First novels are curious, paradoxical creatures. To begin with, they are rarely first novels – that is, they’re not often the first novel the writer has written and submitted for publication. They’re a second novel, or third, or fifth… or, in my case – I’m a slow learner – my twentieth.
I discovered the wonder of books and reading rather late, when I was fifteen. I was living in Melbourne, Australia, and during a boring holiday my mother, perhaps in desperation, thrust a Agatha Christie paperback at me and suggested it might keep me from under her feet for an hour or two.
The book – Cards on the Table – changed my life.
From that moment, I wanted to write detective novels. A few days after finishing book, I began scribbling a whodunit which petered out after a few pages.
But I was hooked.
I read everything Agatha Christie had ever written and then, another epiphanal moment in my reading and writing career, came across two SF books simultaneously: Wells’ War of the Worlds, and Silverberg’s Sundance and other stories. After a diet of safe, cosy, country house murders, these books came as something of a revelation.
I was hooked, again. I rarely read crime after that, but devoured science fiction.
And, of course, tried to write it.
I was somewhat behind the times, sequestered all the way out there in Melbourne. I’d come across those wonderful tacky curiosities, Ace Doubles, in a second-hand bookshop, and thought that I could write novel of this length, 40,000 to 50,000 words.
So I embarked on novel after bad novel, all SF adventure, all very short – dreaming of the day I would see my name on the garish, squat cover of an Ace Double. This was in the mid-seventies, and I had no idea that the Doubles were no more, that the editors, Wollheim and Carr, had moved on. I blithely wrote novel after novel, interplanetary intrigue, alien invasion, time travel, colony novels…
I continued scribbling SF after my family and I moved back to England in ‘78, novels just as badly-written and under-realised, but longer now, having discovered that Ace Doubles were no more. I was working full-time in a trouser factory and writing at nights and weekends. According to my files, in 1981 I wrote two novels, twenty-two stories and a children’s play (Noel’s Ark, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1982, and edited by Christopher Burgess, who was to become a great friend and mentor over the coming years); in ‘82 three novels, a dozen shorts, and a children’s play. I was churning out the stuff, and it wasn’t good.
In 1984 I decided to take a year off – from both working and writing – and travel around India. The decision, and the experience of immersing myself in that strange, wonderful, alien country, was instrumental in my becoming, at last, a published writer.
I returned to England in late ‘84 and began writing SF stories with Eastern themes, some of them set in India, informed by what I’d learned of people, and of myself, while I’d been travelling.
The stories began selling. Interzone took two in 1886, and published them the following year – “Krash-Bangg Joe and the Pineal-Zen Equation” and “The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived”. I sold another tale to a smaller magazine, and a couple of stories a year later to anthologies. In ‘89 an agent contacted me and asked if I’d written a novel, and if so could he represent me. I refrained from boasting that I’d turned out a trunkfull of terrible SF adventures. I trawled through the old mss and found nothing I was remotely happy with, and so instead bundled together a dozen short stories I felt did come up to standard, and wrote to him that I was busy writing my first novel.
By some miracle, he sold the collection. Martin Fletcher at Pan Macmillan bought The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories, and it came out as a paperback original in 1990.
All I had to do then was write a publishable novel.
And now it’s admission time.
I’m not a novelist.
That is, as a form, novels don’t come easily and willingly to me. At heart I’m a short story writer. I love the form, find infinitely fascinating the depth and variety of stories told within what might seem the limited remit of a few pages. I read them voraciously and write them constantly. They’re a labour of love.
Novels, on the other hand, while I admire them by other hands, I find a labour of Sisyphus to write.
So the thought of having to follow up my first collection with a novel good enough to be published filled me with trepidation.
I decided that it had to be short, and handle themes and concerns I’d written about before, and be set on a suitably bizarre colony planet, and be written in the first person, and be filled with sadness and regret and guilt, and have a bit of love in it, and feature artists…
According to my records, I began the novel on the 17th of May 1990 and finished the first draft on the 7th of August the same year. It was 63,000 word long – just a little longer than an Ace Double! It was Meridian Days.
I submitted it to my agent later that year and received a contract for the novel in March the following year.
It came out in an oversized paperback edition in 1992… and then the reviews started trickling in.
