The following panel discussion was held as part of this year's BSFA/SFF AGM event at the City of Westminster Archives in London, 7 June 2014. The topic was social organisation, social change, and agency in the novels of Frances Hardinge; the panelists were Hardinge, Farah Mendlesohn, and Virginia Preston, with Niall Harrison moderating. The discussion ranged across the whole of Hardinge's career to date. You can read our reviews of Fly by Night, Verdigris Deep (aka Well Witched), Gullstruck Island (aka The Lost Conspiracy), Twilight Robbery, and A Face Like Glass. From the same event, you can read an interview with Frances Hardinge by Tom Pollock here.
Niall Harrison: Frances, one of the things you said this morning was that you don't believe resolution is a natural state for a society. I just wondered if I could get you to expand on that to start us off.
Frances Hardinge: I don't believe that societies exist—or should exist—in a form of stasis. I also don't believe they can. Any form of apparent stasis is more likely to be a form of stagnation, a deliberate attempt on the part of some powerful elements in that society to inhibit change, to maintain what they regard as the necessary structures and standards, in a way that—if it is suppressing the sort of natural change in the society—is going to become increasingly problematic.
Virginia Preston: That's very true in Gullstruck Island, for example, there is this apparently static society but in fact a lot of stuff has been happening. It's like people are trying to preserve this shell of things . . . they need someone to come along and break that shell.
FH: Indeed, and in that particular book one of the ways in which the status quo is preserved is through perpetuating ignorance, by misdirection and by covering up some fairly important things that are occurring and which people do need to know about.
Farah Mendlesohn: A lot of this is built into the structure of the book. In Gullstruck, essentially you have a legal code that has been imported from another country. It is totally applicable in that other country, which is snowy, and has sledges and horses—and completely inapplicable on this small tropical island which has none of these things. But the law cannot be changed and so things must be treated "as if" they were horses, in a little codicil. I think what Gullstruck is in fact about, which I found fascinating, is pitting a theory of a history that is very stagnant, against a theory of history that is essentially quite Trotskyite, permanent change. There is a dance that children play that is clap-clap-clap-change direction, clap-clap-clap-change direction, and in fact that's how the book ends—we don't know where we're going. I think this is one area where that YA article mentioned this morning has a teensy point. A lot of children's—rather than YA—fiction has a tendency to end at a moment of stasis, even if there may be change in the future. Whereas quite a number of your books end absolutely at the promise of change. I love the ending of Fly by Night, how does Mosca put it?
FH: "I don't want a happy ending, I want more story."
FM: That was the point at which I knew you were a writer I wanted to read—that notion of change beyond the text.
VP: And that's one of the strengths of the sequel, Twilight Robbery, because you get little bits of information about what's been going on in the city of Mandelion since they left at the end of Fly by Night, but we don't really ever get a complete picture, we don't really know.
FH: Indeed, events are still ongoing, and to a certain extent one of the reasons I enjoyed writing that sequel is because it's about consequences. It's about some of the knock-on side effects of all the things, some of them quite idealistic, that were done in the first book. And not all of them are good, and obviously some of the people who have been detrimentally affected have not been sitting back twiddling their thumbs, I wanted to show a picture of that as well, as opposed to, "everything was fixed, the end."
VP: And it's about the kinds of alliances that people have to make. So the lock masters of Toll, who control that town, the characters have to cooperate with them some of the time—even though we hate what they're doing, and Mosca hates what they're doing, she works out how to make a sort of parallel cause with them.
