A new year and a new home(land)

The turning of the year is like the turning of the tide: inevitable yet strange. Rebecca Solnit, writing in the London Review of Books, provides a deft and forthright analysis of recent events:

“Trump was the candidate so weak that his victory needed the disenfranchisement of millions of voters of colour, the end of the Voting Rights Act, a long-running right-wing campaign to make Clinton’s use of a private email server, surely the dullest and most uneventful scandal in history, an epic crime and the late intervention, with apparent intent to sabotage, of the FBI director James Comey. We found out via Comey’s outrageous gambit that it is more damaging to be a woman who has an aide who has an estranged husband who is a creep than actually to be a predator who has been charged by more than a dozen women with groping and sexual assault.”

Attempting to summarise Solnit’s essay in a single quote does her work a disservice. It’s so good, such a coherent argument, a talking-late-into-the-night kind of piece that leaves me angry and grief-stricken all over again at what has happened, whilst at the same time feeling infinitely grateful to Solnit for writing this down, for finding the words we so sorely need. I felt a similar reaction when I read a piece by Richard Lea in the Guardian a couple of days ago, about writers from the US and the UK who have found stronger recognition for their books in Europe than in their home nations:

For translator Frank Wynne, [Laura Kasischke’s] suggestion that continental readers are more tolerant of unappealing characters seems all too plausible: “Literature does not exist to be heartwarming – even Watership Down is filled with violence and savagery – yet there is a large readership that longs for the familiar and the reassuring, and I think perhaps that is more in evidence among British and especially American readers.”

Wynne says that the vibrancy and diversity of literary culture in France and Spain is still protected by regulations preventing retailers from selling popular books at large discounts, restrictions that disappeared in the UK during the 1990s, adding: “Literature is a sufficiently major part of French culture that there are still radio and television programmes discussing books, and many authors are also major public figures, something that would be all but unthinkable in the UK or the US.” 

The piece is fascinating (and I can already vouch for aspects of it personally) but it also makes me want to weep, for the vile shortsightedness of a political culture that seeks to drive us away from Europe and into the arms of the US, a direction of travel precipitated by Thatcher but accelerated by Blair and all driven by a flag-waving, proud philistinism that is always going to value the politics of the so-called ‘free’ market over philosophy, sustainability, indigenous culture, creative endeavour and abstract thought, all the social and artistic values inherent in being human.

I think maybe we have to stop reacting and start resisting. There is no way of reacting to Trump’s joke-travesty of a press conference yesterday after all except to sit there, mind reeling with disbelief as yet more levels of total incompetence are revealed (there are more??) and thinking what an absolute dick. Yet even small acts of resistance are valuable and important. Taken together they create revolutions. In precisely this vein, I was delighted to see the recently announced longlist for Neil Griffiths’s Republic of Consciousness prize, a new award set up to draw attention to ‘brave, bold and brilliant’ works published by independent presses, the kind of experimental, unclassifiable writing that is readily appreciated in Europe but often struggles to find representation with the ‘big four’ publishers in the UK and US. That the Republic of Consciousness prize has been set up largely through crowdfunding is simultaneously an indication of how edged out such writing has become and the continuing hunger for it, for writing that strives to be itself and not just product. To be something more than the glib smoothness that passes for excellence so much of the time.

I also feel a raw, shivery delight at the idea of a fantasy trilogy by Marlon James. I’ve always maintained (in the teeth of strong opposition from certain quarters) that there’s nothing wrong with big-book fantasy per se. Big-book fantasy, with its immersive allure, can and should have the potential to be properly magical – it’s the endless recycling of stock tropes, coupled with adequate-to-bad writing that’s the problem. I’ve long entertained a mad, private dream of if-Hilary-Mantel-wrote-Game-of-Thrones, but Marlon James’s recently announced Dark Star trilogy will do me just fine, thanks. It’s almost enough to make me want to drop everything I’m doing and begin writing a trilogy of my own…

Dropping everything isn’t an option right at this moment, however, because we happen to be engaged in something of an epic struggle already. This one involves packing boxes of books (again) and is set to achieve its conclusion early next week. We are moving house, and the move is a big one, five hundred miles north, to be precise, to Scotland, to an island in the Firth of Clyde. Not just a new home, but a new country. If anyone had told us at the start of 2016 that this would be happening, we would not have believed them. Then we travelled north and found ourselves falling in love with a place, an ethos, a mindset. Then Brexit happened. Then we began to think seriously about what we both saw happening on both a personal and a political level over the next five years, the next twenty. We asked each other what we wanted to do and when we should do it and we both agreed it should be Scotland and it should be now.

