fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIan Whates is a manically busy man. He has written dozens of short stories, published several novels, and has edited several anthologies. He runs his own publishing company, NewConn Press, though his work has also been published by Angry Robot and Solaris. As if that’s not enough, he is also a director and Chairman of the British Science Fiction Association. Ian’s novel City of Dreams & Nightmare was included in FanLit’s Best of 2010 list (read my review), and its sequel, City of Hope & Despair (read my review) will be released in the US on March 29, 2011. I was grateful to recently catch up with Ian so I could ask him a few questions.

Ryan Skardal: In City of Dreams & Nightmare, you introduced readers to Thaiburley, or the “City of a Hundred Rows.” Thaiburley seems to have a little of everything arkademics, lizard men, and street-nick gangs. What was the inspiration for this city?

Ian Whates: The initial inspiration was a local news item on the TV about Burghley House, a nearby stately home. The report featured the mansion’s roof, which includes a dramatic array of elegant, slender chimneys and ornate crenelations. There’s a walkway built around the inner circumference of the roof and the views from here — both looking out over the surrounding estate and inward over the roof — are designed to be visually stunning from wherever you’re standing.

I was instantly captivated by this roof and imagined it expanded to cover a vast city. As soon as the report finished, I dashed to the computer and started tapping away. The drama unfolded as I typed:  there’s someone desperate to reach this roof, a place he’s never been to and not supposed to go. He’s a teenager, a thief; he’s already overcome many obstacles to get this far and has nearly reached his goal, but is thwarted at the last by witnessing a murder and being seen by the culprit…

At the time I was 60,000 words into a high fantasy novel, meant to be my debut as a novelist (which I still intend to finish one day) but this new story wouldn’t be denied. It muscled through to the fore of my brain and took over.

I’d read and loved China’s Perdido Street Station a few years previously and Alan Campbell’s Scar Night more recently. Both feature unique cities which inhabit the books in the same way that Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar does in so many of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. I’d always promised myself that one day I’d create my own wondrous and fascinating city, a place both quirky and dangerous… and here was my chance! After that, it was just a case of letting my imagination run riot and taming the results into coherent form.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI was reminded of Perdido Street Station while reading your work, particularly because many find China Miéville’s work politically charged. New Crobuzon’s leadership seems so hopelessly corrupt that it demands revolution. Thaiburley, with its upper classes actually living above the lower classes, seems to have a lot of potential for political tension. Can readers expect to see a class conflict in City of Light & Shadows?

Conflict, no, but tension, yes. As you say, with the ruling classes living in the Heights and the poorest living in the City Below, there is a gulf, as expressed in the first book when the Kite Guard Tylus arrives in the under-City expecting co-operation but is met with cynicism, and all but ignored. It’s also evident in the hatred that still exists in the City Below for the Blade, the government’s chief enforcers. However, in Thaiburley, class isn’t the only factor that determined the positioning of the Rows. So, for example, the Sanitation Workers and Refuse Burners Row is towards the middle of the city, while the Shopping Row is at a low level. The latter for reasons of practicality. Produce enters Thaiburley either at ground level into the Market Row or via the river into the City Below. Far more sensible for the Shopping Row to be just above these than struck fifty Rows away.

You’re right, China portrays the political corruption of New Crobuzon’s leadership brilliantly. In fact, politically corrupt or wholly inept leadership is what a reader expects in these situations, which is why I very deliberately went the other way. That’s been done, and done very well. So Thaiburley’s government is essentially benevolent and well-meaning. Yes, there are those who are corrupt, self-serving and greedy for power, which provides the springboard for the drama in the first book, but essentially the Council want the best for their city. They’re just overworked and unable to deal with things or even notice everything as swiftly as they’d like, particularly in the City Below, which is so far removed from their immediate environment. In book 3, the Prime Master attempts to explain this to an unreceptive Kat, who grew up fighting in the gladiatorial hellhole known as the Pits — eventually closed down by the government but allowed to exist for too many years before it was.

So, yes, there are political tensions, but they’re not the driving force of the narrative in this particular story arc. That’s provided by a conflict that goes much deeper and has been around for far longer. But who knows what might feature in future visits to the City of 100 Rows?

Thaiburley is such a rich, vibrant setting, so I was surprised when Tom and Dewar left it. What made you decide to send Tom’s band out of the city in City of Hope & Despair?

