This interview originally appeared as "An Interview with Gareth L. Powell Talking About a Monkey", Vector. no. 278. pp.8-10. It was conducted to mark Ack-Ack Macaque winning Best Novel at the BSFA Awards last year (an accolade for which it tied with Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, Tom Hunter conducted the mirroring interview with Ann which you can read here)
Glyn Morgan: Ack-Ack Macaque started as a short story (In Interzone #212, Sept 2007. Winner of Interzone story of the year), talk us through the process of that story's development and how it became a novel.
Gareth L. Powell: The original Ack-Ack story was told from the point of view of a suicidal young man named Andy, who had just been dumped by Tori, his artist girlfriend, in favour of an executive at a media company. Not only had this executive, in Andy’s eyes, taken his girlfriend, he had also adapted, softened and neutered her creation, a web animation about the adventures of a World War One monkey pilot named Ack-Ack Macaque – and to be honest, Andy’s not sure which loss hurts him more, the loss of his girlfriend or the loss of his favourite cartoon. Warren Ellis memorably summed it up as: “The commercialisation of a web animation into some diseased Max Headroom as metaphor for the wreckage of a fucked-up relationship.”
I wrote the story as a comment on what used to be called the ‘Disneyfication’ of popular culture. The Ack-Ack Macaque character starts out spiky but gets softened by the corporation that buys the rights to his series. I was originally going to call the story ‘The Monkey That Ate The Internet’ but once I’d introduced the character, he started to take over, and I decided his name made a catchier title.
As you mentioned, ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ went on to win the 2007 Interzone readers’ poll. The character – who was only supposed to be incidental to the main story – seemed to strike a chord with readers, but I had no plans to write anything more about him.
Over the next couple of years, I moved my focus from short stories to novels. Pendragon published my first, Silversands, in 2010, and Solaris published The Recollection in 2011.
After The Recollection appeared, Jonathan Oliver at Solaris asked if I had another book I wanted to write, and I immediately said yes. I’d been kicking around an idea for a murder mystery set on a gigantic Zeppelin in an alternate future where Britain and France had merged in the 1950s. So I wrote up a synopsis and sent it to him. Only, while I was writing the synopsis, something unexpected happened.
The idea for the novel revolved around several not-quite-human characters. I wanted to talk about the nature of humanity and of what it means to be human by coming at the question from the perspective of characters that weren’t sure they qualified. I had Victoria Valois, who’d had half her brain replace by synthetic neurons following an accident; her dead husband, the murder victim, who now existed only as an electronic simulation; and the Prince of Wales, who discovers his origins aren’t as straightforward as he might have supposed. In order to complete the set, I needed a character that had never been human but was able to think and communicate with humans… and there was Ack-Ack Macaque. He had been smoking his cigar in the shadowy depths of my imagination, just waiting for a chance to leap back into the daylight.
GM: The Recollection was also based on a short story (in this case one published in your
GLP: Sometimes a short story’s simply too short, and the central idea needs more space in which to be explored. Short fiction is a great tool for taking a look at one aspect of an idea, character or situation, but you really need to move out to novella- or novel-length in order to gain a three hundred and sixty degree perspective.
GM: At first impression Ack-Ack Macaque and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seem like very different books but actually they contain a number of overlapping themes or concerns: most notably the human-AI-machine relationship. Of course you mix this up still further by introducing 'animal' into that group as well. Some of your other work also brushes these issues and Hive Monkey, sequel to Ack-Ack Macaque, builds on it in a big way. Is this a personal concern or, given Ann's book, do you think there's something in the air?
GLP: In some ways, I think science fiction has always been about our relationship with technology, exploring the myriad ways it shapes both our society and ourselves as physical individuals – and, right now, we’re living in an age of profound change.
As science fiction writers, it isn’t our job to accurately predict the future – history has shown that accurate soothsayers tend to get burned at the stake – but to explore instead a range of possible futures as a means of commenting on the world of today.
When I was at school in the mid-Eighties, hardly anyone had a mobile phone and home computers were something of a novelty. Since then we’ve moved so many of our work and leisure activities online, and encoded so much of our public identities into social media profiles, that legitimate questions can start to be asked about the extent to which the Internet has become a neural and cultural prosthesis for communication and memory storage.
