Interview with Hal Colebatch
by Joy V. Smith
One of my favourite theme anthologies is the Man-Kzin Wars series, which was created by Larry Niven; since then different authors have joined in. The latest volume, Man-Kzin Wars XII (Baen, 2009), includes two stories, “Aquila Advenio” and “String,” co-written by Hal Colebatch & Matthew Joseph Harrington, in which humans and Kzinti team up. For those unfamiliar with Man-Kzin relations, the Kzinti (tiger-like aliens) started attacking, enslaving, and eating humans a long time ago. Now things have changed somewhat. I really enjoyed these stories and tracked down both of these authors to learn more about them and their stories:
Hal Gibson Pateshall Colebatch, BA (Hons) MA BJuris LLB PhD, is a writer, journalist, editor and lawyer, he has a PhD in Political Science and lives in Perth, Western Australia, where he practices law.
His published work includes seven books of poetry (In 2008 he received the West Australian Premier’s Award for his book of poetry, The light river.) and thirteen stories (including the two collaborations with Harrington) in the Man-Kzin Wars series, plus a mainstream novel, short stories, and radio dramas. His non-fiction books include social commentary; history; a legal text-book; and three biographies, including one of his father, Sir Hal Colebatch, a former Premier of Western Australia. He has written a book on caves in literature and legend, Caverns of Magic, and Return of the Heroes, comparing and contrasting “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
His book, Blair’s Britain, was a Book of the Year (1999), and he was awarded a Centenary Medal by the Australian Government for services to Writing, Law, Poetry and Political Commentary, the only person to be awarded a medal for achievements in this combination of fields; it was a one-off award to celebrate the first 100 years of Australia's existence as an independent country.
JVS: I love your stories co-written with MJH. How did you meet?
HC: I've never actually met him; we have the width of the Pacific Ocean plus the Australian continent between us. I think it is extraordinary that our collaborations seem to work together pretty well (We may be beginning another one now). Matthew is better at wise-cracks than I am, and probably knows more science and technology. He is excellent at wrapping a plot up in a parcel that is fun and surprising to unwrap. One of his rare gifts is the ability to portray a super-intelligent mind convincingly. Not many people can do that. In the case of my Dimity, for example, she has to "talk down" to the people around her (which is also one reason why her love-life is a bit strange - she is physically very beautiful and feminine but most men are scared of her brain-power). Also he gets the essential ruthlessness of even a benevolently-inclined Protector in a way that can be quite chilling.
JVS: You've both also written separate Man-Kzin stories. Can you explain what makes you want to write a story with him--or not?
HC: Quite simple. I wrote the first eight chapters of “Aquila Advenio” and got stuck, so I sent it to him to finish, which he did, brilliantly, I think. The same with “String.” Larry vetoed my original ending as departing from the parameters of Known Space too much, I sent it to Matthew and he wrote, basically, the second half as it now stands – a piece of sheer genius! In each case, however, I don’t think it’s possible to work out the exact proportional contribution of each party to either story.
JVS: Can you give me some background on any of your Man-Kzin characters?
HC: In the Dimity-Vaemar stories and Ginger-Perpetua stories, a Kzin and a Manrett form a partnership as also happened in my second story, "Telepath's Dance," in MK VIII. Kzin-Manrett partnerships have a different kind of competitive edge and tension.
Arthur Guthlac appears in the first of my stories, “The Colonel’s Tiger” in MK VII as a museum guard, a frustrated warrior and adventurer who secretly collects scraps of military history – which is dangerously illegal. “One War for Wunderland” gives backgrounds of Dimity, Nils Rykermann and Leonie.
Leonie and Raargh have a bond in that they saved each other’s lives in “The Corporal in the Caves.” I think he sees that Leonie has qualities the Kzin species needs.
Leonie survives treachery in "Music Box" and goes on to further adventures with Raargh in "Catspaws" in XI. Dimity Carmody is in a bit of an impasse relationshipwise. She may find happiness with Colonel Cumpston....
Dimity Carmody - well, her story is a bit complicated - she based a little (aren't they all?) on a school sweet-heart of mine. In "One War for Wunderland" (MK X), Nils Rykermann, who is in love with her then, says she looks like the Venus of Cyrene (Much lovelier than the Venus de Milo, I think). In the events of "One War for Wunderland" she develops a dread and horror of Kzin, but gradually loses this in "Music Box" (MK X) as she discovers Vaemar and she have something in common - they are both misfit geniuses.
Thinking Dimity dead, Nils Rykerman married Leonie Hansen, his student. But when he finds Dimity alive, there are, of course, complications. There's a scene in “Music box” when Dimity returns just after they have been discussing her, thinking she is dead. Raargh comes upon Leonie and tries to comfort her.
JVS: And do you want to tackle any of the Kzin names? Or give some background on the other alien species involved in these stories?
