The Geography of Fear: Dave Hutchinson interviewed by Tom Hunter

The BSFA holds regular events in London, usually on the last Wednesday of the month, at the Artillery Arms near Old Street. These events are free, and open to members and non-members alike. Keep an eye on the BSFA website for news of future events. In June 2017, Tom Hunter rendezvoused with Dave Hutchinson, author of the acclaimed near-future spy series, Fractured Europe. Our asset Andrew Wallace returns safely to HQ with the following intelligence …

Any writing career has its highs and lows, and in Dave Hutchinson’s case, quite literally. One of the jobs he applied for after leaving university (he graduated from Nottingham with a degree in American Studies), before beginning a career in journalism, was air traffic controller. Dave credits the absence of planes falling from sky to the fact that he didn’t get the job. Still, it’s intriguing to think of Dave Hutchinson, author of the award-winning near-future Fractured Europe series, as an air traffic controller in a parallel universe … managing the borders between nations, between earth and sky …

The Fractured Europe series is inspired by Cold War spy fiction: bleak, powerful stories which often rely on national borders for political and narrative tension. Once the Iron Curtain fell, Dave says, the spy genre lost its way. He realised that writing the thriller that he really wanted would mean reintroducing borders. But where would the barriers lie? For some time, he had been thinking about a family of uncanny map-makers. Eventually he had them create different versions of England to overlay our own. The Fractured Europe novels follow a spy, Rudi, as he crosses the boundaries of reality, while Europe itself breaks into ever smaller nation states, some no larger than a city.

Balkanized Europe
Image credit: Karl2025

Not only is Rudi a spy, but he’s also a chef. Dave wanted a character who did an ordinary job. Besides, the universal need for food means chefs can have a kind of cross-border role; indeed, chefs are almost a nation unto themselves. Further character layers came from Dave’s experience as a service station kitchen porter and his observation that in science fiction, people don’t cook and eat enough. Soon Rudy became a little voice in his head. Dave enjoyed writing a cynic, someone who’s seen it all but still plods along and doesn’t give up.

The composition of Europe in Autumn is an interesting parallel to Dave’s fiction writing career. The novel began as fragments that slowly coalesced, were sequenced over years and then bolted together. The last chapter became the first and the whole thing was retrofitted to accommodate the map-makers.

Similarly, Dave’s writing evolved from disparate influences woven together over four decades of patient craft. He had always read science fiction and started writing his own when he was sixteen. His influences were Heinlein and Asimov, although it was Keith Roberts’s novel Pavane, about an alternative history where the Spanish Armada triumphed, that proved most inspirational. Not only did Roberts show that there could be science fiction specific to England, he also wrote about people working in filling stations rather than star ships.

Dave became a journalist when a fellow graduate suggested the role; it was writing after all. A job on Fleet Street led to experience covering politics, crime, world affairs; everything except sport. Dave continued to write science fiction in the evenings, producing short stories for magazines, small presses and online. He was happy with this cottage industry approach, which kept him going for over forty years.

The hugely positive response to the publication of Europe in Autumn had already changed Dave’s career, even before Europe in Winter won this year’s BSFA Award. Meanwhile, the television rights to all three Fractured Europe books have been sold to Seven Stories (think “Red Riding“). Pending finance, they plan to shoot in Poland and Tallinn.

In a further twist, the recent divisive European Union membership referendum and its Brexit result have made the novels even more relevant. Fortunately, the DNA of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its corresponding snarky humour run through the Fractured Europe sequence, putting the absurdity of Brexit into suitable perspective. Dave has no idea if the referendum result has boosted sales, and although Europe in Autumn has been sold in the non-fiction department of Waterstones, he denies that Brexit is somehow his fault.

In the books, Britain breaks up, but England is still in the EU. What’s most telling is how boring the alternative England is. Stripped of foreign influence, it’s a psychopathic, stodgy place of bland food with no spices, which is particularly egregious to chef Rudy.

Here too, character and author seem to share emotional space. As a science fiction writer, Dave needs the spice of surprise. Not just any surprise will do. He talks about the time he tried to write a police procedural, but got bored and introduced elves to the plot, creating what he describes as the worst book ever written. Like the river in Europe at Midnight that opens into an alternative England, the route into a fantastic realm must be the suitable one.

Appropriately, the three Fractured Europe books aren’t straightforward sequels to each other; Winter is a follow-up to both Autumn and Midnight. Dave certainly doesn’t want to write a direct sequel to Winter because people will expect that. He wants a big reveal worthy of the other Fractured Europe stories.

So far, all we know is that Europe at Dawn will feature Rudi, railways and canals. Given that the map used on the cover for an early version of Europe in Autumn was Crimea just before Russia invaded, we can only hope that if reality insists on following Dave around the way it has, there is at least a mildly optimistic outcome to the fourth part of the series. Now that really would be a twist.

Andrew Wallace is a SFF novelist and blogger whose latest novel, Diamond Roads: The Outer Spheres, is available now.

Tom Hunter is the Director of the Clarke Award.

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