Aug 31, 2010

An Interview with Colin Harvey

Colin Harvey talks about his novel, Winter Song.

We are sitting in the main lounge of the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford. It's Easter Sunday, and we're right in the middle of Eastercon. Writers and outlandishly dressed fans walk by us on their way to assorted panels and events. In reality, though, we're not even in our own solar system. Instead, we are traipsing across a beautiful but stark landscape on a planet about the size of Mars that is descending into global winter.

The planet is called Isheimur. It looks a lot like Iceland.

Colin recalls that the inspiration for Winter Song came during a vacation to Iceland in September 2007 even though he had visited the country on many occasions before and had even picked up a smattering of Icelandic. I wondered what specifically had made such a deep impression on him.

Colin tells me, "While we were driving around Iceland, once we were away from the towns, I kept thinking what a magnificent setting it would make for an SF novel; it's wilder and more desolate than anywhere else I know."

During his visit, the idea for a deep space novel with alien life forms on a globally scaled-up version of Iceland was born. A brief but fortuitous friendship developed between Colin and British expatriate, Bernard Scudder.

Colin reminisces about his relationship with the Icelandic author. "I knew Bernard's name from reading novels translated into English from Icelandic with his byline on as translator. I was fascinated by the very cool, spare prose and wanted to learn whether that came from him or the author. My friend Skorri got his number and I just rang him up! We exchanged e-mails for a while, and when Kate and I decided to visit Iceland, I arranged to meet Bernard for a coffee on my last evening in Reykjavik."

Colin and Bernard talked about storytelling, about the Norse Sagas and how they compared to modern literature. This gelled with Colin's own exploration of Norse mythology. In fact, the model for the perfect antagonist presented himself when Colin visited Borgarnes, the first settlement in Iceland, and location for some of Egil's Saga. The saga includes a fantastical account of the life of Egil Skallagrímsson, Icelandic farmer, Viking, and skald, a sort of Viking bard, who lived during the tenth century, CE. I want to know more about the nature of his inspiration from the saga and how he made the interstellar leap from dead Viking to aliens and an SF setting.

"I loved the idea of a man capable of acts of incredible brutality, yet who could write beautiful poetry, who was almost heroically ugly, yet his vitality attracted women. Ragnar (the antagonist in Winter Song) was a fusion of two people I knew, because the sagas don't attribute emotions or motives, only the character's actions.

"A Norse saga doesn't lend itself to modern readers, who want a beginning, middle and end and to understand why characters do what they do. Sagas are long, rambling affairs that veer off-plot for pages on end and in which the narrator simply says what happened without explanation why.

"The nearest I could get to it would be an SF novel with a mythic element. And if I was going to write an SF novel on another planet that resembled Iceland, it had to have local life forms or just risk turning into Cowboys-and-Indians in space."

Bernard Scudder's unexpected death in October 2007 affected Colin greatly. He began to 'compost' his ideas about Winter Song over the next six months, determined to bring the story to fruition to honor his late friend and the animated discussions they had and who had introduced him through his translations to the Sagas,. In April 2008, Colin started writing and finished Winter Song in December of that same year.

We've landed back in Great Britain again. Bradford comes into focus around us as Colin takes a minute to explain about his frustration with science fiction in general and how many deep-space SF stories lack a complex political background. Colin's vision of future space colonization centers on a bifurcated evolution of two opposing factions: Pantropists and Terraformers. The issues between them can be summarized with one word: adaptation. I want to know how he formed his world-building concept.

Colin answered, "Some of the ideas date back almost a decade, but always featuring one or the other of the factions. For example, the protagonist in 'On the Rock' (link here) – is a clone, but the complex structure only took shape as I outlined Winter Song. There are two main factions; Pantropists, who adapt people to the world they live on, and Terraformers, who adapt the planet to fit human beings. But at right angles to that we have another sent of factions who have ideas about what form humanity should take, even among the Terraformers."

He also explains his concept that space exploration as told in Winter Song was also a way of preserving fringe cultures, such as the people who have colonized Isheimur. Because of their initial Icelandic homogeneity, the culture survives and is preserved through the generations.

This is world-building on a galactic scale. I was impressed with Winter Song's very personal, in-depth examination of a cultural remnant on a planet in the throes of an imminent ice age. I ask Colin about the connection between his world-building concepts and his story.

"When a spacer falls to the planet's surface, he's rescued by the colonists on Isheimur, who are Terraformer descendants. Though he owes them his life, he's desperate to retain his neutral status. Sending a Mayday risks bringing one faction or another along, but doing nothing is even less viable once he starts to learn Isheimur's secrets."

Another question I had while reading Winter Song was whether he consciously intended the novel to be a commentary on human impact to climate on a planetary scale.

"I suppose it is, but in reverse. They've engineered something marginally habitable to humans, but they ran out of money before they could stabilize the ecosystem, and without being able to finish the job --for which they need to resume contact with the wider universe-- their colony will inevitably fail."

I begin to understand the necessity to isolate Isheimur and prompt Colin to tell me more.

"The planet had to be isolated from the galactic hub or the 'pure' Icelandic culture would have been eroded. The story focuses on the conflicts between a protagonist (Karl) stranded on the planet, who is desperate to get home to his family, and his 'rescuer,' (Ragnar) a control freak who wants to prevent it, but it's also about the clash between Icelanders who want to keep their culture in the face of global homogenization. Ragnar very much reflects some Icelanders' feelings."

I nod at his explanation. That aspect of Winter Song felt genuine and gave a nice added dimension to the political complexities of interstellar warring factions. But like any really ripping yarn, Winter Song focuses on survival and conflict – protagonist and antagonist pitting their wills against one another. And against Nature. I ask Colin whether he intended Nature to take on the role as antagonist. And if that reflected his own feelings as he traveled across Iceland.

"Definitely. While some of the colonists are hostile, they're nothing compared to the wildlife -whale-birds that spit poison and aboriginal trolls-- that threaten Karl and his friend Bera at every turn. But as a result of what he learns Karl has to risk unleashing a 'global winter' which extreme though it is will actually save the colony in the long run."

I scoot back into my chair and chew the end of my pen. I have lots more questions for Colin. I want to explore the romantic subplot between Karl and Bera and the myriad native creatures and talk about the skillful way he built tension and shaped my expectations as I read. Not only intense in scope and action-packed, Winter Song is British-made SF at its very best.

But don't just take my word for it.

Winter Song will be released in the U.S. in September, 2010 by (the newly independent) Angry Robot Books. Colin's latest release, the near-future SF thriller, Damage Time, will be released in the U.S./U.K. in October, 2010. His most recent anthology, Future Bristol from Swimming Kangaroo Books, is an SF anthology based on, not surprisingly, a near-future version of the city of Bristol.