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An interview with Aidan Harte

March 14, 2014 1 comment

Welcome to Thinking about books. Thanks for taking the time to exchange ideas. By way of introduction to readers here, I explored Aidan’s background as well as the inspiration for Irenicon, the first book in The Wave trilogy, in an interview due to run in the June edition of the San Francisco Book Reviews. While we wait for that to appear, I thought we’d change tack and talk more generally about about the “state of the union”. For once, I’m going to leave it to you, Aidan, to set the hare running.

This interview celebrates the (belated) publication of Irenicon in the US so perhaps we should think about whether it’s obvious to the readership where the author of speculative fiction originates. You’re immersed in recent writing: could you take the Pepsi challenge and tell if a writer is American or not?

You’re asking me to get my prejudices out of the closet when you ask whether it’s possible to distinguish American authors, apart from the fact they can’t spell, of course (only joking). At the very top of the art, the question is meaningless. There’s sufficient universality to cross the boundaries of cultures. Quality simply shines through regardless of nationality. But once you come down from the rarified levels, the culture of the writer becomes significant. Through the socialisation process, we’re adapted to the local culture. Think of it as a survival mechanism. So when we take the first steps into the craft of writing, we inevitably evince the attitudes and sensibilities that colour the local readership’s expectations. For this reason, many authors don’t travel across cultures. What they say and how they say it are only acceptable in their local communities.

We pretend the Republic of Letters is borderless, but, speaking for myself, the American speculative writers I’ve read recently are either long dead or people like Ursula K. Le Guin who were in the heyday in the way way back. Put me on the spot and ask me about contemporary speculative writers, and I’d probably stutter something about China Miéville, Joe Abercrombie, Susanna Clarke and Ian Banks. Very different writers, but all drive on the left side. Is this just a consequence of what we’re exposed to in our bookshops, or something deeper?

I’m always interested in authors like Adrian McKinty who began life in one culture, studied in a second and now live in a third. In the fantasy field, Felix Gilman is an outstanding example — if you haven’t already done so, you should get hold of the duology: The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City. These writers produce what I suppose I’m obliged to call a greater cosmopolitan writing style because it’s synthesising elements from different sets of influences.

In a way, you’re avoiding the cultural problem because, like Gilman, you’ve chosen to write fantasy. The genre shingle over the door warns those who open the book to suspend their disbelief while exploring the world you’ve created. You don’t face the same credibility constraints as those who set their work in the contemporary world. That doesn’t mean readers can’t tell where people have their cultural roots. As a generalisation, American fantasy writers tend to be plot people and have less interest in the socio-economic and political contexts for the action. There are exceptions like Daniel Abraham and N. K. Jemisin, but nothing like the ranks led by Joe Abercrombie, K J Parker, et al. Europeans tend to be more interested in producing layered fiction with metaphorical, allegorical and, sometimes, satirical intent. So we probably agree that the Republic of Letters has very precisely defined borders. Even within national cultures, there are subcultures which have very different tastes and interests. Not unnaturally, publishers pander to their niche audience.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

You say the writers you find interesting are either dead or long-in-the-tooth. You are using time as your filter for universality. Any book that can speak to readers years after it was written has the necessary cultural universality to be a great book — Left Hand of Darkness, for example, is as good today as when it was written. This nicely avoids the task of reading through the mountain of dross as it’s published to find the one or two good books today.

With great age comes great impatience. Reading is such a pleasure that I jealously guard of every minute. It’s a numbers game: since the Hogwarts Express started chugging, there’s been an expansion in Fantasy publishing. With several lifetimes you couldn’t keep up, and a gold rush is a bad time to be looking for gold. It’s churlish to complain – I’ve profited from it as a writer – but I’m sceptical if every reader has. Somebody’s surely done the maths, but I’d wager that a decade ago the average Fantasy was two hundred pages shorter. Sure, there are more books with more pages today. There’s also a lot of more dollars circulating than ten years ago. Are we feeling richer?