It’s incredibly exciting. On a purely practical level, this is the right move for us (I’ll have access to proper public transport again, Chris will have an airport closer to hand). As a writer, it feels as if a dozen doors have opened simultaneously in front of me. There is also no denying the satisfaction we feel at being in a position to offer this most personal and concrete of protests against the Brexit vote. The feeling may be selfish, and ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it exists and it is real.

I always find in this time of year a kind of nullity, a span of greyish dog days, neither one thing nor the other and with the only consolation to be found in starting work on something new. This turn-of-the-year has the same blustery greyness, the same leaching out of colour, the same uncertainty, but it feels different, nonetheless, a genuine transition. The blog will most likely lie quiet for a few weeks while we get ourselves settled, but I am itching to get back to work, and that includes this journal. Small acts of resistance, among which books, and the talk of books, are the greatest of all.

Best of the Year 2016 Edition

The end of the year is an odd moment at the best of times, bringing with it that sense of insecurity and flux that comes with darker days and longer evenings, with the idea of passing from one delineated period of time into another. Normally it feels helpful to collate a roll-call of the best books of the year, a kind of time capsule of literature that might define the year in some way, whilst simultaneously becoming a memento of it.

2016 feels different though. The Brexit vote at the end of June served to snap the year in two, creating a decisive break with the first half and forming for many a permanent dividing line between the country, the political culture, the beliefs and systems and values they grew up with and thought they understood and the retrograde, embittered, still-colonialist-minded, defensive surveillance state we appear to be living in now. Naively perhaps, I always believed in England and the English as a haven of pragmatism. Not the most cultured nation in the world, as Isiah Berlin once said, but among the most civilised. Above all, a bastion of eccentric, streetwise, compassionate common sense.

I don’t know any more. Truly, I don’t. Among my many core reasons for voting to remain in the European Union was a lack of trust in our own irresponsibly short-termist political culture – both Labour and Tory – in its desire or ability to properly uphold and administer a sustainable and just system of human rights legislation, environmental protection, social welfare, working conditions, energy regulation, protection and help for immigrants and asylum seekers. The building blocks of a sustainable future, in other words, and the founding principles on which the very idea of a European Union is based.

None of these matters was significantly discussed by any of the key players during the run-up to the referendum. The paucity of properly engaged debate and the poisonous, hateful mendacity of what did occur are still profound griefs to me, scars on our body politic I still find it difficult to speak about without tears or rage. I hold the passive-aggressive abdication of responsibility displayed by the leader of our so-called opposition almost equally in contempt. Holding the moral high ground becomes an act of meaningless arrogance when what you’ve actually done is doom the electorate to a decade (and probably more) of Tory rule and with it the possible dismantling of whatever fragments of social infrastructure we still have left.

To have these nightmare scenarios repeated, almost beat for beat, less than six months later in the US Presidential election was an experience I might have described as surreal, in the true and original sense of the word, were the moment not so abjectly serious, so morally grievous, so actively terrifying to so many, such an incipient and ongoing threat to everyone that breathes, even those that don’t realise it yet.

I have found it difficult, these past months, to write about literature, about science fiction, even as I continue to passionately care about it. Neither have I wanted to pointlessly sound off about politics, to repeat the same things others are saying but less articulately, to dive full tilt into a situation we do not – cannot – properly understand yet. I do not personally remember the political atmosphere of this country being so charged since the fall of Thatcher – and that felt, or at least it did for a while, like a good time, a time in which positive change was not simply possible but actively on its way. These past six months have been of another order entirely, and my creative and intellectual energies have been directed towards trying to understand how I, as a writer of fiction, might and should respond. Whether work already in progress before these happenings is still relevant, still finishable, and if not, where to turn instead. That I have not worked out the answers to these questions anywhere near fully should go without saying.

Having said all that, it would feel completely wrong of me not to highlight some of the fine writing I’ve encountered this year, a year in which, hopefully, we have begun to remember the very real importance and value of writing not just as a weapon but as an act of resistance.

