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  • Siberia
  • Written by Ann Halam
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307433763
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A Novel

Written by Ann HalamAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ann Halam


List Price: $5.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43376-3
Published by : Laurel Leaf RH Childrens Books
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When Sloe was tiny, her Papa disappeared and she and her mama went to live in a prison camp in the snowy north, in a time and place when there are no more wild animals. Mama’s crime: teaching science, and her dedication to the hope that the lost animal species can be reborn. To Sloe, Mama’s secret work is magic, as enchanting as Mama’s tales of a bright city across the ice where they will be free.

Years later, Sloe is sent to a prison school, and Mama disappears. At 13, Sloe escapes, pursued by a mysterious man. With only hope to keep her going, Sloe sets out on a solitary 1000-mile journey. But she is not truly alone for Mama left Sloe a gift: the seeds of five missing species and the knowledge to bring them to life.

From the Hardcover edition.


The little girl was me, Sloe. I was Rosita. (I had to give up my name, I'll explain why when I get to that part.) That tractor ride is my oldest memory. I think about it often and I treasure all the details, because I can't remember anything from the time before. I have been told things, and I've seen photographs, but I can't remember my father's face. It's as if my life began that day, under the wide blank roaring sky, with the nice guard who smiled, the coldness; my cherry red coat. The strangest thing is remembering that I didn't know there was anything wrong. When I realized that my shoes were too thin for the snow, I was frightened because my mama had made a mistake--and Mama never made mistakes! I didn't know what had happened to us, I didn't know what was going on at all.
I didn't know anything: I was only four.
I don't remember what I saw when my mother put me down, but I know how our hut must have looked when it was empty. I know that Rosita saw a rather long, narrow room (I thought it was big, until I knew it was our whole house), with a concrete floor. At one end there was a dark green enamel stove, with a chimney going up the wall. Beside the stove there were wooden sliding doors shutting off an alcove in the wall, that turned out to hold the bed Mama and Rosita shared. Along the edge of the cupboard-bed, the floor was covered by a kind of raft of wooden planks, gratefully warm to your feet compared with the concrete (which was like walking on gray ice, winter and summer). On the other side of the room there was a dark green sink, with a strange kind of spout standing by it and no taps. The walls were dusty bare planks, in places cracked so you could see the earth-bricks behind them. There was no ceiling, just the naked beams of the rooftree, and a shelf going all around, where the roof and the walls met.
Halfway down the room was a partition, with sliding doors like the bed-cupboard, but dark green and shining like the stove and the sink. Through there, Rosita would find the workshop where her mama was going to spend hours and hours, every day, turning out nails from scrap metal. The nails were to be used in the making of huts like ours, and furniture for huts like ours, in prison Settlements all over the wilderness: but the little girl didn't know that. She didn't know what the red light on the wall in the workshop meant either. She thought the machines were more ugly toys, and she hated it when Mama insisted on playing with them. All she wanted to do was to get out into snow, into the wild emptiness. . . . But if she had to stay in, why wouldn't Mama play with her?
When we arrived our hut had nothing, not even a mattress for the boards in the cupboard-bed. Mama had a wad of  start-up vouchers, better than the normal paper money of the Settlements (which was called scrip, and which would hardly buy anything, as we found out later). We went to one of the big buildings with our wealth, and bought a mattress, a table and two chairs, an oil lamp, and some lamp oil. There was enough to pay for delivery of the table and chairs. Mama dragged our mattress home herself on a sled, with me sitting up on top in my thin little baby shoes; then she returned the sled to the store. We had to go to another building for food supplies and kitchen things. We didn't have to buy fuel for the stove. The heat came through pipes, from a smoky, stinky brown-coal power station. We didn't have to buy water either. It came out of the spout by our sink when you pumped the handle . . . except in the worst part of winter, when we had to melt snow and boil it.
We thought we'd done well on that first shopping trip. In fact it was weeks before we had everything we needed. Mama didn't know how to live like this. She didn't know that you needed chemicals to drop down the hole in the earth closet, to keep it from smelling bad. She didn't know what a can opener was. We didn't know we needed vegetable seeds; or a sack of grit, to keep in the bin by our door. There was nobody to tell us these things. No neighbors came round to help us. We didn't have any friends until much later.

