The bestselling author reveals the forces that have helped to shape his new novella featuring the early lives of characters from His Dark Materials
PHILIP PULLMAN has a new target in his sights. After taking on the Catholic Church - and scoring a not inconsiderable victory, if sales figures for his bestselling trilogy His Dark Materials are anything to go by - he is now pitting himself against a new enemy: multinational corporations.
His new novella, Once Upon a Time in the North, returns to the familiar Arctic setting of much of the trilogy's action. Only this time the reins of power are clutched not by the high priests of organised religion but by big, brutal private companies.
This is not the first time he has dragged a sociopolitical subtext into his work. Before a generation of readers fell in love with Lyra Belacqua, his most famous character, Pullman was writing historical thrillers about another heroine, Sally Lockhart. The third book in the Victorian-era Sally Lockhart quartet, The Tiger in the Well, deals specifically with the issue of Jewish migration to Britain after persecution in Russia. “I've always tried to write about the world that exists,” Pullman says - which is not always obvious to readers lost in the magic of the countless other worlds of His Dark Materials.
But if he has visited political territory before, in Once Upon a Time in the North he also hints at a more topical malaise. Alongside his evident antipathy for multinational corporations sit his environmental concerns. Oil has been struck in the fictional setting of Novy Odense. “It's about the way we thoughtlessly exploit the Earth's resources,” he says of the book. “Until 50 years ago it was possible to drag fossil fuels out of the ground and burn them up and think we could do it without consequences.” So even through fantasy stories adored by children, some of these consequences can be explored - but we're still a long way from Orwellian polemic.
The accusation is not one that can be levelled at him. Pullman may be too busy trying to write his next book (The Book of Dust, due to materialise “hopefully in two or three years”) to become a full-time agitator, but this hasn't stopped him lending his name to a cause close to his heart and home: a struggle against the creeping homogenisation of Britain's urban landscape dubbed Oxford's “Battle of Jericho”.
On the site of a former boatyard in the Jericho area to the north of the city, developers want to build what he bitterly refers to as “very ugly blocks of small one and two-bedroom flats, which aren't designed for families or people who will contribute to the community”. The planning application was turned down and the developers are now appealing. Pullman, and the community he fondly calls “the boat people”, are crossing their fingers for another victory.
It's not just Nimbyism. “This is a little microcosm of what's happening all over the UK,” he says. “It's happening at Heathrow. We know the Government will ride roughshod over the people there.” So can we expect to find political overtones in his future work, too? “Oh yes!” But clearly politics will form only a part of what makes him write. What comes first is what he calls “all the sensuous stuff”.
Rest of story here........ NZ publication 4 April, $29.99