Spring Tide by Chris Beckett- Author Interview and Book Review

Chris Beckett is an award-winning writer of science-fiction who didn’t set out to be a science-fiction writer.  You may have heard of his book Dark Eden, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award or America City, which was a Radio 2 Book Club choice.

Spring Tide is his latest collection of short stories and although you are likely to find it in the science fiction shelves of your bookshop, it is categorically not science fiction.  His own success in the category has, it seems, meant that it is easier all round just to list it as a science fiction work.  This might mean that people who are ordinarily not attracted to the science fiction shelves do not come across this book, which would be a shame as there is a lot to recommend to all readers.

The book is ‘topped and tailed’ by the stories ‘Cellar’ and ‘Sky’.  In Cellar the main character who lives in a mundane two-up, two-down house discovers a seemingly nebulous cellar.  Room after room after room.  What is it for and where does it end?  It’s a fascinating tale of discovery, obsession and introversion.  Sky sees the protagonist returning from the depths of his own house.

‘The End of Time’ sees angels watching creation.  The ability of light waves to be both waves and particles seems to be linked to the idea of creation vs evolution not being as mutually exclusive as one might think.

A professor’s wife is tormented by a malevolent bird in ‘The Lake’.  The story is like a modern Grimm’s tale, marvellous, bizarre and dark.

There are a lot of ideas and deep thought in all of the stories, no more so than ‘Creation’ which makes the reader consider who it is that creates meaning (nature, the artist, the critic or you?)

Frozen Flame tells the story of a student and his relationship with an older, married woman.  It feels real.  The student’s infatuation leads to him clinging on to the memory with hope for too long whilst life carries on around him.

The Zen like ‘Still Life’ features no humans but there is ‘still life’ in it.  I’ve not read anything quite like it.  It is a picture in words.

‘Rage’ questions western privilege, hypocrisy, foreign aid and extremism.

The story ‘Ooze’, features no humans, like ‘Still Life’ but it does have a simple, impulse-driven sea-dwelling creature.  It is about life and death unvarnished, uncomfortably so when humans’ traditional place at the top of the food chain is reversed.

The eponymous story ‘Spring Tide’ deals with ennui and overfamiliarity in a marriage in which the husband and wife of lost sight of their reasons for being together in the first place.

Overall, this is an excellent short story collection which deserves a wide audience.  If you’ve never been to the science fiction section of your local bookshop, maybe now is the time to brave it.

Author Interview

Spring tide can be found on the Science Fiction shelves at bookshops but many of the stories are not obviously SF.  You’ve commented that SF tends to occupy its own ‘little ghetto’ in bookshops, which could discourage the casual reader.  Do you think SF is the best description of Spring Tide?  There’s a lot there that would appeal to any reader.

I don’t see Spring Tide as SF at all.  I see it as my first published foray outside of the conventions of SF.   Some of the stories in Spring Tide do contain fantastical elements angels, an imaginary city, talking animals, an underground structures and it’s possible that a certain SF sensibility may be detectable in one or two of the others, but I wouldn’t call any of them SF and most are entirely realist.

I think the reason you find it on the SF shelves is simply that I’m known as an SF writer. 

It’s the same with non-SF writers when they do an SF book: the book appears on the ‘general fiction’ shelves rather than the SF ones, because that’s where their readers will look for their work. 

I would certainly like to think Spring Tide would appeal to the general reader, but then I would also like to think that a book like my novel Dark Eden would appeal to an open-minded general reader too.  It’s certainly SF -it’s about people living on a planet with no sun but it’s intended to hold up a kind of mirror to human beings and human society, just as a work of ‘general fiction’ might do.

Over what time span did you write the stories that were included in Spring Tide?  

Most of them were written specifically for the collection over a period of about four months.   But about half a dozen of them had been knocking around for a while in a rough or half-finished state.  The story ‘The Man who Swallowed Himself’ is the oldest, since I wrote an early version of it some twenty years ago.  At the time I couldn’t quite see how to make it work and so I set it aside in a folder I keep for half-finished bits and pieces.  When I came back to it after it had marinated for all that time in my unconscious, it kind of wrote itself. 

Did you have a larger collection of stories that were whittled down to those included?  

I wouldn’t say I whittled down a larger collection to make Spring Tide, but I do have quite a store of half-finished stories, and ideas for stories, which I didn’t include.  Basically I just kept writing until I felt I had enough to make what I felt would be a satisfying collection. 

