I liked In Great Waters so much that I immediately ordered Kit Whitfield’s debut, Bareback. My heart sunk a little when it arrived because it is a big bastard book at well over 500 pages. In Great Waters is an elegant novel but Bareback looked more like a potboiler. And that is pretty much what it turned out to be.
Those writers who dabble in non-genre science fiction tend to stick to the polite areas: dystopia, post-apocalypse, alternate history. Whitfield is much more radical in her approach and is happy to fundamentally muck around with reality in a way a lot of mainstream writers – even SF sympathetic ones – would shy away from. Bareback envisages a world were werewolves make up the majority of humanity just as In Great Waters depicts a world where merepeople make up a powerful minority. In fact, it is probably wrong to describe Whitfield as “non-genre” but this is how she is published (in the UK anyway, in America she seems to have been typecast as a fangfucker). The non-genre label is wrong in two different ways: you can’t really apply it to someone who hasn’t written anything but SF and also Bareback is very much in thrall to the American police procedural novel.
Bareback is actually set in a nameless city in a nameless country but it is so strongly redolent of these American thrillers that the frequent Britishisms seem jarringly intrusive. Most of the problems with the novel – its length, its familar characters and situations, its escalating cliffhangers – stem from this. At the same time Whitfield’s central novum is breath of fresh air in an increasingly silly genre. These mass market US thrillers have found themselves caught in a type of arms race which means that for the authors to have any impact on a jaded palatte their baddies must be a serial killers, paedophiles, terrorists or – preferably – a combination of all three. The result of this is a proliferation of ever more preposterous plotting.
This is not to say Whitfield entirely escapes silliness, duff plotting, generic prose. At the start of her review Abigail Nussbaum – who later goes on to accurately summarise the novel as “slow-paced, overlong, rather poorly written, and not doing nearly as much as it should with its excellent premise” – says:
Now I need someone who’s read both books to tell me that Whitfield has improved substantially as a writer in the three years gap between producing them
The answer is unequivocably yes. Coming to the novel after In Great Waters is a disappointment because the difference in quality, particularly in terms of prose, is profound. The worldbuilding in Bareback is fundamentally broken and this is thrown into sharp relief by the writing; in contrast, quibbles about the plausibilty of In Great Waters – and several reviewers have had then – are rendered immaterial by the precision and power of her prose. So I look forward to both Whitfield’s next book and Abigail’s thoughts on In Great Waters.