As science fiction writers, we have to look at all this and ask ourselves what the implications are. In the macaque books, I’m asking what it will mean to be human when personalities can be recorded and ‘run’ on computers; when whole chunks of your brain can be replaced by faster and better components; and when we have the capability to ‘upgrade’ animals to human levels of thought. And I’m trying to entertain you while I’m doing it. I’ve taken a Philip K. Dick sort of approach. I’ve given you a quartet of fast-paced adventure stories that you can enjoy as such, but I’ve built them around some fairly weighty philosophical questions about the nature of family, grief, loyalty and what it means to be a human being in this crazy, accelerating world.
GM: As you’ve mentioned, the books are also alternate histories, set in a world where France
GLP: I wanted to tell a story with Zeppelins and very powerful computer processors, and to do that, I felt I needed an alternative setting. The Anglo-French Union appealed to me as soon as I read about the French Prime Minister's offer in a Guardian article. It would have been a Europe dominated by a combined France and Britain. Think how the culture would have been different, how the politics would have played out... In the books, I throw in a few details - just enough to give the reader a flavour of these differences without swamping them in historical detail. For instance, I make reference to the Beatles playing their formative residency in Paris instead of Hamburg; of the Citroen HY filling the niche occupied in our world by the Ford Transit; and I postulate a kind of bilingual slang called ‘Franglais’. Perhaps, most importantly, I relocate the silicon revolution from California to Cambridge, where computer technology flourishes under the leadership of British scientists and inventors such as Turing and Sinclair.
And as for the Zeppelins? Well, I had to come up with a historical and political/economic rationale for them, too...
GM: In Hive Monkey, you make a reference to the 8 Nations Rugby Tournament. As a rugby fan, I have to ask: who are the additional two nations?
GLP: I will leave that as game for the rugby aficionados among my readership.
GM: You smuggle a lot of in-jokes into your writing. From the surely obligatory reference to Planet of the Apes, to Star Wars, to music reference like Sparks and Jeff Beck. Is this type of easter egging a personal joke/game, or are you trying to add some extra fun for the reader, and if so, are there any references you've put into one of your books but been disappointed to find no one seemed to get, or that you had to take out because an editor thought it was too obscure?
GLP: The references I drop into the books are mostly for my own amusement. My novel, The Recollection, had loads of them - such as the William Pilgrim Home For Displaced Time Travellers - but I try not to let them interfere with the story. I don’t crowbar them in, just sprinkle them in lightly as they occur to me. Sometimes, they’re hat-tips to classic stories, such as War Of The Worlds; other times they’re just random scraps of pop culture ephemera that jump into my head while I’m typing. I hope readers who notice them take them in the spirit in which they’re meant: as a bit of extra fun.
GM: The third book in the Ack-Ack series [came out in January 2015]. Was it always going to
GLP: I initially wrote Ack-Ack Macaque as a standalone novel, but was overjoyed when Solaris commissioned a sequel. Hive Monkey came out in January 2014 and expanded the canvas, allowing me to explore the nature of the alternate world in which the first novel was set, while still elaborating on themes of humanity and family. However, as both books were quite different, and there were still a few loose ends, I knew I’d need a third instalment to tie it all together and bring the story full-circle.
In Macaque Attack, we meet an older, wiser macaque. He’s beginning to realise that he can’t be a loner forever, and he’s starting to admit to himself that he cares about the people around him – the dysfunctional ersatz family of characters he’s accumulated over the previous two volumes.
Having spent so much time in the company of Ack-Ack, Victoria, K8 and the rest of the main characters, I too had become very fond of them. They had all grown and developed over the course of the trilogy, and I wanted to make sure I did them justice. I think I did.
As it transpires, not only has Macaque Attack turned out to be their biggest and wildest adventure yet, it also features characters from my earlier space opera, The Recollection – which means that all four of the books I’ve written for Solaris form part of a larger tale, and the trilogy has become a quartet!
I have no immediate plans to return to Ack-Ack in the near future, but don’t count him out of the game just yet. I may have other projects on which I want to work, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to his world at some point, if inspiration provides the right story.
GM: What are you working on next, post-macaque?
GLP: Since completing the third monkey book, I’ve gone back to writing space opera. I have one finished novel, and I’m currently writing another that could potentially form the first instalment of a new series.
Thanks to Gareth for taking the time for this interview. You can find out more about him and his books at www.garethlpowell.com. Macaque Attack, the third instalment in the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy was published on 15th January 2015 by Solaris. Follow the monkey on twitter: @AckAckMacaque
Science Fiction exhibition at The Science Museum in London.
Book Out Now:
Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives (Liverpool University Press, 2019). Co-edited Collection.
Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2020). Monograph.