The midlist author has been abandoned by the average publishing house. Authors who used to make just enough to survive are now writing part-time and earning enough to live on the rest of the time. It’s not just that authors are expected to write more words for less pay. It’s the focus on the search for the next “blockbuster”.

Call me romantic but I think something was diluted in the explosion. Back when the field of Weird Fiction was a niche netherworld, it attracted folks who were strange – ‘You ought to try Lithum’ strange. The angle they looked at life was, and still is, shocking. Where’s our Olaf Stapledon? People who haven’t read H. G. Wells assume he succeeded because he was first, but the guy was a big thinker. He grabs you by the lapels and shakes. I looked into The Island of Dr Moreau again the other day. When the traumatized Prendick finally returns to London, he sees abominations everywhere, and compares a priest’s sermon to the Ape-man’s “Big Thinks”. It’s terrific. Who’s that bold today?

Of course, this is ancestor-worship. There must be equally original voices working today. It’s just harder to hear them for all the hollering.

Well, our ancestors made do with myths that had a guy chained to a rock with an eagle eating his liver every day. They were into cruelty and immorality in all its forms.

You’re right. What we now call Fantasy has roots in myth and religion. It’s a commonplace, but for me it’s a touchstone of Fantasy. Much that goes by the name is simply medieval costume drama with dragons. How could it be otherwise? The real stuff is hard work. It’s high stakes too: bad Fantasy is flatulent, but when it’s good – oh my! – it’s transcendent. Le Guin, as it happens, has some stern words on this: ‘A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.’

It doesn’t bother me that publishing is a capitalist endeavor – I rather like the idea – but the dispiriting side of it is the ghettoisation. There have always been benighted souls who will proudly announce that they only read one genre, who delight, like toddlers, in repetition. They’re the same people who think a story is Horror as soon as a vampire shows up. Selling books is a difficult game, and getting harder. Even though editors know quality, the accountants know people like the same thing. So you get longer and longer books, and series that go on longer than Vietnam.

Irenicon is mediaeval Italian fantasy without the dragons — can’t think why you left them out. There are quite a number of other authors playing in the same sandbox. Did you find it difficult to find new ground to plough?

The reason I choose classic over contemporary Fantasy is practical: writers have to open themselves to the world for material. The downside to being so impressionable is that you pick up the conventions of the day without knowing it. Twitter is like an experiment in group-think epidemics. Log on and hear the inchoate roar of a mob lost in an echo chamber. It’s too loud to think. I’ve made a good start with Irenicon, and I want each book to be better. In the meantime I have to keep my muse away from authors with pulses. That tramp will sleep with anyone.

Many thanks! That was fun! The second book in the trilogy, The Warring States, was published by Quercus in hardback in 2013 — the paperback edition is due this April. The final volume, Spira Mirabilis, will be published in Britain later this year. Here’s my own review of Irenicon.

Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment

Irenicon_JK

As all those who read these reviews will know, I’m a bear of little brain, frequently prone to error and misthinging. It’s a miracle I actually navigate from the start to the end of each day without killing myself or being killed by provoked authors, film directors or television producers. When books come in for review, I unpack them from their boxes and, in that order, copy their titles and authors into a list which then, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes the reading order. When I picked up this book and looked at the jacket, I wrote down Frenicon, taking the initial letter to be a gothic “f”. Imagine my surprise when later opening the book and finding the f to be an i. This does not exactly strike the right note (or letter for that matter) when it comes to communicating with the buying public.

