Chris Beckett is an Arthur C Clarke award winning science fiction author. He’s published six (soon to be seven) novels and dozens of short stories, often focusing on ‘inner’ as opposed to ‘outer’ space. I caught up with him to chat about isolation, metaphysics, and tribalism in modern society.
Hi Chris, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! So, how are you faring in these strange times? Is isolation a help or a hindrance to your writing process?
I’ve been having difficulty moving my writing forward this last couple of months, but this often happens – I simply dry up and can’t seem to write anything – and it may have nothing to do with the lockdown. However I do think my ability to concentrate (never brilliant to be honest) is worse than usual.
When the real world is stranger and more engrossing than usual – and I am finding it engrossing – it is perhaps harder to focus on imagined worlds?
In my life generally, I’d say I am finding the lockdown more interesting than distressing. I’m used to spending a lot of time by myself at home, and in some ways the lockdown is providing a stimulus for me to find ways of keeping more in touch with some people than I usually would, which is nice.
I have a little granddaughter – she is 13 months old – and I’m very sad not to be able to spend time with her, as the plan had been (until this happened) that I would be looking after her for one day a week.
I’ve heard from several writers that their creativity is at a low point. I wonder if being engrossed in new situations is all part of ‘refilling the well’ of inspiration. Do you think we’ll see a different kind of fiction emerge on the other side of this?
I think that’s exactly right about ‘refilling the well’. We have to stock up on life in order to have anything to write about. And none of us have had many experiences which are completely comparable to this one. (In fact a lot of writers have had pretty quiet lives generally, I suspect). I’m sure new kinds of fiction will come out of this, but I really don’t know what. This virus has changed life for everyone, but in so many different ways.
I wanted to talk in particular about your recent novel, Beneath the World, a Sea, which is full of strong, surreal imagery, questions of the unconscious and philosophy of mind. When so many science fiction writers are focused on future technology, what made you turn inwards and address the nature of consciousness?
None of my books focus on technology, really, though most of them touch on it in one way or another (for instance: America City includes a lot about the use of social media for manipulation). I’m not a techie by any stretch. I have no feeling for, or affection for, machines, and I suppose I am simply more interested in the way humans work as individuals and as societies – but also, if this makes sense, as beings, as minds, as unique elements of the universe.
My previous books have tended to look more at individuals as part of society, while this book is rather more about ‘inner space’ as I think Ballard called it. I guess I always knew I had such a book in me, and some of my earlier books touched on some of these ideas (Mother of Eden, for instance), but I really let rip in this book.
Beneath the World, a Sea, had a prototype in a short story called Day 29 (and actually also in another story set in the same world called The Caramel Forest, which you can read online here). Both those stories were set on another planet and, by implication, in the future. When I was trying to get the novel going, a breakthrough occurred when I decided to abandon the interstellar/future setting and set the whole thing instead in an imaginary place on Earth -the Submundo Delta- and in the recent past. It was a conscious break with the long-standing SF convention that if you want a weird setting, you imagine a future in which interstellar travel is possible. I decided I was very bored of that, and that there are already more than enough of these impossible ‘futures’ out there.
I think perhaps if, as writers, we want to have a completely imaginary setting which doesn’t exist anywhere but in the author’s mind, we could be more frank about that. Rather than pretend it’s in the future (when there’s no evidence that there will ever be interstellar travel that doesn’t take generations) why not just set it on Earth, and ask the reader to take the leap of imagining that it exists in her or his own world? It’s all made up anyway!
I found this decision very freeing. It helped me focus more on what was going on in the heads of the main characters, and it meant that I didn’t have to distract the reader from the strangeness of the made up setting, by having to include made up future technology or a made up future society. (In fact the story is notionally set in 1990 when I would have been roughly the same age as most of the characters).
I gave the characters a setting in which their personalities would unravel to some extent and they might find themselves faced with questions about who and what they really are. These questions are simply real and ever present for me, in a way that technology honestly isn’t. Some of the characters unravel completely, to the point where they almost cease to be human.
I love that approach, and I think you’re right: the book might be less impactful if it was set on another planet with different minds. This way it forces the reader to think about how they’d be affected by the existence of such a place here on Earth. Would you go, if the Submundo Delta really existed?
I think I’d be drawn to it like a magnet! But then I made it up, so going to a really existing Submundo Delta really would be like Freud’s ‘royal road to the unconscious’. Who could resist that!
I picked up some Ballardian and Jungian vibes. Are they influences of yours?
