Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!
Today we’re joined by Adam Roberts, author of a growing number of science fiction novels, short stories, essays and other writings. His short story collection, Adam Robots, is available now from Gollancz. Adam is a professional LoTR fan and has written Tolkien parodies under the name A.R.R.R. Roberts. You can also read an excerpt from The Riddles of the Hobbit, a critical analysis of the structure of Tolkien’s novel, available from Palgrave Macmillan.
Join us as we cover subjects ranging from tattoos to titans, and more!
Please relate one fact about yourself that has never appeared anywhere else in print or on the Internet.
I have the words ‘The Poet’s Rest’ tattooed on my left arm. It’s a quotation from an Elvis Costello song (ah, but you knew that already!) It is one of the weirder developments in English culture over the last few decades that we’re all now compelled to get tattoos. Don’t ask me why. We’re otherwise exactly as repressed and hidebound by convention as you’ve heard. But tattoos are now obligatory.
I can’t write at home. There are too many distractions—washing and ironing to be done, rooms to be tidied, Test Match Special on BBC Radio 5 Live to be listened to (that last may be less of a distraction to US-based SF writers). So I do all my writing in coffee shops. Typical morning: drop the kids at school, cycle to a near-by branch of a familiar Corporate Coffee Shop, buy the largest black coffee they sell—a huge porcelain bucket filled to the brim with hot inky fluid, called the ULTIMAGRANDE MEGATITANTICA AMERICANO—sit down, open laptop, turn on music, start writing.
Name your favorite monster from fiction, film, TV, or any other pop culture source.
Monster is an interesting word, isn’t it? It is from the Latin monstrum, which is also the root of various words that mean ‘to show’ or ‘to teach’—like the English demonstrate or the French montrer. This is because a monster, originally, did more than just scare and thrill you. It told you something too. A calf born with two heads (say) was monstrous in that first sense, but was also treated as an omen from the gods, as a kind of message. I think that the best monsters retain this double quality. So my least favourite monsters are the empty colossi of CGI that rage and roar hollowly across so many cinema screens nowadays—Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Clashings, Washing the Clash’s Tights On, all those sorts of Big Beast.
As for my favourite monsters—well, they are the ones that scare me and thrill me and say something interesting too. Godzilla is splendid, but he also embodies something important—something about the atom bomb, and Hiroshima, and the damage done to Japan. Frankenstein’s creature is gorgeous, and he has still-relevant things to say about scientific endeavour and unintended consequences. And my most favourite monster of all is Grendl from Beowulf. He is a tremendously powerful piece of writing, fierce and terrible, and he embodies important lessons about the implacability of the natural world and the persistence of terrifying Old Forces. But most of all he tells us this: a Monster may be terrible, but he won’t be as terrifying as that same Monster’s Mum. As true today as its ever been.
Strangest thing you’ve learned while researching a book?
I wrote a book called Yellow Blue Tibia, which is about Soviet Russia, and UFOs and the Chernobyl explosion and which took as its hero that most heroic, James-Bond-like and inspiring of figures, a Science Fiction Novelist. I came across the title reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which novel contains the fact that to say those three English words, rolling them a little together, is to speak the Russian for I Love You. That’s not really research, though; so I’ll add something else. Reading up on the old USSR I discovered that Joe Stalin (Joey Tribbiani’s actor-pseudonym, as we all know) was fascinated by UFOs, and believed them to be an actual and present threat to the Soviet Union. Of course, Stalin was what the mental health professionals call ‘bananas’. Still the Soviet army was mobilised on more than one occasion to meet a supposed UFO threat; and 0n October 5 1983 Ukraine-based ICBMs came within a whisker of actually being launched at supposed extraterrestrial threat. You’re going to ask if I believe in UFOs myself. The short answer is: no. The longer answer is rather more complex, and the answer is to be found in Yellow Blue Tibia, available in all good etc etc.
If you could be reincarnated as any historical figure, who would you like to be?
I hate to be a pedant (who am I kidding? I LOVE to be a pedant!) but I can only be reincarnated as me; and I really don’t count as a historical figure. I could be incarnated as King Arthur, though. That would finally clear up whether Arthur was a historical figure, or only a mythic one. Mind you it would be a bit of a Russian roulette game, wouldn’t it? I’d lean forward, press the big red INCARNATE button of the time travel/‘steal past figure’s life’ machine, and then—either I’d reappear as a Dark Age dux bellorum or else I’d vanish into inexistence with a pop. Hmm. I’m not sure I like those odds. And how does this work anyway? Is it like Being John Malkovitch, where I’d sort of hover in the brain of King Arthur? Or would I be born and grow up and live the whole life? I’m not convinced you’ve entirely thought-through this thought-experiment. Come back to me when you’ve revised it thoroughly.