Author Interview: Chris Beckett
As part of Sci-Fi month, hosted by Rinn Reads, I had a chance to interview award-winning author Chris Beckett. He had a lot of interesting things to say about his newest novel, science fiction, writing.
Title: Dark Eden
Author: Chris Beckett
Genre: Science fiction, adult fiction
Goodreads Summary:You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the light and warmth of the Forest's lantern trees, hunting woollybuck and harvesting tree candy. Beyond the forest lie the treeless mountains of the Snowy Dark and a cold so bitter and a night so profound that no man has ever crossed it. The Oldest among you recount legends of a world where light came from the sky, where men and women made boats that could cross between worlds. One day, the Oldest say, they will come back for you.
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, beneath the light and warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of a startlingly alien, sunless world. After 163 years and six generations of incestuous inbreeding, the Family is riddled with deformity and feeblemindedness. Your culture is a infantile stew of half-remembered fact and devolved ritual that stifles innovation and punishes independent thought. You are John Redlantern. You will break the laws of Eden, shatter the Family and change history. You will be the first to abandon hope, the first to abandon the old ways, the first to kill another, the first to venture in to the Dark, and the first to discover the truth about Eden.
About the author:
Chris Beckett is a British social worker, university lecturer, and science fiction author.
Beckett was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford and Bryanston School in Dorset, England. He holds a BSc (Honours) in Psychology from the University of Bristol (1977), a CQSW from the University of Wales (1981), a Diploma in Advanced Social Work from Goldsmiths College, University of London (1977), and an MA in English Studies from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge (2005).
He has been a senior lecturer in social work at APU since 2000. He was a social worker for eight years and the manager of a children and families social work team for ten years. Beckett has authored or co-authored several textbooks and scholarly articles on social work.
Beckett began writing SF short stories in 2005. His first SF novel, The Holy Machine, was published in 2007. He published his second novel in 2009, Marcher, based on a short story of the same name.
Paul Di Filippo reviewed The Holy Machine for Asimov's, calling it "One of the most accomplished novel debuts to attract my attention in some time..." Michael Levy of Strange Horizons called it "a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful tale about a would-be scientific utopia that has been bent sadly out of shape by both external and internal pressures." Tony Ballantyne wrote in Interzone: "Let’s waste no time: this book is incredible."
His latest novel, Dark Eden, was hailed by Stuart Kelly of The Guardian as "a superior piece of the theologically nuanced science fiction".
Dark Eden was shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA Award for Best Novel.
On 27 March 2013 it was announced that Julian Pavia at Broadway Books, part of the Crown Publishing Group, had acquired the US rights to Dark Eden and Gela's Ring from Michael Carlisle at Inkwell Management and Vanessa Kerr, Rights Director at Grove Atlantic in London, for a high five-figure sum (in US dollars).
Beckett comments on his official website: "Although I always wanted to be a writer, I did not deliberately set out to be a science fiction writer in particular. My stories are usually about my own life, things I see happening around me and things I struggle to make sense of. But, for some reason, they always end up being science fiction. I like the freedom it gives me to invent things and play with ideas. (If you going to make up the characters, why not make up the world as well?) It’s what works for me."
- As a science fiction author, what draws you to this particular genre?
Science fiction is a great medium for all kinds of reasons. All fiction is based on the principle that making stuff up allows you to get to places that you couldn’t easily get to if you only wrote what was literally true (the inside of other people’s heads, for instance!), but so-called realist fiction, the kind that is currently seen as ‘non-genre’ and the norm, confines itself to making up characters and situations. In science fiction you also make up the world. This has all kinds of advantages: it’s fun; it’s a way of very quickly generating interesting situations for characters to engage with; it allows you to look at familiar things from an unfamiliar angle; it has rich potential for satire (think 1984); it can be a source of generating powerful symbols and metaphors and making them concrete and real within the world of the story. (Instead of grappling with her inner demons, a character in a science fiction story can grapple with those demons right out there in front of her.)
