February 17, 2018


Setting Greater Expectations

Nina AllenThis month, Titan Books will release a new edition of Nina Allan’s complex novel of a dystopian, but not-too-distant future society, The Race. In it, award-winning science fiction author Nina Allan proves that complex social dilemmas and troubled characters are not limited to traditional novels.

We spoke with the author at her U.K. home to find out more.

Reviewers have compared The Race to classics like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. High praise indeed.
I feel very positive about the comparison. David Mitchell was very important in the process of making speculative fiction more accessible, and even more acceptable to an audience who thought that science fiction wasn’t for them. Cloud Atlas did a great deal to open up the field for science fiction writers who cherish literary values, and for mainstream literary writers who want to experiment more with the tropes and ideas of science fiction. Station Eleven has continued that trend. It has bridged the gap between literary fiction and science fiction, reaching out to a vast reader demographic.

Why do you suppose that is?
I think people enjoy the characterization in these works. In Station Eleven, Mandel took an apocalyptic disaster story and made it about ordinary individuals in a very interesting way. “Hard” science fiction writers like Clarke or Egan are more wrapped up in the technology, and haven’t paid as much attention to character.

TheRace_NinaAllen_170pxWhat are the parallels in your novel to those works?
I like to think of The Race as a “Mobius strip” of a novel. There are four main characters, each comprising about a quarter of the book, and each with their own story in different, non-sequential periods of time. Each one seems to be a different story, but there are filaments of interconnection. By the end of the book, it becomes clear how the characters and the supposedly science fiction segments are all related. The epilogue is the story of what happens later in life to a character from the first part of the book.

When you were writing, did you have a specific purpose or end goal in mind for your audience?
In my writing, I’ve always been obsessed with possibilities—where roads in life diverge. Everyone on the planet makes myriads of decisions, some of which appear inconsequential while others have huge consequences. I love giving readers something they can think about, something that they can work out themselves. It’s like some forms of gaming where you progress forward and make choices, and your own choices in that narrative will impact how you see it.

So, you’re involving the reader in the journey.
Yes. It’s giving the reader enough to make them feel they can engage with those characters, and keep going—much like a TV series or even a video game, where you’ve invested yourself in the characters as much as the story arc. Those I call “consumers of story” are invested for the long term, and are willing to keep turning the page wherever the story goes.

Does that mean these consumers are becoming less interested in “snacking” on small bits of stories, and more open to stories with direction and duration?
Oh, yes. I think it’s really positive. Ten years ago, you heard it said that the Internet was going to be the doom of the book. We were all going to be so Attention Deficit that we won’t be able to concentrate on longer narrative. I think it has been the opposite. What digitalization has brought is a diversification of approach. It opens up new possibilities for telling stories. You can still use a common old book to do that.

Are there other ways to tell stories like this?
I think books are one of many ways, but I’m not dogmatic about it. For me, books are still the number one method of communicating. Nothing else gives that one-on-one experience, that level of immersion. A book is the most pungent, poignant, and personal version of virtual reality that exists. When you open a book, it’s just you and that world. You create everything. As you turn the pages, you’re creating the characters—what they look like, how they sound. You’re creating their surroundings. It’s a completely interactive process.

That’s my personal view; I adore books. Other people may feel differently, and will find other ways of creating story, but I don’t think any one way of doing this excludes the others. There’s room for everything, so I’m not at all worried about the death of the book.

I’m sure that would sit well with librarians. What would you tell them about this particular book?
First, I’d say that if you’ve read Cloud Atlas, you will like this book. Also, it will appeal to those who prefer works at the edge of a genre, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. That was undoubtedly science fiction, but also preoccupied with human relationships and issues. There are more and more books of this type, that probe into things that are happening in the world—like climate change and globalization—about where we are going as a race.

Does that have anything to do with your book title, The Race?
The title of the novel is very relevant. It’s a story about people—ordinary people in extraordinary situations. It’s about the human race, but it also has genetically altered beings (dogs with human DNA, originally designed for military use) who race for sport. It also deals with people who are genetically altered—originally to communicate with these “smart dogs”—who are essentially a new race.


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