David Barnett is described on Amazon as “an award-winning journalist, multimedia content manager of the Telegraph & Argus, cultural reviewer for The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, and has done features for The Independent and Wired. He is the author of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, Angelglass (described by The Guardian as “stunning”), Hinterland, and popCULT!.
On Speculative Fiction:
Sarah Olsen: The tag-line at the end of the description of your novel Hinterland reads “Once you’ve noticed just how weird life really is, can you ever go home again?” Your blog is named for Hinterland. Is this just a matter of timing (your blog being born around the publication of the novel, perhaps)? or is it indicative of Hinterland being “that” novel: autobiographical, thematic, testimonial– asserting something about your own worldview?
David Barnett: Hinterland was written a long time ago, and is no longer in print, but it does have a place very close to my heart – I think first novels always do, like first kisses. Though, now I come to think about it, as rough-and-ready as Hinterland is, I’d probably say my first novel was better than my first kiss. Anyway. Yes, blog title was a matter of timing – I thought it had a nice ring to it and it was set up around the publication of Hinterland… which I now realise was a shocking 10 years ago! Hinterland was my “throw everything in – including the kitchen sink” novel, bringing together all my obsessions/interests at the time… it’s all urban myths and Forteana and millennial hedonism. A lot of it makes me cringe now, but it was a case of distilling a place and time into prose form, and it is what it is. And I still think that the central theme – that we walk around with our eyes closed most of the time, distracted by fripperies – still holds true.
SO:You wrote in 2008 about allowing the opportunity for quality independent writing to rise to the top in the way of independent music and films. In the last seven years, have we seen your hopeful speculation come closer to reality? Which do you think is more likely to aid the cause: more time or different circumstances? Alterations to Amazon’s platform, or alternative platforms? (I think I’ve seen some proto-forms of this in some interactive-storytelling projects online, such as the now-complete Shadow Unit and the just-starting Bookburners (on Serial Box).) Do you think it’s possible to combine elements of Book Festivals with the Hugo award reading-before-voting process and come up with a Sundance for books?
DB: I think we have, and we haven’t. The whole indie and self-publishing movement has progressed a lot since 2008. But it takes time and money to make a movie, even a short film. You can, theoretically, rattle a novel off in four weeks and self-publish on Kindle at zero cost. So I think there’s a quality factor that perhaps isn’t quite as much of an issue in movies and music, and also a quantity issue. There are some great self-published books out there, but sometimes it’s like finding a needle in an ever-growing haystack. Indie presses, of course, are a different matter and I think we’re a lot more open now to finding good quality books from non-mainstream publishers – obviously the internet and social networks can help spread the word a lot quicker and more widely. A Sundance for books is a wonderful idea; a physical festival where indie publishers and self-published authors could do readings, panels, give out samples… it could be a great shop-window. The independent scene, though, in any medium, is vital. When mainstream purveyors of culture are less and less prone to taking risks, the indie scene is where the real pioneering work takes place, and inevitably when something does rise above the rest it gets noticed and eventually appropriated by the mainstream, allowing new sub-genres and movements to flourish on a bigger stage.
SO: This summer, I was on a panel at 4th Street Fantasy Conversation entitled “The Romance of the Breakdown,” questioning why the end of the world as we know it continues to be so popular in SF. I asserted that, through exploring the ramifications of what is saved or lost, we examine what achievements of human culture/society are worth preserving. You concluded in a 2009 piece that by coining the appelation “cosy catastrophes” Brian Aldiss may have been “simply recognising that decency might just win out over the bleak, horrific future” so often envisioned. What do you think? Whether cosy or bleak, why (or how)(or for what purpose) does peri-apocalyptic fiction thrive?
DB: Can I go on the record to say I hate post-apocalyptic fiction? I haven’t watched a zombie movie since the original Dawn of the Dead. I hate it not because I think it’s badly written or produced, but because for all its faults I’m a big fan of modern society. And as much as I want to believe that human decency will win out over savagery, I increasingly believe that given the opportunity, we as a species would happily slaughter each other for the last can of Coke. Actually, I’ll amend that; Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read because amid the bleakness it offers hope. But I wonder if that’s just a fictional construct, as beautiful as it is. It’s a fair point that post-apocalyptic fiction can be a warning to the present, and remind us what we seem forever to be on the brink of losing, though. Would be nice if world leaders would read more of it.
SO: Your recent Book Blog columns in the Guardian have included pieces about a pregnant Spider Woman, Green Arrow speaking to the situation in Ferguson, George RR Martin defending a rape scene, and superheroes appearing in literary fiction. How much do you think genre reflects the topics with which society at large is struggling? Is this engagement with “the issues” enjoying an increase? does it reflect the higher pitch of vigorous discourse in the world? or is the appearance of an increase a case of internet-lens perception?
DB: I think genre – whether books, comics, film or whatever – has to shine a light on our modern society for it to be at its most interesting. That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a thumping good read for its own sake, but I much prefer it when my fantasy reflects the real world in some way, and I think this is something that is happening more and more. There’s nothing worse than a dull, worthy “message” novel without lashings of entertainment, though, so it’s a fine line to tread.
SO: Another Book Blog column pondered “Where are tomorrow’s Science Fiction Grand Master writers?” You named some deserving names– most notably Chip Delaney, who subsequently received the award. But you refrained from speculating just who among your own spec fic colleagues will go on to build stellar, lifetime-achievement-type careers. Break free now: who do you think will be named Grand Master in 2050?
DB: Me. Ha ha, I’ve more chance being named the new Grandmaster Flash (smiley face). OK, 35 years’ time? We’ll be looking at people who embraced the different, the diverse, the ground-breaking, the cross-genre. Come back to me in 2050 and we’ll see how many of these names are on the list: Nick Harkaway. Kameron Hurley. Zen Cho. John Scalzi. Chuck Wendig. Sarah Pinborough. James Smythe. Ann Leckie.
SO: Interesting choices that make me want to go read. Thanks again, David, for the thoughtful response to my questions. Hopefully it won’t be 2050 before we talk again! Readers can find David Barnett on Twitter at @davidmbarnett and at his wordpress website, Postcards from the Hinterland. Check out his Amazon Author Page here. GIDEON SMITH AND THE MASK OF THE RIPPER is out October 13, 2015, from Tor Books.