Mother of the World is the story of a scientist in the far future trying to find the truth behind humanity’s origins. What was the first idea you had for this story, and how did the novel grow from there?
For me the idea of the book pivots around the final scene. I had been thinking for a while about the status of our knowledge. Given my professional interest in how people respond to information about their environment, I wondered how we could respond in general to the whole of our understanding: “life, the universe and everything”, to quote the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We live in a miraculous time. We know the age of the universe and of the Earth. We know the origin of both. We know the very process of life and its history. How can we respond to all this? Perhaps we all have different answers but I recalled something I saw in a TV nature documentary way back when TV was black and white. A female chimpanzee had become separated from her group. She was lost and in danger. She came upon another group and, if I remember correctly, it was explained that she needed to join them. I was struck by what happened and it stuck firmly in my memory: she went from ape to ape, standing on her hind legs, and reached out her hand. Each sitting chimpanzee reached out and grasped her hand in return. It was a very powerful image, not least because it was so human. The chimpanzees are mute by nature but I feel strongly that we can do little but cling silently to each other in the face of our knowledge of reality. We can explain so much but we cannot ‘understand’ it in the way we want to, in a human way, because it isn’t human. It’s outside our scale and, truly, beyond our experience.
That image started me thinking about how a character, perhaps a thinking man like Kelvin in Solaris, might be made to confront it all and respond accordingly. I thought he would have to start out learning science, trying to find his way, uncertain about what to study but led on by curiosity. His sense of puzzlement would crystallise around human migration but he would soon need to encounter some contradiction or other that would propel him into a more compulsive quest.
He would also need a companion, and for many reasons, not least the metaphorical significance of their relationship, he needed a woman. Originally I spent far too much time getting him finding out historical facts and so on, which merely prolonged the beginning, until I realized they were irrelevant to the progression. So, fairly early on, she finds him. The contradictions he discovers separate them and he sets out in earnest, now with the added tension of the unresolved relationship in the background. After some episodes uncovering major anomalies they must be reunited for the denouement, which will confront them both with mystery.
How did you get into writing?
My school writing used to get attention – other pupils were directed to read my essays. Perhaps this was a punishment but it was surprising to be confronted with the role of guru at such an age. In any event I wanted to do science, much to the English teacher’s chagrin. In the event I worked straight from school, though I more or less always intended to go to university. So, after an interesting delay of some years in the wider working world I went to university and stayed to build a career. Writing of all kinds was naturally part of my job. I might also mention that in my many international projects I ended up being the ‘editor in chief’, given my native language. It turns out that editing ability is an essential skill for anyone wanting to write.
The matter of science versus religion is central to Mother of the World. Why did you choose to examine this idea?
I think the conflict between the two is more imagined than real. Apart from the western historical confrontations, which have other explanations, there is little antagonism in principal. But intellectually, for me there is a real problem of meaning. If you are aware of the powerful insights that science has provided how can you not see that extending our ‘understanding’ to some realm outside reality implies a contradiction? Obviously the two types of thought must stand in parallel rather than interact but that’s the nub of it: they stand there in individual minds. I’ve encountered several striking examples of this but here’s one that left an impression. I was on a plane with colleagues returning from Russia when I was taken ill. My companion, a physicist, began praying for me. I was taken aback. Here was a person who understands partial differential equations, talking to a supposed supernatural power, for which there is no evidence whatsoever, and asking said power to intervene in the world to prevent me suffering from the effects of what may have been food poisoning, too much vodka, or both.
So it is the ‘meaning’ of what we know that underlies the comparisons presented in the story, whether that be the meaning of our scientific understanding, the arbitrary meaning attributable to imagined beings or the fundamental human meaning shared by people in their relationships with one another. We are designed by nature to seek ‘meaning’, and, as a result, often do so where it is probably inappropriate. I set out to examine the nature of knowledge and, along the way, realized that I was also writing about what it is like to ‘do science’.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Mother of the World?
Without doubt getting it into sensible form. This was my first major piece of fiction and, since one is writing at length, it’s tempting to indulge all kinds of ideas that really just add to the length rather than the story. So, cut, cut and cut again. I actually enjoy editing, and I’m very used to it from my years of rewriting Euro- English, so I could get on with it. Not quite so easy to judge the level of discourse. It’s a novel, not a treatise and so must be entertaining and not sound like a ponce’s trip to the multisyllabic word emporium. I have been heartened to find readers say it is accessible.
What’s your favourite scene from your novel? Could you please describe it?
I like most of them I have to say. For example when Peae is sitting by the sea in Farael, I can feel the sun on his (my) face. I know exactly where I based that scene, though I haven’t been there for years and it probably now only exists in my memory. But if you force me to choose I would say a rather dry example: in the Library. One never knows about readers and just hopes to strike a chord. In that scene Peae is just going through the records as he usually does when he find something strange. This actually happens all the time: a ‘new’ score by Mozart, an unexpected letter from a major historical figure that reveals an entirely new version of events. One of my readers knew exactly what that atmosphere is like and related to it strongly. It may not involve ray guns and violence but it is real world excitement: to find something extraordinary. To know something nobody else knows.
Are there any books or authors who have influenced your writing?
Of course, there are very many. When people at work occasionally asked me what I intended doing at university I used to say that I would be reading science fiction. In the end that turned out to be quite true. I would fill in between study with blocks of reading SF. So all the greats and lots of trash. I think many people who study do a similar thing. It’s useful to have a distraction. It helps with concentration.
I kept up my general literary reading as well of course. So you might say the traditional full liberal education (laughs). Who would I pick out? Well Conrad certainly, especially ‘Heart of Darkness’ but more especially I would have to cite Kafka. It has long been clear that we live in our own constructed fantasy. Writers can lift the lid a little on that process but paradoxically to do so they must form their own fantastic vision. The unsettling world that K inhabits in the ‘Castle’ reveals a bit of the real remoteness of the human world. The remoteness of the physical world is another matter altogether. One day on a trawl through a charity shop I picked up a paperback called ‘Solaris’. I read the first page and went straight home to read it all. Thus I discovered Stanislav Lem. Here was a contemporary SF writer using imagined situations in space to make points about the nature of our existence, sometimes humorously like Swift with his Gulliver, but often seriously; guilt and the nature of our response to death in ‘Solaris’ for example. But usually, behind the action, the brooding truly alien nature of reality, especially what the very concept of alien, or indeed, ‘an alien’ might be. I must admit it made me think: ‘I want to do this’.
Are you working on anything new?
What I am doing is revisiting a popular science book concept that has a long and disappointing (non) publication history. It went the full round of editorial analysis with one of the top science publishers only to fall at the last, despite considerable support from the UK editor. I’m revising it again because I think it has good potential. Those who liked the idea seemed quite fired up about it so I guess it’s a question of keep on pushing.
Mother of the World is available at: Amazon US (paperback), Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book)