Stephen Baxter is the pre-eminent Science Fiction (SF) writer of his generation. With Terry Pratchett he has co-authored the Long Earth novels. Published around the world he has also won major awards in the UK, US, Germany, and Japan. Born in 1957, he has degrees from Cambridge and Southampton. He lives in Northumberland with his wife. His latest book is Creation Node which is published by Gollancz on 21 September. You can find Creation Node and Stephen's other books on our catalogue.
Who were your heroes as you were growing up?
What got me into science fiction before the age of ten or so were Gerry Anderson’s SF puppet shows – Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 – and the related literature, books, annuals and comics. The whole thing grew into an integrated vision of the future 100 years ahead – 2065, now not so long to go! I was fascinated by the idea of imagining the future in such detail. So I was primed to devour the classic SF I found in the libraries, at school, where I discovered Clarke, Asimov, all the rest.
H.G. Wells has been an influence on your writing and you have written a sequel to The War of the Worlds. What is it that makes Wells such an iconic figure for SF writers?
The literary establishment rightly laud Wells for the human depth of his novels – and not to mention his achievements in the political sphere, notably his contributions to the post-war declarations of human rights. But for SF writers it’s the scientific basis of his novels, especially the early classics. He studied science from the point of view of becoming a teacher, an educator – but then used that understanding to put together scientifically plausible (at the time) visions of other possibilities. That’s why his Martians (from The War of the Worlds have become a template for nasty aliens in SF, including the movies, for more than a century now – with their military attacks, ecological devastation, even Alien-like body horror as they feed on blood drained from humans!
Your latest book is Creation Node. Can you tell us a little about it and how it was to write?
It was inspired by a line in an old book by Carl Sagan, the SETI scientist. He was musing about the then-plausible idea that our universe could be infinitely old – no Big Bang, just a slow leaking into space of material for new stars and planets. And if so, there could be places that were infinitely old. And I wondered what kind of creatures might live in such a place, and what they might want...
How do you go about researching a book set in 2255?
Basically by following trends, and a lot of guesswork! To keep myself informed I have tried to engage in non-fiction futuristic projects, especially to do with SETI, the search for aliens, and in possible space futures – how we might colonise the solar system.
Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
It’s tentatively called LUME, and is another future where we discover (again!) that our universe is a lot stranger than we think. I suppose one of the most significant sets of discoveries in my lifetime has been all about the universe, its origin, its future, and that has shaped my fiction. How could it not?
You have worked with some amazing authors like Terry Pratchett and Arthur C. Clarke. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
In each case I knew the gentlemen in advance. Arthur liked my H.G. Wells sequel, and sent me postcards about it! And Terry was always a big fan of hard (technical, scientific) SF, though that wasn’t his own strength. And in each case my partners’ failing health was a motivator. Arthur had numerous novel outlines but not the strength or time to develop them. And Terry had a SF idea he called the ‘Long Earth’, about parallel worlds, he had never felt confident about attempting solo – and of course his time and energy were limited. It was very rewarding in each case.
There is a lot of talk about AI at the moment. How do you think AI will develop and what could be the potential effect on our lives?
Yes, the latest doom-soon scenario... In fact I can see hugely valuable uses for the technology – for instance in modelling the evolution of the climate, which seems to me a much more urgent problem. I may be a naive optimist but I don’t believe that it’s all gloom on any front: we are a species that in my lifetime has managed to avoid an all-out nuclear war, which felt like an imminent possibility when I was a teenager, say.
SF doesn’t have to be gloomy. In my World Engines duology the world seems doomed by a planetary collision in a few thousand years. Everybody has kind of given up – but a young woman called Deirdra, who we meet as a teenager, won’t accept this, and over her lifetime she finds a way to save Earth. And I would say that she has been my popular character among younger readers, at least. Good!
You have won many awards for your writing. Is there anything you would still like to achieve?
Recently I was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Open University for inspiring young people into STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, mathematics. That will do for me!
One book, piece of music or work of art that everyone should experience?
The Beatles Anthology.
Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
My first pet, with my wife, was a budgie called Bertie, after H.G. Wells.