April comes round again, filling our eyes with green promises and our hearts with that sweet smell of new birth. This month I travel across the pond to introduce you to Ian McAllister, whose science fiction novel To Visit Earth challenged my brain and kept me on the edge of my seat. As you can tell from the photos Ian shared, he’s a bit of an adventurer, and so are the characters in his novel. McAllister also wrote a fascinating account of his grandmother’s swimming prowess and her Olympic dream. In early 2015 Ian was appointed as the English Administrator at 10 Minute Novelists, an increasingly respected and busy Facebook community “for writers at all levels of experience and aspirations.”
Janet Irvin: Ian, so glad you could join me for this month’s Q and A. Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. Why did you choose to write in this field?
Ian McAllister: My parents met in the early 1950s at Liverpool University, England, as part of a group of friends who liked classical music and jazz, smoked and drank too much, and swapped their copies of the pulp magazines ‘Astounding’ and ‘Galaxy’ among others. I was always surrounded by books. When I grew bored with children’s stories, mum and dad started giving me some of their science fiction. Robert Heinlein’s ‘Have Space Suit Will Travel’ and Isaac Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ were two of the early examples that stand out. Mum is a retired head of English, and at 85 she is also my editor. The idea of writing science fiction developed over a twenty year period, as I became more disillusioned with the way the genre was heading. These days a lot of what is termed ‘sci-fi’ is in fact fantasy. I wanted to try and contribute something to the now receding hard sci-fi subgenre.
J.I.: Hard science fiction like your novel, as opposed to science fantasy, challenges the reader with the wealth of technical terms and concepts. Did you make any concessions in the writing to help the reader?
I.M.: I worked hard to try and make the science accessible, while world-building and introducing new concepts. Following a long series of discussions with my amazing beta team, I agreed to limit the info-dumps to about four places, reduce the pieces to less than half their original length, and introduce each one as part of a conversation rather than pure exposition. My friend, writer Wendy Van Camp, pointed out that each of the passages would appeal to a different set of sci-fi geeks; lunar, exploration, rocketry, and extraterrestrial.
J.I.: Your main character, Lucy Grappelli, is a lunar geologist with a strong personality. Did you model her after anyone? What about the others in your cast of interesting characters?
I.M.: A 35-year air traffic control career furnished me with enough strong character references to last a lifetime. The job throws up real individuals, people who tend to be self-assured, decisive, and determined. For me, the mother lode of study examples were the colleagues and friends I saw pushed up into the levels of management. I stand accused of writing certain individuals into To Visit Earth, but, while the points of character do come to the fore, I gleefully hide behind “The resemblance to any person, alive or dead, is purely coincidental,” while rubbing my hands together, and cackling like a deranged James Bond villain.”
J.I.: What was the most difficult part of writing this novel?
I.M.: I previously wrote a historical biography (Lost Olympics), the story of my grandmother Hilda James, Britain’s first female swimming superstar. Although it was the result of a thirty-year research project, the actual writing was a simple assembly job. Starting to pull a whole new concept out of thin air was far more daunting. I was determined my first work of fiction should demonstrate a level of maturity well beyond my actual experience, while avoiding the many newbie pitfalls. It took a huge effort of will, together with a conscious willingness to accept constructive criticism. It took nearly five years to complete, but I am satisfied with the result.
J.I.: Can you tell readers about your research process?
I.M.: I adhered to the mantra ‘write what you know.’ My ATC background gave me a healthy respect for technical procedures. This allowed me to introduce them, and then develop real tension by breaking or circumventing them. Hard, science-based, sci-fi is defined as being set in possible and/or postulated science principles, and I avoided introducing anything that could be deemed as unlikely.
The guru of hard sci-fi, Hal Clemet, once said that to write in the genre the only real cheat you needed to employ was faster than light travel, otherwise any human stories would have to be set here in the solar system, effectively our own back yard.
J.I.: One of the things I like best about To Visit Earth is it offers a positive glimpse of the future rather than a dystopian or apocalyptic one. Was this a conscious decision on your part or did the story arise organically?
