BSFA Survey Response: Nina Allan

Survey coverNina Allan’s speculative short stories have been published in Interzone and The Third Alternative, and collected in A Thread of Truth (2007). Her story “Bird Songs at Eventide” was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2006. Allan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and her responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

If you were to ask me what I am I’d say a writer, and if you were to ask me what I write I’d say speculative fiction. I grew up with sf – as a child and young adult I was a massive fan of writers like Wells and Wyndham and then later Keith Roberts and JG Ballard and the Strugatsky brothers. I loved the dystopian novels of Orwell and Huxley, Zamyatin and Kafka. All the stories I tried to write in my teens involved aliens or monsters or penal colonies in harsh environments. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me to write stories that did not include some element of the mystical or fantastic. I read widely in what you might call the mainstream, but mainstream literature seemed to me then – and still does – to be missing some vital element, some extra layer, to be concerned more with the surface of the world rather than its murky interior.

I often feel my stories are not organized enough to count as ‘proper’ sf – so if I am a science fiction writer I am a very wayward one. On the whole I am wary of genre labelling, because too often people either have preconceived ideas about what sf is or what it should be, which can lead to them either dismissing your work out of hand or else having false expectations of it. I understand that genre labelling can be useful and is often necessary, as a means for facilitating discussion, and as a guide for readers and publishers. I just don’t like it when these boundaries become too rigid.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

All my work involves some element of the fantastic. Sometimes that element is very slight, and is more a shift of emphasis, a tampering with reality rather than any easily definable objective change in it. I like the term hyper-reality, because this seems to suggest a deepening rather than a broadening of the fantastic element, that it has to do with the particular visions and insights of the narrator and/or character.

I have also produced work where the external characteristics of our own world remain largely intact, but where there has been some political, social or environmental change that either affects the way people carry on with their lives in a practical sense, or else affects their belief systems, their sense of the possible. I suppose the shorthand for that is that I write near-future sf.

Not that I have anything against monsters. I would like to write a great big gothic monster novel one day!

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

Because I love it, and because it is an inalienable part of me and my world view. I can’t ever imagine not writing it, watching it, reading it, thinking about it. It has always struck me as peculiar and a little arrogant that so many ‘mainstreamers’ – both writers and readers – dismiss sf as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impossible.’ Today’s sf has always been tomorrow’s reality. If you were to take a Victorian scientist along to PC World he’d think he’d travelled forward a thousand years instead of a mere hundred or so. We have only been here a short time and have barely scratched the surface of our universe. It seems to me that sf has more to say about the world we live in than any other kind of literature, both in terms of what goes on inside our heads and what might go on out among the stars. sf is not just the true literature of the twentieth century but of every century.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

It makes sense for me to group these two questions together. The answer is a big resounding yes, although I suppose it might be more accurate to say that my work is distinctively English rather than distinctively British as such. I didn’t realise how important England – and my own Englishness – was to me until I started writing seriously, and then it became obvious almost at once that I am a distinctively English writer. I think the thing people have most often commented on in my work is its English ambience, that ‘it’s so English,’ or ‘it reminds me of how England was when I was growing up.’ Even my future Englands seem to remind people of their childhood! This is something I am truly proud of, that my work has this kind of resonance with my readers.

I have a very intense sense of recall – I prefer to call it recall rather than nostalgia, because I’m not saying ‘this was better’ but ‘this is how I remember it – and I think it is this fondness and concern for detail that gives my work this quintessentially English flavour. I am English, I grew up in England, it’s where I live now, so it’s not surprising if the things I dwell on and choose to describe are influenced by that. I would even go further in stating that I believe that one of my main ‘jobs’ as a writer is to try and capture the image and essence of England as I have known it and to preserve that the best I can. The world I grew up in is changing – you could almost say it is disappearing – and my work at least in part is gradually becoming an elegy for a lost kingdom.

A sense of place is fundamental to my work. I am proud to be a Londoner. It’s where I was born, and I have recently returned to it as a smelly foot returns to a well-worn shoe. The city is a daily inspiration to me, especially the less-known and under-appreciated corners of South East London, where I live. The coastal towns of South East England, which formed the backdrop to much of my childhood, also feature frequently in my stories. I love discovering new parts of England – I feel it would be quite possible to spend the whole of one’s life in this country and never get to the end of it – and England’s natural history, its invertebrate life in particular, has always been an obsessive interest of mine.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Wales, and feel almost ready to attempt my first Welsh story. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in Scotland – I hope that this lack will be remedied in the years to come.

