BROUGHT TO BOOK
How the author took over 30 years to become an overnight success
Dave Hutchinson shows us Europe At Midnight.
There are times when fiction seems to foreshadow events in the real world. This has happened with Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, which imagines a continent 50- 70 years hence where free movement across borders is a distant dream and “Europe is balkanising itself into smaller and smaller and weirder nations.” The idea that his novels have presaged what we see on our TV screens, as desperate Syrian refugees flee civil war, and the Hungarian and Croatian authorities put up razor wire to stop them crossing the border from Serbia, gives Hutchinson little comfort.
“Events have kind of caught up with the books, and I take absolutely no pleasure from it whatsoever,” he tells SFX. “Seriously, people are dying, people are getting hurt, their lives are being completely screwed. I’m watching the news and there are people rioting at the Hungarian border.”
Yet Europe In Autumn and its soon- to- be- published successor, Europe At Midnight, which follows an English intelligence officer whose adventures take him into a parallel world, were never especially intended as political novels. Rather, says Hutchinson, he started out wanting to write “an entertainment” that made “a few satirical points” about why the Schengen Zone is “a historical blip” that won’t last into the next century.
He also wanted to write an exciting espionage thriller. “I’ve probably read more spy fiction than I have science fiction down the years,” Hutchinson says. He cites American writer Alan Furst, whose novels are set around the outbreak of World War Two, as a particular influence.
Whatever the influences that went into its creation, Europe In Autumn, the dystopian tale of an Estonian chef who gets mixed up with smugglers, was a slow- burn success through 2014, and was nominated for the Clarke, BSFA and John W Campbell Awards.
on the shelf
“It was a big thing for me actually to get a novel sold,” says Hutchinson. “It’s still a big thing for me actually to go into a bookshop and see it on the shelf. I’m not used to that either.”
As to why this might be such a big thing for Hutchinson personally, it helps to know a little about his biography. He’s found success late, in his fifties, and grew up in the Sheffield of the 1960s and 1970s, “a kind of science fiction desert”.
There were no SF writing groups to help him get started, or none he knew about. Instead, he read Asimov, Heinlein and Larry Niven before stumbling upon the work of British author Keith Roberts ( 1935- 2000). “One day I picked up a copy of Pavane [ an alternate history fix- up novel that has the destruction of English protestantism as a starting point] and you could have heard my jaw drop from 20 or 30 miles away,” he says. Why? Because Roberts wrote about English landscapes and people.
The kind of people you’d meet in Sheffield? “Yeah, people who lived on your street rather than piloted mile- long space vessels and blew up stars,” he says. “Not that I’ve got anything against that.”
Thus inspired, he started out as a writer in the late 1970s, and published four volumes of SFF short stories by the time he was 21. Then, around the time he went to university, he found himself with nothing to say as a writer.
“I just dried up,” he says. “I’m terrified it’s going to happen to me again.” Instead of forging a career as a novelist, he worked as a journalist.
Seen against this backdrop, the ever- so subtle name change for his later work is revealing. “I made a conscious decision to [ differentiate] because there’s an early period and there’s the rest,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of any of [ my early work], although I do look back and occasionally cringe, but it’s done and I’m not sorry I did it. I’m sorry I didn’t keep doing it, because I might have been a little bit further ahead with my career than I am at the moment. That 10 years does bother me sometimes.”
In 2010, he was made redundant and, to fill the time, took an online fiction- writing course. From this came a short story, “The Incredible Exploding Man”. “The first draft was really terrible, but we kicked it about a bit and rewrote it, and it was a bit better,” he says.
Hutchinson is probably being a little modest here. After his decade away, he’d gone back to writing short fiction, and even a novel, The Villages ( 2001). His 2009 novella The Push was nominated for a BSFA Award. Nevertheless, “Exploding Man” is important because editor Ian Whates picked it up for the first Solaris Rising collection, where it sat in the company of Alastair Reynolds, Pat Cadigan and Ian McDonald. The connection with Solaris, publishers of the Fractured Europe sequence, was made.
Today, he’s one of Solaris’s biggest names. He’s working on what he says will be the final Fractured Europe book. It’s been tough going, but he’s optimistic he’ll hit a November deadline: “I actually worked out what the plot was last week…”
Europe At Midnight is published by Solaris on 5 November.