A Russia for Yuri Nikolaevich

The idea for A Russia for Yuri Nikolaevich evolved from a com­pan­ion piece, A Solitude of Space, which was itself inspired by a cent­ral theme of Lem’s Solaris: that con­tact between human­ity and an alien civil­isa­tion may not bring mutual understanding.

The first draft of A Russia began as a story about a space­craft pro­pelled by the col­lect­ive will of gal­ley slaves. Disruption arrives in the form of a woman whose mind is power­ful enough to alter the course of the ship. The second draft re-imagined the story as that of a hus­band and wife tak­ing a final cruise in the dying days of their mar­riage. Again, they sailed an intention-powered craft, this time across the sur­face of an ocean planet. The story hinged on the man’s struggle to power the craft with his will, and how he deals with the rev­el­a­tion that his wife also has the power.

In the third draft, I placed the story on a snow planet and made the char­ac­ters marooned, Chinese astro­nauts. They named the planet wo, which means I, me, myself. The story was fine, but I wasn’t quite happy with it; prob­ably I was uncon­vinced by the abil­ity of the female astro­naut to con­jure great ice struc­tures from the permafrost.

Between the third and fourth draft, I read a bio­graphy of the Soviet rocket engin­eer and designer Sergei Korolev. The astro­nauts became cos­mo­nauts in a future Soviet Union. The snow turned to ash. The cos­mo­nauts named their planet sushnyek.

I’ll let you find out what sushnyek means when you read the story on the Unsung Stories web­site, if the mood takes you.

Clarke Award 1: The Strange and The New

I’m mak­ing myself a host­age to for­tune by imply­ing, in the title, that I’ll review each of the Clarke Award final­ists, but that’s what I’m intend­ing to do.

First, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

What fas­cin­ates me about Strange New Things is the con­trast between the lav­ish treat­ment by the crit­ical estab­lish­ment and my own reac­tion to it, which is much cooler. M John Harrison (whose work I’ve always found self-consciously unortho­dox but in a good way), writes that the novel is ‘deeply affecting’.

David Mitchell, another writer I admire, has blurbed:

Michel Faber’s second mas­ter­piece, quite dif­fer­ent to The Crimson Petal and The White but every bit as lumin­es­cent and mem­or­able. It is a por­trait of a liv­ing, breath­ing rela­tion­ship, frayed by dis­tance. It is an enquiry into the moun­tains faith can move and the moun­tains faith can’t move. It is mani­ac­ally gripping.

Before I set down my thoughts, here’s a thumb­nail of the story: a young, evan­gel­ical priest called Peter is selec­ted to bring Christianity to ali­ens on the planet Oasis. He does so, while his mar­ital rela­tion­ship deteri­or­ates over email.

One dif­fi­culty I had with Strange New Things con­cerns the ‘strange’. The ali­ens are not very. Strange, that is. They are, indeed, start­lingly famil­iar, and so is their planet, in as much as it is human-habitable atmosphere-, gravity-, and nutrition-wise. Nothing wrong with that (Star Trek gets away with it, as did Iain Banks), but it jars against the groun­ded, real­istic England Faber describes at the begin­ning of the story—if we take the rep­res­ent­a­tion of Earth ser­i­ously, why not the planet Oasis?

And then there’s the banal­ity of the human out­post. It has all the char­ac­ter of pro­vin­cial air­port. Again, noth­ing wrong with that in itself, but banal­ity and bore­dom are toxic ele­ments to stir into your fic­tion; you need to be care­ful mak­ing the reader under­stand that a char­ac­ter is feel­ing bored, or that a place is banal, by mak­ing the reader feel the same way. I don’t want to be bored.

Speaking as what reli­gious people term an ‘athe­ist’, I found it refresh­ing to read a book from the per­spect­ive of a Christian, par­tic­u­larly in a sci­ence fic­tion con­text. It was a real shame that oppor­tun­it­ies for fric­tion between his beliefs and his experiences—particularly the tech­no­lo­gical ones—remained unex­plored, basic­ally because the char­ac­ter, as writ­ten, is unin­ter­ested in how the world works. He’s only inter­ested in propagat­ing Christian beliefs, and the Oasans make this easy for him.

M John Harrison again:

This is a big novel – partly because it has to con­struct and explain its unhomely set­ting, partly because it has such a lot of reli­gious, lin­guistic, philo­soph­ical and polit­ical freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxi­ety that per­vades and taints every element.

Without wish­ing to make an unfair com­par­ison, check out Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina if you want a novel truly freighted with ideas. Two of his char­ac­ters can dis­cuss psy­cho­logy in the con­text of the philo­sophy of mind and cover just as much ground, and more effect­ively, as schol­arly works on the sub­ject. En passant, Tolstoy theory-checks pretty much most of the mod­ern psy­cho­lo­gical lit­er­at­ure, blaz­ing well ahead of Freud. And he tells a story at the same time. Much of the word­count of Strange New Things can be attrib­uted to char­ac­ters mov­ing from A to B, and hav­ing mean­der­ing conversations—which some­times hap­pen while they’re mov­ing from A to B.

There is one com­pel­ling idea in the novel, but I can’t tell you what it is without ruin­ing the story. It comes too late, how­ever, for Faber to pay expli­cit atten­tion to it. A re-read might bring up inter­est­ing foreshadows.

Overall, it’s a novel with a sale­able premise—‘missionary in space’—but an exe­cu­tion that con­sciously sands-down the ‘new’ and bases the ‘strange’ on what is, essen­tially, the familiar.

Reading at the Sidney Cooper Gallery

I had a won­der­ful time last Wednesday night read­ing from the Unsung Stories edi­tion of Déjà Vu. The event formed part of the Writing Comes Alive pro­gramme, which is sponsored by Canterbury Christ Church University.

It’s always a bit tricky mak­ing these occa­sions inter­est­ing. My golden rules were to read short extracts (two, totalling about twenty minutes) and be as friendly as pos­sible dur­ing the question-and-answer session.

Many thanks to the Sidney Cooper Gallery, Andrew Palmer for com­per­ing, and Craig Dadds for all his support.

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