Making Big Dramas out of Small Places

Screenshot 2015-08-22 19.15.49It’s handy living in Edinburgh: you have a major book festival – the Edinburgh International Book Festival – right on your doorstep. I headed for the website to see who or what is on.  I was a wee bit disappointed to find that science fiction didn’t seem to feature as one of the 46 categories listed. In previous years Iain Banks was a definite choice for a ticket, but alas that’s not to be anymore.

So a spot of sleuthing (crime fiction is one of the categories) was required—is there anything science-fictional at all in the programme? It just so happens there is. Amongst a few other events, I discovered Michael F Russell talking at an author’s event entitled Making Big Dramas out of Small Places.

Michael F Russell is a new name to me, so I was delighted to find his programme blurb include the phrase: “Russell’s Lie of the Land is a claustrophobic thriller set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland”

Gotcha. Tick. A science fiction book.

Lie of the Land is Russell’s debut novel and is set on the West coast of Scotland after some sort of technology apocalypse.Lie-of-the-Land

So this was a chance to find out a little bit about a new writer (to me), and to help decide whether I should read the book; what better way than to have the writer read a page or two?

It happens that Russell reads well with the soft and slightly shy accent of a West Coaster that was perfect for his chosen passage, and probably for the whole of his book. It was easy to imagine the sound of the waves on the shore above the rumble of traffic around Charlotte Square on the other side of the tent canvas, as we follow the hero of the book entering the village of Inverlair.
New American author Sara Taylor was also sharing the bill, and she read from her debut novel, The Shore. It was a good contrast, coming as she does from the east coast of the US.

And the connection was cunning: both books are based around small coastal communities, with Taylor’s book set on a group of islands off the Virginia coast.

I enjoyed Taylor’s reading, taking us down the track to the farmhouse on her bike, and I enjoyed listening to her tell us that the novel was really a collection of interconnected short stories, a bit like a television series of standalone episodes making up a whole. But not an SF book, I assumed, but worth a mention in Shoreline of Infinity as after all its title is The Shore.

After the readings, we got into the chat. The question about SF was raised  swiftly by the Chair, Stuart Kelly of the Scotsman. Russell parried well, describing his book as “Tech-noir, not SF as such” using the setting to follow his lead character, Carl the old-school journalist, in his journey of an  “outsider becoming an insider” in the community of Inverlair.

Russell explained he chose the name Inverlair because it was the name of a Lodge near Inverness used as a place to keep British spies in the Second World War who for some reason were not able to operate anymore. They were given every comfort, but were not allowed to leave. Inverlair Lodge, Russell told us, was the inspiration for Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. And so it was: more information at The Unmutual Prisoner Locations Guide.

9780553417739Kelly asked whether SF helps in developing that sense of isolation; Russell agreed. I can’t argue with that. SF is a sandpit where writers can play without the constraints of the present and the reality around us, and is all the better as a place to stretch the imagination.

As for it not being labelled ’SF’ it doesn’t really matter; we know it’s SF, where one of Shoreline of Infinity’s definitions of science fiction is where you take the reality of the now, turn it upside down, and give it a good shake to see what falls out of its pockets. Setting a book in the future is also a given.

Taylor too talked about the ‘blurring of reality’ in her book, and from the extract she read I sensed a dream-like state, with a few echoes, to me, of Christopher Priest’s The Dream Archipelago.

But it was only afterwards, while doing some further detective work (okay, flicking through the pages of her book in the bookshop tent) did I discover that Taylor takes her story forward into the future. Another modestly disguised science fiction book after all. Now I’m intrigued.

And the inevitable final question from Stuart Kelly: what’s next? Michael F Russell tells us he’s just completed a ‘proper’ SF book.

Both Lie of the Land and The Shore go on my to-read list.