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Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché’s 2023 novel Prophet is the story of two men coming together to investigate the titular chemical, a compound capable of inducing nostalgic reverie in its subjects—but which, as the novel begins, has also begun to grant them the power to manifest the objects on which their memories fixate. An in some ways unlikely collaboration between a feted literary memoirist and a musician and songwriter making their published debut, Prophet is embedded in fan culture—and its authors have not been shy to emphasise this. “I wanted it to be fan fiction of something nobody had seen before,” Blaché has said in an interview.

In this conversation, Martin Petto and Electra Pritchett discuss reading Prophet from within the traditions of SFF—but also what its relationship to that literature and community means more broadly for literature’s approach to the quotidian and science fictional, to audiences of different kinds, and to form itself.

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Prophet coverElectra Pritchett: What did you first hear about Prophet and what led you to read the book?

Martin Petto: A friend emailed me about this time last year with an extract from a “highlights from the year ahead” article in the Guardian which included, “Genre-blending SF fantasy thriller about the weaponisation of nostalgia, from the author of H Is for Hawk and debut novelist Blaché.” To which my response was literally: “!!!”

I hadn’t read H Is For Hawk (2014)—Helen Macdonald’s memoir on spending a year training a goshawk as a way of processing her grief at her father’s death—but I certainly felt I should have done. It was a huge book in the UK, its gorgeous cover was pretty ubiquitous for a while and it sounded right up my street. So it was still on my must-read list long after its publication date. But now here was this seemingly wildly incongruous pivot to genre-blending SF. I had to explore!

Not only was this intriguing in its own right, I have a long-standing interest in non-genre SF. This is a horrible term for basically SF written from outside the genre perspective (we’ll probably explore how much it is actually from outside the genre perspective later). And I have a particular interest in British literary non-genre fiction; see my Strange Horizons article as part of “The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium” for more on that. So Prophet on paper left lots of boxes ticked.

What about you?

Electra Pritchett: I first heard about Prophet through a fandom acquaintance whose recommendations have never yet steered me wrong. Her post started off thus: “Total power move for Helen Macdonald to follow up their award-winning, best-selling Serious Literary Memoir about grief and nature, H is For Hawk, by being like ‘Yeah I’ve co-written a queer sci-fi romance horror espionage techno-thriller with someone I met in Doctor Who fandom and I want it to read like fanfic and the acknowledgements will end by thanking “the fic writers of AO3 and the internet.”’” And so really that was enough to put it on my radar! Like you, I haven’t read H Is for Hawk, though I gather that Macdonald spends a lot of time talking about how T. H. White did falconry wildly wrong, which I appreciate on general principles.

I would never have pegged a writer like that as being a dyed-in-the-wool Whovian, as Macdonald evidently is, which just goes to show. What did you think of the writing style? Coming from a fandom background, it felt very much like fanfic in some ways, but not like a novel where the serial numbers had been filed off, as we say, either.

Martin Petto: I hadn’t really considered the fanfic angle until I got right to the end and there was that acknowledgement to AO3. A friend then mentioned that, according to Goodreads, people were convinced the book was Inception fanfic with the serial numbers filed off. Which blew my mind! It isn’t fanfic with the serial numbers filed off—and it certainly isn’t bloody Arthur/Eames fanfic—but that did get me exploring and took me to a really interesting Washington Post interview with the authors, which shows how important fandom and fanfic were to the creation of this novel. So theirs is an insider/outsider perspective, perhaps.

But all that passed me by. Doctor Who fandom is really heavily embedded in British literary science fiction but I was never part of that. I was sort of in Terry Pratchett and Iain Banks fandom (fanzines and mailing lists), but they weren’t very focussed on individual characters. This was in the ’90s when fandoms were fewer and fanfic less prevalent.

That era of TV did provide me with a bunch of shows where I formed strong character attachments, though: Northern Exposure, ER, Homicide: Life on the Street. And, above all, The X-Files. I guess Mulder and Scully were my “one true pairing,” though I didn’t hear of the concept till years later. The X-Files get an explicit namecheck in Prophet alongside an in-world “real” X-Files, the Extranatural Incident Office (“Mulder wouldn’t last a week”). But I never read Rao and Rubenstein—the central characters in Prophet—as a sort of fanfic version of Mulder and Scully or indeed any other pairing; more they are a pair of great characters that could in turn be used to create fanfic. It would be interesting to hear about how it resonated with fanfic for you from more of an insider perspective.

The connection I had to the writing style was more through the lens of commercial fiction. I read a lot of this growing up and this was a time when “weird and genre-bending” was quite popular and mainstream. I’m thinking of the mix of horror, supernatural fantasy, and science fiction you get in James Herbert and Dean R. Koontz. It was also the era of the technothriller and Michael Crichton being perhaps the world’s biggest writer. So, when I started reading Prophet, I felt a lot like it was the successor to that tradition: high-concept, fast, snappy, interested in the specifics of places and things.

