Yes, we know we only just featured Caroline on the podcast (great episodes by the way…), but we loved her so much we were happy to feature her again on the blog as part of the Composite Creatures blog tour.

Get your copy of Caroline’s exquisite novel, Composite Creatures, now!

How does writing with a poetic sensibility bring opportunities in writing science fiction?

By nature, poets reach into the unknown and try to make what we find a reality that a reader can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell. And whatever it is that we find, whether it is a bright or ugly truth, we use language and lyricism to make it beautiful. A piece that sticks out stark on the page and lingers long on the memory.

The truth is, I would never have been able to write Composite Creatures without being a poet first. In a technical sense, developing my skills as a poet helped me to master rhythm and pace, expanded my vocabulary, freed up my attitude to form, and taught me how to craft entirely unique descriptions and leave cliché—the greatest enemy of poetry—behind for good. These are all skills utilised in the writing of fiction for any genre, but science fiction also greatly benefits from this experimental use of language. After all, if our stories are based in another place or time, it stands to reason that our characters likely speak or communicate in new and alternative ways. Writing with a freed-up poetic sensibility loosens the mind just enough to create dreamlike prose and dialogue that could credibly be an evolved version of storytelling tropes.

With the fear of severe illness being ever-present in our lives at the moment, what do novels like Composite Creatures bring to the conversation?

It’s certainly a subject we’re thinking about every day isn’t it? And to a degree I really didn’t see that coming when I wrote Composite Creatures! It’s a continuous conversation now; access to healthcare and vaccines, fairness and equality, and – in the UK – the provision and potential privatisation of the NHS. Whether you’re in need of a GP to talk about your mental health or a nurse to look at a new mark on your skin – you can never be sure how your query will be prioritised, or how long you’ll have to wait to see a specialist or even just to hear a comforting voice.

We all have to hope that this new reality is only temporary, but it doesn’t mean that healthcare inequality will disappear. From the UK’s NHS to the US’s system which offers some of the most new-fangled healthcare opportunities in the world – for those who can afford it – societal division has been apparent for years. Composite Creatures explores a near-future where corporate greed and healthcare inequality have resulted in a split society. Many people succumb to the greying, a fading away of the body akin to cancer. It’s an alternative reality where access to the latest scientific developments and benefits is based on whether you fit severe and secretive criteria, most of which patients themselves don’t even understand.

And all the while, everyone is longing for the safety and security that comes from a system that takes your worries away and you can trust. Unfortunately, access to this is only available to those who can afford it. This soon results in a divided community – each side condemning the other for seeing themselves as more valuable, or as bitter. This raises the important question: when we all exist in a dying world, and we’re all sickening – who is priority? 

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker - book cover

In Composite Creatures, you explore moral dilemmas in an increasingly difficult to navigate world. What makes science fiction such a rich backdrop for exploring moral philosophy? And what did you hope to highlight with this thematic thread?

I’ve long said that science fiction writers are philosophers. Science fiction is the perfect backdrop for thought experiments. We can take human nature anywhere – from how the sun will rise tomorrow to how a sun might set in the furthest reaches of the universe.

All futurists take the present day, stir in a little of the past, and predict a new world of trends in technology, style, and every day living. And what are all of these trends based on? Our heritage. Our relationships with each other and the world. And our innate sense of morality. In many ways, morality is the cornerstone of human psychology. Having a sense of good and bad suggests that we live by a moral code – and who will dictate this in a speculative future? Throughout history, humanity’s moral code was largely dictated by tradition, superstition, or religion. But as these rituals become less prevalent – it raises the question of who will define the guidelines in the future. The law? Or in an increasingly capitalist society, will it be a power more shady? Paid for by investors who seek to gain from society behaving in a particular way?

In this sense – I love to explore which aspects of morality come from our own personal history and which are learned through our interactions with society. In Composite Creatures, Norah makes some very questionable decisions but only follows them through because she believes they’re entirely justified. This takes her to a very dark place, indeed. But is her sense of morality corrupted by the community she seeks to be a part of? Well, you’ll have to read the novel to find out.

You have kept the narrative relatively ‘domestic’ in the face of a drastically different world. Why did you want to keep it tethered in this way? What does it say about the human condition that we continue to grasp for a kind of ‘normal’ no matter how much the world around us falls apart?

Human nature definitely seeks to tether itself to something ‘normal’, but perhaps a better way to think about it is that we seek to anchor ourselves to something we can control. When the world is falling apart we need something we can hold onto, otherwise we’re in complete freefall. And if that ‘handle’ doesn’t exist, we have the potential to engineer these from nothing. Fabrications. Lies. And when we look back at our lives and the decisions we made, this is when emotional memory comes into play. This was something I really wanted to explore in the novel. As Norah looks back and shares how she got to where she is today, I wanted to keep the readers guessing as to how much she really understood about the situation she bought into. Did Norah really know what she was getting into, or was it genuinely as much of a shock to her as it is to the reader when the truth is finally exposed?

Distorting our memories is something we all do from time to time. Haven’t you ever been sure that you remember something perfectly but then discovered that it happened a different way? I’m far more invested in speculative fiction that is utterly relatable. When it could almost be real, I project myself far more into the story. In Composite Creatures, I wanted to explore a world which could potentially be birthed in our lifetimes. In fact, the setting is a near future, yes, but it could also be an alternative today. And keeping the details domestic and totally familiar just increases the sense of uncanny when things start going wrong. It’s this eerie strangely familiar backdrop that infuses the novel with its creepy, horror-tinged edge.

Pitch us the book! Why should readers pick up a copy?

Save the most difficult question for last, huh?

I could shout about Composite Creatures for a long time, and of course I can, I wrote it! But probably the most convincing pitch comes from the early advance reviews for the novel. I couldn’t be prouder that it’s made readers really think about their place in the world. Most write that the novel has caused them to question what they would do in the protagonist’s position. Readers are surprised by the way it makes them feel, and are haunted afterwards by the growing sense of dread and where it takes Norah, a character whose eyes we experience the world through. It’s like a dream to me to be making such an impact!

So if you’re looking for a twisty, folkloric, thoughtful piece of science fiction that’ll leave you looking at our world in a new way, give it a go. I’d love to hear what you think!

Caroline Hardaker

Caroline Hardaker is a poet and novelist from the northeast of England. She has published two collections of poetry, and her work has appeared worldwide in print and on BBC radio.  She is Writer in Residence for Newcastle Puppetry Festival and is currently collaborating with the Royal Northern College of Music to produce a cycle of songs to be performed throughout the year. She lives and writes in Newcastle.