brought to book

How Dal­las helped in­spire the North­ern Ire­land- based writer’s new novel…

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright Por­trait by Jesse Wild

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…”

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