AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Ian McDonald

This interview was conducted by Patrick Stephens.

How much anatomy and physiology did you understand, and how much did you need to learn, before starting “Nanonauts! In a Battle With Tiny Death-Subs!”?

I made myself wiki-wise. I used to work in television, in programme development. It’s the unglamorous coal-face of the small-screen—where ideas are devised, developed, formatted and pitched. The hit-ra eit soul-witheringly low: one in fifty ideas gets commissioned. One of the axioms of the development den is ‘expert in an afternoon’—learn enough to convincingly pitch your idea and stand up some question, with a minimum investment. It’s the same with stories: I become an ‘expert for a couple of weeks’.  Enough to bore in the bar.

When did you know the story would take place within the President of the United States’ body? How did you approach such an idea?

It was one of those little ideas that evolved when writing. A lot of plotting is asking yourself questions: what’s the most dangerous/embarrassing/dramatic/romantic thing I can do here? I asked myself the question ‘where’s the most high-stakes place to fight a nano-war’. Kind of answers itself.

With “the interior designer is the superhero, the accountant turns into avenging killing machine” as your lead, what profession would you select to combat various threats to humankind?

I’ve always been a fan of the accountant-as-hero (see ‘The Untouchables” for the definitive version). I think fashion designers should be in the front line of whatever aesthetic battles we have to fight in the future. In reality, artists were used to design dazzle-pattern camouflage for ships in the First World War. Look them up. They still look amazingly modern—and it worked as well. Magicians have gone to war—Jasper Maskelyne, a stage illusionist, was used in the Second World War to distract, dazzle and camouflage British forces in the desert war.

Many times people use humorous names to combat a very serious idea—how would you explain this with the terms of “nanonauts” and “death-subs”?

Soldiers have always done this. There’s a whole new vernacular emerging from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Part of it, I think is minimizing the reality of war—it’s a pretty damn horrible thing to do, unnatural and scarring. A second aspect I suspect is the natural human talent for gallows humour—and whistling past the graveyard. ‘Nanonauts’ and ‘death-subs’ seem pretty natural to me—the nanowar equivalent of ‘stand off and nuke them from orbit’. (I’d actually typed’ stand off and uke them from orbit’, which seems to me much more cruel and unusual).

What is the appeal of “robot uprising” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

When I was five years old, I dreamed The Terminator. A gleaming steel robot—glowing red eyes and everything, had killed my parents in their sleep and was coming down the stairs for me. Years later when I saw the Arnie movie, and the peerless scene where the metal Terminator comes out of the blazing tanker, I said: I’ve seen this before. I’m still convinced that I, and everyone I love, will be killed by a robot. Maybe military, maybe well-meaning and domestic.

What are some of your favorite examples of robot uprisings (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

See above for my enduring trauma.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Miracles and wonders. I’m not done with the Everness series (surprises will abound!) and I’m working on an adult project: Luna(parts 1 and 2) and the long-awaited almost-mainstream novel Hopeland.