The One Book Interview hits its half-century this week and we have a great set of answers to celebrate.
(There may be a moderate amount of alcohol consumed sensibly later too.)
Author #50 is an author of both fiction and non-fiction.
His technology journalism has appeared in New Scientist magazine, Aviation Week, Popular Mechanics, WIRED, The Economist, The Guardian newspaper and others.
His novels have their roots in the myths and legends that stalk the streets and fields of South London.
Good people of the Internet, writing out of Norwood, London – David Hambling
Name one book:
1 – everyone should read
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It’s a rip-roaring adventure – and arguably the first superhero story. The protagonist has multiple secret identities and the best technology money can buy, including ultra-accurate pistols and concealed body armor. But there’s more to it than simple adventure; it works on other levels as well, and as a study of the art of vengeance and its effect on the revenger it has never been bettered. It’s a real swashbuckler, but it is also a lot more, with some striking characters rather than just placeholders and truly memorable scenes.
Reading a work like this, you start to appreciate how the standard of popular fiction has declined over the last 170 years, and how much we can learn from earlier writers. Dickens and Shakespeare may not be to everyone’s taste, but Dumas is a joy. The phrase ‘entertainment for all ages’ fits perfectly.
2 – you would take with you if you were going to be marooned on Mars
You mean as well as the Bible and the complete Shakespeare? (The traditional literary gifts on Desert Island Discs).
If I was marooned on Mars I probably wouldn’t survive long enough to do any reading, and if I did survive I would probably be concentrating on staying alive and getting home rather than poring over literary works…
…but if I had to pick a stunning, long book to re-read, I’d pick Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s an epic trans-European WWII sci-fi adventure with bizarre Nazi goings-on centered around the V-2 rocket attacks on London. It also manages to pack in esoteric lore, Pavlovian psychology, plenty of sex, and a great cast of characters. While the central story features a mission to discover the secret of a mystery device fitted to a V-2, subplots spin off in all directions. It’s a book that bears a lot of re-reading, and Mars – reached by rockets directly descended from the V-2 – might be a good place for it.
3 – you took a chance on and were pleasantly surprised by
Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles may not look promising – you’ll find it in the literary fiction section. It’s a surreal horror story which starts with a missing cat and gets steadily darker and weirder as the protagonist’s wife vanishes, and he gradually learns more about the forces working against him. It all centers on an ancient well, now dry, which he descends and starts to dream strange dreams.
The evil is subtler and menacing than in in genre horror (though there is a certain amount of gore), and there’s an amazing flashback as one character recounts his experiences during the Japanese campaign in Manchuria during the 1930s. (Spoiler: it was not a happy time for any of those involved). There is philosophy, but there are also surprising dashes of humour… one character’s impassioned diatribe about microwaved rice pudding reads like a stand-up comedy routine.
Murakami’s work also bears distinct traces of HP Lovecraft and his notion of Cosmic Horror, and for me that it very much a bonus.
4 – you’ve written that is your favourite
Never ask a parent to choose between their children!
As an author you’re always going to be most excited about the one you’re writing now. I’m just in the final edit stages of Master of Chaos, the fourth of the Harry Stubbs series. This is a sci-fi adventure set in 1920’s London involving Cthulhu-mythos mischief, with the lead character going undercover to work in a mental institution. Madness and mayhem abound…as usual there was a mountain of research to be boiled down and distilled, and some complex plot mechanics going on, plus this time I tried to do something more ambitious with the writing itself. Overall, I feel I’m getting better.
Hence, of the books that are in already in print the one to recommend is the third Harry Stubbs, Alien Stars, in which our hero is searching for what his employer believes to be the Holy Grail – and which turns out to be something far more alien, and far more dangerous to our world.
5 – that has influenced you most as a person
“Godel Escher Bach: an eternal golden braid.” by Douglas Hofstader is perhaps the most mind-expanding book I have ever read. It takes some intriguing mathematical ideas, in particular self-reference and paradox and shows how they apply to everything from music to the way that DNA replicates, and of course Escher’s amazing ‘impossible’ images, taking in Zen, human (and artificial) intelligence, meaning and meaninglessness.
It’s a far more whimsical book than this bare summary makes it sound, with the subtitle “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll,” and it is, to coin a phrase, a book that makes you think.
It even inspired some of the core ideas in my latest work, Master of Chaos.
6 – that has influenced you most as a professional
Professionally, the most inspiring books are the bad ones. Reading a good book makes me think I should just give up; reading a terrible one makes me think, “dammit, I can writer better than this!” and inspires me to try.
For me, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a truly great bad book. It’s tautly written and the plot has you on the edge of your seat. It’s a real page turner…but the contrived plotting, cardboard characters and clunky dialogue had me howling with disbelief. (And don’t get me started on his legal but questionable misappropriation of the historical research by Baigent, Leigh and others).
I’m never going to write The Count of Monte Cristo, but I hope that any writer worth their salt who encounters Dan Brown will think “maybe I can do something in this vein, but not quite so terribly.”
To be fair, I have not read any of EL James ‘Fifty Shades’ series, so there may be even more stupendously great bad books out there, and I’m sure every reader will have their own favourite. I have enough inspiration for the meantime though, thanks.
7 – of yours that prospective readers should start with if they want to get to know your work and where they can get it.
That would have to be The Elder Ice. It’s short – barely a hundred pages – and introduces Harry Stubbs, a former heavyweight boxer and sometime debt collector in 1920s South London. Now trying to make it working for a legal firm. Harry is tasked with tracking down a legacy left by a polar explorer – real life Antarctic legend Ernest Shackleton, who lived in this area.
Shackleton left behind a pile a of debts and hints that he has discovered something valuable, and much of the story centers on the question of what he could have brought back which was worth more than its weight in gold…which also kills people…
You can find David here.
David Hambling aims to bring authentic 1920s Lovecraftian horror to Norwood, his corner of South London, a little-known and haunted place where taxis dare not go.
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