2012 Snapshot Archive: John Birmingham

First published at Kathryn Linge’s LiveJournal.

John Birmingham’s most recent books include the ‘Axis of Time’ and ‘The Disappearance’ trilogies, both published by Pan Macmillan. He is currently writing fourth ‘Axis of Time’ book, to be published by Pan Macmillan’s digital-only imprint, Momentum. His blog is http://www.cheeseburgergothic.com/ and he tweets athttps://twitter.com/#!/JohnBirmingham.

1. Your most recent book, ‘Angels of Vengeance’, completes the ‘The Disappearance’ trilogy. How has audience reception been so far, and did you have any particular motivation in telling the story primarily through female protagonists?

The punters seem to love it, judging by the happy feedback I get on Twitter. Although those messages do tend to come in after they finished the book. It’s not unknown for the occasional 140 characters of abuse and occasionally death threats to pop up in my timeline while they’re still reading Angels. Usually just after I’ve killed off one of their favorites. Mostly though, people seem satisfied. And of course it’s not over, not completely. Having built the narrative universe of The Disappearance, I’m now free to play there in e-book format, which I’ll be doing a little bit later this year with 3 of my favorite characters.

Only 2 of them will be female.

I take your point about female characters, however. I wasn’t even aware I was doing that until half way through my previous trilogy, the Axis of Time series. My editor told me I had way too many female action heroes, even for an alternate history of the second world war. I had to go find some XY chromosomes for a couple of characters.

Once I became aware of it, however, I started to think a little more deeply and systematically about using women as the major action heroes in what are, admittedly, some pretty violent novels. Having blundered into Joss Whedon territory by accident, I decided to stay there on purpose. I guess I just find kick arse women more interesting to write.

You can put some guy on the page, give him a Schwarzenegger physique, you know, I heard that described as giant walnuts stuffed into a condom, once, and no one will think twice about him destroying every obstacle in his path. With female action heroes, the bar is set much higher. With Caitlin, for instance, who was far and away my favorite character to write in this series, I had to work hard to establish a history of violence, carefully honed over years of training. And then maintained. One of the things we often don’t see with action heroes is the massive effort that goes into maintaining their skills. So whenever I had the chance to show Caitlin doing that, maintaining extreme levels of fitness, practicing her combat arts and so on, I would do so. It’s why, even at the end of the series, in Angels of Vengeance, we’re still flashing back to her earliest days as a young Echelon agent, sent to Japan for a year to train intensively in just one martial art; one of four at which she is adept.

When writing her fight scenes I tried hard to respect the conventions of those arts. Aikido, judo, jujitsu and karate. She will almost always be fighting men who are larger and more powerful than her and who have had their own extensive training in hand-to-hand combat. That’s why her fights end so quickly. They don’t go on page after page, Eric van Lustbader style. She can’t fight and win like that. She will always fight dirty. She will always attack critical points of failure, like joints and eyeballs. She will always go for overkill.

Caitlin’s fighting style makes an interesting contrast with Julianne’s. Jules is a character who is familiar with violence and comfortable with its inevitability, but she is also someone who recognizes her own limitations. In some ways this makes her even more vicious than Caitlin. Very rarely do you see Julianne fight a man without a weapon in her hand. She will always go for superior firepower, and if she can’t find that she’ll fight dirty because she has to. There’s a great example of this in the opening chapters of Angels where she’s being stalked by a man she assumes is a contract killer. There’s nothing elegant about the way she deals with him. But hopefully there is some truth to it.

2. In both the ‘Axis of Time’ and ‘The Disappearance’ series, you use a science fictional premise to allow you explore quite extreme social and political scenarios. What attracts you to exploring these ‘alternate histories’, and how do you decide what happens next?

I can’t recall the first alternate history I read. it might’ve been The Man in the High Castle. A great book and recognized as such, but it really didn’t fire my imagination. I also remember a friend from primary school, Philip McCormack, telling me about how his dad had taken Phil and his brother to see The Final Countdown at the drive-in in Ipswich. Phil was one of those kids who loves to tell you everything about the movie, doing the sound effects and the voices for verisimilitude. I remember that did grab my imagination a little harder than The Man in the High Castle had, but I didn’t end up seeing that movie until many years later on. Until well after I’d written Weapons of Choice in fact. I remember being disappointed that the special effects budget was so very obviously lacking.

I think the first time I really woke up to the possibilities of alternate history as a genre was when I cracked open SM Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time. I love that idea of modern sensibilities and technologies clashing with the ‘other country’ of the past. And Steve is a great, great writer. Another guy, actually, who does really good, strong female characters. Luckily I came to his work after he’d put quite a few books out already, and a couple of years after Harry Turtledove had dragged the genre back from the edge of obscurity. So I had plenty to read for a while. Coincidentally I got on this alternate history kick while I was researching an actual history book, my ‘biography’ of Sydney, Leviathan. I think because I was immersed in that process, which was a really heavy, serious research driven piece of work, I was really open to the idea of having a bit of fun with this area. For a while I played with the idea for a book in which a modern city is transported back to the past. A couple of things got in the way. One, Steve and Eric Flint had really both explored this idea, and more problematically modern cities cannot feed themselves. Or power themselves. They rely on these vast hinterlands to supply them. So unless I was going to send a couple of thousand square miles of farming land and energy infrastructure back, it was all a bit pointless.

3. You’ve recently finished a manuscript for a fourth Axis of Time book, to be published by Pan Macmillan’s digital-only imprint, Momentum. Do you think we have reached the point where an internationally distributed e-book may have better sales than a hardcopy with territorial restrictions?

The wheels still in spin, as Bob Dylan once wrote, a bit awkwardly. I think the book industry will be another 5 to 10 years shaking itself out. My gut feeling is that electronic and paper formats will survive side-by-side, but the shape of the industry will look very different. At a guess, ‘disposable’ books will tend to come out an electronic format while more expensive, bespoke ‘shelf-worthy’ titles, usually but not always with smaller more expensive print runs will come to define hardcopy publishing.

That’s just a guess, and I have a whole bunch of wild theories about the ecology of publishing that would take a couple of thousand words to explain and might make me look like a complete drop kick a few years down the track when none of it comes true. So I’ll keep them to myself.

But yes, the era of the e-book is upon us. It won’t be a golden age, but then it won’t be a new dark age either. It will just be different. One of the things we need to figure out, and it goes directly to the part of your question about “internationally distributed e-books”, is territoriality. The publishing world has been divided up into these vast walled off territories for well over a century now. The established publishing houses are deeply uncomfortable with tearing those walls down. But down they have to come. The only way to make e-books financially viable for publishing houses is to release them simultaneously in all markets at the same price. Whether you stick any DRM on them is another question. But we’re not even close to answering whether or not publishers will cope in the first instance, yet.

4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

I’m always hanging out for a new Cliff Hardy book by Peter Corris. I’ve read every one he’s ever published, usually in the week it’s released. I really like Dave Rollins stuff. But I tend to read more local nonfiction than anything. Probably my background in journalism. At the moment I’m enjoying Peter Fitzsimons biography of John Eales. I got my copy signed by both of them, thanks to Fitz, who got it inscribed for my son, Thomas, who plays rugby. He ran in five tries on the weekend. So there.

5. Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think have been the biggest changes to the Australian SpecFic scene?

It’s not that big a change but I’m really loving the confirmation of Shaun Tan as one of the greatest narrative artists working anywhere in the world. Other than that I suspect the next great change is still in its infancy; the emergence of publishers like Momentum who will be able to take much greater risks on speculative fiction because of the freedom afforded them by working in the virgin field of electronic publishing.

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