This is your third collection of short stories following The Turing Test (which won the Edge Hill Short Fiction Award) and The Peacock Cloak.  Are short stories a natural form for your writing? 

I like writing short stories and I think science fiction and the short story form fit well together, but I don’t think I’ve ever (until now) turned out more than about four short stories in a year – usually it’s been more like two.  A short story is a much more intense form of fiction than a full-length novel.   So, for instance, a hundred thousand words-worth of short stories would (for me at least) be a much bigger undertaking than writing a novel of equivalent length.  Once a novel is underway it has its own momentum which drives it forward, but each short story has to be begun anew, with its own fictional world, its own characters, its own themes, its own distinctive voice.

Do you write when an idea occurs or do you have a routine to keep the words flowing?

I do try to write something every day.  I can go for weeks, sometimes even months, during which I know I’ve written nothing of any value.  But it’s important to keep battering away at the wall, because unless you do, you won’t know when that moment finally arrives when the wall suddenly becomes permeable and you’re able to pass through it.  

You’ve said before that your stories are usually about some aspects of your own life.  Frozen Flame, which tells the story of a young man having an intense affair with an older married woman felt real to me.  Is it based on experience?

Well, no, I didn’t have an affair with an older married woman when I was a student.  Part of me is sorry to tell you that because I’m sure I would have found it very exciting.  But then again, maybe it would have messed up my head like it does to the character in the story. 

But nevertheless that story, and pretty well all of the others, draw in one way or another on my own experience.  I suppose how I would describe it is that I take apart my own experience to make building blocks, which I then use, in conjunction with material I’ve picked from elsewhere, to build up into new stories.  The emotions, and the dilemmas that my characters face, mostly come from my own life, at least to some degree.  So do many of the settings.  (I know Bristol pretty well, for instance, where most of that story is set.)  But the situations are new.

Has your work as a social work professional provided inspiration for stories?  Do any of these feature in Spring Tide?

I come from a fairly comfortable middle class background, and I think my experience as a social worker has been invaluable to me in that it has exposed me to aspects of life that many people with my background have never seen.  The thing I’ve written that most obviously reflects my social work experience, however, is my short second novel, Marcher, and it is much less evident, I think, in Spring Tide.

There is one story, however, it’s called The Steps, whose setting isn’t even slightly like the world which I encountered as a social worker, but which would never have been written if I hadn’t done that job. This is one of the stories that have been marinating for quite a while, and was prompted by a very specific question I asked myself in my social work days:  Why does it sometimes happen that adults who are victims of abuse seem oblivious to the fact that something similar is happening to their own children more or less right in front of them, when on the face of it you’d think they’d be (and indeed many are) hypersensitive to that possibility?   The story is set in a stately home, but it is an attempt to answer that question.

I’ve not read anything quite like Still Life before, it’s quite meditative and perhaps the answer to a Zen riddle about what happens when humans are not present.  What prompted you to write that story?  

I think we humans are too self-important.  The world existed before us, and will continue to exist when we are gone.  In all but a tiny little corner of the universe (and even there, a lot of the time), it quietly unfolds without us even now.  I find that to be rather a comforting idea. 

By way of a reminder of this, I thought it would be fun to write a story without any humans or even animals, in it, a story in which the only ‘characters’ were matter and heat and gravity, and the only events were caused by the relationships between them. 

How far do you think you could take that idea? 

It’s a good question.  It never occurred to me to do more than a (very) short story.  But imagine what an achievement it would be if one could write a whole novel like that, and keep it interesting throughout!

One of the stories that, to me, read like a modern-day Arthur C Clarke short story was the Great Sphere.  The tension in the story is caused by unyielding belief systems based on incomplete knowledge.  Your stories and your blog show a nuanced, complex and very balanced view of events.  Would it be fair to say that you think about matters deeply and do not jump to conclusions or subscribe to black and white views?  Do you wrestle with decisions in your own life?

It seems to be a very deeply embedded aspect of my personality that you’ve spotted there.  I dislike black and white views of the world.  If someone expresses a strong view on something and invites me to agree, I always feel a need to present the other side, and I am deeply suspicious of any outlook or philosophy that presents itself as the truth.  I wonder if this comes in part from the fact that my parents had very different outlooks my mother was politically to the left, for instance, my father more to the right and that as I child I badly wanted to reconcile them, or find a position that didn’t involve having to side with one or the other?

