut up’. Then there is the Prince of Wales, an unwitting human puppet created using the same technology that made Ack-Ack Macaque. However, the game the prince is part of is a lethal international conspiracy…
SF has always explored what it is to be human; Gareth says he would love to travel back in time and hand ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ to Philip K Dick, saying, “Look! Monkeys!” Perhaps, though, the humanity in Gareth’s work is best looked at as a process of constant transit. He does not dwell on the workings of the gelware that provides the heroine with half of her mind because current technology is evolving so fast there is a risk of fiction being outpaced by reality. There is also no room in the story for detailed exposition, not least because its main character’s ungenerous attention span means he is apt to start shooting if there is any danger of boredom. Like its characters, the book is a blend, an uncompromising hybrid of thriller and science fiction with short chapters and cliff-hanger endings.
Gareth admits to using hard-earned writing discipline in order to have as much fun with the story as possible. It is a dichotomy that reflects the book as a whole. As well as the tragicomic predicament of the novel’s Prince of Wales, there is the political situation Gareth depicts in Europe. In the novel, the axis of power is between Paris and London instead of Berlin, while France has supplanted the US as Britain’s key strategic ally. It is a scenario that is particularly relevant as we approach the EU referendum.
In a further twist, this element of the story is based on a Guardian article about declassified documents detailing a French proposal for political alliance with Britain in 1956. Then Prime Minister Anthony Eden turned France down, but there is a tantalising SF ‘what if?’ feel to the scenario.
Perhaps the reality behind the fiction (or vice versa) can be found in Gareth’s collaboration with Aliette de Bodard. Their story, about the release of enslaved AIs, was inspired by a photo taken at a protest in Paris of a girl in a gas mask with a Hello Kitty shirt; the cartoon animal who is loved by everyone right at the heart of the revolution.