Welcome to Barren Island Books, the author interview series that’s in no way related to a popular music-based radio programme. You know the rules by now: my guests are exiled to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. It’s up to them to make sure they choose wisely, because they’re going to be stuck with those books for a long, long time …
My interviewee this week is John Ayliff, author of sci-fi adventure Belt Three – coming next week from Harper Voyager! When he’s not being banished to a desert island, John can be found at johnayliff.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.
John, thanks for joining us! First of all, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself – just so we know who it is we’re sending into exile. Illogical fears, unusual birthmarks, whether you’d rather wrestle a bear or punch a shark, that kind of thing.
Thanks for having me! I'm a lifelong science fiction fan and former computer game developer. I've lived in the UK most of my life but recently moved to Canada. I would quite like to punch a shark.
Well, I'm sure that can be arranged as part of your trip! And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
If you were exiled on a barren island, I think my book would help you see the bright side of your situation. At least you're on Earth, in an environment that can sustain human life, not in an artificial habitat inside one of the fragments of a destroyed planet, living a life of servitude under the rule of decadent aristocrats. My book was inspired by all the books and movies in which aliens threaten to destroy the Earth. I decided to imagine what civilisation would be like if the aliens won, but some people managed to survive in the debris.
Sounds like a really interesting setup! Now let’s move on to the books you’re going to take to the island with you. First up, it’s your favourite childhood book – perhaps the one that got you interested in reading in the first place, or the one you read over and over when you were young. Which will you choose, and why?
The 1950s British comic Dan Dare, which was being reprinted in big hardback volumes when I was growing up and which my dad would buy and my brother and I would devour. A cliffhanger every two pages! The SF worldbuilding is interesting – the science isn't always correct, even by 1950s standards, but there's a feeling that it's using scientific ideas to generate stories, not ignoring science for the sake of a story it already wants to tell. It got me thinking that hard science fiction was a route to fun, exciting stories.
Next, the book that made the greatest impact on your life. This could be one that inspired you to become a writer, or one that made you look at the world in a whole new way – maybe even one that resulted in real-life romance or adventure.
The Complete Robot, by Isaac Asimov. I think Asimov was the first "grown-up" author I read, and his Robot stories were the first thing about which I thought, "Hey, I could write something like this." There's something about the cleanness and simplicity of an Asimov story that makes it easy to think you can emulate it. Later I realised that there was a lot more to SF than Isaac Asimov, and that I'd have to read more widely and find my own style, but it was the Robot stories that got me started.
Deceptively simple, perhaps. And certainly one of the all-time greats! For your third book – and you’re probably going to need this one, all alone on a remote island – I’d like you to choose your greatest comfort read. You know, the one you turn to when you’re sad or ill or just need a little pick-me-up.
E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series. (Can I name a whole series? I expect some publisher has done a single-volume edition at some point.) A glorious escalation of bigger and bigger space battles, with more powerful and exotic weapons, until by the sixth book they're using antimatter planets as missiles or whatever. It's not deep or thought-provoking, but it feels like the author was having enormous fun writing it and it's hard not to be infected by some of that as you read. And the melodramatic way he uses punctuation ... and italics ... and CAPITAL LETTERS!
I'm going to let you get away with picking a whole series purely because E.E. Smith has such an excellent name :-) Fourthly, it’s your unexpected treasure: a book you didn’t expect to like but did, maybe one outside your usual genre or that you picked up with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised …
Milton's Paradise Lost. I don't tend to read outside science fiction and I don't tend to read poetry, and I can't remember why I decided to read this, but I found it thrilling. I can still recite the first page or so from memory: "Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit / of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / brought death into the world, and all our woe ..." The rhythm of the poetry picks you up and carries you with it. Plus, the inspired decision to tell the story from Satan's point of view, and make him sympathetic without making him the good guy, so that you know he has to fail in the end but you're rooting for him to overcome each individual challenge. Anyone who thinks you can't make a bad guy sympathetic should take a look at what Milton did with the actual devil.
And finally, I’d like you to choose your instant classic – the book you think most deserves to be read and reread by future generations. It’s up to you whether this book is already considered a classic or is something more obscure.
All the books I've mentioned so far have been pretty old, so I'm going to make clear that I also read new fiction by naming Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. It seems to be on its way to being considered a classic, and deservingly so. The things it does with language and gender are brilliant; the world-building with fantastic but believable invented human cultures, and the way the language connects with these; the writing from the point of view of a person with multiple bodies in different places. I think it's the standard against which 21st-century space opera will be judged.
And I really must find time to read it! Anyway, we’ll get those five books packaged up ready for your journey. Since we’re not completely heartless here at Barren Island Books, we’ll also let you take one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice into exile with you …
For my piece of music, I'll take 'Im Abendrot' from Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, a beautiful piece of music for soprano and orchestra. As well as being one of my favourite pieces of music in itself, I also associate it strongly with a particular part of my book, when most of the drama is done and the main characters in their battered spaceship are falling towards the sun and the inevitable conclusion.
For my film, Aliens. Such a beautifully paced movie, with a perfect gradual ramping up of tension. I could watch it again and again.
For my item, can I have a solar-powered videogame console? Being stranded on an island could be a chance to catch up on all the games I don't have time to play.
Sure, you might as well make good use of the time :-) Now, before we whisk you away, you have one last decision to make: where you want your remote island to be located. You can choose anywhere you like for your exile, in this world or another.
This world or another, eh? In that case I'll take a temperate region of an alien planet with delicious, exotic fruit trees, in some region of the galaxy thick with stars and nebulae so that the night sky can be my entertainment.
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Thank you for having me! Wait, does this mean I'm on my way to the barren island? Well, at least it will give me some time to write another book ... perhaps someday I'll be rescued and people can read it ...