Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Another Country

It's all Syd Field's fault. In 1979 he published a 'how-to' book on screenplays, based on his course in Sherman Oaks Experimental College, that first codified the three act structure of modern films - setup, confrontation, resolution - along with the carefully timed plot points on which the narrative turns. With added flourishes, this story arc dominates film narrative, and because film is the major fictional medium of the twentieth and (so far) twenty-first centuries, it has fed back into the novel form too (along with 'do you earn a living from writing?' and 'do you write under your own name?', 'how many books have you sold to the movie business?' is one of the most common questions asked of authors).

Fairyland's structure is a deliberate burlesque of the three-act structure. Sure, there are three acts. Sure, they follow Field's pernicious formula. But they aren't narrated from the point of view of what would be the traditional hero - in this case, a frighteningly bright little girl who achieves godhood, and along the way bestows consciousness on a select group of genetically engineered servants. Instead, the first and third acts are told from the viewpoint of a bit-player who's caught up in the little girl's cunning plans, and the second, while featuring our hapless hero, Alex Sharkey, is told from the point of view of an aid worker in Paris's bidonvilles. The 'real' story happens in the interstices of their stories; I was still, and still am, interested in people caught up in history, rather than the people who, supposedly, make history.

Fairyland was written in 1995, using a background I elaborated, in true SF tradition, in several short stories and novellas (collected in the out-of-print Invisible Country). I had decided to quit academia, and this freed me up to have as much irresponsible fun as possible with cutting-edge biology. It was also, very deliberately, set in London, Paris, and Albania, to get away, however briefly, from the American hegonomy. And it was my first near-future novel, which allowed me to warp and pour in as much as I knew of the present. Which is why, perhaps, it's written in the present tense (as are The Secret of Life and White Devils, which with Fairyland form a loose trilogy about biotech-dominated near futures)

It won a couple of prizes, which meant a lot to me then, if only because by the time they were announced I was a freelance writer. It was one of the first biopunk (or - tip of the hat to Paul di Filippo, ribofunk) SF novels. And it started out in London, not far from where I'm typing this, in the Ladies Smoking Room of the former Midland Hotel at St Pancras (which ten years later I visited, in its glorious decrepitude), where now, as in the novel, Eurostar trains set out for the continent.

And now, it's due to be reissued for the second time. You can read an extract here, or buy the first reissue (why not?) here.


Anonymous Martin Wisse said...

setup, confrontation, resolution

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis?

Glad to hear Fairyland is being reissued; wasn't part of it set in Den Haag as well? Or at least I remember reading part of it set on the same tramline as I was riding to get to a sf club meetin there...

June 12, 2009 11:34 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Martin, 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' cracks the middle-volume-of-the-trilogy problem. That Fairyland was antithesis, antithesis, antithesis, was, perhaps, a bit too off-putting for some.

The stories that preceeded Fairyland were set in Den Haag - 'Prison Dreams', 'Dr Luther's Assistant' and 'Children of the Revolution' were set in Den Haag (I wrote 'Prison Dreams' straight after the World SF Convention at Den Haag in, good grief, 1991). A couple of incidents in them are alluded to in Fairyland; Alex Sharkey spent some time there.

June 13, 2009 6:00 pm  

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