Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novel, Bear Head, follows the story of Jimmy who has allowed his modified brain to be rented out for an illegal data dump. However, he soon finds out that said data is, in fact, the cloned intelligence of a political refugee called Honey… who is a bear.
A thought-provoking political thriller that we have described as “a wonderfully strange blend of a story that sits somewhere between Total Recall and Johnny Mnemonic with just a touch of Animal Farm thrown in for good measure” we needed to find out more, so we spoke to Adrian Tchaikovsky about the thoughts and inspirations behind the novel…
When did you first get the idea for Bear Head?
This is going to sound like self-mythologising but this is the single book idea that actually successfully came to me in a dream. I was at a convention – I think an Eastercon. I’d had no thoughts whatsoever towards a Dogs Of War sequel before then. Then about 65% of the plot of Bear Head turned up in a dream and I had to frantically scribble it all down at stupid o’clock in the morning before it all went away.
The rest of it slowly came together over the next few months and then I basically shouldered aside every other project and just gave it priority and rattled it out.
Bear Head is a sequel, did you already have this story planned or did you have to see where the story/characters took you after completing the first book?
Dogs Of War was always a standalone. It did decently well though, so that put it on the top shelf as far as possible follow-on material went. However, until the aforementioned visitation, I honestly no actual idea of what that might be, save for some stuff about possible more military marching around, which didn’t seem promising.
Also, unusually for me, I really do think you can read Bear Head without having read Dogs. There are plenty of call-outs for people who did read the first book, but the distance between the events of Bear and those of Dogs means it should all work as a first look at the universe. (Publishers love to say you can read book two of any given series cold, but in my case, I usually get very invested in world continuity so the books often follow very closely and in great detail).
There are some fantastic bear puns in Bear Head. Were there any puns that you just couldn’t squeeze in?
Well, the original title is the Great Lost Pun. It came to me with that chunk of idea in the dream and lasted almost to publication before Head of Zeus came to their senses. It was Bear With Me.
Jimmy is not your typical protagonist, he’s hardly a hero, is it easier or harder to write such a flawed character?
It is infinitely more fun, to be honest. Especially for a first-person narrative. All of my first-person leads are flawed or even openly horrible people. Stefan Advani (Cage Of Souls) is a self-interested coward, Gary Rendell (Walking With Aldebaran) has serious physical and mental issues that slowly creep out over his narrative, and the unnamed narrator of One Day All This Will Be Yours is frankly a horrible, horrible person. So yes, Jimmy is a wretched, miserable and untrustworthy character thrust into a spotlight he really doesn’t want. But because of that, his perspective on the big picture is much more entertaining.
The morality and reality of control and subjugation are themes that both the reader and even the fictional characters have to face. Did you find you challenged your own thoughts on this?
I suppose I’m less challenging them than giving them an outlet and some exercise. One of the central threads of both Dogs and Bear is a sort of extreme iteration of societal control, the idea of ‘collaring’ someone so that they cannot say no. It’s a very comfortable relationship for the person at the top, and historically it’s what a great deal of society has been about – setting up structures, hierarchies and class systems that mean the people below, on whom it all depends, are nothing more than machine pieces in someone else’s mechanism. So the system in the books is intentionally extreme, but it’s honestly just a logical end-game for that kind of mindset.
How did you find the process of world-building for the practicalities of life on Mars?
This is an area I sought help on – a whole set of writers and academics who came to my rescue and threw the problems at me, so I could think through how the tech available to my world might create solutions. In particular, I owe Simon Morden a lot of drinks. He put a huge amount of research and thought into his excellent Mars books One Way and No Way, and was kind enough to share his work with me.
You have a background in zoology and psychology – Bear Head seems like a perfect blend of those. Is it interesting to explore these subjects through your science fiction writing?
Yes, although honestly this is more a direct throughline from my pre-academic interests in zoology and behaviour – neither topic at Uni level really touched on this sort of thing enough for my early Nineties self. Zoology, evolution, behaviour and intelligence make up a lot of my stamping ground for writing ideas.
The book at times feels like a political thriller, do you think science fiction is a good way to explore that genre?
I have read and watched some pure real-world political thrillers, and I do prefer them with genre elements added in (Tim Powers’ Declare is one of my absolute favourites, and my own Doors Of Eden has a lot of that kind of thing too). I think that a lot of the political thriller elements are a really good fit for SF as a general pattern, and then you get to have all sorts of fun thinking through how your magic or tech or alien race’s worldview would change everything.
You’re very prolific as a writer, what’s your process? Do you work on multiple books simultaneously or do you work on one at a time?
Honestly I don’t have any magic answer. I work on one book at a time. I plan extensively and think through ‘the next bit’ a lot between writing sessions, but other than that I just plod on.
What’s next for you?
I have a ridiculous four books out this year – Bear Head and The Expert System’s Champion this month, One Day All This Will Be Yours in March (including narrating the audiobook myself, which I’ve just recorded!) and then the big space opera Shards Of Earth in May-June.
There are a couple of other novellas in the pipeline too – one from Rebellion that makes a kind of dark future triptych with Ironclads and Firewalkers and a standalone alien colony world story for tor.com. Then there are two books to follow on from Shards Of Earth in the ‘Final Architecture’ series, one of which is written and one of which isn’t. And I’m currently tinkering about with a third Children novel, which is still going through various permutations.
Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky is out now from Head Of Zeus.