Fortunately, I’ve always had a pretty philosophical reaction to reviews. Even back then, with my second book, I could take with a pinch of salt what the reviewers might think and say of my work. My view is that, after all, a reviewer or critic is only one person whose opinion matters no more than thousands of other readers – the main difference being that reviewers have a forum in which to air their views. A book is written, is published, and goes out into the world: some people will hate the book, others will have a strong reaction neither for nor against, and some people – even if it’s a minority – will love the book. This is true, to varying degrees, of every book ever published. It’s a comforting thought. All the writer can do is try to make sure that their work is the very best they could write at the time, and then let it go.
The reviews of Meridian Days were mixed.
Mary Gentle in Interzone wrote: “There is really good stuff in here, but it is not used effectively… there isn’t any kick.” “… the concepts deriving from that science in Meridian Days, are strictly yesterday’s tomorrow.”
Stan Nicholls, writing in The Dark Side: “Brown will write splendid science fiction novels. He is just finding his feet and making the mistakes common to most first novelists…”
Brendan Wignall in the Oxford Times: “Meridian Days… reads more like an over extended short story […] Brown has yet to transfer his talents in the short story form convincingly to the arena of the novel.”
Then there were the good reviews. Edward James in Vector wrote: “I need hardly add that I recommend this novel very highly, and I have no doubt that it will confirm Eric Brown’s reputation as one of the very best of the new generation of British SF writers…”
And Gary K. Wolfe in Locus: “… a deftly plotted and suspenseful adventure which never loses its strangely elegiac and haunting tone.”
While Martin Tudor in Critical Wave thought: “This is a superb novel, peopled with beautifully drawn characters, living in a disturbingly alien world, caught up in murderous mysteries and chilling corruption. If you read no other sf novel this year, you must read this one.”
I had not read Meridian Days again until Scorpius Digital Publishing decided to bring it out as an e-book and Bridget McKenna e-mailed me the proofs.
I printed them out and procrastinated. I did other things. My wife and I had bought a house in the village of Haworth a year earlier, and things still needed doing to it. So I did them in lieu of getting down to work on the proofs, immersing myself in the horror of reading something I’d written what seemed like a lifetime ago.
And then I read the proofs, and refrained from re-writing the odd overdone description, or tampering with the dialogue, or adding drama to certain under-realised scenes (like Abe’s arrest on Brightside, and the fight scene between Bob and Trevellion’s guards in Abe’s dome). I could have started rewriting and never stopped, and turned Meridian Days into a hybrid collaboration with my earlier self.
I never realised this at the time, but now I can see that the novel is very influenced by some of my favourite SF writers. I’ve long been a fan of Michael Coney. He writes quiet, humane novels more concerned with how human beings are effected by science and technology than with the science and technology itself. His best novels, Brontomek!, Hello Summer, Goodbye and The Girl with a Symphony in her Fingers are full of mystery and intrigue, well-drawn characters, doomed love and a haunting quality of loss… just what I was trying for in Meridian Days. I can also detect Ballard in there, in some of the descriptions of the artists and their world. Lee Killough’s wonderful book Aventine was also influential: it’s the quintessential artists-in-an-alien-world sub-genre of SF, a series of linked short stories reminiscent of Ballard’s Vermilion Sands: Killough writes about love and loss and strange art-forms… and I think, in retrospect, that I borrowed the tone for Meridian.
My own view of the book, some thirteen years after writing it, is that it’s an honest first novel, obviously influenced, and very representative of my writing at the time, even if I have moved on to other concerns more my own, now, and fully dramatise the action in my later novels… I hope.
From ‘92, my writing career has stumbled, stuttered, and very occasionally (very occasionally!) flown, but never quite stopped. There have been times when novels haven’t sold, and publishers appeared intent on wrecking my career with decisions which seemed bizarre, to say the least – but less about them, the better.
It’s a long time since that fifteen year-old was given the Agatha Christie paperback and told to read it – twenty-eight years, to be precise, and thirty novels, and over seventy published short stories, and plays and articles and reviews and forewords and afterwords, and I’m still writing – more for young adults these days, and more mainstream than SF, though I always take time out to work on my first love, SF short stories – and I’m still reading and loving SF. From time to time I even take an Ace Double down from my SF shelf and caress it lovingly, much to the concern of my wife.