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Interview: Michael Marshall Smith
With the BBC recently snapping up the rights to his latest novel ‘The Intruders’ and a feature film based on one of his short stories, ‘Hell hath enlarged herself,’ in production, Michael Marshall Smith is one of the hottest British writers around.
From his early science fiction novels to his last four more contemporary books (as Michael Marshall), the author’s imagination about future technology such as cloning and artificial intelligence, and the way in which he integrates everyday technology into his non-science fiction novels, have added a new dimension to his writing.
I caught up with Michael in a pub in Kentish Town to ask him about his passion for Macs, the iPhone and why he thinks human nature will always bring out the worse in any new technology:
PG: You’re a bit of a technology fan – what gadgets are you looking forward to getting your hands on?
MMS: I’m looking forward to the iPhone. I know it’s not going to work properly, but I early adopt every Apple technology, from the message pad to the cube and so on. What I would really love is a sort of sub-notebook – the pads are small but they are just a little bit too big to carry round. I think they’d be the two things that I wanted.
PG: Apple likes to make a big splash with their products don’t they?
I know when the cube came out I was walking past it and thought ‘f****** hell that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen!’ even though it’s considered one of their failures. They are the only people who manage to do that kind of thing. I assume what they have done is that they have listened to what everyone has said about the iPhone and learnt from their mistakes in the past about putting something straight into the market. Hopefully they will have ironed out the problems by the time it arrives.
PG: So will the iPhone replace your Treo?
No, I’ll keep hold of the Treo because it works. It does everything I want to, and it synchs up well with my Mac. The thing about the Treo is that it lets me get my e-mails when I want them rather than constantly pushing them at me like Blackberrys.
PG: I’ve never really got the whole Blackberry thing…
No – I remember reading an Ian M. Banks novel where they had chips that told everyone where you were all the time, like GPS; but I WANT to get lost, and there are times I don’t want people to be able to find me. The moment you get an e-mail, especially about work, it sits there in your mind even if you are trying to get on with something else.
PG: A lot of your sci-fi novels have a fairly technologically dystopian world. Do you see technology as something that corrupts humanity?
I think they’re not dystopian about technology, but about human nature. I was lucky with the timing of Spares in 1996 because it came out around the same time as Dolly the sheep was created and there was all this talk about the implications [of cloning], and my book said, ‘with human nature what it is, what is likely to happen with this technology?’ I think the big problem that scientists in general make is forgetting what people are actually like. They don’t ask ‘well what happened the last time we did something like this? We are going to do it again, so let’s think about it before we actually do it.’
PG: Your latest book ‘The Intruders’ is contemporary, but one of the things that seems to work very well is the way in which you integrate things like text messaging into the storyline. You seem to make people’s use of technology seem very natural in your books – they just use them without trying to explain how they work or why…
We do tend to absorb [technology] into our lives and it does reflect that in the book. There’s a balance to find because you don’t want to be too techy, but the reality is that we are all used to e-mails and cell phones. You see old films where the whole thing hangs on finding a payphone and you think; ‘that’s not as relevant any more’. The stories that we can tell are affected by the technology we use. I’m sure there will come a point where I fall off the technology wagon and think; ‘what is this ‘instant hologram’ that everyone is talking about?’ and I won’t be able to integrate the technology into the stories that I want to tell.
I remember when the first mobile phone came out I thought; ‘who would need something like that?’ And again, when people started texting I thought; ‘Who would want that?’ but now texting is my main form of communication with a lot of the people that I know. There’s no expectation of dialogue, with e-mails you get the awkward conversations. I don’t think anyone uses it any more but I remember when people put NRN on emails, ‘no reply necessary’, but that seems to have been phased out. As soon as a technology comes out, human nature kicks in.
PG: As a Mac fan you don’t have much problem with crashes – does that mean you get out of the habit of saving your work?
I am an absolutely ingrained saver and backer upper. I have a .mac account so everything is backed up on a server. I had a laptop stolen a few years ago with 30,000 un-backed up words on it. It was actually non-fiction – it was just a bunch of notes I’d made about stuff. It was musings about life, the universe and everything from a particular time of my life that I am never going to be able to replicate.
I could have killed my wife the other day because our kid knocked her laptop onto the floor and completely totalled it and she had no back-up. She lost about six years’ worth of emails but she still hasn’t got a backup. I don’t know what it would take…probably losing 30,000 words of writing, and never getting it back again. I did try to rewrite what I had lost but I only got about five or ten thousand words back.
PG: A few years ago you suggested the internet was a pretty dull place, do you still feel this?
I don’t think the internet is dull: I think there are lots of things that it is very useful for, I just think it hasn’t found its feet yet – there’s a feeling that it’s going to be something else and I think it’s not there. I look at things like Second Life and I think; ‘if I was 15 years younger, that would be something that I could disappear into’, but I’m not. I’ve got too much stuff going on in my life and I really don’t have the time. I remember playing things like Sonic the Hedgehog for literally days at a time but I don’t have the time to do that any more.
I was talking about the last series of ‘Lost’ the other day. I loved the first series, and then, just when I felt it was getting good again, Virgin took over my cable and fell out with Sky. So I said I would wait for the box-set and my friend said ‘just download it’, but I can’t really, because, as someone who produces copyrightable material, I don’t really want to rip anyone else off.
You look at the huge studio and think; ‘I’m not doing them any harm’, but then you look at the person who is writing the script who is getting a percentage of a percentage of a percentage and you are actually taking money out of that guy’s pocket. I mean would you photocopy a book? This is something that we shouldn’t trivialise.
One of the things about the internet that I do worry about and I do distrust is that people are distanced from the things that they do. I look at forums or emails and, when you are writing by yourself on something like that, your sense of self is massively inflated and without some sort of checking process or a reality check on what your writing can do to other people, what comes out can be a little scary.
PG: And people’s ability to spell and use apostrophes as well?
I have vaguely fascist views on things like that. There should be grammar checkers in browsers; if you type something in and it doesn’t pass the test you shouldn’t be allowed to post it, on the grounds that if you can’t be arsed to find out how apostrophes work, which is very, very simple, why should we give a s*** about anything else you say?
My dad’s a professor and I talked to him about half an hour ago about this. He was talking about first year students who don’t know anything about grammar. People say we should do away with apostrophes but that’s like saying you could have an orchestra without an oboe, it does make a difference and so do apostrophes. So why should I care about your Amazon review if you can’t get that right?
PG: I hear you have a lot of projects on the go at the moment.
I’m working on a couple of things. I am adapting 'Hell hath enlarged herself' for a film. I’ve spent so many years as a screenwriter, working my arse off and going into meeting to be told can you do this, this and this. To be in the position of being one of the producers and being the one saying can you do that, that and that. It’s a difficult adaptation because studios and audiences don’t like back story but this has a big pre story.
One of my projects at the moment is that ‘The Intruders’ has been optioned by the BBC so I am adapting my novel as a feature length pilot and trying to come up with a bible for the series to come after that. That’s come in during the last month or so and swept everything out of the way because the BBC wants to move quickly on that.