The Ship

The Ship - Antonia HoneywellIt is always a bit scary to be asked to interview a debut author you know nothing about. When Pete Sutton asked me if I would host a book launch for Antonia Honeywell for the Bristol Festival of Literature I wondered what I was letting myself in for. I was reassured, however, to find an enthusiastic quote from Mike Carey on the cover of the book. I can now say thank you to Mike for encouraging me to try what turned out to be a fascinating book.

A lot of mainstream books these days are playing with science fiction tropes. That’s partly because literary writers are (finally) trying to come to terms with the technology-driven world in which we live, and partly because publishers are buying up anything that looks remotely dystopian. The Ship is very much in the latter category. However, unlike Station 11, which tries to do science fiction and fails, The Ship makes little pretense of world building. It is comfortable and confident in being more fable and allegory than story, and a better book because of it.

The Ship begins recognizably enough. It is set in the not-too-distant future at a time when climate change, resource wars, and financial collapse have finally brought world civilization to its knees. As the story begins, the UK government has resigned and been replaced by a military dictatorship. Michael Paul, a visionary entrepreneur, saw this coming and has created a software system that enables complete totalitarian control of citizens. This makes him very rich, but he spends all of that money on a plan for escape. He buys an old cruise liner, stocks it with enough supplies to last a lifetime, recruits a carefully selected crew of 500 people, and sets sail. All of this he does to ensure that his young daughter, Lalage, will have long and happy life.

That’s pretty much the first chapter or so. The details of post-collapse Britain and the practicality of Paul’s plan are not really important. What matters is what takes place on The Ship.

At the start of the book Lalage has just turned 16. However, this is no YA story, and she is no plucky heroine who will save the world after the adults have messed it up, finding true love along the way. Though she might be 16 years old, Lalage is really a child. Paul and his wife, Anna, have so cocooned her from the disaster that is befalling the world that she has no real experience of life. She’s a spoiled brat with no understanding of just how much money and effort her parents, and many other people, have put in to secure her future. Her infantile nature is indicated by the pet name her father has for her: Lalla.

And yet Lalage is also the future. Her name comes from the child born at the end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It means the babble of a clear, fresh stream. The people of The Ship might call her Lalla, but they are the ones who are putting their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la, I can’t hear you” to the rest of the world. In many ways, Lalage is the only adult on The Ship. She might be a raging stew of hormones, and have never suffered the disillusionment of seeing her absolute sense of moral certainty wrecked on the jagged rocks of reality, but at least she still wants to be part of the world, and wants it to have a future.

The Ship is a story about Safety. It is about gated communities, and hiding away from the ugliness of the world. It is about a group of people who want to be Eloi so badly that they can’t stomach the thought of staying in the same world as the Morlocks. The Ship asks us to consider the price of Safety; not just what it costs those whom we leave behind when we lock our gates in their faces, but what of ourselves we leave back there with them.

While much of the book examines the consequences of Michael Paul’s vision of Utopia, parts of it are very much relevant to our own world. I don’t want to give too much away about what happens, but one thing that I do want to talk about is food. Real ships, of course, take fresh food with them. Read up about clipper ships and you’ll discover that they had chickens on board, and maybe even a few pigs. By the time The Ship sets sail there are no chickens or pigs to be had. There aren’t even any fish in the sea. There are eggs and orange juice for breakfast, but they are reconstituted. Lalage has never seen a real egg or orange. And yes, this is an extreme exaggeration of how we live now, but how much of what we eat each day is recognizable as something that was once a plant or animal?

This, then, is the story that Honeywell is telling. It is life in an hermetically sealed environment; not a starship or space station, but rather an escape pod drifting in an hostile environment of our own making. Mike described the book as, “A beautiful futuristic fable with huge power to haunt and disturb.” It is most definitely a book you will be thinking about long after you have finished reading it.

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