My favourite novels of this year have been Little Sister Death by William Gay, The Life Writer by David Constantine, The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang and Infinite Ground by Martin McInnes. It can hardly be called a coincidence that the main theme of all four is memory, its duplicity and solace. As regards more obviously SFnal works, I would like to keep my powder dry a little longer. There are plans afoot for more extended commentary on the science fiction of 2016 – more on that in the New Year – but for now I’d like to give a shout-out to Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, both works of genuine and far-reaching quality, literary and speculative, and an essential addition to the reading list of genre commentators.

I have always been an enthusiast for the novella form, and 2016 has brought us some fine examples. My favourite might have to be Carole Johnstone’s Wetwork, published in Black Static, a monstrous hybrid – in Johnstone’s own words – of True Detective and World War Z and (in my opinion at least) easily as good as the both of them put together. The glory of Wetwork is Johnstone’s use of language, the gnarly textures of Doric and Glasgow Scots, with Johnstone’s ear for dialogue one of the key features of her deeply felt writing. Close on its heels comes The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, a novella I fell in love with from the moment I encountered it. A story told against the aftermath of World War One, the eerie weirdness of Missives is surpassed only by Whiteley’s sense of place, the rural hamlets and farmsteads of western Somerset where the action takes place. Shirley and Mr Tiller are unforgettable characters, and Whiteley’s ability to combine a personal coming-of-age story with a politically resonant and significant narrative is as reliable as ever. Most recently we have A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson’s gloriously imagined, linguistically exuberant follow-up to last year’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.  Along with Sofia Samatar, Wilson is for my money one of the most gifted and significant of the newer American writers, with his work rapidly becoming essential reading for anyone with an interest in speculative fiction. Wilson recently gave a podcast interview with Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan of the Coode Street Podcast, with his views on literature, aesthetics, political engagement and science fiction now as thoughtful and inspiring as anything he’s put on the page. Recommended listening, definitely.

I didn’t get round to reading anywhere near as much short fiction this year as I would have liked, but that doesn’t leave me short of recommendations. 2016 saw the publication in Interzone and Black Static of four new stories by Malcolm Devlin, a writer who has been floating just under the radar until now but who is certain to win greater notice in 2017 with the publication of his debut collection by Unsung Stories. For now, I would recommend you get ahead of the game by reading the magnificent ‘Dogsbody’ and ‘The End of Hope Street’, which showcase Devlin’s understated, bleakly humorous and shiningly original writing to perfection. Devlin’s collection, like Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney before it, is set to become one of the decade’s landmarks of English weird, so be ready to order your copy for early next summer. Speaking of Unsung Stories, one of their editors, Gary Budden, has a story out with Galley Beggar Singles, ‘We Are Nothing But Reeds’, the poignant and unsettling tale of a young couple who try to escape the crushing demands of a life in London for the depleted and mist-laden coastline of East Anglia. Budden’s writing is sparse, terse even, but perfectly suited to the landscapes of dislocation and alienation that are his natural milieu. A new discovery for me, Irenosen Okojie’s collection Speak Gigantular is a work of rare confidence, luminous imagery and full of hidden sharp edges. There are few things that bring greater joy in reading than coming upon a talent so delightful, so penetrating, so scandalous. Okojie’s stories are magical in all the most interesting senses of that word: devious, enthralling, unexpected. I would hope and expect to see Speak Gigantular shortlisted for awards next year. Helen Marshall’s ‘One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want’ in Liminal Stories and inspired by a set of photographs showing the stark social conditions prevalent in post-communist Romania, has the feel of a previously undiscovered Grimm brothers tale, but with a somewhat more hopeful ending. Benjanun Sriduangkaew had a great crop of new stories out this year. My favourite is probably ‘The Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings’ in Clockwork Phoenix 5, showcasing Sriduangkaew’s characteristically opulent, metaphor-rich language in a story that reminded me a little of Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, only much less predictable and more hard-hitting. Vajra Chandrasekera has also been busy in 2016, and his use of metafiction and instinctive, disruptive feel for language are always going to put his stories high on my list of favourites. Start with ‘Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes’ at Strange Horizons. Also at Strange Horizons we have Sarah Tolmie’s ‘The Dancer on the Stairs’, a story that first appeared as part of her duology Two Travelers earlier in the year. Tolmie has a careful, controlled, poised style that is the epitome of elegance – a kind of literary dressage, or dancing, in fact. Her poetical investigations into human rituals, creativity and modes of belief make her fiction some of the most interesting new work around at the moment. For further insights into her process, I recommend this interview with her, conducted by Maureen Kincaid Speller.

