Ned Beauman is a journalist, screenwriter, and the author of five novels. In 2013 he was selected as one of the Best of Young British Novelists by Granta magazine. Here he discusses some of the themes of his new novel, Venomous Lumpsucker, with Writers Rebel’s Liz Jensen.
Liz Jensen: Venomous Lumpsucker is a fierce, funny, angry book that posits a terrifyingly plausible future. Wildlife extinction is an industry run on credits paid by corporations that endanger or wipe out threatened ecosystems. But like any industry, it can be gamed and shorted. What led you to write about the more-than-human world, and the humans who are either destroying it or trying to save it?
Ned Beauman: One of the criticisms of my previous book Madness is Better than Defeat was that it ultimately wasn’t really about anything. Although I don’t wholly agree, I do understand the complaint, and as I was getting ready to write another novel I thought to myself, this time I’ll make absolutely sure that it’s about something. I don’t have strong feelings about that many things, but one thing I do have strong feelings about is the climate crisis. The fact that we all know it’s going to tear our world apart and yet somehow we aren’t really doing that much about it – what I suppose is now best known in popular culture as the Don’t Look Up problem – is so bizarre and fascinating to me. The first angle on it that I considered was the Volkswagen emissions scandal but then I realised animals would be a lot more fun.
Also, I’d noticed that there was a real want of rigour in our discussions about species extinction. Everyone agrees that species extinction is bad – but why is it bad, and how bad is it? These are deep questions about values – in other words, philosophical questions – but I just never see that philosophical debate playing out anywhere except in academic writing. And it shouldn’t be confined to academic writing, because the answers to those questions might have enormous effects on the decisions we make about the future. Apparently over the last 25 years it has cost about $3.5 million to save Lear’s macaw, a large blue parrot found in eastern Brazil, from extinction. Is that a good use of $3.5 million? What is the maximum we should be willing to spend? We cannot even begin to offer answers until we make up our minds about what these things mean to us. When I wrote this novel, it wasn’t because I wanted to argue for one side or the other, but because I wanted to encourage everyone to think about this stuff with a bit more precision.
LJ: You’ve written a book that is serious but also funny. A lot of humour has its roots in rage. Does yours?
NB: Well, I recently wrote an essay about having a dog, and I tried to make that funny as well, and it wasn’t because I feel rage about my Havanese. So no – rather, I would say my humour has its roots in the fact that a piece of writing that is funny is better than a piece of writing that is not funny, and I actually find it baffling that most other authors are so earnest all the time. All that said, I do find climate breakdown to be fertile ground in the same way that I found the Holocaust to be fertile ground in my first two books, because somebody living through some unthinkable horror and not really paying attention strikes me as a classic comic situation – it’s like a scene in a film where in the foreground a guy is cleaning a mustard stain off his lapel and in the background a plane is crashing.
LJ: Your central character, Karin Resaint, morphs from being a cool-headed researcher of the Baltic venemous lumpsucker fish to passionate anti-genocide advocate, resorting to radical measures to protect a single species from extinction, and paying a heavy price. She thinks « each of the hundred thousand wealthiest individuals on earth should each be assigned randomly assigned a vulnerable species and then informed that if the same species were ever to go extinct they would be executed by hanging.” Do you see violence as a possible next step for some branches of activism?
NB: Unfortunately I haven’t got round to reading How to Blow up a Pipeline yet and I wish I had because then I would probably be better equipped to answer this question. I suppose actually it can be sliced up into two types of violence and two questions. There’s violence against people and violence against property; and there’s the ethical question of whether violence is fundamentally impermissible, outrageous, a line that must be not be crossed etc., along with the tactical question of whether violence will effectively advance our goals.
To offer a not-very-hot take, I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with blowing up a pipeline. But whether it would be tactically astute: that’s an incredibly complicated question that I don’t know the answer to, any more than I would know the answer to a question about union organising or naval strategy or something like that – plus it would be laughable for me to pontificate as a nervous man who has never so much as broken a window. Still, someone should probably try it at least once and then we can get some better data!
As to the question of violence against people… Do I think the fossil fuel executives and political lobbyists with the most direct personal responsibility for our current hell should be put on trial? Yes. Do I think they should be assassinated or torn apart by a mob? No. Do I think it would have positive consequences if they started waking up every morning with just a tiny niggling fear at the back of their minds that amidst mounting worldwide anger there was at least a remote chance of things getting hairy for them personally, in the same way that the Russian Revolution spooked the upper classes of a lot of other countries into letting their own proletariat have a slightly better deal? I cannot deny that the thought has occurred to me!
LJ: Like much of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, the novel distils a huge amount of research about the interconnection of science, technology and societal structures, and as a result it has been described as a “systems novel”. What does that term mean to you, and in what other ways do you see literature meeting – or failing to meet – the occasion of our times?
NB: The financial crisis taught us that sometimes our lives are affected in tangible ways by events so complex and diffuse you simply cannot understand them unless you make quite a lot of effort. I realise some people just don’t have any patience for the boring details, but that mindset is alien to me. I would feel like some kind of medieval peasant: ‘Why do I need to understand why God made the days longer in the summer than in the winter? Not for the likes of me to grasp the systems that structure my every waking moment!’ By the same token, I would have zero interest in any novel about the financial crisis where the novelist had decided, ‘It is not the place of literary fiction to mire itself in technical guff – our subject is the inner mysteries of the human heart, not credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations!’ If that’s your attitude, you are missing half the story! Probably more than half!
Obviously I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way. Different people want different things from fiction. A lot of people really do just want to hear about someone’s divorce or whatever. Which is fine – I just know they’re just not going to like what I write, because I want my novels to reflect how, as the world gets ever more interconnected and chaotic, the forces that control our lives become ever more abstract and intricate and jargon-y and absurd. Yes, that is going to entail a lot of exposition. But the actual twenty-first century also entails a lot of exposition, unless you are determined to remain completely oblivious.
By the way, I’m well aware that people were saying the same thing forty years ago, which is funny when you consider how comparatively straightforward previous eras feel next to our current one. As more than one review of Venomous Lumpsucker has noted, the systems novel is very out of fashion today, which is a shame not only because I would like my work to be cool but even more so because I would like to read other people’s systems novels.
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