Jan’s third novel, The Ennead (Kestrel, 1978, Puffin, 1980), was a dramatic departure from Thunder and Lightnings. I hope the following gives a flavour of the achievement she set out to realise – and succeeded in – with this book, its follow-up, Divide and Rule (Kestrel, 1979; Penguin Plus 1990) and Aquarius (Kestrel, 1982; Penguin Plus 1990). Jan often referred to these novels, fondly, as ‘my heavies’. There are obvious parallels with her late career novels The Eclipse of the Century (1999), Useful Idiots (2004) and to some degree Riding Tycho (2015) and Voyager (2016). I’d love to explore this in detail – any takers …?
These comments are transcribed from an interview I conducted with Jan at her home in Oxford in December 1992.
It’s not so much the science aspect that fascinates me, of which there is very little in science fiction. I just liked the way it was written, especially the pulp, pre-war, American science fiction. I liked the way you could get mileage out of almost nothing. It wasn’t sheer invention but the onus was on the writer to make it possible to suspend disbelief, which is fascinating to watch in action.
What really started it was something that struck me about all science fiction is the silly names people had. In the future, names will almost certainly be names we use now, just modified a bit. The names we use now are themselves so ancient. That was what started the train of thought that led to The Ennead. I just wrote down the name ‘Isaaac’ with three ‘a’s, as it might have mutated. Having written it I could imagine him. By the time I got around to writing it I’d dropped one of the ‘a’s, but that was the start. It must have been four years between when I first thought of the idea and when I began writing but he didn’t change much.
For my first two books, which were set in Norfolk where we lived, I stuck very much to what was there, in terms of the weather and agriculture. Everything existed, and the story developed, in fact, because of what existed. A lot of writers are perfectly happy to annex other cultures or setting stories in environments they have no knowledge of. I can’t do that, I’d always live in fear of inaccuracy. I’d much rather create the whole thing from scratch and set up a ruthless society that was precisely as ruthless as I needed it to be and no more. Here I had to make everything work. For instance, I had constructed a planet with no plant life and then I thought, Hang on! This is still an oxygen-based atmosphere. We need some vegetation. I had to consider, where does energy come from. What about sewage disposal (which I actually discussed in The Ennead). All the nuts and bolts that keep life going had to be accounted for. It was all part of the challenge of the book – substantiating what was, in fact, pure fiction.
I found I could treat much more complex themes in a much more complex way. There were two things I wanted to show in those books: the lengths to which people would go to gain power, on the one hand (which I explored in The Ennead), and the lengths to which people would go for a quiet life (which is most of us). Tyranny is supported from below by inertia. The people who lived on Erato sold each other out, they had no loyalty to each other at all. They were motivated solely by their own self-interest. On the other hand, Hanno in Divide and Rule kept his head down and his mouth shut because he thought that was the way to ride out the storm. Like most people, he had no idea how to handle fanatics.
I still wanted to write about young people because adults may learn from experience, but there is very little they can gain from the learning. They don’t change. Isaac is fifteen when it starts, seventeen when it ends but he’s living as an adult. He has to earn his keep or get out. Somebody Isaac’s age can be shown changing radically because he would have changed anyway. It was just that he was diverted from the way he might have developed. He finally acts selflessly when it’s too late to do any good, but at least he does it.
I think a lot of writers for children have written either historical fiction or science fiction because it gives them the chance to show a society where kids are an integral part of it, not just a kind of subspecies. You don’t have to go back far in history for a twelve-year-old to be part of a working community.
I had the image of a society that was in a sense very advanced because otherwise it would never have got there – and is now on the downward slope. Everything is disintegrating, this is obvious. The background to it – not the initial inspiration, that was the names, but what occurred to me when I was writing the book – was what was happening in southern Rhodesia – a colonial colony which had more or less seceded from its parent country, but was still dependent on it, in a sense. Having no native population to exploit it imported one.