HC: The Kzin language has many “tongues.” The Heroes’ Tongue is used by adult male Kzin warriors and sounds like cat-fighting. Humans can’t pronounce it properly, and it is generally considered a deadly insult for them to even try. There is also the female tongue, which is softer, the nursery tongue, used by infants, and the slaves’ patois, used in talking to human slaves.
The Jotok, who feature in “Grossgeister Swamp” and “Aquila Advenio” are a sort of awful warning of what humans might have become had they lost the wars – a once-great race, now horribly degraded after generations as Kzin slaves. The Jotok of “Grossgeister Swamp” are pathetic creatures after the proud, noble ones of “Aquila Advenio.”
The Jotok are very necessary for the whole architecture of the stories, of course – they originally employed the Kzin as mercenaries and guards and taught them about technology, and the Kzin revolted and overthrew them, thus getting control of space-ships and high-tech weapons. Normally, such barbarians would never have achieved space-flight.
And when they do get into space, they find other space-faring races, by virtue of the very fact that they have got space-flight, are peaceful, highly-civilized and co-operative. Thus the Kzin, the savages with hi-tech weaponry, just eat them up and enslave them, until they run into humans, who are another abnormality among space-faring races – they have made themselves pacifists not because they have become pacifists by natural evolution but because they know they are too good at war. Only such a race could have stopped the Kzin... A super-technological race like the Puppeteers, if provoked to move against them directly, would not have fought them to a standstill and then tried to make peace, but exterminated them.
JVS: There are certainly some interesting alien races in the Man-Kzine series! Who are your favorite characters?
HC: Perhaps Dimity and Vaemar, but it is hard to say. I am very fond of Rarrgh, Leonie, and Karan and Arthur Guthlac. Gay Guthlac in the later stories is a sort of bright, bubbly, life-giving person. I find I get involved in them all as I’m writing about them. Some of them, including some of the Kzin, are based on real people (Karan II has a little of one of my family in her); some are entirely imaginary.
My characters have off-stage lives which I know something about, but which don’t get into the stories directly. It is probably very impudent of me to tell J. K. Rowling how to write, but I think it was a mistake for her to say Dumbledore was gay – that kind of information, unless it is directly relevant to the plot, is best kept in the author’s own mind to help subtly delineate the character – mind you, I fully understand the temptation and the impulse to tell everything about a character who is important to you. I’ve had to button my lip about a couple of things which I was tempted to come out with regarding some of them.
JVS: Can you give me any hints as to where some of your characters may be headed?
HC: I haven't resolved what is going to happen to the main characters yet, particularly the Dimity-Vaemar relationship. The overall shape of my stories is the gradual growth of Human-Kzin co-operation, which takes centuries. Each species has something to learn from the other.
JVS: Is science fiction your favourite genre?
HC: I like writing science-fiction for several reasons, though some “literary” people I know are horrified by it. Also there is a question of market availability. I enjoy writing novellas and long short stories. SF seems the only market for them now. I think in SF you can do everything you can in a mainstream novel, and more. In “Three at Table” (M-K XI) for example, I set out to make everything dark, gloomy, depressing and miasmic, until the lights are turned on both literally and figuratively, and everything is seen in a new way. The story is meant to be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster at the end.
Also, I think it's the most alive literature today: go into an SF-Fantasy bookshop or convention, and you find knowledgeable, enthusiastic people who are having a literary experience - you don't get that with much so-called “mainstream” literature now. When did you last hear a group of people actually talking excitedly about the last Man-Booker or Whitbread prize-winner, for example? C. S. Lewis says in “An Experiment in Criticism” (a book every writer should read) that you can get a salon full of people engaged in literary talk and the only genuinely literary experience going on in the house is upstairs where a small boy is engrossed in “Treasure Island” and is reading it under the bed-clothes with a torch-light. It’s the equivalent of that small boy that I try to write for.
In many ways modern mainstream literature - prose, drama and poetry - seems to have simply come to a dead end, as does much of modern art generally. Perhaps science-fiction can play some part in renewing it. I say a bit more about this in my book "Return of the Heroes." We have the derisive term "space opera." But I would love to see a real opera about space. What might Verdi or Mozart - let alone Wagner! - have done with the dramas of Apollo 11 or Apollo 13? Remember Verdi's 'The Force of Destiny!' Even some of the "gentler" composers like Puccini or Handel .. Of course "Star Wars," of which I'm a huge fan, is operatic up to a point."
I grew up on the classic English adventure writers, children and adult – Kipling, for example, as well as Arthur Ransome, “Dan Dare,” Biggles, "Bartimeus," C. S. Forester, later Geoffrey Household, Berkeley Mather, Nigel Balchin, the “Argosy” stable - innumerable others. I love G. K. Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.” I try to quote some poetry in all my Man-Kzin stories as my little contribution to keeping the knowledge of great poetry alive, and I have a couple of Kzin who quote The Ballad’s more stirring passages.
