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Aug 2009
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene - Hamlyn, 1970
* * *
In a recent article about British SF and its non-appearance in the Booker shortlist, Kim Stanley Robinson points out that the prize is generally given to "what usually turn out to be historical novels". He is right - of the last ten winners, nine are set largely or exclusively in the past (and the exception, DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, is a notably odd and controversial choice). This is perhaps not so surprising, because a novel with a contemporary or future setting is a litmus test of a writer's quality. If it is ill-researched or conveys no great insights into the human condition, it will quickly become a period piece, of interest only for the colour of its setting and the parochial opinions expressed by its characters. Novels set in the past, by contrast, can disguise their lack of profundity by mining the reliable if overworked thematic seams of memory and the passing of time. Mainstream writers avoid writing about the present day or the future because they are afraid it will show them up for the second-raters that most of them are.

Authors of previous generations were made of sterner stuff. Graham Greene's output is almost entirely based in contemporary settings, including 1930s Brighton (Brighton Rock), Batista's regime in Cuba (Our Man in Havana) and the first Indo-China war (The Quiet American). Travels with my Aunt is, as the title implies, less location-centric, but it strongly reflects the manners and mores of its period (the late 1960s). Unfortunately there is not much more to it than that.
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