There were no warm clothes or thick-soled shoes for a little girl in the store that month, and there was only one clothing store, so I had to stay indoors. Mama spared an hour a day teaching me to read and to play with numbers. The rest of the time I was very bored, and I sulked a lot. I spent hours pressed against the workshop partition, crying for her to come out. But the nights were cozy. I loved being tucked up with my mama, under our new rough blankets, between our new, scratchy sheets. On one of those nights (this is my second true memory, the second treasure) I woke feeling cold and Mama wasn't with me. I sat up and dug out my socks, which I'd kicked off in my sleep (we slept in our socks, for extra coziness). I pulled them on and got down onto the raft of planks. The workshop partition was open a crack: I could see a moving shadow. Mama was playing in there, in the middle of the night. The stove was burning low. I went padding over, with the icy cold piercing through my socks and my little pajamas, and peered through. My mama was at work but the machinery was silent. She was crouched down on the floor, under the bench. In front of her she had a round white case; it was open. I could see tubes and droppers in a rack, and a row of glass dishes, all very small, like glassware for a doll's house. As soon as I saw these things, I wanted to play with them. They were so neat, so small, so perfect: and I loved the way Mama looked like a child, a little girl like me, playing down there on her knees, under the grown-up things. She had a strip of white gauzy stuff over her nose and mouth, and her fingers glimmered, as if they were coated in magic. I saw her take the droppers, and drop something liquid into each of the dishes. . . .

From the Hardcover edition.
Ann Halam

About Ann Halam

Ann Halam - Siberia

Photo © Trisha Purchas, Archer Photographers

“I love reading unexpected books, strange books, old books. Can I have a (waterproof) sea chest wash up, with a random selection of strange, old titles, fiction and nonfiction? . . . For this, I would trade my favorites.”–Ann Halam

In addition to writing children's books, Ann Halam writes adult science fiction and fantasy books under the name Gwyneth Jones.



Q. Here’s an old question that is particularly appropriate and a good way to get to know you. If you were stranded on a desert island, whom would you want to be stranded with?
My husband, and our cat. I’d say my son, too, but I think that would be tough on him. He’s fifteen . . . suppose we were there for years? I think he’d better have stayed at home, with his cat, and they can seek their fortunes together.

Q. Which books would you want to have?
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust; The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (Edward G. Seidensticker translation); Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. These are my three bedside books. They’re all pretty long, especially Proust. I read them in turn and then start the cycle again. I’ve been doing this for many years. There’s so much in each of these great novels, I’ll never tire of them. Oh, and all the Moomin books [by Tove Jansson], which I love. Another idea . . . I love reading unexpected books, strange books, old books. Can I have a (waterproof) sea chest wash up, with a random selection of strange, old titles, fiction and nonfiction? In English or French. Or maybe some other language, only with a dictionary and a grammar for each language included in the collection, please. . . . For this, I would trade my favorites.

Q. What kinds of food would you crave?
Parmesan cheese. Ice cream (not mixed together). And bread. Maybe I’d miss bread most keenly, because it is my staple food. Bread and cheese is my favorite everyday meal–with salad maybe, but I expect there’ll be some kind of edible greens. I don’t know how big this island is. If it’s big enough, and we’re there for long enough, we could figure out by trial and error which roots to dry or grass seeds to harvest, and beat them into flour. I bet we could manage something of that kind, but I wonder what we’d do for yeast. Maybe we could make a sourdough, with slightly turned coconut milk? Or goats’ milk. Are there goats?

Q. We’ll see what we can do about getting you some goats. In the meantime, tell us about your writing process. How do you begin?
I start with an idea rather than an outline: a situation, a proposal, what they call in science fiction the “What if?” In the case of Dr. Franklin, I think the idea came because I’d seen teenage children’s fiction about magical transformations into animal forms, usually involving some kind of superpowers, and I’d been reading about the wilder possibilities of genetic engineering for other reasons. I thought, “What if you were to treat that theme realistically? What if you were to describe the process?” From there I went on to wonder why someone would be doing this, and because I’m interested in the future of space exploration, it dawned on me that this would be a reason. And maybe someone, sometime, is going to have to be the first to take that incredibly dangerous big step.