- What are some of your favorite science-fiction books and authors?
My reading is a mixture of non-fiction, science fiction and other kinds of fiction, with non-fiction becoming an increasingly large part of the mix. (I feel that if I’m going to write fiction, I need to draw on the real world for inspiration, and not just on other people’s fiction, though of course I still draw massively on the latter too). Thus I’m currently reading a book about Hurricane Katrina called The Great Deluge, by Douglas Brinkley. It reads very much like apocalyptic SF, but it’s not set in the future but in the recent past, and it really happened. (It’s a sobering glimpse of what lies ahead of us too if global warming continues and extreme weather events become more and more common.)
My favourite science fiction author is Philip K. Dick, and my favourite book of his is either Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I can’t decide which. Many of the SF books I would list as my favourites are of a similar vintage. A more recent book which I loved (not strictly SF, but set in an imaginary context, and by an author who writes SF) was China Mieville’s The City & The City. I haven’t been so bowled over by what he’s done since then, but The City & The City struck me as quite wonderful.
- Your novel Dark Eden takes place in an alien world, with lantern trees and deformed people. Where do you get the inspiration for creating other worlds? Are there any characteristics of your fictional world that you wish were real?
I first came up with the world of Dark Eden a long time ago, in a story called ‘The Circle of Stones’, published in Interzone in 1992. (If you’ve read the novel you’ll recognise the significance of the title). The planet Eden is in a way an inverted world: on Earth we have light coming from the sky and falling on objects that themselves give off no light; in Eden the sky is always dark because there’s no sun, but trees, plants and some animals are light sources in their own right. I believe I got the idea from the Amstrad computer I used back in 1992, one of those old computers where the writing appeared in glowing green letters on a black screen, and was thus an inversion of the normal arrangement of dark letters on a light field, much in the same way that Eden is an inversion of Earth. I am fairly sure that was the original inspiration!
As I developed the idea I was also thinking of parts of our own world where life exists without the sun, such as the depths of the sea, where living organisms are often also luminous, and places on Earth which derive heat from the Earth’s core.
I was also thinking, of course, of the Biblical story of Eden, which again I inverted: in the biblical legend of the Fall, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, while in Dark Eden their equivalents were exiled from Earth and condemned to live forever in the dark world of Eden. A glaring plot hole in the original Biblical story is the absence of any explanation as to what precisely happened in the second generation to allow Adam and Eve to continue to have descendants: clearly some form of incest would have had to have taken place. In Dark Eden I confront this. The continued existence of human life on Eden is the result of Tommy and Angela’s son Harry having had sex with his own sisters. Since the entire population of Eden has inherited its genes from just two people, all kinds of deformities are commonplace. (Biologists I have talked to seem to vary in their views on this: some say I have massively downplayed the genetic problems, others have said that isn’t necessarily the case. From what I have read, there are cases of animal populations that have built up form just a few individuals.) The early incest has had an important impact on the culture of Eden too.
As you can see, my ideas come from all over. Often I start with a scene, and then work back from that to devise a world. For instance, in my first novel The Holy Machine, I started with the idea of robots coated with living flesh so they are indistinguishable from human beings, and with a dramatic and gruesome scene involving such a robot which I don’t want to describe because it would be a bit of a spoiler. I then devised a world within which this could occur. Things sorted of developed from there.
- Congratulations on winning the Arthur C. Clarke award for Dark Eden! How did you react when you first heard the news?
Thankyou. When I first heard the news, I was sitting in the audience at the awards event, and I was preparing my good loser face. (After all there were five other books on the short list, so the odds of not winning were high!) Of course I was absolutely delighted. Delighted to have won, and delighted too to be able to abandon that fake good loser face and instead wear the face that came naturally!
I’ve been writing SF now for some 25 years. It was quite wonderful to have my efforts validated in this way.
- Out of all your works, who is your favorite character and why?