Within the realms of non-fiction, I must again recommend Tartarus Press’s volume of Joel Lane’s essays This Spectacular Darkness, edited and introduced by Mark Valentine, which truly is essential reading for everyone with an interest in weird fiction. Sticking with the weird, Big Echo have published Jonathan McCalmont’s extended essay Nothing Beside Remains: a History of the New Weird. An invaluable resource, McCalmont’s essay not only provides in-depth analysis of key writers and key movements in speculative fiction in the first half of the 2000s, but also links to key sources – in particular the TTA discussion forums – that tracked the development of the New Weird at the time. Another invaluable resource, Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Writers of SFF for tor.com (Part 1 and Part 2) is a fascinating and essential guide to what’s new and what’s happening in Afro-SF, both on the continent and in diaspora. The only downside to these pieces is the number of books you’ll want to buy as a result of reading them! I also want to mention Grady Hendrix’s Freaky Fridays at tor.com. This ongoing series of posts, in which Hendrix dissects the more bizarre extremities of 1970s/80s horror literature, is not only a treasure trove of horror esoterica, it’s flat-out entertaining too, providing me with many laugh-out-loud moments in a year that needed every laugh-out-loud moment it could get.

Not SF, but important to me this year have been Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be, a memoir that manages to be anti-memoir, a slim volume that examines the problematic nature of writing about the self, about war, about falling in love with a country that is not your own. Pawson’s writing is driven, nervy, never still. I read this book in one sitting over one long train journey and it is with me still. If I were to take one book away from this year to read again and again, it would probably have to be Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which has resonated as deeply and as lastingly for me as Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border the year before. The inevitable backlash against ‘nature writing’ has already started, and as with any genre I guess there is some self-indulgent, self-serving writing out there. H is for Hawk is neither of those things. It is tough, passionate, deeply invested in its subject matter and destined to become a classic.

Some of the best books I read this year were not published this year. Alasdair Gray’s mighty Lanark is a novel of lasting importance and genuine stature, probably the most substantial work of fiction I’ve read in some time. Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath is a novel I know I’ll be reading again from a writer whose excellence has yet to be fully appreciated. Andrew Miller’s The Crossing turned out to be every bit as affecting and surprising as I hoped it would be – how it wasn’t shortlisted for awards in its year of publication is beyond me. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser contains all the frustrations, contradictions and ravishing delight of pure genius, and though I’ve come late to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, that hasn’t prevented it from being the most important-to-me book I’ve read all year.

I would like to wish everyone reading this a very happy new year, and strength, courage and renewed determination in the months ahead. We shall be rethinking, regrouping, and looking to new projects. With The Rift now safely in the production pipeline I have the first draft of a new novel written, a book that is close to my heart and that I look forward to returning to work on in the coming weeks.

Here’s to 2017 and all who sail in her. The fightback starts here.

Year’s Best

Very happy to note that my story ‘The Art of Space Travel’ has been selected by both Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan to appear in their annual year’s best anthologies. These yearly collations continue to play a vital role in the way science fiction literature is perceived, especially by new readers – I find it especially interesting to look back down the tables of contents from previous years, to see how the field has changed and evolved – and so of course I’m delighted to know that ‘The Art of Space Travel’ will form a part of that overview for 2016. This story seems really to have resonated with readers, and I’m particularly grateful to Ellen Datlow for seeing fit to acquire it for tor.com in the first instance.

Here are the full tables of contents:

The Year’s Best Science Fiction 34, edited by Gardner Dozois (St Martin’s Press)

