I interviewed science-fiction author John Ayliff as part of #VirtualVoyager from HarperVoyager UK. John’s debut novel, Belt Three, is available now in ebook format on all good electronic bookstores, and will be published in paperback in December. I finished reading it recently, and highly recommend it.
GC: Belt Three is unusual in that it’s set after the bad guys have won and Earth has been destroyed. Where did you come up with the idea?
JA: It started as a story about a space pirate. I decided that she was using her piracy to fund a personal crusade against some kind of enemy, and then I had the idea that the Earth had been destroyed by alien machines and she was hunting these machines. I think I had been reading books about humanity fighting wars against much more powerful aliens (Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee books and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space), so I decided to take these sorts of aliens and reduce them to a simpler version, an unintelligent, almost elemental force of destruction.
GC: You weave a lot of technical details into your writing – how much scientific knowledge is needed to be a sci-fi writer? Do you have a science background?
JA: The highest level of science education I have is A-level Physics. I’m never going to be able to write the kind of hard science fiction that takes a cutting-edge scientific idea and dramatises it, complete with pages of accurate technical detail–but I don’t think you need to have a science background to write science fiction of other kinds. What I think you need is a good grasp of the basics, which you can get from popular science books and documentaries, and a willingness to research details as you need them.
GC: The Worldbreakers are a terrific invention: implacable planet-destroying machines. They’re like a mix of the Borg from Star Trek and the Death Star from Star Wars. How did you come up with them?
JA: You’re right about Star Trek, but you’re a generation too late! One of my big inspirations was the original series episode ‘The Doomsday Machine’. The titular machine blows planets into debris and consumes the debris in order to power itself. It’s simple, predictable, and unintelligent, but it’s a threat because of its sheer size and power–unlike the godlike energy beings that are the more usual kind of advanced threat the Enterprise faces. In Belt Three I basically imagined a whole fleet of Doomsday Machines, working over a longer time-scale but just as implacable, and without Star Trek technology to save the day.
GC: In a funny way Belt Three reminds me a bit of The Walking Dead TV show; much of the tension in the book comes from the relations between the human characters, and the way they their society has developed in the face of this unhuman foe. In a way, the ‘monster’ element could be anything; the focus is really on the humans. Is that fair? Is it something you set out to cultivate?
JA: Yes! I’m glad you picked up on this. I was consciously thinking of zombie movies when I wrote Belt Three, especially movies like Dawn/Day of the Dead, set after the apocalypse and dealing with survivors in a zombie-dominated world. Like zombies, Worldbreakers are easy to avoid if you have a means of transport and know what you’re doing, and they’re even easy to kill, individually–but there are so many of them and so few people that fighting them is futile, and they’ve already destroyed civilisation. Also like zombies, the Worldbreakers aren’t really villains because they’re not really characters: they’re more like a natural disaster, and the conflict is between human characters trying to survive in the zombie- or Worldbreaker-dominated world.
GC: One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the depiction of a highly segregated society, in which tank-born clones are treated as an expendable worker class. Is there a political point to the book? Are you concerned about how our civilisation might respond to the development of cloning and genetics?
JA: I didn’t start with a political point and write a book around it, but you can’t write about future societies without politics coming into it, and I like to think I’ve written a book that shows political awareness. I’m not concerned with cloning and genetics specifically: people haven’t needed technologies like that to create highly unjust societies in the past, and they won’t need them to create an unjust society in the future. I’m more concerned about social change: what capitalism might evolve into, or what might come after it. My concept for Belt Three was unrestrained capitalism that has developed into a kind of feudalism, with true-born city-owners as lords, true-born business owners as their vassals, and tank-borns as serfs. The real problem with the world of Belt Three isn’t that tank-borns are clones as such, but that you have one social class that has nearly all the wealth and power and another social class that begins life in debt to the first social class and has fewer legal rights. The fact that the tank-borns are machine-produced clones exacerbates the problem, because true-borns can concentrate wealth by passing it down to their children whereas tank-borns can’t, but you can imagine a similar situation arising without any cloning technology, and you can imagine a much more just and equal society in which some people are tank-born clones.
GC: I find as I write that certain characters grow on me through the story, and I am surprised by how much I like them. Which character did you enjoy writing the most? I got the impression it was Keldra.
JA: Your impression was correct! Keldra was the core around which the rest of the book grew. All the other characters took some development before I really knew who I wanted them to be, but Keldra sprang fully-formed from my original idea–I fleshed out some of her details later but didn’t change the core concept. I enjoyed writing a character with such powerful emotions, so much aggression, almost a primal force. I knew I never wanted the reader to get inside her head, though, so you always see her from someone else’s point of view.
GC: What’s next for you? Is a sequel in the works?
JA: I conceived Belt Three as a standalone novel and that’s how I intend it to be read…but I do have a couple of ideas for possible sequels. Right now I’m still unsure whether my next book will be a Belt Three sequel or an unrelated science fiction novel.
Belt Three is on sale this week on ebook at the discounted price of 99p/$1.99.
Belt Three on Amazon UK
Belt Three on Amazon US
3 thoughts on “Interview with John Ayliff”
Great interview, already added Belt Three to my kindle and now looking forward to reading it even more!
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I’ve already read Belt Three and enjoyed it very much.
I have a science PhD and it’s not as helpful for trying to write SF as you might think. There are a few highly specialised areas I understand very well, some quite broad ones I understand much better than a layman (but less well than the real experts), and even wider areas where I’m no better informed than the average New Scientist reader. I think a willingness to read broadly and do research is the important thing here.
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