When I started the books I didn’t know how they would develop. That’s what the three drafts were for. For example, in The Ennead, Mosche hardly appeared in the first draft. It’s hard to imagine the book without him – he’s the catalyst for everything that happened – but he appeared in just a few lines. Through the second draft he gained my attention. The point of the characters’ names in that story is that they were the only indication of where they were from. He was a Jew. Then I began to think, What you’ve got here is a survivor. If anyone had a sense of his past, it’s Mosche. From that, the Jewish myth of the golem proved very formative when I rewrote the book for the third draft.
Jan also said the decision to write The Ennead also sprang from an urge to not be typecast as a writer of ‘family stories’: ‘I didn’t want to go on writing or being made to write the same sort of book. It suddenly struck me that now was the time to do it.’
Jan talked a little about this in a 1989 interview in the Australian magazine Scan (she had toured Australia extensively in January 1989). When asked about her publisher’s response to The Ennead, she said:
They knew it was going to be something different, but they didn’t know how different. They had no idea I could write like that … and it was very strictly edited, far more than anything else I’d written. They asked me to cut 7,000 words from it; this was a good thing and I learned a great deal about cutting from it. They would have taken it anyway, whether I’d cut it or not, they said after I’d done it. Then I did Divide and Rule and I could see then that they weren’t too keen on too many of those because they didn’t sell particularly well at the time.
From my interview with Jan Mark in 1992 …
I had the idea at the start of Divide and Rule of a cult being developed, cynically, from something essentially ludicrous. I didn’t see how it would develop until I started writing. The thinking that went into Divide and Rule was what was happening in Argentina at the time. There were thousands of people who just disappeared and that became part of Hanno’s fear. He wanted people to know he was suffering. He lost everything that made him himself, even his name. The name being the essence of the soul comes into all three books, actually.
In Aquarius I wanted to write about a character who appeared to be the hero because I never said he wasn’t; I wanted to see what would happen to him. It’s always the character I’m looking at because the plot is only what the characters do. What I write is far more pertinent than I’m aware of. The theme will develop without me noticing it. When I come to the second draft I see what’s there and if it’s what I want.
The tragic hero per se is the man who has everything going for him but destroys himself through one fatal flaw. All the characters have something that destroys them. In Isaac’s case it’s a lurking humanity which he didn’t expect. If he’d been one degree more ruthless he’d have lived. I had intended a slightly happier ending for Hanno but when I got to the end I realised nothing there pointed to a happy ending. He was finished – there was nothing left, he had given it all away.
The Ennead went into Penguin’s teenage imprint almost immediately – and was reissued several times – but it wasn’t until 1990 that Penguin put Divide and Rule and Aquarius into their Plus paperback range.
The books were also subject to the intense criticism of Peter Hunt who wrote a scathing article for Signal magazine in 1980 entitled ‘Whatever Happened to Jan Mark?’, which included rich praise for Thunder and Lightnings and Under the Autumn Garden, but steep criticism of her two subsequent novels such as, …
‘Ms Mark, finding herself in the position where she not only has the opportunity to publish, but is positively encouraged to go upmarket, turns away from the here and produces The Ennead. This, from the title onwards (it might be added that the titles reflect a steady decline from ingenuity to pretentiousness) seems to be aimed … at the controlling audience* rather than the audience itself. It puts ideas first, props second … and consistency and good writing nowhere at all. The book has a rawness that suggests a first draft rather than a polished whole, and undercuts its pretensions by trivial backgrounds and characterizations. Of Divide and Rule (whatever the title may mean) the less said the better.’
I asked Jan about her response to the article.
It made no difference because it was too late – I was two books ahead by then. But I was very hurt by it in a way I wouldn’t be now. My initial response was: Are they right? But no, I didn’t think so. After reading the article again and again all I could see was they were complaining that I hadn’t written Thunder and Lightnings again, but that was the point of the exercise.
The response to it, really, was Aquarius. But by then Penguin had had enough as well. On the other hand, I’d more or less come to the end of that line of thought. Also, I’d worked out how it was done. I realised most science fiction writers were about as interested in science as I was; they’re making a point about the here and now.
* This was a reference to an earlier Signal article by Robert Westall observing of his own work that after he won the Carnegie, he began ‘writing books for the children of publishers, librarians and the literary gent of The Times.’