JOURNEY INTO SPACE Toby Litt Penguin, £7.99 SEEDS OF EARTH Michael Cobley Orbit, £10
AT THE Edinburgh Book Festival last year, the sci-fi writer Ken MacLeod recounted a peculiar meeting with Ian Rankin. Rankin has frequently written about the crime genre's struggle to be taken seriously as "literature", but apparently greeted MacLeod with the words "So when are you going to write a proper novel, Ken?" You might be able to break through the bookish glass ceiling with GBH and forensic pathology, but it's a far trickier proposition if you write about Bug-Eyed Monsters and xenobiology.
These two novels encapsulate some of those problems. Both have very similar premises – in the near-ish future, humanity sends three "generational" ships into space, to establish human colonies in the stars. But Toby Litt, author of Journey Into Space is a 'literary writer', indeed, one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. Michael Cobley, meanwhile, is unashamedly a genre writer – this novel, Seeds Of Earth is billed as Book One of a series, and it's a brick of a tome compared to Litt's slender work.
The opening of Journey Into Space introduces two characters, Celeste and August, who have never known Earth and amuse themselves with "describes" of the rain, trees and wind they have never felt. It is almost self-consciously poetic, and Litt deftly sketches their growing sexual attraction. This tentative romance is as predictable as it is transgressive: the mission, and the ship's computer system, it, have strict rules about procreation, to avoid the genetic problems of in-breeding over the seven-generation journey.
When Celeste becomes pregnant, it precipitates a profound change in what the crew think their duty truly is. Litt then fast-forwards through the subsequent eras, following Celeste's perpetually child-like son, Orphan; his daughter (a reclusive aesthete); and her frightening Nephew. Each era re-models their miniature society, toying with orgies and fanaticism, pleasure and duty, liberation and fatalism. It is an engaging read: it's just not really science-fiction. In fact, the crew could have been anywhere – Prospero's Island, a Waco compound, a hidden monastery – as long as it was secluded. The space elements are just the mise-en-scne for the parable. Usually that is not problematic, but just sometimes – as when Litt reveals that the spaceship is supposedly less than a kilometre long – the suspension of disbelief evaporates.
Scale is not a problem for Cobley, whose novel skips between galaxies with glee; and whereas Litt's focus was almost entirely on humans, the first 20 pages of Seeds Of Earth have introduced half a dozen alien races. As in Litt's novel, the colonists left an ailing Earth – in Litt's case, it is hinted that ongoing geopolitical problems, particularly around Jerusalem, led to the stellar pilgrimage. Here, on the other hand, it was an unstoppable swarm of Starship Trooper-style space insects. The main focus is on one of the refugee ships, the Hyperion, which has formed a new community alongside some indigenous and amicable aliens. It's called Darien – a sly wink at Scottish history – and the crew are predominantly Scots, Scandinavians and Russians, handpicked for their ability to stravaig abroad. Then a message comes through that Earth has survived, and is now in league with a bluntly militaristic regime, the Sendruka Hegemony.
The plucky colonists are soon caught up in the conspiracy politics of the new order and the chess game of international espionage. The Hegemony is extremely interested in some old ruins, which, true to the form of the Space Opera, are millennia-old super-weapons.
There is a vaguely ecological theme, but mostly this is pure, enjoyable explosions and aliens fare. It suffers slightly from the Phantom Menace syndrome – the real enemies are still in the background, and each plot strand is precariously balanced between closure and cliffhanger.
I doubt very much that Litt's foray into SF will encourage "literary" readers to explore further; or that Cobley will lead people to Lethem, Mitchell, Miville and other high concept genre writers. But each, in their own way, is a welcome new angle on that mostly harmless form.