Interview (Part 2): Nina Allan On Her Debut Novel, The Race

Nina Allan, photograph by Christopher Priest, 2012
Nina Allan, photograph by Christopher Priest, 2012

Welcome to the second part of an extensive interview with, Nina Allan who over the last decade has established herself as one of the UK’s most imaginative and compelling writers. This time we discuss some of the more the specifically science fictional aspects of her debut novel, The Race, as well as maps, Hastings, the best vampire film in years, fracking, politics, the planet, language, communication and much more. If you missed part one of this interview click here.

Gary Dalkin for Amazing Stories: Which leads nicely into discussing some of the more overtly science fictional aspects of The Race. It interests me a lot that, while say in most Hollywood SF there are big, usually apocalyptic, science fictional events going on and the protagonists are directly involved with these events (probably they are saving the world), your work reflects the way these things are for most people, who just get on with their lives while the world is gradually, or sometimes suddenly, transformed around them. While some of your characters are directly involved with the smartdogs – genetically modified greyhounds engineered with human DNA and originally created as part of a military programme – the other science fictional aspects of the story mostly stay in the background. So parts of the future world have suffered catastrophic environmental damage as a result of fracking, but as they do, people get on with things in spite of the wasteland Romney Marsh has become. Similarly, life goes on in the aftermath of a second, much more disastrous than the first, war between the UK and Argentina. (Though they are not given these names in the novel, and we are not told the causes of the war, as that would be no more relevant than the origins of WW2 to a novel set in the 1990s.) Today the idea of such a major war with Argentina seems unthinkable, but then our present would have seemed astonishingly unlikely to anyone 50 years ago. This strange, unexpected future seems to be part of what you mean by confounding the reader’s experience of reality… And that’s before we get to the possible alien signals or the schools of whales which make crossing the Atlantic so perilous, or the fact that it takes eight weeks in a modern ship to sail from Britain to Bonita (presumably Buenos Aires).

Nina Allan: What you say here about people getting on with their lives while the world changes around them is key for me. The Hollywood version of SF can be entertaining, but it is rarely interesting and it is becoming increasingly repetitive, feeding upon its own images in an endless cycle of reboots and sequels. The armoury of Hollywood tropes is now so extensive that there is no question of jolting the viewer out of their comfort zone – indeed, Hollywood SFFH has become its own comfort zone, an imagery of nostalgia.

Although large, one-off, world-changing events can and do happen – we need only look to 9/11 for proof of that – most of history in the making consists of the slow accretion of small-scale changes rather than grand apocalypses, and it is this pragmatic form of history that interests me most as a writer.  People struggling to survive, to continue with what passes for normal life, the subversion of power and vested interests through small but nonetheless significant acts of resistance.

As you say, no one in The Race comments on or seeks to analyse the origins of the long-ago war, because in this version of the world it’s common knowledge. Probably if one of my characters had been a political activist the emphasis would have been different, because that character would be constantly revisiting those facts and their implications as a driving concern in their own life. (That would be an interesting book to write, actually.) A character’s own interests and motivations are what guides the story for me – in fact they determine what kind of story you’re going to get.

The place names and geography of The Race’s two outer sections are not meant to be directly analogous to the geography of our own reality. I like to think of them as hazily similar, our own landscape glimpsed through shifting cloud cover. There’s nothing to say I wouldn’t want to try working with ‘proper’ alternate history in future stories, but the alternate future we see in The Race is something rather different.

AMS: It’s intriguing what you say about the geography of those parts of The Race, as in the other two sections there are places where the descriptions of Hastings are so specific I felt that I could probably draw a functional map of the town! And incidentally, if anyone wants to gain an impression of what Hastings is like they could watch Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, which I thought is not only the best vampire film I’ve seen in years, but is largely filmed in Hastings. As an aside I just wondered if you saw the film and what you thought of it?

