[This post had been lingering in draft forever – I thought I’d get it out while I remember.]
Here are a few of the things I’ve been reading while I write for Sunless Sea – or things that helped plant the seed. One of the difficult things about Sunless Sea is that it’s so ahistorical – the Age of Discovery predated the Age of Steam, and steamships weren’t used for exploration – so there are literally no stories from our non-existent period. Equally, although the world is awash with vivid accounts of sea voyages, I can’t reference anything much about light or weather, which is half the point of being at sea. (I literally walked out of a Turner exhibition at the NMM in some sorrow because it was messing with my careful mental images of the Unterzee.) So I had to triangulate it from different directions. Here are some of those.
Patrick O’Brien, obviously. I would ask why no-one explained to me why the Aubrey / Maturin stories are so much fun, except that they had, for years, and I just didn’t believe them because I was put off military-historical adventure at a tender age. They’re, ah, a lot of fun, and tremendously useful for incidental detail and the sense of sailorly comradeship.
David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas not the Peep Show guy). The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I think Mitchell might be my favourite author at the moment: he’s uneven but hugely lively and clever and his eye for vivid detail is scrumptious. Thousand Autumns is uneven too, but it’s a compelling story about a fascinating place and time which returns again and again to the themes of foreigness, melancholy, home.
(The next three are mostly SF: but the tropes and plots and scenery of the far sky translate remarkably well to a maritime fantasy narrative.)
Jack Vance. Vance wrote picaresque fantasy travelogue better than almost anyone, and his background as a merchant seaman showed in the fun he had with sea voyages. I was going to recommend something specific but oh, God, it’s hard to think of Vance that isn’t appropriate somewhere along the way. If you haven’t started with Vance, I think Emphyrio might be the best place to go, but they’re mostly equally good and (whisper it) often kinda interchangeable.
Brian Stableford. Halcyon Drift is an SF noir piece about a disaffected star-pilot strong-armed into seeking lost treasure in a freakishly dangerous area of space, intelligent, off-beat and very readable. There were another five books which mostly don’t live up to its sense of mystery and menace, but they’re not bad, and the first has exactly the sense of half-comprehensible menace and sailor’s destiny that I like.
Colin Greenland. Harm’s Way is Victorian space opera (call it steampunk if you must) about a British Empire that spans the solar system. Vivid, melodramatic, lovingly written, full of the romance of the night sky. Take Back Plenty is more traditional space opera, enthusiastically pulpy but bone-smart.
Edgar Allan Poe. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (of Nantucket) is, oh my God, unclassifiable. By turns it’s a shipboard thriller, a shipwreck chiller, a bildungsroman, and an openly plagiarised travel diary. It flourishes unexpectedly into a sort of incandescently racist allegorical SF and then just suddenly runs out of words. I hesitate to recommend it. Poe himself described it as ‘a very silly book’. But it was hugely influential, and it’s rarely dull. Apart from the plagiarised penguin anecdotes.
And a couple of honourable mentions. Coleridge, who gave us our title, as well as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I think it’s fair to describe the Rime as silly, too, but it keeps resonating long after you read it. And Montagu Slater. He wrote the libretto to Peter Grimes. Not much of that has come through into Sunless Sea, certainly not into the music, but you’ll come across traces here and there, like traces washed up on the sand. “I hear those voices that will not be drowned…”