Ballard was certainly a conscious influence (notably The Crystal World which by the way is a great book to read in the springtime when leaves and flowers are bursting out of buds like crystals). Ballard prefered to locate his strange goings-on in contemporary terrestrial settings too. He is one of my favourite writers, and I have been thinking about his writing a lot over the past few years. Doris Lessing was another influence, though I haven’t read her stuff for a long time: her novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell is an extraordinary account of a person descending into inner space. Also Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness: which I know is racist, but that isn’t the only thing it is) and the Strugatsky brothers (Roadside Picnic, which was the basis of the Tarkovsky film Stalker, and The Snail on the Slope, neither of which I fully understood but both of which left a strong impression). On a whim I credited the main infuences I was conscious of in the book itself by naming characters etc after them.
I haven’t read much Jung, though I like what I have read, and daresay he was an influence too. The collective unconscious. Archetypes. All of that. I was more conscious of Freud as an influence -the world of the story is actually structured like Freud’s model of human personality- but, like Jung and unlike Freud, I’m drawn towards metaphysical questions. You too, I think?
Yes, I’m very interested in the big metaphysical questions. I probably read most things through a Jungian veil, being less familiar with the works of Freud. It seems to me that the Submundo Delta is what we’d get if psychoanalysis was a place!
That was the idea. I wanted a place where my own unconscious could come up from its hidden sea and wander about through the magenta coloured spiral trees.
One of the other common themes in your books seems to be the questioning of personhood – how we decide who (or what) is given that status in our societies. Would you say this a key area of interest for you?
In Beneath the World, a Sea, there are some strange, vaguely humanoid, creatures called duendes (a Spanish and Portuguese word), whose minds are completely unknowable, but yet seem to be intelligent and have an unexplained ability to unsettle the minds of anyone in their vicinity. They have been assigned the status of ‘persons’ in international law, but this is disputed by the people who live alongside them. It hadn’t occurred to me, but you are quite right there are parallels in several of my other novels (the ‘bats’ in Mother of Eden, the robots in The Holy Machine, in both cases sentient, and in both cases despised).
Yes all of this does interest me very much. Partly from a political/social point of view, and partly from a more metaphysical one. What I mean by that is that I am still interested in the same kinds of questions that occur to small children: How did the world get here? How is it that I can experience my own existence? (And are those two questions or one?) Who and what am I? How do I know that anything exists and that it’s not all in my imagination? Etc etc. Some people move on to other things as they grow up. I didn’t.
One of the things this book deals looks at is the nature of the gap between one person and another (or one living being and another). I explore the idea that it is really not so different from the gap between our present, past and future selves. (Have you ever had that experience where you have been driving for some time and suddenly realise you have no recollection of the past 20 miles? Who was that you who was in charge of the car all that way, but of whom you have no memory at all?) I am interested too in the necessity for the barriers that divide us one from another, or our present self from our past and future selves.
Ah, yes, the Zona del Olvido… This talk of barriers makes me think of sleep and dreaming. The one time each day when we give ourselves over to the unconscious mind. To what extent do you think dreams influence the creative process?
I know you and I are both very interested in dreams. I think dreams are the creative process in its most ancient form (a form that predates being human, in fact, since animals can be observed to dream.) Dreams actually are stories that our sleeping minds stage for us.
The novel I would most like to write would have the feel of a dream from one end to the other. There would be flow rather than plot. But waking stories are always more self-conscious and clumsy than dreams, for all kinds of reasons, one of which is that they have to be comprehensible to more than one person! (Have you read The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro? He deliberately set out to write a novel that used the narrative devices of dreams, like the same character standing for more than one person, or a door that you walk through and arrive at a completely different place. One of my favourite books).
Several of my short stories started out as dreams. There’s a story called Jazamine in the Green Wood in my first collection, for instance, which is basically a dream I had, but given an SF setting and a bit more plot. A couple of stories in my most recent collection also had dreams as their starting point (one of them is called Aphrodite, and you can read it here. It’s a particular favourite. All that is really left of the dream in that case is something about the mood of the temple by moonlight, but nevertheless the dream was the starting point.)
But even when stories don’t start out as dreams, they start out with the same process that occurs in dreams: the making of a connection of some kind between disparate things. Story telling can be a heavy, plodding business, but at its best, it’s like dreaming while awake.
As well as novels, you write a lot of short stories. Do you have a preferred form?
