CHRIS BECK­ETT

we meet the so­cial worker turned au­thor.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Joby Ses­sions

Most peo­ple’s pro­fes­sional lives wind down when they hit 60. Not in the case of Chris Beck­ett, who re­cently be­came a sex­a­ge­nar­ian. As his lat­est novel, Daugh­ter Of Eden, is pub­lished, his writ­ing ca­reer, painstak­ingly built through years when he would have at most a cou­ple of short sto­ries a year in print, is tak­ing off in earnest. “I feel very priv­i­leged,” he says. But per­haps it’s we read­ers who should cast our­selves as the for­tu­nate ones be­cause Beck­ett’s fic­tion is re­ally rather spe­cial, so­cial SF that’s rich and com­plex. Take the new novel. It’s the un­set­tling con­clu­sion to a tril­ogy that be­gan with Arthur C Clarke Award win­ner Dark Eden (2012), which ex­plored how a strange and warped so­ci­ety de­vel­ops after a cou­ple are stranded on a planet far from home.

“Dark Eden was all about how peo­ple use the past to make sto­ries that help them make sense of the present, so I thought it would be fun to jump ahead a cou­ple of cen­turies to when the events in Dark Eden them­selves had be­come the story, and see what hap­pens,” says Beck­ett, speak­ing of both Daugh­ter Of Eden and its pre­de­ces­sor, Mother Of Eden. In part, says Beck­ett, he was think­ing here about the di­vide be­tween Sunni and Shia Is­lam. This dates back to events in the af­ter­math of the death of Muham­mad, yet dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what hap­pened echo down the cen­turies.

dif­fi­cult times

At the novel’s cen­tre lies Angie Red­lantern. Born with “what we’d call a cleft palate and a hair lip”, she’s a trou­bled woman liv­ing in trou­bled times, when ten­sion on the iron­i­cally named Eden is about to ex­plode. But this isn’t a book about re­li­gious con­flict per se, it’s a book about how world­views, in­clud­ing those “that are sim­ply not vi­able any longer, that sim­ply don’t make sense” can collide.

As we’ve seen re­cently with the EU ref­er­en­dum, such col­li­sions can leave even peo­ple from the same com­mu­ni­ties star­ing at each other in mu­tual mis­com­pre­hen­sion. “We form these tribes and then we find it very dif­fi­cult to think out­side the box of our par­tic­u­lar tribe or group,” says Beck­ett. “It’s com­fort­ing to think of these peo­ple as bad or mis­guided, rather than just peo­ple with a dif­fer­ent view.”

In­trigu­ingly, you can read Beck­ett’s ca­reer as leav­ing him far bet­ter placed than most to avoid falling into this trap. Be­fore be­com­ing a full-time writer, he was a so­cial worker, work­ing pri­mar­ily with fam­i­lies. “You’re deal­ing with un­happy, strug­gling and dys­func­tional fam­i­lies,” he says. “Also, you’re very aware that you’re deal­ing with peo­ple on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety, peo­ple who have got the worst deal.”

So­cial work has a rep­u­ta­tion, at least in Bri­tain’s right-wing press, as the pre­serve of woolly lib­er­als who couldn’t get by in the “real” world. The re­al­ity, says Beck­ett, is that things don’t get much more real than in­ter­ven­ing in trou­bled lives. “It’s a very dis­tress­ing thing to be in­volved in,” he says. “The fam­ily is a very sa­cred thing in our minds. You don’t break fam­i­lies up, but equally you don’t let kids suf­fer in fam­i­lies, so you’re in a no-win sit­u­a­tion.”

Lat­terly, Beck­ett moved over to be­come a so­cial work lec­turer, and still teaches from time to time (“When you’re a writer, it’s quite nice oc­ca­sion­ally to do some­thing that in­volves other peo­ple”), but look for ev­i­dence of his for­mer pro­fes­sion in his writ­ing and it’s there in abun­dance. Most ob­vi­ously, Marcher (2009) was “set in a world where ben­e­fit claimants ba­si­cally live apart from the rest of the com­mu­nity”. It was a book in­spired, if that’s the right word, by what he saw around him in Cam­bridge.

“Cam­bridge is an af­flu­ent city,” he says. “But I worked as a so­cial worker in Cam­bridge, around the mar­gins. Out of sight of most peo­ple who come to Cam­bridge as tourists or pro­fes­sion­als, there are lit­tle pock­ets of real poverty and mis­ery and des­per­a­tion.”

life lessons

When SFX sug­gests that Beck­ett is, if not a bet­ter writer, than at least a dif­fer­ent one for hav­ing gone through this par­al­lel pro­fes­sional ca­reer, he doesn’t dis­agree. “When I was young, I didn’t know enough about life [to write],” he says, “it was dif­fi­cult to write.” The novel he fin­ished at the age of 19, you’d guess, is never go­ing to see the light of day.

Other work, how­ever, is im­mi­nent. Hav­ing for years writ­ten SF short sto­ries, Beck­ett says these seem to have dried up. But he clearly likes the form be­cause he’s writ­ten a non-genre col­lec­tion, Spring Tide. It’s some­thing of a gam­ble, he con­cedes, but adds: “Most sci-fi read­ers read other stuff, it’s the other way round that’s the prob­lem…”

As for his next novel, it’s a tale of the USA set a cen­tury from now. In the south-west, there’s drought. On the east coast, hur­ri­canes blow. The coun­try has a huge prob­lem with in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion. He’s find­ing it tough to write: Eden he can make up, Bri­tain he knows, the near-fu­ture US in its way is more ex­otic than both – es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent race for the White House. “The in­ven­tion in my book is pal­ing in com­par­i­son with what’s hap­pen­ing,” he laughs. “I kind of think, ‘Come on Don­ald Trump, cut me a break here…’”

Daugh­ter Of Eden is out now from At­lantic Books.

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