The drawback of being like me in this respect is that it is easy to lapse into a kind of relativism that makes it hard to know what you really think about anything. (And you’re absolutely right! That does make decisions hard!)  The idea behind the Great Sphere is that any coherent worldview involves bringing some things into the light, and leaving others in the shadow. 

The story Rage addresses privilege, global inequality and the anger of youth.  Do you feel that there is a lot of unfocused, misdirected or misguided anger in the Western world?

I think a lot of people in the Western world feel (reasonably enough) very indignant about the blatant injustices of the global system, but without fully facing up to the fact that they themselves are beneficiaries of that system.  (This by the way is a big theme in America City also).  And that is what the main character in Rage is wrestling with: the dilemma of middle-class liberals who want to be the good guys, but are also very reluctant to give up the comforts and advantages which they themselves enjoy. 

Something I’ve noticed a lot lately is a rather unattractive self-righteousness rage that is directed by reasonably comfortably off liberal middle-class folk (a category which definitely includes me!) towards poorer people who vote or think in a way that they disapprove of. It seems to me that people in the most educated and/or most intellectual portion of the population often have more modern and progressive views than folk in the least educated and/or least intellectual portion of the population, who are likely to rely on more traditional values.  This make fairly easy for the former to claim the moral high ground.  But I find such claims unattractive and morally spurious, much as I find morally spurious (in Rage) the headmaster Frobisher’s rant about the materialism of the working classes.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a new novel, as yet with no firm title, which draws very loosely on a couple of short stories that appeared in my Peacock Cloak collection: ‘Day 29’ and ‘The Caramel Forest’.  They deal with a human encounter with a form of life that is, by its nature, unknowable. The stories were in part a sort response to reading several books by Eastern European science fiction authors (Solaris, Roadside Picnic, The Snail on the Slope) who seemed to me to have a very different take on science fiction to their British and American counterparts. I think the best way I can describe this new book at the moment is that it’s more about living alongside an unsolvable mystery than it is about treating the mystery as a problem to be solved and fixed.

Chris Beckett’s website can be found at  http://www.chris-beckett.com/

A few signed first editions of Spring Tide are still available in the shops for those with a keen eye!

Spring Tide (Short Stories) – Chris Beckett (Corvus 2017)



Book Review – Saigon Calling by Marcelino Truong (Arsenal Pulp Press 2017)

This is the second memoir/history of the Vietnam war in graphic novel form by Marcelino Truong, which has been translated by David Homel.  It covers the period 1963 to 1975 when the Truong family lived in London following a move from Saigon.

Marcelino is the son a Khanh, a Vietnamese diplomat and Yvette.  His family includes his sisters, Mireille and Anh-Noelle and his brother Dominique.

The book tells the story of the Truong’s life and struggles in London against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  The family are challenged by Yvette’s mental illness, which frequently led to angry outbursts against her husband Khanh, the constant concern about grandparents still living in Saigon and growing up in an alien (and alienating) London.

Whilst the music, fashions and recreational drug-habits of counter-culture ‘swinging’ London were alluring to the young Truong children, the dullness, constraints and casual racism they experienced in the suburbs were depressingly real.  Marcelino is very close to his older brother Dominique who is enthralled by the counter-culture and, ultimately, by Indian mysticism.

The story is told in chapter form where a particular event or anecdote from the family or Marcelino’s personal life is highlighted.  Interspersed are details of the intensifying Vietnam War and the ultimate victory of North Vietnam following the withdrawal of U.S. troops and support.

A lot of information concerning the war and the key political players in Vietnam and the U.S.  are provided.  Expository dumps are probably necessary to help the reader but it does appear like one of the old graphic ‘beginner’s guides’ in places and gives rise to some very stilted dialogue where characters have unlikely conversations explaining to each other political machinations or the progress of the war.  It can feel hard going at times which prevents the natural flow.

The artwork is nicely drawn and has lovely colour.  Explanatory pieces about the Vietnam war are coloured in more muted tones of sepia, grey and black.    Characters are quite angular and it would be hard to identify some of the more famous characters, such as Presidents Johnson and Ford, without text highlighting who they are.