I used to just write short stories, usually a couple a year (I am not a very prolific writer). There is something rather special about a short story. It seems to me that it is, in principle, possible to approach a kind of perfection in a short story which a novel never achieves. A bit like certain songs. And done right, a story is much denser and richer than a novel. Four or five of my short stories are among the things I’m proudest of. Short stories are also the seeds from which my novels have grown.
But, for whatever reason, my short story well seems to have largely dried up since I began investing more effort in novels. It’s a shame, but I can’t force them. Maybe a time will come when I go back to them. And I’m proud of my novels too. What you can do with them is show large social forces on the move. Short stories are better for the close up stuff.
You have a new novel coming out in July, I believe. What can you tell us about that?
Yes, I do. It’s called Two Tribes, and it’s new territory again for me. For one thing, most of the novel is set in the present (the latter half of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 to be precise). The science fictional twist lies in the fact that the narrator is two and a half centuries in the future and is reconstructing the story. The book ends in the future world, rather than in the present.
I’ve become very interested in the way that our politics in the UK are becoming more and more like politics in the US, where folk on each side see those on the other not just as people they disagree with but actually as evil. (Democracy won’t last, of course, if we persist in this way of seeing things.) In the novel there is a character who comes from my sort of background – a member of the professional middle classes, he’s cultured, he’s been to University, lives in a middle class part of North London, sees himself as vaguely on the left, and voted Remain. He has an unexpected encounter with a character who comes from a world outside of my experience and his. She’s a hairdresser who left school at 16, and she lives in a small strongly Leave-voting town in rural East Anglia. (I was very struck by the referendum vote in the East of England. Prosperous high-tech Cambridge, where I live, voted 75% remain – the highest in the country – and so did one other pretty, prosperous university city – Norwich – but all the rest of the region voted Leave).
So the story is about their encounter (which becomes a love affair) but is also about the complex relationship between two ‘tribes’ which see the world in very different ways. It’s seen from the future, which gives (I hope) some unexpected perspectives. And like my Eden books it’s about the stories that different groups of people tell about themselves in order to make themselves feel at home in the world.
Because we have become so tribal, I daresay a lot of folk will find this book hard to stomach!
That certainly sounds pertinent to these times, I look forward to reading it. Finally, then, a question I’m asking everyone in these interviews: which 3 books would you recommend to readers on lockdown?
Tolstoy – War and Peace. It’s one of those very long books which a lot of people are put off by because they think it’s going to be heavy and dull. Actually it is as engaging as a soap opera, is beautifully written (with that kind of apparently effortless descriptive authority that only a few writers possess), and is packed with amazing ideas, some of which are very relevant to our present circumstances. (Ideas about human claims to be able to control events.) And in this situation a very long book could be just what you need.
Ballard – The Four-Dimensional Nightmare. If your concentration is too shot for a long book, short stories might be better. And Ballard (since we were just talking about him) wrote short stories that are even better than his novels, with some of them coming as close to perfection as any piece of writing can. This is an extraordinary collection which includes my personal favourite of his, and possibly my personal favourite short story full stop – ‘The Watchtowers’ – as well as a couple of close runners up to that title, ‘The Garden of Time’ and ‘The Voices of Time’. A completely unique imagination. You come out these stories with your own imagination zinging. (PS, if you like short stories and want some free ones, I’ve posted 20 of my own short stories here for the duration of the lockdown.)
Tony Ballantyne. Dream Paris. Tony is a friend of mine. This book is my favourite out of everything he’s done, and it deserves to be much more widely read. It’s set in a surreal Paris where a reprise of the French Revolution is taking place. The revolution itself was a pretty surreal thing in its own right -some of the things that really happened seem to come from some kind of grotesque farce – but Tony stirs in his own extraordinary imagination, simultaneously very dark, very funny and very human (in a way that reminds me a little of Philip Dick), but with a certain kind of reckless inventiveness that is all his own. (NB Dream Paris is a sequel, but can be read alone. However, for the full effect you should read Dream London first. It’s also amazing, and it is about a city in the grip of a strange nightmarish state where everything keeps morphing into something else. Come to think of it, that too has some resonance for our present situation.)
I agree on Ballard’s short stories, and Dream Paris sounds like something I’ll definitely pick up. Thank you very much for your time, Chris, it’s been great talking to you.
My pleasure, Caroline, thanks for asking.
If you enjoyed the interview, please visit Chris’s website for more information on his work and to read his 20 ‘isolation stories’, which he has made free for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
Beneath the World, a Sea is newly-released in paperback, and Two Tribes is available to pre-order from all good bookstores, including Amazon.