So as to the review itself: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) is the first book in the Wave Trilogy and sees us flirting with genre boundaries. In broad definitional terms, we could be looking at an alternate history book which takes as its premise that Herod acted in time to kill the infant Jesus before he could be spirited out of harm’s way. This left the Virgin Mary with the task of introducing the elements of the Christianity that would otherwise have conquered the word of faith in the West. But without her son to show his divinity, the resulting belief system is rather different from the version we had in the fourteenth century when this book is set. Hence, if we take books like Pavane by Keith Roberts as our exemplars, this book is outside the definitional boundary because it does not accept the limits of the real world. It treats the supernatural as real. So for all it poses a classical “what if”, we’re actually pitched into a mediaeval Italian environment where a form of magic works. In broad narrative terms, the Concordian northern alliance is actively pursuing expansion into Europe, but is cautious of the independent city states to the south. To avoid vulnerability from the rear, it’s therefore using one of its twelve legions to suppress dissent.

The culture has been through a Re-Formation. Natural Philosophy has applied mathematics and observational physics to the real world. Initially ignored by the pervasive religion, a new breed of engineer arose and established sufficient power to be able to displace both religious power-brokers and the nobility. The result is theoretically a more meritocratic society, but one which proves equally open to abuse by a self-appointed elite. Underpinning the rise to power is the development of Wave technology. Essentially this uses water for military purposes. As a demonstration of its destructiveness, the engineers physically divide the southern city of Rasenna by creating a river. The waters of what’s later named the Irenicon smash through the city walls, devastate the central area, and become a permanent feature of the landscape. It would be just like any other river except that, surprisingly, it runs uphill and it’s also full of spirits which seem intent on grabbing any human who comes too close to the water. Death by drowning is the result. This city gives us the central metaphor for the book to explore.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

Following its division, two feuding families assert control over their half. The Morellos rule the north, the Bardinis the south, albeit both are beholden to the Concord. The only person who might reunite the city is Contessa Sofia, the last surviving member of the Scaglieri family. When she reaches the age of seventeen, she could be allowed to become the ruler. Until then, she’s being trained in “leadership skills” by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. One day, Captain Giovanni, a young engineer from the Concord, arrives. He’s been sent to build a bridge across the river. The symbolism is transparent. This is a city divided against itself. Following the model of feuding clans, the socalisation process inducts the young into militias who develop fighting styles using banners designating their families and clan allegiances. The poor and emergent middle class are relatively powerless, depending on local “gangs” for protection. A bridge allowing all to move from one side to the other could end the feuds and reunite Rasenna. So those who are in power see the engineer as a threat. The poor see him as a figure of hope, a force for change.

Change management is challenging at the best of times. In a fourteenth century Italy, the first step is an undermining of the control of the two families and their retainers, quickly followed by the empowerment of the poor and middle class. In an ideal world, there would also be some degree of democratisation but that’s never going to be an easy sell to anyone who’s spent generations under the control of local families and clans. The book therefore explores a perennial problem where entrenched power structures confront the possibility of change. In modern times, we might be looking at the Troubles where relatively small groups of warring paramilitaries disputed which of the adjacent sovereign states should have the right of local control. As in the real world, so in this book, everything depends on the history and context for events. Aidan Harte nicely introduces illuminating insights into the process which Re-Formed the northern part of Italy and consolidated power in the engineers. How and why the science as magic (or vice versa) came into being is deliberately left unspoken. It’s going to be necessary to carve out positions for science and faith, and then support dialogue to understand the relationship and potential synergy between the belief and knowledge-based systems.

This leaves me seriously impressed both by the quality of the ideas and the ingenuity with which they are explored in the text. In simplistic terms, it’s a coming-of-age story as Sofia chafes against the control of The Doctor and begins to form a relationship with Giovanni. But this is rather more substantial than the traditional amor vincit omnia fantasy plot as our two protagonists come into mutual obit but then have choices to make. I could make disparaging noises about the clichéd necessity for Sofia to develop “powers” by overcoming her fear, but this would be to miss the point. Returning for a moment to the religious context, Mary did not ask to become mother to Jesus. She was chosen and had to make the best of it. In short, Irenicon is completely fascinating, leaving us poised on a wholly unexpected note as a new temporary balance in the power structures is achieved.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.