I.M.: I previously voiced my disappointment with a lot of current sci-fi and fantasy work. My personal view is that the dystopian and apocalyptic motifs have been done to death and we need something that looks forward with less apprehension. I created an apocalyptic prologue to achieve that end, but I like the way humanity turned out afterwards.
J.I.: Do you have a favorite classic s/f author? What about a contemporary one?
I.M.: I have already mentioned Hal Clement, an American physics teacher whose real name was Harold Clement Stubbs (1922-2003) He wrote a series of human/alien interaction novels, and even went to the trouble of producing a scientific paper predicting the possible existence of his planet Mesklin (see the collection Heavy Planet – well worth a read for hard sci-fi fans). I am also a huge fan of the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) His ‘Culture’ series is an epic sweep across a galaxy-wide starscape of far-future humanity, in a universe where all machines have equal rights and the great planet-sized spaceships are their own personalities.
J.I.: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I.M.: I asked in the writing group about the conventions for when to write numbers longhand. When you look around, there are many writing styles, backed up at every turn by messianic fans proclaiming their favourites as ‘the rules’. The exercise turned into a realisation that we don’t need all these so-called rules. Katharine Grubb focused my frustration when she said to me, “Make your own style, otherwise we’d all write exactly the same way and it would be deathly boring. Do it the way you want, but be consistent. From that I developed my own mantra, which I often tell people in the group I help to administer (10 minute Novelists). “Study and know the rules and writing styles, but only use them when and if you want to. Break them to suit your own purpose, but be consistent.”
J.I.: I know you are an important member of the 10Minute Novelist board. How did you come to be connected to this group?
I.M.: I was introduced to the new group the week it was formed, by close friends who already knew Katharine Grubb. At a small writing get-together in Miami at the end of 2014, she asked if I would like the responsibility of a place as the first English member of her admin team. I had recently taken early retirement from ATC, and relished the idea of helping to forge a non-advertising community for writers of all aspirations, abilities, and achievements. In the last four years we have grown from 1000 to 13,000 members, with more joining all the time.
J.I.: Can you share any future writing projects with us?
I.M.: There is a sequel for To Visit Earth in progress at the moment. I’m in the early stages, so don’t hold your breath. I also have a short sci-fi/fantasy comedy I’m working on, and I’m also busy developing my skill as a beta/editor.
I’ve received several suggestions that the swimming biography should be re-worked into a novel, and I’m mulling that one over. On balance, I think my future is probably in science fiction. We shall see.
J.I.: Now, just for fun, what’s your favorite s/f movie?
I.M.: The Martian. Andy Weir’s first, self-published book shows how independent writers can break through into the mainstream. Unusually for a Hollywood movie, they avoided pumping it up and simply filmed the book. Why did ‘it’s yet another Mad Max movie the same as all the rest” get Oscars, and The Martian didn’t?
J.I.: What’s your favorite comfort food when the writing, or life, isn’t going just right?
I.M.: “Cheese, Gromit? I do like a nice piece of Gorgonzola.” I am lucky enough to like just 60 miles from Cheddar, where the cheese is named for. That’s one thing we do have over America, real strong cheeses.
McAllister’s bio, in his own words: Ian has enjoyed a lifelong passion for aviation, especially airliners. A keen plane spotter, he fulfilled his childhood ambition by joining the UK Civil Aviation Authority in July 1980 as an Air Traffic Control Assistant. In addition to the live ATC work, he was heavily involved in training and line management, and was also a Flight Planning specialist. Prior to early retirement in 2014, his day (and night) job was Flight Information Service Officer, one of a close-knit team providing the on-demand “London Information” service to aircraft flying outside the UK airways system. He also trained as a Critical Incident Stress Management Defuser.
After a 30 year on and off research project about the life and times of his remarkable Grandmother Hilda James, Ian finally began writing in earnest during late 2011. The resulting book, Lost Olympics, was the long-awaited family history. Along the way he learned that Hilda was even more of a character than the determined old lady he had known as a child. He unearthed some dark and sometimes controversial family secrets that needed to be aired as part of the narrative. Lost Olympics led to Hilda’s posthumous induction to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and also to an occasional role as a cruise ship guest speaker.