BIOLOG: TONY BALLANTYNE
By Richard A. Lovett
Tony Ballantyne is the latest in a series of established pros who’ve recently found their way into Analog’s pages. He sold his first story in 1998, then penned eight novels and innumerable other short stories before introducing himself to Analog readers in 2014 with “The Region of Jennifer.” But he didn’t grow up intending to be a science fiction writer. Yes, his childhood was full of Golden Age classics and more recent grandmasters like Larry Niven, but when he started writing seriously at age 18, traditional science fiction wasn’t his focus. “I started with comics,” he says.
After several “close but not quite” rejections, he switched to romance and political satire, at which he had more success. He also got a degree in mathematics and became a math and computer-programming teacher—something that remains his primary job . . . and principal passion. Western countries are lucky to have free education, he says, “but because it is free, we tend to disregard it. If there’s something I get on a soapbox about, that’s it. The world needs more teachers and less writers.”
Ballantyne’s association with computers goes deeper than simply teaching about them. He was born in 1966 and was only nine when Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. The first Macs appeared when he was 18. When he says he feels as though he grew up with computers, he doesn’t mean it like today’s generation, who’ve always been surrounded by them. He and computers came of age together.
Not surprisingly, computers sometimes also play a role in his fiction. His first novel, Recursion, for example, is the start of a trilogy set in a singularity-based dystopia, replete with smart computers and self-replicating machines. (His Analog stories are set in the same universe.)
But computers aren’t his only outside interest. Like many mathematicians, he enjoys music, playing piano, accordion, and cornet. A few years ago, he was part of a brass band festival at London’s famed Albert Hall. During a break, he spotted a grand piano and amused himself with it, becoming so engrossed that he was slow to realize he’d drawn an appreciative audience of other band members. “I’ve always wanted to play the piano on stage at Albert Hall,” he says. “My remaining ambition is to be actually asked.”
He’s also fond of railways. “I come from the northeast of England,” he says, “a place called County Durham, where they built the first steam engines. When I was a kid, I was very into steam trains.” It’s another interest that has shown up in some of his writings. “I’m writing a novel at the moment, and it’s all set on railways,” he says. More generally: “The thing that’s always fascinated me about steam trains is that you can understand how they work. A person can look at a steam engine and understand it totally.” Not so with today’s technologies. “I have a vague idea of how most things in my house work, but I don’t have that detailed knowledge people might have had one hundred years ago.”
In science fiction, he says, Golden Age stories taught a lot of science (some, admittedly, now dated). But today, the science behind a lot of stories is much more advanced. “You have to be fairly scientifically literate to understand.” In part, he says, that leads to more interest in “softer” science fiction, where science plays a less obvious role. It may also fuel interest in steampunk, where the principles are still things non-specialists can grasp. But you can’t really do this with Analog, he says. “There’s a certain class of readers out there and you can’t fool them,” he says. “You can’t bluff with an Analog story [and] you can’t hide behind bad science.”