  • TERMINAL, Lavie Tidhar
  • TOURING WITH THE ALIEN, Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • PATIENCE LAKE, Matthew Claxton
  • JONAS AND THE FOX, Rich Larson
  • PRODIGAL, Gord Sellar
  • KIT: Some Assembly Required, Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz
  • VORTEX, Gregory Benford
  • ELVES OF ANTARCTICA, Paul McAuley
  • THE BABY EATERS, Ian McHugh
  • A SALVAGING OF GHOSTS, Aliette de Bodard
  • THOSE SHADOWS LAUGH, Geoff Ryman
  • RedKING, Craig DeLancey
  • THINGS WITH BEARDS, Sam J. Miller
  • FIELDWORK, Shariann Lewit
  • THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF MR. COSTELLO, David Gerrold
  • INNUMERABLE GLIMMERING LIGHTS, Rich Larson
  • FIFTY SHADES OF GRAYS, Steven Barnes
  • SIXTEEN QUESTIONS FOR KAMALA CHATTERJEE, Alastair Reynolds
  • COLD COMFORT, Pat Murphy & Paul Dohert
  • THE ART OF SPACE TRAVEL, Nina Allan
  • FLIGHT FROM THE AGES, Derek Küsken
  • MY GENERATIONS WILL PRAISE, Samantha Henderson
  • MARS ABIDES, Stephen Baxter
  • THE VISITOR FROM TAURED, Ian R. MacLeod
  • WHEN THE STONE EAGLE FLIES, Bill Johnson
  • THE VANISHING KIND, Lavie Tidhar
  • ONE SISTER, TWO SISTERS, THREE, James Patrick Kelly
  • DISPATCHES FROM THE CRADLE: THE HERMIT—FORTY-EIGHT HOURS IN THE SEA OF MASSACHUSETTS, Ken Liu
  • CHECKERBOARD PLANET, Eleanor Arnason
  • THEY HAVE ALL ONE BREATH, Karl Bunker
  • MIKA MODEL, Paolo Bacigalupi
  • THAT GAME WE PLAYED DURING THE WAR, Carrie Vaughn
  • BECAUSE CHANGE WAS THE OCEAN AND WE LIVED BY HER MERCY, Charlie Jane Anders
  • THE ONE WHO ISN’T, Ted Kosmatka
  • THOSE BRIGHTER STARS, Mercurio R. Rivera
  • A TOWER FOR THE COMING WORLD, Maggie Clark
  • FIRSTBORN, LASTBORN, Melissa Scott
  • WOMEN’S CHRISTMAS, Ian McDonald
  • THE IRON TACTICIAN, Alastair Reynolds

The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 11, edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris) 

  • “Two’s Company”, Joe Abercrombie (Sharp Ends)
  • “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan (Tor.com)
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit wood)
  • “Mika Model”, Paolo Bacigalupi (Slate)
  • “A Salvaging of Ghosts”, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 01/03/16)
  • “Laws of Night and Silk”, Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 26 May 2016)
  • “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld 115, 4/16)
  • “Red as Blood and White as Bone”, Theodora Goss (Tor.com)
  • “Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”, Daryl Gregory (The Starlit Wood)
  • “Number Nine Moon”, Alex Irvine (F&SF, 1/16)
  • “Red Dirt Witch”, N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy/PoC Destroy Fantasy)
  • “Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest 125, 7/16)
  • “Successor, Usurper, Replacement”, Alice Sola Kim (Buzzfeed, 10/26/16)
  • “You Make Pattaya”, Rich Larson (Interzone 247)
  • “Foxfire Foxfire”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2016)
  • “Seven Birthdays”, Ken Liu (Bridging Infinity)
  • “The Visitor from Taured”, Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, 9/16)
  • “Elves of Antarctica”, Paul McAuley (Drowned Worlds)
  • “Things with Beards”, Sam J Miller (Clarkesworld 117, 6/16)
  • “Spinning Silver”, Naomi Novik (The Starlit Wood)
  • “Those Shadows Laugh”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF, 9-10/16)
  • “The Great Detective”, Delia Sherman (Tor.com)
  • “Terminal”, Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, 04/16)
  • “The Future is Blue”, Catherynne M Valente (Drowned Worlds)
  • “Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home”, Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld)
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay “, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny 10, 5-6/16)
  • “Fable”, Charles Yu (The New Yorker, 5/30/16)
  • “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight”, E Lily Yu (Uncanny 12)

While I’m here, I’d like to wish all of you reading this blog a happy Christmas (if you celebrate it) and a well-earned break from the year’s overarching weirdness. Have a lovely day, everyone. Me, I’m finishing up a story draft, then settling down to read The Essex Serpent. I may also look in on the Doctor Who Christmas Special tomorrow teatime…

The Rift cover reveal

Titan gave me an early Christmas present a couple of days ago when they dropped this into my inbox – Julia Lloyd’s stunning cover design for The Rift:

rift_final-artwork

Seriously, I couldn’t be happier with what Julia has come up with. The overall feel of the design forms a clear and interesting counterpoint with the cover of The Race, whilst being very much its own thing. I particularly love the strength of the colours. The image provides a wonderful visual interpretation of the novel itself and I hope it whets readers’ appetites for the story to come.

There’s nothing like cover art for making a book seem present, alive and well and truly on its way! With just six months to go before The Rift is published, you can read the full press release at tor.com here.

