Interview with John Ayliff


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?

John Ayliff

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

Expectations vs Reality in Publishing

A couple of big things happened this last week in the life of The Machinery. The cover of the novel was finally revealed, and I submitted my structural edits. Both of these turned out differently – but better – than I had expected, and got me thinking about the big difference between expectations and reality in producing a novel.

I absolutely love the cover. The guys at the HarperFiction Art Department did a fantastic job, not just with my cover but with all my fellow digital submissions authors – you can go see all of them and read a nice blog on the process here:

Please judge my book by its cover. Uh, unless you don't like the cover.
Please judge my book by its cover. Uh, unless you don’t like the cover.

Like every new author, I started thinking about the cover pretty much as soon as HarperVoyager told me they wanted to sign me up. We all know the old chestnut about not judging a book by its cover, but I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t excited about how it was going to turn out. I had all sorts of vague thoughts about what it might look like, none of which resembled the finished product. It wasn’t what I expected at all. It’s much better. The conceit of the book is that the Machinery Selects the leaders of the Overland, and could be about to break and Select a ruler who will bring ruin to the world; I think the cover really captures that, with the mysterious figure bathed in a strange light.

I had many more thoughts and expectations regarding the structural edits. The way it works is you send your manuscript in to the publisher, and they send you your edits in two waves. The first is structural, the second copy editing. The structural edits are the most daunting: the editor is scrutinising your narrative and looking for any inconsistencies, things that don’t make sense, characters that are underdone or overstay their welcome, etc. I had identified a whole host of potential problems, and while my editor saw most of these, she also pointed to a load of other issues that I never would have seen in a million years. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks going through these, cutting back some stuff, building up other stuff. By the time I sent it back in to her, I never wanted to see my book again.

But it was all for the better. I think the story and its general flow are so much stronger now, thanks to the things she identified. As for the things I was worried about that she hadn’t raised, I did mention these to her separately, and she didn’t see them as being much of a problem at all.

So there you go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of this book-publishing experience, it’s the importance of viewing your book as a collaborative effort. If I was publishing the book myself, had the ability to design my own cover (which I do not) and the ability to edit it dispassionately (ditto), I would probably have done things differently, and The Machinery would have suffered for it.

The next thing, then, is the copy edits. And then … it will be done. My book will be coming out. I wonder if everyone’s going to spot the problem on page …

Quick Update

Hi all, I thought I’d give a quick update on where I’m at with The Machinery and its sequels. Book One (The Machinery) is coming out on September 10th. It will initially be available on ebook format, so can be found in all good electronic bookstores (Amazon, iBooks etc). There will then be a paperback edition six months later, in March 2016.

I sent in my last version of the book a couple of weeks ago and am just waiting on structural edits now. I’ve no idea what to expect, but I’m looking forward to the process. I don’t think I’ll be particularly precious about anything, having had my articles torn up for years and done some tearing myself. But we’ll see!

Apart from this my major focus has been drafting the second book, the imaginatively titled Book 2. (I’ve got a few proper titles in mind, but nothing set as yet. I thought I’d see how the book develops first before making my mind up). The idea at the moment is to bring out a book every six months, so the second book would be released on ebook next March, around the same time as the paperback edition of The Machinery. The final book would then come out in September 2016.

This obviously creates a fairly hectic writing and editing routine, as the draft of the second book will need to be with my editor around October, while I’ll be editing The Machinery at the same time, writing these blog posts and getting stuck into promotion etc as best I can. It took me about two and a half years to write the original manuscript of The Machinery, so this is a much more compressed timeframe.

That being said, it’s actually easier in many ways. When you write your first novel you are essentially writing into a void. Unless you’re a celebrity or something, you have no way of knowing whether anyone will want to read your book, either in the publishing industry or just among your friends. You have no idea whether it will be successful, and are constantly told online of all the struggles and pitfalls a wannabe writer faces. So actually having a solid deadline and an awareness of the path ahead makes things much easier.

Also, you will have developed your own writing routine by the time of the second novel, so it’s easier in that respect. And in my case, Book 2 is a direct sequel, so the story is already mapped out in my head pretty clearly, though I’m sure it will take certain detours as I go along.

Anyway, sorry for the rambling post – I’ll let you know how I get on with my edits!

Less Tortured, More ARNOLD!

The hand of Cowan the barbarian, preparing for some serious reps (on the keyboard)
The hand of Cowan the barbarian, preparing for some serious reps (on the keyboard)

Recently I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, ‘Total Recall,’ and enjoyed it as much as any book I’ve read in the last few years. Everyone talks themselves up in their autobiography, and Schwarzenegger is a great salesman. Still, the guy’s achievements are staggering. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more impressive CV.