Nina Allan: I’m glad to hear you say that about being able to draw a map, that the ‘Hastings’ sections of The Race, Christy’s and Alex’s, conveyed that kind of street-by-street detail to you, because it could be argued that the town of Hastings is a central character in the novel. It was definitely an intention and ambition of mine, to capture something of the town’s ambience and geography. Certainly all the street names in the novel, the positions of streets and buildings, parks and twittens, are exactly as you will find them in reality. I adore this kind of writing – those sections of certain crime novels that read like a street directory, for example, the poetry of names – and I enjoy trying to emulate it but it’s also a tremendous challenge. When you live in a place the small details – the very things that make a scene come alive – become so familiar there’s always a danger you’ll skip over them, or forget to describe them properly. A story of mine I’m particularly fond of is ‘Wilkolak’, which was originally published in the TTA Press anthology Crimewave 11 and that is set around Lewisham and Lee Green, where I lived before I moved down to Hastings. This is a little-known part of London, a place I’m tremendously fond of, and as with the Hastings sections in The Race I wanted to convey something of what it feels like to be there. I followed up ‘Wilkolak’ with two more stories – ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Tiger’ – both set in the same area of SE12 and SE13 and involving the same set of characters. I have two more stories in that series still to write, which will similarly revisit that locale.

Artwork by Ben Baldwin for The Nightingale - from Black Static #34
Artwork by Ben Baldwin for The Nightingale – from Black Static #34

Chris and I saw Neil Jordan’s Byzantium when it first came out, at a special showing at the Odeon in Hastings. The cinema was packed with people eager to see a vampire movie set in their own town, and I don’t think anyone was disappointed. Even Chris liked it, and he won’t go near a vampire movie normally! Personally I thought it was fantastic, the best vampire movie in years, as you say (on a par with Chan-wook Park’s exquisite Thirst and that’s saying something) and a wonderful piece of work. I don’t think there’s anything new to be said in the vampire genre now, and I wouldn’t say that Jordan’s film is groundbreaking or radical in any way. What it is is heartfelt, sincere and very beautiful. The cinematography is stunning, but what excited me most of all was the script, the juxtaposition of contemporary vernacular English with sections of a very lovingly evoked high gothic. The first thing I did when we got home after seeing the film was to look up the details of the script, which as it turned out is an adaptation by Moira Buffini of her own stage play, A Vampire Story. It’s fantastic that Jordan chose to place the writing at the centre of his movie – too many directors tend to see the script as a side-issue, an incidental. If only they realised that a good script can be read out to an empty room and still be magic, whereas no amount of clever editing and special effects can paper over the cracks in a script that is basically a dog (Inception, Trance, Oculus, I’m looking at you).

AMS: I’ve not seen Thirst, though I have a recording of it. I must move it to the top of my to-watch pile. To go back to The Race, I’m wondering how much environmental issues matter to you? The damage done by fracking forms a big part of the background in the novel, while in stories like Microcosmos a near future Britain is blighted by climate change, water shortages or other environmental problems.

Microcosmos by Nina Allan Nina Allan: As I think I mentioned in reply to an earlier question, my concerns about fracking were really the genesis for The Race as it now exists, and that was even before there was any talk of the possible exploitation of shale gas in the United Kingdom.  Environmental issues matter to me hugely. Climate change and other forms of man-made environmental degradation are the biggest issues facing us today – after all, if we don’t have a planet to live on, there’s not much point fighting over who owns which bits of it. My personal anger over the way these issues are being decided – not according to what’s best for the planet’s ecosystems, including our own, but according to which global energy corporations and property developers can make most money in the shortest time – is hard to quantify without using expletives. The capitalist doctrine of wealth through ever-increasing economic growth is not just dangerous and destructive, it’s a nonsense – our planet and its resources are finite, so it stands to reason that growth of this kind cannot persist indefinitely and the belief that it can should not be promoted. Unfortunately the way the planet’s dominant economic system works is by dismissing those who call for sustainable development and renewable resources as politically naïve.

Yes, I’m angry. My contempt for our current government, who are making every effort to bring in fracking via the back door, who are offering bribes to local communities to shut up about it, who are doing this solely for economic gain and who are attempting to scaremonger the population at large into tacit agreement through ‘what if the Russians turn the gas off?’-type arguments, knows no bounds. The politicians who sign these deals know they will never come under personal threat from the risks they take with our environment – they’ll be able to buy their way out of trouble. And this pattern is being repeated on a global scale, with First-World economies forcing the rest of the world into dangerous and wasteful modes of production – into a culture of expendability – both through the consumer-envy that has spread eastwards like a blight, and through the supposed economic necessity of ‘keeping up’.