For anyone who feels they can’t wait that long, don’t forget that my brand new novella Maggots is just out from Solaris as part of Jonathan Oliver’s demonic brainchild, Five Stories High.  As a bonus, Solaris are also releasing the novellas as individual ebooks and you can pick up Maggots here for just £2.99. Not a Christmas story exactly, though Christmas does come into it. Don’t go overdoing things on Christmas Eve, that’s what I say – and I happen to think the protagonist of Maggots, Willy Randle, would agree with me…

5 Stories High cover image

The Tiger Talks!

A brand new podcast of my story ‘The Tiger’ is now up at Pseudopod. The reading, by George Hrab, is completely wonderful, bringing the characters to life and transporting me effortlessly back to the room above the Old Tiger’s Head in Lee Green where the story is mostly set.

I find a weird enjoyment in listening to podcasts of my stories, firstly because I enjoy audiobooks anyway and secondly because I have discovered it’s more or less the only way I can find the requisite distance from my own work to enjoy it in the way any other reader might. I loved listening to this one and I hope you will, too – although it is one hell of a creepy story!

Anyway, thank you Pseudopod for choosing ‘The Tiger’, and thank you George, for your superb reading.

*

Among other things, I am currently in the midst of preparing an end-of-year post, but before we get to that, just to say that the copy-edit of The Rift is now complete, and publication has been scheduled for July 11th 2017. I have seen the cover art and it is fantastic. I hope to be sharing it here before too long.

This Spectacular Darkness

Anyone with an interest in the work of Joel Lane will no doubt be aware that his non-fiction was every bit as accomplished as his fiction. Joel’s essays on weird fiction, both his studies of individual writers and his analytical overviews of weird themes and perspectives, are amongst the most insightful and important in the genre. They are also accessible, thrilling in their scope and power, lovingly crafted with the skill of a master. Readers steeped in the weird and new converts alike will find in their pages a lifetime’s worth of material to contemplate and be inspired by.

Joel’s long-term aim was to compile from his essays a history of the weird, taking in a century and more of strange writers and their seminal works. It is both his tragedy and ours that Joel died before he was even halfway through his project. Those essays that do exist though – these constitute a major work of reference in their own right, and how lucky we are that Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press, aided by esteemed writer and critic Mark Valentine, have compiled and produced for us This Spectacular Darkness, a landmark work that brings together Joel’s extant critical essays, together with a number of additional essays celebrating and critiquing the poems, short fiction and novels of Joel Lane himself.

Tartarus Press books are always stunning, but this one is particularly beautiful and with its wealth of previously uncollected material, an absolute must for both fans of Joel’s work and historians, critics and commentators on the weird alike. I am especially proud to note that my own essay on Joel’s three novels, ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ (previously published as an addendum to Eibonvale Press’s collection of Joel’s stories Scar City) is also reproduced here. This is a limited edition hardcover, so hurry and secure your copy, while stocks last!

 

A question of adaptation

#weird 2016: Arrival

arrival-posterWe went to see Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Arrival last night. He’s an interesting director. His 2010 Incendies was outstanding, his 2013 Prisoners as well executed and chilling an essay in the serial killer thriller genre as you might hope (or not hope) to find. Enemy, Villeneuve’s take on a Jose Saramango novel starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was weird and slightly dull but still interesting, a film I’d like to see again after having read the work it is based upon. 2015’s Sicario, the movie widely regarded as Villeneuve’s breakout, I found sprawling and messy and unkempt, and not in a good way, mainly because the screenplay was so appalling. I’d still go and see anything Villeneuve puts out though. Like another similarly flawed director, David Fincher, he’s clearly serious about his art, and that’s what counts.

What then to make of Arrival, the film of Ted Chiang’s multiple-award-winning novella Story of Your Life (screenplay by Eric Heisserer)? In a sentence: I was expecting so much more. The reviews were great, seeming to agree that Chiang’s story, which some had initially deemed ‘unfilmable’, had been justly served, thus bringing the author’s work to a whole new audience. It would be great if that were so – yet after seeing Arrival for myself, I tend towards the belief that it will be chalked up as just another dutiful spin on Close Encounters, with most audiences remaining completely unaware of the movie’s infinitely superior source material.