I know “The Lord of The Rings” pretty well, and I am the author of some entries in the International J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopaedia. When I was in Britain, like so many other tourists, I went to Oxford and had a few ceremonial drinks in the “Eagle and Child” pub where Tolkien used to read chapters of “The Lord of The Rings” as he wrote them to C. S. Lewis and others.
SF also seems to be a very good means of taking on deconstructionism, post-modernism, political correctness and suchlike contemporary plagues. It allows you to deal with themes which, because of political correctness and postmodernism, and sheer snobbery, simply wouldn't get published in mainstream fiction today, and to deal with genuinely thought-provoking ideas, while not necessarily losing anything in the way of character, plot and style.
Good style is good style wherever you encounter it – of course, I’d like to go back an improve things in some of my earlier stories, and will if there’s ever a new edition, but that’s one of the problems of being a writer – an artist who is not satisfied with a picture can do an improved one on the same theme, but with words in print its much more difficult.
I’ve talked more here about writing SF than reading it. Nowadays I read mainly non-fiction. The best literary style I find today is seldom in fiction, but more in things like the very best historical writing, and in a variety of other non-fiction, including the work of clear, lucid contemporary philosophers like John Passmore or Peter Kreeft. My personal literary hero, and a close friend, was the late Michael Wharton, who wrote the Peter Simple column in the British “Daily Telegraph” for many years. And as you may have noticed, I dedicated Man-Kzin X to the memory of Poul Anderson. I never met Poul but we corresponded for some time before his death – he wrote long, wonderful letters – and though we never met face-to-face I counted him a friend also. I have a poem to him in The Light River.
JVS: I would love to see a companion volume to the Man-Kzin stories. Is there anything available for readers?
HC: There has been one book written, “Annals of the Man-Kzin Wars”, which is very useful for the earlier stories but now out of date – It stops at about Vol. VII or VIII. I have tried to get in touch with the author to suggest an updated edition but can’t find him. Certainly I think there is room for another now.
Also, I’d very much like to see more scenes from the series illustrated: a book of some of the great scenes in the various stories – not only my own! – would be tremendous, I think. Of my own stories, there are, for example, several scenes in “Telepath’s Dance,”, “Peter Robinson”, “Three at Table” and “Grossgeister Swamp” I’d like to see illustrated, as well as scenes from Matthew’s “Teacher’s Pet,” “War and Peace,” and “String.” The earlier stories, too, are a mine of possible scenes. Obviously, my great dream, like almost every writer, would be a film.
At present you’ve got to work a bit to see the chronological order of the stories, but that’s because they are published, in my case, in the order in which I thought of them, and I am sure the same is true for the other authors. I begin them all with a date now. It should be obvious, I hope, that stories like “Peter Robinson” and “String” are set hundreds of years after the stories of the first war. The techniques of space-flight have changed, and the Kzin have changed a bit, too.
I should also say that it’s a tribute to Larry Niven’s editorship that the stories are very largely consistent, and, while I can’t judge my own writing, I think the standard of the other stories is consistently very high. For me, at least, none of the stories in the 13 books are duds (that is 13 counting Paul Chafe’s “Destiny’s forge” – a full-length novel), and some are quite extraordinary. Of course, when your work is appearing in company with greats like Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, Steve Stirling, Larry Niven himself, etc., there’s no room for bad writing. Obviously I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
JVS: What are you working on now? What do we have to look forward to?
HC: I have the beginnings of another collaboration with Matthew, plus the beginnings of a long story, a complete novel, I hope, about a human and a Kzin family fighting on Wunderland during the whole length of the Kzin Occupation. There are any number of stories still to be told – how did Raargh lose his arm and his eye? (Not to humans I think, probably fighting with other Kzinti).
Plus I am doing a near-“mainstream”novel set in Western Australia about 2015 – part of it is just a sunny story about sailing round the islands, falling in love, looking for a lost shipwreck, but there is also another tone: what happens to the world when the US gets sick of being the unthanked policeman and goes home? When the sheriff turns in his badge? I am also at present trying to get published a book on why the West alone developed scientific and technological civilization and the threats to it today, and a history of industrial strikes in Australia during World War II.
I also write fairly frequently for “The American Spectator Online,” “Quadrant” and various Australian newspapers. I was a reporter with “The West Australian” for a long time and still do some features and reviews for them and other publications, including the British quarterly “The Salisbury Review” and the Australian quarterly “The IPA Review,” and the New Zealand magazine “Investigate.”
JVS: What do you enjoy doing--beside writing?
HC: As a journalist with The West Australian newspaper, I participated in several expeditions to remote parts of the Kimberlies in the far North-West of Australia and also in the discovery of several kilometres of extensions to the Easter Cave system near Augusta in the South-West. I'm a yachtsman, and my hobbies include undersea photography, mainly around the reefs of Rottnest Island.
Hal Colebatch: http://www.the-rathouse.com/HalColebatch.html
Man-Kzin Wars series: http://www.larryniven.org/kzin/reviews.shtml
Venus de Cyrene: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/miscellanea/museums/venuscyrene.html