FM: That thread of uneasy alliances is something that runs through all of the books as well, we see it in Fly by Night, in Gullstruck Island, we even see it in Verdigris Deep, which is a very domestic fantasy—it's the book most like Diana Wynne Jones, I think. In that book three children don't have enough fare to get home, they nick it from a wishing well, and this turns out to be a really bad idea. The wishing well attaches the wishes to the coin, and it wants its "angels" to help bring these wishes true—which brings us back to the stasis issue again, because many of these wishes are very old, and people don't necessarily still wish what they wished then. Or they never did. You describe wishes beautifully as being like the shell of a horse chestnut—there's the spiky outer wish, which a person made, and there's what they actually wished, which is inside but isn't necessarily the same. You wish for a Harley Davidson, not because you really want a Harley Davidson, but because you want to be the kind of guy who can ride a Harley Davidson. But these three children, you watch the alliance kind of crumble towards the end of the book—the reason I like that bit is that there's a point in every child's life when they realise that kid they were sat next to when they were four years old and told, "Go on, you'll be friends," they don't actually like very much. I thought in that book you express that notion of the friendship cracking very well, and that's almost the reverse of what you normally get in children's books.
VP: Another thing that's interesting in Verdigris Deep is that the hero, Ryan, for once you have a character who has great parents, and they come through for him. And when he manages to start talking to them, they actually manage to have some quite useful conversations, and his mother turns up to fight for him, which I really liked.
FM: It's one of the greatest lines ever, "He watched as his mother reached for a vol-au-vent with one hand, and the wrong end of the stick with the other." I think another important aspect of those parents is that they have lives of their own. Again, parents in children's literature tend to be either very off stage or very engaged with the children. To have parents who are engaged with their own things, and whose children are only a small sliver of their lives, in some ways is actually quite nineteenth-century, it's not something you see so much in modern literature—this is a good thing!
NH: I think that's true of characters throughout the books, I think there's a real sense that very few of the characters in Frances's books are walk-on parts, they walk off and do other things afterwards.
FH: Yes, the bastards! I keep on having character proliferation problems, I tell them, you're a walk-on part, and they say, what's my motivation, and I say, "Here's your motivation, and now you've got a back plot, crap, now you've got a name . . .," and they say "I could turn up later!"
NH: But to come back to these questions of stasis and change, how do we think that sense of characters having lives beyond the immediate ties into the narratives we see in the books? I read A Face Like Glass for the first time this year, for instance, and I thought the way the Drudges are handled was very impressive. This is the underclass that keeps the glittering society going, and they could have been very much a device—but one of the key points is precisely that in this society, where people have to learn how to shape their faces into expressions, they have to be given, or take, the ability to express themselves and to have these lives beyond their immediate roles.
FM: There is a Diana Wynne Jones story called "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream," in which Carol is a dreamer, on the cusp of adolescence, but she can't dream her hundredth dream. She ends up having this huge dream, brought on by Chrestomanci, in which it turns out that the reason she can't have her hundredth dream is that her cast of thousands has gone on strike. And they've gone on strike because they're fed up of only having one face. One of the reasons I'm such a fan of Jones is that I think she's one of the most brilliant literary critics we have, it's just she wrote it all as fiction, so people didn't really notice. And in that story she's saying the same thing—that however blurred and in the distance your distant characters are, they are still people. And I think that's something, Frances, you handle particularly well. It applies to Cuckoo Song as well, people may only be in your line of sight for a moment, but out of focus doesn't mean not real. On the other hand Mosca is one of those people who refuses to be who she is supposed to be. The more I think about it the more this comes up every time.
VP: In Twilight Robbery there's the whole of Toll-by-Night, literally a whole city that is invisible to the wealthy. One of the things I think is interesting there is the way that we meet people, and of course they're real and individual, but in this city they are strongly affected by the names they've been given and the lives they've been forced to live. The moment they are able to resist is the moment they are able to name some of those things . . . not that the book is just "it's good to speak the truth", but it's good to speak. Mosca has a moment where she decides to stop telling Clent lies about what's been happening, and in fact what she says isn't actually the truth, but she thinks it is—she stops colluding with the lie. And having started to speak what she thinks is the truth, she starts to be able to see where things don't fit—but she has to say it out loud, and it's in that moment things start to shift. In Gullstruck Island there's all sorts of plots going on, but part of it is that the protagonist there, Hathin, plays along with the lie they're trying to present for a while, and there's a huge moment where she stops and says, no, I'm going to say what I believe to be the truth. Only when you have that moment can you start changing things.