Thaiburley is a vital element of the story and I was determined this should remain the case in the second book as it is in the first. The city’s continued presence and development occur in the two plotlines featuring Kat and the Tattooed Men on the one hand and the Prime Master on the other. However, I didn’t wish the City of 100 Rows to be viewed as an isolated environment. I wanted readers to appreciate that there’s a world beyond Thaiburley’s towering walls. By having Tom, Dewar, Mildra and Kohn follow the course of the Thair, I’m able to show the river in various moods — deep, broad, slow moving waterway, swollen flood plain, cascading mountain torrent — and take the protagonists through a variety of diverse cultures along the way. By moving part of the action beyond the city, I can bring in elements such as the Mud Skipper and the skimmers which would never have fitted inside Thaiburley. It also enables me to expand on Dewar’s past.  Both this and revelations regarding Thaiburley’s origins, which the trip ultimately reveals, become increasingly relevant as the series progresses.

Many fantasies focus on the perspective of a single hero that discovers his powers during adolescence. In City of Hope & Despair, you devote a lot of pages to the perspectives of Dewar and Kat, not to mention several other characters. What was it like trying to write your story from so many perspectives?

It all comes down to perspective. Before embarking on a novel, I’d spent a couple of years focusing on short stories (about 40 published in various venues to date). In a short story there’s only scope for a limited amount of world building and it’s comparatively easy to keep the narrative tight and create a convincing scenario from one character’s perspective. In a novel, particularly one with the amount of action, political intrigue and differing motivations present in the City of 100 Rows, things get a great deal more complicated. I knew that if I told the story simply from one viewpoint — Tom’s, say — there would be a lot going on ‘off screen’; things vital to the plot but not in Tom’s presence or hearing. With just one central character, the only ways to inform the reader of these would be to either include a lot of info-dumping, or to feature the voice of an ‘all-seeing narrator’, neither of which appealed. So I went for more than one narrative viewpoint, in order to provide a fuller story in the most natural way I could. Besides, I like Dewar, Kat and Tylus as characters, and enjoy writing about them.

The only real difficulty with this approach comes when two narratives overlap. Where a scene has to be viewed from two different perspectives, it’s vital that you say something new with the second and don’t dwell on what’s already been covered in the first. To be honest, I enjoy working with a limited number of viewpoints (three or four) rather than just one. You have to keep tight rein on the respective timelines, but I think it helps to keep things fresh for both the writer and, hopefully, the reader.

THE CITY OF A HUNDRED ROWS books have been published by Angry Robot, and The Noise Within has been published by Solaris. You also run an independent publisher NewCon Press. What has it been like to write for two different publishers while also running NewCon Press?

A number of responses spring to mind, not all of them polite… ‘Manic’ is probably the simplest, though by no means adequate. NewCon Press started by accident. I’d intended to compile, edit and publish (none of which I’d ever done before) just one anthology, as a fund raiser. The process proved an incredibly steep learning curve, and seeing the finished book (Time Pieces) was so exhilarating that suddenly all the sweat, anguish and frustration involved were forgotten, and I thought, ‘Hey, I could do this again!’

Five years and seventeen titles later, here I am, having edited and published most of the UK’s top genre names (Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Gwyneth Jones, Tanith Lee, Neal Asher, M John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts, Brian Stableford, Ian Watson, etc) plus a few non-Brits (Kelley Armstrong, Gail Z Martin, Pat Cadigan, Tricia Sullivan — both honorary Brits — etc) and about to launch two new titles that will only add to those lists (with stories from Neil Gaiman, Charles Stross, Dan Abnett, James Lovegrove, Lauren Beukes…).

As for writing two different series for two different publishers, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing so. The two are very different in their settings. The NOISE books are space opera with a twist, the THE CITY OF A HUNDRED ROWS series is urban fantasy with steampunk overtones and SF underpinning. I’ve written the different volumes alternately, which has helped to keep things fresh. Hopefully the readers will agree. With the second volume of each imminent — City of Hope & Despair in March, The Noise Revealed in April — we’ll soon find out.

Juggling the writing, the editing and the publishing (plus other commitments) is time consuming to say the least — I tend to do around 60 hours most weeks, more when the pressure’s really on — but this is work I love. Yes, there are frustrations and aggravations at times, but that’s life.

Fans of THE CITY OF A HUNDRED ROWS books can expect to see a third and final installment in the series, City of Light & Shadows, soon. However, in the meantime, you are also editing several anthologies. Do you find it difficult to go from editing to writing and back again?

The simple answer is no. You’re right; I’m currently compiling and editing four anthologies — two for my own NewCon Press, a new ‘Mammoth’ title for Constable and Robinson/Running Press (co-edited with Ian Watson), and a new anthology for Solaris. I’m also writing the third CITY book, due to be released in spring 2012. Deadlines for all of these are looming large, and I can’t pretend I’m on schedule with each and every one of them, but I’ll get there.

