brought to book
How Dallas helped inspire the Northern Ireland- based writer’s new novel…
Belfast’s Ian McDonald on crafting social satire.
The power of bad television to inspire good ideas sounds like an idea for a PhD thesis. In which case, we humbly suggest that any budding doctoral candidates speak with Ian McDonald about a soap reboot that’s lately been airing on Channel 5. It was while watching Dallas, he says, that he came up with the idea for his new novel, Luna, due in September. “All the best ideas are collisions,” he says, “car crashes of the diverse. The idea of a new take on the dynastic drama piled headlong into nd something Gary Wolfe said on the Coode Street podcast about old tropes made new and how he would welcome a new take on the Moonbase story. I’ve always loved Moon stories and lo, a book, books, were born.”
The novel ( the first in a sequence) tells of a “dynastic war between five family corporations”. But this isn’t simply a case of warring oil barons being transposed to our satellite. The “unique constraints” of life away from Earth play a key role. “After a couple of years [ on the Moon] your muscular- skeletal system will have atrophied – adapted, I suppose – to a degree where a return to Earth gravity will kill you,” explains McDonald. “So everyone has to choose: ‘ Do I stay or do I go?’ And if you stay, there is no way back. It’s a great constraint for what is, in some ways, a Mafia movie.”
Mobsters on the Moon indeed. So what’s the plot based around? “Intrigue, rivalry, love and betrayal,” says McDonald, “family and loyalty, sex and violence, and money. Parents and children and power – and the loss of power. Bossa- nova, Olympic handball, knife- fighting and a possibly unique use for a Hugo- award style rocket. Nude cake- baking. The usual stuff…”
Economics too. More specifically, on McDonald’s future Moon, criminal law and civil law don’t exist. There’s “only contract law so everything is negotiated personally”. What drew McDonald to this notion? “It’s a couple of things,” he says. “One is that SF, particularly in the US, is either economically liberal and socially conservative, or economically conservative and socially liberal. I wanted to play with a society that is both economically ( neo) liberal and socially liberal.
“The second is that I wanted to play with Margaret Thatcher’s notorious adage, ‘ There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families.’ ‘ Okay,’ says my sci- fi sense, ‘ Let’s see what happens when we build a world around that…’ So it’s a social satire, in a sense, though it seems these days that unless a book has the words ‘ SATIRE ALERT’ watermarked on every page, many readers think it’s the literal expression of your thoughts and values…”
Whatever readers might think McDonald means, one thing they’re sure to notice is the change in setting. In his last three novels for adults – River Of Gods, Brasyl and The Dervish House, set respectively in India, Brazil and Turkey, he’s explored the developing world. When SFX suggests the change in locale was to avoid painting himself into a corner, he concurs. “I didn’t want to get trapped into Developing Economy Bingo – tick, Malaysia; tick, Nigeria – and to be honest, I think those stories are better told by other people.”
McDonald is talking about writers from outside the Englishspeaking and European worlds who have begun to break through. Does he think his novels helped open up a space for these writers? “I’d be honoured if that were the case,” he says. “I see those books as a consciousness- raising exercise in some ways, and also my own riposte to the then- unspoken biases in SF.”
In what’s been a busy year, McDonald has also been revisiting his own past. In addition to a “best- of ” short story collection, the indie imprint PS is this summer publishing a volume of his Mars stories and a novella, The Locomotives’ Graveyard, also set on the Red Planet. These are tales that take place in the same eerie, post- cyberpunk, magic realism- tinged fictional universe as Desolation Road ( 1988).
So what does the older McDonald think of his debut? It’s still being translated and discovered by new readers, he says, adding, “I couldn’t write that book now, which leaves me with the dismal prospect that I wrote my best stuff at the start of my career and it’s been a slow slide into mediocrity ever since.”
Is there a sense that maybe you do stuff that’s less shaped by genre and writing craft constraints when you’re younger? “It’s possible,” he says, adding that he “knew nothing, Jon Snow” back then and had to rewrite Desolation Road extensively.
Nonetheless, he cautions against getting too hung up on the advice of so- called experts. While there’s craft to be learned, he says, “trying to hit all the beat points and plot turns and emotional journeys” can strip out “life” and “emotional force”. And this, incidentally, comes from a man whose successful career in TV ( now behind him) included bringing the Muppets to Northern Ireland for Sesame Workshop, so he doubly knows of what he speaks.
“If you follow any screenwriting forums – don’t! – the didacticism and ideology are almost theological in their passion and fervour,” he says, “particularly as most movies are shit anyway.” Better to learn about “structure and story”, he advises, “then make it work for you”.
Luna will be published by Gollancz in September.
“Family and loyalty, sex and violence, nude cake- baking. The usual stuff…”