10 questions for dystopian sci-fi author J.C. Gemmell
Updated: Feb 17
1) How was it to publish your first book?
Exciting, nerve-wracking, and anti-climactic. I started writing in earnest (having always wanted to write and never getting around to it) on 4th November 2013. I can pinpoint the date because I was on holiday in Ibiza and had downloaded a book to my then-new Kindle, and despite it being sold as precisely the type of story I would love to read, I never made it past the first chapter. In one instant, I realised self-publishing was possible, and I could perhaps do a little better.
When I finally self-published ‘Tionsphere’ on 22nd May 2020, after six years of hard graft plus encouragement from my editor, I thought it was the launch of a new career. What I learnt is that writing and publishing (the two are very different) require a completely different set of skills for promoting and growing an audience. I am a keen supporter of independent sci-fi, dystopian and cyberpunk authors and continue to do everything I can to help others be successful.
2) What was the inspiration for “Tionsphere”?
There were 3.7 billion people on Earth when I was born. The global population is projected to reach 8 billion on 15th November 2022. I am fascinated and terrified by this growth. My working title for my first novel, “Tionsphere”, was “The Fullness of Tion” (which I still rather like). “Tion” comes from the last syllable of “construction”, which is a central theme to my work: how could the planet support the population in a thousand years if growth continues at the current rate (43 billion people)? Of course, this growth is unsustainable, but I needed to know how we might cope with so many people…
Forty years from now, the collapse of the Antarctic ice causes a sixty-metre rise in sea level, threatening our survival. Humanity’s solution is a technical marvel: the construction of concentric spheres encircling the Earth.
For centuries, the construction sphere is impossible to fill, but now, almost a thousand years after its completion, it has reached capacity, and its systems are on the brink of collapse. “Tionsphere” is the story of people trying to make sense of their lives in an overpopulated, technology-dependent, massively interconnected world. When one young man slips away from his assigned life, discoveries are made that threaten the system and human life itself.
3) From where do you draw inspiration?
I can lose myself in research. When I was studying, all of my reference material came from public libraries, but now we have access to tremendous amounts of information (of varying quality). I am a typical writer in that I fall down rabbit holes as I try to understand a topic well enough to write about it, and post-edit, this is often a sentence or two of reference. I like to extrapolate what I read in the news, whether scientific, political or societal. I also lean heavily on the places I have been: I love high-altitude hiking, and a few references have crept into my work.
I love stories that address the population issue head-on, be it the colonisation of other planets, compulsory euthanasia, or uploading consciousness into machines. When I started writing, I didn’t realise how I was bringing these themes together—I was writing a book I’d love to read. Now I can see those influences, and I am grateful for the authors who have shaped my thinking and work.
4) How do you connect with your readers?
I have invested a tremendous amount of time that should have been devoted to writing in putting my website together. Yes, there are details about me and my work, but I use the majority for other independent sci-fi, dystopian and cyberpunk authors, plus a few links to other online resources. However, my preferred method is Twitter (@JcGemmell) because it is a very interactive medium (despite all the recent challenges). I curate a newsletter approximately every three weeks (I’m not good at sticking to schedules), and I also love contributing to other authors’ newsletters. Finally, I have set myself a target of attending sci-fi book fairs once I have five books under my belt, which will be this coming summer.
5) What is your favorite book (I'll allow three)?
“Coyote” by Allen M. Steele. Coyote is a habitable moon orbiting Bear, a gas giant forty light years away. Earth’s first interstellar ship is hijacked by a group of engineers and scientists, usurping the post-US government loyalists who intend to make Coyote their home. This book speaks to the aspirational me, the part that wants to evolve beyond Earth and build a new future, a better future, but inevitably the hubris of modern man threatens to destroy paradise. It’s a conceptually magnificent colonisation book built on plausible science, yet its success lies in the characters’ need to work together to conquer a seemingly benign world. I frequently revisit Coyote because it’s a great story, brilliantly told, and it makes me gaze at the stars.
