we meet the social worker turned author.
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.
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.”
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.