There’s an understandable assumption that someone who thinks about coming technologies must also be something of a gadget-head. I’ve certainly done my share of near-future speculation, trying to imagine plausible extensions of current advances in AI, robotics, virtual reality, telepresence and so on. While I’m fascinated by these topics in an abstract sense, I couldn’t be less interested in terms of my own working environment.
I write in a wooden shed in Wales. I have a kettle in there, and a record player, and not much else. There’s certainly no wifi, and I struggle to get a good telephone signal. Most of my writing (including this blog post) is done on a Dell desktop computer that will soon be old enough to begin driving lessons. Technically it’s on borrowed time – I was assured that the hard-drive is already many years over “MTBF” – “mean time between failures” – yet it keeps working, boots up before I’ve had time to boil the kettle, and only ever crashes in really hot weather. Given that I live in the aforementioned Wales, that’s rarely a concern. That said, I’m very diligent about backing up. And for those of you who care about such things, it’s running Windows XP with Word 97. It’s never been connected to the internet.
I’m not a technophobe but if a piece of equipment does the work required, I see no reason to discard it. Whenever I have to write on the road, using a succession of unreliable and clunky laptops – none of which is has yet outlasted the Dell – it’s always a relief to come back home and find that I can work freely, without the machine interposing itself, impeding the creative process rather than helping it flow.
In truth, I needed persuasion to switch to computers in the first place. I’m possibly one of the last wave of writers who had any tangible contact with manual typewriters. I began with a very heavy Olympia typewriter and later switched to a lighter, portable model, and I wrote the first draft of Revelation Space on the latter machine. I taught myself using a rudimentary hunt-and-peck approach which is still about all I can manage. I was still submitting typewritten stories to Interzone into the middle nineties.
This education served me well in one sense, in that it encouraged me to keep going. My working method was to type three new pages of fiction an evening. I would allow myself three Tip-Ex corrections per page – more than that, and I retyped the whole sheet.
What I tried not to do was to go back and fiddle with what I’d produced the night before. Revision and polishing are absolutely essential aspects of the craft, but they can also be dangerous substitutions for actual creative slog. The writer who spends all their time trying to write the perfect opening line, the perfect opening page, will likely never finish anything.
When I’m sitting at my PC, I try to treat it as a typewriter during the first draft, accepting that it’s better to be moving forward, even with imperfections, than get sucked into that spiral of fiddling and polishing. That part (which I enjoy much more then slog of the first draft) can wait until later.
I am death to keyboards, though.
I bought a swanky new one a couple of years ago, and after finishing only one novel half a dozen of the keys were blank. I ordered some stickers but they lasted even less time than the original markings. Having learned to type on stiff manual typewriters, the force needed to work them is irrevocably hard-wired into my brain and muscle memory. When I worked in science, colleagues used to complain about the racket coming from my office, as I hammered yet another keyboard into bloody submission. Being an amateur musician, as well, I have sharp nails on my right hand. The right side of my keyboard wears out appreciably faster than the left.
That’s fine, though. I’ll gladly accept the cost of a new keyboard every couple of novels for the discipline of moving forward, producing rather than revising. Meanwhile, I suppose I can always buy some more stickers.
ALASTAIR REYNOLDS is one of Britain’s leading science fiction authors. His first novel, Revelation Space, was a critical success, shortlisted for the BSFA and Clarke Awards. He was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities and has a Ph.D. in astronomy. He gave up working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency to become a full-time writer. Revelation space and Pushing Ice were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award; Revelation space, Absolution Gape, Diamond Dogs and Century Rain were shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award and Chasm City won the British Science Fiction Award. His most recent book is Elysium Fire, featuring Inspector Dreyfus. It’s a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge.