And again… personal news, book review

Personal: Our Glossop Bookfest team has now settled on a date and venue for our celebration and promotion of local authors: Saturday 12th November in the Methodist Church, Glossop. There will be stands for authors to offer their books for sale and discuss them with visitors and potential buyers, creative writing workshops for all ages, children’s activities, storytelling for children and grown-ups… And before that date we plan to run one or two open mic/ spoken word evenings, probably in the Globe, a wonderful old-style pub that sells top-quality vegan food.

Review: I spent a long and rewarding time reading and re-reading Stuart Aken’s An Excess Of… For anyone not already familiar with Stuart Aken’s work, his novels are predominantly classed as science fiction. Like many of the best science fiction writers he’s not only skilled at world-building but also at using his imagined settings to explore various aspects of the human condition and human responses to challenging situations. His characters are always three-dimensional, with intriguing back stories and behavioural habits that as readers we can always understand even when we can’t empathise. He’s also extremely well read, and although he tends to wear his learning lightly, his wealth of knowledge invariably enriches his writing.

An Excess Of… isn’t science fiction as the genre is normally understood, so to that extent it’s a departure from Stuart’s previous books. However, the Aken characteristics aren’t hard to see in this new novel: world-building, varieties of character, human responses to challenges, and wide-ranging information brought to bear on the development of the story. It’s an environmentalist novel, focussing on the climate crisis, a theme that’s become popular among novelists, publishers and readers during the past few years. However, two major characteristics distinguish it from the fashionable norm. First, rather like Linda Nicklin’s Storm Girl, it’s a people story, character-driven more than plot-driven. Second, in contast to most authors writing on this theme, Stuart recognises that the global climate is a non-linear dynamic system and he understands the implications of this. Put simply, climate change won’t be gradual or one-dimensional; it will be sudden – “catastrophic” in the mathematical sense of the word – and multifaceted.

The plot is carefully constructed but simple. A decrepit ship caught in a tropical storm is sinking, there’s violence against or amongst the crew, and in the end it’s destroyed by a bomb. Thus, the novel begins with a metaphor for the condition of the planet. Six passengers escape to a small island, where they find enough food and fresh water to survive and the remains of huts left by previous occupants to provide shelter. The story is narrated by one of six, Appie, a young and brilliant woman with radical views. The other five comprise a female rabbi, an Islamic activist who pretends to be an imam, a Catholic bishop, the bishop’s young male secretary, and the wife, now widow, of the ship’s captain. The interactions among these characters allow conventional attitudes and values to be examined, and – because of the circumstances facing the castaways – challenged. For example, Appie’s astringent opinions, uncompromisingly articulated, force us to question not only our accepted views about sex, nudity and personal morality, but also to confront the uncomfortable notion that established monotheistic faiths as well as global capitalism are culpable for the environmental crisis facing the world.

It wouldn’t be fair to author, publisher or reader if I were to include spoilers in this review, but nor would it be helpful if I didn’t outline more of the story. Three quarters of the way through the novel, climate catastrophe strikes in the most dramatic way. A white-knuckle ride ensues as the castaways try to find a way of surviving and reaching what remains of humanity. Not all of them live to the end of the novel. During those final few chapers, I couldn’t put the book down.

Not all readers will agree with Stuart about religion or personal morality, and they won’t all be convinced by the guardedly positive epilogue to An Excess Of… However, persuaded or not, I can guarantee that this book will make you think about your own attitudes and beliefs, and about the imminent global catastrophe. And it’s a cracking good story.

Stuart Aken, An Excess Of…, Fantastic Books Publishing, 2022; ISBN-13: 978-1914060151


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