Short interview 5: Neal Asher
Prior to 2000 Neal Asher had stories accepted by British small press SF and fantasy magazines but post 2000 his writing career took flight. Pan Macmillan offered him a three-book contract and have now published many more UK, America, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Japan Czechoslovakia and Romania. The majority of his novels are set within one future history, known as the Polity universe. The Polity encompasses many classic science fiction tropes including world-ruling artificial intelligences, androids, hive minds and aliens.
1. According to you and apart from the number of words, what is the main difference between a short story and a novel?
Within the constraints of the word count, which I put as below 10,000 (you’ll get all sorts of variations on the defining word count) it must be a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning you world build and establish the theme – a problem to be solved – in the middle you get into the meat of the thing, character and reveals, and at the end you complete. The lines are blurred since you can world build all the way through, a reveal can be at the beginning or the end and also any problems don’t have to be solved.
For me it is as much an instinctive thing as with a novel: both of them must take the reader to another place and they must complete – they must have a satisfactory ending. What you don’t do is what the Slipstream writers of the 80s and 90s did whereby they introduced a character, some weird events and then just ended the lump of writing without a satisfactory conclusion.
A novel is the structure of a short story writ large. Everything can be expanded: more characters with more depth, extensive world building, a larger problem or a whole mass of them, tangled plot threads – you can be more relaxed and explore more. I guess a way to define either is by how you pack in ‘meaning’. In a novel you can put in more, with nuance, while in a short story you are constrained so every sentence has to have more meaning, more impact and deliver more of the goods. But again those constraints should not lead to the abandonment of structure and ‘completion’. I see this as a scale: series of books are a large expansion of all the above components, single books are a smaller expansion, collapsing down to novellas, novelettes, short stories and even to the smaller collapsed state where meaning is packed into every word and interrelation as in poetry.
2. What's your favorite short story?
That’s a difficult one. Having read a previous interview here with Peter Watts, I would, as he did, put Flowers for Algernon up there in the top short stories. Otherwise I’m quite vague about the matter. As with novels I don’t really have favourites or, rather, my choices vary with time, what I’m reading or what I remember. I know that Gift from the Culture by Ian M Banks sticks in my mine and I loved the collection State of the Art. I know that I have very much enjoyed short stories by Stephen King, while a particular collection of short stories, all of which were excellent, is Stories of your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. But beyond this I don’t have much more to say on the matter.
3. What's your favorite short story written by you?
Again, I like different ones for different reasons. Snow in the Desert, a story that has been published in a small press magazine called Spectrum SF, also Asimov’s, a Gardner Dozois collection, in my collection The Gabble and singularly on Kindle is much in my mind lately, but that’s certainly because I’ve seen it up on the screen in the second season of Love, Death and Robots on Netflix. It’s a favourite because of the legs it has! Others I like because of the strange biology and tech, like The Gabble, Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck and others besides. I’ve written a lot of short stories and when I look at the contents lists of various collections my opinion is all over the place. Better I think to define the stories of mine I like by the pleasure of creation when they arose out of a semi-lucid dreaming state and strayed into unexpected places. In this category falls one called The Gurnard. The latest, though more of a novella, is The Bosch (on Kindle), where I strayed into some deep weirdness.
Neal Asher's website: https://www.nealasher.co.uk/