So yes, British, and proud – though having said all that the story I am currently writing is set mostly in Germany…..

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In terms of abstracts, I would say that my country of origin, the vital role that memory has always served in my life, and the huge love of the written word – understanding a thing or a feeling not just in physical or visual terms but in terms of written letters – have been my main influences. I understood from about the age of four that a thing – a butterfly, a spider, a mallard duck – could somehow be ‘kept’ if you wrote about it. Once I discovered that, writing became for me the most natural and essential of human activities.

Becoming acquainted with other European languages and literatures has been of incalculable value to me as a writer. Whereas you might argue that many English novelists have tended to become fascinated with manners, class and social mores, in European fiction the emphasis has always been on ideas. Discussions of philosophy, religion and politics have always been central to European literature, together with often more advanced notions of sexuality and the role of art. sf and fantasy have always been welcomed into the European mainstream with open arms, whereas in England they have all too often been condemned as the black sheep of the family. It was a Russian writer – Vladimir Nabokov – who first made me want to be a writer, and a German novel – Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus – that first revealed to me just how far the boundaries of speculative fiction could be stretched. All European writers are resistance fighters at heart, and do much to remind us that a little more intellectual anarchy in the UK would not go amiss.

In terms of specific writers, I would prefer to say inspirations rather than influences because I am not a person or a writer who is easily influenced. The works of M.John Harrison and Christopher Priest are a constant and ongoing inspiration. MJH’s A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium makes me weak with envy every time I read it, while Priest’s novel The Affirmation is probably the most important work of speculative fiction to be written in the last fifty years. Priest’s work has redefined what sf can do and what it can be, and the poetic integrity and technical virtuosity of his novels makes them some of the finest examples of contemporary English literature as a whole. I keep coming back to Ballard, his solitary doctor-antiheroes, his visionary landscapes, his cruel poetry, his sparse yet still scintillating use of language. For me, novels like The Drought and The Crystal World contain both everything that first drew me to sf and everything that keeps me reading and writing it. The single novel that has probably influenced me most in terms of its metaphors and symbols (and here I think I probably do mean influenced) is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, an influence extrapolated and enlarged upon in the radiant, visionary cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky.

On my bedside table at the moment: Bruno Schulz, Thomas Ligotti, Paul Bowles. The list goes on.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Again, I shall answer these two questions together. Short answer is that it is too early in my career to tell! I’ve not sold to America yet, and I am guessing that the defining Englishness of my writing might have something to do with this. I did have an interesting experience recently when I noticed that an American reader of my story “Microcosmos” (Interzone 222) thought it was set in America. I didn’t mind this at all – in fact I enjoyed it, because it made me see the story in a new way. I’m very much of the opinion that once a story is written the writer should give it its freedom. It’s up to the readers then to see what they make of it.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

Ideally it should make them ask questions. It should make them re-examine and re-imagine their view of the world, of themselves, of particular historical or political events. It should thrill and excite. On occasion it should terrify. (Go and read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road if you don’t believe me.) Personally the thing that would please me most would be for a story of mine to inspire a reader to write a story of his own.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

It doesn’t have a weakness. Weaknesses may be present in particular works or the works of particular writers, but the genre itself must be just about the most exciting and inclusive and flexible on the planet. It used to be a commonly held belief that sf novels were strong on ideas but weak on character, but I would argue that a novel that doesn’t pay proper attention to characterisation or language or style is simply a bad novel – it is not made bad by being sf. If I had any criticism at all to make it would be that there are some writers who don’t read widely enough outside the genre. As sf writers we should be aiming for the highest standards of literary excellence – and this means drawing our inspiration from diverse sources.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

Without question the broadening of the genre. We have thrown away the rule book, thank goodness, and a sf novel can now just as easily be set in a mental asylum or a court house as on board a spaceship. You can begin your story twenty thousand years into the future, or right now. There are always going to be ‘sf purists’ who will insist that Russell Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo isn’t really fantasy, just as there will always be mainstream bigots who believe that anything that trespasses on the quotidian is somehow a degradation of literary standards. But on the whole such limited insight is a thing of the past.

On the whole I believe that the ‘incursion’ of broadly mainstream writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt and David Mitchell into the field of sf and fantasy has to be a good thing. Not only does it precipitate the blurring of genre boundaries – always a good thing, in my book – but it also promotes discussion and argument and brings some welcome public attention to the subject of sf. While mainstream writers may not be in the forefront of innovation when it comes to science fictional ideas their presence in the field can help us avoid complacency, and so raise our game.

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