The writing has to take priority. That’s what I am first and foremost: an author. However, after you’ve tapped away for a number of hours, immersed in your own world, it’s actually quite refreshing to step back and consider somebody else’s work for a while. Nor do I find it difficult to slip into ‘editorial mode’. I’ve spent so much time editing in recent years that I find myself doing it in my head with almost everything I read. It’s difficult to switch off rather than on. Yes, there are times when editorial commitments have to come to the fore, when I set the writing to one side and concentrate on working on a bloc of submissions, but even that provides a break from the usual routine. So far, it’s all worked pretty well.

In addition to your editing and your writing, you are a director in the Science Fiction Writers of America and the British Science Fiction Association. It seems like you keep an unusually busy schedule. Do you plan to branch out even further in the future?

Just to set the record straight, I was a director of SFWA — I stepped down a year or so ago, replaced by the excellent Australian author Sean Williams, who I’m sure will do a much better job than I did. To be honest, this was one commitment too far. I never had the time to devote to the role that it deserves and when I did try to involve myself I was generally way out of my depth. I recall in particular being constantly urged to participate in a debate about the pros and cons of the organisation relocating its registered office from one US state to another, with emphasis on the intricacies of the tax implications… Sorry, but I live in the UK, and have no knowledge whatsoever of the different tax systems operated by US states, so I found it impossible to offer an informed opinion.

Yes, I am still a director of the British Science Fiction Association, and, indeed, have been its chairman for the past three years. This does involve a considerable commitment, but at least I know what I’m talking about here. I’m a great advocate of the BSFA and all that the organisation stands for; it’s entirely about the fans — those people who watch, read and play SF — and let’s face it, we’re all fans at heart. Yes, authors, editors and agents are members, but that’s because they’re fans too. In 2008 the BSFA celebrated its 50th Anniversary, making it the longest established Science Fiction organisation in the world, which is quite something. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have the time to devote to the role and don’t want to neglect another position as I did with SFWA, but I’ll keep doing this for as long as I believe I have something to contribute.

As for branching out further… if anything, I’m planning the opposite. In recent years I’ve been one of the two key organisers (along with the inimitable Mr Ian Watson) of the NewCon conventions here in the UK (roughly every two years), which have featured guests such as Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Storm Constantine, Paul Cornell, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pat Cadigan, and Liz Williams, not to mention contributions from Alan Moore, Gwyneth Jones and others. For the most recent (October 2010) I found myself with so many roles towards the end — programming, hotel liaison, membership secretary, treasurer, entertainments officer, etc — that it became ridiculous. For the weeks leading up to the con I had to ignore everything else and devote myself entirely to the event, which proved incredibly stressful and I was a nightmare to be around. So, for the moment, my con-running days are over.

Okay, here’s a question we often like to ask: Is there a question you wish interviewers would ask but they never do? If so, what is it, and what’s the answer?

Hmmm… is there…? Where do you get your ideas from? Good Lord, no. Perhaps, what are you planning next? (An SF adventure romp best summed up as ‘Sherlock Holmes meets Firefly’) But no, that’s been asked before. Okay, as a contrast to anything else we’ve covered, how about: How do negative reviews affect you?

With both my ‘first’ novels, The Noise Within (Solaris) and City of Dreams & Nightmare (Angry Robot) I’ve been very lucky. All the initial reviews were highly positive, enthusiastic even. However, that was never going to last. When I write a book, I set out to create the sort of novel I’d want to read, which I’d be happy to shell-out my own precious cash for. People’s tastes differ, and of course what appeals to me won’t appeal to all. I knew when I started writing that not everyone was going to like the results and that’s fine. Criticism is healthy, and negative opinions are just as valid as the positive ones. So long as all involved realise that they are just that:  opinions. The person responsible for the first truly negative review I received subsequently blogged to say that his conclusion — that this was ‘a bad book’ — wasn’t an opinion at all, it was fact, even going on to reference some of the existing highly positive reviews and dismiss them as inexplicable and irrelevant. That level of arrogance is very frustrating because as an author you daren’t reply. You just have to shrug and get on with it. I’m very passionate about what I write. Of course I’d love everyone to love my books, but in the real world I’ll settle for most people doing so. To date, that seems to be the case. The onus is on me to keep delivering. I’ll do my best.

Readers will be given quite a few opportunities to keep reading Ian’s work this year. City of Hope & Despair is out in March, and The Noise Revealed, will be released to US readers in April. NewConn Press will also release two anthologies edited by Ian, Further Conflicts and Fables From the Fountain, in April and May, respectively. Finally, Solaris Rising, an anthology for Solaris, is scheduled for release in November. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Ian Whates.

As usual, commenters are entered into a drawing for a book from our stacks.


  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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