Electra Pritchett: Obviously I’d been tipped off to the fanfic angle by my friend’s post, so I knew going in that it would be Like That, but I also had forgotten some of the details of what I’d heard by the time I started. That said, I knew that there would be a full-on romance in Chapter 12, when Adam said, “Oh. No, I’m—it’s fine.” For me, the book feels like fanfic (though not Arthur/Eames fanfic! Come on, people! If anything, Adam being in the Air Force is the echo of a Stargate Atlantis joke. And what happens to Rao at the very end is straight out of Farscape). This is not in the sense of serial numbers being filed off but in the very close third-person perspective that Blaché and Macdonald use and also in the flavor of the details that they use to salt the text. Stuff like Rao’s cologne and many other little touches are the sorts of things that a fanfic writer will employ to set a scene, or to show off their research, as I gather Blaché and Macdonald did, based on the details about various military weapons and equipment.

I’ve actually seen a few people in fandom describe this as “military SF,” and that sort of has rubbed me the wrong way without knowing why, but I think your mentioning Michael Crichton points to the reason: just because the characters are in the military doesn’t mean the book is set in the military in a meaningful way. I feel like “technothriller” gets a bit closer to how the book feels to me personally. On the other hand, I can see their point: for me the weirdest thing about the book was its being set in 2010, when the United States was still bogged down in Afghanistan, the drone war was in full swing, Guantanamo Bay still regularly commanded headlines, and—I had to Google to check this because it seems so long ago—Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was still military policy. And yes, Adam is in the military and Rao is at least notionally an MI6 agent. I did think that WashPo describing Rao as a “manic pixie dream Brit” was extremely accurate, and it’s true that the setup and both characters are in some ways straight out of those kinds of fanfic trope. But there’s a lot of depth to both of them, which isn’t something fanfic can’t do, but which, combined with the rich plotting and zippy pace, does also take the story firmly out of the fanfic realm.

When did you know that the book was a romance? I’m really curious as to whether other readers picked up on that particular signal I noticed in Chapter 12.

Martin Petto: That’s a really interesting question! And one I am at risk of deceiving myself on since it becomes so present in the story that it is tricky to objectively look back on the moment when I first noticed. But in Chapter 3 the following line made my ears prick up: “Rao feels the grin on his face, marvels at it.” Here is the first hint of (uncomprehending) affection and attraction from Rao towards Rubenstein. The real signal to me has to be in Chapter 6, though:

“There’s one other exception.”

“Which is?”

“You. I never know when you are lying.”

To understand that requires saying a bit about the plot first. Rao can tell if something is true or not—not just whether someone is lying but whether something is true. It is how he got a job at Sotheby’s in their fraud department. It is how he was recruited into MI6. It is how he ended up in prison after working in Afghanistan with Rubenstein. But it just so happens that Rubenstein is the only person on Earth that Rao’s power doesn’t work on. As I type that, maybe I see the fanfic connection after all! They are fated to be together, plus they are a classic “opposites attract” couple.

So it is interesting to hear about close third-person perspective being a fanfic signifier, but even more so the point about the details and putting the research on the page. At the end of Prophet, there are a couple of whole pages of trademark attribution. Maybe that was a requirement from the publisher’s lawyers, but I hadn’t seen it before and it jumped out.

Again, this perhaps suggests a synchronicity of fanfic and commercial fiction. I was reminded of how much James Bond loves to list his food—including his infamous smoked salmon and benzedrine dinner. Blaché and Macdonald are maybe unusual in an equal interest in the traditionally masculine and feminine. They list the weapon and the gear but also the jewellery. I say “they” but I think they usually do this through Rao’s view. When he first meets his handler, he notices “there’s a Cartier tank solo on her left wrist, gold studs in her ear.” When they next meet he notes (and approves of) her pink gold brilliant-cut Cartier Diamants Légers.

His handler, Miller, is the first of several women in the book by whom Rao is fascinated. Some of the language suggests attraction, but his gaze is very different with them than with Rubenstein and I don’t really read him as bi. His gaze is more envious. This crystalised for me with this line: “The Air India Girls. When he was a child, they’d been everything. He’d told his mother he wanted to be one once.” Did any of this come through for you?

By the way, I love that line about Rao’s cologne! “A little heavy with the Terre d’Hermès that morning, perhaps, but it separates the men from the boys.” Alongside everything else, Prophet is just a great read.

Electra Pritchett: I did definitely pick up on Rao’s interest in jewellery, which is explained to some extent by his family’s backstory but which I agree is leaned on too significantly in the text to be fully explained by that. I did think that he was probably bi or pan but also very clearly completely in love with Adam, even if he takes an embarrassingly long time to realize it. But I would agree that there is a little bit of playing around with gender there, too. Your mentioning James Bond is also interesting because James Bond has changed so much in pop culture since the books were published—I recently read a ’70s take-off on Bond that was just Daniel Craig’s Bond so the parody aspect went right over my head until someone else pointed it out, and Rao and even Adam are very much in the Craig Bond mold in some ways.

