According to Iain Banks, reality is for people who can’t cope with science fiction. Implicit in his reversal of the old adage is a sideswipe at literary snobbery; for there was a time – despite the lineage of (Mary) Shelley, Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Ballard and Carter – when few ‘serious’ novelists deigned to dabble in SF. Not any more. In recent years, there has been a spate of converts to the genre – specifically, its sub-genre of futuristic dystopia. Margaret Atwood, whose credentials were established with The Handmaid’s Tale, went back to the future again in Oryx and Crake, to be joined by the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go); Rupert Thomson (Divided Kingdom); Will Self (The Book of Dave); Cormac McCarthy (The Road); and Jim Crace (The Pesthouse). I’ve even staked my own small claim with The Island of Lost Souls. Trends in fiction are often resistant to easy explanation, but in this combustible, post-9/11, ecologically parlous age, a collective anxiety about the future seems to have infiltrated the literary Zeitgeist. If writers are reading the environmental and geopolitical runes correctly, we’re all heading to hell in an apocalyptic handcart.
Sarah Hall is the latest to chance her science-fictional arm. Her previous books, Haweswater and The Electric Michelangelo (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), were set in the first half of the twentieth century, with subjects ranging from dam-building in the Lake District to Coney Island’s amusement park via a