You’re talking about a man who went from a small town in Austria to the Governor of America’s biggest state. Along the way he became a businessman, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia. He was a real-estate mogul and he hobnobbed with presidents. He also found time to star in a few movies.

Anyway, I haven’t decided to jack in writing and aim at becoming Mr. Universe. But I think there’s a lot that writers can take from Schwarzenegger’s attitude and approach to his work.

Before I started working seriously on my book I had totally the wrong idea of what writing was all about. I think I had a romantic idea of blasting through my novel in an artistic fever, preferably in a garret on the Left Bank of the Seine. I would sit down at my computer every now and then, staring at the flashing cursor on my word processor, waiting to be inspired by the muse. Unsurprisingly, nothing much got done; I spent about a year and a half rewriting the same couple of paragraphs, and worked on it very sporadically, maybe once or twice every few weeks.

I only really started making headway when I developed a routine. I would spend 30 mins to an hour every day working on it before I went to work. Eventually it just became second nature.

How does this all relate to Arnie? One of the key themes of his book is his emphasis on ‘reps’, ie how many times you do the same thing, over and over until it has an effect and you build up the targeted muscle. But he extends this to other parts of his life – he includes in the book a photo of an important speech, which is covered in scratch marks, one for each time he has practiced it.

It’s only through this type of mundane repetition that you get anything done, and I’ve found it’s the same with writing. When I made it part of my everyday routine, and did a small bit at a time, it brought my goal of finishing the book that bit closer. After a while you are genuinely surprised at how much progress you have made.

So my advice to anyone wanting to write a book is to do reps, reps, reps of writing every day, over and over, even if you don’t feel like it. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a relatively short period. Less tortured artist, more Arnold!

The Wonders of Worldbuilding

We’ve entered some kind of Golden Age for film trailers. Batman Vs Superman. Jurassic World. Terminator Genisys. A host of classics are storming back to the cinemas.

But one towers above them all: Star Wars.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched it now, but it’s certainly in the double figures – and I’m not even a hardcore fan. There’s just something about Star Wars that sucks me right in: the sheer epic scale of it all.

The build-up to The Force Awakens has brought me back to the late nineties, when the world was gearing up for another new entry to the canon. If possible, people were even more excited about Episode I than they are about Episode VII, maybe because there had been a longer break between the movies. I remember going to see the Special Edition trilogy in the cinema and gobbling up any article I could find on George Lucas and his creations. I remember thinking, ‘how cool would it be to create a world of my own?’

This thought had been bubbling away in my head since I was a kid and fell into Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett and the other greats. I loved Games Workshop (though I was pretty terrible at it) and played Fighting Fantasy in the back of the car when we were out and about. I’ve been reading in the genre ever since, and feel that same sense of awe when I enter the worlds created by George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie. The drive to invent my own imaginary places has always been with me.

It would be easier in many ways to set my books on 21st-century earth. I do live here, after all. I could have a good crack at guiding my characters around South-East London (where I live) and North-West Ireland (where I’m from), and I could pull out a map if they wanted to head somewhere else. There are real streets they could get lost in, rivers they could swim in, mountains they could climb. All these things already have names, too.

But there’s something about creating a place and setting a story there that is hard to beat. Some of the reasons are obvious. This world follows its own rules, as set down by you, the author. The setting for my book – a vast continent called the Plateau – is dominated by a city-state, the Overland, whose leaders are picked by something called the Machinery, which is itself hidden away in a strange place called the Underland. It’s hard to imagine this working in South-East London or North-West Ireland.

There’s also a lot of entertainment to be had with the creative process. It’s good fun deciding on the names of characters, of streets, of geographical elements. It can be interesting to create a political model for a society, or to work through the history of an international rivalry, and not have anyone say you got it wrong. How would they even know?

For me, though, the real attraction is the powerful sense of possibility. You are of course bound by certain restrictions; you can’t suddenly place a temple where once there was a barracks, or close a plothole by inventing some new type of magic. You can’t mix and match different types of names. But in each book you get to explore more and more of the place you’ve created, which is good fun.

There’s another part to this, too, which might sound a bit mad. I’ve always felt that if a fantasy world (or galaxy) is constructed with enough depth and detail, it begins to take on a life beyond that of the author. It’s as if it exists at all times, quietly ticking over with trade and warfare and construction and art, and the book simply provides a microscope with which to view it at a particular point in its history. Of course the world lives in the imagination of the author, but if it’s done properly, you’re almost convinced it exists in and of itself.

So I’m looking forward to returning to a galaxy far, far away, to find out what happens 30 years or so after the events of Return of the Jedi. What I love about the science fiction and fantasy genre is the powerful sense that, in those three decades, something really happened in that galaxy, and it wasn’t just in someone’s imagination.