“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson. Red Mars is by far the best Martian colonisation story I have read. In 2027, one hundred scientists land on the surface of Mars, intent on terraforming its frozen wastes. Humanity’s future depends on colonising our solar system, yet the American and Russian teams diverge from the start. Red Mars is incredibly rich in character and perspective, scientifically credible, and driven by politics. It brings together the best and worst in humanity. I’m on my second paperback copy of this book because I read the first one so many times it came apart. Most of the ‘First Hundred’ have their own story; in my opinion, any population or colonisation book needs a diverse cast. My only disappointment is humanity hasn’t set foot on Mars yet.
“Intervention” by Julian May. I have given copies of the Galactic Milieu Trilogy as gifts more than any other book. This is the bravest near-future sci-fi series I have ever read. Intervention, published in 1987, follows events from 1945 through to 2013 when the five races of the Galactic Milieu embrace humanity. I love the merger of historical events with future possibilities in a story centred around a dynasty of ‘operant’ human beings. As a teenager, I was fascinated by stories of telepathy, etc., but I found most books that dealt with ‘higher mind powers’ were in the fantasy or horror market. But this series is perfect sci-fi, technically plausible while politically powerful—and again, with a large, diverse cast.
6) Do you read outside your writing genre?
Until last 2021, not as much as I should have. A good friend pointed out that my work could easily tend towards very detailed, descriptive techno-babble, and it would be “good for me” to have a more balanced literary diet. So I have started reading and reviewing indie books (mainly through Twitter) across just about every genre. I am currently reading “When I Save Us” by Ellie Sabine, which is best categorised as Women’s Romance Fiction. Why? Because, like all authors, I have female principal characters, and sometimes they find themselves in amorous situations, and I’d like to be sure I know how to write a bit of romance. I’m also a sucker for non-fiction…
7) Did a book ever make you cry/mad?
The only time I really remember crying was when I was proofing “The Uprisers” (the sequel to “Tionsphere”). I was travelling back from London on the train and glancing out the window at the countryside rolling past. The passage concerned a small group of survivors, realising that they not only depended on each other but had come to love one another too. I think it brought a tear to my eye simply because it had been a long and challenging journey to get the sequel ready to publish, and perhaps it was a relief. I also tend to get emotional when I read Julian May’s Galactic Milieu Trilogy. May was a genuinely gifted future-fiction author, and I cannot recommend her work enough.
8) What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Sitting down to actually write. I am an arch-procrastinator and will do almost anything rather than the one thing I set out to do. I have learnt to plan my writing, sometimes to the paragraph, and tend to alternate between planning, writing (which by that point is the literary equivalent of painting by numbers) and editing. Once I get going, it’s fine – but getting going is awfully hard when I could be doing the washing up.
9) How do you select the names of your characters?
I decide who the person is in terms of physical and emotional diversity. It is crucial to balance women and men, and to be ethnically and culturally representative in a story about population growth. So once I’ve decided who the person is, where they are from and what they are about, it’s relatively easy to identify a name that supports that background. During that process, I tend to work up a lot of detail about the individual, most of which I will never use. My editor then makes me update names so that they don’t all start with the same letter!
10) What current projects are you working on?
I am writing a future fiction, tentatively called “Fornax Island”, which is the story of an isolated Britain three decades or so from now, which has struggled with containing a pandemic of epic proportions. I set it in an area of the UK I know well and starts with the assassination of the British Prime Minister. A lawyer is engaged to represent a military nurse who has stands accused of the murder, but he finds himself similarly accused. The first chapter is available on my website: jcgemmell.com/LFS
Is there something you want your readers to know if you could talk to them face to face?
I’m not very good at foreign languages (I have been learning Spanish for seven years and couldn’t work my way out of a supermarket) and I’ve never been to China. However, both play a role in my work, which surprises me more than anyone else.
Bonus question two:
Do you have some quirk that nobody knows about you that you’d like to share?
Not quite an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I wouldn’t say I like to do things an odd number of times. I’ve only realised in later life, but I tend to count repetitious things (like clocks chiming or drivers that don’t let you out of a side road), and where I’m doing something myself (such as folding washing, for example) I feel much happier tackling things in pairs!
If you want to know more about the wonderful J.C., or purchase his books head over to his website:
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