Q. When you write a book, do you know what’s going to happen, or do you develop the story as you go along?
Before I start writing, I sit down with my idea and knock it into a story-arc shape: a series of events, happening to people, that will transform my situation into . . . another situation. I often feel I’m making huge changes when I actually write the book, but strangely (at least, it seems strange to me), I usually find that the sequence of events stays the same as in that first rough arc. The same things happen, but for more complicated reasons than I first imagined, if that makes sense. It’s the characters who make the difference. Miranda’s vulnerability and Semirah’s secret toughness developed like this, and enriched the plot–but these qualities are implicit in them from the start. You have to be tough to be shy (don’t ask me how I know this, I just know). I do a lot of revising and editing, right until the last minute. I find it very hard to let a book go, and I’m always convinced I can perfect every sentence even further, with a little more tinkering. But on the other hand, I instinctively value the passages that come “right first time” very highly: it’s a paradox.

Q. You tell us that Dr. Franklin’s Island was partly inspired by H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. What did you draw from Wells’s story?
Dr. Franklin’s Island is sort of an argument with The Island of Dr. Moreau. When I started thinking about my transformation story, The Island of Dr. Moreau immediately came to mind and set the scene on the “desert island”–the isolated place where the mad scientist could do his will, undisturbed by public opinion. When I reread the story, I found I didn’t like the ideas in it at all. This is different from not liking the story. I think it’s a great story, but I didn’t like H. G. Wells’s ideas about animal nature versus human nature. Part of what happens in Dr. Franklin (though this isn’t Dr. Franklin’s intention!) is the wonder and joy of being reunited with the animal kingdom, rediscovering the delight of being an animal, at home in the living world–but still this special kind of self-aware, conscious animal that is a human being. H. G. Wells comes to a very different conclusion about his “beast men.” I won’t try to explain it; read the story and make your own judgment. In short, I like H. G. Wells’s terrific stories, but I’m not much of an admirer of his opinions.

Q. A detail not provided in the novel is the reason why the plane crashed. Could you tell us now?
It’s a lot harder than you’d think to be a good eyewitness, especially when you’re trying to remember what happened in an emergency. When Semirah and Miranda and Arnie are trying to decide what happened, on the beach, they can’t agree on a story, and that’s the way I’d like to leave it. When they realize that they can’t reach any rational explanation, it brings home their helplessness, and the way they’ve been dumped out of the world. One of the things I wanted to say in Dr. Franklin is that terrible things do happen, and the people who suffer often never find out the “real story.” “Why me?” is a question that doesn’t get answered. Maybe Semirah was wrong and there was no hijack, just a tragic accident. Or maybe it was all a setup, organized by Dr. Franklin. I don’t know everything that goes on in my books. If you want my opinion, I think there was a hijack attempt that failed, and it didn’t have anything to do with Dr. Franklin.

Q. Semi and Miranda develop a truly special friendship. Can you describe their relationship? What level of trust do they achieve? In the coda, does Semi reveal a sexual component to the relationship?
I wondered about that myself. I think the possibility of a sexual relationship is there, but I don’t know if it would happen or not, and in ways I’ve a feeling it wouldn’t, because their intimacy has already been so deep without any sexual component. I think you’d have to follow them further, and it would depend a lot on the circumstances. I do believe, however, that for some people the most important, central relationship in their life is a friendship, maybe with someone of the same sex, but not a sexual relationship, and maybe that’s the way it will be with Miranda and Semirah. They’ll have romantic relationships, heterosexual or same-sex partners, families–but this lifelong friendship will always be stronger.

Q. Semi narrates the novel. We see everything through her eyes, and yet, up until her transformation, her vision is limited and often blurred. How much are we to trust her perceptions?
Semi’s shortsighted because I am, and I remember coping without my contact lenses or eyeglasses in similar (though not so drastic) situations. I didn’t mean to make Semirah an untrustworthy narrator. I think she’s very trustworthy, precisely because she knows she’s not seeing the world clearly. She’s a scientist.

Q. You’ve created a character, Miranda, with remarkable instincts for survival in the wild. Most authors write from experience. Is it so with you? Are you as resourceful as she is? Have your survival skills ever been tested?
I grew up on Swallows and Amazons [by Arthur Ransome] and other outdoor-adventure books, and we had a young uncle who took us camping and cooking in such corners of wild country as can be found in the urban northwest of England. I like living outdoors, and making do, and getting off the beaten path (but less of that now–wild country doesn’t need any more human explorers, not anywhere!). My skills are not great. I’m at the level where I’ve never really had to light a fire without matches, but I know how to build a fire that will light and burn easily; and I know to keep the matches wrapped in something totally waterproof. I’ve been in situations that could have got difficult, climbing mountains in Java, for instance, but I’ve never ended up in trouble. I’ve learned that in most places the wilderness is not out to get you (there are exceptions), and you’ll come to no serious harm if you just take care. I’ve been lucky, but keeping the rules is a good way to stay lucky–and I had the rules drilled into me at an early age.

