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Once a physicist: Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is a science-fiction writer based in the Netherlands. He has written seven novels and many more short stories. His second book, Chasm City, was named best novel of 2001 by the British Science Fiction Association.

Alastair Reynolds

Why did you originally choose to study physics?
I had always been interested in science, but the thing that pushed me into considering a career in it was seeing Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos in the early 1980s. At this time I was also an avid reader of science fiction, and I had begun to read some of Isaac Asimov's and Arthur C Clarke's non-fiction books about science. Together with a deep fascination with the night sky that I had retained from an early age, this prompted me to do a degree in physics and astronomy at Newcastle University in the UK.

How much did you enjoy the subject?
Most of the time I found it enjoyably challenging, rather than enjoyable in the fun sense — I am not a naturally mathematically minded person, so acquiring the necessary numerical skills was always a bit of an uphill struggle for me. Nevertheless, I went on to do a PhD at St Andrews University on optical spectroscopy of massive X-ray binary stars, which contain a normal star like the Sun, only heavier, and a compact object like a black hole or neutron star. Basically I was using Doppler measurements to determine the masses of the component stars.

What did you do next?
After finishing my thesis, in 1991 I moved to the Netherlands and went to work for the European Space Agency (ESA). Among other things, I worked on the development of a new kind of photoncounting optical camera that could measure the energies and arrival times of individual photons. We used this instrument to make ground-breaking observations of cataclysmic variables (binary stars containing a white dwarf). Apart from a two-year stint as a postdoc at Utrecht University, I stayed at ESA until 2004, when I gave up science to become a full-time writer.

How did you get into writing fiction?
I had been writing short stories almost since I could read. In my early teens I started a novel, and when I was about 16 I became determined to establish myself as a published writer. But I was really only thinking in terms of it being a hobby. I noticed that many of the writers I enjoyed — Clarke, Gregory Benford, Joe Haldeman — were either practising scientists, or had studied physics and astronomy at some point. That galvanized me to take my studies even more seriously.

When did your writing career really take off?
It was ticking over nicely until my first novel Revelation Space was published in 2000. From that point on, there was a lot more interest — it's the old thing of going from trying to sell stories to sceptical markets, to having those markets coming to you and inviting you to contribute. It was also about this time that I started breaking into the US magazine market, which was a big step in reaching new readers.

What made you decide to give up physics to become a full-time writer?
I was struggling to balance the two jobs — one had to go. I'd had a great time working for ESA, but I was also finding that I didn't have enough time in the day to do all the writing I wanted. I was turning down interesting writing projects even though I used to dream about just being asked. I knew I was going to miss the intellectual challenges and social stimulation of working within a scientific team, which I have, but I still don't regret my decision.

How does your physics training help with your writing?
Less than people imagine. I think the most important attribute for a science-fiction writer is to be fascinated by science — in all its manifestations. It's not necessary to be able to understand all the details, but just to be inspired and stimulated. Most of the ideas that have fed into my writing have come from reading popular articles on subjects far away from my own very limited specialization, such as neuroscience or biology.

What advice do you have for physics students thinking of a career in science-fiction writing?
Write short fiction, and keep working at it until you break into the science-fiction magazine market. Many of the big names made an initial splash in the magazine market, and it's often how they caught the eye of editors and publishers. I published my first stories when I was working towards my PhD and the contacts I established from those early days eventually led to my getting a contract to write novels. Also, make the most of your scientific literacy. Editors like to see "hard science-fiction" stories — fiction where the science plays a strong role in the narrative, even if it's wildly speculative. They never see enough of this type of story, and so are more than willing to forgive minor deficiencies in characterization, plotting, style and so on, provided the ideas are fascinating. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't work hard at those things as well — no one gets a get-out-of-jail-free card!

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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