Marcelino Truong repeatedly makes the important points that the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong carried out atrocities and were duplicitous as well as the fact that many people in South Vietnam were anti-communist.  These views were often overlooked or brushed aside by some liberals at the time who were enchanted by the promises of Communism.  Truong was obviously very irritated by the championing of the North Vietnamese regime by anti-imperialists and others but it does feel like fighting an old battle given the extensive examination of the Vietnam War in the years since it finished.

Ultimately this is an interesting, if not gripping, story.

The Square and the Tower – Niall Ferguson (Allan Lane – 2017)

Sweeping historical narrative, illuminating detail and compelling arguments make this a great read.

First, a gripe.  I was given a review copy of this book via NetGalley.  It was free so maybe I shouldn’t complain however it was almost as if the publishers didn’t want anyone to read the review copy, so bad was the formatting.  Words ran into one another, footnotes were shoe-horned without introduction in the middle of paragraphs and diagrams were cast adrift from their explanatory notes, which I would trip over several pages later.  If you want people to give reviews, at least give them the chance to read it.

Niall Ferguson considers the interaction between rigid ruling hierarchies and their interaction and competition with more loosely based networks over time.  He argues  that,

Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organised groups of people

Whilst this might be taken to suggest that shady networks, such as the oft-mentioned ‘Illuminati’ control world affairs, Ferguson dismisses any such arguments very early on.  He admits that as networks are usually quite informal, they rarely leave a lot in the way of documents or records and are not, therefore, a very attractive subject for historians, especially if the subject attracts conspiracy theorists.

We may tend to think of networks being more relevant now in our interconnected world of online networks but Ferguson shows that networks have been influencing our lives for centuries and have led to great advances (or great destruction).    Major religions, fascism and communism were all decentralised networks to begin with, although some transformed into highly rigid hierarchies over time and attempted to destroy other networks that may have challenged them.  Ferguson documents the example of Stalin’s Russia, where even the loosest connection with the ‘wrong’ person could be life-limiting.

Concentrating on our own times, Ferguson examines the internet, terror attacks, Brexit and Donald Trump.  In all he points to how a more nimble network manages, or has managed, to confound more rigid hierarchical structures.  Forget six degrees of separation, the average figure for Facebook users is 3.57 degrees of separation.  So you may be even closer to Kevin Bacon than you think.  Ferguson argues that the success of Brexit and Trump were attributable in large part to the way they used the internet to spread their chosen message, which made an impact regardless of its veracity or counter-arguments from the establishment.

Ferguson is a very compelling writer.  This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read and I would recommend it.


Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris 2017)

Think of Saving Private Ryan with space marines set during the 30 years’ war and you’ll have a reasonable impression of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novella.

The Ironclads are Scions, the sons of the fabulously wealthy and powerful of the world who take part in political and corporate battles dressed in impregnable, heavily armoured suits.

Ironclads is set in a world in which large corporations wage war against each other, corporations fight social democratic countries and the ordinary man or woman lives in a state of feudal penury where a life in the armed services means acting as cannon fodder.

The story follows Sergeant Ted Regan (our narrator) and his small team as they carry out a mission to find the missing cousin of a corporate Scion. Their task involves dealing with political and corporate intrigue, battles with impossible machines and supernatural Finns.

There are some light-hearted moments and I enjoyed a reference to the 1st fighting corps of Ikea. I imagined a large metal suit put together by allen keys and with a nice Billy bookcase mounted on the chest plate.

It’s a slim book and quite an easy read but I left it without strong feelings for the characters or the plot. It just passed by without making much of an impression.

Book Review: Binary System – Eric Brown (Solaris – 2017)

This is an enjoyable sci-fi adventure.  A good tale, but unlikely to convert those not already committed to SF.

Cordelia ‘Delia’ Kemp is a survivor a catastrophic starship explosion which results in her being thrown further from the Earth than anyone has ever been before.

Delia’s only companion is ‘Imp’, an AI implant that acts as counsel, computer and friend.  It’s a great idea, I wished I had an ‘Imp’ to help me out too.

In the first of a series of ‘billions to one’ chances, Delia reaches an inhabited planet that is able to support human life.  It struck me that it is difficult to explain a new idea or form without comparing it to something that already exists.  The inhabitants of the planet are likened to monkeys, locusts and centipedes.

Eric Brown offers a number of expository ‘information dumps’ to quickly fill in the background and provide explanation for what is to come.  Sci-fi readers will be used to this but it can appear quite mechanical and the writing is functional and straightforward.  There are lots of recaps of where the action is and how we got there. Some of the dialogue is a little hackneyed, like it was written for a summer blockbuster action movie.