It could be argued that Ted Chiang represents the Platonic ideal of the science fiction writer, the perfect fusion of reason and emotion, of form and idea. His language is candid, unfussy, absolutely fit for purpose, the extensive preparation Chiang undertakes before embarking on a story rendered invisible in its careful and relentlessly considered execution. The word that springs most insistently to mind when I consider the resolution, the unveiling of Story of Your Life is beautiful, not so much because of any ‘message’ the story might convey, but because of its author’s careful and painstaking attention to an idea. Story of Your Life is perhaps most readily comparable with Mieville’s Embassytown – stripped of that novel’s rococo excesses and clunky final third. At roughly one-sixth of the length, it’s a David-and-Goliath scenario with Goliath well and truly struggling to maintain his footing.

What spoiled Embassytown irreparably for me was its surrender to conventional outcomes: a trite ‘final battle’, a resolution that, after the more pleasingly abstract expositions of the first half, seemed disappointingly pat. And it is this – this damnable Hollywood obsession with conflict and resolution, with jeopardy, for goodness’ sake – that made Arrival feel limited to me, and finally derivative. There is no ‘conflict’ in Story of Your Life – the joy and satisfaction in that story lie in working out what is going on, the sudden realisation, the beauty of certain ideas about language, time and non-linearity – it’s like a literary game of chess. Arrival is all about deadlines, time running out, a constant threat of violence, soldiers setting up cordons and dashing about with guns. Amy Adams is the still centre, compelling and powerful in her role and a joy to watch. Yet still, there she is, in her impossibly beautiful waterside house (how d’you get that on an academic’s salary?) with her impossibly beautiful doomed child (even here the stakes have to be upped as Louise is made ‘responsible’ for the child’s doomed-ness – it’s not like that in the story) the One who can fix the world with a single phone call.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Arrival is a thoughtful, interesting film narrowly skirting the edge of something special. Perhaps it’s simply that in the light of ongoing political events I was simply not in the mood to see yet another film about the American military threatening to destroy anything they don’t understand, and where China is once again painted as the inscrutable, implacable villain with their finger on the nuclear button.

I don’t think it’s China people are worried about at the moment, actually. Jeopardy indeed.

Thought for today

“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of “the west” because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.”

(Taken from the 2016 BBC Reith Lecture, ‘Culture‘, by Kwame Anthony Appiah.)

The elephant in the room

As part of his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh recently expressed his concern that climate change as a subject matter is not being adequately covered or even taken seriously by ‘serious’ novelists:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

He goes on to assert that the bulk of the literature that enjoys critical ascendancy today is indeed a literature of concealment, the skill of its writers directed towards foregrounding quotidian ultra-realism at the expense of more extraordinary and therefore less realistic narrative events, that the art of the modern novel is all about filler material:

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

It’s a fascinating theory, and would be all the more fascinating, perhaps, if it had a greater basis in reality. The science fiction reader and writer will rightly take issue with Ghosh, reeling off an ever-expanding list of novels from the past decade and much further back than that in which climate change is the fulcrum, the driver, the core subject matter. That Ghosh has specifically chosen to exclude science fiction from the debate is both weird and frustrating. ‘When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss’, Ghosh writes. He can think of only a handful of novelists – Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and TC Boyle chief among them – that have engaged with the subject directly. Moreover:

It could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

Ghosh seems very preoccupied with the concept of ‘seriousness’, as well he might be. But is Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels truly a less ‘serious’ novel than Rachel Cusk’s Transit? Is J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World less worthy of literary analysis than Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils? As a proposition, this is clearly ridiculous, and leads one to wonder exactly what Ghosh – himself a previous winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award – is trying to say here. That literary fiction of a certain stripe does not see fit to concern itself much with current affairs, perhaps? He goes on to present another mildly diverting theory: that ‘serious’ writers are themselves imaginatively imprisoned by the assumptions and material trappings of our toxic, carbon-emitting global economy, that they have driven themselves (literally) into a place of such complicity that overt criticism or even discussion has become impossible. While it may be true that anyone living within a society and not actively campaigning against the injustices it supports is complicit with it to an extent, as Ghosh himself concedes, most contemporary writers across a wide variety of backgrounds and literary interests point precisely to climate change (alongside racism, social inequality and the obduracy of the political class) as the subject that most preoccupies them on a daily and often hourly basis.

No. What concerns Ghosh most seems grounded within this concept of seriousness, the perceived suitability of climate change as a subject for serious fiction. It’s fine for writers to talk about climate change in interview or other forms of non-fiction, Ghosh maintains, but write a novel about it and you’ll be given the side-eye by the broadsheet critics or – worse still – no eye at all:

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

Ghosh’s essay is, as one would expect, thoughtful, concerned and well meaning. But once one begins to deconstruct it, one cannot help wondering why he didn’t go one step further and ask himself what this mansion of his actually stands for, and whether the reverence he affords it might not be part of the problem? If the ‘serious’ fiction he so desperately wants climate change to be ‘acceptable’ to as a subject matter has not always been conservative, reflective of societal norms rather than challenging to them? Whether it is hailed as serious by establishment elites precisely because it is happy to be non-confrontational, shunted off down the side-streets of political relevance, to write about the past rather than the future?

Ghosh talks about a ‘feedback loop’, a chicken-and-egg situation in which climate change is not deemed serious as a subject matter ergo few serious novelists write about it ergo it is not deemed serious etc etc etc  What he does not acknowledge is that in writing this essay, he is himself contributing to a feedback loop that dismisses science fiction literature as inherently generic, not-serious, and therefore unworthy of consideration within the context of this discussion. That by concentrating his attentions upon an area of literature that is at least partially susceptible to propping up outmoded and often damaging value systems, he is himself playing into the hands of the ‘men at the mansion’ who must, after all, find it pretty convenient to see works of literature that seek actively to question our current code of values and their impact upon our planet dismissed as a bunch of hacks writing about aliens.

The solution, for serious writers, is to stop hammering on the mansion door and have a look at what’s going on beyond the electronic barrier fence.

The serious fiction about climate change Ghosh is seeking is in plentiful supply, growing in breadth and complexity all the time. If only Ghosh could shift the goalposts of his ‘seriousness’, he would see that immediately.

(If anyone wants me, I’ll be in the out-house writing ghost stories.)

A second blitz

At the end of the eighties, I spent a couple of months working as a room attendant at the Rougement Hotel on Queen Street, Exeter. I was living in a shared house on Old Tiverton Road at the time, and one of my friends from that house share was doing the same kind of work at the Royal Clarence. My friend was slightly better paid (because it was the Clarence, natch) but I stuck it out at the Rougement because I started and finished earlier, which meant I had a significant part of the day left over for reading and writing. I remember my friend having a right laugh at the way I always insisted on walking to and from work dressed in my chambermaid’s uniform, little white apron and all. She always changed in and out of her normal clothes at the hotel. I insisted I didn’t want to run the risk of having my stuff nicked while I was on site. Those were the days…

That was a difficult summer for me in many ways, with the hotel work – unforgiving and badly paid as it was – providing a weird oasis of humour and stability. The swapped anecdotes, the sometimes outlandish behaviour of some of the guests, the even more outlandish behaviour of some of the other people who worked there – these were things we had in common, my friend and I, and coming back off shift there was always some new and outrageous happening to talk about, which helped take my mind off other stuff that was going on.

Whenever I travel into Exeter these days, I come out of the station directly opposite the hotel that used to be the Rougement, and I usually make a point of walking past the Clarence too, at some point during the day, just to say hello, to reaffirm that tie. I was in Exeter on Thursday, having lunch with another friend, someone I’ve known for twenty years and who shared a large part of my time living and working in the city through the 1990s and early 2000s. We’d arranged to meet at midday, so I spent the hour before that doing some shopping and just walking around, having a look at things. Immediately prior to meeting my friend, I passed through the High Street branch of Waterstone’s and out into Cathedral Yard.  I walked past the Clarence, consciously thinking how gorgeous she was looking, glanced in at the window of Caines brasserie, remembering a jazz gig I went to there once, remembering a day last December when I peeped in through that same window at more or less the same time of day. Cathedral Green is a place of such stillness, even when it’s packed. There is an atmosphere there that is only to be found in truly old, continuously inhabited places, usually in cities, a sense of continuity and of all points in time being simultaneously present in a single moment.

In the early hours of Friday morning, the Royal Clarence hotel caught fire. More than twenty-four hours later, she is still blazing, with the fire now having spread to other historic buildings in the near vicinity. The landscape of the city, which seemed only relatively recently to be fully recovered not just from the depredations of the Blitz but from the equally horrendous planning decisions foisted upon it through the fifties and sixties, is now irreparably changed. I feel devastated and heartsick. Exeter did not deserve this. We can only hope that the rebuilding that takes place in the aftermath shows appropriate respect for the city’s heritage and for what has been lost.

Thinking of all those directly affected today, and of the emergency services currently working to contain the damage.