Given that it’s set in a world where all the women are dead, it would be easy to think that Aliya Whiteley’s sci-fi novel The Beauty (paperback, Kindle) has a socio-political agenda. But in talking to her about it, Whiteley admits that while the story is about gender, like all good political sci-fi, it’s about other things as well.
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is The Beauty about?
It’s about the end of the human race. A disease has killed all the women, and the men are living out their lives with no hope of producing the next generation. In one small community in rural North Devon, one of the youngest men notices strange mushrooms sprouting on the graves of the women. Then these mushrooms start to take on familiar forms…
The Beauty has been described as science fiction novel. Do you agree with that?
It’s a post-apocalyptic story, so it follows on from a long-standing science fiction tradition in that sense. It’s also been called Weird — and just weird, too, to be honest! — which is an interesting subgenre; perhaps the fungal element brings it to mind, for some people. It’s very much about the natural world and our place in it. It’s very dark at times, so you could describe it as horror. I don’t think of it as belonging to one genre.
As you said, the people killed by the fungus are all female. So there’s obviously a socio-political element to the story. When you sat down to write The Beauty, did you set out to say something about gender, or did you set out to tell a cool sci-fi story and the gender aspect came later?
The end of the world scenario was really what I wanted to write about, but I didn’t have anything further in my head than that. I’m a huge Dune fan, and when I was young, I read a book called The White Plague by Frank Herbert in which all the women in the world had died from a virus apart from one, which made that one woman incredibly important in a symbolic sense rather than as a fully-realized character. And I remember thinking how it would be a completely different book if all the women died. There are no new ideas under the sun, I suppose.
I think that book and the thoughts it led to probably influenced my writing, but mainly I was just interested in the voice of my narrator at first. I don’t plan ahead when I write. I like the story to surprise me. The Beauty is certainly about gender, but it’s also about power, and nature, and very much about stories, and how they affect our understanding of society.
Did you ever consider writing The Beauty along lines of race or ethnicity or sexual orientation? Or writing a companion book, maybe called The Handsome, in which it’s the men who die?
I’ve been thinking about this. It’s a fascinating idea, to consider to what extent the story might change if it happened to any other group. Would the way the relationships form between the fungal growths that become known as The Beauty differ drastically? I don’t know. I hope it’s a question about which readers form their own ideas; the whole book is really trying to get people to ask questions about our aspects of our world.
But I don’t think the title The Handsome would work because “handsome” seems very different to me from “beautiful.” I don’t find “beauty” to be a word that suggests one gender, in the way that “handsome” does. Maybe if the book had been called The Pretty it would work. The narrator, Nathan, at one point talks about how his definition of “beautiful” differs from his mother’s definition. He applies it more freely to nature, to his surroundings and his own emotions. I also had Keats’ “Ode On A Grecian Urn” at the back of my mind when I chose the title. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” That’s a line that raises an awful lot of questions that I’ve thought about for years.
What’s great is that your suggestion of the word “handsome” highlights to what extent the novel is about words, and how we use them. Nathan is a storyteller who finds that words run away with him to create stories that aren’t exactly true, but aren’t false either. It’s all about how we choose to interpret events, and give them meaning. Changing even one word for another can have a huge impact, and people don’t always apply similar definitions to the same word. It’s a big theme in the novel.
The Beauty is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you feel had a big impact on it, but not on your other novels? Or maybe such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games?
It’s really difficult to pinpoint where influence begins and ends in relation to just one book. I mentioned The White Plague, and also Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy [Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago] is an obvious influence, though I’ve been obsessed with those books since I first read them twenty years ago, so they probably pop up in my other novels in various ways. The way the book uses landscape, I can remember trying to create something even half as powerful as the way Michael Reeves shot the English countryside in the film The Witchfinder General.
Now, The Beauty was originally published in 2014 by Unsung Stories. But that version was 112 pages long while this new edition, from Titan Books, is nearly 200. Did you change anything about the book for this new edition?
It’s exactly the same book. In fact, I couldn’t extend it; I think it’s the length it’s meant to be to maintain that intense, powerful feeling that I was aiming for.
But the Titan version also includes a new novelette of mine called Peace, Pipe that’s about a narrator who’s been quarantined after a disastrous space mission. The narrator starts to hear a voice in the walls: is it an alien presence, or merely gurgling pipes? It addresses how we could establish communication with very different life forms, and how difficult it would be to reach any real level of understanding. It ties in with some of the themes of The Beauty, I think.
A lot of the sci-fi novels I’ve read lately have not been stand-alone stories but instead parts of a larger series. Is The Beauty a stand-alone novel or the first book in a series?
It’s definitely a stand-alone. I once tried to write a sequel — not for The Beauty, but for a different book of mine — and I couldn’t get it to work. Once it’s a complete story, I think my brain moves on. It doesn’t want to revisit things.
So has there been any interest in adapting The Beauty into a movie, TV show, or video game?
I can’t picture it working as a movie, but I think that’s because, to me, it will always be a novel about the power of oral communication rather than visual communication.
But you know what: I think it might make a really disturbing, glorious co-operative board game. Like Pandemic dialed up to eleven. The group has to work together to find a viable future for humanity that doesn’t end in horrific amounts of violence…
Finally, if someone likes The Beauty, which of your other books would you recommend they read next?
Titan will be publishing my novel The Arrival Of Missives in November, and that’s also about power and choices and fate. It gets described as genre-crossover, too, so if you like stories that play around with science fiction ideas, then I think you might enjoy it.