Imagine a UK in the near future, run under martial law because the world is suffering from crippling water shortages.
We catch up with Zillah Bethell as she talks about her thrilling new book, The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare.
About the book: Auden Dare has a rare condition that means he cannot see in colour – and life is beginning to get harder for Auden. The war for water that is raging across the world is getting a little closer all the time. Everyone is thirsty all the time, and grubby, and exhausted. Auden has to learn to live without his father, who is away fighting, and has had to move to a new town and start a new school. But when he meets Vivi Rookmini, a smiling girl bright with cleverness, his hopes begin to lift.
Auden and his mother have moved into the old cottage of his recently-dead scientist uncle, Professor Jonah Bloom. It soon becomes clear that Jonah was working on something secret and possibly something that could cure Auden’s condition.
When Auden and Vivi make an extraordinary discovery of an enigmatic and ingenious robot, who calls himself Paragon, they embark on a thrilling journey of discovery as they seek to find out just what exactly Paragon is – and what link he has to Auden – and find that the truth is bigger and more wonderful than either of them could have imagined.
1. Why did you choose to set Auden Dare in a world experiencing crippling water shortages?
Parts of the world are already experiencing water shortages. That is our reality. Water poverty kills 1.5 million children every year; and according to the World Economic Forum, water scarcity is now the number one global risk factor. I thought it would be interesting to bring that reality to the UK. To the Englishman with his umbrella and his rose garden.
2. Auden Dare, the central character in your book, suffers from a condition that means he can only see in black and white. Tell us more about this and how this condition is relevant to the story?
My starting point was the phrase ‘to see everything in black and white’. I guess I wanted to discuss grey areas both literally and metaphorically. I was also influenced by Oliver Sacks’ wonderful studies in achromatopsia. We take colour for granted in much the same way as we take water for granted.
3. In your book Auden and his friend Vivi discover a robot called Paragon who appears to have human-like emotions. Do you think we will ever see robots that are like people?
It’s hard to imagine a machine with a conscience and a sense of humour. Or a soul. But then again, transplants were once the stuff of Frankenstein; flying, the realm of Icarus. So it is entirely possible that one day we will have truly sentient machines. We already have driverless cars!
4. There have been stories in the media recently about the development of robot soldiers. Given your book looks at the role of robots in future society are you worried about the potential dangers posed by AI?
Only last year in Geneva, the UN discussed the legal and ethical issues surrounding LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems). I don’t think we’re in the land of Terminator yet – these weapons systems would be far too costly. But robots may indeed pose a threat to our economy, taking over jobs previously done by humans.
5. In the book, the UK is controlled by the Water Authority Board, a really sinister authoritarian government. What was your inspiration for this?
Having had such a free early childhood I found any kind of authority challenging. On a literary level I’ve been influenced by George Orwell’s 1984; and there have been plenty of real life totalitarian states and leaders from Ceausescu to Kim Jong-Un to be terrified by.
6. You live in a semi-rural area of Wales but the book is set in Cambridgeshire. Why was this?
In 2016, the Centre for the Future of Intelligence was opened in Cambridge by Stephen Hawking so it seemed the perfect place for Dr Bloom (a great scientist) to have lived and worked. The university also has a long tradition of recruiting spies and the idea of things not being what they appear to be is a theme in the book.
7. How does someone who didn’t start going to school until they were eight years old become ‘clever enough’ to become a writer?
Writing has more to do with empathy than intelligence. Being able to inhabit other skins. It also helps to be a keen observer and have the memory of an elephant.
8. The idea of sacrifice is very significant in the story. Have you ever had to sacrifice something that is important to you?
I had to sacrifice writing when my children were born which was initially difficult. All my decisions are still (and always will be) informed by their very existence.
9. In the book there is a world war raging, with Auden’s father away fighting. War obviously touches the lives of many of today’s children. Do you think we should talk more openly with children about such subjects?
We are bombarded with so many images on TV and via social media and the danger is that we can become desensitised. Waving a toy gun around is exceedingly unnerving to anyone who has inhabited a war zone whether as soldier, peace keeper or citizen. Yes, there should be more discussion if only to reawaken the connection between the images we are seeing on TV and our feelings about what’s really going on in the world.
10. The book is full of fascinating characters – can you give us any tips on how to create engaging characters?
I think real life is stranger than anything the imagination can produce. For example, a few weeks ago I climbed up a church tower in a Dorset village. On top of a bell sat this ancient guy. Later that afternoon I related the story to an elderly lady in the same village. ‘My word,’ she exclaimed, ‘you met Ralph! Nobody’s seen him in years! He’s 126!’ There’s a couple of Dickensian characters straight away!
About the author: Zillah Bethell was born in a leprosy hospital in Papua New Guinea, spent her childhood barefoot playing in the jungle, and didn’t own a pair of shoes until she came to the UK when she was eight. She was educated at Oxford University and now lives in Wales with her family. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare is her second children’s book.
The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell, is out now, published by Piccadilly Press