These are excerpts from an interview I gave to the BSFA magazine Matrix in 2004, some of the questions concerning Muezzinland.
What appeals about SF as a narrative form for your fiction?
That indefinable combination of strangeness, mystery and beauty that for me means ‘The Future’. All the best SF novels have this quality. Take Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, for instance. There’s something about those books that makes them stand out; Helliconia is for me in the top three best SF novels ever written. Even today I can’t work out what it is about the trilogy that is so mesmerising, but it is something to do with the beauty and majesty of the setting, and the mystery of the wonderful life-forms (you have to admit that the phagors are superbly created aliens). And perhaps the strangeness of the characters. It’s interesting that Aldiss was influenced by James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which at the time of writing was beginning to make waves in the scientific community. That theory exudes the same satisfying sense of coherence and wonder as do the Helliconia novels.
A more modern novel with these qualities of beauty, mystery and strangeness is China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station – the best novel of recent years, I would say.
Do you think that Africa has been underrepresented as a setting in fiction generally and SF in particular? If so, why?
One of my favourite novels is Brian Stableford’s Empire Of Fear, a really superb novel that features a central section set in Africa. I think Africa is well enough represented in non-SF fiction, but perhaps in SF it could be a little more prominent. Apart from the Stableford, I can think of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Ian McDonald, Tad Williams and Michael Bishop.
What benefits does setting a book in Africa bring for readers and for you as a writer? On the one hand, it augments the sense of distance and wonder. On the other, might be difficult for people to relate to the narrative. (I didn’t have that problem. So I’m playing devil’s advocate!)
I got my first ‘outsiders’ glimpse of Muezzinland at the MicroCon 2003 convention, which was held in Exeter last March. Because I have a hopeless reading voice, I asked a friend of mine, John Toon – who has acted on stage – to read a chapter on my behalf. He did it brilliantly, but it was only afterwards that I realised I had received my first impression of the story, or rather one chapter of it, from the point of view of an outsider. I was relieved to find that it flowed nicely.
Getting this kind of glimpse is incredibly difficult for an author. I could only hope when I wrote the novel that people would be as enthusiastic about Africa as I was. I knew it was an unusual setting in SF, which to me seemed an advantage; but because the setting came first, then the main characters and then the plot, I was fairly sure that there was a solid emotional heart to the story that would carry it along. So all in all it felt the right thing to do. To me, the advantages of the setting outweighed the possibility of people finding it difficult. Besides, people who read SF and fantasy are routinely exposed to weird and wonderful environments; they won’t be fazed by the African-ness of Muezzinland.