FM: And it's a turning point in Cuckoo Song as well—when Triss's father starts to tell the truth. Clute would call them reveal moments. A key thing, I think, is that within each text there are multiple moments of reveal, until we get a cascade effect—we rush towards that sense that things are coming together.
FH: That's good to know, because it felt like that while writing it.
NH: Is that because it's an effect you're seeking?
FH: It is an effect I'm seeking, partly because there is a mystery element, so that's why you get these staggered reveals. But I'm also writing adventures, which is a rather more active narrative, which means you can't end with a reveal, you end with consequences of reveal.
FM: I think that consequence is one of the most crucial elements that make SF and fantasy what it is as a genre—you don't just start with rupture, you end with it, the sense that things are still changing.
VP: And the bad things have still happened. At the end of Gullstruck Island, everything is not fixed, everything is not OK, they've still got a lot of consequences to live with and work out.
FH: But they've started to name what the problems are.
VP: Exactly, you can believe that they will go forward and it will be messy but it should be an improvement on what was there before. Maybe.
FH: I recently got a compliment from a friend of mine, they called the endings of my books messy as a compliment. And I think I do take it as a compliment.
FM: We can see the threads heading off, we can see it might not get better, but it will get different.
NH: Very explicitly in Cuckoo Song, which reminded me in some ways of the end of Fly by Night, because there's a similar sense of the characters not wanting the story to end, wanting "more story."
FM: And there's an element of this that's about the role of mentorship in fantasy, and the power dynamics. I think one of the problems in children's fantasy is the tendency of adults to find children to do their dirty work for them. In all of Frances's books, children find adults to do their dirty work for them.
VP: Well, sometimes it's mutual.
FH: Indeed, with Mosca and Clent I think there's a certain amount of mutuality. But there is a bit of both. I do have a number of potential mentor figures, surrogate parent figures, who do see these child figures as potential pawns or tools or pivotal pieces, and generally regret doing so.
NH: So we have these mentors, how are they guiding the characters? Or more broadly, what does it mean to be "good" in a Frances Hardinge novel?
FM: It means being curious. The definition of good is the person willing to open that door they've been told they shouldn't open.
VP: But also to think about it, to stop and think and to realise that they are going to abandon their preconceived notion of how it's going to fit in. All the protagonists are capable of changing their minds.
NH: So good is being independent of the rules?
VP: It's certainly not about keeping to the law.
FH: I have to admit there's one little part of Huckleberry Finn that made a big impression on me when I was very young. It's the point where he's run off, he's helping a runaway slave, he's having second thoughts. And he has this moment of soul terror, where he's got this idea that this is against the law, everyone's told him it's against the law, and it's bad, and he's probably going to hell. He actually gets to the point of writing a letter to the slave's owner, and then sort of freezes and looks at it and then tears it up and says, "Oh I guess I'll just go to hell." It's a moment of supreme moral courage, because he's not only going against everything he's been told, by going with his gut instinct and sense of loyalty and everything of that sort, but he isn't even backed up by a sense that what he's doing is moral . . . he just has this sense that this is the thing he has to do. And I guess there's a touch of that, a willingness to go against everything you've been taught is right because you just have this impulse that says something different, a willingness to think outside the comforting structures that nobody is going to blame you for following, and actually entertain the ideas that everybody is going to blame you for following.
FM: I'm thinking about this in terms of Cuckoo Song, because that would make Pen the hero.
VP: I think she is. She's the one who causes the change.
FM: Which is an interesting one, because for starters you're telling the story from the point-of-view of the object rather than the subject, which actually has a huge ancient tradition in children's fantasy starting from the 18th century.
NH: To give a little more context, at the start of Cuckoo Song, a twelve-year-old girl, Triss, is waking up feeling ill and not really knowing what is wrong with her, and she comes to a realisation that—and this is on the back cover—that what is wrong with her is that she is not herself. She's a changeling.
