Science Book a Day Interviews Nina Allan


Special thanks to Nina Allan for answering 6 questions about her recently featured book – The Race

I was born in Whitechapel, London, grew up in the Midlands and West Sussex, and studied Russian literature at the University of Exeter and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. My stories have appeared regularly in the British speculative fiction magazines Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave. My story ‘Angelus’ won the Aeon Award in 2007, and my novella Spinwon the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Short Fiction in 2014. My novella The Gateway was a 2014 finalist in the Shirley Jackson Awards, and the French edition of my story cycle The Silver Wind (published by Editions Tristram as Complications) won the Grand Prix de L’imaginaire (Best Translated Work, short fiction category) in 2014. My novel The Race was shortlisted for the 2015 BSFA Award, and for the Kitschies Red Tentacle. – Adapted from Nina’s Homepage

Nina’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for The Race

The starting point for the novel was the character of Christy. The manuscript underwent many drafts and many changes during the eighteen months or so I took to complete it, but Christy’s narrative remained basically the same throughout the process. The driving force behind the novel as it eventually emerged was my concern over the political exploitation of scientific and natural resources for short-term economic gain. As these ideas began to coalesce into a story, so the ultimate direction The Race would take began to emerge.

#2 – You have received great praise for your short fiction. What does a novel allow you that your short fiction doesn’t? Was it a challenge?

I don’t think I’m a natural short story writer at all! My work is naturally ‘baggy’ – I like exploring characters’ back-stories, internalised thought processes, offshoots from the main narrative – and the problem of cramming these elements into a mere five-thousand words or so has become an increasing problem for me. I think I’ve been using short fiction as a testing ground for ideas, and for honing my technique to that point where I feel satisfied that I’ll be able to write novels that begin to approach the standard I want to produce. I said in another interview recently that as both reader and writer I seem to be allergic to conventional linear narrative, and the novels I most admire are those that concern themselves with form as well as story. Not that story isn’t important – I think it’s vital, the element that keeps you turning pages and the reason most people enjoy reading in the first place. We owe it to readers to remember that – I think the writer who wilfully ignores the reader’s love of story is pretty selfish, actually! But I think if we can offer readers something else along with that story – questions about how or why the novel has been written the way it has, textual mysteries readers can find pleasure in solving for themselves – than that can make a book all the more engrossing. My favourite novels are all of the kind that will benefit, in one way or another, from a second reading. I feel naturally at home on a broader canvas – even if my ways of filling it remain somewhat unorthodox.

#3 – In your book, how important were the technical details of genetically modifying human and dog DNA? 

I have an ongoing lifelong passion for natural history, but I am not a scientist, and cannot hope to compete in this arena with those of our more technically-minded science fiction writers who are. I believe my talents lie elsewhere, that I’m writing a very different kind of book from, say, Kim Stanley Robinson or Paul McAuley, Tricia Sullivan or Alastair Reynolds. This is why I very deliberately put these sections of the narrative into the hands of laypeople like myself – Jenna, who has grown up in the world of post-human enhancements but whose work is only tangentially connected to them, Del, who trains the dogs and has a natural affinity with them but who has only the most basic scientific knowledge of how they’ve been created, and Maree, who is genetically gifted beyond the current reach of empirical understanding. As a writer, it is not and could never be my goal to ‘explain’ science to readers. What I want to do is ask questions: to explore the consequence of certain actions, to extrapolate ideas to a logical conclusion. This doesn’t have to be the only and inevitable conclusion, more a starting point for discussion.

#4 – Your book has a certain bleakness to it. Is this a reflection of your own views about the future?

I’ve never seen my own fiction as bleak, particularly. I think there are elements in the worlds I create that reflect certain anxieties I feel, both about what is being done to our planet and about what human beings are capable of doing to one another, both as individuals and as a species. But my feelings about the human capacity for endurance, for invention, for compassion and for survival remain overwhelmingly positive. There are always grounds for hope in my stories, an opportunity for escape or change, for personal fulfilment, and for forward progress more generally.

#5 – Your book has been short-listed for the BSFA Award. How does that make you feel?

Both honoured and humbled. I’ve been delighted by the critical response to The Race. The idea that readers have enjoyed and cared enough about the novel to nominate it for an award is immensely gratifying, especially in what it reveals about the strong and healthy appetite among science fiction readers for new ideas and for unexpected ways of writing about them.

#6 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

I am currently working on a new novel. I’m about two-thirds of the way into a first draft at the moment, and it feels as if it’s coming together nicely. I’m excited about this one, and hope to be releasing more specific details about it very soon.

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