I don’t think that the US edition has that wall of trademark information at the end! Probably down to differences in UK versus US copyright law?

The crossover marketing and genre questions are interesting. There are some “mainstream sci-fi” books where it’s clear that the authors have barely read any SF (or fantasy, as the case may be) in the past several decades, and the book will inevitably take a potentially interesting SFFnal premise and focus on something completely extraneous, or just not work out the premise in any kind of logical way, or have zero effective worldbuiding. Prophet isn’t like that: it’s clear that the writers know their genre, and instead the book seems to me to be making a bid for the kind of “ascended” SF category (as I sometimes think of it) that people like Jeff VanderMeer occupy: read and enjoyed by genre readers but marketed to the mainstream. (Incidentally, I read a blog post where Macdonald named the Southern Reach trilogy, and particularly Annihilation [2013], as one of the book’s influences. I think it’s definitely perceptible in the final sequence at the Nevada facility.) In some ways, the book’s choice to stick fairly close to our world’s reality facilitates that balance.

Martin Petto: “Ascended SF” is a really interesting concept and VanderMeer is an even more interesting example of it. Twenty years ago I would not have pegged him as likely to be a mainstream-marketed author! Rather the reverse: someone bringing the literary perspective into SF. It is interesting to contrast the breakout success of the Southern Reach trilogy with (in my unevidenced perception!) the lack of it for some of the most popular and critically acclaimed recent genre series like Imperial Radch by Ann Leckie and Broken Earth by N. K. Jemisin.

There is the idea of the protocols of science fiction—that if you don’t read a lot of it, it is basically impossible to read and so its texts are rejected. I’m dubious if this was ever true and certainly I think it is less supportable now that media SF is so universally present. There is also a concept in my day job of the Perceived Weirdness Index, the idea that the system wants something different but will reject this if it is too different.

But here is the thing: Prophet is pretty weird! Likewise, the Southern Reach trilogy. They are a lot more weird than most genre science fiction, closer to New Wave SF—which was considered (and still is by many in the genre!) completely outré. But, as you say, in other ways these books stick fairly close to our world’s reality, thus hitting that sweet spot on the Perceived Weirdness Index.

I mentioned that “year ahead” article in the Guardian where I first heard about Prophet. That article was also the first time I heard about In Ascension by Martin McInnes (2023), which went on to be longlisted for the Booker. It is also my book of the year and another non-genre science fiction that, like Prophet and Southern Reach, plays with the cosmic, alien, and transcendent while also being firmly grounded in our reality, even as it subverts that reality. I’d also put XX (2020) by Rian Hughes in this category. So I wonder if this is a bit of an emergent trend?

Electra Pritchett: I completely agree that Prophet and the Southern Reach books are quite weird—and if anything, VanderMeer’s work since that trilogy has only gotten weirder! I love his books but they do seem to have slipped the SFFnal bonds of worldbuilding and transcended to a plane where things can just be without too much explanation. And apparently this sells like gangbusters among non-genre readers.

Going back to your point about Mulder and Scully, I think there is a bit of that influence in the story somewhere, as the show getting explicitly namechecked in the text indicates, but for me the eventual reveal about the Prophet plot was extremely timely: why yes, billionaires do want to do fascism, and whipping up fake nostalgia is how they do it! I liked the story’s points about the weaponization of nostalgia, and its dangers generally, though as a child of the ’80s it was a bit unnerving how almost all of the toys referenced in the text were objects I remembered from my childhood. But I also think that the way the story is kind of anti-trauma is one of its more remarkable aspects, and one of the things that does set it apart from fanfic: both Rao and Adam, in different ways, reject making it part of their identities even though they have both been through some pretty traumatic things. Adam doesn’t even recreate an object when he’s exposed to Prophet, unlike everyone else; he recreates a moment in time and then walks away from it, just as he rejects an alternate, happy life later on. In some ways it feels like the novel is saying that both nostalgia and trauma are a trap. Which is actually kind of a funny position for a fanfic-adjacent text to take.

In fact, I think there could have been a lot more explanation in Prophet about where Prophet itself came from, etc., particularly once it starts approaching godhood, but the authors mostly decline to take that opportunity, aside from a few lines at the end—just enough to put a bow on things rather than get bogged down in them. VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander (2021) may be comparable in some way—it’s a near-future or near-present novel that has the plot of a climate-technothriller, kind of, but a lot of the explanation for things is either obscured from both the protagonist and the reader or dispensed with in a brief and laconic fashion. Both books rely very heavily on the real world for their worldbuilding—and don’t feel the need to give us much more than that.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business. Electra Pritchett is a lapsed historian who splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. Born in New Jersey, she has lived on three continents and her studies have ranged from ancient Rome to modern Japan. She blogs at electrapritchett.wordpress.com.
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