VP: And it's her younger sister, Pen, who is not the point of view character, who has caused this to happen.
NH: I'm interested in the use of point of view in Frances's books, because they often jump between multiple characters, and I think that's another way of tying into this idea that society is not one stable thing, that where you stand affects who you are and how you relate to society.
FH: Fly by Night jumps around all over the place. In fact there's a really mad chapter where the narrative is almost a relay baton, so you have one character's perspective, and then you run into another character, and their section ends, and you're with the next character, and they pass it on again. Getting that to work, and all the sections to be relevant, and it not to feel just colossally contrived, and even sort of hook back to a mention of the first character again at the end, was huge fun, actually. But yes, I did very much, particularly in the sketching out of Mandelion, wanted to have lots of perspectives, wanted them to all feel real—particularly the less sympathetic characters. To be honest, I actually rather enjoy dealing with characters who have quite difficult and alienating perspectives and trying to make them at the very least comprehensible, even if you are never going to be won over to them.
FM: In Cuckoo Song, the narrative is about control—particularly of Pen—but the more their parents squeeze, the more Pen slips through their fingers, that's about a perspective fighting to be heard. And the progression through the structure of the book is interesting. If you look at the history of children's fantasy, and start in 1850 and work forward, you move from fantasies for children that are set entirely within the house, to ones that are partly set within the garden, to being set within a specific area and there's an adult present, and then you get to the 1920s and 1930s and we find the classic free-range children's fantasy. Which I think is a social response—suddenly after the war there aren't enough servants around, the houses are smaller, and the last thing mother, who has not been trained to be a mother, wants, is the kids around. The trajectory of Cuckoo Song matches up with this. The initial discoveries are all within the house—you open a cupboard and discover something, that's a very 1890s/1900s thing—and then by the end of the book, where the discoveries are out there in the city, which is what we expect from children's fantasy today, but wasn't at all the norm in the 1920s. So it's interesting seeing the book recapitulate that trajectory.
FH: Of course I intend to retroactively claim I meant all of that.
VP: Going back to the question of what it means to be good, one of the things I think is needed is a certain amount of self-reliance. Not to the exclusion of other people or other relationships, but a strength of identity. Whereas you look at some of the more difficult and alienating perspectives Frances mentioned, and they're often weak in that way. There's Miss Gossamer in Verdigris Deep, for instance, who is very creepy and well done, because there's a sense that she thinks she should be good.
FH: Miss Gossamer is actually one of my more out and out unpleasant characters. I feel a bit guilty about her. I've been quite careful to make even some really unpleasant people have this sort of edge where you can peek into their head and say, OK, I don't like where you are but I can sort of see how you got there. But she's just pretty horrible actually.
FM: There are occasionally people like that. Actually one of the lessons you learn in life is sometimes you come across somebody who is malicious and you cannot for the life of you figure out why. I think it's quite important that kids meet the occasional character like that in fiction.
FH: When I meet someone like that, I find myself a little taken aback. I'm there with my usual emotional bridging tools, turning them around, trying different angles, thinking, I don't know how to do this one.
NH: So how do the books get from these curious, active, self-reliant protagonists to the larger changes that in many cases they cause? My first response to some of your plots is that there's a pinball effect—I wonder if there's more pattern we can discern.
FM: I want to remind you of that lovely scene at the end of Bringing Up Baby where somebody removes the bone from the dinosaur skeleton, and it all comes tumbling down. And it's a metaphor for the entire movie. Kathryn Hepburn in that film is precisely the kind of character we're talking about, she lives crosswise.
FH: She's pretty much a chaos entity; partly through absent-mindedness, partly through single-mindedness.
FM: And I think in terms of your characters Mosca Mye is absent-mindedness, and Hathin is single-mindedness. Hathin has one objective view, she's not bouncing off things—her problem is that she's tracing a direct line through somebody else's tangle.