Writers should never confuse art with propaganda. When art becomes propaganda, in almost every case it stops being art. But I admire writers who speak of the political present through their work, and I think it is crucially important for writers to speak out on issues that concern them – that concern us all. This is something I feel increasingly, and I’m sure this is going to filter through more and more into my writing.

AMS: Apart from political questions, communication, and simply trying to understanding what is really going, is a major theme which runs through The Race. Whether it be between humans and other species – whales, or the smartdogs (there is some very imaginative and persuasive writing about the way the dogs think, communicate and perceive the world around them) – between people with different first languages (for instance when Maree is reading A Thalian Odyssey in the original language) or even between (perhaps) humans and aliens. On all these different levels, as well as regular human communication and misunderstanding, The Race seems to be very much about the value of making an effort to understand those who might be different to us…

Nina Allan: Yes – language and communication is a major theme in The Race. Part of this comes out of my own interest in language, I think, and the way our relationship with language affects everything we do, think and feel. Even a very basic understanding of another person’s spoken language will bring you closer to that person, will give you a greater understanding of their worldview and culture. From my own very small experience, I could tell you that Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus in English translation has a slightly cumbersome feel – all those clauses, which are structured around a strict word order, heavily weighted towards the end of the sentence. But if you read it in German it doesn’t ‘feel’ like that at all – it’s a passionate wonderland of a book, rich and expressive, its language tailored towards the most poetic kind of exactitude. Similarly many of the English translations of Russian novels I’ve read have a quaintly nineteenth century feel – the idioms and diminutives and ways of seeing are often untranslatable. The poet Elaine Feinstein famously fell out with Josef Brodsky over Feinstein’s own translations of Marina Tsvetayeva. Feinstein wanted to convey the ‘feel’ of Tsvetayeva’s work to a modern audience, which would mean sacrificing some of the poems’ original formal constructions in favour of a more idiomatic approach, whereas Brodsky insisted that Tsvetayeva’s rhyme schemes should be retained in their entirety. To an English ear, those rhyme schemes sound archaic, nineteenth century, whereas Tsvetayeva’s poetry is anything but – she’s the Russian equivalent of Sylvia Plath. I’m with Feinstein all the way!

I don’t speak Spanish or Italian, but when I’m watching a film in either of those languages I find it intensely rewarding that, along with reading the subtitles, I am also able to hear and understand the sentence structure at least of the original language, to pick out individual words, because it brings me so much closer to the material and to the characters. Conversely, when I watch films from Japan or South Korea or Hong Kong, I am painfully aware of my total ignorance of the structure, pronunciation or even the most basic vocabulary of any of their languages, which means my understanding of their cultures and people can only ever go so far.

The perceived universality of the English language is very much a double edged sword. It brings us closer together with others, yes – but on whose terms? Who is making the compromises necessary for that to happen? We need to increase our awareness of these things, and to question the hegemony of the English language, which is really just a hangover from Empire.

The part of The Race where Maree tries to talk to the whales was so difficult to write. I wanted to try and convey at least a tiny bit of what it might feel like to be invaded by a more powerful civilization, to have your own culture and worldview dismissed as irrelevant, as too small to be worth bothering with. These are huge subjects – I can only hope I’ve succeeded in edging towards them in The Race even a little. I would recommend Sofia Samatar’s incredible debut A Stranger in Olondria as a novel that goes further and deeper in addressing issues surrounding language – and it’s no irony that the language of the book is itself a marvel.

Our perception and treatment of animals is also a subject very close to my heart. Anyone who’s spent any time at all with animals will know they possess ninety-nine percent of those qualities and attributes most commonly described as ‘human’ – that they don’t possess existential self-awareness, or use our own versions of spoken or written language is irrelevant, and should not be used as an excuse for exploiting and mistreating them. I wanted to talk about this in The Race, and I hope that some of the passages to do with the smartdogs and their thought processes do something to address these issues. A recent novel that addresses them – in relation to higher primates in this instance – with searing accuracy and deep sensitivity and awareness is Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and I would urge anyone and everyone to please read this Q&A with her at her own website.


The Race is available from Newcon Press

Visit Nina Allan online at The Spider’s House

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