“My most recently published novel, Terminal World, was partly born out of a frustration with steampunk. I like the aesthetic of clanking, steam-driven machinery, but a couple of years ago I read a book on the history of the airship, and one of the things I took away from that was the fact that airships were a good idea for about 20 years: they existed in a niche period where we could build petrol engines powerful enough to move airships but still too heavy to be used in airplanes. Although they look very nice, poetic, and romantic, airships couldn’t carry much and they were very cumbersome to operate. In the real world, they had no military applications once the biplane was invented.

“In steampunk, you get this situation where we kind of jam at Victorian-level technology. Why would that happen? So I started to think about what it would actually take, in a science fiction context, for a society to get stuck at a certain technological level. In Terminal World, even though people knew there might be technology beyond what they were using, they couldn’t do anything about it, because of the Zones which limit them to a certain level of technology. (Of course, there are echoes of Vernor Vinge there.) I thought I’d have some fun crossing from one technology to the other, particularly if things break down and don’t fix themselves again.”

“In science fiction there is this big ongoing debate about optimism vs. pessimism and utopianism vs. dystopianism. What I was interested in doing was writing a book or a series of books that really looked at space flight from a new (for me) angle. To get rid of all stuff in the previous books: no bad guys, no cyborg factions trying to kill each other. Let’s just make it very believable, if you like.

“The template I kept pointing to was the novels of Arthur C. Clarke, where space itself is the adversary, the Unknown. I used to read those books, and they were absolutely compelling page-turners, so something was driving me through the story, but there were no melodramatic elements. I was excited by the idea of doing a book or a series that tapped into that Clarkean outlook.

“That’s been occupying my mind for about two years now. I decided to make it a loosely connected trilogy with the overall title Poseidon’s Children. The first book, which will be out this year, is Blue Remembered Earth. It sort of recaps the next hundred years in terms of where I would like us to be, with everything going as right as it could possibly go. We don’t screw the planet up (we wise up to that), and we don’t kill ourselves in nuclear war. Martin Luther King said something like, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ ”

“I’m always trying to write from a rationalist perspective, but I tend to push away from the label ‘hard SF’ as well, because I think it’s a limiting term that puts off as many people as it attracts. I try to position myself in the same area as Kim Stanley Robinson or Michael Swanwick, even though they’ve done things outside of science fiction. I’m not doggedly sticking to getting the physics absolutely right – I don’t care about that. Style is very important. I’m not somebody who thinks that text is just there to serve the story. I’m trying to make it as rich and resonant as I can.

“The fact that I’ve got a scientific background may be more of a red herring in my approach. I don’t feel limited by saying I’m writing science fiction; I feel liberated by it. Though I was a space scientist and I got a PhD in Astronomy, now I’m as likely to read something about brain science or genetics or particle physics as I am about the moon or something like that, so my way of keeping up is to try and read New Scientist every week and keep an eye on the science pages in newspapers. I don’t worry about being behind on things, because I can always catch up. When I need to deepen my knowledge about something, then I’ll go find all the books.”