VP: Whereas Mosca does bounce. But I think there are also choices. There's often in the end an explicit rejection of revenge, and often of killing people, and that often triggers other events—that certainly happens with Mosca. Everyone accepts something is going to happen, and then Mosca takes a different direction, and that's what causes a lot of the other events.
FH: That was very deliberate. In Gullstruck Island there is a particular character who is, shall we say, not consistently on the right side, and who doesn't die, and I had a number of people reading it who were surprised at this and expected them to die in some sort of redemptive fashion. My reaction was no, that makes it far too neat. I want these inconvenient people hanging around so that people have to decide what to do with them and make moral choices about them, rather than have something convenient fall on their heads. I'm not giving them, either side, an easy out—they have to clean up their mess.
VP: And they have useful skills as well.
FM: I think it's an important thing to say, to have to make those choices. But I think there's also something you said earlier about the nature of resistance and who resists. When I was working on Gullstruck, one of the things I found in my reading was just how many resisters in various situations have been not very nice people. And I came up with a basic theory, that people who are already breaking the law in peacetime are more likely to find it easy to break the law under conditions of oppression. People like me who basically follow the law, however good our intentions, are much more likely to say, well, we'd act if it was really important, without ever quite getting to that point before it is too late. And I thought that was something you reflected very well indeed in several of the books, right from the very beginning with Eponymous Clent in Fly by Night—his doing the right thing is because he's already outside the law, it's easy for him to keep moving in that direction.
FH: Yes, there's already a certain, well, irreverence might not be quite the right word, but a flexibility when it comes to the rules, the standard accepted ways of doing things and thinking. That also explains some of the cast list for the revolution in Fly by Night—it's a book where, if you think about it, pretty much every significant character breaks the law, with about two exceptions. Of course not all lawbreaking is equal, and you can actually tell a certain amount about each character by looking at which laws they break and why.
FM: For some reason that reminds me of something we discussed many years ago, and I'd be interested in your thoughts now. You said that your work originally was heavily influenced by your background in gaming, and I'm kind of curious as to whether that's still a factor.
FH: Well, I'm still gaming. Yes I think it does have an effect. I mean aside from anything else, I think what we were talking about before, this sense that all the characters, even if they're walk-on parts, are people with their own motivations, are all real, I think that has fed into the way I think about my books, because if you're in a role-playing game, you are not the hero, or at least you're not the only hero, all the people around you have their own stories that are running on, decided by other people, with their own motivations. You are one another's supporting cast, and the story that is produced by all of you is multifaceted and multifocal so yes, I think that almost certainly influenced me.
VP: And then sometimes Mosca sets things off without meaning to—at the beginning of Twilight Robbery she interferes, and there's a reason to do that, it's not completely out of the blue, but it's also partly to see what happens.
FH: Can I just say, bloody Mosca! That was not in my original plan. To give some context, at the start of Twilight Robbery, Mosca, my heroine, is kidnapped, because actually the ability to read is not that common and she can, and the kidnappers need to go to a silent auction, where as part of the anonymity of all the participants they have to communicate by note, and she can read and they can't. And so she does this, pretty much at knifepoint, and organises this sale, and it ends up with the unseen seller and the buyer exchanging letters so they can meet up. And I got to this point in my planning, and I realised that there was no way that Mosca was not going to screw with them. There was absolutely no way. And so—well, their ability to meet up rode on this, so I looked at it and I tried so hard to find ways that these villains could meet up that didn't involve bumping into each other in a hall somewhere by coincidence. And in the end I gave up. They never met. There's a particular villain that I'd fleshed out and expected to play a significant part in the book who just fell out through this hole that Mosca had torn. I mean, it was better that way, but it was a complete headache.
NH: Unfortunately we have to finish pretty much on time, so I think we should probably wrap it up there: thank you very much to Farah Mendlesohn, Virginia Preston and Frances Hardinge.