Q. You have provided an antidote that allows Semi, Miranda, and Arnie to return to their human forms and be “normal” again. Did you consider any other endings?
No, I didn’t. The “antidote” makes sense of the experiment, and I never intended Dr. Franklin to be a mad scientist in the gibbering-lunatic-monster category. I think the scary thing about him is that he is perfectly rational, on his own terms: he has a project, he’s not just flailing around. But the idea that they would be normal again at the end goes deeper than that. When I sit down to sort out my work plan for a book, I usually already have a final scene in mind (and it hardly ever changes). I was heading for that hotel room in Quito from a very early stage, and for the coda that comes after it. The book was going to end with Miranda and Semirah about to walk through the door that would take them back into the “normal” world: looking at each other, feeling that weird, paradoxical nostalgia for the terror and the ordeal. It’s equally important to me that they are left balanced, in between; passing for normal outside, no longer normal inside. “‘What are we?’ I ask Miranda. ‘Are we monsters? Or are we more than human?’” (p. 245). That’s the question I wanted to end with, and it’s a question about the future of being human, supposing the science of genetic engineering, gene therapy, really takes us where it seems it might take us. If they don’t “change back,” then there’s no implication for the future– they’re just fantasy creatures.

Q. You raise questions for your readers to consider about the ethical and moral boundaries of medical research. Where do you stand on this issue?
I think in any field of human enterprise, what can be done, will be done, if there is profit or status to be gained. Arguments about morals and ethics have little effect on the cutting edge. Obviously, in real life, no sane person would perform such drastic life-threatening experiments on living human beings, willing volunteers or not. But who knows, maybe that’s only because in real life the kind of experiments that I’ve suggested aren’t possible . . . yet. The boundaries are always shifting, and the trouble is there’s no magic line that can’t be crossed. In the end, morality means stopping yourself from doing something you know is wrong (like torture, or marketing a killer addictive drug), no matter what you think you’ll gain from it. It’s called free will, and I revere it: but the you have to do it yourself, no one makes you part seems to be hard for a lot of people to grasp. They think, “Well, God didn’t strike me with a thunderbolt, so what’s the problem?”

Q. The names of two of your characters seem to have special meaning. Did you expect readers to make a connection between Dr. Franklin and Dr. Frankenstein? A.
Dr. Franklin isn’t meant to be Dr. Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was wracked by doubt, and horribly remorseful (though he failed to do anything useful about his remorse). Dr. Franklin could never feel like that. Semirah is called after a newscaster on the TV in England. I just happened to notice her, and that she had a lovely smile. And I admired her because she was very young, obviously good at her job, and on the way up. That’s often how my characters get their names: quite by chance. Miranda is the one whose name has a special meaning, a double meaning. She’s someone who is admired (that’s what first defines her), and then she’s again the Miranda of The Tempest, in her role as the “daughter” who wants to believe that her “father’s” magic is noble and good.

Q. Semirah wonders in the end if Dr. Skinner will decide to carry on Dr. Franklin’s “great work.” But she doesn’t think he’d dare. Is this teenage naïveté?
Maybe naïveté is too harsh. I think it’s a case of compartmentalizing: Semirah has just had enough, for the moment anyway. She’s putting the problem aside, and hoping for the best, until she’s strong enough to deal with it again. I’ve seen my son do this, and it’s a life skill I admire. I’m a pointless worrier myself. I don’t think Skinner will carry on Dr. Franklin’s work himself–he’s not the type, but he’ll probably try to find another “great man” to serve, and hand over all the experimental data. Like I said, I don’t know everything that goes on in my books, and I don’t tend to tie up all the loose ends. You walk into the characters’ lives, and then you walk out again, only knowing part of the story. . . . I can’t remember who said that, but it’s supposed to be a definition of what makes a good movie, and I like it.


“Halam delivers a nightmarish thriller of white-knuckle intensity.”–Publishers Weekly, Starred

“Halam creates a gripping, exciting, surprising, and disturbing novel.”—VOYA, Starred

“This exciting and well-developed book will appeal to fans of horror and adventure.”—School Library Journal

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