Between Dystopia and Magic: “The Known and Unknown Sea” by Alan Bilton

I love checking out and championing small, independent presses. Some time back I stumbled upon a post on the site “Ribbonfish”, which is a London- and New York-based company providing software solutions to publishing and media industries. Their list “16 Exciting Independent UK Publishers” contains some very interesting initiatives, including Manchester-based Cillian Press (Facebook, Twitter) that specialises in contemporary young adult and adult fiction.

One of the authors under Cillian Press is Alan Bilton (@ABiltonAuthor), a professor of creative writing, literature and film at Swansea University in Wales. He has had three works of fiction published: the novels The Sleepwalker’s Ball (2009, Alcemi) and The Known and Unknown Sea (2012, Cillian) and a collection of short stories Anywhere Out of the World (2016, Cillian).

Cillian Press
The Known and Unknown Sea by Alan Bilton (2014, Cillian Press)

I picked up The Known and Unknown Sea today. The novel appealed to me mainly for two reasons: it seemed very relevant to our contemporary world (particularly the issue of climate change) and it looked quite promising on an allegorical level (as if it carried some deep philosophical/spiritual meaning). The publisher describes it as a “beautiful and heartbreaking journey through memory, loss and imagination”.

The plot of The Known and Unknown Sea is straight and simple. The residents of a mist-shrouded coastal town receive tickets to the “other side” of the bay. Only some are chosen and invited—much like the sheep and the goats. The young protagonist Alex and his family set out in a boat for this adventure with the other people. The air is filled with speculation, suspicion, rumour and confusion. Soon, a mysterious “White Star Shipping Company” enters the narrative.

I liked this book more for its evocations of natural forces and our relationship to them than for its characters and course of events. The voice of the author easily hovers between dystopia and magic, reminding us that the wind and water and earth and sky that may sometimes overpower us also happen to be very same things that sustain and enchant us. And we must learn to live with them in peace.



The fog was really very close now. The street, the wall, the tree – all gone, replaced by a kind of wash or stain, some kind of great grey sea. When I stared through the window I could almost make out my own features – an eye, half a mouth, a little red ear floating in space. Then these too started to fade and all I could see was mistiness, “half a spoon of nothing…”


“The fog was really very close now. The street, the wall, the tree…” (Photo: Pixabay)




And high above the ship, the waves, tch, even above the fog itself, turned a green and blue globe, beautiful, luminous, an enormous ball spinning amongst the stars. And that’s when I knew how far I’d come – the feet, the miles, the years…


Learn more about the author in these videos: