Congratulations to Chris Beckett
Congratulations to Chris Beckett who won the prestigious 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize for his collection The Turing Test (published by Elastic Press). Chris was on an impressive shortlist with Shena Mackay, Ali Smith, Gerard Donovan and Booker winner Anne Enright.
Chris is one of Interzone's most prolific contributors - 22 of his stories have appeared in the magazine since 1990. The 23rd, 'Johnny's New Job', a characteristically gripping and unsettling piece, is coming soon.
In the meantime, here's an interview with Chris from last year, conducted around the time The Turing Test was published.
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Forgotten gardens, forbidden frontiers and the burden of identity
Chris Beckett talks to Andy Hedgecock about the mysteriousness of the world and the critical issue of what is chicken and what is egg.
"We all know the moon is a ball of rock circling the earth, but if you ever find yourself looking up at a full moon and you suddenly realise that it really is there, that you and that vast ball of rock really do both exist in the same universe, and there really is nothing solid in between it and you... that's another thing entirely. And you realise in such moments the real world is just and mysterious and astounding as any imagined one.
"Writing is a process of discovery. Factual knowledge is 'out there' knowledge, separate from you. Understanding is when you imaginatively grasp a thing and it is no longer just 'out there', so you abolish the distinction between 'out there' and inside yourself. One of the really magical things about being a writer is when you spot something in one of your own stories that you didn't know was there. I'm sure other writers will agree with me. Often I don't know what stories are really 'about' until later."
The Cambridge-based writer Chris Beckett's reflections on the wonder of the natural world and the mysteries of the creative process illuminate distinct but complementary tendencies in his storytelling. On the one hand he is a modern mythmaker who creates new and bewildering worlds, rendered with sustained clarity of vision and impressive levels of imaginative detail. And, on the other hand, he is a literary shaman who seeks strangeness in everyday reality and reveals unsettling facets of the quotidian world.
"Of course everyone - writers and non-writers - experiences this when they look back at their dreams. Dreaming is a natural form of story-telling and I'd say the original, pure form. Dreams of course are not naturalistic, but weird and fantastical, reminding us that the oldest stories in the world are fantastical, like sf, and that the naturalistic form which is now thought of as mainstream fiction, is in fact a specialist genre, arguably of relatively recent provenance."
Chris Beckett has worked as a social work practitioner and is now a senior lecturer in social work at Anglia Ruskin University. He has written and co-authored several textbooks on social work practice, child protection and human growth development. His parallel career as a creative writer was launched with the publication of a well-crafted series of sf stories in the early 1990s. He has gone on to become a regular contributor to Interzone and Asimov's, and several of his stories have been anthologised. His first novel, The Holy Machine, was published to strong reviews in 2004; publication of a second, Marcher, is pending; and Beckett has recently completed a third, Dark Eden, which he considers to be his richest, most imaginative and most engaging work to date.
The striking thing about Beckett's stories is their astonishing range. The Turing Test, his new story collection published by Elastic Press, demonstrates the sort of vitality and variety associated with writers of the calibre of Brian Aldiss and Paul Di Filippo.
Reading the short tales in order of publication reveals a voice that is becoming increasingly assured, themes that are becoming progressively more complex and storytelling that hits new heights of sophistication. Even the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, a master of crafted linguistic ambiguity, would have been impressed by the wit and ironic layering of his most recent stories: the work he has submitted to Interzone this year have provoked energised discussion and proved refreshingly difficult to categorise.
Beckett isn't one of those writers determined to exhibit a cool reaction to praise from readers and critics. In fact, he's highly sensitive to the essentially social nature of storytelling.
"Well, first of all I am very touched and pleased my stories were received in that way. Some people misunderstand the process of writing, seeing it as an essentially solitary activity. But it is really all about communication. Readers are as necessary to it as writers.
"I would say the secret of a good story is that it is essentially bottomless, unlike, say, a polemic, or a factual article - but like the world itself. You should never be able to exhaust it by saying 'that's what it was all about'. Different people, or the same person at different times, even the author, should be able to find different things in a good story - and be able to do that indefinitely. All my favourite books and films are 'bottomless' in this sense. For instance, pick any one of Philip K. Dick's best novels: it would be impossible to sum up, or to agree with other people, what Dick's books are 'all about'. And yet there is absolutely no doubt at all they are 'about' things. They represent a really serious attempt by the author to communicate his understanding of the world."
So, I ask, does this quest for the 'bottomless' tale - the story with an inexhaustible range of meaning and resonance - mean Beckett is consciously and deliberately writing across traditional genre boundaries. Or is he simply picking up a fundamental idea and letting it drive his narrative along the imaginative highways and byways that happen to open up?
"My stories do just 'take me where they take me', I think, in terms of genre. On the other hand I've sometimes tried to dispense with the science fictional elements, and that just doesn't seem to work. Somehow, a robot, or an alien planet, or a parallel timeline, or virtual reality, or something science fictional always seems necessary to give me the leverage I need. Maybe it also gives me the distance I need from the subject matter. And sometimes it's what I need to make the story lively and fun.
"I certainly don't have any commitment to writing any particular kind of science fiction, and would happily write in other genres if a time came when that seemed to work for me. I also think the main subject of my stories is my own experience and the world around me, as opposed to say more specifically science fictional subjects such as science, the future, or technological thought experiments. But, as Justina Robson once helpfully summed it up for me, science fiction provides an amazingly powerful set of tools for externalising interior experience. Also for looking at the world from odd and unexpected angles. And it allows immense economy. You can just set whatever scene you want and run with it. You can deliver in a couple of lines a scenario that would take pages to build up in other ways, and then just run with it.
"I read all kinds of fiction, and not particularly science fiction over any other kind, but as a writer I love science fiction. I'm drawn to the idea of marginal territories and science fiction is a marginal form, in that it straddles two spheres often seen as opposites - art and science. It's marginal in another sense too, in that it is not seen as 'mainstream'. I think that suits me."
Stardust and poetic hyperbole
Notions of the liminal and marginal aspects of experience do indeed underpin much of Beckett's work. There's a key line in 'Poppyfields', one of his most arresting and resonant stories to date: 'During this visit he had noticed how larks and linnets had taken advantage of the legal impasse and had colonised the disputed territory'. And many of his stories - whether they are set in imagined places or strange versions of familiar locations - concern transformations. Places either transform physically or perceptions of them shift. So why are these disputed territories so central to his work?
"There is something very attractive to me about a no-man's land, like Poppyfields, the overgrown building site in the story, which is neither one thing nor the other, but just exists. The world in which we exist from day to day often seems to be missing something. I sometimes dream of finding an extra room in my house that I didn't know was there, or a forgotten garden, or a small country hidden away in the middle of this one, whose existence had somehow passed me by. As a child I loved to read stories about other worlds that you could get to from this one, like Narnia. Or worlds that were just different from this one, and somehow richer and more absorbing, like the wonderful imaginary Finland of Tove Jansson. Obviously this is a major part of the appeal of sf.
"Even when it comes to the news, I find myself drawn to stories about places like Northern Ireland, or Israel/Palestine, or Cyprus. I've also noticed all three of my finished novels - The Holy Machine, Marcher and Dark Eden - involve characters crossing a forbidden frontier. The word 'Marcher', in fact, actually means someone who lives in a border area.
"I think some of my recent stories - 'Poppyfields', 'Rat Island', 'Piccadilly Circus' - represent a shift in my stories towards a way of writing more focussed on the evocation of the world itself, the physical sensory world. In some of my other stories the background is more schematic, like the set of an early Star Trek episode."
Beckett sees setting as a central and defining feature of science fiction, subscribing to the notion that the invented world functions like an extra character. And we go on to discuss the notion that central to every compelling sf story is the other characters' interaction with the world itself.
"If that didn't happen, it wouldn't really be sf. And this element of sf helps explain why it suits me. It seems to me our relationship with the rest of the world is as important as our relationship with one another. We did not make ourselves. Like that Joni Mitchell song says 'We are stardust, we are billion-year old carbon', a lovely line because it sounds like poetic hyperbole but is quite literally true! It's something of a paradox of the modern world that, while we are better equipped than ever before to know things like that, we are prone to act as if the human world was the only thing that mattered, as if we ourselves created the universe. I want my characters' relationship with the world around them to be important."
Unsurprisingly, this relationship is central to many of Beckett's recent stories. Another salient theme is the protean nature of identity and its intricate interdependence with place. These are fictions of flux, plasticity and the complex dynamics of life and nature. I ask what drew him to this theme and why it has become such a significant thematic focus in his work.
"This will sound annoying and obtuse but the difficulty I have in answering your question clearly is that I honestly think that my stories are the best way I know of saying what I want to say about these things. Because of that I'm afraid that explanations will sound less clear than the stories themselves, or will just sound pretentious and pompous. But anyway, with that health warning, here goes...
"Having to be one particular person always strikes me as a bit of a burden. I have 'left wing' views but also some 'right wing' ones. I have atheistic days but also theistic ones. People's attempts to assert a fixed identity, to nail their colours to a single mast, often seem to be a little artificial and forced - though of course I do understand the importance of moral integrity. I enjoy that sensation you sometimes get when you wake in the morning and, just for a moment, don't know where or even who you are. Telling stories (as opposed to other non-fictional kinds of writing) is a way of being more than one person at the same time, or expressing contradictory views without having to resolve them, and of living with them as contradictions, because the world just is contradictory. Or, it's a way of being someone else without actually committing yourself to being that person. I sometimes wish I'd been an actor!
"A reader who wrote to me some time ago picked out a line from my story 'Jazamine in the Green Wood' and said that it seemed to him the essence of all my stories. It concerned a character trying to 'stamp out in himself the cruel impossible hope that opposites could be reconciled'. It seems to me that in life we are often expected to choose between A or B, when really either choice seems to involve some sort of violation of who we are."
The notion of reconciling contradictory - and sometimes paradoxical - beliefs and impulses is explored in Beckett's first novel, The Holy Machine (2004). The book is set in a culturally, psychologically and politically splintered zone and I wonder if this focus on fragmentation relates to the psycho-social schisms and political fractures of our own world. I ask Beckett to what extent the kind of polarisation he depicts in the book relates the schisms in our own world, particularly the increasingly significant schism between hard-line rationalism and religious fundamentalism.
"I think the best stories deal with inner and outer experience at the same time and bring them together. Science fiction is an amazing medium for doing just that. After all there is really no such thing as an inner and outer world: there is just the world.
"The Holy Machine does reflect the polarisation we all see in the world around us, between secularism and religious fundamentalism. In fact, bearing in mind that the first draft of the novel was written in 1994, and it was completed in 1997, I think it proved quite prophetic - among other things it imagined a religious terrorist group attacking a modern skyscraper - even if I do say it myself, and even though the book didn't actually come out until 2004. So yes, it does express those polarisations that we all know about from the daily news. But those external divisions express divisions inside each of us. In other words, interweaving those external polarities together with the personal stories of the characters is not just a story-telling device: it is how the world actually is. Politics and psychology are not two separate things."
So how optimistic does he feel about a possible reconciliation between spirituality and reason - values that have served humanity well at different stages of our evolution, but seem to have become increasingly incompatible in the early years of the twenty-first century?
"I think it ought to be possible to live by the light of reason and yet still be in touch with the essential mysteriousness of the world, its interconnectedness, the fact that we are really in the world, a part of it, not separate from it, not outsiders coldly looking in. I think that is possible. In that sense I am an optimist. But I don't think we will ever reach a place where life is not a constant struggle between opposites that refuse to be tidily reconciled. In that sense I am a pessimist.
"How well we will be able to come to terms with the physical constraints under which we live - the limited amount of water, land, atmosphere, minerals that are available for human life - is another question which I am also a bit pessimistic about, but keen to be proved wrong."
A risky and uncertain business
In additional to these physical constraints, Beckett's work is concerned with the artificial limitations that limit our choices and determine our behaviour. Many of his stories concern alienation, loss, powerlessness and the abuses of power. So to what extent does he feel his career as a social work lecturer and practitioner has influenced his storytelling?
"Well what is chicken and what is egg? I became a social worker I suppose partly because, although I come from a reasonably prosperous middle class background, I always have, for whatever reason, identified with people who are outsiders (and have always felt a bit of an outsider myself.) As a social worker I met people who live in worlds which are almost completely outside the experience of most of the population. Some people have had awful lives; some people are incredibly downtrodden by the rest of the world.
"Social work is ostensibly a profession which exists to support the marginalised and excluded, but which in fact has a very ambivalent role, reflected in my Welfare Man stories. Sometimes it is itself an instrument of oppression. I think being a social worker has hugely broadened my understanding of human experience, and it has also made me politically more sophisticated and sceptical. 'Doing good' at the level of politics and society is not easy. Ostensibly helpful actions can make things worse. Our own helpful impulses may conceal other needs and impulses which are not so honourable. Intervention in other people's lives is always a risky and uncertain business. One of the things that social work has taught me is that if you act in the world at all you get your hands dirty. Only those who sit outside and do nothing can claim to be pure."
Beckett's reference to the Welfare Man stories takes us neatly into a discussion of his second novel, Marcher, based on a short story of the same name that appeared in Interzone in October 2001. I ask what stimuli drove him to develop the story into a full-length novel.
"Well from the outset it came as a pair with another story, 'Watching the Sea' - not one of my best, I must say, judged as a stand-alone story. This was itself, if not exactly a sequel to, then related to three previous stories - 'The Welfare Man', 'The Welfare Man retires' and 'Jazamine in the Green Wood'. The first two linked were to it by the idea of 'dreggies' and fenced-off social housing estates; the last introduced the idea of 'shifters'. Subsequently a bunch of other stories emerged in the same family - 'Tammy Pendant', 'We could be sisters', 'To Become a Warrior' (one of my favourites) and of course, latterly, 'Poppyfields'. So somehow it just wanted to grow into a novel, I suppose because it linked up lots of different personal preoccupations and topical issues: the burden of identity, marginality, the longing to escape from the world, the ambivalent nature of social work and the welfare state, terrorism, immigration, political repression, social exclusion and alienation - what it feels like and what it makes you do - and so on.
"The original short story provides a snapshot from the viewpoint of one character. The novel extends this over a longer period, draws in other viewpoints, and shows both the main character and the wider world changing and developing. It includes a brutal massacre perpetuated by socially excluded 'dreggies' under the leadership of shifters (from other universes) who have provided them with what seems like a liberating ideology (so quite topical) and the murder of one character who has appeared in several of my stories. It shows society as a whole becoming more paranoid and oppressive as a result of these events. It shows the relationship of the main viewpoint character (Huw in the short story, though changed to Charles in the novel) with Jazamine unfolding to some extent, and his own painful development of self-knowledge, and at one point descent into near-madness.
"I think it's a novel of its times, though never consciously planned as a direct commentary on events in the outside world. Hopefully it will be out towards the end of the year or early next year."
Beckett has also completed another novel, Dark Eden, and is seeking a publisher for it. He considers the book his best to date and feels it represents a significant development in his writing. Based on a story called 'The Circle of Stones', which appeared in Interzone in February 1992, the book is set on a planet which is alone in space. It has no stars but is lit and heated by geothermal energy and geothermal life forms which are bioluminescent. When he explains the principles of a forest lit by its own fires, he is amused by the verbal tic that accompanies my processing on any tricky idea: "er... right."
"You sound sceptical Andy. There's something I like about this magical environment and strangely enough I read somewhere that astronomers believe a sunless planet can be warm and can sustain life."
The original short story concerned a woman and man - who had little in common and little liking for each other - stranded on this geothermal Eden as the potential matriarch and patriarch of a new race. The novel jumps forward five generations to a point where their descendents - a single stifling community of 500 people dwell in a valley completely surrounded by high mountains. The story describes the desecration of a sacred circle of stones, the expulsion of a young man from the community and an expedition over the mountains - with the young hero and a group of fellow apostates struggling to survive pitch darkness, freezing cold and attacks by a snow-dwelling animal.
"One of my major theses is that sometimes we have to violate taboos or go against the moral codes of a society to breath, to live. My aim was to create a society haunted by its own origin. The quarrels of the two original people of this planet are legendary. You know how children are traumatised when their parents argue? If your parents are the only beings in existence and they are violently angry with each other, that would create a major sense of insecurity for the community they established.
"I had a lot of fun imagining this whole world. There's a large cast of characters and there's more than one viewpoint character. There's a lot of drama and conflict: the community begins to break apart and death and violence come to them for the first time ever. "
Beckett has also taken great pleasure in exploring the complex relationship between the present and the past. One of the people from the ship that originally landed on the planet names all its flora and fauna: in the present the community ritually re-enact the process, shouting back into the past to guide the naming process.
"It's a nice sort of circle and I've had a lot of fun with it - the past shapes the present and the present shapes the past. I'm hoping readers will get a sense of this link and that they will find it easy to visualise the landscape in which it happens."
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Chris Beckett and I close our discussion with a few words about East Anglia. He reveals he came to the region more than 30 years ago ("more or less by accident") after living in Oxford, the West Country and Wales and, for one year as a child, Australia. I suggest there has been a massive burst of creative energy in the region in recent years - almost on a par with the flowering of literary talent on the West Coast of Scotland in the 1980s.
"I honestly have no idea why this is happening. I believe I'm right in saying the population of East Anglia is growing faster than any other part of the UK. Cambridge where I live is a boomtown, with smart new buildings going up all over the place. But it's a strange region. It has no major metropolises, no famously spectacular scenery and is probably the least-known part of the country in terms of regional stereotypes. Everyone in England knows what a Geordie, Yorkshire or West Country accent sounds like, but who knows what an East Anglian accent is like unless they've actually lived here? East Anglia is mainly well-known for being flat, but has its own subtle charm which you have to work at.
"If the region really is becoming a hub of creativity, then that is fine by me. I'm certainly pleased Interzone is now an East Anglian institution."
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