The worst thing that can happen to a writer of science fiction and fantasy is to have what one does taken seriously. The genre is at its most anarchic, freewheeling and purely enjoyable when it is allowed to flourish in the cheap seats. When critical acclaim from the smarter quarters of the literary world does arrive for the genre writer, it has a tendency to flatten what was previously energetic. From H G Wells to J G Ballard, the process is familiar. A present-day case study is Ned Beauman, whose piling up of awards (the Goldberg Prize, the Encore Award, a longlisting for the Booker Prize, ascension to the Granta list of best young British novelists) since the publication of his first novels, Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, has led to his work acquiring an unwelcome sheen of worthiness.
Beauman’s latest novel, which has already been optioned for television, is described by its publisher as an ‘incisive zoological thriller’. The set-up is intriguing. We are in the 2030s and many of the world’s species are further along the path to extinction than they are now. Technology is achieving all manner of miracles, however, and has helped humankind retain remnants of lost species in vast, seemingly impregnable biobanks. One day these sanctuaries are attacked. The key to repulsing this assault lies with the titular aquatic creature: ‘A bumpy, greyish fish, about five inches long fully grown. It had a toadlike face with bulging eyes and a fat upper lip; looking at it, you felt that if it were a human being it would sweat from the forehead all the time and yet have a shockingly cold handshake.’ It is also a fish which turns out to be ‘one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet’.
Beauman presents us with a pair of characters whose personalities split along predictable lines: the biologist Karin Resaint, who has been studying the lumpsucker out at sea (and who isn’t averse to the kind of cool, mutually appreciated one-night stands that people seem to have a lot of in