Keith Brooke‘s most recent novel for adult audiences, alt.human (published in the US as Harmony), was shortlisted for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award. Writing as Nick Gifford, his teen fiction is widely published, with one novel optioned for the movies by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s Caveman Films. He writes reviews for the Guardian, teaches creative writing at the University of Essex, and lives with his wife Debbie in Wivenhoe, Essex. Find out more about his work as Gifford at www.nickgifford.co.uk.

The Most Political Story is a Good One

by Keith Brooke (a.k.a Nick Gifford)

Sometimes things you’ve written down don’t become relevant for years.

That’s both the premise for, and the history of, my recent YA thriller, Tomorrow (published under the name Nick Gifford).

Some time in the early 1990s I made this note in one of my ideas notebooks:

A boy helping sort his dead father’s belongings. Keeping himself busy. He finds a diary, only the dates are in the future. Fanciful, clearly, but it must have been written recently, as events relate to current affairs. And then they start to come true: his father must have seen the future; or come from it. Even the things that have already happened were written in the future tense – odd…

It was intriguing, and every few years I’d come back to it, but the story wouldn’t come; all I had was that fragment, a father writing things down whose relevance will only later become clear.

I spent much of 2011 editing and compiling a non-fiction book about SF: Strange Divisions and Alien Territories (published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan). As well as including excellent chapters by the likes of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Justina Robson, James Patrick Kelly and others, I wrote a chapter about what I called topian fiction: utopias and dystopias. Among other things, I argued that fiction doesn’t come much more political than science fiction. Every time an SF writer sits down to write about a near future, or even a far future, she or he is making political choices: in that future, there either is or isn’t climate change or resource depletion; humankind has survived by making certain choices, or survival hasn’t been an issue because these problems were not genuine. We can’t get away from confronting these questions, though, whatever our beliefs; even if we sidestep these issues, we’re making a political statement by doing so.

This is an issue that has played on my mind throughout my writing career, and I’ve often been labelled a political writer, whatever that means (as I’ve already argued, how could I not be?).

But the last thing I’d ever try to do is to write polemical fiction! I don’t want to write stories with a moral. The morals in my story are a consequence of that story’s events, they’re not its raison d’être.

That note, that story fragment, finally came to life after I’d been working on Strange Divisions. To me that note suggested thriller, near-future, cataclysmic upheavals and their repercussions for my protagonists: Luke, the grieving teenager, will have to deal with events yet to happen, and chances are they’ll be events on a broad canvas. Let’s make it dramatic!

But how to write a near-future time-travel thriller about the collapse of Western civilization (as it looked like being), without getting bogged down in the politics?

That held me back for the longest time before realization struck: I do exactly what I’ve always done. I write about characters I care about, and their challenges, and forget the rest.

One of the most basic rules: it’s all about the story.

And the story is all about the characters.

Luke, sitting in his father’s office. Grieving for a father who had been distant, at best (and of course, as the story unfolds, we come to understand the reasons for his father having been so distant). Wanting to comfort his mother but not knowing how. The least he can do is sort a few things out. So he goes through his father’s laptop, saving things that his mother might need (photos, details of bill payments, that kind of thing), and deleting the junk. And then he finds the electronic journal. The first entry is a seemingly innocent note about an unseasonal snowy Easter. A note that had been written a month before that Easter… a reminder of severe weather to come.

The next note, dated for the day when Luke is reading his father’s files, is about the death that day of his uncle… From that point, Luke is drawn into an ever-more-complicated tangle of events, warnings of things to come, and attempts to change those events based on warnings from the future.

At the same time it emerges that others are aware of what Luke’s father had been involved with, and they start to close in. In a desperate race to work out who he can trust and who is an enemy, Luke and his friends find themselves in a battle to prevent a future that is unfolding already: a massive refugee crisis triggered by environmental change, and the rise of fascist right-wing groups determined to shut out the refugees and ‘defend our own’, a world tearing itself apart as things get tight.

You see? It’s that politics thing, slipping in again.

But for me, this is exactly how it should be. Story and characters must come first, but for the scenario to be credible, the extrapolations should take everything into account: we can’t ignore the uncomfortable probabilities of the near future. Last month’s IPCC report on the impact of climate change couldn’t have been better timed for Tomorrow: this is the future; this is the backdrop of any believable near-future story.

Is it crass of me to talk about things like climate change as mere mechanisms to make my stories credible? I really hope not. Because credible stories, with characters we care about, help us to see the world for how it is, and how it will very probably be.

So yes, I write political science fiction. I can’t imagine not doing so, because for me, ‘political SF’ is a synonym for ‘good SF’, and that’s what I always set out to do.

Tomorrow, a time-travel novel about the destruction of the world and those who might just be able to save it, was published in March 2014 under Keith Brooke’s pen-name Nick Gifford.

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