Close encounters of the prescient kind

Douglas Board in BookBrunch on the search for the near-future novelist's 'slow-moving gorilla'

The sky above the Clyde is grey, white and blue on 12 July 2015, with droplets of sun and rain. Lindsay and Terry are taking me sailing for a few hours on their Bavaria 37 sloop. I know we won't see a Trident submarine: the UK only has four, two of which will probably be in re-fit at any point in time, and one will be in hiding in the ocean for three months. But I have a second novel to get started, and I want to see the hills seaward of Faslane from low down in the water, the way a submariner might.

Politically we're thinking about the Tory win two months before, and the gutting of the Liberal Democrats and, in Scotland, Labour. We talk of Scottish independence and the SNP. There won't be a date for the European referendum for another seven months. Four weeks previously a candidacy for the US presidency had been launched in the foyer of a hotel, but I didn't pay attention. With a plot to work on which connects Trident and the EU, I've got plenty on my plate. Far-fetched, eh?

Robert Shrimsley on the front page of the Financial Times, 18 January 2017: So at long last we know Britain's negotiating strategy for leaving the EU. We've got nuclear weapons and you'd really prefer us as a friend.

A propos the financial crisis, Aifric Campbell has argued that bankers should join book clubs: fiction makes us notice differently. Setting a novel in the near future (Time of Lies is a political satire set in 2020) leaves the writer little choice. The novel is a slow form: it's like trying to photograph a basketball game with a Box Brownie. You haven't got anything to say unless you manage to notice something right in the middle of the game which is important, unnoticed and moving at the pace of a snail - good luck with that. Lionel Shriver put it like this: a Brexit novel needs a worthwhile view on "what is this conflict really about? Deep down?"

Two things help. Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons showed that half of us, asked to observe attentively a video of a basketball game, fail absolutely to notice a gorilla coming into the middle of the play. The near-future novelist needs a slow-moving gorilla.

In my take on the Brexit game the gorilla is class: class with all its British accents, but also the deep, growing mutual ignorance and contempt between ruling class and ruled across many Western countries. I'm with Adrian Chiles, explaining to his eye-rolling 13-year-old daughter: "The thing is, you could go the rest of your life without having a working class friend."

The other helping factor is, novelists aren't generally trying to do prediction. Nineteen Eighty-Four didn't pass its sell-by date 33 years ago. The value of Michel Houellebecq's Submission doesn't turn on whether a moderate Muslim wins the 2022 French presidential election. Instead, the goal which makes sense to me is for the reader to experience a shocking encounter of a prescient kind. Something powerful which we notice in a new way sweeps past, inches away. We jump back and exclaim: "Shit, that future was close!"

After the gorilla, and then a story and characters grounded in the gorilla, comes the basketball game. It's here questions of prediction bite. The game in Time of Lies - the triumph of our own Donald Trump in the 2020 election and the first few months of democracy under entirely new management - relies on creating a palette with large swaths of the utterly realistic which shade into the unbelievable (both ends of the spectrum being essential to the story). Not just Trump's election but the events of last week certainly raised the bar of the unbelievable.

Creating such a palette meant a rich range of editorial exchanges with Scott Pack. On the one hand we debated the realism of how a protagonist comes to give a 10-minute talk to coked-up estate agents in Putney, while accepting a Department of Defense training video with a Donald look-alike plus daughter naked in a bath with the Presidential seal. (That's seal as in badge. Oh shit, another missed opportunity!)

By five o'clock on 12 July 2015 I've thanked Lindsay and Terry and returned to my room. Five minutes' walk away (but invisible from my room) is the Rhu spit, a strip of shingle which submarines entering or leaving Faslane need to pass. I walk out a couple of times trying to soak up the atmosphere, knowing I'm not going to see a submarine. I'm on the point of turning back when I notice the police launch off Faslane has shifted position. On a hunch I stay put. Twenty minutes later one of the Trident boats passes right in front of me. I could touch it, except that with heavy machine-guns pointing at me from its guard boats, I don't move a muscle.

Something powerful unexpectedly passes by. My heart pounds. My brain thinks, "Fuck! That was close." A close encounter of the prescient kind: the product of attention, planning, imagination and luck.

Douglas Board is the author of Time of Lies, to be published by Lightning Books on 23 June 2017. His first novel was the business school satire MBA. 

Published on
January 25, 2017