Billed as "Dystopian Dramas for a New Age", Friday's EIBF event featuring Samantha Shannon and James Smythe might have looked dark and even drear on paper, but was in fact a light-hearted, often hilarious discussion which would open anyone's mind to the world of books, or the parts of it they had yet to discover.
Samantha was there to talk about The Bone Season (for more on it click here, and I must just mention in passing that it had sold out in the Festival Bookshop even before the event), while James was introducing his new novel The Machine in which a woman tries to 're-build' her psychologically damaged husband in a possible near future. While Samantha's book imagines a future based on an alternate history of Britain (everything changed in 1859), James took our present concerns with global warming, war and the economy and used them to threaten his society. Both are 'genre' books, but James commented that readers are very willing to buy into new worlds such as we see here, and Samantha made reference to the fact that hers is a grounded fantasy with a strong sense of realism. From urban dystopian fantasy to modern gothic horror, Samantha - quoting Isaac Asimov on science fiction - talked about these and others as "flavours" to be applied rather than definitive genres in themselves.
The Machine is concerned with the mind and with what makes us who we are. Beth's husband Vic suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving with the army in a war, but a machine has extracted his bad memories; however, it has taken more than that, and now although this machine has been banned as too controversial and its side-effects too harmful, it is the only device Beth can use to reconstruct the husband she once knew. Samantha's book features the depths of the mind as well, seen and reached by clairvoyants. For The Bone Season she has constructed a hierarchical system of voyants, each with plausible limits, and so the world of the book is presented on both a physical and a spiritual level. Inspired by the work of Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, she has layered fantasy with reality to great effect.
James talked very interestingly about the difficulty of reaching readers (including some very close to home!), no matter what sort of book one writes, and both writers described their paths to publication, James's through what he considers to be a poor first novel, and Samantha's after her early work was rejected - something she found very painful and off-putting. Asked what advice they would give to their younger selves in the light of these experiences, they urged perseverance, resilience and openness to constructive criticism - and not reading the 'bad' Amazon/Goodreads reviews!