At one point, Delia has a discussion about emotions with Imp.  One would suspect anyone fitted with AI would have had that exchange with the device a long time previously and it is obvious that the dialogue is for the benefit of the reader’s understanding.

This is a fun adventure/quest story with lots of good ideas if you can get past the outlandish probabilities without thinking too hard about it.

Book Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar – David Grossman (Translated by Jessica Cohen)

I’d wanted to read this book since hearing an interview with the translator, Jessica Cohen.  The book, written in Hebrew, won the International Man Booker Prize 2017.  The prize is split equally between the author and the translator, recognising the skill and contribution of both.

The story is set over one evening in a comedy club in the Israeli city of Netanya.  The comedian is Dovaleh G,  an ageing performer who seems to have retained his ‘edgy’ image.  His painfully thin appearance makes us suspect that he is suffering from an illness.

The narrator is a very old acquaintance of Dovaleh G, a former friend whom he has not seen for decades.  Dovaleh tracks him down and pleads with him to watch this particular performance.  The acquaintance, a retired Judge, agrees to go but regrets it almost immediately.  He tries to leave but Dovaleh embarrasses him into staying.  The Judge then shoves “handfuls of nuts into my mouth and grind them like they were his bones.”  A vivid line.

Dovaleh builds up some rapport with the audience.  He is endearing, insulting, frustrating, violent and unpredictable.  Jokes are followed by random monologues and self-harm.

Dovaleh picks on a small lady who does not appear to be enjoying the show.  It turns out that she knew him when he was young and says that he used to be a ‘good boy’.  This is the catalyst for the disintegration of Dovaleh and the show.   Outraged audience members leave, but some remain as they cannot resist “the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The comedy routine turns into a monologue on a painful incident in Dovaleh’s early life when he was faced with terrible circumstances, life-changing uncertainty, cowardice and indifference.

The writing in the translation is compelling.  When Dov is remembering a particular member he is described as having “Sleepwalking terror on his face: he’s there.  All of him is there.”  It’s a line that took me to the heard of the story, I could picture him and felt like an audience member, needing to watch but feeling guilty for doing so when a man is falling apart.

This is an unusual story of a childhood tragedy,  decades old guilt and confession told in a setting where you’d least expect it.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (MacLehose Press 2016)

An immersive story about the lives of a close Norwegian family as they cope with growing-up, ageing, work, tragedy and the vicissitudes of the weather on their sparse life.  Contemplative and humane.  You will put the book down feeling like a family member and have an odd longing to visit the island.
The story, translated from Norwegian, follows fisherman/farmer Hans Barroy and his family over a number of years.  Hans lives with his father (Martin), wife (Maria), daughter (Ingrid) and sister (Barbro) on the eponymous isle of Barroy.
I was unsure what to expect when starting this book and suspected that the bucolic existence could be marred by some form of violent tragedy.  This isn’t that type of book, however, but I soon fell into the peaks and troughs of their lives.
Jacobsen writing is thoughtful and peaceful, I very much enjoyed the state of calm that I felt when reading.  At first nothing much seems to happen but then I realised that plenty happens but it is simply the narrative that takes away some of the sharp edges of events, both good and bad.  You feel the happiness and suffering of the Barroys, but not in a shocking, melodramatic way.
The island and the sea are important parts of the book.   The island is under a kilometre from north to south and half a kilometre from east to west.  The seasons and the tides are massively important to the Barroys.  The sea brings treasure but also ‘fragments of distant lives, testament to opulence, laxity, loss and carelessness, and misfortune which has befallen people they have never heard of and will never meet.’
The joy of the environment is obvious, as are its dangers
Jacobsen will sometimes focus on small or odd experiences.  For example, when Ingrid is taught why the ‘carding’ (cleaning) of Eider-down is important, or when a cat is carried away by an eagle.
The language of the Barroys is translated into a colloquial English which, in part, reads like Yorkshire dialect.  The meaning is never lost though.
The characters are thoroughly believable, all with their own particular strengths and foibles.  Ingrid starts in the book as an infant and, in some respects, grows into the most important and strong character in the book.  She is a survivor, it is a lifestyle that makes no allowance for the feint-hearted.
This is a book that takes you on a journey of years and engenders moods and an odd form of nostalgia in the reader. A book I would thoroughly recommend.