Interesting question. I’d probably choose a different one on a different day but I’m going to say Ruth Simling in The Holy Machine. She’s a lousy mother, she’s afraid of everything, and is not really a very likeable person in lots of other ways, but there are reasons for her being as she is and, she has a certain weird stubborn integrity. A runner-up - and a lot of readers seem to like her too - is Clarissa Fall, who appears in two of my short stories ‘Piccadilly Circus’ and ‘The Perimeter’ (both included in my collection The Turing Test). She’s snobbish, self-centred and unreasonable, and yet she has great energy and a determination to get out there and engage with the world. In Dark Eden, I particularly like Jeff Redlantern, and also his mother Sue: Jeff because he refuses to just go along with how other people choose to see the world but tries to understand it for himself, and Sue, because she hasn’t got a big ego or a big agenda, but simply tries to be useful to those around her.
- Are there any other genres you enjoy reading? Do you think you might write in those genres as well?
I enjoy reading ‘mainstream’ literary fiction (a term I take issue with actually – I suspect that fantastical fiction has a longer pedigree than the realist stuff - but let that lie!). I have however noticed that the authors who’ve been most influential on me in that field, are often authors that have also dabbled with SF (for instance, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut, Kazuo Ishiguro). I’m not a massive reader of fantasy as an adult, but I loved it as a child (my copy of John Masefield’s Box of Delights fell apart as a result of multiple re-reading), and I’ve enjoyed a number of fantasy novels as an adult too. (The line between SF and fantasy is of course quite a blurred one.) I’m trying to think of examples. James P Blaylock’s The Last Coin springs to mind, as does Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods.
I like a bit of magic realism too: I was really into Milan Kundera at one point, and have enjoyed several of Haruki Murakami’s books. If an idea for a fantasy novel came to me, I’d certainly be happy to write one (some of my short stories are bordering on it anyway) and the same is true of ‘mainstream’ fiction. I doubt that I’d write a thriller or a crime novel, as I’m not a big reader of these genres and not so interested in that kind of plot, but who knows?
I’m actually not that bothered about genre boundaries, and even less bothered by the numerous subgenres that people bandy about (Weird, New Weird, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, New Space Opera etc etc). My job is to try and write good books, not to fit in with other people’s preconceptions about the rules and boundaries of this genre or that. (But of course I accept that people are free to categorize my work after I’m written it: I’m not so arrogant as to believe my work is too unique to be categorised!)
- What is your writing process like? Are you a planner, or do you go with the flow? Do you write in large chunks or scribble on napkins?
The poet Ted Hughes once said 'the progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system' That’s spot on as far as I’m concerned. When you’re asleep and dreaming, your brain spontaneously weaves stories from your store of memories and feelings and desires, but when you’re awake this is a much more difficult process. Or so I find anyway.
I spend long periods when I am pretty much blocked – I can’t make anything come alive – and then a chink opens in the wall, my ‘inner police system’, and if I’m luck I manage to slip through it and I’m on my way. I couldn’t tell you the technique for getting to that point (I wish I could!) I just have to keep trying until it happens, and I do try on my writing days to ensure that I churn out a reasonable number of words, even if I don’t feel they are coming alive for me. You never know. Something that didn’t seem to want to be written at all may turn out to be pretty good on re-reading (and sadly the reverse is also true).
I’ve noticed too that sometimes the machinery of the story, the scenes that have to be written to get a character from A to B, can unexpectedly result in writing that ends up being some of my favourite work. Perhaps it helps you to evade that inner policeman, if you can tell yourself you are just working on the machinery?
I’m not a writer who is able to plan in detail in advance, but I usually have some sort of plan when I start. It’s important, though, to be willing to jettison all or part of that plan as I go along. For example, if a character turns out to develop in a certain way, then it may longer feel right for them to do the things I planned for them to do. Characters develop, the world develops and my overall sense of what the book is ‘about’ develops as I go along. Feedback from others is often important to me. I will often cling on too long to something that really needs changing, and an outside perspective can be really helpful in helping me let go of something which is holding the book back.