On the eve of the release of his new novel Echo Cycle, a captivating,and terrifyingly realistic vision of near future Europe that’s equal parts alternate history adventure, science fiction pot boiler and dystopian conspiracy thriller, Patrick Edwards talked to Mass Movement about the books that helped to shape, and influence, him…
Shogun – James Clavell
I tell people my to-the-death obsession with Japan started with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but that’s a lie. It began with this brick of a novel by James Clavell – when I was 10 I pulled it out of my dad’s bookshelf because I thought he’d be impressed by me conquering such a weighty tome (and because it had cool samurai sword on the cover). It’s a loose re-telling of William Adams’ story, a western mariner shipwrecked in feudal Japan; warlords clash for the seat of power and the only other foreigners are hostile Catholic priests. Our man, Blackthorne, is an Englishman and a classic fish out of water, floundering to find some sense in a land where every word and custom is a mystery, where he is repulsed by the casual violence of the rigid caste system but seduced by the omnipresent pursuit of perfection. And there’s a girl, of course, one married to another man to boot. There was sex and death and ninjas but also honour, ritual and beauty. I fell into that world and I’ve never really escaped.
Flight of the Intruder – Stephen Coonts
As a teenager I must have read this book a dozen times over. By today’s standards it’s partial, verging on jingoistic as it tells the story of Jake Grafton piloting an A6 attack bomber over Vietnam – burned out by the senseless danger of night raids over hostile territory and grieving over the loss of his bombardier (this is pre-Top Gun but has the same swagger) he plots to take the fight all the way to the enemy capital: Hanoi, a nightmare of interlacing anti-air batteries. What dragged me in was the visceral detail of living aboard a leviathan aircraft carrier and the white-knuckle terror of landing on a pitching deck, knowing you would have to face it all again the following night. There are quiet moments ashore, poignant friendships and bar brawls. One-sided it may be but two chapters in you can smell the hydraulic fluid and hear the roar of a jet engine screaming through the night, skimming the treetops.
Dune – Frank Herbert
When I lived in Indonesia I picked this up in the school library. Even now, when I read the opening page, I have to admire the sheer poetry of Herbert’s style; it’s so unashamedly convoluted, ornate and dramatic but underneath it all is a young man learning who he is. Paul Atreides, god-emperor and Kwisatz Haderach, was the same age as me and had to make a new home in an alien world – when you’re an expatriate kid moving school every couple of years, there’s a lot to identify with. Of course there’s glorious amounts of wish-fulfilment as Paul rises from vagabond prince to super-powered, worm-riding über-lord, but he’s not actually the most important character in the novel: that accolade goes to the desert of Arrakis itself, in all its raw, scraping, wind-curved beauty. From pole to erg, graben to sink, Dune is an ode to the un-caring majesty of nature and an appreciation of mindful solitude.
The Lord of The Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
No other book feels like it. It’s not a novel: it’s a spellbook, a legendarium and a complex genealogy wrapped around a buddy road movie with dashes of horror and the absurd. Tom Bombadil? No one else gets away with a Tom Bombadil, not to mention the molasses-like Council of Elrond. Despite the more self-indulgent bits I was hooked, because it’s iron core is a naive, vulnerable hero stepping from the commonplace into a wider world that’s scary and complicated and so very, very big, facing it with homespun grit. Frodo’s is everyone’s journey to adulthood and I love the poignancy of the hobbits’ return: weathered from travel and matured by war, forever apart from the home they’ve laboured to get back to.
Consider Phlebas – Iain M Banks
Banks’ books outnumber the rest on my shelves and in my opinion not one of them (with or without the ‘M’) drops the ball. His Culture series is genre-elevating and his imagination breath-taking, but his worlds never intimidate or feel over-freighted with lore. His characters eat, get drunk and sleep with each other and as such are relatable no matter how many limbs or gas bags they possess. This isn’t my favourite of his novels (that’s a tie between The Player of Games and The Business) but it was my first – a straight adventure yarn of a shape-changer and some space pirates; it’s exciting and moving, charging headlong through the middle of an interstellar war. The trick Banks pulls here is one he repeats time and again: his protagonist isn’t on the Culture’s side and it’s that resistance that makes it so gloriously appealing.
Ilium – Dan Simmons
The Hyperion Cantos get the lion’s share of the praise, but this was my first Simmons and still my favourite. How could it not be, with poetry-devouring space robots, post-humans and Greek Mythology in one magnificent wrapper? This built on something that started with Iain Banks, the notion that science fiction could be elevated beyond just entertainment into art. Simmons mixes Keats and Shakespeare with Homer, existential doubt riding in tandem with the questionable morality of posthumanism. Daunting in its ambition at face value, it does a neat trick of being a gripping piece of escapism nonetheless, slipping the more highbrow elements in under the reader’s very noses.
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
My first of his, long before American Gods hit the screens. Smaller in scope perhaps, but more intimate; a romp through a phantasmagorical mirror of London’s tube system peopled with angels and demons. Others have imitated its ambition but none have struck the balance so well: is Richard Mayhew on the adventure of a lifetime or is there just a chance he is in the grips of a delusion? There is real-world pathos here, allusions to mental health and homelessness alongside grandiose creatures from a cheese-infused nightmare. After I read this, be sure I Minded The Gap.
The Gone Away World – Nick Harkaway
A milestone on the journey to slaying the concept of genre. I saw ‘post-apocalyptic ninjas’ on the dust jacket and snapped it up but I wasn’t prepared for poignancy, tenderness, wrenching heartbreak and existential crisis. Harkaway threw whatever he wanted at his first novel, convention be damned, and I was awed by it. It followed literary fiction form in putting character at the centre of things, leaving the world hazy at the edges (as a plot device as well as stylistically); instead of forcing a world on us, he suggests and hints and allows us to paint it ourselves, making it all the more personal and vivid an experience. Ninjas and apocalypses were also present and correct.#
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
I’m going to cheat again here, because my favourite of his is actually The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet but this gets the nod because I almost never read it. On a long haul flight back from Japan the film adaptation was movie number three in a row and I turned it off, exhausted – when I came to the book I was reluctant to commit (and everyone was going on about it) so it sat untouched on my shelf for a couple of years. I gave it another go, and boy am I glad I did. Mitchell is a master of the art, weaving history with futurescapes, unabashed sci-fi vistas alive with vibrant characters who leave their mark on you. Cloud Atlas was a particular delight because of the found book (split in half and all) device which in less able hands could have been an off-putting gimmick. Also taught me the word ‘amanuensis’, which is nice.
Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
Nothing else I’ve read has ever felt more like the work of a bone fide genius, and I use that in its pre-devalued state – I believe future generations of teachers will say things like: ‘Oh yes, he was around in Murakami’s time.’ For all the skill of his composition and the breadth of his imagination his stories are simple: Kafka is an unhappy boy who runs away from home and tries to make a life in another place. It’s Bovaryesque in a way – a simple core elevated by sheer application to craft (though, unlike Flaubert, he has a bent for diving deep into the metaphysical where the fun lives). Murakami is my current obsession because as well as enjoying his work it inspires me: I want to think broader, write better. It makes me want to learn Japanese so I can read it in the original, and if that sounds too lofty a goal then I’m sure Murakami would agree it’s not what you’re seeking, but how you get there.
Echo Cycle, Patrick Edwards’s sophomore novel, will be published by Titan Books on March 10th and is available for pre-order from Amazon